Author Archives: kirkv12

Thanks for an awesome class

I have not yet finished Infinite Jest, but I would like to write my final blog post now so I can spend Sunday doing Spanish homework and finishing the book in a more relaxed manner, so I guess this is just a random collection of reflections on Wallace’s work and the class as a whole.

Prior to taking this class I had only read one or two of Wallace’s short stories. This was during the summer after I had gotten in early decision and someone had informed me of this apparently brilliant author that taught at my future school. At this point I was pretty obsessed with finally going off to college and anything Pomona related. I bought Oblivion and read through a few of the stories (Mr. Squishy left me rather disappointed, to be honest), but I think I mostly had the book because it was one more thing that I could buy that had some Pomona significance and I   was so pumped to come here. When Wallace died I was really shocked and selfishly disappointed that I never got to take a class from him, but I still had not grasped how amazing and important a writer he was until I started reading some of the articles written following his suicide.

When I was looking through the available courses for second semester a friend informed me that the DFW class had been added to the list. I guess I just took it because it fit into my schedule and I was curious to see what all of the fuss was about. Over winter break I joked with my parents that the course might only entail reading Infinite Jest and writing a book report, and that this would be a plenty big enough workload in itself. When I learned that we would be reading all of Wallace’s work, I got a little worried.

While this has certainly been the most reading I have ever done for a class in addition to a fair deal of work writing on the blog and so on, it has also been my favorite class so far in college, perhaps in my life. The more of Wallace’s work that I read, the more I grow to appreciate his genius and the unique qualities that make his style of writing so enlightening. It would be an educational enough experience to simply read all of Wallace’s work, but to have twenty-some other students, all of whom are very intelligent, as well as a professor who knew the author personally helping to analyze and interpret the writing is a phenomenal thing. I really wish I didn’t have any other classes. It is fantastic that we can all sit around a room and open the doors to new ideas for one another, see things from each others many different perspectives. And the work is such that there is always more to find. Had I been reading these books alone, I am sure it would have been enlightening, but I wouldn’t have come close to the comprehension or grasp of his writing that I have right now.

I guess all I am really getting at is that I am extremely glad I took this class instead of macroeconomics or intro to psychology. Not only have I picked up some new favorite books, but it has enabled me to begin to have an understanding of where literature can go in this era, how our modern day issues ought to be dealt with in writing. I feel an even stronger (selfish) regret that I never got the chance to learn from him when I was in just the right place to now that I have taken the class, but then again, I have learned from him, just not in person.    

Addiction or Obsession?

There are really no addictive chemicals to be found in marijuana. Nothing about the drug causes a physical dependency. And yet a number of the characters in Infinite Jest are allowing marijuana to destroy their lives. From our main protagonist, Hal, to Kate Gompert and other Ennet House residents, Wallace depicts characters entirely unable to control their use of marijuana. So why is it that the characters that have trouble quitting weed are shown to be struggling just as much as those that are dealing alcohol and crack cocaine?

I think the marijuana addiction element is basically a bridge between the “real” addictions of physical dependency and the kind of addiction one refers to when one speaks of being “addicted” to a new video game or a favorite food. Its (marijuana addiction) presence in the book serves as an example of how the obsessions and problems of our minds can be as devastating or more so than the visible or tangible struggles of the external/objective world. These obsessions and/or addictions that are a product of the mind abound in Infinite Jest and America in general. Wallace’s descriptions of the “withdrawal” symptoms of marijuana (excess saliva, insomnia etc.) in Hal and the others do a fantastic job of demonstrating how what one might claim is “all in their head” really becomes legitimate over enough time of failing to handle the issue.

The marijuana vs. “real drug” disparity seems similar to the passages that describe depression. The depressed characters feel torturing, foundation-crumbling pain and despair, but there is no physical evidence that they are in any true pain. This makes this very type of pain perhaps even worse than the objective “you’re bleeding” type of pain that everyone can see, acknowledge and sympathize with. The pain and addiction caused by one’s mind may very well be the worst kind of all.

What does Wallace suggest is to be done about it? I feel like there should be at least one happy, satisfied character in the book that emerges to set the example of how life ought to be lived. Even the characters that might have kicked their addictions only appear to have replaced them with another, such as the Ennet House residents who seem forced into an alternative addiction to “higher powers” and AA meetings. Are we simply supposed to make ourselves addicted (or obsessed with, overly devoted to…) to something good or something with meaning like Marathe often suggests in his monologues regarding causes greater than ourselves? Do we have to be addicted to anything at all, or are we free to somehow live our lives in moderation. This book is absolutely brilliant and extraordinarily thought provoking but it drives me crazy with the need for answers to my questions.

