Friday, August 28, 2009


So yesterday, yesterday an urge came over me, an urge to buy a record album (do people buy those anymore? a CD? what if you download it, what do you call it?) that I've been thinking about for some time, and it's ridiculous how much I've had to think through this purchase — a $20 purchase! — I mean, I'm a grown-up with a decent income etc, I spend more than that on coffee in any given week — thinking about how I could get it cheaper if I ordered it online, except I'd have to wait days for it to be delivered, which is extra dumb, cuz I've been contemplating this whole thing for weeks already, or how about I just download it and have it instantaneously?, but though I buy some songs that way it's just so ephemeral and what if some faceless corporate power decides I'm listening to the wrong sort of music and having remote access to my music library decides to modify my behaviour by removing some potentially subversive influences?, and besides, I need a CD for the car, right?, cuz this is a great roadtrip type of CD, so even though we have one of those iPod adapter thingies to play it in the car, the couple times we used it for some reason it wasn't so easy because like you can't charge it up and play it at the same time or something like that, so I decided finally: CD it would have to be, and yesterday, well, yesterday afternoon I decided I wanted it now — I'd been sitting there all day, at my desk, and all through lunch, I ate my sandwich at my desk, powering through this project, and so I needed a break and I wanted this CD now, now was the time, so I stepped out over to the record store (do we call them that anymore? music store? entertainment needs centre? you know, the HMV) and I headed downstairs and there I saw the most amazingly beautiful and truly weird thing: there's this guy at a listening station, which is more like a semicircular customer-service counter with like maybe 5 plug-in set-ups, and he's a fairly small man but taking a lot of space; he's like 50-ish, wearing a faded red t-shirt, ballcap, and salt-and-pepper beard, and he's totally rocking out to whatever it is he's sampling at the listening station, playing the most vigorous air guitar I can ever recall witnessing, and you got the feeling he wasn't sampling a new release out of curiosity, he was in for the duration, with some classic album by his favourite band, he couldn't possibly be here on his coffee break, he was so fully in the music, it was a sight to behold, and so I picked up this album I'd so been wanting, being, by the way, Peaches: The Very Best of the Stranglers, which truly does represent their very lovely best, and I browsed a bit, and tried to find out what song was playing overhead, but I can't remember the snippet of lyrics now that had me in thrall, and I daydreamed a bit, or loitered really, just figuring out which route I should take back to the office so I could pick up a good, not average, cup of coffee on the way, and I paid for my CD, and on my way out Mr Air Guitar was still going strong and completely oblivious to the fact that he was at a listening station on the lower level of a chainstore, and this is a beautiful thing.

There was a chill wind, but on my return walk, the sun was at my back boring a hole through my shoulder, it felt like, even while my arms were bathed in cool.

The workday finished, toute la gang headed across the street for the annual company-wide summer 5 à 7. A cocktail this and a caesar that, it was well after sept that The Project took hold, to amass (from, eg, early leavers, pregnant women) sufficient drink tickets (44) in order to be able to order a bottle of champagne, but so we (well, mostly I — I admit, The Project was totally of my conception) negotiated this to a lesser number (23) for a bottle of French vin mousseux but not of the Champagne region, with even enough tickets (2) left over to get someone else a martini, and I had an interesting chat with a heretofore unknown coworker about Infinite Jest.

And I've been listening to my new record album CD all day.

What ever happened to Leon Trotsky?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reading in transit

We are all of us pressed against the metro door. I am between a bongo-playing bongo player, with his bongo, and a robe-wearing, Krishna-reading Krishna. He is reading about spiritual development.

I am reading Maud Newton's suggested reading list with regard to doubt.

I see someone at the next door reading Firmin, in French. I want to shout out, Hey, I think I know you. Are you a rat too? But I don't.

We are all of us travelling in the same direction — for five minutes our lives follow the same physical path — but we are going to different places.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Infinite speculation

So at some point, about a week ago, I was ready to say this is an awesome book, this Infinite Jest, and while I spent much of the first couple hundred pages admiring it, I was also somewhat confused and not really relating to it.

