Tag Archives: Infinite Jest

Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ and the difficulty of endings

For novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, or novels within the tradition of novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, where the length or complexity thereof acts to a certain extent as a deterrent, endings are difficult things. Finnegans Wake, Ulysses or Infinite Jest are densely referential, intricate and occasionally intractable narratives and the very notion of ending them can seem antithetical to the impulse that motivates an author to write a book that brushes up against a thousand pages.

For each of the novels I’ve named above, different strategies are adopted where the notion of an ending is elided or dodged. Those who are familiar with Finnegans Wake will know that Joyce deliberately constructed the novel to have a circular structure, where the ending, in theory, brings the reader back to the beginning. I say ‘in theory.’ I have to doubt myself that any reader who, having made her way through the Wake in its entirety finds herself now naively leafing back to the front page, on and on ad infinitum. This is to leave aside Joyce’s final inscriptions on Ulysses and the Wake with the city he wrote the novel in, and the years spent writing it. As such, the circularity of the Wake can only really be conceptual. All novels have to end, so it is, as I said, a dodge. But an interesting dodge.

The final lines of the Wake read as follows:

“We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved along the”

The beginning reads:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

If we were to read these lines sequentially, we can detect a definite shift in tone, the ending is told in almost a fervent hush, lots of haitch sounds and staccato repetitions. I’m never usually one for syllabic analysis, but ‘grass behush the bush to’ seems to insist on a certain mutedness, a sense of petering out. So too the elegiac ‘Coming, far! End here. Us then’ Equally I suppose, it could summon memories of Father Ted‘s ‘small, far away’ schema. The final ‘sentence’ ‘a way a lone a last,’ seems particularly evocative, rather than serving an adjectival function, as in ‘alone’ or ‘away,’ they become nouns, alone-ness or last-ness incarnated, before we are rushed forward into the panorama of Dublin Bay once again, Howth Castle and Environs where Bloom proposed to Molly, and at the same time evoking the generative, fertile image of H.C.E., which stands for a lot of things in the course of the Wake, but may as well, for the moment, mean Here Comes Everybody.

Speaking of the Blooms, in Ulysses, Molly is permitted to close things out, with an extended soliloquy of sixty some pages, with about eight full-stops. It’s an ingenious structural technique, especially after the comparatively ‘dry’ episodes that precede the final ‘Penelope’ episode, ‘Eumaeus,’ and ‘Ithaca,’ the latter of which takes the form of a series of questions and answers that seem to pride themselves on the cool detachment, pedantry of their tone. In this way, Molly’s closing sentences seem more like a celebration of the fecundity of language and the body, without wishing to get too Earth Mother about it.

“then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

One should note that Molly have Bloom’s proposal in mind as she thinks this, equally, she might be thinking about her other great love when she was younger in Gibraltar. Either this is an affirmation of her relationship with Bloom, that there may be hope for them to re-kindle their ailing (depends on how you look at it, all the same) relationship, or she might continue to feel nostalgia for past loves, what might have been. Or both. They’re not mutually exclusive. On a final note, that ‘s’ sound transmutes fairly easily into the opening salvo, ‘Stately plump Buck &c.’

Infinite Jest presents us with an interesting negotiation of this issue, its one hundred pages of footnotes means we have a choice when deciding what ‘the ending’ is. I don’t have a copy to hand right now, but I think I remember the last footnote being arch and self-aware in some way. The final sentence of the prose narrative proper, takes place I think a few years, maybe a decade before the thrust of the actual narrative gets underway, it consists of a flashback of a extended drug binge the venerable Don Gately indulges on in some point during his years spent in the Massachusetts drug scene. But Foster Wallace has us in deciding on a beginning too, the start of the novel takes place a few months after the main events of Infinite Jest have concluded, long after the Quebecois separatists have shown up at the Enfield Tennis Academy and after the dust has settled with everything regarding the samizdat, that great scene with Hal Incandenza failing to make himself understood to a panel of interviewers working in the University of Arizona. With all these conflicting, interwoven chronotopes based around establishing the novel’s beginning or ending, Foster Wallace seems to have pulled off a successful elision of finishing Infinite Jest; the novel ends more or less arbitrarily, leaving the reader to try and figure out the chronology of the action-packed climax that the novel has supposedly been building to. Not only does Infinite Jest not have a proer beginning or end-point, there isn’t really a coherent middle-point to speak of either.

