Saturday, July 18, 2009
"You Cannot Imagine Our Absence"
But the issue with cutesy names like that is that the intervening years have obscured our reasons for repurposing those monikers, like how my friends and I all cast ourselves in Wet Hot American Summer only to find ourselves conforming more and more to the characters the older we got.
This can be good and bad.
For example, having not read Infinite Jest in a long time, my affection for Hal Incandenza waned. I thought maybe Hal wouldn't be such a good name, but rereading the book now, in spite of everything that happens to Hal, it's clearly the only acceptable boy child name.
And then there's the delicious/disturbing irony of the fact that our computer is named Ann Kittenplan since a computer monitor is later her weapon of choice. Plus, I've been incorrectly remembering Madame Psychosis as a code name for marijuana when, in fact, it's the street name for DMZ. I'm more dangerous than I thought.
"It'll Help Your Attitude To Look For Evidence of Design"
That's just my way of saying, "Hey, sorry I fell off the wagon, writing-wise, these past couple of weeks." I'm trying a different strategy w/r/t reading IJ this time around, namely that I decided that going completely, quickly insane near the beginning of the book would be preferable to going slowly, partially insane upon completion. So far, it's been an excellent strategy. It allows me to see my own actions in relation to the narrative from a more objective perspective and not worry so much that I'm doomed to make the same mistakes as the characters, since I've already dealt with some insurmountable neuroses in such a way that have not caused me to lose my job, my key interpersonal relationships or my ability to communicate.
It's sort of irritating, this identification I feel with characters in books. After all, isn't reading supposed to be a pleasurable diversion from the old meaningless trudge through human experience, an opportunity to release myself from the hard questions and incomprehensible answers I face daily? And but no. Books (and any form of enter-/infotainment, by extension) offer the opportunity to see things from another perspective, see how my imagined reaction fits into a fictional, or at least unreal, situation that, although I am not in at present, I could conceivably find myself in at some point in the future. Some people probably find this maddening and so stick exclusively to morally unambiguous works (i.e. Tom Clancy/Stephen King/Danielle Steele or the new Transformers movie), preferring to ignore the possibility of a chaotic and inconsistent future.
At any rate, I'm still reading the book, not at all adhering to the prescribed schedule because I have never, ever been very good about doing anything I "have" to do, particularly when it comes to reading--despite my insistence on reading objectively unpleasurable material, reading anything at all gives me immense pleasure, right down to the very cockles of my cynical black heart. I don't much see the point in reviewing it from a "no spoilers" perspective, since you, unknown reader, know that I have, in fact, read it previously. My deviated attention span is such that if I don't rabidly attack a perceived connection of one part of the text to another part of the text I know to be coming, well, I just might forget what made it so resonant in the first place.
So. I've been pursuing original thoughts about the text, which may not be original since, not having time to keep up with the seminal text itself, I have neither been keeping up with various Infinite Summer-related critiques. Such are the inequities of working a non-desk-type job, particularly since said job requires interaction with children, who get understandably miffed when I don't give them my full attention.
Be that as it may, I've noticed that IJ exists within a distinctly male perspective. At no point are the female characters given the same "behind the scenes" treatment as the male characters. If memory serves, the Moms and Joelle van Dyne never really express themselves outside some male person's interaction with them. There are no scenes of female ETA students' Big Buddy sessions, which is really a travesty, given the undoubtedly rich vein of Ann Kittenplan alone. Even in Steepley and Marathe's discursions on love and relationships with women, the women are always clearly secondary players, people who are full agents of their own destiny, of course, but not persons to be understood in any significant way.
The omniscient narrator takes a very clinical view of female subjects. For example, on and around page 123, he describes a traumatic incident involving Millicent Kent's father's clandestine transvestitism without any simple observations on the gender politics of the situation. It's not any different from most of his descriptions of similarly horrific formative years trauma, but for a book that has such a clear focus on father/son dynamic, it's interesting that there is a lack of exploration of father/daughter relationships. I suspect this is due more to DFW's (uncorroborated) feeling of inadequacy in writing about complexity of gender or women in general than any sort of malicious, chauvinistic John Updike-esque intent. In fact, it seems more likely to yours truly that if it was intentional at all, it's due to the fact that in Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia (Avril M. Incandenza and Joelle van Dyne) are never seen interacting exclusively with one another--the entire play is told from the perspective of the male characters, and while their effect on the females is discussed extensively, the women never get a chance to explain their choices and therefore remain, like twin elephants in the room, objects of mystery and conjecture rather than flesh-and-blood human beings. Or maybe the book was already getting to an insupportable length and DFW opted not to include some very interesting but inessential XX-chromosome pages.