But I'm done now. (I checked the Infinite Summer reading schedule at about that point and freaked out to find that I was a whole week behind, what with having forgone other reading in a concerted effort to catch up and stay the course, but then I realized I'd gotten my dates wrong and I was in fact a week ahead of schedule, by which point, being page 600+, I was kind of hooked and felt compelled to barrel through to the end.)

So but, right, I'm done now, and yup, awesome book.

To those of you who think it's an intimidating read (and it does have that reputation, and its imposing physical size adds to this perception) and demands a serious time commitment and intense mental focus I say, yeah, whatever. For me, well, I just don't have 3 weeks of uninterrupted time where I don't have to go to work and interact with my family and make sure the child is sufficiently clothed and fed and watch some dumb movie and have this dental implant procedure over and done with once and for all and shop for school supplies and hang out at the community pool and drink pisco sour on the balcony (not necessarily in that order). Because, life, you know; you gotta do those things. And as much as some nights I'd like to stay up and read till 4 in the morning, as engrossing as any book is, it's rare if my eyelids can stay propped open beyond midnight, and then well I'd still have to get up at 7(-ish) and my day would be totally fucked. So, if not now, when? I'm glad to read 3 pages on the way to work, and 3 more on the way home if there's room enough to hold open the hardcover without jabbing some stranger's shoulderblade, and maybe as many more with coffee after lunch on a slow day at work, with a few minutes to check the Infinite Summer forums to see how my impressions measure up against others' and maybe more importantly to check that I haven't missed the significance of some scenes (or missed a scene altogether) what with having to change metro lines, and it's worth lugging this heavy, heavy book around (though some days I did think it was stupid to do so when there's this other novel, a slim little paperback, I've been dying to read), but hey, I really did want to know what the hell was going to happen to Gately (et al). Two pages or 5 minutes at a go does not mean not being able to be immersed and attentive. It doesn't take time or space to give yourself over to something or take something out of it; it just takes now.

Bits of this book are very funny, and it's undeniably clever. The cleverness, with the vocabulary and the footnotes and the historical references and literary allusions, may rub some people the wrong way, as I think it did me the first time I picked the book up, like all it's about is David Foster Wallace writing look-at-me-I'm-so-clever. But at some point (no, I'm not sure what that point is) it dawned on me how desperately earnest it was; I don't know how he did it (how do you convey earnestness? can it be feigned?) — not plot, or even character, more like tapping into something essential about how the mind works with all its messy body and emotion — and you can't (shouldn't) fault something just for being (or even obviously trying to be) smart when that's just a byproduct of representing something real. Also, some bits are horrific. And on the whole, Infinite Jest is overwhelmingly sad.

It's about tennis and Quebec separatism and mass consumerism, but mostly it's about addiction and about being trapped inside your own head.

(People have been speculating about whether Infinite Jest will be read 100 years from now. It's already dated, very firmly grounded in the 1990s. And it's quite unique in being a world that's so now. I can't think of many big sprawling (re-)imagined worlds that weren't written with the perspective of hindsight. Maybe Dickens. But then there's this near-future element. Umm. What was I getting at? It's unique and rich, and people should (will) continue to read it. It's not my favourite book of all time, but it ranks high on the gut-wrenchingness scale.)

On the whole, I don't find this book to be very quotable, at least not in any meaningful kind of way. There are vast sections that could be held up independently for appreciation (like pages 157 through 169, particularly the bit about Brando — and I get the feeling DFW wholly embraced a kind of Stanislavski method of writing) but it's not easy to distill just a few sentences that embody the whole of the humour or the poignancy.

But if there's anything like a single point to this book, maybe this is it:

It is now lately sometimes seemed like a black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring that way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately — the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of plunging into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose? This was why they started us here so young: to give ourselves away before the age when the questions why and to what grow real beaks and claws. It was kind, in a way.