Brilliant but Frightening

Good Old Neon is thus far my favorite fictional(ish) short story that we have read by Wallace. From the first page I could relate wholly and scarily to the narrator. The consequences of this, of course, were that I became utterly absorbed and fascinated by the story, but also that I became seriously depressed and concerned at seeing so much of myself in this fraudulent and suicidal character. As Neal goes on about his inability to force sincerity from himself and his constant manipulation of those around him, the message starts to look like a familiar one of Wallace’s: that we as a society are becoming less connected to one another and more image-conscious/obsessed, which in turn is making us less happy with the way we see ourselves. This has been a theme in a great deal of Wallace’s fiction including Broom, Infinite Jest and A Radically Condensed History….

However, as I read on in this particular story it seemed to go deeper than that. It was not a simple criticism of the way our society is heading or some videophonyesque acknowledgement of our shift towards image obsession. It was an analysis of the impossible struggle to display and communicate who we truly are. Wallace writes so magnificently on the contrast of how much we can think/know/feel as opposed to how very little we can ever really convey. The pieces that we eventually do articulate through words and actions are carefully handpicked and designed to produce a certain effect and image. It is hard to reconcile all of this with honesty and genuineness. I personally did not find Neal to truly be fraudulent so much as being incredibly self-aware and unable to go on fighting to communicate and connect with other people who interacted with only his actions and not their motives or the mind behind them.

So Neal commits suicide, but it is acknowledged that nobody can really be his true self towards others since it would take a lifetime to articulate the mental state of only a few seconds. What does this imply? Are we all fraudulent? Does the impossibility of true-self communication with others excuse our failure to be genuine? Are we all to kill ourselves in order to open the door of our minds and end the constant premeditated dribble of self that oozes out of our mental keyhole? Or is this merely a tragic story of one man’s excessive and possibly admirable refusal to live with the torment of having his whitecap represent his entire ocean? What I took out of it is that we are all playing the same game. We all think deeper than we act. We can feel guilty upon getting congratulated if we achieved something for the sake of those congratulations (and most of the time we at least consider the personal benefits of our actions), but then again this doesn’t make us want to go out and achieve nothing. The important thing, I guess, (and this certainly sound cliché, but lately Wallace has been advocating clichés pretty regularly) is not how others see you, or how you see them seeing you, but how you see yourself, and whether or not you can stand being the only one that ever truly will.

Extremes in IJ

The more we read into Infinite Jest the more there seems to be some desperate plea for moderation that continues to go completely unanswered. I’ll start by taking one last look at Eric Clipperton. To me he represents every one of the kids at E.T.A. He is simply an exaggerated version of what is wrong with all of them. In so many of these kids we see people striving for an extremely difficult goal that they probably will never get and will not even enjoy so much if they do get it. Just as Lyle points out to Lamont Chu, once the players have seen their faces in the magazines the first time, they stop desiring it. At this point, the kids work themselves to death because they already have so much invested in it. They are not having fun playing tennis anymore, and even if they are, the fun comes in rare moments between checking their rank and participating in puke-inducing drills. So in a way, Clipperton does the same thing as the rest of them. He sacrifices everything to get to the top, a top he does not even enjoy. The point is that anyone can be number one if they are willing to give up enough of their time, effort, life and self. All of these kids are already sacrificing their lives to tennis, Clipperton simply took it to a new extreme. And so he does indeed deserve the number one ranking as much as anyone else, since he can offer the greatest sacrifice, but all that this highlights is the relative meaninglessness of rankings and trophies and The Show. Why would any of it be worth the sacrifice of someone’s entire life? Just as Wallace pointed out in the Michael Joyce essay, once they get to the show they will tell you that they’re happy and they will believe it, but is it truly happiness or is it simply knowing nothing else? All of the characters in the book who strive for or attain perfection, be it in tennis, academics, beauty or anything and everything, appear completely miserable.

