Author Archives: cgf02007

Did You Know…

…that “onanism” means masturbation according to the OED?   I didn’t.   That puts a new spin on O.N.A.N.   Or maybe it’s just DFW jokes for joking’s sake.

Considering the Lesser Known

One commonality among Big Red Son, The View from Mrs. Thompson’s, Up, Simba, Host, a lot of the stories in the “Brief Interviews” parts of Brief Interviews, Michael Joyce, David Lynch, Getting Away, and a Supposedly Fun Thing and perhaps most importantly the vast majority of Infinite Jest, including just about every character’s story except James Incandenza’s, Orin Incandenza’s, Johnny Gentle’s et al., and the AFR/USOUS folks’, is that they all center around the lesser known, the marginal.   This is at once very significant and very suspicious to me.

By the marginal I mean that the real main characters in each of these stories are not those who would otherwise receive attention.   In fact, they are often the players who usher the main characters to the attention they receive.   A very clear example of this is the tech crew in Up, Simba, about which I’m ready to fight anyone who doesn’t believe they are the heart of the story.   Consider the title, consider the time Wallace spent with them on the Trail, and consider the importance he gave to their political advice.

A medium-clarity example of Wallace’s interest in the lesser known is the David Lynch piece.   The obvious counterargument that I’m fibbing or just wrong is that the David Lynch piece was assigned to Wallace by ritzy Premiere Magazine, and so there’s some obvious sense that if Lynch was in fact lesser known he wouldn’t be getting all this press coverage.   But I argue that first of all Lynch is lesser known, which is why 95% of our class had no clue who David Lynch was before reading that piece.   Second, even while Wallace was using a lot of page space to talk about Lynchian theory, what he was really focused on was the extraordinarily bizarre, not-quite-human humanity of a man who piqued Premiere’s interest (I’m guessing) not because of his dressing habits but because of what he makes come out of expensive cameras.   Wallace, while deeply interested in that element of David Lynch, was clearly also interested in what it was about Lynch that allowed him to “keep his head,” the backstage David Lynch that allowed the avant-garde, attention-grabbing director David Lynch to get his limelight.

A low-clarity example, which compared to that last example might be either medium-clarity, or I overestimated the clarity of the last example: the washroom attendant in “Brief Interviews” in Brief Interviews.   Because it’s fiction, we can’t be sure whether Wallace spent time getting into the psyche of any life-time washroom attendants, but the fact that Wallace wanted to is important on its own.   And while the washroom attendant doesn’t do the dirty work (pun intended) so that the attendees can receive the washroom spotlight (not quite sure what that would even entail), he does remain behind the scenes to help usher the attendees through the less glorious tasks in their day, allowing them to focus instead on what gets them attention.   In one sense the washroom attendant is an almost parodic(al) metonym for all the characters I listed at the beginning of this post–he suffers quietly so that others don’t have to.

The significant thing about DFW’s voice-giving to the oft voiceless is that, according to the people that mattered to him on a personal level, it came straight from his anguished heart.     A long quote from Dave’s editor Michael Pietsch in his eulogy of Wallace, all of which I think is important and as primary as a secondary source can be in understanding why Wallace might have been interested in the conventionally uninteresting:

“I don’t want to be a hidden person, or a hidden writer: it is lonely,” [Dave] said in another letter [to Pietsch].   He shied from being known in a public way, but he worked hard not to be hidden from the people he encountered in person. He wanted them to know him himself, not some caricature or idea of him.   One way David endeavored to be known was by endeavoring to know others.   His solicitousness was legendary.   In one note he asked me to remind a new mother in the office that it was time to switch from skim milk to 2% or whole milk.   He wrote thank-you notes not just to the copy editor who worked on Consider the Lobster but also to the supervisor who had assigned the job to so talented a copy ediotr, and he offered to pay a bonus out of his own pocket to the designer who wrestled down a particularly gnarly layout.”

Pietsch goes on to detail other ways in which Dave was an extraordinarily kind and solicitous man, but I think this is enough to get at what I’m trying to suggest in this post, which is quite simply that I would like to believe that David Foster Wallace did not use people like the salesmen/politician-types in Up, Simba use lines to sell a product, he treated them each as carriers of a special humanity he could only glimpse by just like, listening.