How the novel ends is a bit of a puzzle, and I hope it's not a spoiler (avert your eyes now if you care) to say that, what with the fragmented chronology, the end is given to us at the very beginning. And once having reached the end in state of befuddlement, I had to start over again.

To those of you who've read the book and/or those who find my rambling on some level entertaining I address the following disjointed thoughts and questions:

Mario's first birth is described on page 312. What the hell does that mean? It's implied there is a second birth of the Incandenzas' second son. There is no "rebirth" of Mario later described. Or is it that Mario ("Booboo") was dismissed by the family, being so physically deformed as to not be a son at all, in which case the later-born Hal might be considered the real second son? But glimpses into their family life doesn't bear this out at all.

I love that a quarter of the bus was yellow-highlighting copies of Abbott's Flatland (p 281). That's a fascinating little work of dystopia, and I think here it's a nice little clue about how the ghost/wraith works, but also kind of allegorical, that there's always another dimension, or layer, or step, or goal, beyond this one, that realization on this plane, actualizing in the moment, is nothing when viewed from another angle.

Orin needs women "to fall so terribly in love with him they'd never be able want anyone else" (p 634). This need develops sometime after his break-up with Joelle, and it's akin to the power of Joelle's own beauty and the compulsion of the Entertainment. Did some one event trigger it? Death of his father, some realization about his mother, what?

What was the first emergency room incident Hal refers to (p 16) about? This would've taken place a year back, he says, about the time the novel leaves off. Plain old breakdown, or to do with Pemulis's stash? Does it matter? Is this when he meets Gately? Do he and Gately really dig up Himself's head, or is this something that happens metaphorically or on another plane of consciousness? Does it matter?

"I have become an infantophile" (p 16). I don't think that statement can be taken literally. But. Lover of infants. Hal stumbled on the men's meeting, and while I found this scene uncomfortable (as did Hal) and didn't much see the point of it except for Hal's continuing circling around his addiction problem, I now see it as pivotal. This is the thing that makes him start to regress. This is where he starts to get inside Himself's head. (And that's where the Entertainment is, inside Himself's head, whether literally or metaphorically. He killed himself to destroy the master copy.)

In the Year of Glad, Hal has become what he'd feared (p 694):

Hal, who's empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he's really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.

In the end (the novel's beginning), Hal becomes human.

He thinks of the Grief-Therapist ("Something smells delicious."), the Moms, the soups over the microwave. What if Hal ate Himself's head? (I mean metaphorically, I suppose.) At least, it's something he wanted to do (but couldn't let himself do?).

"Call it something I ate." Metaphorically this is exactly what he did when he came home from the men's meeting and immersed himself in viewing all his dad's cartridges.

This is Hal finally grieving.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The waterless flood

Margaret Atwood has a new book coming out in a few weeks, The Year of the Flood, the website for which launched this weekend.

The new novel is a simultaneouel in relation to the dystopian Oryx and Crake, featuring some of the same characters in an overlapping timeframe. I look forward to reading it, and I expect I'll be revisiting some of O&C as I do so.

(Read an excerpt from The Year of the Flood.)

The new website is a marketing marvel. Beyond promoting the book, a CD of associated "hymns" (lyrics by Atwood, and which figure in the novel), and related merchandise (t-shirts and totebags), it's selling environmental awareness.

Part of me is sceptical. Ultimately, it's all about selling books. But it's commendable that Atwood is taking her message (whatever exactly it might turn out to be) quite seriously, and putting her money where her mouth is.

For example, in embarking on tour to promote the book, she's publicly pledging to keep her carbon footprint to a minimum (she's taking a boat to England!), stay only in hotels that have environmental policies, and avoid bottled water.

Among the many links of interest on this website, two in particular caught my eye:

Victimless leather. Grow your own! Not sure how I feel about this. We've so much moved away from adorning ourselves with leathers and furs that being able to grow your own brings us back to a world where it's valued. I can see this encouraging poaching among those who can't afford the genetic synthetics.

