Posts Tagged 'Absurdism'

Infinite Jest (I)

Because of the sheer size and literary scope of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, any singular attempt to write about it will be futile. So instead of giving a broad outline and a few highlights after I finish it, I’m going to write about it as I go along.

pinocchio-paradoxAs of page 100, there are only whispers of the plot, but more than enough themes and characters and literary devices to keep me busy. I’m forming a thesis in the margins, so we’ll see how accurate I am in another 1000 pages. Right now, the biggest compliment I can give to Wallace is his command of narrative, which is also to say narrative styles, of which, so far there are at least 5. Never are they unclear, though Wallace is by nature a very complicated writer. He defaults to wordplay and enjoys clause-filled technical explanations of chemicals, ingredients, and drugs. It might be daunting if you didn’t get such a clear sense that the book was, in fact, written to be enjoyed (and is immensely enjoyable).

As for his driving thematic, Wallace’s own complex/paradoxical paranoia takes center stage in almost every major character. We wait with a man for drugs to arrive for 11 pages, in which he explains that he has quit 70 or 80 items before, each time asking a different person to procure him one last stash, each time making that person swear never to get him drugs again, so that now he has to meet new people just so he has someone who will act as a third party to get him the drugs. There is Hal, who we see in a segment from his childhood, talking to a professional conversationalist whom he accuses of being his father in disguise, the production being the father’s only way to be sure that the son actually speaks and is intelligent. If you’ve read any of David Foster Wallace’s work before, these things will not surprise you, and if you enjoy the reflexive, confusing style of Charlie Kaufman’s films, you might feel strangely at home with this book.

I do.

Stop Following, Me.
Stop Following, Me.

One last thing. Infinite Jest contains 96 pages of endnotes, and instead of being one too many revolutions on the quirk cycle, the device contains my very favorite thing so far. Hal’s father, the late James O. Incandenza, left his scientific/athletic (I’m not quite sure what else) job late in life to make films. The novel spends a couple pages giving only a cursory history of him, in which we are directed to the endnotes for a 9-page filmography. Each entry contains standard information (documentary or narrative; black and white or color; running time; silent or sound) about his films, which include titles like: “Annular Fusion is Our Friend,” “Kinds of Pain,” “Every Inch of Disney Leith,” “Let There Be Lite,” “(The) Desire to Desire,” and “Sorry All Over the Place.” Also listed: “Infinite Jest” attempts I-V. Using only objective information, Wallace uses the filmography to (a) give us a piece of crucial information about the title of the book, (b) construct an entire character in a radically unique way, and (c) make us laugh. The summaries of the films are hysterical in a way equal to and greater than the very funny (though ultimately contextless) curiosities of something like John Hodgman’s The Areas of My Expertise. Hodgman’s is sortof an anti-book, and while it’s funny, its strands go off into nowhere and connect to nothing. Wallace’s absurdities keep us searching for where those strands have landed and keep us asking why. He takes the joke deeper into itself and also places it within the context of the novel, but without making it part of the novel itself. If he had explained the information contained in the filmography, the effect would be diminished, and it would become only another piece of plot. But a filmography is its own thing, so it is both itself and a narrative device. And if I am just spinning my wheels by this point, it is because I am having too much fun thinking about it all and don’t want to stop.

#4 – Synecdoche, New York

Perhaps the most divisive film of the year among serious and intelligent movie-lovers, here is a film about themes no less lofty than: the meaning of life; the meaning of art; the tangled relationship between the two, and the point at which those two entities become indistinguishable from each other. Also, the fear of death and its relation to the aforementioned themes. Also, narcissism and particularly how it afflicts the artist and the tangled relationship between it and every other word in this description so far.

Choose your own adventure

Choose your own adventure

To say the movie operates in the realm of circular logic is to assume that the film has a logic and a basic understanding of shapes, as they relate to logic. More tangled relationships. Have I made you want to see this movie yet? If the answer is yes, then chances are you will not only enjoy it, but you will get something out of it. If the answer is no, then this simply may not be your cup of tea. But either way, what this movie should not be confused with or mischaracterized as is a bad movie. It is not. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his second film on my top ten list. I didn’t plan it, and in many ways, it doesn’t seem like he’s on here twice because he so completely disappears into his roles. PSH (as his friends call him) certainly has his actor’s tricks, and he loves to play “Intense…Intense-ER!!” sometimes, but he is also one of the best working actors today. Here, he is a man who creates a play about his own life and eventually casts actors to play himself, and then actors to play actors playing himself. The film has been in rehearsal for over 20 years. The warehouse in which this production is to take place acquires a second warehouse inside the first warehouse in order to play the first warehouse in the play. There is a house which is perpetually on fire. It is not explained. Things get weirder, too, but we’ll leave that for you to see for yourself. This film is not simply absurd, it is absurdist. It is a film that would make Samuel Becket scratch his head. But at the same time, I disagree with the notion that the movie is toying with us, that it is  looking down on us or mocking us. It doesn’t trick us or deceive us or manipulate us. Seeing the movie again, I felt even more that there is a sincerity amid the confusion; that Kaufman is attempting to make an honest movie about all the dishonesties we engage in on a daily basis. You are not a bad person if you do not like the movie. But neither should you blame the movie if you should find out it doesn’t like you either.


It Has Come to This

May 2017
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