Agency in Big Red Son

“Agency” is as aggravating and cringe-inducing a term to me as “historical context” is to DFW, so perhaps control is more fitting, but agency seems to have the memory hook I’m looking for in discussing who in the adult film industry, between viewer and viewed, has more control.   The initial reaction is that the viewer has more control by nature of the fact that the viewed has become a product and that the viewer can thus choose when and how to observe the viewed, as in owning a copy of Jenna Loves Briana and choosing which scenes to watch, if any, and what to do while watching those scenes.   However, Wallace complicates this notion when he describes the in-the-flesh meetings of pornography-viewers and the porn starlets whom they view.   Starlet Shane’s comments on meeting fans sums up what Wallace notes from his own observations: “Most of these [fans] become incredibly nervous when I come up to them…They pretty much do whatever I tell them to do.” Wallace explains that this is a phenomenon “the whole industry”–a dangerous generalization–experiences, “the consumers are the ones who seem ashamed or shy, while the performers are cocky and smooth and 100 percent pro” (17).   Shane’s comment pretty clearly implies that control, in the sense of command over another’s behavior or thoughts, rests in the hands of the entertainers, or “performers” as Wallace has it.

However, this unexpected reality is complicated by the consumers, who in some sense choose what the starlets will do.   Obviously on the set the director is making the decisions as to what parts go where, but it is the fluctuating, specific consumer demand that describes the set of possible options for parts and places in which to put those parts.   Wallace’s lengthy section on the movement of pornography towards more degrading modes and away from more assumedly enjoyable modes exemplifies consumer control (27).   The discussion DFW has with Harold Hecuba about Hecuba’s interest in pornography–catching the fleeting moments of real emotion sweeping across the faces of starlets–illuminates what once was deemed attractive to the pornography consumer.   However, as the entertainment drifts more towards triple penetration and 300-male-to-one-female orgies, those moments of intimacy betrayed to the camera surely decrease in frequency.   But because this is what sells, performers’ hands are bound by the consumers desires.   Thus, control in this sense belongs to the consumer.

(Not Really) Explaining Oblivion

I’m going to take a stab at interpreting Oblivion–the story–, since surprisingly nobody has yet on the blog.  This may be because our posts are supposed to pertain to information from last class’s readings, but if that’s the case then those post-ers of Good Old Neon are just as much sinners as I am.  I’m also going to try this without having read any criticism on the piece, which I’m sure would help this interpretation a tremendous amount. 

There are a few things that stood out to me about Oblivion (which are probably the same things that stood out to everyone else), in order of occurrence to me those were: the maximalist inner-monologue of Randall Napier, in a way reminiscent of one of the stories in Brief Interviews in which the main character constantly set off his words with quotations; the latent sexual attraction Randall felt towards his son, revealed in the last scene of the dream sequence that constitutes almost the entire story; and the final scene in the story, which was utterly confusing and therefore unnerving in the goosebumpy sense. 

So, now I will speculate in order of these things appearance in my reading.  The maximalist inner-monologue was generally in extraordinarily lengthy explanations, which is not a new trick of DFW’s, but what was new about the style was the constant offering of multiple definitions for most descriptive nouns Randall used.  These nouns tended to have a colloquial and/or idiomatic bent to them: “the telephone rings at night, its signal or ‘ring'” [201]; “be resolved or ‘worked-through'” [207].  Many, many examples of this all around.  Not only did the incredible verbosity annoy, it made establishing any “flow” through the piece a near impossibility.  It also, like the narrator of Girl with Curious Hair, the story, gives the story an almost ESL quality to it.  Unlike Girl, it was not an ESL feeling in the sense that Randall didn’t have the vocabulary to use interesting language, but that he had too much language too handle, that he either didn’t know with which words his audience would be most familiar, or that he was incapable of finding the words that best fit his own inner-monologue.  This somewhat aides the ethereal nature of the story, of which the reader is only made aware at the very end.  The inability to pinpoint language could be understood as representative of the lack of precision conversation in dreams (at least my dreams) tends to have.  So much more could be said about this, especially the fact that Randall always puts brackets around the elements of words that are not directly quoted.  If only I knew what to make of it. 

Randall’s sexual attraction to his daughter is hinted at when  he reveals that he has “masturbat[ed] with a saffron scented undergarment” [236], which reminds the reaer of the “saffron joss” smell that fills his daughter’s former room [202].   Even without this somewhat stretched correlation there is evidence that Randall is sexually attracted to his daughter, namely his inability to look at Audrey and her friends when they first begin to protrude.  I’d like to say that this latent sexual attaction doesn’t really constitute a major theme in the story, rather it just states in somewhat open terms what most fathers would rather die than admit to.  And that is what I’m going to say, since I’ve got no brilliant explanations floating around up there.