Ecoburial. This is totally the way I want to go. Turned into dry pink crumbs, for easy and safe composting! Read about the environmental drawbacks of both cremation and traditional burial on the Promessa website.

Atwood will be blogging while she's on the road.

(You can also follow her on Twitter, where she repeatedly proves just how funny she is, in 140 characters or less: "I made a typo [...] 'Imperonating' is pretending to be Evita." "Good thing not me in charge of world!")

Now just to see what The Year of the Flood is actually about...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Remote control

Bedtime is a confessional state. Individuals praying to their Gods. Between lovers. For Helena when I tuck her in.

"You know how some boys like pink? And they play with dolls?" OK.

(In theory, we are a generation enlightened beyond such stereotypically gendered roles; but in reality, today as always, boys gravitate toward some things, girls toward others.)

"Well, I really like cars."


"I'd really like to have some cars to play with."


"Like Nicholas. Nicholas has hundreds of little cars."


"And a garage. I'd like a garage to keep the cars in."


We'd been together a little over a year — J-F and I — when another birthday of mine rolled round. It was quite evident from an afternoon phonecall that he'd forgotten. I don't know who finally clued him in — maybe a coworker, or maybe I dropped the hint myself.

Unusually that day I got home from work before he did. Doubtless he was scouring every inch of every store on the 7-block route from office to home for a suitable gift.

He arrived finally with a large package. I don't recall if it was wrapped. I do remember examining the box, and even as I was opening it hoping the box was just a box, a decoy, and despairing that it wasn't.

Not many interesting shops between the office and home, I know, but of all the options available at RadioShack, I wonder that he couldn't find something more sentimental than a pair of remote-controlled sports cars. (Any gadgety lusts I ever have harboured weren't of an automotive variety.) He thought they'd be fun for playing with the cat. Only one of the car–remote sets came equipped with batteries, and the trial run, on carpet, was less than stellar.

I kept the set boxed and untouched for days, thinking he might exchange it. He did not. Finally I closeted it, along with my anger. I never did tell anyone what he got me for my birthday; it was just too ludicrous.


Almost a dozen years and at least three domiciles later, the cars are out of their box and freshly batteried, and the anger has dissipated. The new cat is about as impressed as the old cat, but the girl is ecstatic.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Delayed gratification

I am finally on schedule and, according to the page count set out at Infinite Summer, 52.something% of the way through Infinite Jest, and inching forward.

And being that a good portion of the novel is set in a tennis academy, and a good portion of those scenes actually has to deal with the philosophy and psychology of tennis, and that in my associated literary travels this week, I had the good fortune to read for the very first time The Federer Essay, I am truly unreasonably excited to know that Roger Federer will be in Montreal for the Rogers Cup this week and I might be able to witness, albeit through a TV screen, a Federer-Nadal showdown similar to what DFW described.

But the book. Is thoroughly entertaining! I'm loving this experience. I'm a far way off from calling this the greatest piece of literature the world has ever seen, and at this juncture I firmly doubt that I will ever reread it in its entirety (although I concede certain sections are worth coming back to, for their hilarity or their clarity, whether vis-a-vis the world at large or as a key to the book's intracoherence). Maybe this really is a novel for this generation (my generation? one slightly younger than my own?).

To this point, the book offers some powerful insight into the addiction-addled mind. I particularly appreciate Gately's God problem: what if the Higher Power in the 3rd of AA's 12 steps to which one is supposed to turn oneself over is one you have absolutely no concept of, let alone believe in? (Which extended passage, starting at p 442, also leads us to a "What the fuck is water?" moment, later retold again in that awesome commencement address.) I mean, how does an atheist deal with all the God-crap in AA? Do atheists not go to AA? Or do they go through the motions, lying to others and themselves? Neither course of action really seems viable in terms of kicking an addiction. What if you're addicted to God? Is there a support group for that? (But I guess a lot of people don't see God-dependence as a kind of problem.)