The structure of the book's dystopian future puts me in mind of Mike Judge's Idiocracy, in that most of the denizens of said dystopia don't particularly seem to have an issue with the times in which they live. The subsidized calendar is just as potent an example of society's (ours, the real one) utter indifference to the fact that pretty much everything can be bought and sold, and so long as we're "happy," there's no real need to object to corporate ownership of our very lives--unless of course we're dealing with disturbing commercials for NoCoat Lingua scrapers, at which point we will rise up as one and demand commercial-free, Interlace-style entertainment. The contrast is interesting in no small part because in Idiocracy, American thought has devolved to the point where simply being able to read is viewed as elitist and in IJ, North American culture clearly went through some period of revolution where it became clear that ignorance was not acceptable--i.e. the MIT grammar riots. Even the lower-class characters (Marathe, Steeply, Enfield House residents, street addicts, Pemulis) are presented as operating with very complex levels of thought, and hey, the fact that enough people weren't too intimidated by the phrase "lingua scraper" to mount a wildly successful, culture-shifting protest certainly suggests that complexity of thought is viewed as an unmitigated good. The unfortunate flip-side of this shift is that many of the book's characters have followed this unmitigated good to the point where they are immobilized and crippled by their own minds, just as the non-cryogenically frozen characters in Idiocracy have followed mindless pleasure to the same end. Neither seems like a particularly positive outcome for America's future, so as always, moderation in all things, I suppose.
According to my sorely neglected notes, I detected some connection between Poor Tony, yrstruly and C and A Clockwork Orange. I think it might have been some use of the word "droogs," but reading that manic passage always makes me feel slightly ill, the awfulness of the lack of punctuation building to a horrifying crescendo with C's completely preventable death, so I'm not going to comb through to find it. I will say that it's an interesting concurrance, since the alternate future of Clockwork (I refer here to the book) is very similar to the one in IJ in tone.
The transcript of Madame Psychosis' "Sixty Minutes +/-" makes me wish that there actually was a Union for the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, because, seriously, sometimes ugly people are just ugly and no amount of makeovers is going to change that. I can totally throw my support behind an organization that promotes "Progress not perfection. It says Never Perfection," which I'm not sure how that squares with my own deep-seated desire for personal perfection, my deep wish that I had attended a school like Enfield Tennis Academy or my wish, as the "PGOAT," to be "fatally pulchritudinous."
Finally, I like that no one at Enfield begrudges Hal the special treatment he receives as the Headmaster's nephew (and previously, son). I guess the fact that Hal is such a genuinely good person, in my not-so-humble opinion, is what makes his tragic arc, you know, tragic.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Shameless Cross Promotion
From a young age, I have considered myself quite the connoisseur of the English language, primarily because I completed scholastic instruction before the American public at large acknowledged that it might be a good idea to move toward a bilingual approach to education since there are a lot of countries and taco truck employees who don’t speak English. In my youth, I was not a favorite playmate of the other girls in my class, one of whom succinctly explained away her disdain thusly: “She uses too big of words.”
Rather than take this grammatically offensive accusation as a cue to simplify my burgeoning vocabulary and secure the approval of my peers, I opted to alienate these prepubescent philistines further by collecting unusual, frequently outdated words, looking to Shakespeare and interminable games of Balderdash to secure my place in society as an insufferable know-it-all bitch monster.
Now that I am technically a full-fledged grown-up, adult woman, I’m not able to devote myself to studying American English’s idiosyncrasies with quite the same fervor, but I do try to make it a point to zero in on any interesting, sexy or otherwise useful additions to the lexicon.
And so it happened, on or around January 25, 2007, I stumbled upon the phrase “manic pixie dream girl,” probably in a drunken stupor, probably eating an entire bag of Cheetos dipped in Tostitos queso dip, not that it’s any of your business, thank you very much. Coined by the very talented, very sexy (pending photographic confirmation) Nathan Rabin, a film critic for The Onion’s AV Club, the manic pixie dream girl is a “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Rabin discovered this insidious stereotype during a forced viewing of that Orlando Bloom-starring cinematic abortion, Elizabethtown, but has identified the first appearance of said stereotype to be Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, which film yours truly first became aware of during my extensive study of Ann M. Martin’s Babysitters Club series, which study probably deserves its own series of posts on this site, because I read damn near every one of those books in spite of their repetitive introductions of the BSC’s members, to the point where my parents forbade me to read said expository chapters aloud during the period wherein my Fascist schoolmarm forced her students to read aloud to their parents, presumeably to forestall any arguments about certain students’ obvious illiteracy during parent-teacher conferences (ie the “too big of words” girl).