To the obviously important ending, which I’m sure has something to do with the title.  Some hopefully less-disputable points are 1) Hope is awoken from a deep, deep sleep by someone, who claims to be her husband 2) Upon regaining consciousness, Hope is experiencing definite memory loss and possible loss of…maybe sanity: “None of this is real” [237].  That comment reminds me of a schizophrenic coming out of a wicked hallucination.  3) Hope makes mention of marriage and Audrey, which indicates at least some correlation to the story just told 4) Hope uses a title that was very obviously avoided throughout the rest of Oblivion: “Daddy”, to refer to someone who she chooses not to name 5) there is a scene in which two members of the sleep team in the room with Randall and Hope, still during the “dream sequence,” begin to peel off their faces.  These are some definitions of “oblivion,” courtesy OED, which I’m glad I looked up because I would’ve presumed something less somethingesque:

“The state or fact of forgetting or having forgotten; forgetfulness; (also) freedom from care or worry.

Forgetfulness resulting from inattention or carelessness;”

So is the reader to understand that the entire “dream sequence” is not at all a dream, but a reality to which Hope has become oblivious?  To this point I have been referring to almost the entirety of the story as the “dream sequence,” however the title suggests that the story is not a dream sequence but a forgotten reality.  That Hope is describing parts of the story when awoken from her dream bolsters this possibility.  But when it comes to the men peeling off their faces–I’m lost. 

Mario Caricature

jeez. i was having trouble visualizing the police lock that mario wears so i google imaged his name.   this is what i found. disturbing.

Another Admitted Attempt to Test the Floatability of Essay Ideas

This post is about Wallace’s perception of irony in fiction, and how his writing seems to reflect an inability to stick to his ironic guns in the first ~400 pages of Jest, with regards to “Infinite Jest” the film.

First, Wallace describes the elemental connection between postmodernism and irony in the McCaffery interview, which at this point we all know well:

“Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and
sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists.
The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets us up above
them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicities. Postmodern
irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip
sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways
of working toward redeeming what’ s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental
and naive to all the weary ironists, Irony’ s gone from liberating to

Summary: Irony was useful for “debunking” the everything’s okay myth, but we all know that’s a myth now, yet writers are stuck using irony because it’s the only medium they think will be taken seriously.   Realism without irony is received as naive by contemporary American audiences.   What’s not included in that quote is that television has also taken irony for itself, so that irony can’t really have an uncommercial identity, which is what “good art” Wallace and the rest of the “New White Guys”–Franzen and Vollman and others whose names I don’t know–want.

Then, Wallace describes the kind of fiction he tries to write during a 2006 informal interview at Le Conversazioni, which uses Pynchon’s and DeLillo’s postmodern and experimental techniques to discuss “very old, traditional human verities…and ideas that the avant-garde would consider very old fashioned.” (youtube)   This comment very clearly implies that Wallace wants to ironic fiction that juggles “what it means to be a fucking human being.”

Is that possible?

Jon Franzen seems to think so when he says of Jest that it’s “the book in which, for the first time, he’d arranged himself and the world the way he wanted them arranged.”   In Julius’ words, “I respectfully, violently (was it violently, maybe it was something else) disagree.”

To disagree, I want to draw attention to the film “Infinite Jest,” which is a piece of seemingly unironic entertainment from a director whose films were often ironic.   I choose the film rather than other elements of the book–AA, Mario’s and Hal’s relationship–because it seems to be one of, if not the only venue in which ironic, postmodern experimentalism and realism might be able to coincide.   (SPOILERS APPROACHING) Having not finished Jest, and not having read it before, my understanding of the film “Infinite Jest” is shaped primarily by critical explanation.   It is critically disputed whether or not the title of the film is intentionally ironic.   I contend that the word “jest” functions in the oldest sense, as a “notable deed or action” (OED).   Incandenza’s film is an infinitely notable action, or at least that is his direct, single-entendre intention for it.   As Mary Holland explains, the film attempts to “bypass the experience of original loss and free the viewer to enter adulthood without the burden of resentment and inconsolability that sends him or her looping back into narcissism.” (237)   That is, Holland’s argument (as Ryan points out in his blog post from 04/06/09) is that there is an infantile narcissism which strangles all characters in the book, and which is what each character is either 1) trying to separate him/herself from in order to connect with someone else or 2) trying to return to in order to experience true fulfillment.   Holland claims that Incandenza’s “Infinite Jest” attempts to use option 2 without the narcissism to achieve option 1, to nurture the infantophilia latent in Hal in order to free him from his insatiable self-centricity, to “bring [Hal] to life by putting him in the position of an unthinking, pleasure-filled infant” (Holland 238).

