Week 1

Yaw was way in a mirror, it occurred for no reason

04.24.11 | | 1 Comment

[spoilers thru §8]

You’re moving. Look around you. The book opens:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust

This feels immediately like gliding over a vast cinematic expanse, like the opening of a film where we’re suddenly flying fast and low over a flat, gridlike landscape, the horizon stretching thinly and stereographically out to our left and right beyond our peripheral vision, two-point perspective lines converging on a fixed, unknown destination point, but the ground at the bottom of the frame rushing beneath us in deep motion blur. The perception of motion depends entirely on where you fix your gaze.

But if you close your eyes–or fly into clouds–can you feel it, this motion? Physics says that you can’t, as long as you’re not accelerating. You’re in an inertial reference frame, which to the observer inside is indistinguishable from standing still:

Sylvanshine then spent some time trying to feel the fact that his personal body was traveling at the same speed as the craft he was inside. On a large jet it felt like merely sitting in a loud narrow room; here at least the changes in the seat’s and belt’s pressures against him allowed him to be aware of movement.

As the first sections of the novel unfold it feels as if we, and the novel’s initial characters, are caught inside in this sort of stasis-in-motion. It’s an uncomfortable, invisible sort of movement that loops back onto itself and is experienced like stasis because there’s so little personal agency: someone else is always driving. We are like the 13-year-old Ware girl from the trailer park, riding up front but sitting in the passenger seat. Where are we heading? “All the world beyond the reach of the headlamps’ beams was much obscured.” (Note also maybe: Warewhere.) All that’s visible between her knees is the first piece of the moving road, telegraphing some sort of message about their destination (“the broken centerline shot Morse at them”), but the content of the message is unknown.

Like much of Wallace certain words recur prominently and seem almost pre-underlined, and one of them in this first week’s reading is yaw. Sylvanshine muses over it in mid-flight (“He briefly tried to remember the definition of yaw”) and then later as the mother of the trailer park girl is driving, “the winds of oncoming rigs struck the truck and its shell and caused yaw the mother steered against.” Yaw is a term in avionics for angular rotation on one of the three principal axes of an airplane in motion, the other two being pitch and roll:

For the passenger who is riding in the airplane in order to get somewhere else, yaw is paramount among the three axes because it represents rotation around the Z (up) axis, which from the cockpit’s perspective is left-right motion, or “heading”. Meaning navigation, the process of steering toward where you are going, finding your way. “Yaw was way in a mirror,” thinks Sylvanshine.  The mirrored yaw|way juxtaposition feels like Wallace is signaling something important, maybe even a bit forced. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to parse Yahweh out of yaw|way given how much the author tees it up, setting up some sort of man-vs-deity dialectic. Sylvanshine is looking down out of the airplane window as the interstate drifts in and out of view:

What if it felt as slow to actually drive as it looked from this perspective? It would be like trying to run underwater. The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception’s objects.

The airplane can pitch and elevate us to a prosaically more godlike view, but it’s a 35,000-foot false perspective. Up here it’s still heading that matters to us. Our business on highways, which we had convinced ourselves was so urgent and fast and important on the ground, looks like stasis from this high. Even being up here and attaining that perspective is a letdown: “Above and below were a different story, but there was always something disappointing about clouds when you were inside them; they ceased to be clouds at all.”

This early in the novel it’s not clear that there’s anything grand or unifying that knits together the disparate stories of Week 1, but I worry for Sylvanshine, the trailer park girl and even Lane Dean (from §6) all because they seem stuck in their motion toward futures over which they have no control, and always in the real-or-metaphorical passenger seat. (Dean: “felt sun on one arm as he pictured in his mind an image of himself on a train, waving mechanically to something that got smaller and smaller as the train pulled away.”) Maybe this is what boredom–something we’ve heard is going to be a central theme of the book–is going to end up being later on: the experience of the mind being locked in a kind of loop of the moment-to-moment present as we are in constant, intangible motion toward our uncertain future.

Like most broad cinematic beginnings, the motion of the opening passage in §1 slows and narrows and comes to rest on the small and specific tableaux that will sit with us for the rest of the book:

the shapes of the worms incised in the overturned dung and baked by  the sun all day until hardened, there to stay, tiny vacant lines in  rows and inset curls that do not close because the head never quite touches the tail. Read these.

I find this image chilling. Initially from all the soil and stasis and death, like the creepy stillness of the deceased, undiscovered IRS worker we learn about in §4. Ultimately though it’s the almost-closed circles that stay with me, the imperfect frozen unfulfilled loops that the camera rests on.  Of all the images we’ve just seen it says: read these.

But lots of novel to come, this is only Week 1.  It’s Spring. Think Farm Safety. Here we go.

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