But I digress. The term in question (”manic pixie dream girl,” as a brief reminder for our hungover/ADD-addled readers) slowly worked its way into the public consciousness via various feminist blogs and a feature on NPR. Those media outlets, in addition to my fake Internet boyfriend Mr. Rabin (seriously, dude, call me. I’m 83% sure I’m not pregnant. Anymore.) worked hard to poke holes like Swiss cheese in the idea that any such manic pixies exist in reality. I, being a contrarian armchair linguist, agreed that the idea of some chick swooping into some dude’s life to fix everything and show him the vaginal equivalent of a plastic bag wafting around in some suburban strip mall parking lot and presumably suck his dick on a semi-regular basis is, in fact, a fantasy, but also felt that if this dehumanizing portrait of ladies kept worming its way into pop culture, it must be based in some kind of reality.
After two and a half years of pondering, binge drinking and Cheeto/queso consumption, I have come to the conclusion that the “manic pixie dream girl” (hereafter MPDG) is the result of phallocentric delusion and womankind as a whole has been victimized by the projection of this delusion onto various silver screens nationwide. The delusion itself results from the existence of what I like to call “manic pixie nightmare girls,” ladies (ie ME) who seek to elevate their manly partners, but have their own agendas, baggage, interest in life’s infinite mysteries and adventures and yes, depression to cope with, and who would be perfect for said manly partners if only they didn’t use their bubbly inspiringness for their (the MPNGs’) own good, because seriously, we all know that “any man” > “any mere woman.” Damn women with their distracting boobies and their annoying capacity to grow fetuses and their bouncy hair. So what we wind up with are the creepy, lobotomized versions of these otherwise awesome, normal, imperfect ladies, painstakingly edited to fit the writer/director/viewer’s fantasy of womanly submission and devotion.
This would be all well and good if viewers of MPDG-centric entertainment didn’t have such a faulty conception of fantasy versus reality. Because, see, straight dudes perceive (correctly) that society doesn’t let them have feelings or boobs of their own, but they also don’t want to be party to any faggy self-examination or formalized psychotherapy. So instead, they hit the multiplex (or the arthouse theatre, if they are particularly secure in their masculinity) and let Zach Braff convince them that moving home after failing at whatever the hell it was they were trying to achieve in life is TOTES FINE, because there is surely a lovely, Natalie Portman-esque MPDG just wasting away forlornly because she doesn’t have a special, unique snowflake of an emotional cripple on whom to work her life-fixing magic. She, being a woman (a WOMAN, for god’s sake), surely has no aspirations of her own or problems that can’t be eradicated through fellatio and/or psychotropic medication and/or childbirth, and can thusly focus all her time and energy on Zach Braff or his Midwestern, non-famous equivalent (ie all of my ex-boyfriends, who, if there is such a thing as cosmic justice, are currently dying in rape fires), presumably spending any time she is not interacting with her Braff wannabe in a catatonic, Stepford Wives state of suspended animation.
Now, readers, I know what you’re thinking: “Whoa, Kelly, that’s an awfully reductive view of American masculinity, to say nothing of your wholly self-serving crack at your ex-boyfriends, with regard to that “rape fire” business. Now who’s got a ‘faulty conception of fantasy versus reality?’” To which I would reply, bravo, unnamed reader! Way to use my own lazy bullshit blog post against me! That is an excellent point because it belies the very lie of the MPDG stereotype, as well as the stereotype of American dudes, sensitive or not–the idea that any complex human being, dude or dudette, can be reduced to a simple, descriptive catch-all nomenclature.
As always, my point is that you, yes, YOU, should be hella pissed off. Why? Because there’s not nearly enough manic pixie nightmare girls represented in popular culture. A cursory Google Search reveals not only that I may not have officially coined the phrase (but I’m totally willing to take the credit if anyone is interested, because I am a total MPNG), but that only a few Internet citizens have pointed out examples of the flip side of the MPDG, namely Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married and Jennifer Aniston as Liz Lemon’s old college pal on 30 Rock. Seriously? Manic pixie nightmare girls are way better and more entertaining than manic pixie dream girls, if only because we can have bad idea sex with no comeuppance. I want more of them on my teevee. They will make me feel more justified in my continual consumption of artificially flavored cheese snacks, especially those produced by Frito-Lay, because manic pixie nightmare girls are very committed to senseless brand loyalty for no good reason. Because we are inexplicably awesome. Anneken out!