Critic Iannis Goerlandt contests that it is impossible to prove Holland’s argument because of the ambiguity purposefully surrounding the film.   In Irony and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest Goerlandt explains, albeit briefly, that the reader is both given what seems to be an earnest attempt on the part of Jim Incandenza: he wanted “to bring [Hal] “out of himself,” as they say. The womb could be used both ways. A way to say I AM SO VERY, VERY SORRY and have it heard” (838-39), and Joelle Van Dyne’s admission that Incandenza “always meant [the title] ironically” (940). If “Infinite Jest” is intentionally ironic in title, then it is ironic in that it impresses on the reader some notion that “aloofness is reached through structural manipulation,” (Goerlandt 310).   Aloofness is synonymous with detachment, so the reader should have some sense that Jim Incandenza is detached from the film’s effects on Hal and the rest of the viewers.   Incandenza must have foreknowledge of what the jest is, requiring jest to be not “a notable action” but a joke.   Ultimately, if the film is intended to be a never-ending joke then it cannot by nature have been created to help Hal, only to prove to Hal (and maybe to Jim as well) that this angst-free return to infancy is impossible.   Moreover, if “Infinite Jest” is a purposely ironic title it indicates that Jim Incandenza doesn’t take the film as a serious solution to infantile narcissism, rather as a serious state of unconsciousness.   The film loses its ability to handle, or interact with loneliness in a straightforward way, instead it avoids the loneliness by entering into an ironic loop of endless fulfillment that doesn’t deeply fulfill, only diverts the viewer’s attention.   In this case, irony and realism are mutually exclusive.

More Eric Clipperton

The Eric Clipperton story stands out to me.   When I finished it, I felt as if it was just another Wallacian (?) anecdote for the impossibility of true freedom, or fulfillment, or both.   I still think that it might be, but Coach Schtitt uses the Clipperton Suite to emphasize to the students that the only way to survive ETA and the Show is to avoid behaving like Clipperton, “when an ETA jr. whinges too loudly about some tennis-connected vicissitude or hardship or something, he’s invited to go chill for a bit in the Clipperton Suite, to maybe meditate on some of the other ways to succeed besides votaried self-transcendence and gut-sucking-in and hard daily slogging toward a distant goal you can maybe, if you get there, live with” (434).   If we are to believe that Schtitt has a deeper understanding of how to navigate being a competitive tennis player, which I think both he and Lyle do, perhaps Schtitt’s use of the Clipperton Suite reveals a hopeful lifestyle–a rarity in IJ.   In writing this I don’t want to ignore what Ryan posted: Clipperton is a lost kid from a terrible family which he’s trying to emotionally and mentally escape; he’s not interested in winning.

How does Schtitt understand Clipperton’s story?   Perhaps Schtitt understands it quite simply as the alternative to happiness-destroying hard work if one wants tennis success, but that would assume that Schttit believes Clipperton found success.   There’s only one measure by which Clipperton was successful, the NAJT rankings in a single issue, and upon reading that Clipperton summarily “obliterated his map and then some,” so it would be tough for Schtitt to hold that Clippeton had been successful.   Unless Schtitt was implying that unearned success leads to map obliteration.   Schtitt is obviously a big proponent of the work-until-you-drop pedagogy, but I think there’s more to his use of the Clipperton Suite than reminding his kids that they have to work hard if they want to be able to appreciate, or maybe just live with their success.

Schtitt’s understanding of Clipperton has little to do with tennis.   It is much more about the value of “votaried self-transcendence” as a means of hiding from reality.   I’m assuming that Schtit really has his Wallacian shit together and understands that there is in fact a reality defined by loneliness and misery and an impossibility of connection, and that he understands that that reality, if not tempered by something, leads quickly to playing tennis with a pistol to one’s forehead.   For Schtitt, and potentially Wallace, avoiding suicide is about distraction, and the more thorough the distraction the less likely the lost human being is to lose it.   In sum, I agree with Ryan’s assertions about Eric Clipperton, and think that so does Schtitt.