The ending to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow takes a different, no less self-conscious tack. Much of the novel’s arc is concerned with Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop’s attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery of an experimental V-2 rocket, and a component thereof known as the Schwarzgerät, or ‘black device.’ Many, many other things happen too, this being a Pynchon novel, but I will endeavour to keep myself focused on the ending, which relates the actual launching of the device at a cinema, a real-life actual event in Antwerp, where 567 people were killed. Just as the rocket is about to strike, the jovial correspondent narrator halts its momentum in mid-air:

“And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely forever and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.

There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs…or, if a song must find you…here’s one…sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:

There is a Hand to turn the time,

Though thy Glass to day be run,

Till the Light that hath brough the Towers low

Find the last poor Pret’rite one…

Till the Riders sleep by ev’ry road,

All through our crippl’d Zone,

With a face on ev’ry mountainside,

And a soul in ev’ry stone…

Now everybody-“

I don’t think it’s too extravagant to view these last two words as an invective to the reader, to every potential reader, to partake in the communal sing-song, one that is quite morbid, not to mention laden with references to the narrative that precedes it. The fact that it takes place in the briefest moment before the rocket’s impact adds to the poignancy, and casts all the other apparently whimsical vaudeville old-Hollywood sing-alongs in an altogether different pall, perhaps they are just for the purposes of distracting ourselves from our own demise, whether it be for the onanist or the happily coupled. In the pages leading up to this, we get a throwaway reflection on the nature of endings:

“He thinks of their love in illustrations for children, in last thin pages fluttering closed, a line gently, passively unfinished,”

which is of course what we get in the above hyphen. It would be a straightforward matter, also, to link this with the Hansel & Gretel pantomime that Roger Mexico and Jerssica Mossmoon attend with Jessica’s nieces, during the production, (significantly, just before Gretel is about to dispose of the witch by beating her into the furnace) the Germans bomb a building down the street. The children become distressed, and the actor playing Gretel leads the crowd in another, seemingly innocent tune, which addresses the fact of our existences as transitory and contingent:

“And the lamps up the stairway are dying,

It’s the season just after the ball…

Oh the palm trees whisper on a beach somewhere,

And the lifesaver’s heaving a sigh,

And the voices you hear, Girl and Boy of the Year,

Are of children who are learning to die…”

This is only an excerpt of the song, and there is plenty of it to unpack, but I’ll stick to the topic for the moment. The fact that Gravity’s Rainbow‘s ending is caught in a moment of indefinite postponement, a kind of narrative caprice, is crucial, bearing in mind what Pynchon encourages the reader to dwell upon in the moments leading up to it, and in sections of the novel that anticipate the ending. Namely, death. Which is omnipresent, and inescapable. We all know this, and singing songs about it are all very well and good to distract us, but Pynchon seems to be focusing on the ending as an instrument through which we can re-assimilate our understanding. Death is an ending, of course, but an ending doesn’t have to be death. It, like the moment of Molly Bloom’s yes, can be just as affirmative and celebratory as a story’s beginning.

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Post-Soviet America and Don DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’

Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld opens in 1951, at a famous or infamous baseball game, (depending on whether you care more about the Brooklyn Dodgers or the New York Giants) where Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover sit in the stands and watch. One of the novel’s many characters, Cotter Martin, playing hooky from school in order to attend, has a blithe conversation with Bill Waterson, across racial divides, in 1951 of all times. The tone throughout is stately, smooth and as good as DeLillo gets. Is this a novel about Old America, pre the frequently articulated loss of American innocence? A great American novel about great American people in all their ordinary humanness, through which an underplayed redemption is obtained? A nostalgic paean to pre-counter-culture, old New York? Yes, and at the same time, absolutely not, there is nothing about ordinary, white bread, milquetoast America in this novel, and the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted, upsetting, Stepford-y sections in the text.

This is for the reason that DeLillo’s prose, and I mean this as praise, simply will not allow real life in:

“Then they were everywhere at once again, looped about each other, everything new for the second time, and she closed her eyes to see them together, which she could almost do, which she could do for the sheerest time, bodies turned and edged and sidled, one way and the other, this and that concurrent, here but also there, like back-fronted Picasso lovers.”

