Tag Archives: Tom Gilbert

Swamped by ‘Infinite Jest’

On failing to finish David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece novel.

 Beach Stick x

Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

Infinite Jest

To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, “It’s a terrible thing to quit a book. To take from it less than it has to give.” I don’t believe that about books—we should quit any one that’s not working for us and start another—but David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest is a special case. And I’ve just failed to read it for the second time.

How many sail around the world on their first try? Still, there’s a sense of failure involved in quitting any one of the world’s acknowledged Great Novels. (I have a secret list.) And a special poignancy for me in giving up yet again on Infinite Jest since I love Wallace’s nonfiction and wanted to join those who’ve beaten on against the current to the bitter end. It appears, as well, to be a novel, like Catch-22 and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were for my generation, that’s an important marker for twentysomething readers and writers. Alas, I am not young. Just dropping Infinite Jest on my toe, even in this paperback version, might be tragic at my age.

I’ve had plenty of reading time between semesters, down here in Florida in my sister’s beach condo. Even so, I feared the cetaceous bulk of Infinite Jest. And once you open it and see its pages covered in a smaller-than-usual font, with sentences at tighter than usual spacing—and I’m not talking about the 96 pages of tiny single-spaced endnotes—you instantly know one thing for sure. Reading Infinite Jest is an opportunity cost. Because you could read at least six good novels in the time it’d take you to read it. Just sayin’.

Wallace's Infinite Jest

But that’s not relevant if it’s worth six good novels. There’s testimony it is, though in all honesty I made it only to Page 109 so how would I really know? Yet Wallace’s genius, energy, and belief in his work are palpable from the start. He could do anything as a writer, and he seems to do everything in Infinite Jest; of course he’s got all the basic chops, from sentences to scenes, from point of view to voice. Incidentally, Wallace, both a grammarian and someone who could write circles around almost anyone, had no problem with breaking the heart of his frenemy Jonathan Franzen by using the “, then” construction that drives Franzen crazy. Franzen’s hatred of this common and useful usage pattern has made me weirdly sensitive to it; I see it everywhere, and I see his point. But his point, in his way, is also annoyingly overstated (and partly specious). (Watch Wallace cruelly dominate Franzen on Charlie Rose’s show.)  A minor quirk in Infinite Jest is Wallace’s use of single quotation marks; reviewing another book of his, Oblivion, for The Modern World, Marie Mundaca said they “seem to indicate that the entire story is enclosed in a set of double quotes.”

But to stand back. Wallace had the genius’s way with metaphor—at the sentence level, sure, but pertinently here in the overarching sense: how he sets up a bleak exaggerated future America. One in which our prosperity and beloved diversions (video, drugs, sports, advertising) turn hellish as richly flawed people struggle amid ascendant corporations and an environmental holocaust. New England is a toxic waste dump called the Great Concavity and roamed by Québécois separatist terrorists.

Blessedly I made it to Page 93, and so to the horde of rampaging hamsters:

     It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal. The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. The boy now attends college in Champaign IL and has forgotten that his hamsters were named Ward and June.

 

The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable—it’s that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant ragged outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine.

 

All these territories are now property of Canada.

 

With respect to a herd of this size, please exercise the sort of common sense that come to think of it would keep your thinking man out of the southwest Concavity anyway. Feral hamsters are not pets. They mean business. Wide berth advised. Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd. If in the path of such a herd, move quickly and calmly in a direction perpendicular to their own. If American, north not advisable. Move south, calmly and in all haste, toward some border metropolis—Rome NNY or Glens Falls NNY or Beverly, MA, say, or those bordered points between them at which the giant protective ATHSCME fans atop the hugely convex protective walls of adonized Lucite hold off the drooling and piss-colored bank of teratogenic Concavity clouds and move the bank well back, north, away, jaggedly, over your protected head.

One of the funniest passages I’ve read, it thrums with a deep sadness, maybe like all humor. Like Wallace’s, anyway. Like watching reruns of Leave it to Beaver and aching for your lost youth and for a more innocent America. Maybe you’ve not read Infinite Jest or, like me, have failed so far to finish it (in my case for largely unknown reasons but probably involving a reading hangover from my personal best reading year just ended, work I lugged with me, and a stupor induced by ocean waves breaking a stone’s throw from my pillow). If so, remember you read it here first: Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

In 2009, my son, Tom Gilbert, reviewed Infinite Jest for Narrative.

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Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 2

L-R: Angel, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, and my son, Tom, in Florence, Italy

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence

—William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

II.

The late Christopher Hitchens was like that dread baptismal tank. I cowered before him.