(Here's a tangent: Did you know some people actually get unbaptized? Really, I know a guy. Which paradoxically maybe attributes more importance to the ritual than the unbaptizee intends. It's not like a pact with the Devil that must needs be broken. If God's a nonentity, the whole thing's kind of null and void already.)

It's Marathe and Steeply's quasi-philosophical mountaintop discussion that really holds the book together for me. It makes clear the wider political backdrop as well as some of the themes (ah yes, delayed gratification, recognition of the thematic importance of which is itself a kind of delayed gratification) through which most everything else slowly comes to make some kind of sense. There's this fabulous exchange regarding America's pursuit of happiness, and freedom, and the reader is well aware that there's a difference between "freedom from" and "freedom to," so there's no earth-shattering insight proffered — the gist of these discussions has been voiced in countless homes, classrooms, dorms, automobiles, grocery-line checkouts, dentist offices. But it's made kind of hilarious through the Separatist's use of a hypothetical problem of two individuals vying for the only-available single-size serving can of Habitant soupe aux pois.

I've had opportunity to reflect this week on the nature of the group reading experience — a local journalist interviewed me w/r/t my participation in the Infinite Summer project. And my conclusion, which should come as no surprise, is that I mostly love it.

Sure, some forum participants go on about (or namedrop, at any rate) Wittgenstein, but whatever. The book is not about Wittgenstein, and I don't know that DFW meant for it to be read about Wittgenstein (Who knows? Maybe he did. He was undoubtedly an Extremely Bright Guy, with knowledge of Wittgenstein, but whether he consciously meant to represent what all Wittgenstein was about...?) But hey, go ahead and point out whatever scene of Infinite Jest as the ultimate illustration of Wittgenstein's linguistophilosophical thought; it's just that at some point the conversation stops being about Infinite Jest, which was kind of the original point, so it can get kind of tiresome.

(Did anyone ever see Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein? That made way more sense to me than anything the kids, or the profs, ever said about the big W at school.)

Yeah, I don't know. The journalist asked me whether the forum was an opportunity for showing off, and whether it was elitist. Mostly no, mostly it's a support group. And I'm grateful for being made aware of connections I might not otherwise make on my own.

I don't see this reading as a chore or as a homework assignment; I'm not hung up on page quotas or having to contribute meaningfully on an Important Topic. But I do acknowledge that I'm reading more carefully than I've read many books this year (even if I'm not writing any more articulately on the subject), and that's a good thing to do sometimes.

Saturday, August 08, 2009


Today Helena plucked one ripe little tomato off its vine — the first of the season — and popped it in her mouth. Her face radiated with exquisite ecstasies.

Here are two of our monstrous tomato plants pictured with the tall, silly 6-year-old in question for a reference point of size:

Our little balcony garden doesn't yield much — we have a basket of strawberries (which fruit is almost exhausted), a couple herbs (for sprinkling on salads), and six such tomato plants (haul to come!) — but it manages to provide one mouthful of pleasure (whether it's destined for her mouth or mine is a complicated matter, the politics of which I won't discuss here) on a near daily basis, and that's plenty.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Monsterpiece Theater presents

Hamlet! Words, words, words:

It don't get classier than this. Me love Danish!

Monday, August 03, 2009

My ambiguous position

So I've been trying to read a poem here and there, to keep my mind, my life, you know, poetic and all, and I have this volume of Janusz Szuber, whose work I'm strangely attracted to, that I keep turning to over the last couple months, and I'm stuck on this poem:

Caught in the Net

For supper I ate my favorite goat cheese
Sprinkled thickly with pepper and covered with onion slices,
From a jar I forked pitted olives,
Meaty, dripping aromatic brine.

Chewing and carefully mixing all those ingredients
I felt more and more acutely my ambiguous position
Of one caught in the net, the trap, charmed by the bait,
Not even trying to possess the ideal object.