Hal, Clipperton, the PGOAT, they all live in perfection and then desperately need to escape their own lives through drugs, suicide, etc. This addresses the other extreme of not living one’s life at all. This extreme is covered throughout the book in all contexts and many different forms. Marathe and Steeply explore it constantly and directly through the issue of the entertainment that you cannot stop watching. This is a complete refusal to deal with one’s own life and a choice to neglect to live at all. Drug and alcohol addiction are another medium through which Wallace conveys people’s avoidance of their lives. Trying to escape from all the difficulties of life rather than conquer them perfectly seems to leave our addicted characters even less happy than the perfect ones. One thing that especially caught my eye was how all of the AA guys keep celebrating Gately and telling him what a great job he is doing every time he says something that is supposed to bash the AA system, something that he thinks will indicate that he is not doing it right. This struck me as one of the clearest messages in the book; that maybe happiness cannot be achieved, but misery can be avoided in happiness’ pursuit if the person plays the game of life and let’s themselves screw up.All the AA people who try to tell the others what they want to hear get sympathetic claps, but no one respects them and no one thinks they are going to succeed in sobriety. The same can be said for those that try to do what they think pleases everybody in life and makes them closer to perfect. Clipperton can get his trophy and still be friendless and die unhappy and alone. The greatest concern with Hal has been that he is not messed up enough. The only thing he could not “produce the goods” for was being messed up enough after his father’s suicide. He worked his way around this by researching how to act screwed up, but he still has never really been messed up in anything, and this is his great flaw, the one that I believe will doom him in the end.

Eliminating the Map

When reading Infinite Jest I often get mixed up with the themes of other books that we have read thus far this semester. The book is so enormous and complex that it seems to hold every message that Wallace has to offer all in one. One idea that keeps popping up is the same one we explored in A Radically Condensed History of Post-Industrial Life. That is, the theme of losing ourselves in our quest to create the perfect image.

                      This most clearly came to my attention during the tragic Eschaton debacle in which Evan Ingersoll left the bounds of the game and struck Ann Kittenplan with a tennis ball to the back of the head. Immediately following the incident there was a huge argument concerning the difference between the territory and the map. These can be interpreted as metaphors for the self and the image. Since reading this portion I have been reading the book in this context and noticing that it is largely a book about finding the self that is buried deep below the image. Perhaps the failure to reconcile the two is what forces some of the characters to try to eliminate “their own personal map,” as Wallace says.

                      One character that comes to mind is the P.G.O.A.T., Joelle Van Dyne. Her actual self is so gorgeous that everyone is too intimidated to approach her. Because of this she is forced to wear a veil and she assumes the image of a hideous woman, whom everyone guesses is deformed under the linen. I cannot say that this lead to her suicide attempt or drug usage, and I do not want to fall into the trap of excuse-making that so irritates the crocodiles at Boston AA, but she does eventually try to kill herself by having “way too much fun,” which struck me as sounding oddly similar to being way too pretty and thus hideous. Perhaps substances themselves have something to do with this inability to understand oneself. They serve different purposes for different people but one thing that they do for many is assist in escaping oneself, becoming a different person. Not really sure where I am going with this, but just an idea.

                      Another character is (this comes on page 408, don’t read the following if you would rather not have it spoiled) Eric Clipperton. For all intents and purposes he is without identity, other than his name. No one knows where he comes from, all that is known is that he gets marked “Ind.” for independent. This apparently Self-less junior tennis player prances about the court with a gun to his head threatening to take his life should anyone ever beat him. Again, the importance placed on the image and the lack of understanding or acceptance of the self seems to lead to an inability or lack of desire to live.

                      Whether it is the cause of the elimination of maps or not, image obsession vs. self understanding seems to be a desperately important theme in this book. DFW seems highly critical of the modern disconnect between these two things.

Brief Interviews with Honest Men

I am currently taking a class called Excess, taught by Professor Mann on “transgressive limit-texts” in which we explore numerous disturbing books written by such notorious and ostracized sexual authors as Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. One of the first things that we studied was the way in which Sade (from whom the words “sadistic” and “sadism” derive) challenges the reader directly at the beginning of his opus, 120 Days of Sodom, to carefully read the entirety of his text. He argues that if one truly performs this task, and does not simply glance and flip pages, then at some point they will become aroused by the obscenely horrendous and vulgar sexual acts depicted in his book. This challenge was an attempt to confront the hypocrisy that people display every day when they deny their own feelings, bury their shameful desires, and then attack those who do not hide these things, while maintaining a clear conscience.

                      I think Wallace performs a similar feat with even greater success in Brief Interviews. While I am not so sure about the interviews’ effects on the female audience, most of the guys that I have discussed this issue with, both in class and just some of my friends, will admit that at times, though the actions themselves may disgust them, they can relate to the thoughts of the men being interviewed. Even the title and cover design seem to suggest something deeper than just a bunch of conversations with random, evil, revolting men. The bag over the head and the word “hideous” itself (of which the first four letters are “hide”) suggest to me that these men are all men, but with the bag removed and the hidden revealed. This relates further to the idea of a modern disconnect between the real and the perceived as suggested in the book’s first “story”, A Radically Condensed History of Post-Industrial Life. Certain things have been deemed weird or immoral and so people choose to eliminate them from their image just as the irony of post-modernism has caused writers to eliminate dramatic, life-contemplating monologues from their writing. But these people cannot successfully eliminate these things from their personalities. This leaves them with that very gap between real and perceived and not only do others see no more than their carefully constructed image, but they themselves are left ashamed of these hideous thoughts that do not correspond with the image they seek.

