Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #5

Progress: currently on page 364

The review of
Although of Course You Always End Up Becoming Yourself that I mentioned in Diary #3 contained some speculation about DFW's experiences with addiction. As you may know, Infinite Jest is set partly in an addicts' halfway house. I just finished reading a long passage about the characters there (actually I'm still in it), which concentrates heavily on addiction and the AA program. And I've come to the conclusion that either DFW did some serious research which had to have included interviews (which I can readily believe he did), or he or someone close to him personally experienced this process. The passages, of course, are filled with careful and meticulous detail. DFW writes as one of the most careful observers I've ever read. He literally takes care with every detail, and you end up caring because he cares. And just when you think the detail is really getting a bit too much, he'll say something that will keep you going.

Anyway, for all their detail, the passages about AA come around a couple of times to the same conclusion: that the program works, even for those who find it horribly simplistic, but no one knows why or how. See the following quotations:

"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: i.e. almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it." (p. 291)

A variation, perhaps, on John Lennon's famous quote about life being what happens to you while you're making other plans - but really quite difficult to accept (especially for someone like me) when you think about it. And then, further on, DFW breaks AA's axiomatic program down further:

"How do trite things get to be trite? Why is the truth usually not just uninteresting but anti-interesting?" (p. 358)

I can't figure out if this is the character or the author talking. In either case, I'm going to have to think about it for a while.

And now, words:

1. nystagmic (adj.) Characterized by involuntary, rapid, oscillating movement of the eyeballs (most commonly from side to side).
2. Levantine (adj.) Of or pertaining to the Levant [basically, the Far East]; in early use, pertaining to the east, eastern. Also, recalling or resembling the manners of the Levantines.
3. lordotic (adj.) Characteristic of anterior curvature of the spine, producing convexity in front (occurring as a physical deformity).
4. ascapartic (adj.) According to the Infinite Jest wiki: "A word coined by Wallace, it means gigantic, as Ascapart was a giant depicted in the fiction of, among other people, J.R.R. Tolkien."
5. bilirubin (n.) A reddish pigment, C33H36O6N4, occurring in bile.
6. candent (adj.) At a white heat; glowing with heat.
7. felo de se (n.?)- One who ‘deliberately puts an end to his own existence, or commits any unlawful malicious act, the consequence of which is his own death’ (Blackstone).
8. mucronate (adj.) - terminating in a point, as an organ.
9. solander (n.) - A box made in the form of a book, used for holding botanical specimens, papers, maps, etc.
10. GAUDEAMUS IGITUR - Latin for "Let us rejoice"
11. prognathous (adj.) Having projecting or forward-pointing jaws, teeth, mandibles, etc.; having a facial angle of less than 90°.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #4: All-Vocabulary Edition

Progress: currently on page 274

One comment before we get to the words: this book is full of names I would give a band if I had one: Madame Psychosis, Year of Glad, The Great Concavity...okay, I can't think of any more right now, but I'll start keeping track.

Well, page 223 didn't change much for me, though it is handy to refer to in times of confusion during the novel. No cheating; don't flip there if you haven't read 1-222 (plus copious footnotes)!

That said. My list of words penciled in the back cover has been mounting, so for your edification and for mine - here they are. I'm noticing a lot of words related to shapes and curves (expected from a mathematician) and specific anatomical words. As always, definitions come from the OED's electronic version, unless otherwise noted. And I just want to copy this quote I just happened to flip to:
"There are, by the O.E.D. VI's count, nineteen nonarchaic synonyms for unresponsive, of which nine are Latinate and four Saxonic." (p. 17) Hal Incandenza and David Foster Wallace: OED men.

1. guilloche (n.) An ornament in the form of two or more bands or strings twisting over each other, so as to repeat the same figure, in a continued series, by the spiral returning of the bands. See an example on flickr here.
2. aperçu (p. ppl.) A summary exposition, a conspectus. Also, a revealing glimpse; an insight.
3. murated (adj.) Surrounded by walls.
4. erumpent (adj.) That bursts forth.
5. ex cathedra (adv.) ‘from the chair’, i.e. in the manner of one speaking from the seat of office or professorial chair, with authority; also used attrib. = officially uttered.
6. rutilant (adj.) Glowing, shining, gleaming, glittering, with either a ruddy or golden light. [Fittingly, one of the quotations for this word in the OED entry is from Ulysses - another brick-weight novel.]
7. nacelle (n.) There are several definitions, most obsolete, but I believe the one DFW means is one of these (I've encountered the word twice in the book): 2. a. The basket or gondola of a balloon or airship. b. gen. Any hollow vessel or object resembling a boat in shape. rare.
8. superjacent (adj.) Lying above or upon something else; overlying, superincumbent. (Now chiefly in technical use.)
9. formication (n.) - that's with an M - An abnormal sensation as of ants creeping over the skin. [This is my new favorite word.]
10. meatus (n.) - A tubular passage or opening leading to the interior of the body; the external orifice of such a passage.
11. sephenoid - According to the Infinite Jest wiki, a misspelling for sphenoid (adj.) - a bone of irregular form situated at the base of the skull, where it is wedged in between the other bones of the cranium.
12. torticollic (adj.) - DFW seems to have made up the adjectival form of torticollis (n.) - A rheumatic or other affection of the muscles of the neck, in which it is so twisted as to keep the head turned to one side; wry-neck.
13. treillage (n.) - Lattice-work; a framework upon which vines or ornamental plants are trained; a trellis.
14. rostral (adj.) - Pertaining to a platform, stage, stand, etc., adapted for public speaking.
15. pia mater (n.) - 1. The innermost of the three meninges, consisting of a thin, vascular, fibrous membrane which is closely applied to the surface of the brain and spinal cord. 2. In extended use (chiefly humorous): the brain.
16. sulcus (n.) - 1. a. A groove made with an engraving tool. b. A trench
17. otiose (adj.) - 1. a. Of belief, principle, thought, etc.: having no practical result; unfruitful, sterile; futile, pointless. b. Having no practical function; redundant; superfluous. 2. At leisure; at rest; idle; inactive; indolent, lazy. [Depressingly, I found this word scribbled in an old notebook from when I was reading Consider the Lobster. I'm hoping that means I never looked it up, and not that I'm incapable of remembering a word I learned two years ago.]
18. glabrous (adj.) Free from hair, down, or the like; having a smooth skin or surface.
19. scopophiliacal (adj.) Pertaining to sexual stimulation or satisfaction derived principally from looking; voyeurism.
20. apotropaic (adj.) Having or reputed to have the power of averting evil influence or ill luck.
21. micturation (n.) Urination.
22. egregulous (adj.) According to the Infinite Jest wiki, "not a real word (possibly egregious + ridiculous."