A Post Worth Posting (Pretension Unintended)

Rarely on blogging day do I have anything that I would deem “valuable” to contribute to the class blog.   Today is no exception; however, I have found another person’s words valuable enough to confidently call this a worthwhile post.

“Number Theorist Michael Harris is a global leader in the arithmetic theory of automorphic representations…Harris received his Ph. D in 1977 from Harvard University. He taught at Brandeis University until he moved to Paris VII in 1994. Since 2001 he has been a member of the Institute Universitaire de France, and is currently visiting Harvard University. ” (UCLA Distinguished Lecturers Series 2004)   In 2004, Harris reviewed Everything & More (E&M) for Notices of the American Mathematical Society. His comments put E&M in terms I, lacking a mathematical background, could not have: it “is laced through and through with blunders of every magnitude” (“A Sometimes Funny Book Supposedly About Infinity,” 632).   Harris elaborates on a few of these blunders (635-636), which are called by another reviewer a “smattering of technical infelicities” (New York Times Book Review).   Harris also suggests a couple of reasons why so many blunders occur in E&M, suggestions which I will consider in order of the intensity of discomfort I felt upon reading them, from is-DFW-pretending-to-be-intelligent (more uncomfortable) to DFW-is-so-intelligent (less uncomfortable).

Harris’s more disconcerting suggestion is that Wallace simply does not know as much as he claims to know, and that Wallace’s writing is revered on the basis of pop-cultural blind faith.   He says, after illuminating just a few of Wallace’s blatant (to the mathematician) mistakes, “Will DFW’s “real following” be upset to learn that the author may neither know nor “know” as much about trigonometric series as he appears to believe?”   He then refers to a series of topics–covered in great length in Infinite Jest–about which Wallace apparently made myriad mistakes: “Or that, by extension, his familiarity with optics, Quebecois dialect, and psychotropic drugs is not as extensive as the numerous footnotes to IJ suggest? Will they have any way of finding out?” (636)   This last question is what really jarred me, because had I not read this review it’s entirely possible that I never would have known that DFW had misrepresented Quebecois dialect or misinformed the reader about psychotropic drugs.   But, what Harris doesn’t explicitly state is that he’s conflating “errors” in two very distinct genres, pop technical writing and fiction, two genres in which mistakes may serve entirely different purposes (including no purpose at all, except to highlight the insufficient knowledge base of the author).

Despite the fact that Harris conflates “errors” in both genres, he notes the possibility that errors could be serving an intentional purpose for Wallace.   Before quoting Harris, I want to point out my knee-jerk reaction to the notion that errors can serve a function other than to point out the ineptitude of the author.   It seems that critics attempts to give errors a positive utility in pieces of writing of any kind (especially nonfiction, especially scientific, semi-biographical nonfiction) are the equivalent of spinners on a broken-down 1991 Honda Civic hatchback with 200k plus miles–only for show.   I immediately think they tend to have zero legitimate value but make an otherwise shitty object seem for a second interesting and worthwhile.   This is wrong, I’m ready to admit.   In Portrait, Joyce has Jesuit priests repeatedly quoting bible verses then claiming that they come from nonexistent books and chapters of the bible, which none of the other characters ever contest.   It happens with such frequency and consistency that most critics believe it to be Joyce’s sly way of showing the oft-unchallenged moral justifications priests used in their proselytizing.   But there are some critics who still think Joyce simply made mistakes, and my gut tends to side with those critics on matters like these.

So back to Harris–

“A college student and fellow passenger on the Boston subway spotted me reading E&M and asked me what I thought of the book. My response was substantially equivalent to the present review. She had also read the book, of which she understood very little, but “I assumed it was me.” Reading IJ had also been hard work, so she had no reason to expect E&M to reveal its secrets without effort. True enough. Much that appears to be casual in IJ turns out to be crucial to understanding the structure as well as the author’s intentions.   The same may conceivably be true of E&M, that the book only appears to be about the mathematics of infinity but that the author’s real purpose is elsewhere: to tell a story or a joke whose point this reviewer has not worked hard enough to grasp. I have worried about this sometimes. But it has not kept me from getting out of bed in the morning.”