Sometimes the only response worth outlining to a quotation is, well, there it is. This is one such occasion.

But one of the many things that makes Underworld so gratifying, is, if it is straddling the Great American Baggage, it is also resisting the obvious potential response, the sort of counter-cultural, Anglo-Dutch patronymics, scattered, dispersed, yet totally connected plots and clockwork characters of Thomas Pynchon. James Wood describes Underworld as a ‘post-paranoid novel,’ and he is not suggesting, when he does so, that the novel has somehow moved beyond paranoia. One would have to be an inferior literary critic to claim that in the two-year span that produced Underworld, Infinite Jest and Mason & Dixon that the contemporary American novel was in some way done with paranoia, but he is pointing to a component of Underworld, DeLillo’s subversion of what some of his mates might be up to.

DeLillo has expressed nostalgia for the Old America of the fifties, but as was said, this is not something that Underworld expresses baldly. For many of its characters in retrospect, the Cold War was a time of certainty, one knew who the enemy was, and who you were. The good guys. When this all falls away, when Kennedy is shot, when the Zapruder film is released, when the civil rights movement exposes white supremacy, the answer is a lot less clear. Messrs Pynchon, Foster Wallace have tended to align a critique on not totally dissimilar lines along with the rise of consumerism, and these things certainly aren’t unrelated, but DeLillo has a more interesting take on the matter, and the vast, uncomprehendable quantity of waste that it produces. DeLillo’s descriptions of such things are tinged with religiosity and rather than slinging a sardonic eye the way of piled-up garbage, reaches a pitch of intense profundity, saying that we may judge our progress as a civilisation by charting our relationship with our own waste: “Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.”

Further, the character of Marvin, the collector of baseball memorabilia, and one of the owners of the famous baseball that threads itself through the novel seems to me to be a satire of Pynchon’s metaphor-for-narrative narratives: “Marvin said, ‘’Which the whole thing is interesting because when they make an atomic bomb, listen to this, they make the radioactive core the exact same size as a baseball.’ Through the narration, the whole wandering epic, skimmed here, protracted there, Brian was confident that the man was slipshod only in the telling. The search itself had clearly been hard, fierce, thorough and consuming.’ Marvin’s submersion in his past, determined to trace the baseball’s origin story, and relate it to the bomb, is the real nostalgia, almost as if DeLillo is getting one over and getting past the paranoid maximalism of his peers. By investigating the effects of capital influx into post-Soviet Russia in the epilogue, and the new dispensation that exists between the two states in an age of invisible ideology, De Lillo is attending to something more vivid and fundamental.

This quotation gives some sense of one aspect of what it is that the Underworld of the title refers to, you’d have to read the book to get at all of them. It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As the novel continues, one finds oneself increasingly noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that might only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the equally mythologised magic bullet. But don’t spend all your time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this this:

“This was a statement she couldn’t make, partly out of personality but also because she could not feel the ordinary contentment of things the way she used to. She could not feel favoured or charmed.

He’d replaced her life with his leaving. The voice running through her head was not the voice she used to hear before he left…There was less of her now and more of other people. She was becoming other people. Maybe that’s why they called her Rose.”

Deleuze and Guattari’s Geology of Literary Style

When I was drafting my PhD proposal, I read a few sources on literary style, in order to come to a working definition of style, or an academic consensus on the matter to rail against. I didn’t want something simplistically formalistic that referred to vehicles, tenors, modes or what have you, but I also didn’t want a post-Derridean account, that described style as a limit-case/fault line/discourse rupture, an everything and nothing at once. These kind of critical stymieings, excessive nuancing to the point of inertia have gotten a bit wearying after five years of seeing them deployed, so I was hoping to get to some kind of working definition. Emphasis on ‘working’ considering I would be carrying out pragmatic actual tasks, via computation, which were to be finalised once I had my definition.

