David Foster Wallace Continues to Astound Me: A Review of Infinite Jest

Infinite JestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is, absolutely, the best book I have ever read in my life. The best. I say that without hyperbole or irony, acknowledging that it makes me sound like a mindless Wallace drone, that there are plenty of people out there and amongst us who pick the most pretentious, reader-hostile books to fawn over because of the very fact of their pretension and hostility to the reader. I accept their association, because it is worth it.

This book is as hard to read as people say it is. It is famously difficult for a reason. It is long; it is dense; and Wallace is actively challenging you but not out of hostility. I came to the book knowing what it was, already loving Wallace, and wanting very much to read this book, and even still it took more than one heroic exercise of will to keep reading. But I did, because sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is something your body very much doesn’t want to do.

Why should you read it? Let’s consider it’s difficulty. Let’s consider the most famous aspect of its difficult: the endnotes. Over a hundred pages of endnotes. Is there anything more tedious and inconvenient than having to flip back and forth to read what are at times trivial medical definitions and at other times major plot points? It is tedious. And it is inconvenient. It’s a gimmick, and one that makes an already cumbersome book more difficult to stay focused on. But let’s also consider that this is a book about entertainment and that David Foster Wallace’s greatest dread was that we go through life unengaged, passive, only looking to satisfy easy pleasures. And let’s consider that the book is about addiction, both narcotic and alcoholic, and that Wallace felt a deep and personal connection with the people he met whilst researching it and that their daily lives are one tedious and inconvenient thing after another, that if they relax for even one moment they could slip past the event horizon of a black hole so hideously and unthinkably deep that it takes the constant threat of death and ruin to make anyone endure the kind of program and withdrawal and humbling misery that is necessary to convince them to claw away from its edge. But they do. Let’s consider them and then think again about how difficult it is to flip back and forth in a book.

I’m almost afraid to say anything more, afraid of coming off way too strong, of sounding like an over-aggressive salesman. I probably already do, probably after the first sentence. But, as much as this sounds like just a rhetorical posture, and as much of a rhetorical posture it is to say that this sounds like just a rhetorical posture, this isn’t just a rhetorical posture. Maybe you have to already know me to believe me. I already loved David Foster Wallace before this book, and this book exceeded my outlandish expectations. Which isn’t to say that it was easy or that I totally get every facet of it or that you even have to. I encourage you to buy a reader’s guide; I did (Elegant Complexity, by Greg Carlisle), and I’m glad I did, because it doesn’t make me stupid and it isn’t a defeat to ask for help. And I encourage you to read it. But you have to want to read it, because there will be plenty of times whilst reading it that you will not want to read it, especially in the first two hundred pages, which are chaotic and jump around in time and place and perspective and throw so many characters and plots at you that your mind will recoil and beg you just to put in a movie. But it’s worth it. It is. I guarantee you it is worth it.

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Black Swan, Freud, and the Monomyth

SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS … spoilers, spoilers.

I just returned from seeing Black Swan at the cinema. As a piece of filmmaking, it is absolutely phenomenal. I have loved Darren Aronofsky since his debut, Pi. The only one of his films I have not seen is The Wrestler, mainly because that came out when I was living in China. I admit I don’t quite understand the story of The Fountain, but … ah, what storytelling!

Thus, he did not disappoint me with Black Swan, pushing us uncomfortably close to a mind maintaining but a tenuous hold on reality, gripping it with fingers slick with the sweat of obsession. But the question that my own mind is currently obsessing over is this: Is Black Swan ultimately a realization of or biting critique of Freudian psychology and Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth?

You can’t help but read the film in Freudian terms. I think I’ve seen the word “psychosexual” in nearly every review of it I’ve read. All the classic Freudian players are here: the overbearing, Superego of a mother, the fragile, repressed Ego hero, the free-spirited Id. The movie no less can be read in terms of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, with its Jungian concepts: the Bad Mother, the Hero, the Shadow, the Father. But the complexities that the film is able to twirl around with those concepts is what captivates me.

On the one hand, we have the Freudian reading: Nina, a sexually repressed ballerina lives at the mercy of her overbearing Superego, personified as her mother. Through her dancing and the prodding of her psychoanalyst/ballet director (who speaks in terms of “breakthroughs” and even sits her down on his couch before grilling her about her sexuality), she is able to unleash and ultimately harness her Id, breaking free of the confines of her oppressive Superego and achieving the height of perfection.

Joseph Campbell would describe it slightly differently, though in no less lofty terms: the Hero embarks on a journey of self-actualization by slipping out of her childhood prison (her Mother’s home/womb), aka The First Threshold, besting its Guardian (the Bad Mother), and entering the world of Adult Experience. There, she is confronted by her Shadow (her repressed sexuality) but with the guidance of her Father-figure/Mentor, she is able to overcome and assimilate her Shadow, becoming the Master of Two Worlds (her psyche and the stage) and reaching the height of perfection.

However, the critique of these readings comes in the actual events of the film, the things these overly metaphorical interpretations gloss over or try to nullify. The film’s horrifying plot introduces enough ambiguity that cracks begin to appear, if the above readings are not shattered altogether.

Take, for instance, Thomas Leroy, the ballet instructor. His obsession with Nina’s sexuality practically makes him a stand-in for Freud himself. Psychoanalysis would say he’s trying to help Nina express what has been repressed in her, but he’s doing that by literally sexually molesting her, both physically and psychologically. Furthermore, he has a reputation for this behavior. In what world could this possibly be acceptable? A world in which Freud is le roi.

