A marvelously weird Matching Mole performance on French TV, 1972

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Helen DeWitt’s novel Lightning Rods just wasn’t for me

I sought out Helen DeWitt’s so-called cult novel The Last Samurai a few weeks ago after hearing buzz about it for the past few years. I couldn’t find it at the library or at my local bookstore, but I did pick up her follow-up, 2011’s Lightning Rods, and began reading. I enjoyed the first 50 or so pages, began feeling fatigued around the 100 page mark, waited patiently for the novel to turn a corner (it never did) up through the middle, and read the last 120 or so pages in a kind of frantic, increasingly annoyed blur. Lightning Rods wasn’t for me.

Here is the novel’s premise, via publisher New Direction’s blurb:

Joe is a down-and-out salesman who spends most of his time sitting around his trailer in Florida fantasizing about women. But one afternoon a particularly strange fantasy turns into a life-changing epiphany. Suddenly he knows how to curtail sexual harassment in the office and increase productivity. His solution? Sexual lightning rods: women who, via a carefully constructed system of anonymity and strict protection, provide “sexual release” for alpha-male employees. As unlikely to succeed as it seems, Joe has finally found a product he can sell with boundless enthusiasm, and he simply refuses to fail, no matter what the obstacles. And of course he encounters quite a few of those on his rise through corporate America.

The lightning rods are basically anonymous female butts hanging out of special holes cut into bathroom walls. Much of the narrative is devoted to describing the mechanics, rationale, problems, and adaptations to this process.

The premise is like something out of an experimental J.G. Ballard short story, and indeed, Lightning Rods might have made for a very fine longish short story. However, DeWitt stretches the material’s satirical premise too-thinly over a nearly 300-page frame. The main conceit is wonderfully-weird and icky, and DeWitt’s extemporizations on it are occasionally interesting, but none of it seems to add up to very much. Intentionally flat characters wander in and out of the narrative, and the story doesn’t so much progress as simply happen.

I’m fine with a novel light on plot and character development, but the style has to satisfy. For Lightning Rods, DeWitt employs a flat, repetitive rhetorical style. This style generates much of the novel’s initial wry humor, but over time it becomes annoying, then enervating, and then finally (at least for this reader) unbearable. DeWitt’s narrator repeats the same stock phrases, iterations of “The way X thought about it was, X,” or “When you’re an X, you X.”  The dry repetitions call attention to the banality of contemporary business-speak, but the effect is grating—especially grating when DeWitt’s narrator attempts to take us through one of her characters’ supposed moments-of-genius. Harnessing consciousness-in-action in language is incredibly difficult. When our narrator describes a character as having a “genius” idea (which happens a few times in the novel), the flattening rhetoric makes neither a case for the character’s genius idea, nor a case for a satirical reading of the character’s genius idea.

Perhaps ironically, Lightning Rods’ flat and repetitive rhetorical style makes it incredibly “readable,” whatever that means. DeWitt’s narrator establishes a formula early on that allows a reader to glide effortlessly through. No strange snags here, which is maybe my big problem with the book.

The wry, dry style glides nowhere but to boredom. By the end of the novel, the characters seem bored with the narrative, the narrator seems bored with the characters, and the author seems bored with the narrator. Or at least anyway, this reader was bored with the book.

While Lightning Rods never matches the satirical rush of its first few chapters, there is a moment worth remarking upon in the book’s final pages. Protagonist Joe’s initial epiphany happens in the natural environs of a Florida beach. At the end of the book, DeWitt’s narrator merges that natural environment with the environment of commerce, with the postmodern environment:

The sky was darkening, but it was not yet dark. In the west the molten gold of the setting sun slipped through the hills, and in the darkening hollow the yellow arches and the 7-Eleven and the Waffle House and the TCBY were glowing in the golden light. High above a flock of geese sped southward in a V formation and on the highway the cars and trucks sped north and south.

The alliteration (“setting sun slipped”) and the painterly evocations (“molten gold”) segue via the “yellow arches” of a McDonald’s into the modern commercial terrain. Geese fly, cars drive, businesses rest in “the golden light”: this is the world. This passage jars in comparison to the narrative’s generally flat, sterile style, and helps to usher us out of Lightning Rods.

Prelude to the Magic Hour, Brandon Bird, 2000
Prelude to the Magic Hour, Brandon Bird, 2000

The language in DeWitt’s passage strongly reminds me of Brandon Bird’s painting Prelude to the Magic Hour, itself an ironic postmodern continuation of the modernist scenes depicted in the previous century by Edward Hopper and George Bellows. As in Bird’s painting, DeWitt’s passage asks us to find art in the artlessness of our contemporary commercial environment, even if that art is tempered in irony.