Thursday, July 2, 2009
"The Sort of Deep-Insider's Elegaic Tribute No Audience Could Be Expected To Notice"
I'm just sort of spitballing here, so bear with me as I attempt to find my critical groove.
- In the opening scene, the Deans continually stress that they want no part of any agreement with Hal wherein they "could be accused of using [him.]" They wouldn't mind actually using him, mind you, just so long as they can maintain an aura of plausible deniability.
- The various Deans and C.T. employ this interesting rhetorical tactic of speaking in terms of one another's metaphors to put one another at ease during their negotiation, which really serves no purpose other than making it more difficult for them to understand each other since C.T. is, in fact, deliberately hiding the truth, so his repurposing of their metaphors sounds extremely contrived and desperate.
- On page 9, Hal says, "The sort of all-defensive game Schtitt used to have me play: the best defense: let everything bounce off you; do nothing. I'd tell you all you want and more, if the sounds I made could be what you hear." First off, this is an effective strategy in dealing with the mentally ill--easier said than done, though, because of that last bit, which is a potential pitfall in any conversation between two sane people. It's only fair to tell you that I have the sort of devotion to Gerherdt Schtitt that rivals my friend Caroline's devotion to Severus Snape, so I'll probably be extolling his virtues all over this here blog. Maybe it's my German heritage or maybe it's the fact that he always treats Mario Incandenza as an equal, but it seems to me that of all the characters in the book, Schtitt is fighting on the side of the angels. Whatever that means in this post-deity world I inhabit.
- Just some phrases I like: p. 11: "...first real sight of adult hysteria..." p. 19: "Money created a sense of obligation."
- In the endnotes on p. 987, number 24, J.O Incandenza's filmography, there is a reference to the "Bay Area health care riots of 1996" and the "MIT language riots of BS 1997." There's a billboard across the street from the gym I frequent (and by "frequent," I mean "drag my ass to occasionally") that says something to the effect of "Why don't we spend all this money we're pumping into the Iraq War on health care?" Well, California Nurses Association, perhaps it is your lack of commitment to starting a riot.
- There are some film titles in the aforementioned filmography that seem to be rejected drafts of titles for DFW's own 1999 publication Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: "Various Lachrymose U.S. Middle Management Figures" and "Good-Looking Men in Small Clever Rooms That Utilize Every Centimeter of Available Space With Mind-Boggling Efficiency."
- Between the professional conversationalist scene, the filmography and description of Enfield Tennis Acadamy's inception/hiring practices, I get the sense that J.O. Incandenza's madness is very similar to the madness which plagued the author. DFW considers nearly every possible perspective on the world (this is probably more evident in some of his essays, namely "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" and "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All" wherein he spends a lot of time calculating every potential reaction every person he encounters might have to a paralyzing degree), as does Himself. Naturally any author worth his salt is going to plant aspects of himself in his characters, but whether DFW thought of Himself as a sort of alternate future version of himself is, again, one of those things we'll just never know.
- Just a general note, an emerging theme of IJ is the horrifying discovery that the person you thought you knew is, in fact, a complete stranger.
- As the owner of a BFA in Acting and unabashed theatre nerd, I was pleased to see a reference in the endnotes on p.993 to Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. In its pagebound way, IJ itself is a bit of an experiment in that genre, since there are certain passages that are dull and meandering to the point of psychic pain. After my first reading, given the attention DFW pays to recorded entertainments in the novel, I wondered if he deliberately structured the novel so as to prevent any sort of filmic interpretation from being produced, because the mere quixotic attempt would be a little slice of cruel performance art for anyone observing the hubristic suckers who dedicated themselves to such an endeavor. In addition, given the current saccharine state of what passes for American "theatre" in this day and age, a few years of forcing some sadistic, reality-confronting live plays on the Times Square set might set us back on the right track. Does that make me an asshole?
- On p. 72, Kate Gompert says, "But I notice they don't take away the feeling, do they?" This, I think, exposes the chief fallacy of mental health treatments. Patients are led to believe that with the right chemical balance and the right verbal or electroshock or whatever kind of therapy, they can be cured. Perhaps if patients, physicians and various researchers just acknowledged to one another that it's kind of impossible to kill a feeling from the outside, it would go a long way to reintegrating mentally ill persons back into society. I know from my own experience and the experience of some close friends that often the worst thing that can happen after diagnosis with whatever disordered way of thinking one has is the internalization of that condition as something we just have to "live with," that we do not, in fact, have control over our minds. Maybe that's the case, or maybe psychiatric researchers just haven't found a workable way for the patient to exercise the right kind of controls.
