Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Infinite Jest, description

Mario Incandenza is taking a walk on the grounds of the Enfield Tennis Academy:

The whole area running along the tree‐line and the thickets of like shrubbery and stickery bushes and heaven knew what all was covered with fallen leaves that were dry but had not yet quite all the way lost their color. The leaves were underfoot. Mario kind of tottered from tree to tree, pausing at each tree to rest. It was @ 1900h., not yet true twilight, but the only thing left of the sunset was a snout just over Newton, and the places under long shadows were cold, and a certain kind of melancholy sadness was insinuating itself into the grounds’ light. The staggered lamps by the paths hadn’t come on yet, however.

A lovely scent of illegally burned leaves wafting up from East Newton mixed with the foody smells from the ventilator turbines out of the back of the dining hall. Two gulls were in one place in the air over the dumpsters over by the rear parking lot. Leaves crackled underfoot. The sound of Mario walking on dry leaves was like: crackle crackle crackle stop; crackle crackle crackle stop.

An Empire Waste Displacement displacement vehicle whistled past overhead, rising in the start of its arc, its one blue alert‐light atwinkle.

He was around where the tree‐line bulged herniatically out toward the end of the West Courts’ fencing.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996).
So many things to like:

The nervous qualifiers: “like shrubbery and stickery bushes,” “not yet quite all the way,” “kind of tottered,” “a certain kind of melancholy sadness.”

The clumsinesses: “whole area,” “heaven knew what all,” “yet, however,” “foody,” “out of the back,” “Displacement displacement,” “around where.” Re: “yet, however”: Wallace likes strings of conjuctions. “And so but,” elsewhere in the novel, is my favorite.

The statements of the obvious: “melancholy sadness.” Is there another kind? The leaves “underfoot.” Where else would they crackle? And the tree-line bulging “out.”

Best of all, the strain to be descriptive: the “snout” of the sunset, “staggered lamps,” “crackle crackle crackle stop,” “two gulls in one place,” the “whistling” vehicle, its light “atwinkle.” And that “herniatically” bulging tree-line!

Wallace is parodying, of course, writing practices encouraged in workshops across the North American continent. Make the reader feel that bulge!

Four more elements I like:

The misused tree-line. A tree-line is not simply a line of trees.

The ambiguity of the verb was in the first sentence. If area is the sentence’s subject, then subject and verb agree. If area and thickets (and more?) form a compound subject, was is wrong. The wonderful thing about the sentence is that its clumsiness makes the verb seem wrong, even if it isn’t.

“1900h.” Yes, the world runs on military time.

The E.W.D. vehicle — one thinks “garbage truck” — whistles past not on a road but in the air. Yes, it’s a different world from the one we’re (still) living in, in which, as Elaine reminds me, there is no East Newton, Massachusetts.

[Correction, after reading further: there may be a tree-line after all. The Academy’s hillside driveway slants at a seventy-degree angle.]

A related post
Infinite Jest, attention

comments: 3

Geo-B said...

. . . the clumsiness, . . . nervous qualifiers. . . statements of the obvious.... Cannot tell if you really like it...because it kinda seems like you don't.

Michael Leddy said...

No, I like it. I really do. It seems to me, as I wrote, a parody of “descriptive” writing.

Seth Tisue said...

Agree. This is a parody.