                      So what is the answer? I certainly do not know. Is it that the thoughts and tendencies themselves are hideous? Is the self-deception that the rest of us never think in “immoral” or “hideous” ways the problem to be confronted? Or is it that these men truly are hideous because they cannot keep up with the rest of society in hiding the things that are ugly about their personalities? I cannot imagine that the hideous men are the good guys because they do not avoid acting upon their feelings and desires. So what exactly are we to make of all this?

Infinite Tease

I am reading Infinite Jest, thinking at all times that at least some of these stories and split perspectives are on the verge of coming together, relating directly to one another. Sure, we know the relationship that Orin has to Hal and some of the others, but there are countless different narratives involved, and while they can all certainly hold my attention and make me laugh/smile/grimace, I remain frustratedly on the edge of my seat in anticipation of where it is all headed. I pray to God that I do not have to wait until the end of the book (800 + more pages) to be satisfied. And I pray even harder that in the end I really am, seeing as how Wallace has so far shown a tendency to end stories somewhat inconclusively, in a sort of anti-epiloguic fashion.

He tempts and tempts and somehow keeps me reading by my own will instead of by my obligation to this class because of his writing finesse and absurd but somehow plausible plot events. He drives me crazy and keeps me enjoying the book all at the same time. And yet, perhaps the temptation is the fulfillment when all is said and done. I want very badly to see these narratives intersect and culminate in some clever connection, but then it would no longer haunt my mind in a mischievous but tickling manner. The anticipation can be nerve-wracking, and finishing a chapter only to be thrown into the middle of a completely new story and perspective sometimes makes me want to tear the book apart, but instead I always resort to reading harder and faster, in some addiction-fueled craze that has me neglecting other classes and assignments. Though it constantly upsets me in my desire for more and for a continuation of one story for more than a few pages, it has yet to tempt me at all into putting it down, and maybe this balance is the ingredient that makes the book brilliant (or at least one amongst many). For now all I know is what I have already read, and looking back at some of the work we have explored earlier in this class, I can say I usually enjoyed the ride more than the destination.

Wallace’s discouraging excellence

                      I was always pretty good at math when I was younger. Perfect SATs and SAT IIs, 5s on all my APs, As in every math class as far back as I can remember. In fact, I still thought of myself as an impressive 18 year old mathematician when I came here, before Calc 2 kicked my ass. But somewhere near the beginning to middle of my junior year my focus and passion drifted to English. I had a phenomenal 11th grade English teacher, notorious throughout the school as the toughest grader in the department. Along with this, she had the kind of personality that, when someone already didn’t like her, it fueled their hatred because of the combination of her corny chipperness, her sympathy for kids with trouble in her class, and her nevertheless absolute disregard for whiney students complaints about the grades she issued them. However, I was not looking to dislike and so actually found her to be both reasonable and encouraging. She administered a lot of work and demanded some serious thinking, but all in all I think these practices approximately doubled my abilities to write.

                      After a semester in her class I found myself thinking that I would like to be a writer. I wasn’t sure what kind, be it a journalist or novelist or whatever, but I simply thought it would be a pretty cool way to earn a living. It was as close to “passionate” as I have ever been about a prospective profession.

                      This fantasy has followed me to college, although I am not sure how long it will last, as it is currently being extinguished by Wallace himself. I love Wallace’s writing, but it has changed my perspective. See, I used to think that one had to be a great writer to get published. I have read some brilliant work that has been presented to dozens of publishers unsuccessfully. But Wallace exposed this obvious naïveté to me in his writing and his analysis of the writing of others. Great work goes unpublished and uninspired, meaninglessly thrilling tales can sell millions. It is very much based on how much people want to read for entertainment.

                      And so the formidable task of merely getting published at all is no longer a suitable goal. As a writer my ambition would be to get published and be a truly good writer. To write meaningful work that is more than just stories, but art. Things involving deep meanings and subplots, underlying tones and messages, that kids in top 6 liberal arts schools sit around for 75 minutes pondering on inconclusively.

For me, reading Wallace is just like how he described being at the tennis tournament. He came in with some vague, stupid, hopeful notion that he would be able to be on the same court as some of the worse players there. After that idea was debunked, he witnessed the incomparable, unthinkable, un-understandable magnificence of the very top players like Agassi. He is my Agassi. He doesn’t inspire me so much as deflate any confidence I really have in my own ability. While I clearly cannot hold myself to Wallace standards or ever dream to be on the same bookshelf as he, reading his work is a constant depressing reminder of how monumental the gap is between what he was and what I could ever dream to be.