I quote Harris at such length because every portion of the passage had a different effect on my perception of E&M.   I have certainly found reading IJ to be a task that requires freqent back-flipping and OED consulting, but did not for some reason think that E&M would require the same sort of effort.   Probably because it is introduced by Wallace as a piece intended to claim that Cantor’s work is “interesting and beautiful” (7) through simplistic explanations of the math behind his work.   Multiple times Wallace says that appreciating Cantor’s work will not require advanced mathematical training.   I understood that as assurance that someone could casually read E&M and appreciate Cantor’s contribution to mathematics.   Upon second examination, I realize that this assurance is not necessarily a license to read any less carefully than one must read IJ to find beauty.   But that the errors Wallace makes in E&M are media through which he jokes about the efficacy of pop technical writing or the impossibility of representing truth when discussing abstraction (New Yorker’s reviewer Jim Holt’s and Harris’s ideas, respectively) requires a level of careful (read: blind) reading I find impossible to perform without being told to.

This is Harris’s less disconcerting idea, that DFW has a master plan behind all the errors and that Harris just couldn’t decode that plan.   Just as Holt and Harris argue that E&M’s errors are attributable to authorial intent, one could argue that a master plan behind the errors in IJ is identifiable, if told where IJ’s errors are committed.   For example, the misinformation about psychotropic drugs, which fills a good deal of the footnotes and if one has read certain other DFW probably reminds one that DFW seems to have some personal experience with the Physician’s Desk Reference, could be perceived as a recognition that even with access to endless information about drugs and a passionate interest in their ability to mask reality, there are simply too many ways to mask that reality to keep straight.   Another reading is that the side effects and chemical properties of the endless list of drugs in IJ is ultimately meaningless, because in one way or another they all seek and fail to do the same thing–mask reality.   These are just off the cuff, Swiss cheese level interpretations, but the spinning-hubcap critic could certainly come up with some compelling, difficult-to-refute arguments if given the time.   My point is that any time errors are found in a text that bring the author’s credibility into question, the critic/reader can take two paths, justifying the error’s using the intentional fallacy (or maybe the affective fallacy, or maybe both) or admit the author’s fallibility and humanity.

We are very reluctant to treat Wallace to the latter.

Avoiding Human Nature in “Adult World”

The similarities between narrative styles in The Depressed Person and Adult World made me wonder what Wallace was trying to connect.   In class comments were made about the depressing, entrapping effect The Depressed Person‘s narrative style has on the reader.   Contrary comments were made that the narrative style was annoying rather than entrapping, functioning only to distance the reader from any empathy towards the depressed person.   I felt the same dichotomous pull in the narrative style of Adult World, on one hand feeling trapped inside Jeni’s self-doubt, on the other annoyed with Jeni’s endless immaturity and masturbatory self-interest.   To that end, every moment of the story was an undisguised picture of Jeni’s selfishness, her need to feel good, which could only be achieved through achieving an impossible task–fulfilling her husband in such a certain way that his face and words undoubtedly convey satisfaction.   But to the contrary, when unnanoyed with Jeni’s selfishness I was overcome with empathy for Jeni’s crippling self-doubt, reminded of the ways in which my own self-doubt has and continues to control aspects of my life, as well as generally wallowing in narcissistic grief.

What interests me most about the narrative style’s effect on the reader’s interpretation is that the style affects the reader in contrasting ways through one set of character behaviors.   That is, Jeni behaves only one way throughout the story, just as the depressed person’s behavior never wavers, yet the reader is left with contradictory feelings towards the character.   Whereas the general critical notion of readership (I would call it something more definite, like the Formalist/New Critical notion of readership if I knew their positions better) is that different readers can have different interpetations of the same text, Wallace forces one reader to adopt differing, competing notions of one text.   His device: reader reluctance to admit similarity.   DFW’s technique is in no way a new one, perphaps it’s even an emblematic technique of “good art” by Wallace’s definition, art that gifts the reader a real portrait of humanity.   Naturally, our conception of humanity is dichotomous in that we are eager to point out what human nature “really” looks like, be it ugly or hedonistic or self-serving, yet reluctant to admit that we too operate within the confines of that same nature.   This reluctance is what Wallace capitalizes on in Adult World by forcing us to endure a story in no way too absurd to be our own.

