Sunday, June 2, 2013

Summer of Jest: Post the First: Chapters 1 and 2

Already, as these first chapters get going, David Foster Wallace is indulging in a bit of reader annoyance, but also quite cleverly confounding a common habit of a certain type of science fiction reader I call a Prediction Sniffer.*We don't know where the Year of Glad is supposed to fit in our timeline so it sort of hangs there in a literary timelessness that encourages us to let it go, nerd. Maybe O.N.A.N. doesn't exist for us yet in whatever year it's actually supposed to be, but that's not to say it mightn't someday, you know?

Furthermore, only re-readers like me who have paid attention to the chronology presented somewhere in the middle of the book and bothered to remember it know immediately that Chapter Two, which is set in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (Y.D.A.U.), is actually taking place the year before the events described in Chapter One, though again, so far, that doesn't seem to matter much, as there is really nothing more timeless than a closet stoner getting anxious about how his next big marijuana binge needs to be his absolute last even as he is self-consciously and anxiously repeating almost exactly his time-honored rituals established in previous absolute last marijuana binges.

But so, back to Chapter One, in the Year of Glad (and don't we love Subsidized Time? Can't we just imagine our governments choosing to make an extra buck or two by selling the naming rights to a calendar year as they might to a football stadium? And doesn't it just scare us to death that someday this might actually seem like a reasonable idea? DFW would have lost his mind watching our current Congress and POTUS and SCOTUS in action. It's hard to say which branch would have driven him craziest), in which our hero, Hal Incandenza, is juking his way through his college admissions interview with the help of an influential alumnus from his prep school and his uncle. The tension in this chapter is marvelous: we are sharing Hal's internal monologues in which his dazzling precocity and erudition are in full evidence, the kid is near genius level and quite marvelously level-headed about it, and that he is also an awesome "balletic" tennis player just makes him seem like even more the kind of kid every school would be chasing after with scholarship offers and letters of intent even though he plays a minor sport, but there is a creeping sense that something is very strange, even very wrong. We re-readers know what has happened to him -- there is a positive "Dick Click" type revelation that finally explains this scene at the end and makes it even more terrible than it is on first reading -- but even knowing why and how it happened, we're riveted a the results on display here. Something has come profoundly unstuck in Hal's mind, something has created a vast gulf between his mental processes and his outward aspect. The erudite and articulate thoughts to which we have been privy are not translated to his speech: he gibbers and makes animal sounds and twitches and we-don't-know-what-all but whatever he does, it terrifies his interviewers to the point where one tells Hal's uncle that his sleep will be forever disturbed by what he has witnessed.

As far as setting up mysteries go, that's pretty original, and first rate, I'd say.

Then we go back in time to sit and wait with Ken Erdedy, who has started up his marijuana binge machine again and is caught in brain loop after brain loop of pothead anxiety, waiting for the girl who said she would show up at a certain time with a good quantity of high quality weed and worried that his attempts to make it seem casual were maybe too successful, worried, too, about all the other kinds of self-versus-other, reputation-obsessed, relationship analyzing, self-flagellating habits of mind that all humans, really, get caught up in but that potheads like Ken seem to be especially, acutely, painfully conscious of to the point of minute over-analysis of their own aspects, thrown in with more than a little magical thinking. All of this is exhausting and exquisitely uncomfortable to read, and it's the kind of thing David Foster Wallace did better than just about anybody, and thus even more uncomfortable to read now, knowing how things ended for Wallace. Honestly, at one point re-reading this chapter, which is only a taste of the kind of stuff that is to come, I doubted whether my going on to read the whole book again was such a good idea. I might have even cried a little. But then Wallace made me laugh again.

And so, I say to the book and to all of you other SoJ types out there, well, okay. Bring it on.

*When a book is set in the future, but that future is now the reader's past, a reader who is a Prediction Sniffer spends a lot of time and energy going over the text to see what the author correctly and incorrectly predicted, whether to herald the author as a prophet or to indulge in Nelson Muntz laughter, doesn't matter which, really.


  1. That whole paragraph about Ken was well done, and does the same thing that chapter does. The lack of paragraph breaks gives it a feeling of intense claustrophobia, which is so incredibly apt.

    1. And it's basically *deliberate* clausterphobia. He's looking forward to confining himself to a small space and being alone with his schizoid thoughts, which is utterly bizarre to me but Wallace made me believe someone can actually feel that way. Brilliant!

  2. When I read IJ the first time, I put the year at the head of each chapter or section or whatever--whenever the year changed. I'll have no problem remembering now. Heh.

    I'm *kind of* a Prediction Sniffer. The only thing I noticed was that he was pretty much RIGHT ON except for the Walkmans.


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