- On p. 78, when the near-Eastern medical attache's wife discovers him plastered to his recliner, she doesn't even look at the TP screen. However, when she receives no response from her spouse, she is forced to look elsewhere for stimulus in order to figure out what's happened. A metaphor, I guess, for the need to control the various stimuli we expose ourselves to, or maybe the sheer impossibility of that level of control.
- "There aren't any flat children, really." Just want to say that I also adore Mario Incandenza, not just on p. 80.
- To wrap up, here's some more Schtitt, p. 83: "Except Schtitt says Ach, but who can imagine this training serving its purpose in an experialist and waste-exporting nation that's forgotten privation and hardship and the discipline which hardship teaches by requiring? A U. S. of modern A. where the state is not a team or a code, but a sort of sloppy intersection of desires and fears, where the only public consensus a boy must surrender to is the acknowledged primacy of straight-line pursuing this flat and short-sighted idea of personal happiness: 'The happy pleasure of the person alone, yes?" This is one of my favorite passages in a book chock-full of favorite passages. I didn't take notes or really think too critically about IJ the first time I read it because my prime directive was to just get through the thing and sort it out afterward, so this concept may have slipped past me at the time. But that was in 2005, the midpoint of the Bush Administration, and for all I may have thought of correllation between the misbegotten, deadly experiment of the Iraq War and Schtitt's little speech here, I doubt I possessed the necessary perspective for that corellation to resonate fully. The invasion of Iraq, it seems to me, was calculated by people who have deified America's great personal sacrifice during WWII for people who did the same. The people calling the shots made their money, back in the 70s, 80s, 90s, whenever, on the fact that since VE DAY, Americans have been resting on their laurels and getting extremely into themselves and forgetting all the things that made our united front against the Axis powers possible (this is already going on for longer than I intended, so I won't bother to expound on the [more or less] fact that this same cycle of personal sacrifice followed by intense self-involvement between WWI and WWII led to the attacks on Pearl Harbor), and didn't take into account the fact that certain people were aware of this and would not support their action--though those at the top did correctly deduce that those who disapproved were so into the "happy pleasure of the person alone" that none of them would take any kind of drastic, homefront liberty-protecting, riot-inducing, potentially suicidal action. So fair play to Bush and Company on that score, I guess.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
A Brief Note on My Handle
Speaking of liking things, when I traipsed back to the ghost town that is MySpace, I noticed that "Get Ready" is still the song on my profile and it seems like a pretty appropriate inaugural anthem for this blog. Please to enjoy the song stylings of Brodie Porterfield, a singer-songwriter I had the privilege of seeing at an open mic at Dayton, Ohio's Canal Street Tavern back in something like Aught-Six.
ETA: My browser froze up, which was annoying, but allowed me to see that my husband and I named this computer Ann Kittenplan, which was kind of cool.
"Life's Endless War Against the Self You Cannot Live Without"
I blog under my "real name" at "Two Girls, One Site." And, hey, a better writer than me once asked "What's in a name?" I suppose the answer (supported by the events of Romeo and Juliet and my own cranial machinations) is, "Depends on who's saying it."
Michael Jackson just died unexpectedly and I bore witness to an astonishing outpouring of grief from my generation. Myself, I wasn't too upset. Raised in a household where my exposure to popular culture was limited--not to the point where I wasn't aware of Michael Jackson, just to the point where anything more than casual interest in his music was verboten--I had no particular formative experience that caused me to feel any metaphysical connection with MJ, unless you count New Year's Eve the year he was first accused of pedophilia, which was, I suppose, the first time I realized that people, famous or not, are not always what they seem and, in addition, people are not always in control of how or what they seem to be.
No, my recent celebrity grief concerned one David Foster Wallace, celebrated novelist, journalist and teacher. It seems the jury is still out on whether MJ was what he purported to be or not, but DFW's suicide last September at the age of 46 did nothing but confirm what most of his devoted followers already knew.
He was just like us.
I don't mean this in a shallow, US Weekly sense. As moving, hilarious, confusing and downright brilliant as his writing was, I could always sense the personal despair behind his prose. Hardly the original thought I'm pursuing (RE subheader), but certain truths must be established prior to discussing DFW's life and work. My first experience with DFW's writing was Infinite Jest, this blog's primary focus. In that thick tome, for the first time in a twenty-two year lifespan of searching for connection, for meaning in a meaningless world, I heard, underneath all the footnotes and the obscure mathematical references and garbled narration, a quiet, hopeful whisper.