The element of Adult World still evading me is the “format change from dramatic/stochastic to schematic/ordered” [183] that highlights Adult World (II).   It seems unnecessary and intrusive, rather than ordering events it makes the plot harder to follow.   But, the plot becomes harder to follow in that all of a sudden Jeni’s painful purpleness disappears and the reader is left with schematic, directed order, something of which Adult World had precious little.   Given that the chaotic endlessness of Adult World was a great cause of my annoyance, it seems illogical that a much more directed telling would only heighten annoyance.   Except to say that what gave the piece its humanity is the disorder, and when Jeni is “afforded…a cool, steady joy” [189] the reader is afforded a painful distance from Jeni’s joy.   Not simply a distance, the reader is forced into a disbelief in Jeni’s joy, a certainty that joy could not have come from such a hasty, ordered conclusion and that “joy” was simply the author’s pass, that even he knew no joy was being found but wanted the story to conclude in any way possible.   Adult World (II) is the only piece of schematic writing Wallace includes in Brief, and it is the only piece that ends with a narratorial insistence that “joy” is found.   Disorder doesn’t end as joyfully.

Defining “Hideous”

Resisting the temptation to complain about how Brief is a painful reentry into the same concepts Wallace has been dealing with since Broom, each new piece containing as little variation in theme as his nonfiction has (this is an extremely arguable point, but I contest that “Michael Joyce” and “David Lynch” are only 20% dissimilar, tops), which is beginning to make for infuriatingly repetitive writing, I want to begin to hash out the idea of “hideous” through the interview with the Holocaust-referencer.

First, thinking generally about the “hideous men” in the interviews, none of them seem drawn together by anything except their self-perception in relation to an other.   It would be extremely difficult, and I think generally unhelpful, to try to compare the guy describing “smoothies” [28] to the son of the ritzy hotel restroom-watcher [86] through any lens other than that they two are shaped by an other.   The “smoothie”-describer has arrived at a self-conception as a “Great Lover” because he “makes her think she’s blowing [his] damn head off,” [33] while the son of bathroom-watcher has been inculcated by either admiration or hatred, it’s difficult to say which, by his father’s occupation [91].   Even here I find it difficult to claim that the two share commonly-derived affect because in the first example the “smoothie”-describer extracts his own definition from what he does not want to be, whereas the bathroom-watcher’s son finds that he his definitonally bound to his father, whether or not he wants to be.   In what ways are either of these two “hideous?”   The OED tells me that “hideous,” “In the original sense the notion was that of ‘causing dread or horror’.”   The notion of “causing dread” inside others places the hideousness of the “hideous men” in an ambiguous space.   That is, it’s not necessarily that the men are terrible, or bad people, which the phrase originally brought to mind, but that there simply exists in them a something that incites dread.   That could mean a deformity, be it psychological (the satin-binding man) or physical (the Asset), or an agenda (the airport-comforter or the Holocaust-referencer).

It is the hideousness of the Holocaust-referencer that caught my attention most, especially his conception of self-objectification as a source of self-identification.   This conception was heightened by the ambiguity of his lesson, leaving the questioner with no sense of whether he was a rape victim, his wife was a rape victim, or he was simply making the story up to illustrate a point.   Just what that point was is a little less clear.   It seemed to be a polemic against “most people,” who are “so smug and knee-jerk and walking around asleep they don’t even know [being a human being with sacred rights instead of a thing or a rat is] something you have to actually choose for yourself” [123], a take-a-conscious-stand-on-what-you-are sort of cry.   And on a more fundamental level he was suggesting that you are, that there’s an elemental inner-self in all of us, with these “sacred rights,” and that that inner self gets explored in “showtime” [122].   “Showtime” is when the sacred gets removed from a person, “when everything that has any like connection to the you you think you are gets ripped away” [121].   Omnipresent is the issue of self-other connection and DFW’s querying of its possibility; in this passage there is an admission that humans can believe they are making connections outside themselves, but those beliefs are not certain truths and can at times fall prey to a sort of unmasking.   In this unmasking there is nothing left but the self.

But even the self gets reconceptualized in a way that toys with the possibility that the self is not a concrete, essential part of human composition but subject to dynamic conceptualization.   That is, “the hardest part [of showtime] was now knowing she could think of herself that way too if she wanted” [122].   Environment affects self-conceptualization, not the other way around.   And to drive that point home, this “hideous man” leaves the interview with a jarring challenge: “What are you? How do you know? You don’t know shit.”