Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Primordial Musings

Yesterday, I read an incredible article on jellyfish in the New York Times. I realized that they were a primitive life form, but I had no idea that they were three times older than the first dinosaurs and had survived five mass extinctions. The article is quite fabulous and I highly suggest it to anyone interested at all in marine biology.

Infinite Summer: This is my fourth (?) day of Infinite Jest, and I still have little good to say about it. I feel slightly less in the dark than before because some of the characters have been given names instead of obscure nicknames which makes them significantly more identifiable. My greatest compliment for it is that it is is more articulate and sophisticated in verbal style than the stories to which I have been comparing it (Oy, The Dogfish Series), but, on the other hand, "The Dogfish who Swallowed the Universe" was written by a twelve-year-old.

Speaking of primordial, I reread "The Dogfish who Swallowed the Universe" today, after my Infinite Jest allotment. I realized that I glamorized the story significantly because I spent so many hours of my formative youth arguing over it [1] with it's author (who, for convenience, I will refer to as Sockhead [2]). I was even inspired to write a similar work of my own around the same age that was a historical and religious parody instead of a social commentary. However, there is still a life and a humor in it that is not only precocious, but still holds up to this day.

"So it was that a cluster of naive lunatics met in a pub" (DSU. 1) and the story is off describing each of the characters. I wanted to quote one of the funniest sections, but most of them require references from earlier in the work to make sense or included a set up that was simply more than I wanted to type out. One vignette-like struck me as amusing. It lacks the subtlety and humor of other scenes (in fact it isn't particularly funny) and the writing lacks a degree of verbal artistry built up in the sequels "Hell Heck" and "Trousers," but in a stand-alone moment it provided a snapshot of the staccato absurdest style that reminds me of Infinite Jest.
"We decided to walk to a place we had sighted on the way to the inn, two or three blocks away. It was a Liberian fast-good pub called Ye Olde Liberian Fast-Food Pub. All of the rooms had themes. Our table was in the "fluffy fire-hose room." Our waiter looked like a cross between a stereotypical caffeine-addict and a stereotypical boy scout. He introduced himself as John and promptly died. I guess Abilio Manuel Guerra Junqueiro was correct. The manager said our waiter was under some stress because there had been a lot of complaints directed toward him. When I asked why, he said that John was more than a waiter; he was also a curator. He curated the rooms. He was criticized for putting stratified rocks in the ocean room. He thought that all stratified rocks came from the ocean. I guess he trusted Abraham Gottlob Werner's theories too much." (DSU 6).
Maybe my problem is that as much as I appreciate parts of Infinite Jest, I find it rather joyless and have not laughed or even cracked a smile at those things which I believe are supposed to be funny. While silly and unrefined, I found myself smiling and laughing at "The Dogfish who Swallowed the Universe." I am certainly a proponent of dark humor, but joyless humor seems like an oxymoron.

  1. The story at once a bizarre fantasy, an exercise in humor, and a social parody of our social group. Any understanding of social dynamics I possess came from discussing, nitpicking, and expanding the social commentary from this book. My interests in social dynamics became so focused that in "Hell Heck" (the second story) my character was described thus: "Gruiforms had sort of become a "watcher." She merely watched (and watched and watched)" (HH 2). Obviously, my opinions are skewed.
  2. At the time when this story was written, the author of the story constantly wore an eccentric gray beanie (for lack of a better term) which, when not being worn, looked a bit like a sock. This vague resemblance caused the author to refer to himself as "Sockhead" when some pseudonym was required.


  1. Hello Darby! Rob F. here. I found out about your blogs when Sam posted about them on LJ a little while ago, and I have been staaaaaalking you ever since.

    I see you're reading Infinite Jest. As you know, I love that book, and I hope you will come to love it as well. On the other hand, if you don't start to enjoy it pretty soon, I would recommend against pushing through to the end. The early stretches of the book are fairly representative of the whole in terms of style, if not content, and if you just don't like the sort of thing Wallace is doing, you'll just grow more and more frustrated the further you go. (This has happened to me before with long books. It isn't pretty.) If nothing in the first 200 pages grabs you, the rest of the book probably won't either.

    But I do want to say something about why I like Wallace' style, since you seem perplexed as to why one might. Although Infinite Jest is (to me) a very funny book, it's not really a "comedy," and I think you'll inevitably be disappointed if you try to read it as one. Wallace does like his absurd details, it's true, but his goal isn't to inspire laughter through some set of individual "jokes" or "punchlines"; it's to establish an overall atmosphere, and it's that atmosphere that (for me) made the book both funny and moving. Reading Wallace feels like watching an endearingly rational mind attempt to come to grips with a bizarre and irrational world. Wallace's sprawling sentences, his flurries of footnotes and asides, his use of technical jargon -- all of these stylistic features produce the feeling that one is watching an intelligent person mount a desperate attempt to make sense of something senseless. His prose sounds like the frantic whirring produced by the machines of reason when they go into overdrive.