It was surprisingly challenging to track one down, and more often than not I was thrown back onto my own reflections on literary style, and what we talk about when we talk about it. Here, I think we stumble across its primary shortcoming as a delineator. People talk about Virginia Woolf’s interior, lyrical style, Jorge Luis Borges’ staid, cold style and Ernest Hemmingway’s staccato, pared back style. The difficulty with these simplistic accounts is that an author’s style generally encapsulates what it is that makes them unique in literary discourse in general. This isn’t necessarily surprising; most of what we detect in a writer’s style is what throws us out of our reading habits. When Foster Wallace frenetically re-instates the subject of a clause at its end, a technique he becomes increasingly reliant on as Infinite Jest proceeds, we notice it, and it becomes increasingly to the fore in our sense of his style.  But, in the grand scheme of the one-thousand some page novel, the extent to which this technique is made use of is statistically speaking, insignificant. Sentences like “She tied the tapes,” in Between the Acts, for instance, pass our awareness by because of their pedestrian qualities, much like many other sentences that contain words such as ‘said,’ because of the extent to which any text’s fabric is predominantly composed of such “filler.”

This dearth of attention directed to the ‘particles’ of literary materials, is a lot of what digital humanities projects present themselves as a corrective to, by looking at the macroeconomic, we can transcend our human fixation on shiny objects (read: pretty sentences), and gain a fuller understanding of a text’s style, liberated from the shortcomings of our usual reading habits.

Of course, this newfound command over an entire text does not prevent the critic from mounting flawed arguments; many digital humanities projects from its earlier experiments in literary analysis too frequently gave into Rubik’s cube thinking, attempting to tame indeterminacy, by solving a text via enumerative techniques. This is exactly the kind of objective approach I didn’t want to fall into when visualising and narrating data trends.

Franco Moretti’s work in the Stanford Lit Lab proved beneficial in opening me up to more diffuse and multi-perspectival digital methodologies; by visualising a text on a number of different textual levels. Moretti’s contention that the data shows the activation of different stylistic features scale is directly correlated to the differentiation of textual functions is positively invigorating, as it is as far removed from the Rubik’s cube mentality as is possible to get; it essentially concedes that what we see when we look at a text depends on the way that we’re looking at it. Yes, Moretti is talking about topic modelling rather than style, but for my purposes I’ll ignore that. I also enjoy that it seems to be a computational analogue to the psychedelic nature of literary criticism – the longer we look at a text, even a shorter one, perhaps even especially a shorter one, the more we see. Diversifying our means of approach therefore provides the critic with a disparate sequence of differentiated visualisations, Enright may be meaningfully analogous to, dunno, Proust from the perspective of the entire text, but on a word to word, sentence to sentence, chapter to chapter, etc. comparison, we may turn up more unexpected results.

I still lacked a conceptual, theoretical system to connect this approach with, until I read the third chapter of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, ’10, 000 BC: The Geology of Morals (Who Does the Earth Think It Is?)’ In this chapter, Deleuze and Guattari make use of the discipline of geology in order to outline a number of theories concerning form, content, ideology and the articulations thereof.  The unorthodox appropriation of geology is part of Deleuze and Guattari’s wider usage of theories and concepts outside of traditional philosophy, in order to subvert the staid formula of normative philosophical argumentation, wherein a summary is given of problem 1, why the solution A posited by philosopher z is insufficient and why solution B posited by philosopher y is even more so, and how both (and every other philosophy in the history of the discipline, by extension) have overlooked a solution that I alone have realised. This is all beside the point and I mention it only to indicate how smart I am.

In any case, the earth, and, for my purposes, a literary text is composed of a number of strata, differing layers, which contain, compose and construct otherwise transitory particles, making them subject to more macroeconomic structures of order. In this way, they simplify their contents, as particles move between these strata erratically. One should think of strata as totalising senses of an author’s style, whereas the particles are more subtle, granular features that disappear and re-appear in and outside of particular strata. Form and content are singularly intermingled on the level of the stratum, and are merely a function of primary and secondary articulation.

Strata in turn are composed of epistrata and parastrata, which further undermines any attempt someone, like a mad person, would make to get a stable grasp on exactly what it is Deleuze and Guattari mean when they lay out this seemingly intractable schema. The strata model is a challenge to systematic modes of thought, such as structuralism, so it offers no stability, but for me, this is precisely its appeal. Any interpretation on a particular textual level, such as stratum d, which we could equate to word choice, for instance, samples one among many protean strata, composed of other strata, made relative to a machinic assemblage, itself a stratified metastratum, which becomes involved in its, the strata’s dual articulations along the lines of form and content. Simple.

The key here is that it avoids closure, it is a theoretical construct that is anathema to pragmatists, and on that basis, even if my numbers add up, any conclusions I reach with them will be, by virtue of association,  strictly provisional.