Sure, I admired his courage and his skillful prolificacy—I saw him as a great if often wrongheaded journalist of ideas—but flinched at his rage and at his sheer meanness. Especially regarding the straw-man figure of God he erected in order to mount an attack in the shadow of his intellectual superior, the atheist evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins.

As a friend said, it is significant that Hitchens and Dawkins are both British. In the European way, England mixed religion and the State—which is to say, it mixed religion and politics. While established religions tend to become political and prideful entities, formally merging them with politics—the most cravenly primate of necessary human activities—is bad medicine. And, besides, the two world wars so ravaged Europe that they put the quietus on any glimmer of a heavenly God.

Europe, by and large, is now spiritually spent for at least those two reasons.

But whatever his case, Hitchens seemed willfully, belligerently, gleefully tone deaf and clueless about religion. And I imagine him contemptuous even of spirituality—just, to him, more watery weak-kneed warm and fuzzies covering terror at death. Admit it, the disciple of Dawkins seemed to sneer, it’s all about our selfish genes. He called himself, in contrast to the deluded religious, a man of the Enlightenment. He failed to see that the principles he worshipped flowed from the same deep well as religion and were fostered by religion.

But I must explain what I believe, and that’s hard and it’s tricky.

The least of it is that mentioning religion positively, let alone invoking God, now inflames most people. The bigger issue is that my notion of God is evolving and is cumbersome to explain. Hitchens, along with those whom I imagine as true believers, including more than a few in my extended family, might see me at best as a soft-headed New Ager. At worst, they’d peg me as just another secular humanist.

But to Hitchens I’d also be a cowardly atheist who can’t man up like him and look squarely at life’s ugly reality—that it’s a bitch and then we die—and so dresses up his secular humanism with fairy tale garnish about a man in the sky.

That’s true only if you accept one literalist notion of God. If you don’t assume the adult task of defining God for yourself.

The Jews, who discovered God 3,000 years ago, did place him in the sky above their temples. He was an angry coot, as we know, a parental super ego sore displeased with his brood. But even though I believe only metaphorically in that God, I see profound significance in the Jews’ discovery and in their moving God into the sky, lifting one God above a welter of demigods.

Their insight was of historic and evolutionary importance.

Next: I open a fresh can of whup-ass on Hitch and define my God.

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Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 1

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

 —William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

 for Tom, with Kierkegaard among the dark Danes

I.

 Three years ago, as my mother lay dying, her youngest sister, Carolyn, died unexpectedly in Texas. Mom dispatched me from my home in Ohio to the funeral, as her designate. Instead of returning to Florida to see Mom again, one last time, I made my way to a vast Southern Baptist Church outside Dallas. Mom and I had a vexed relationship, our harmonics clashed, and that was something I could do.

The minister delivering Carolyn’s eulogy was a kid fresh out of seminary. Irritated as I watched him flail his feet around for all to see behind a clear-glass pulpit, it occurred to me that postmodern style had gone way too far. But then, my boyhood church had had a terrifying plexiglass baptismal tank front and center.

“Carolyn is in heaven with the Lord,” he said. “And she’s in a physical place with a physical body.”

“Amen!” said a beloved uncle, the last of the sons of Delbert and Mittye Rounsaville, Atoka, Oklahoma. My surviving aunts murmured their assent. My cousins and I sat in silence, realizing, perhaps for the first time, that we’d entered a new realm of adulthood. We sat among children of the latest generation—we were their age when we’d first met our Aunt Carolyn.

On her last morning, Carolyn, recovering from surgery, had done her Bible study in bed. She told her twin sister Marilyn, who checked on her, that she was going to rest. Then, apparently in her sleep, she died. A blood clot, they said.

I called Mom to tell her about the service. “It was beautiful, Mom. Aunt Carolyn was really loved. Everyone was there, and people from the church. You would have loved it.”

That was true as far as it went. But I’d been shocked to hear a minister take for granted a belief in a physical afterlife. Accustomed to mild Methodist guidance for twenty years, in a college town in Indiana and in a rural Ohio church, I’d forgotten the literalist notions I must have heard as a boy in the Southern Baptist church.

Our baptismal tank in our small church was kept sloshing. And someone had to get saved every service. Always I sat, rigid with fear, willing myself to invisibility. Once in high school I attended there with another Winn Dixie bagboy, a sweet pothead, who wept and rose, marched his tear-streaked face down the aisle.

In Dallas what truly appalled me was my sense, heightened after chatting with him, that the boy preacher didn’t believe a word of what he’d said. He wanted to comfort, I suppose. But his fancies and his deceitful mien left me feeling ill and angry.