    This makes Wallace quite different from a lot of willfully weird writers. The excerpt from Dogfish you quoted sounds more like Vonnegut or Heller: simple, straightforward syntax, used to describe absurd events in a deadpan tone. Wallace isn't brief and deadpan; he's baroque and frenzied. Deadpan humor pretends that strange things are normal, where Wallace's characters and narrators recognize strange things as strange, and exhibit a kind of zeal for categorizing and understanding that strangeness. Nor would I describe his style as "staccato absurdism." "Staccato absurdism" is Beckett and Stoppard, deliberately stilted dialogue, that sort of thing. Wallace doesn't want to hit you with little, discrete weird moments -- he wants to build towers of thoughts upon thoughts upon thoughts.

    One way to think about Infinite Jest is to view it as what happens when you combine realistic psychology with a satirical world. It's about what it would actually be like for real people to try to deal with a world full of absurdities. Which is why it feels true to my experience of life, because the world I live in is filled with absurdities.

  2. Hi Rob~
    I hope I end up liking Infinite Jest as well. I want to like it. I like the elevated language and syntax and the absurdism of the story. I like the footnotes and I actually expected more of them than I have encountered so far.

    My problem is that to me, I find the details that Wallace describes to be either overwrought or gross instead of adding to some theoretically humorous atmosphere. I can tell that although there are not "jokes" in the way of Douglas Adams, I can tell certain things are supposed to be at least vaguely funny and I, instead, find the story very joyless. Almost tired, despite the clear precision with which the story was woven. If I were to describe the narrator as a person, I would say he (for the voice seems masculine to me) has been losing the battle against the dark absurdity of his situation for too long, and although he has managed to create a persona which veneers the world with a nice turn of phrase and a wickedly-sharp eye for detail, is ready for it all to be over. To be clear, I don't attribute this to the author, just to the voice of his narrator. For me, this presents a problem because it separates me from the characters. I don't like any of them yet enough to care what happens to them.

    It's funny that you use adjectives implying speed because I don't see his work a frenzied or frantic but actually rather slowly paced (not in the derogatory sense) despite it's short chapters. The work, at least from my view, strolls just slowly enough that the reader has a second to notice each reveal, but quickly enough that they don't have time to meditate on the new piece of the puzzle. The reveals themselves are quite artful in this way and in my estimation, what I see as a leisurely pace is what allows for this such delicate exposition.

    I see what you mean about the realistic psychology with an satirical world, but it seems to me that a lot of the characters (especially minor ones) are too caricatured to provide any sense of realistic psychology.

    I have still not made up my mind. I took a break for a few days and I think I'll go back and read for a few more days before I make my decision.

  3. I like the footnotes and I actually expected more of them than I have encountered so far.

    There are disproportionally few endnotes in the first 100 pp. or so, so your expectation is, on the whole, correct.

    I can tell that although there are not "jokes" in the way of Douglas Adams, I can tell certain things are supposed to be at least vaguely funny and I, instead, find the story very joyless.

    Well, yeah, it's definitely meant to be funny. I think this may just be a difference in our senses of humor, then. I thought the opening scene of Infinite Jest was hilarious -- to me that scene is a good example of Wallace's sense of humor at its best. So if it didn't do anything for you, you probably just don't share Wallace's sense of humor.

    Probably the single best example of Wallace's humor to me is his essay about going on a luxury cruise, which is called either "Shipping Out" or "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." You can read it here (PDF). I really recommend it -- it's one of the funniest and most entertaining things I've ever read. And it may give you a new perspective on Wallace's humor.

    It's funny that you use adjectives implying speed because I don't see his work a frenzied or frantic but actually rather slowly paced (not in the derogatory sense) despite it's short chapters.

    Well, it's obviously slow in a certain sense -- i.e., the plot moves slowly. (I take it that's not what you mean, though?) Maybe a good example is the second chapter of IJ, with Ken Erdedy waiting for the woman to call. In one sense this chapter is certainly slow, because nothing happens in it, except in Erdedy's mind. On the other hand, I think it'd be appropriate to call it "frenzied," "frantic," etc. because it depicts a frenzied and frantic state of mind. The speed isn't on the level of plot, or even the level of individual events, but on the level of the sentence.