So I love this poem. Not sure why. I think mostly because I'm a big fan of olives. And it makes me hungry, and a little hungry for something more than food. But also it confuses me, because I think it's saying the olive, or any portion of this glorious meal, is not the ideal object, even though I rather think it is, but I can't help but wonder if not this, then what? This food is a distraction of some sort. And I feel like I'm being chastised for even thinking about olives, even though he's the one who brought them up. So what's this ideal object I'm supposed to be after (well, the narrator thinks he ought to pursue it, and it's implied that this is a most worthy goal all of us should aspire to)?

What is baiting us, trying to catch us out? How can this meaty olive not be the ideal object, end in and of itself? As if it's freedom from the olive that is to be desired.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Feral jest

It's absolutely feral. Of a feral imagination is Infinite Jest.

Listed in the filmography in endnote 24 (p 991, referenced from p 64):
A documentary (Stand Behind the Men Behind the Wire) of a hunt for an outsized feral infant.
A movie (The Desire to Desire) featuring an attack by an oversized feral infant.

We learn of herds of oversized "Feral Infants," formed by toxicity (endnote 304, p 1055, referenced from en 39, referenced from p 89).

There thundered a herd of feral hamsters (p 93).
Earlier(?) (YDPAH), a house is stripped as bare as a post-feral-hamster meadow (p 58).

Tennis and the feral prodigy (p 172).

A feral and flux-ridden state with respect to talent (p 173).

I know I read feral potential and feral genius in there somewhere.

Another feral infant (p 211).

A couple weeks ago Kevin Guilfoile puzzled over how Tarantino might've come into the text, how in 1996 (or earlier, following the argument of the background below) he merited mention among other film greats:

There is an almost unbearable (for the author) amount of time between the day the manuscript is "finished" and the day it is published. I’m not sure when Wallace handed in the complete manuscript to Little Brown, but with a book as big as Infinite Jest — both in terms of heft and hype — you could easily expect a couple of birthdays to pass through the edits and the copyedits and the sales efforts and the marketing push. This period can be pretty anxious for writers, and one of the fears that can obsess a novelist during this time is that some part of his book he thinks particularly clever or original is going to be preempted by a similar plot or character or conceit in another book, film, or TV show. Or real life, even.

So but about Tarantino, how could DFW know?

Which brings me to my own bugbear: Gilles Duceppe.

The thing: Endnote 304 refers to "newly elected Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe" (p 1057). According to Wikipedia, IJ was published February 1, 1996 (and give or take a few days, or weeks even, I think my point stands). At this date, Gilles Duceppe had been BQ leader for only a couple weeks and not elected, but serving as interim leader until an election could be held (Duceppe did not in fact win leadership till about a year later). Millions of copies of IJ already printed and shipped by the time Duceppe took the interim reins. Perhaps the Duceppe name was a truly last minute blank filled in according to how the political breeze blew that day the book was sent to the printers. How could DFW possibly know to what prominence Duceppe would rise in BQ's history?

"[...] What all do you know about Separatism?"

Hal stopped for a moment. "You mean in Canada?"

"Is there any other kind?" [p 137]

The wiki entries for Meech Lake and Charlottetown, mentioned in Hal and Orin's phone conversation in endnote 110, need fleshing out. The geography is unimportant; the names are used as shorthand for the accords pounded out there and the national discussion about them.

Maybe this book will bring me, in sorting out DFW's fictions from actualities, to finally get all my facts straight regarding Quebec's histories.

For the record, the Montreal Tulip-Fest (p 59) does not exist, nor can I imagine it ever coming into being in this city that while clean and even on occasion sculpted is not particularly gardened, although there is one in Ottawa.

I hate the fact that I'm still way behind schedule. The page number I daily set as a goal fails to take into account the possibility of running into an 18-page endnote.

"Pemulis makes his face very long for a while and then very short and broad, then all sort of hollow and distended like one of Bacon's popes." I love this description. I know those popes.

I love that I am acquiring many exotic new facts (p 200–205), pages of them:

That boring activities become, perversely, much less boring if you concentrate intently on them. That if enough people in a silent room are drinking coffee it is possible to make out the sound of steam coming off the coffee. That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible fall asleep during an anxiety attack.

"That no matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that."