“Everyone’s working on the same problem,” my uncle, a Baptist deacon, told me after the service, surely sensing my angst. “But Christianity got the answer. Some others came close. But it’s like math. There’s only one right answer.”

I was torn between admiration at his certitude and outrage at his blindness. One thing that’s always fueled my hope: the similarities of the world’s great religions.

But my uncle wasn’t too sure, even, about Catholics.

He said he was put off by their emphasis on opulence and on Mary. I understand the former—so many poor people have given so much to that rich church—but after lots of thought I decided I like what to me goes along with it: their use of icons. In a Catholic church, an image of Jesus, sometimes life-sized, dies in agony on the cross; giving Jesus a body makes him both more real and more potent a symbol for those who feel nailed to their own crosses. Of course, there’s something to be said for the way Protestants have purified the cross, turning a torture device—it killed slowly by preventing the crucified from exhaling—into an object of worship. As for Mary, I like the diversity—another human character to identify with—and the way she counters the church’s sexism. Protestants go to the opposite extreme: Mary’s almost missing.

Whenever I get really depressed, I think I should become Catholic. Just submit to its flawed authority, join its humbled masses. Then I realize I’m probably Protestant to the core.

(Merry Christmas, Tom.)

Next: I cower before the mighty Hitchens as before that dread baptismal tank.



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Narrative among the dark Danes

K. Brian Soderquist, U.S.A.-born and now a Danish citizen, co-author of Kierkegaard’s Concept of Irony, teaches my son Tom’s Kierkegaard class this winter in Copenhagen. While on a recent field trip, Brian conveyed to Tom and to his study-abroad classmates an interesting perspective on storytelling that resonates for all nonfiction writers and especially for memoirists:

“I think we should keep in mind that on this trip we’re going to hear a lot of narratives—or stories—that can be different however you tell them. People don’t think about history or themselves in terms of raw facts, they just think of narrative. And we are always negotiating with our previous narratives of ourselves as new events happen to us: I say that as an existentialist, that we are forced into narrative as a method of making sense of an identity that is constantly changing and different from every point of view. The way we present ourselves is never a statement of things as-they-are, but as-you-have-come-to-terms-with-them. Tom here just asked me how I happened to move to Denmark permanently, so I had to summarize fifteen years of my life for a two-minute conversational blurb.”

(This is excerpted from “Brian’s Head, Part One,” an essay on Tom’s blog, Kierkegaard In Me.)

Or as a writer told me, “No one tells everything, Richard!” Chalk another one up for memoir as a species of literature. As if even journalism as allegedly literal as reality TV isn’t edited. Any narrative is partial and cast in a certain light. Truth changes, a fiction.

The intensely passionate truth-searcher Kierkegaard only ever referred to himself as an author, Brian told Tom, occasioning a significant pause of understanding between these two intellectuals at the front of  the bus. I take the meaning: We’ve added the labels: Knight of Faith, Christian philosopher, father of existentialism. Kierkegaard despised labels. But an author he indisputably was: He’d published thirteen books by the time of his death, at age 42, in 1855. His journals, since published and considered his most poetic and beautiful work, run to 7,000 pages.

But in the impatient computer age don’t try this secret for discovering meaning, which he unveiled in Either/Or, Volume I: “Tested Advice for Authors: Set down your reflections carelessly, and let them be printed; in correcting the proof sheets a number of good ideas will gradually suggest themselves.”

(A by-the-by lesson of his life and his existential philosophy for writers: if you want to write and it brings you pleasure, write—it’s the world’s problem if you aren’t any good. Of course, he was published—and also widely regarded as a joke during his lifetime.)

When I was a year older than Tom, I read some Kierkegaard, and what I understood stuck. Amidst

Our Tom, with his buddy Jack

endless paragraphs emerged hard gemstones of truth, everlasting precepts that flashed from his stormy soul: “Truth is subjectivity”; “To defend anything is to discredit it”; “If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much”; “Desire is a very sophisticated emotion.”

He’s my favorite philosopher because he didn’t believe in philosophy and created stories, told by wild alter-ego narrators. He published most of his books under their names, though everyone knew it was Soren playing around. “Kierkegaard would have us recognize that we are the authors of our worlds and have us assume responsibility for that authorship, recognizing that it derives from values that we have chosen,” explains Donald Palmer in Kierkegaard for Beginners. He tells a wonderful story of young Soren‘s strange upbringing: His father sent him to a Latin school with instructions to bring home the third highest grade. “It’s easy for a genius to get the best grade,” Palmer explains the strategy. “But to get the third best, he must learn psychology. He must figure out who the second and fourth smartest boys are and place his own work between theirs.”