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #3

Progress: currently on page 216

I was going to do an all-vocabulary entry, since I have somewhat limited time and brain power. I am, however, rapidly approaching page 223; I will probably read it tomorrow morning. This is the page touted by Matt Bucher in Infinite Summer as a landmark page, a key to the novel, with content that will make me think differently about what I've read before. So I'll dispatch some thoughts.

I just read a review in the New York Times Book Review of David Lipsky's memoir of DFW, Although of Course You Always End Up Becoming Yourself (which Brother K mentioned in my last entry's comments). In his review, Ken Kalfus writes succinctly of Infinite Jest:
"Set in a near-future America fixated by its tools for chemical and electronic self-gratification, the novel seems more prescient with the rollout of every new compulsively entertaining digital device."

As I read this book, written in 1996, I keep noticing things about DFW's "near future" that have come true, in spirit if not in letter, or at least pretty damn close. Cf....

  • "the Kemp and Limbaugh administration" (p. 177) might as well have been....
  • "[I]t takes effort to pay attention to any one stimulus for more than a few seconds." (p. 202) Pretty much captures the spirit of the age.
  • "Or just down in Harvard Square at Au Bon Pain where all those 70s-era guys in old wool ponchos play chess against all those little clocks they keep hitting" (p. 212) - Okay, this is just currently still true.
  • "'Yes, but did you actually hop in the truck and actually go to a real medical library?' Hal's his mother Avril's child when it comes to databases, software Spell-Checks, etc." (p. 213). Hal's approach is one after my own heart - trusting self-selected over machine-selected information, but it runs counter to those of his peers (and, I think, most 17-year-olds today).

And the whole theme of entertainment and addiction and how they relate to each other is just very prescient. The next entry I write will be just quotes and vocabulary words, and some of the quotes I put in there will be on that theme. I do just want to point out one more thing. I was talking about influences last time, and there is a passage in the book that reminds me of a similar passage in Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Maybe it's just a common approach to list things like this; maybe not. In Infinite Jest, it's a list of "many exotic new facts" acquired in a halfway house. In Robbins' book, it's a more nonsensical, meta-ish series of sentences that all start out "This sentence." The one I can remember offhand is something like "Like many italic sentences, this sentence has Mafia connections."

All right, that's all for now. Next time (whenever that may be) - quotes and vocabulary.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #2

The format of today's diary may be the format I choose to employ from now on, or it might not. My progress, a thought, a quote, and a list of new words may be appropriate or not for future diaries. We'll see.

Progress: currently on page 112

A thought:
I'm realizing just how much Mark Z. Danielewski's book House of Leaves owes to Infinite Jest. The invented parameters, the narrative structure, the endnotes and exhibits - it's not pure imitation, but there is a definite lineage. I was reading someone recently who reminded me of DFW who predated him, and now I wish I could remember - to point out the other end of the lineage. I was recently at Amherst College's Archives & Special Collections, whose exhibition "The Novelists of Amherst" highlighted DFW along with his "circle" and "influences," the only influence of which I remember was Don DeLillo. And I can see that, too.

A quote:
"Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise...You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned over and over again." (p. 84)

I've read this quote about ten times, and have tried to think about what exactly is going on in it. When I read passages like this, which (even as tennis is being used as an internal metaphor) are referring to Life in a metaphorical manner, I can't help thinking that the author is also talking about writing. DFW was certainly a writer who pushed limits to destroy them, who commented on their destruction and their very existence. He was so thorough and exhaustive, seemingly obsessively so. It makes me admire but not envy him.


(and let me just say - I very much admire how DFW has an exact meaning he wants conveyed, and so goes and finds that exact word. Not an easy or quick process.)

1. Latrodectus mactans - Latin name for black widow spider (definition via University of Michigan)
2. leptosomatic (a.) Having a type of physique characterized by leanness and tallness.
3. prandial (a.) Of or relating to dinner or dining; relating to or occurring during a meal.
4. quincunx (n.) A pattern used in which objects are arranged in one or more groups of five, so placed that four occupy the corners of a square or rectangle and the fifth occupies its centre
5. varicocele (n.) Varicose condition or dilatation of the spermatic veins.
6. plosivity (n.) Descriptive of a consonant that is produced by stopping the airflow using the lips, teeth, or palate, and then suddenly releasing an outward flow of air.
7. teratogenic (a.) Relating to the production of monsters or misshapen organisms.
8. ephebe (n.) Among the Greeks, a young citizen from eighteen to twenty years of age, during which he was occupied chiefly with garrison duty.
9. creosote (n.) A colourless oily liquid, of complex composition, with odour like that of smoked meat, and burning taste, obtained from the distillation of wood-tar, and having powerful antiseptic properties.