Miscellaneous, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5

The antidote to Infinite Jest?

05.16.11 | | 3 Comments

Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality — there is no audience…. Here is the truth — actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one.

The Pale King, p. 229

I’m sure everyone else has already mined this irony: We’re reading a book about the extremes of boredom because we loved a book about the extremes of entertainment. At first, it was tempting to me to imagine The Pale King, with its I.R.S. employees doing literally rote work, as a study-in-contrasts companion to Infinite Jest, a story about anything but ordinary people. But the more we read of The Pale King, the more I’m thinking about the possibility of a more nuanced dynamic between the two novels. I think The Pale King might be the antidote to Infinite Jest.

One of the many powers of the Internet is its ability to stick a nice, sharp pin of non-originality into a person’s little thought balloons, so I’ll note immediately that D.T. Max’s masterful March 2009 New Yorker piece about Wallace, and about what would become The Pale King, observed that “properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment, the book suggests.” But I think there’s a way to unpack/explore/pointlessly riff off that concept and the synergy between the novels, if you’re in the mood. Which is already seeming like something of a sophomore-English-discussion-section mood, I know.

I’m thinking not only of Infinite Jest, the novel, but “Infinite Jest,” the monstrously entertaining opiate of a movie lurking just outside the narrative’s reach. There’s a smattering of talk in the novel about a potential “‘anti‘-Entertainment the film’s director supposedly made to counter the lethality: does it really also exist…. As some kind of remedy or antidote.” (p. 126). But Joelle, one of few characters in a position to know, suggests there’s no such thing: James O. Incandenza made the thing in (infinite) jest, and “even in jokes he never talked about an anti-version or antidote for God’s sake,” she says (p. 940). So we have to imagine that if there’s a way even to try to resist this fatally compelling movie, it’s by sheer force of will and concentration — by choosing to pay attention to something else. Something, comparatively, boring.

If only there were a book about people managing to knuckle down and concentrate on something boring.

Of course, Infinite Jest itself has plenty to say about the importance and difficulty of choosing what to pay attention to, from Marathe’s warning to “choose your attachments carefully” (p. 107) to the hospitalized Gately’s realization that “he could choose not to listen” to his fears (p. 860).

But The Pale King goes farther: It’s important not only to choose what you devote your mind to, but to be able to choose something that’s not compelling, seductive, interesting — in a word, not entertaining — at all. As the “substitute Jesuit” puts it in the thoroughly kick-ass “called to account” speech, which strikes me as ripe for comparison to the sermon in Moby-Dick by someone who’s got more Melville game than I do*:

Exacting? Prosaic? Banausic to the point of drudgery? Sometimes. Often tedious? Perhaps. But brave? Worthy? Fitting, sweet? Romantic? Chivalric? Heroic?…. gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.” (p. 229)

Of course, there’s an obvious, probably-shouldn’t-have-waited-until-the-eighth-paragraph hitch in this notion. For all that it extols boredom, The Pale King is damned entertaining. Even when it’s stuck in traffic for 12 pages. Even Section 25, in which characters do little more than turn pages, becomes, well, a page-turner. (“Rosellen Brown turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page. Devils are actually angels.” Excuse me?) As Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, put it in an interview with Canada’s National Post, Wallace aimed “to write a novel that looks straight at all of life’s most difficult, repetitious, tedious, overly complex minutiae, and try to make a novel that is powerful and hilarious and moving that’s about the subject matter that almost all writers just brush aside in order to get at the drama.”

I keep coming back to the passage in the Author’s Forward positing that “dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there … and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling….” (p. 85). It doesn’t seem like an accident that this latent pain sounds a lot like the “great transcendent horror (of) loneliness” that Infinite Jest’s characters are eternally giving themselves away to something to avoid. I do think The Pale King is pointing to an antidote — a prescription for plugging your ears against the siren call of Too Much Fun in all its forms, a formula for making the difficult choice to focus instead on the dull, the necessary, the real. It’s just that, being Wallace, he’s making it easy for us.

*No pressure, Daren.


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