I wasn’t and haven’t been patient enough to stick with Kierkegaard at length, but perhaps I should, considering that my most cherished philosophical zingers came from him. As an adult my profound spiritual touchstones are Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. Both works speak to writing’s, as well as to life’s and each sex’s, larger reality and deeper purpose. While more clear than Kierkegaard, who trafficked in irony, and rich for me conceptually, neither has left me with the wealth of one-liners to compare with those I quoted above. But then, I was twenty-two when I read the Danish bard, and I may be readier now to deal with him with greater conceptual understanding.

John Updike, in his last videotaped interview, with Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, said that a diminution of energy had changed his writing over the years. Some wonder was lost. He spoke of a scene in Rabbit Run where the protagonist, abandoning his wife, strokes his hand across the velvety foliage of a privet hedge as he leaves the premises.

“Your ability to care about that kind of detail I think slightly diminishes,” said Updike, who nevertheless carried on. He was, incidentally, a serious student of Kierkegaard.

Forgive. Love. Create. That’s all there is. All there ever was. To go on, in fear and trembling, in the face of eternity. Tom knows this already, at barely twenty-one. And he feeds his soul this winter on the oeuvre of a man who looked at eternity, searching and suffering for transcendence from earthbound blindness.

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A meditation upon ‘Infinite Jest’

This is a guest post by my son, Tom Gilbert, a college sophomore majoring in philosophy.

David Foster Wallace expressed dissatisfaction with the reviews for his ambitious  Infinite Jest. The 1,104-page book is so expansive that any attempt at a plot synopsis is useless; any sweeping thematic summation seems to feel reductive.  However, the novel’s polyphonic structure and character voices are illuminating in its discussion.

The novel bears numerous similarities to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in its character relationships.  Infinite Jest3Instead of Fyodor we have possibly the most disturbing matriarch in fiction.  Each of the Karamazovs had a different mother; here (possibly) it is different fathers.  But Wallace’s book lacks the central engine of Dostoyevsky’s: instead of Dmitri’s passionate hatred and rivalry with his father over a woman, Orin simply became estranged from his father.  Likewise, the naïve and religious Alyosha of Dostoyevsky’s novel is replaced with Mario Incandenza, an ambiguously deformed and slow-minded teenager with a passion for filmmaking.  Finally, Hal is essentially Ivan minus the philosophical ebullience and plus a substance abuse problem.  I am tempted to conclude that Wallace is trying to say something about modern life, that we have the freedom now to cut off our connections with humanity when they become too painful; modern life encourages self-fulfillment in the worst possible way.

But Wallace is not merely trying to capitalize on Dostoyevsky’s archetypes by affecting a postmodern setting for them to frolic in.  Their motivations have become completely twisted.  Orin shares Dmitri’s passion for women but not his passion for living—his life consists entirely of seducing women.  Mario, like Alyosha, is the only character able to break outside the dysfunction of his family, but he remains oblivious to the pain they are experiencing.  His spiritual transcendence does not necessitate emotional maturity, awareness, or even compassion. And Hal instigates no action throughout the course of the novel.

Karamazov is explicitly mentioned once in Infinite Jest, when the narrator refers to its philosophical conundrums as a “carcinogen.”  The primary difference between the two novels is that where Dostoyevsky’s characters passionately aim their pistols directly at each others’ temples, Wallace’s would rather shoot into the air or into themselves.  The immediate effect of this on the reader is the formation of a narrative that is at best severely disjointed and at worst nonexistent.  This is not exactly a flaw; Wallace’s editor described the novel as shattered pieces of glass dropped from on high, and the novel does indeed import an epic emptiness in proportion to its considerable girth.

I have read several reviews of the book, all of which mention the point at which the reader realizes, close to the end, that there is no way in hell Wallace is going to be able to wrap up the search for an infinitely entertaining piece of film, and by extension, any real sense of closure for the reader to absorb.  It remains unclear if the novel is an assortment of hundreds of unrelated subplots, one giant plot that we are missing the pieces to, or a work that simply necessitates a second reading.  The “narrative,” rather than taking its usual place as the engine of the book, instead feels like an iron lung that cruelly resuscitates characters that really, truly, agonizingly, would be better off dead.