"You are not alone."
All puns, throughout history, are intentional, by the way. And we, IJ's readers, finally had reason to think that there might be reason to hope for something better than the recursive cycle of anxiety, depression and abuse we were trapped in. Life itself, DFW explained, using so many words so as not to cause any undue pain to readers who did, in fact, "get it," is an unending joke. Learn to laugh, to live, to love, all that happy horseshit on generic wall hangings from Bed Bath and Beyond, or you'll find yourself unable to communicate. Your head exploded in a microwave. Your face hidden from view. Regardless, if there is something larger watching our fond pageant, that entity must surely be laughing, so we mere mortals might as well try and see things from that point of view.
The trouble being, of course, if you already know that life has no inherent meaning, it can be difficult to find humor in anything. Or, conversely, it can be difficult not to see humor in everything. The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. See teenagers throughout human history for specific examples. It's a daily struggle that has driven people to suicide and organized religion. And, in a certain sense, I can hardly blame those who "give up." What's the point of working to improve oneself and/or the world if all you're doing is making meaninglessness more bearable?
Unless, of course, oneself is a real thing.
And the only way to figure that out is to become real, Velveteen Rabbit-style. To trust and respect and love other independent selves enough to say, "I am real. I believe you are real. So we must both be real if I am to exist." Unfortunately, our selves are frequently disappointed by other selves, usually selves who either cannot or won't see reality from our point of view for very understandable self-preservational-type reasons.
Enter the information age.
Stage left, even. IJ was published in 1996, right around the world wide web's near-viral explosion--the technology existed, but how it would be used remained to be seen. Thirteen years later, a tool for human connection and education has fallen prey to the "sloppy intersection of desires and fears" that is the good old USA, according to Gerherdt Schtitt on p. 83, and I find myself terrified to comment on a blog, terrified to even keep a blog, because the expression of my truth is sure to draw ire from those afraid to consider a different point of view, mine or anyone else's. I've never quite understood that about human argument. We all know that there are people with whom we can never agree, so why take it so personally? Why assume that someone's personal philosophy must be taken wholesale to be of any value? I'm certain, had we ever met, DFW and I would have disagreed about a great many things, but we at least would have agreed that the human condition is still worth pondering. Whether whatever's left of him (if anything) after "opting out" would still agree is up for debate.
And now, a mission statement.
If you are one who takes "why are we here" at all seriously, you, like me, like DFW, are probably a careful practitioner of the art of not revealing too much. After all, when we do engage in all that mundane US Weekly stuff, we don't necessarily want to have an existential debate with the bagboy at the end of our checkout lane, even if the bagboy might be in possession of one of those elusive original thoughts. You've got to cook dinner, he's about to go on break and sometimes survival is more important than the potential to thrive.
If you are one who takes "why are we here" at all seriously, you, like me, like DFW, have been labeled "crazy," sometimes by professionals who have worked hard to know the difference between dangerous insanity and annoying insanity. Moreover, if the colloquial definition of insanity is "repeating the same action and expecting different results," then it stands to reason that any exploration of human existence is insane and, according to conventional wisdom, not necessary.
And yet we keep trying. In all recorded human history, we have told our stories--some true, some false--all in hopes of illuminating some truth about ourselves. We read, listen and watch those stories with the same goal in mind, because maybe, just maybe, if we understand ourselves, we can finally, truly understand each other.
This all becomes more complicated in the present, where blogs and chats and forums offer an opportunity to expose ourselves to a New Thing (aka an original thought) on a daily basis, but are more often used as an extra layer of protection, insulation from the pain of feeling irreparably isolated from one's fellow homo sapiens.
If the price of self-exploration is untimely death, count me out. But I don't think it is. We're all going to shuffle off this mortal coil eventually, so we might as well put off confronting the void if there's a possibility of deriving any kind of meaning from life while still living. No, it seems far more likely to me that the price of ongoing exploration of one's self and, by extension, humanity at large, is to continually be told "no." "No," because you're crazy and therefore scary and therefore someone who poses a threat to the common, comfortable idea that there's a god or life force out there who knows the answer to "why we're here," even though said god or life force has been notoriously tight-lipped or deliberately obsfuscatory on the subject for millenia.
So where do DFW and Infinite Jest fit into all this solipsistic armchair philosophizing?
