Wallace and Ellis?

There are any number of literary allusions in Infinite Jest.  In addition to the ubiquitous Hamlet references, we get glimmers of everything from Joyce’s Ulysses to Wittgensteinian logic (Stephen Burn tracks these like a pro).  And while I’d like to note the classics, now and again, I’m slightly ashamed to note that the probable allusion that caught me was to one of Wallace’s contemporary, namely, Bret Easton Ellis.

In the last half of the novel (pp 538 or so), we get spend an extended amount of time with Randy Lenz, one of the residents of Ennet House.  [Spoiler Alert!]  Lenz, the narrator tells us, “has found his own dark way to deal with the well-known Rage and Powerlessness issues that beset the drug addict in his first few months of abstinence” (538).  In the following section, we watch Lenz stalk and kill first rats, then cats, and move on to dogs.  The apotheosis of his process (and a crucial plot point for the Gately narrative) is a blow-by-blow description of Lenz luring and then slitting the throat of a dog.

Sound familiar?  Lenz, in his dress shoes and his Polo top coat, with his raging coke addiction only needed to add animale torture to his character profile before he began to sound a lot like Patrick Bateman in Ellis’s American Psycho. In this Google books Link to the novel, you can see versions of Bateman’s own rage and powerlessness issues, despite the fact that they stem from very different causes than Lenz’s.  It’s not an exact description-for-description fit, I grant you, but Wallace did have some choice comments about Ellis’s work that make it clear that he’d read the book and it left an impression.

I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend “Psycho” as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

[from Larry Mcaffrey’s 1993 interview with Wallace, first published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction]

Ouch.  Suppose, for a moment, that Lenz is a kind of reference, if not homage, per se, to Ellis’s character or worldview.  What I like about the possibility is, of course, the way that Lenz—as a feature of Ellis’s blank, black world—works to catalyze Gately’s struggle with violence and recovery.  Allegorically, it positions a dark and stupid world, and the cynical attitude that accompanies it, as a potential vehicle for a struggle to be responsible and human, and to make choices that bring people into the difficulties of the world, rather than standing outside of it.  In other words, Lenz a la Ellis sets up the conditions in which an “illumination of the possibilities for being alive” can occur.

I’m not sure that I fully buy Wallace’s assessment of American Pyscho, for the record.  But I do like the idea that their characters might exist and affect each other in the same literary universe.

Not-so Infinite Summer

So while the good people over at Infinite Summer are sedately working their way through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest at the reasonable pace of 75 pages per week, the students in my ENG 590 class have committed to reading all 1079 pages of the novel in three weeks. Where’s their prize for the speed round?

In keeping with their hard and earnest work with this behemoth (which they’re assiduously blogging and wiki-ing as well!), I thought I’d try to keep up with them, so here are my rather scattered thoughts on pp. 198-299. Primarily, this section gives us detailed information about Joelle Van Dyne and the lead up to her suicide, as well as Hal’s reaction to his father’s suicide. [Basically, there’s a whole lot of suicide going on.] In addition, however, we get the back story on Orin—his shift from tennis to football, his relationship with Joelle; we also get our first clear look at the culture and rhetoric of AA at Ennet House. From a pedagogical perspective, I had a brief moment of panic: what are we going to talk about in class?!! Not much “happens” in this section. Needless panic, of course. Judging from the blog posts, the students are off and running with their own theories about characters and relevant themes and the overall reading experience of the novel itself.

For my part, I find that I now want to go back and re-examine prior passages to see if new information lends them new significance. In particular, I can’t get this description out of my head:

“locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern… a matter not of reduction at all, but — perversely—of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth—each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses 2n possible responses to those responses, and on into what Incandenza would articulate to anyone…as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skil and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of the self.”

Since we’ve been talking a bit about form and the experience of reading the novel, and since some of the students have pointed out the ways in which tennis can stand in, on a meta-level, for reading strategies, I wonder if there isn’t room to think a bit about how the quote above outlines a model of an infinite text. For all that we’re encouraged to see the deep structure of the novel (e.g., Sierpinski gasket, etc.), here we see a “game” that’s both infinite and contained by the self and its own boundaries—the infinities of choice and reactions to those choices. Incandenza spectrally speaks to the aesthetics of expansion without pattern—unmappable excess that can still have limits. Readers certainly find their own reflections of their own proclivities in this novel and its encyclopedic tendencies. Is it a text that promotes reading as a system of choice? If we’re good readers, we’re bound by the limits of the text, and yet have choices and responses to those choices that guide our interpretations, our foci within our individual experiences of reading. The self bounds the text, as the text reciprocally bounds the self?