OCDescriptions Leaving Nothing Out

I used to be far fonder of Wallace’s fiction than his non-fiction, but reading his essay on Michael Joyce has won me over. I suppose one reason I disliked the non-fiction is that I would be searching for things to comment on, explore, discuss or analyze, but whatever it was I was looking for had already been covered by Wallace himself. He really leaves very little up to interpretation. Another thing is that some of it can seem dry, technical and run-ony. But in this story, I am at the tournament. I am sitting in the car with Michael Joyce. Even as someone who plays tennis very rarely and knows the names of about 5 male players, the Williams sisters and of course the over publicized absurdly attractive female players, I can understand wholly the way Wallace felt watching Joyce, Agassi and all the rest. He finds ways to communicates things undefined by words, things that everyone else cannot articulate that make you say, “you know what I mean” while gesturing with your hands in the futility caused by the boundaries of language.

So many writers lose me when they describe things towards one direction. They want to show beauty, so they pile complimentary adjectives and give examples how this thing is more aesthetically pleasing than others. But Wallace’s descriptions create a more perfect extreme by rounding out the figure and exploring its deficits as well. For instance, he describes a Power-Baseline style game as a “brutal art” (229) and makes careful mention of its many imperfections right in the midst of expressing its lethality. By investigating all facets and using clever, smile-inducing phrases to paint his pictures, he makes them real to us, rather than abstractions of purity. By the end of the story I even found myself thinking that Joyce himself must have been less than pleased when he read this (as I assume he must have). Wallace’s account of Joyce is extremely ambivalent. He certainly makes extensive observations at Joyce’s brilliance with a racquet, but then bashes (not unjustly or primitively) most other aspects of his life, generally with a subtle condescension. But then he turns right around and questions his own criticisms, examining the love Joyce has for what he does, whether he chose to love it or not. He takes into account the mountain of sacrifices Joyce has made for his sport and the difficulty of life at the bottom of the top, where he resides, but then seems unable to conclude on the value of such a lifestyle. He examines all aspects of everything and then finishes by not being able to decide if Joyce is truly happy, or whether he simply says that out of ignorance of any and all ways that things could ever have been different. And this is right.

I suppose what has changed my mind on Wallace’s non-fiction is the same as what I cited earlier as having fueled my dislike for it; its coverage of everything. Perhaps I liked this topic more, or maybe it simply took some time to grow on me. Either way, all I am left to write is praise.

Rambling thoughts on green

My favorite story in GWQH was quite possibly Everything is Green. Aside from the fact that it was phenomenally short, which is always nice, I had a really fun time trying to make something out of the limited text that is given. Now, there is an extremely good chance that I am just making things up and interpreting things to loosely but I ventuured several guesses at the meanings of this (very) short story.

My first observation is the major theme and portion of the title of the story. Green. Mayfly refutes Mitch’s statements of dissatisfaction with the relationship due to how “green it all is (outside)” (230). From this I assume it is spring in Mitch and Mayfly’s area of the world. A metaphorical spring and a metaphorical green perhaps, relating to their relationship together and Mitch’s happiness as a man. The relationship, just as spring is a transition period between the desolation of winter and lush, greenness of summer, is merely a transition period in Mitch’s life, a means toward the end that is his happiness. During his explanation of the deterioration of their relationship, Mitch states “I got to try to feel how I need to” (229). Mayfly appears to be a short-lived fling on his way toward the happiness of summer and the elimination of all the non-green things listed in the middle paragraph of the story’s second page. In fact, her name itself, Mayfly, implies just this. Having found this name to be curious, I looked up Mayflies and confirmed my suspicion that they are, as insects, extremely short-lived, surviving in their adult fly form for as little as several minutes and no more than several days. And these brief lifespans take place annually in spring. This is the only explanation I can concoct for the last three sentences as well. “Mayfly has a body” = the brief span of the non-larvae state of mayflies. “And she is my morning” = She is only the beginning, soon to be gone. “Say her name” (230) = Wallace hinting that I should go look up mayflies on the internet to help me with my paper?

Life is seasonal and things change. What I got out of this story is that you should look at things closely. Do not let people convince you that life is greener than it is. Do not settle for spring when summer is just around the corner. Mayflies are nice and pretty, but they are not meant to last forever.

(then again maybe this is all a silly interpretation of a story about the same size as this post that’s simply about relationship issues and leaving your girlfriend/fiancee/wife. Who knows.)