Friday, March 20, 2009

Yet More Excerpts of Prose That I Like a Lot

Some good-humored ribbing of David Foster Wallace over at sent me on the hunt for a portion of "Infinite Jest" that has stayed with me from the day I read it.

I think I have explained this before, but my position on David Foster Wallace is: Thank God. As in, literally, thank you, God or what/whoever confluence of events and causalities brought him to fiction writing within my life time.

I suspect that my feelings about David Foster Wallace and "Infinite Jest" are roughly akin to cinephile's regard for Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane." Neither the man nor the work are without flaws, but in both cases, you have someone at the top of his game, swinging for the fences with every fiber of his being. Accusations of trying too hard, going too far, not accomplishing his goal -- these are the very things that haunt every artist, and for a brief moment, they both said "Fuck it, I'm going for it." If you love that art form (for me, fiction; for others, film), you are profoundly grateful for their bravery.

Okay, so now that I've bored everyone with my rambling, here is the excerpt, which explains how a tennis player came to join his college football team as a punter, despite a disasterously bad try-out moments earlier:

What metro Boston AAs are trite but correct about is that both destiny's kisses and its dope-slaps illustrate an individual person's basic personal powerlessness over the really meaningful events in his life: (100) i.e. almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can't even hear because you're in such a rush to or from something important you've tried to engineer. The destiny-grade event that happened to Orin Incandenza at this point was that just as he was passing glumly under the Home goalposts and entering the shadow of the south exit-tunnel's adit a loud and ominously orthopedic cracking sound, plus then shrieking, issued from somewhere on the field behind him. What had happened was that B.U.'s best defensive tackle -- a 180-kilo future pro who had no teeth and liked to color -- practicing Special Teams punt-rushes, not only blocked B.U.'s varsity punter's kick but committed a serious mental error and kept coming and crashed into the little padless guy while the punter's cleated foot was still up over his head, falling on him in a beefy heap and snapping everything from femur to tarsus in the punter's leg with a dreadful high-caliber snap. Two Pep majorettes and a waterboy fainted from the sound of the punter's screams alone. The blocked punt's ball caromed hard off the defensive tackle's helmet and bounced crazily and rolled untended all the way back to the shadow of the south tunnel, where Orin had turned to watch the punter writhe and the lineman rise with a finger in his mouth and guilty expression. The Defensive Line Coach disconnected his headset and dashed out and began blowing his whistle at the lineman at extremely close ranger, over and over, as the huge tackle started to cry and hit himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand.
This passage arrives at the bottom of p. 291 of the hardcover edition of IJ, and represents the moment when I fell wholly, completely in love with the book and its author. It is probably a mistake to post it here, stripped from the previous 290 pages which, in a variant of Stockholm Syndrome, softened me up like a clementine, until I fell apart at the gentlest touch. And I mean fall apart in several ways, including the vernacular phrase for losing control, as I put my head down on pages 292 and 293 and laughed until I almost could not breathe.

Then I went back and started from "What had happened..." and began to uncontrollably giggle at the phrases "beefy heap."

All the while, btw, my roommates at the time were in the next room, watching an especially farce-heavy "Frasier," a show I loved at the time, and were themselves laughing uproariously at some misunderstood confusion between Daphne and Niles, and still, though I could hear David Hyde Pierce's flawless comic timing wringing gales out of both my roommates and the studio audience, I remained totally absorbed in my book.

A guy named David Bordwell taught film studies when I was at Wisconsin, and as you might expect, he had a giant professor boner for Orson Welles and especially "Citizen Kane." He wrote a textbook that virtually every undergrad at Wisconsin bought or read at one point, myself included, and early on, there's a still from CK, one of those massive-depth-of-frame specials from the newsroom scene. Now, years later, I still understand the technical accomplishment of the shot, but for the life of me, I have no idea what Bordwell thought was so amazing.

I know many people feel that way about "Infinite Jest" -- they have no idea why anyone would think it was so amazing. They find the prose pointlessly abstruse, they think the critical adoration that rained down on DFW was undeserved. That's a perfectly valid reaction, and one I would never try to argue with, anymore that I would welcome a 30 minute lecture on how I'm a philistine because I only kind of like "Citizen Kane."

But if you can make it through the first 150 pages of "Infinite Jest," the pay off is there. Not in the ending, which is either 1150 pages ahead of you or 150 pages behind you, depending on you look at it, but in the reading itself, which is so rewarding that when you at last come to the true end of the story, you wish only that it would keep going for another 1300 pages.

1 comment:

troy said...

I tend to read Wallace 80 percent for wordplay and connotations the first time through. The second time through, that percentage drops, and I like to think I get about 50 percent of what he was trying to get across. No more, though. Point being, a little something for everyone.

I liked your post. It's challenging to write about what we like about writers who are better than us, and Wallace must have been 'better' than just about all of us. I think everyone deserves points just for trying.