I didn't know DFW at all, not just in the sense I've described where other people are, essentially, unknowable. We never shook hands, he never signed a copy of one of his books for me, never even breathed the same oxygen in the same room. And yet, because of the way he revealed himself by not revealing himself in his writing, we both understood one another. Kate Gompert, for example, is a character with whom I identify strongly. When I reread her introduction in IJ the other day, I was struck by this passage:
It probably struck me the first time I read IJ, but I so closely identify with Kate Gompert, particularly when I was dealing with my own rather serious depression during my senior year of college, that it seemed evident that DFW either knew some part of himself or some other, actual person who was very much like me.
She rolled an eye up at him for a long moment, sighed meaningfully, and rolled and rose. Katherine Ann Gompert probably felt that here was yet another psych-ward M.D. with zero sense of humor. This was probably because she did not understand the strict methodological limits that dictated how literal he, a doctor, had to be with the admits on the psych ward. Nor that jokes and sarcasm were here usually too pregnant and fertile with clinical significance not to be taken seriously: sarcasm and jokes were often the bottle in which clinical depressives sent out their most plangent screams for someone to care and help them.
And who am I, by the way?
I'm a standup comic, by trade. When people ask me, how did you get into that, pray tell, I say, "I failed at everything else," everything else being stage acting, retail management, housewifery, fiction writing, nonfiction writing, Catholicism, agnosticism, atheism, child care, nice person, mean person, etc. It's always delivered with a flash of a smile and a chuckle on my part, but deep down, it, like any joke that works, is 100% true. Every comic I know is one of the saddest, most beaten down, disappointed people I've had the privilege to meet. And yet, for all our collective sadness, we congregate in bars, coffee houses, random open-minded church basements to ease the pain of others with laughter. I guess some of them are more like Tom Clancys or more poppy writers, seeking approval and thus meaning for their work, but more of us, especially the comics I like, are more like DFW, trying desperately to make sense of a schizophrenic world where (as an isolated example) the ethics of abortion are always in question but the ongoing presence of war and starvation is shrugged off as "not my problem." We do our best to trivialize the trivial and highlight the important, but it's tough to do without letting the seams show, the seams being our own personal sadness.
I remember a few years ago, when comic actor Own Wilson tried to off himself for whatever reason (Kate Hudson, maybe?) and the entertainment punditry all seemed baffled. Some of them obviously never learned that comedy is just tragedy plus time, while still others invoked some Emmett Kelly archetype of "the sad clown." I guess the latter is accurate, if a bit infantilizing, but I'm one of your more pretentious comics who writes jokes for people who paid attention in high school history class, so what do I know? It just seemed to me, at that point, that America's obsession with celebrity, with being looked at or being a looker, had dehumanized not only Wilson, but all actors, writers, musicians, directors, painters, photographers, sculptors--anyone who participates in creating entertainment or allows themself to be viewed for others' "pursuit of happiness."
People tend to take a simplistic view of these so-called artists. When we're not being called outright crazy (my own mother-in-law, who is of dubious clinical mental stability herself, once introduced me to a friend, saying, "We always warned our sons not to become actors, but we forgot to warn them about marrying one."), we're told that we're shallow or stupid to pursue a career and a lifestyle with absolutely no guarantee of remuneration or job security whatsoever. Some of us take this to heart and decide it's not worth it--fair play to those guys. But many of us persevere compulsively, working three jobs at a time to make ends meet and using every available minute (when we're not holed up under the covers being clinically depressed about our own inexplicable choice to pursue a creative career) to say something illuminating about the human experience.
The point, Madame P., the point!
I don't presume to know why, exactly, David Foster Wallace hung himself in his garage last fall. Mental illness has always been a tricky beast for the self to tame and obviously, whatever his personal demons were, specifically, they seemed too daunting to live with for another second. As I tried to explain above, I don't begrudge any self who, in a single moment after a lifetime of desperation, presses the self-destruct button, merely because in spite of all the "permanent solution to a temporary problem" platitudes I've heard over the years, DFW, and indeed, every suicide throughout history, was the only person who had to live with his particular mind 24 hours a day, so perhaps, in his isolated reality, DFW did, in fact, have a very good reason, a permanent problem that needed solving.
But surely there was another solution!
Nope. I really don't think there was, just based on this excellent article from Rolling Stone and current mores regarding mental illness in America. So here's my real point, the real deal: is living in America utterly incompatible with living with mental illness? For all that the stigma of utilizing a therapist has decreased significantly in recent decades, the general populace still responds to any revelation of acute anxiety, major depressive disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, schizophrenia or any number of irrational phobias with a resounding, "Not interested. Don't infect me with your bullshit." Not to suggest that these disorders are, in fact, contaigious, but there is certainly, in my experience, a closing off that occurs when people reveal that their minds are clinically compromised.
