Thursday, June 16, 2011

Summer of Infinite Jest -- 2

I was wrong in my last entry, I wasn't on page 70, I was on page 60.

Now having read 12 more pages I am thinking about the plot thread having to do with the magically compelling videotape (or whatever the so-called "cartridge" is -- we don't know yet whether it's a feature film, a live shot of something, a hypnotic abstract design, or what -- I'll just call it a videotape until I know more).

First of all, at this early point the author is very cagey about the content of the magic videotape and what makes it compelling. And that's obviously the right choice -- you never show the monster in full light and full figure until the last ten minutes of the movie. And this being a literary novel and not, say, Cloverfield, I'm reading and thinking it doesn't really matter what's on the videotape. It is horrifying? Beautiful? Doesn't matter -- what matters is its effect.

Two points here. First, in the current state of ambiguity as to the content of the videotape and even whether it is horrifying or beautiful, it seems to me the author is saying that horrifying and beautiful are in some sense the same thing -- that they meet on both ends of the spectrum. The word "awesome" in its original meaning would apply, as the viewer's reaction of awe is what's important, not whether or not the material is awful.

What do I think about that -- beautiful is the same as horrifying? What's the author trying to say here? Is he suggesting that this equivalence is true, or is he (with a level of irony) suggesting that modern entertainment issues forth from this position of equivalence? The latter would be a more interesting point. The more you think about it, the truer it seems. Think about today's television. On the one hand, some good programming ("The Wire," "Mad Men," etc.). On the other hand, atrocious shit (take your pick). To the television/cable networks, it doesn't really matter. High class? Low class? Who cares as long as it pulls in the viewers? And the magically compelling videotape is the logical extension of this ad absurdam.

Second point: If I were to try to guess what's on the videotape -- an exercise which the author clearly understands is impossible for the reader to resist -- I can't imagine. Being 55 years old, I'm well aware that the avant garde of horrifying filmmaking has long passed me by. Between films like Hostel, with its images of torture, and those of Sion Sono (cf. Suicide Club, where a certain television commercial has the power to drive people to self-destcructive acts), I recoil from stuff that 23-year-olds eagerly consume. (In fact, I began this process when I was 23, when I walked out of Alien. ) In any case, to effect the weaponized hypnotic effect described in "Infinite Jest," the material would have to be geometrically worse.

If such horror (and let's say it's horror, not beauty) is unimaginable by a softy like me, maybe it would be imaginable by some freaky youngster. But I kind of doubt anyone could imagine anything that bad. Such horror is achievable only by a supernatural power; call it Satan. I assume the author is not writing a book about a literal Satan, so that means I have to suspend my disbelief here. In other words, I don't really buy the magical powers of the special evil videotape. But I'll have to take it on faith.

The way I read is, if I have to consciously do this -- say to myself, Okay, there's a hole here in the author's reasoning, a hole he doesn't want me to notice if I'm to continue to invest myself emotionally in his book -- that's sort of a strike. A book can sustain a number of these, the number varying depending on many factors. The book's reputation means I'll cut it a lot of slack.

For further reading: Scott Esposito in The Quarterly Conversation with a perspective on Infinite Jest fifteen years after its advent. I had no idea the book was already fifteen years old.

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