I’ve been pretty clear that Lightning Rods wasn’t for me, but I think it will find many admirers and defenders alike who may appreciate DeWitt’s rhetorical style and find in it a more satisfying critique of contemporary American business-speak than I did. (Perhaps I wanted a dismantling of business-speak, not a critique). In any case, the premise and initial energy of Lightning Rods are enough to make me want to still take a stab at The Last Samurai.

Posted in Art

A Little Taste Outside of Love –Mickalene Thomas

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Blood — Barkley L. Hendricks

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Vámonos para La Habana

Untitled — Kenne Gregoire

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The Erstwhile, B. Catling’s sequel to The Vorrh (Book acquired, 17 Feb. 2017)

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B. Catling’s sequel to The Vorrh arrived last week, reminding me that I still need to read The Vorrh. 

Publisher Vintage’s blurb:

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza — Gely Korzhev

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Resting — Henry Taylor

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Untitled — Hans-Georg Rauch

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From HG Rauch’s En Masse (Collier, 1975).

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From “Swamped,” The Saga of the Swamp Thing #22, March, 1984. Art by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben; coloring by Tatjana Wood. Script by Alan Moore.

Singing Their Songs — Elizabeth Catlett

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Posted in Art

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Many of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished the novel or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years, my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. Getting to this scene is perhaps a demand on the patience of many readers. And, while the scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger. 

Some of those earliest set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes function almost as rhetorical obstacles for a first-time reader. The  novel’s opening scene, Hal Incandenza’s interview with the deans at the University of Arizona, is chronologically the last event in the narrative, and it dumps a lot of expository info on the reader. It also poses a number of questions or riddles about the plot to come, questions and riddles that frankly run the risk of the first-time reader’s forgetting through no fault of his own.

The second chapter of IJ is relatively short—just 10 pages—but it seems interminable, and it’s my guess that Wallace wanted to make his reader endure it the same way that the chapter’s protagonist–Erdedy, an ultimately very minor character—must endure the agonizing wait for a marijuana delivery. The chapter delivers the novel’s themes of ambivalence, desire, addiction, shame, entertainment, “fun,” and secrecy, both in its content and form. My guess is that this where a lot of new readers abandon the novel.

The reader who continues must then work through 30 more pages until meeting the novel’s heart, Don Gately, but by the time we’ve met him we might not trust just how much attention we need to pay him, because Wallace has shifted through so many other characters already. And then Gately doesn’t really show up again until like, 200 pages later.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to suspend or delay introducing the reading rules that we’ve been trained to look for in contemporary novels. While I imagine this technique could frustrate first-time readers, I want to reiterate that this suspension or delay or digression is indeed a technique, a rhetorical tool Wallace employs to perform the novel’s themes about addiction and relief, patience and plateaus, gratitude and forgiveness.

Where is a fair place to abandon Infinite Jest

I would urge first-time readers to stick with the novel at least until page 64, where they will be directed to end note 24, the filmography of J.O. Incandenza (I will not even discuss the idea of not reading the end notes. They are essential). Incandenza’s filmography helps to outline the plot’s themes and the themes’ plots—albeit obliquely. And readers who make it to the filmography and find nothing to compel them further into the text should feel okay about abandoning the book at that point.

What about a guide?

There are many, many guides and discussions to IJ online and elsewhere, as I noted above. Do you really need them? I don’t know—but my intuition is that you’d probably do fine without them. Maybe reread Hamlet’s monologue from the beginning of Act V, but don’t dwell too much on the relationship between entertainment and death. All you really need is a good dictionary. (And, by the way, IJ is an ideal read for an electronic device—the end notes are hyperlinked, and you can easily look up words as you read).

Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,” which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead. After you read you may wish to search for a plot diagram of the novel, of which there are several. But I’d wait until after.

An incomplete list of motifs readers new to Infinite Jest may wish to attend to

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters.

Therefore, readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.

Heads

Cages

Faces

Masks

Teeth

Cycles

Maps

Waste

Infants

Pain

Deformities

Subjects

Objects

One final note

Infinite Jest is a rhetorical/aesthetic experience, not a plot.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept posted a version of this note in the summer of 2015. Wallace would have turned 55 years old today].

Two Girls with a Book — Isabel Bishop

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“Tired” — Fenton Johnson

Girl in a Red Dress — Charles Alston

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Before a Long Journey — Gely Korzhev

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