Myself, I've never quite understood that reaction.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I've never even taken Psych 101. I'm a hypochondriac with a touch of mania, so it seems like any sophisticated study of the human mind would ultimately drive me completely, utterly, nonfunctionally bats. I've probably had acute anxiety sporadically from a very young age but wasn't ever given an opportunity to seek professional help until college because I could still function at a very high level ("pass" as sane, if you will) and my family has always been mistrustful of mental health care, for whatever reason. Unfortunately, my family has always been very mistrustful of crazy people as well, so when I learned that my very first bad idea boyfriend was bipolar as well as a high-functioning alcoholic, I found myself in quite a predicament. The upside of my family's lack of a cohesive (or dare I say, sane) attitude toward mental health, as well as my crippling phobia of psychological textbooks, has been that most of my education about mental illness has been "hands-on." It's not an approach I can recommend for most people--I frequently wonder at my own sanity for continuing to try to understand mental illness from the point of view of the unhinged.
And yet, I persist.
Despite the fact that I guess my ongoing relationships with the clinically insane does sort of implicate me in some sort of weird self-aware unhingedness, which fact I mention mainly to call myself crazy before some collegiate psych major reading this blog can.
It's not news to me, Mr. or Ms. Cocky Co-ed.
It just seems to me that if I want to persist in searching for an original thought or some sort of meaning in the face of the void, I have no recourse other than aligning myself with society's outcasts, because it seems to me that we've been trying all the same things on the human brain and expecting different results. Call it "reclaiming mental illness." Remember, people thought eating a tomato led to certain death before Thomas Edison proved them wrong, and I'm sure Alexander Graham Bell had to stave off accusations about his mental state when he suggested that there might be a way for people to communicate vocally even if they weren't in the same room. Also remember that not too long ago, women with opinions (aka original thoughts) were frequently subjected to forced hysterectomies by concerned, compassionate members of the medical elite. If humanity is to find cohesive meaning in our collective experience that doesn't involve accepting that life itself has inherent value (if that worked, then presumeably no one would commit suicide) or that surely some metaphysical paradise awaits us after we've drawn out last breath (since there's no real way to prove that either of those things are unequivocally true), then some of us are going to have to take that plunge daily. It's not for everyone, and the search has claimed lives more brilliant, better equipped and more valuable than mine. DFW, case in point.
But I'm in on the neverending joke.
There's a certain freedom in admitting one's inherent meaninglessness (hat tip to the French Existentialists and the nihilists, even though my study of philosophy has been sporadic and autodidactic and utterly devoid of a full understanding of statistics). Loony tunes though I may be, I look to other humanoids for solace, imperfect and damaged though they may be. Perhaps they, isolated in their experience of the firing of their very own synapses, have found something worth living for. Perhaps they'll share it with me, perhaps not. But for my money, if I'm not open to the possibility of another way of looking at the world, if I think I've got it all wrapped up in a neat little package, then the joke of existence isn't funny anymore and I might as well resign myself to failure as a standup comic. And, hey, maybe Hamlet would have been a comedy had "poor Yorick" stuck around longer to keep everyone from taking themselves so goddamn seriously.
No. Seriously. The point, please?
All right, all right, I've put you through more than enough paces, dear readers. I'm doing this whole Infinite Summer thing, for myself and also for you. I figure the cool kids will do a splendid job of dissecting the tome's literary merit and even DFW himself (pun!), all the while continuing to reveal as little as possible about their own, undoubtedly very personal, connection to the book. I've always found academic writing to be very stifling because there's this sort of whiff of sterilization about it. I've always hated utilizing footnotes or end notes because I've always been very unclear on where the ideas that influence my ideas begin and where my supposedly "original" thoughts begin. So, on this blog, I won't be bolstering my positions with a lot of hyperlinks. Sorry, if I say something you don't understand, the onus is on you to figure it out if you're interested, that way my reasons for thinking something don't unnecessarily influence your dis/agreement. I suppose that sort of thing is important if you're trying to prove a point about politics or history or economics, but I'll be exploring the intersectionality of my self, your selves and this wacky book that lives on even though DFW himself (twofer!) is dead. I'll be following as much of the other commentary as possible, but I'll try not to read it until I've posted what I believe to be my own unique take and we'll see how things work out. No rules in comments, really, but this will probably be easier if we can all agree that the only certainties in life are death and disagreement, so there's no need to take things too personally or call names.
Maybe we'll find another New Thing together by analyzing this old New Thing.
A Brief Note on the Title
But then what? Take the veil? Let's find out.