I don’t think it’s a novel about addiction, the same way Moby-Dick isn’t about whaling.  But I do think that the real meta-question here is whether the reader is anything more than a lab rat pushing a button for its endorphin fix.  We crave narrative because of its assistance in finding meaning, and for its unparalleled ability to deconstruct and reinforce whatever parts of ourselves we care to open up about.  Is that infantile?  Sure.  But Wallace is subverting his characters and plot so much that the narrative is our own addiction (and withdrawal) to the bleeding-heart sentimentality of the aesthetics of Aristotle.

We are Wallace’s narrative.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this.  But narrative is a covenant between the author and the receptor; and if we pervert it and abuse it in an escalating and never-ending search for the next post-structural, postmodern “high,” we aren’t really growing as people—we’re just shooting in the air.

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Melville’s thematic fluidity

This is a guest post by Tom Gilbert, my son, a college sophomore majoring in philosophy and film.

“To write a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”
–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“Everyone knows I’m not a folk singer,” says Jude Quinn/Cate Blanchett/Bob Dylan at the end of I’mbluewaterblog2 Not There, and I might have taken that a little easier if it was said to a superimposed LBJ or questioning reporter. But as it stood, right into the camera, with such an acerbic smile on Blanchett’s face, it was jarring. Todd Haynes’s biopic of Dylan lives on that fleeting edge of self, not so much breaking the fourth wall as balancing on its edge. I reflected on this on my half-hour walk back to my dorm in the bitter cold of finals week, wishing that shot could have lasted a little longer instead of clipping along at 24 frames per second. Film is better at portraying the fluidity of ideas than measuring their depth, and I wished for something that could penetrate that search for identity while balancing the audience’s knowledge and emotions separately. And then I remembered Moby-Dick.

I realized the two works are surprisingly similar: both are immersed in the search for truth, and use a pantheon of characters to portray a fundamentally ambiguous symbol. But where Haynes assumes we already know Dylan and uses that knowledge against us, Melville is tasked with telling an ignorant public just what the hell whaling is. And so he decided to write a textbook.

For nearly every narrative chapter, Melville crafted an explanatory one that dealt with the art of whaling or whales: harpoons, compasses and blubber have entire chapters to themselves. It is impossible to imagine a publisher in today’s world who would be hunky-dory with this. But a writer who allows structure to define narrative will quickly allow it to define theme: the path to cliché., No wonder, then, that the mind-blowing depth and breadth of Moby-Dick would lead to such structural digressions.

So what was Melville’s theme? Many commentators have tried to tear apart the book and find its nub, from the book’s rediscovery in the 1920s to now, but its structural variance defies such a rudimentary summation. What is the whale? Everything and nothing. What does Ishmael want? Truth, companionship, love—the list goes on. Any book with an entire chapter dealing with a whale’s penis is understandably hard to swallow, but as Ishmael opines to the reader, we must look closer.

Amidst myriad chapters of whaledom, let us look at “Fast-fish and loose-fish.”In whaling, Melville/Ishmael explains, a whale is either a fast-fish, meaning that another boat has already spotted it and has first poaching rights on it, or a loose-fish, meaning it is still up-for-grabs. Ishmael believes these terms were introduced in the British fishery for economic reasons, and were modeled after the legal practices in matters of land ownership and marrying women (harpoon puns abound). However, these whaling terms soon became popular with competing religious sects about new converts, or the dynamics of communism, or in philosophical circles (loose-fish retain free will!). Finally Ishmael asks us, are we not all a fast-fish or loose-fish?

Whatever truth Moby-Dick ultimately aims for, we see these kind of rhetorical questions in nearly every chapter, and slowly the reader realizes that Melville’s theme is the search for meaning itself. Ahab’s hunt for Moby-Dick and Ishmael’s digressions are both attempts to understand and quantize the universe. Therefore, such digressions are hardly nonsensical, but instead essential to theme. The anatomy of a whale’s head is itself meaningless to the story, but given a contrast, or a history, or an idea, and suddenly Melville can confront the tenets of transcendentalism. Symbols are meaningless without context. Such a radically changed structure is merely Melville’s decision to let the symbol carry the structure. The divorce of narrative and thematic development is therefore superficial. The epistemological chapters provide character development, philosophical possibilities, and even narrative foreshadowing (I was surprised to find while rereading the novel that Ahab’s fate is revealed in a chapter on harpooning). These two halves of the novel need each other to coexist and point to the philosophic implications of the plot.

We are taught that theme should be woven into a story seamlessly, that the reader should only experience a story’s raison d’etre like the sherbet after a five-course meal, or else the reader will be distracted by inefficient storytelling. This method flows well and sells well, and Hollywood is defined by it. But Melville’s complex structure, which appears to subvert his narrative, is truly in service to his theme.

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