The ending even complicates a black and white reading of Erica, Nina’s mother. Given a nuanced consideration, Erica can be seen as genuinely trying to keep her daughter alive, albeit in a severely imperfect way. Erica shows signs of mental disorder herself, but her actions are not only oppressive. She is also trying to protect her daughter, who exhibits signs of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (different from OCD), self-destructive mutilation, paranoid psychosis, and, ultimately, suicidal tendencies.

The ending, though, delivers the coup de grâce. Aronofsky achieves it by mixing the metaphorical with the literal when Nina finally battles her doppelgänger for psychic dominance. Campbell and Jung see this confrontation with what they call the Shadow as the ultimate test in human self-actualization and individuation. You must confront, overcome, and assimilate the Shadow, integrating it into your personality without it taking over, actualized in the movie by Nina’s fight with the phantom Lily/Nina/Black Swan in her dressing room, during which Nina confronts L/N/BS, stabs her to death (overcoming), and then delivers a bravura performance as the Black Swan in the ballet (assimilation). But the Shadow is part of your own psyche, so when you battle it (even figuratively) you are battling yourself. Thus, when Nina stabs her doppelgänger, she is literally stabbing herself.

This battle with her Shadow allows Nina to become the master of both her own psyche and the stage, a heroic triumph for Jung and Campbell. But it literally means death. This undercuts the entire Monomythic project and calls into question a society that would empower a perverted ballet director and hold as the ultimate perfection a suicidal (literally suicidal) obsession with achievement. Nina reaches her ultimate glory when she is at the height of her psychosis. Her catharsis, her breathy and elated realization of perfection as she bleeds to death, should give anyone pause the next time they hear Joseph Campbell’s maxim: “Follow your bliss.”

Ultimately, however, the question is am I seeing this in the film because Darren Aronofsky wants me to or because I want me to? I obviously have little love for Freud, Jung, or Campbell and quite a bit of love for Aronofsky. Thus, I recognize in myself a desire to see my own beliefs and values reflected in Aronofsky’s work. I don’t know. I’ll have to meditate on it. Because Black Swan does conform very well to Freudian and Jungian readings. But, honestly, their theories are so elastic, unscientific, and subjective that they consume and eradicate any utterance or text, which, of course, does not mean they are in any way “correct.” Ah, but that ending … it just seems so … perfect.

And a shout-out to the maestro of maestros, Clint Mansell, for another phenomenal soundtrack.

My Car Is an Elitist

My car, Johannes, a 2001 Volkswagen Jetta, is a European, hoity-toity, pinky-raising elitist! I got his oil changed this weekend; yeah, OK, it was a little overdue. Fine. Drove up to the place, really nice place at 97th and Cicero. Nice enough that they actually check what oil your car needs to, you know, run properly. Turns out, Johannes only cares for a certain type of European synthetic oil, the elitist bastard. Long story, short: $74 oil change.

I’d been told this before, but I try to forget it whenever possible. In other news, I got paid on Friday, and when I deposited my paycheck, my checking account balance increased by a delicious 9,801.36%! I wish that I could say this was due to the immensity of the paycheck … as opposed to the piddliness of the account balance … alas, Target is not known for shelling out the “big bucks.”

And I’m not the only one hurting. Looks like the bonuses for the boys on Wall Street are going to be a little less this go-around. According to the Wall Street Journal, “[t]otal pay for the top three dozen publicly held securities and investment-services firms is expected to top $140 billion,” which … OK, that’s actually a 4% increase from last year, but their bonuses … those are likely to fall a crippling 10% to 25%.

Those poor, poor bankers. They’ve had to resort to carpooling … or, well, I guess, “jet-pooling” to the Caribbean. And that just breaks my heart, what with their integrity and fiscal responsibility–especially when it comes to other people’s money. I hope they can find a little time for themselves. A mani-pedi, perhaps. Maybe an extra bottle of wine with dinner.

Sometimes you just have to spoil yourself.

A Question Concerning Economics

So … the New York Times notes that “American businesses earned profits at an annual rate of $1.659 trillion in the third quarter … the highest figure recorded since the government began keeping track over 60 years ago.”

Now … clearly my plebeian brain is missing something. Cuz, if I’m not mistaken, people keep telling me that when rich people have lots and lots of money, they’ll fix our economy by creating all these super-nifty jobs and just, generally speaking, pulling out the awesome sauce. So that’s why we should extend the Bush tax cuts.

Now … OK, here’s where I get lost. So, we have the tax cuts now, yes? And we’ve had them for quite some time? And American profits have been growing “at some of the fastest rates in history,” yes? For the past seven quarters? So … *scratches head* … why haven’t the super-rich saved us?

The lady doth be full of shit, methinks.

Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

Behold! We have … the INTERNET!

Yes! The internet has returned to my life, officially. No more Starbucks; no more frantic lists of things to google with a two or three hour time limit hanging over my head!

And it is … wonderful. Really wonderful. My friend, Nic, asked me in a recent email if I derived some sort of Thoreau-like peace of mind form it. My answer:

No.

Perhaps if I lived in Thoreau’s time and didn’t need to find a job…. No. It was awful. Especially when trying to find a job. So much of job hunting is on the internet now. And I already suck at keeping up with emails, but without easy access to the internet, I felt like I was always rushed; there was always something I was forgetting, always more to keep track of.

But no more. Ahhh, I’m basking in it. Watch me bask: *basking*

And, finally, I give you S.H.E’s cover of I.O.I.O, by the Bee Gees, as an illustration of elation: