AN INTERVIEW…

WITH THE LATE – AND (ARGUABLY) GREAT – DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, WHICH GETS INTERRUPTED TOWARD THE END BY THE LATE – AND (INDISPUTABLY) GREAT – CRAD KILODNEY

MICHAEL NATHAN WALKER: So, David, it’s really awesome of you to be here, to allow me to interview you and tell the world your answers to my questions.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: …

MNW: I suppose the first subject we ought to tackle is your novel, the novel I just finished reading for the third time.

DFW: …

MNW: Yeah, it’s quite an investment, personal-time wise, I mean there’s something like 1079 pages to read, and they’re not all in like numerical order; I mean the reader has to check back to this part of the book and then look ahead to another part of the book, and–

DFW: …

MNW: You’re right, you’re absolutely right. But at the same time –

DFW: …

MNW: Right.

DFW: …

MNW: I agree, I mean I think–

DFW: …

MNW: I mean I think I know what you mean. But I–

DFW: …

MNW: Right, I mean I don’t really know, I mean I guess I just think I know, I guess.

DFW: …

MNW: Ha.

DFW: …

MNW: Exactly.

DFW: …

MNW: Right, I mean I am gonna make myself look stupid by asking, but what happens at the end? It’s pretty much open to interpretation.

DFW: …

MNW: That’s what I thought.

DFW: …

MNW: I mean, I read “Infinite Jest” three times, I mean I read lots of other stuff in between those readings, but I read a 1079-page novel three times – three times, Dav d – and I am still not completely sure how everything ends up.

DFW: …

MNW: I know! I mean, that’s the way to make a reader flip back to the beginning of the novel and –

DFW: . .

MNW: I agree, it all makes sense, the whole thing, I mean Hal, Hal Incandenza, his whole thing was that he liked to get high by himself, secretly, and that –

DFW: …

MNW: .. Right.

DFW: …

MNW: Right.

DFW: …

MNW: And at the end, like at the end of the novel, like page wise, like not timeline wise, Hal–

DFW: ..

MNW: Ha.

DFW: …

MNW: Hal broke into Pemuli ‘s stash, and Hal–

DFW: …

MNW: Right.

DFW: …

MNW: That’s what I was trying to say, that w en–

DFW: …

MNW: H l was using his own personal Subs ance to get himself by.

DFW: …

MNW: Yeah, I realized it while I was typing it, “Himself,” that’s what Hal calls his deceased father in the novel–

DFW: …

MNW: Right.

DFW: ..

MNW: Right. Yeah, I mean, I mean I get it. I get the whole thing, the whole metaphorical thing with ETA protecting its students from the outside world, the world that wants to exploit them because of their talents and –

DFW: …

MNW: Right.

DFW: …

MNW: Totally, I mean it’s ironic as hell–

DFW: . .

MNW: Yeah!

DFW: …

MNW: That’s what I have been trying to tell people.

DFW: …

MNW: ETA keeps the outside world away from its students, nominally for the students’ best interest–

DFW: ..

MNW: Let me finish, then we’ll talk about that.

DFW: …

MNW: No, I apologize.

DFW: …

MNW: Anyways, the whole ETA philosophy is to shelter ETA students from outside interference, and the idea is that doing so will allow them to develop their own personal identities to a degree beyond doubt, but…

DFW: …

MNW: I mean like not totally “beyond doubt,” but like to the point where they are confident – like ETA students, I mean – are confident in their abilities to the point that nothing can touch them, metaphorically; like if some sportswriter picks their tennis apart and tells the world that they’re, like I mean the ETA-trained tennis player, male or female, that they’re not any good, or on the other hand that their tennis is the absolute–

DFW: …

MNW: Yeah, I mean–

DFW: . .

MNW: Yeah. The same thing applies if they’re terrible. Terrible at tennis, I mean. ETA is there to like shield them from criticism, until they’ve developed their own personal abilities–

DFW: ..

MNW: Right.

DFW: …

MNW: It took me three readings to get that, but yeah.

DFW: …

MNW: …

DFW: …

MNW: I want to thank you for this interview, D vid, I mean it’s not like this is an everyday sort of thing, your being so–

DFW: ..

MNW: God, tennis is a lot harder than it looks, I mean–

DFW: …

MNW: I know! God…

DFW: …

MNW: But when two people are both good at it…

DFW: …

MNW: Yeah!

DFW: ..

MNW: It’s like tennis is a metaphor for everything, and I have to say that while reading your novel I realized that–

DFW: …

MNW: I mean I realized that the whole individual versus another individual aspect of tennis, the whole self vs. another part, is, like–

DFW: .

MNW: Yes, as a m tter of fact I am drunk, I don’t really know what this has to do with–

DFW: …

MNW: Anyways thanks for being here. I kn w i too a l t of patience to sit still s I c uld see you an he r you.

DFW: …

MNW: Yeah, I know, but I am trying to write this interview within the parameters of your own, well, whatever.

DFW: .

MNW: Right.

DFW: …

MNW: Right, like with the wraiths and whatnot. I get it.

DFW: …

MNW: Right.

SHE HAS A PET BUNNY RABBIT, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD

This post is going to be a little scatterbrained. The inspiration for it, more or less, came from a TV show – specifically from a female actor on a TV show that I have developed a mild crush on – but as I began mentally composing it, thoughts regarding various authors (including one that my latest celebrity crush is apparently a fan of) started to creep their way into the mix, so anyways I decided to just start typing and see what ends up on the screen.

I would first like to state that I agree, there is indeed something rather loser-ly about a 36-year-old single male writing blog posts about female celebrities he has crushes on. If you feel the need to point that out in further detail, feel free. Nonetheless, well, loser though it may make me seem to be, I am going to write a little about the latest female celebrity I have developed a mild crush on (eat your hearts out, Sarah Silverman, Norah Jones, et al.), and then hopefully smoothly transition into writing about an author she likes – this author is one of my personal favorite authors, incidentally – and compare this author to a couple other authors I also like.

Without further blathering, the celebrity I have recently developed a mild crush on is Constance Wu, one of the stars of the hit ABC sitcom “Fresh Off The Boat.” In case you aren’t familiar with the show, it’s centered around the Huang family – dad Louis, mom Jessica (Wu’s character), sons Eddie, Emery, and Evan, and also Louis’ wheelchair-bound, Chinese-speaking but English-understanding mother – a Taiwanese-American family who live in Orlando, Florida. The sitcom is loosely based on the memoir “Fresh Off The Boat” written by celebrity chef Eddie Huang (the “Eddie” character is based on him) and I haven’t read that book yet but I intend to, simply because I am a huge fan of the sitcom it inspired.

Louis and Jessica moved to the USA – where they met each other – from Taiwan when they were either in their late teens or early 20s, I think. I am not certain…I am just going by information given on a couple episodes, like the one where Evan isn’t sure if he should use his American name or his Chinese name to open a checking account, and the one where Louis’ brother (played by Ken Jeong) comes to visit. In that episode, it’s revealed that Louis’ father told him and his brother that he could afford to send one of them to America but not the other, and Louis jumped at the opportunity, something his brother never really forgave him for. In the first episode I mentioned, Jessica tells Evan that she used to go only by her Chinese name, but that no Americans could pronounce it properly. Incidentally, I don’t have any idea how to spell her Chinese name, so…yeah.

The show is significant to many Asian-American people for the simple reason that it’s only the second (I think) prime-time network TV sitcom in the USA to center around an Asian-American family. The other one – I can’t remember the name of it off the top of my head – was about Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho and her family, and it was on the air way back in the 1990s. “Fresh Off The Boat” is set in the 1990s, incidentally, and the Margaret Cho sitcom (“All-American Girl”?) is referenced – and there’s a short clip from it – in one episode, after (I think) Jessica mentions something about how there aren’t any Asian people on American TV.

And above and beyond the fact that I find Constance Wu to be pretty – this may not make any sense to anyone but me, but she is pretty in the same way that Shelley Long (Diane on “Cheers”) is pretty, in my opinion – I also think she’s really funny in her portrayal of tiger mom Jessica Huang.

And above and beyond both of those things, Constance Wu has been quite outspoken on social media and in interviews regarding the phenomenon of “whitewashing” in Hollywood. “Whitewashing” is the phenomenon of white people being cast in roles written for nonwhite people. More recently, she spoke out quite passionately (and compellingly) about “white saviors” in Hollywood movies, such as a new movie (I don’t remember the title) that’s set in China I think…and Matt Damon is the film’s hero.

Being that I am white, things like “whitewashing” and “white saviors” and things like that aren’t things that I might notice, even though they’re right out in the open for everyone to see. I mean, for example, in the movie “The Last Samurai,” there’s only one samurai left in all of Japan…and it’s Tom Cruise?

Really?

That’s just one of the most apparent examples, there have been many others. And though I try to be as socially conscious as I can be, I don’t always see everything like that.

And going back to the FOTB episode where Jessica talks about why she chose to start going by “Jessica” instead of her Chinese name (she went by “Bob” for a while because she liked the “bob” haircut and didn’t realize “Bob” was a man’s name), that’s something that I as a white person with a pretty generic Anglo-American sort of name have never experienced. Nobody I have ever met in my entire life has ever had a problem pronouncing “Michael.” As a matter of fact, when I lived in South Korea for two years, no Korean person ever had a problem pronouncing it, because it can be phonetically written in Korean (마이클, ma ee keul, say it three times fast) in such a way that sounds pretty much exactly like it does in English.

And yeah, most every ESL student I taught over there had an English name, because many Westerners (and non-Koreans in general) have a hard time pronouncing Korean names. I mention that because I already knew that many Asian people prefer to go by English names when they are around English speakers, it’s just that I had never seen this phenomenon be the central plot point of an episode of a sitcom.

So anyways, getting back to my loser-ly, schoolboy-ish crush on a female celebrity, not only do I find Constance Wu to be pretty in a wholesome, all-American girl next door who is way the hell out of your league but nice to you anyway sort of way – she’s got a pet bunny rabbit, which oh my God how adorable is that – not only is she a talented comedic actor on quite possibly the funniest TV show currently in production (is there gonna be a third season of “Black Jesus”?), she is also raising my level of social consciousness.

And quite possibly most importantly, with regard to what prompted me to risk public embarrassment and write all this down, just recently, Ms. Wu wrote a tweet that made my sad, loser-ly little heart just absolutely flutter:

She told her followers on Twitter – she called them struggling little fishes, if memory serves – to think about the David Foster Wallace essay “This Is Water” to help them get through their daily lives.

I think I saw that Tweet on Facebook after a Facebook friend shared it. I pretty much immediately followed Ms. Wu on Twitter…which is when I saw her selfie with her pet rabbit, and the rabbit sticker on the back of her phone, and that is the cutest damn selfie on the internet, I don’t care what anybody says.

“This Is Water” was a commencement speech DFW gave, I think, I guess maybe at Amherst, his alma mater. I didn’t know for sure what that particular essay/speech was about when I saw the Tweet, but the fact that somebody I already thought highly of for various reasons is also a fan of one of my favorite authors, well, it is a fact I like, loser though it may make me seem to be.

And anyways, it turns out that I had read “This Is Water” before, and I actually have a PDF of it here on my phone. A while back, somebody on Facebook – somebody from a secular humanist Facebook page I no longer follow, if memory serves – was up in arms over the fact that in “This Is Water,” DFW makes the claim that there is really no atheism, because everybody worships something, be it money, or power, or themselves, or any number of things.

I have gotten in countless arguments online over the issue of whether “atheism” can be a sort of religion. I maintain that it most certainly can be a whole lot like a religion: for example there’s a lot of in-group/out-group behavior in atheist circles. Tons of it. And don’t even get me started on how the political views of many atheists in America line up almost perfectly with those of the religious right in America.

But I don’t want to waste any more of my time arguing that point. At any rate, I understand exactly what DFW meant, and I agree with him.

The main idea behind “This Is Water” is that people, by default, are selfish creatures. This is due to the fact that every one of us experiences life from our own point of view. We are, in fact, at the exact center of every experience we have ever had. Therefore it’s natural for us to perceive our own lives and our own experiences as being more relevant and more “real” than the experiences of others. But, as DFW wrote in the essay/commencement speech, we can choose to “adjust our default settings” to be more aware of our surroundings and of others.

DFW says, quite correctly, that this sort of awareness is very difficult to achieve and maintain. But also that it’s quite worth the effort it requires.

The thing about “everybody worships” is also true. If you’re an atheist who derives a smug sort of satisfaction from the (absurd) notion that your being an atheist makes you by default “smarter” than every religious person on the planet, well, DFW might say (and I would agree) that you worship your own intellect, and you therefore feel the need to constantly prove to everyone how smart you are.

Such as, for example, by throwing a fit when somebody writes a damn good essay with a damn good point about waking up and learning to see the world outside of your own skull because of a minor semantic point about “atheism,” which even though such a reaction requires selective reading and irrationality and anger and all sorts of things that really religious people do when somebody questions their religion, atheism is still not a “religion” to you, and DFW was crazy for questioning you, and so on.

At any rate, DFW’s making the conscious choice (and effort) to be (or at least try his best to be) aware of other people and their concerns – he wrote about this in the nonfiction essay “E Unibus Pluram,” sort of – led to his being one of the greatest fiction writers of all time, in my opinion as well as the opinion of many others.

Reading his fiction is like being put inside the brain and body of the characters he creates. There is an incredible amount of detail put into descriptions of their thoughts and motivations and obsessions and idiosyncrasies (and addictions), and one thing that I think set DFW apart from most other fiction writers was that he was able to write about all these things clearly and non-judgmentally – there isn’t a lot of “moralizing” in his writing, I mean – and even if the reader and the character have nothing whatsoever in common other than the fact that they are both members of the same species, the reader empathizes with that character. With those characters.

DFW’s fictional characters were sometimes seemingly superhuman in their abilities – Hal Incandenza in “Infinite Jest” has an eidetic memory and can quote dictionary definitions (including not only the etymology of any given word but also how different dictionaries and different editions of dictionaries defined words differently) off the top of his head at age 11, for example, and on top of that Hal is one heck of a junior tennis player – but they were also flawed and vulnerable and, well, human.

There isn’t a lot of “moralizing,” as such, but there are philosophical questions that are raised from time to time. It may even be said that certain of these questions – I regret I can’t list which philosopher/s are being referenced with these questions off the top of my head – are in fact the central theme in DFW’s writing, whether we’re talking about his fiction or his nonfiction.

As a matter of fact, the very same philosophical issue brought up in “This Is Water” – the idea that “everyone worships,” that people have to consciously force themselves out of their own heads and be aware of other people – is brought up within the first hundred pages (including quite a few pages in the “NOTES AND ERRATA” section in the back) of “Infinite Jest,” both when Remy Marathe and Hugh Steeply are discussing this issue in more or less explicitly philosophical terms and also in the corresponding locker room/“little buddy” sections from Enfield Tennis Academy.

Marathe (a wheelchair-bound assassin/triple agent [he’s pretending to pretend to be an informant]; Marathe is a Quebecois Separatist, i.e. he wants Quebec to secede from the fictional Organization of North American Nations, the acronym of which [O.N.A.N.] being a reference to a story in the Bible about a fellow named Onan who chose to “spill his seed upon the ground” rather than impregnate his dead brother’s wife: large dumpsters filled with toxic waste that the USA fires through the air across the [slightly altered] Canadian border that spill upon the ground [as it were] being a rather ham-fisted [and intentionally so, I would venture] sort of visual aid to this reference) criticizes the American way of thinking – or at least his interpretation of it – as being incredibly self-centered and ultimately nihilistic. Americans, Marathe says, care only about their immediate gratification, while Canadians (or at least Quebecois separatist agents/terrorists such as himself) devote themselves to higher causes, in his case the “liberation” of Quebec from O.N.A.N.

Steeply mocks Marathe, and also points out that Marathe’s motivation for being a triple agent is pretty much exactly what he describes the American philosophy to be: Marathe, you see, is risking both his own life and the success of the agency he works for (“Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents,” or in English “The Wheelchair Assassins;” I had to look the French term up in the book; I took a total of six semesters’ worth of French in high school and college but I am terrible at it) in order to help his wife get medical treatment from the USA. Marathe had just gone on something of a tear (in English, but using French syntax) on how romantic love – the end-all, be-all for most Americans, as he saw it – was ultimately only love of the sensation that the “loved” person gives the person who loves them, and therefore it was a hollow and solipsistic sort of “love;” i.e. really only self-love. Steeply disagrees, and points out Marathe’s hypocrisy.

The corresponding scenes at Enfield Tennis Academy mirror this exchange: the ETA kids (the guys, anyway) discuss philosophical aspects of the ways they are being subtly manipulated by their coaches and “prorectors” at ETA. Tennis is an individual sport, and all the kids at ETA are – at all times – vying for a higher rank; that is to say they are always competing with each other, always trying to defeat each other on the court. But the ETA staff – by pushing each ETA kid to his/her absolute individual physical and mental limits – provides the ETA kids a sense of community by being their common enemy. It’s basically the same “interests of the individual vs. interests of the group” question that Marathe and Steeply are discussing on a mountainside near Tuscon, AZ. (The fictional Enfield Tennis Academy is in the metro Boston, MA area, FYI.)

It’s worth noting that I began re-re-reading “Infinite Jest” after I typed the paragraph beginning with “DFW’s characters” and also the first sentence of the next paragraph. I wanted to refresh my memory, I guess, and since I have “Infinite Jest” on my phone’s Kindle app, I figured what the heck.

The first two times I read “Infinite Jest” – yes, it’s 1079 pages long, and yes, I intend to read the whole thing again this third time – I actually found these sections rather tedious. The thing about “Infinite Jest” is that the plot – in addition to not being anywhere close to being linear (the conversation between Marathe and Steeply occurs in late April, and the interspersed ETA scenes occur the following November, for example) – has several pretty big holes in it.

And those “holes in the plot” are not like “plot holes” as in the sense of “Indiana Jones does not actually make any difference whatsoever in the outcome of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’” or “there’s no way in hell that one blonde kid in the original ‘Karate Kid’ movie would just walk into Daniel-san’s crane kick at the end” plot holes, they are “holes in the plot” that were (at the risk of being florid) “dug” intentionally. The reader has to piece everything together, and even then it can’t be determined one way or the other if the reader is correct.

Although I am reasonably sure about what happens to Hal. It’s hinted at pretty heavily in the first hundred pages, and sorry if anyone considers this a spoiler, but it has to do (in my opinion) with the fact that Hal enjoys being secretive about his marijuana use as much (if not more) than the actual marijuana use itself. He likes sneaking around and getting high, and it’s mentioned several times that he likes the sneaking around as much as he likes the getting high.

I have read interpretations that involve ghosts, and, well, even though the ghost of Hal’s dad does appear to a (hospitalized and on the edge of death and probably hallucinating) character near the end of the book, well, I don’t think ghosts had anything to do with it. Unless by “ghosts” you mean “memories” and “psychological traumas” and that sort of thing.

This transition is a bit abrupt, I admit (I happened upon the word “discursive” in “Infinite Jest” the other day and had to look it up, coincidentally), but when I first envisioned this blog post, I wanted to mention Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction as well. I recently read “The Remains of the Day” by him, and I read “A Pale View Of Hills” a few years back.

My link to DFW was orignally intended to be something about how Ishiguro’s writing goes so deep into the psyches of his protagonists that he doesn’t seem to leave much (if any) trace of himself in his fiction. Many authors employ distinct styles and idiosyncrasies in their writing – Kurt Vonnegut, for example (a major plot point in “Infinite Jest” may or may not have been inspired by the KV short story “The Euphio Question,” actually) – to the point that anyone who has read anything by them can recognize their writing within a few sentences or paragraphs.

Ishiguro – and admittedly I have only read two of his novels – does not seem to have idiosyncrasies like this, unless you can count “clarity” and “lucidity” as “idiosyncrasies.” The two aforementioned novels are deeply engaging on an emotional and psychological level, they tell their stories with a level of depth and nuance that is pretty much unparalleled by pretty much any other author I have ever read…except for maybe DFW, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or George Eliot, maybe.

I was going to try to draw a connection between Ishiguro and DFW by way of a “the author is invisible” sort of approach, I mean that their respective fiction is so clearly written and lucid that they – the authors – are nowhere to be found, so to speak, but after re-re-reading the first hundred pages of “Infinite Jest,” well, anybody who reads that novel and claims it isn’t chock full of idiosyncrasies is, well, full of crap. The same guy that wrote that – with all the “and but so”s and the foot/endnotes and the extremely long and detailed scene and character descriptions – is easily identifiable as the same guy that wrote “This Is Water” and “The Pale King” and pretty much all (or at least most) of DFW’s other stuff. Not that this is a bad thing, you understand.

And now that I think about it, a recurring theme in both “The Remains of the Day” – a novel about an English butler thinking back over his life – and “A Pale View Of Hills” – a novel about a Japanese woman whose adult daughter committed suicide who is reminiscing about when she was pregnant with that daughter – is how memory is not always as perfect as we would like it to be, and how when we look back on our lives so far, we (at least many of us) question if we made the right decisions in our lives, things like that.

I suppose Ishiguro actually did “write himself into” both “A Pale View Of Hills” and “The Remains of the Day,” at least to a degree: he was born in Japan, and he moved to England. The protagonist of “A Pale View Of Hills” is Japanese, and she moves to England, after marrying an Englishman. And perhaps – just perhaps – the pretty much self-imposed alienation from most of British society of the butler in “The Remains of the Day” is also Ishiguro peeking through the pages at us. Maybe. The butler is completely detached from everyone else in the novel, at any rate, and sees this as his own form of “dignity.”

At any rate, I think the thing that actually made Ishiguro remind me of DFW (and vice-versa), on top of their prose being among the highest-quality prose I have ever personally read, “A Pale View Of Hills” also has quite a few quirky interpretations of it floating around online, interpretations that require the reader to, well, make stuff up.

For example, in the parts of “A Pale View Of Hills” that are set in post-WWII Japan, the protagonist befriends a single Japanese mother and her young daughter. The protagonist is pregnant with the daughter that kills herself many years later in England, remember.

The woman she befriends (sorry for not remembering any names; I don’t remember the butler’s name off the top of my head, either) is a horrible mother. She neglects her daughter throughout the novel, and at the end she drowns the little girl’s kittens because they are moving to either America or England, I can’t remember, with the mother’s boyfriend.

I have read theories online that claim the pregnant mother and the neglectful mother are actually the same person, and the person telling the story is crazy, and so on and so forth. And sure, a person could read the novel that way – just like a person could read “Infinite Jest” as ending with a ghost of a dead father breaking into a stash of drugs and force-feeding his son drugs which would fry the son’s brain and render him incapable of communicating with anyone but his ghostly father – but doing so ignores what’s actually in the actual text itself, and to my view diminishes the text itself. But what do I know, and so on.

At any rate, if anyone reads all this, I hope they don’t insert things from their own imaginations into it. But at the same time, I recognize that to some degree, they are going to have to do just that, otherwise this whole post is just a bunch of words strung together, just a bunch of phonetic symbols arranged on a screen.

(Does that make any sense?)

I don’t know how to wrap this up – I said from the beginning it would be “scatterbrained” – but as I mentioned at the beginning, I am a fan of Constance Wu. And it gives me some sort of a weird, kindred feeling to know that a person from TV I like reads at least one of the same authors I do and (at least presumably) shares the same sort of philosophy that author expressed in his writing, because for the most part, I share it, too.

And please understand that I am fully aware that Constance Wu does not need or necessarily even want my “approval” or “admiration” or whatever, and that on the one-in-a-million chance she actually happened to see and read this blog post and read it, she might even explicitly feel compelled to say that she doesn’t need or want my “approval” or “admiration” or whatever.

Please understand that that would be fine with me.

I just hope she wouldn’t be weirded out by it. By this blog post, I mean. Though I understand completely if she were.

It’s sort of like – writing is sort of like, I mean – the “philosophy of tennis” idea expressed several times in “Infinite Jest”: the goal is to send something away from you which does not come back. In tennis it’s the tennis ball that you don’t want to come back, in writing it’s, well, the things you write. You want people to understand your thoughts, and you want them to interpret your thoughts the way you think you think them. You don’t want them to take something like the fact that you have a mild crush on a famous person and twist it into something nasty or bad.

So you try your best to explain what you mean, and what you mean by what you mean, and how you’d still think that famous person was really awesome and cool even if she wasn’t Diane-from-“Cheers” pretty, and even if she didn’t have a pet bunny rabbit, and so on.

And you hope – like a tennis player who has just successfully whacked the ball over the net to his/her opponent’s side of the court – that what you have written will not come back to you, or at least that it won’t come back to you in such a way that you can’t deflect.

Or, at least, I do.

Thank you for reading.

(Whoever you are.)

FISH CANNOT CARRY GUNS

I suppose one of the many drawbacks of trying to be a nice person is that people end up telling you things you don’t really want to know. They get something on their mind, and nobody else will listen, and so they tell you about it.

Just to clarify, please review my first sentence, particularly the part that says “trying to be a nice person.” Please note that I did not (as in did *not*) write “one of the many drawbacks of being a nice person” and so on. I am trying to be a nice person. I never claimed to be one. That is to say, I am not attempting to talk myself up with this rather personal/self-indulgent bit of prose, I am merely relating my experiences.

People tell me things. I don’t know if it’s because of some aspect of my face that sets them at ease, or if it’s the fact that I try to be a nice person; I really have no idea. I do not resent this sort of thing, on the contrary, I feel honored when someone confides in me, and I do my very best to offer advice, or if I have no experience in the sort of situation they are describing, all I can offer is an open ear and empathy.

And sometimes an open ear and empathy is all that people – including me – need. Sometimes advice does no good. Sometimes there are situations in life for which nothing can be done, other than simply to accept these situations for what they are.

My main course of study in college was “journalism.” And other than a few freelance articles here and there, and other than a handful of articles I wrote for the Traveler (the University of Arkansas’ student newspaper) as a student, I have not made any money from the specific course of study I chose.

There are a couple reasons for this. Actually let’s just go ahead and say there are three reasons for this:

1. While I do possess something of a knack for the written word, and while this “knack” was in fact augmented and honed during my time as a student, upon graduation, I found that it would be next to impossible to find a steady job writing for a newspaper that paid significantly more than the job I already had, which was working in a soil science laboratory and doing related field work. My rent and utilities were covered by the wages I earned from this job, and it was a full-time, 40 hours a week, eight am to five pm sort of job. A newspaper job – assuming I could get one – would have entailed more than 40 hours a week, it would not have been an eight to five job, and in all likelihood the pay would not have been any more (and possibly even less) than the job I had in the soil science lab.

You could say I should have chosen a more practical thing to major in; I would reply that you would be correct, were you to say that, but that at the time I chose my major, “creative writing” was what I really wanted to major in, but that I chose “journalism” as a matter of practicality.

So yeah, “oh, the irony” and so on and so forth.

2. You will note that I made it a point to add “assuming I could get one” in the above reason/excuse for why I haven’t made very much money from journalism in the 13 years since I graduated from the U of A. There is a reason I added that disclaimer: many – if not most – newspaper and magazine jobs require an internship process. That is to say, they require new employees to work without pay – sometimes for upwards of six months or more – before they will actually give these employees any sort of salary. This was at least the case around the time I graduated from the U of A. I wasn’t fully aware of that aspect of the field when I decided to major in it. I was merely following what seemed to be my natural talent, hoping that if I did what people were continually telling me I was good at, somehow everything would work out.

Perhaps if I had been a little more patient, I could have managed to work full-time at an hourly job and intern for free at a newspaper or magazine in the hopes that said newspaper or magazine would later put me on full-time. I suppose I have no one to blame but myself for doing what seemed at the time to be the practical thing and taking a full-time job in a mostly unrelated field.

3. While I do apparently have the sort of face or “demeanor” or “personality” or whatever you want to call it that generally puts other people at ease – the type of (whatever) that makes people “open up” and tell me things they wouldn’t dream of telling most people – and while this sort of (whatever) is something akin to the “wet dream” of many exploitative journalists who expose people’s vulnerabilities and secrets and what have you for profit, I am burdened in this regard by an all-but-forgotten remnant of what used to be called “being a decent person”: my conscience.

If someone tells me their deepest and darkest secret, I do not run off and tell everyone. I do not have the pretentiousness to congratulate myself for being able to trick someone into confiding in me so that I may profit from their having done so. As a matter of fact I do not “trick” anyone into confiding in me, they generally do so entirely of their own volition.

Perhaps I should have studied psychology instead.

I will now relate an example of someone confiding in me. I don’t feel that relating this example will do anyone any harm, since for one I will not relate the specific identity of this person, and for two this person has been dead for a little over five years at this point.

As a matter of fact, my relating this to you – whoever you are – is me confiding in you, whoever you might be.

Consider that a warning. You are free to stop reading right now, if you don’t want to be bothered or burdened with it.

But on with the show:

The person in question – the deceased – was notoriously quiet. This fact was expounded upon in his eulogy, as a matter of fact. He quite simply did not talk very much, at least not to most people. I worked with the fellow for a little under three years, off and on.

When I first met him, I had recently taken a job working for my stepfather. He and a small crew were building a decent-sized house, and I had just recently returned to the USA from a two-year stint as an ESL teacher in Gimpo, South Korea. This was the “full-time job in an unrelated field” I mentioned before. This was in summer of 2008. I didn’t have a job lined up when I got back – as a matter of fact I had planned on returning to South Korea, but for various reasons, well, I didn’t.

This notoriously quiet fellow had just gotten out of prison. I am not 100% sure exactly what the nature of his crime was, but he told me later that the charge was “simple battery” and possession of a small amount of “ice,” which I have read (or maybe heard on “Breaking Bad”) is slang for low-grade methamphetamine.

Despite his somewhat “rough” looking exterior, he and I always got along at work. He was an excellent carpenter, and as working people around my part of the country say, “he didn’t mind working.” He was a very hard worker, and he did in fact come in late a few times because he had stayed up too late the previous evening drinking or doing whatever he did late at night, but once he was at work he worked, and if he was ever hung over he didn’t let on that he was.

He had a tattoo on one shoulder with a skull that had the letters “F T W” under it, and another tattoo across the fingers of I think his right hand that said “O Z Z Y,” I suppose in sort of an homage to the “L O V E” and “H A T E” tattoos Ozzy Osbourne has (or maybe had) across his fingers.

This fellow was a pretty big Ozzy fan, and a fan of metal-type music in general. Once, while still on probation from his short stint in a Louisiana prison, he took a pretty serious risk – one I am pretty sure he knew he was taking – by crossing state lines into Texas to go see OzzFest with a group of his friends. He didn’t get caught, at any rate, and were he still alive, even though I have not and will not mention his name anywhere in this blog post, I wouldn’t even think about putting a potentially incriminating bit of information like that down for whoever to read.

It was quite stupid of him to do that, nonetheless he did it anyway.

After the house was built, he helped my stepfather and I on a great many carpentry jobs. And though he and I were quite a bit different, well, at least at work, we became friends. We got along and joked around with each other and that sort of thing, and he and I worked alone together for more hours than I can really count. I might have been able to give you a rough estimate some time around 2011, when he committed suicide, but the intervening five years have blurred the various jobs he and I worked together on, and all I can say for sure is that he and I worked together quite a lot, and despite our differences, and despite his continually getting in minor trouble with the law, all in all he was quite possibly the best – or at least my favorite – coworker I have ever had.

Excluding family members, of course. 🙂

He was quiet, is what his step-uncle said as he gave his eulogy. The Garth Brooks song “The Dance” played at his funeral, and I don’t know if I should be writing this or not but I remember Garth Brooks once said that some teenager who committed suicide (I think) said in his suicide note that he wanted “The Dance” to be played at his funeral, but according to Garth Brooks, if that teenager had understood the meaning of “The Dance” at all, he wouldn’t have committed suicide, or something like that, because the chorus of “The Dance” goes as follows:

“And now

I’m glad I didn’t know

the way it all would end

the way it all would go”

and if that weren’t enough, I assume Mr. Brooks reasoned, the chorus of the song continues thusly:

“our lives

are better left to chance

I could have missed the pain

but I’d have had to miss

the-e-uh-uh dance”

which I realize that many people who might read this blog have zero appreciation for country music, and the people who do appreciate country music may or may not like Garth Brooks (“The Dance” is one of my all-time favorite songs of any genre, FYI, but a lot of Garth’s stuff I don’t care for), nonetheless the basic “message” or whatever of the song is that things don’t always go the way you want them to, and as a matter of fact sometimes they turn out rotten, but to avoid situations where great things could happen simply because you are afraid something terrible will happen, well, you shouldn’t do that. Or something.

Hanging oneself with a belt sometime after midnight on a Sunday/Monday is not a good example of living out the message espoused by “The Dance,” at any rate.

The first job he and I worked on – the decent-sized house – has a pretty tall roof with a pretty steep slope, I think it was “nine and twelve” in carpentry-speak, which puts the angle of the roof in relation to the floor of the house somewhere around 45 degrees.

The house is built into the side of a hill, and even though most of the house itself – four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large kitchen and dining room, and a living room with a vaulted ceiling probably around 20 feet high in the center – is on a single, top-of-the-hill level floor, there’s also a spacious garage and basement underneath the main floor of the house. The attic area of this house, square foot-wise – is almost as large as the main living area, and it could have easily been made into a second story, or a third story if you count the garage and basement, which you might as well.

But the owners of the house didn’t want a an “upstairs” area in their house, they just wanted a tall roof, which many people nowadays seem to want, or at least seemed to want eight years ago, when the house was being built. So that’s what we built for them.

Our basic plan of attack for this house was to dig a trench – about eight or ten feet deep – at the top of the slope, just in front of where the front of the finished house would be. We tied rebar and wire into big squares, then lowered them into the trench. When we were done tying wire and rebar together, we filled the trench with concrete.

In case the purpose of this is not immediately apparent, we did this to create a retaining wall, one that would prevent the soil and eventually the foundation of the house from eroding away during rainstorms.

After the retaining wall had been given time to set up and harden, we hired someone to dig out the hill on the lower side of the retaining wall and to flatten out the area where the house would sit. After that, we laid out the foundation of the house with a transit, batter boards, and string.

Then a bricklayer came and essentially built the bottom half of the house with cinderblocks. Normally, on a house with conventional flooring – flooring made of wood, as opposed to a concrete slab, which is more common nowadays – built on more or less level ground, the cinderblock foundation would only be a few courses of blocks high, enough to lift the wooden floor off of the ground and provide a few feet of crawlspace under the floor. But in the case of this house, which you will remember is built into the side of a hill, the cinderblock foundation is somewhere around twelve or thirteen courses high. This serves to bring the back side of the house up to the same level as the front side of the house.

To help you envision this house, as in the finished product, when you approach the house on foot from the front side, when you walk onto the front porch – a foot or two above ground level – then enter through the front door, the main floor of the house is more or less at the same level as the front porch. If you walk straight through the house – through the foyer and the living room with vaulted ceilings, then step into the kitchen on your right and then go out one of the back doors onto the back porch – the other back door opens from the master bedroom – you will find that you are now approximately eight feet or so above ground level. When you are on the back porch, I mean.

The reader will have to pardon my digression there, if she or he found it unnecessary. The reason I added it was to help illustrate that there is quite a bit of distance – something like 30 feet, I think – from the tip of the roof to the ground on each gable end of the house.

To back up just a bit, after the bricklayer – who incidentally did quite well for himself on this job: he returned after we were mostly done and laid bricks (like reddish clay exterior bricks) around a lot of the house also; as a sidenote this fellow is quite likable and friendly, and he is a big NASCAR fan and often talked about going to various races here and there…I won’t mention his name here, but if you live in the El Dorado area and need any brick work done, I can give you contact information; he’s not the cheapest bricklayer in this area but he does damn good work – built the foundation/lower half of the house, we built the floor. After we built the floor, we put up most of the stud walls – they were taller than normal 8-foot stud walls, I want to say they were 10 foot but I don’t remember for sure – and after that we began setting the special-ordered pre-fab roof trusses on top of the stud walls.

The house is about fifty feet wide, so in order to give them the pitch and height that the homeowners desired, the trusses had to be quite tall, somewhere around 16-18 feet tall, if memory serves. As these special-ordered, pre-fab trusses were to be delivered on a flatbed truck trailer – like a quote-unquote “18-wheeler” type trailer – they had to be laid on their side in a stack. And since it would be impossible to fit a 16 or so foot item on a truck bed that was roughly half that amount of feet in width (without having several feet hanging off on each side, which would make driving down the highway impossible) the trusses were split roughly in half: there were trapezoidal pieces that were designed to sit atop the stud walls, and triangular pieces that were designed to sit atop the trapezoidal pieces.

So, what we had to do was to put the bottom, trapezoidal truss pieces on first, then come back later and attach the triangular pieces to the top of the trapezoidal pieces.

Being that these truss pieces were over fifty feet in length, roughly 8 feet tall, and constructed out of lumber and metal nail plates – and therefore quite cumbersome – this part of the building process was done with a crane. My role in the process was to attach each truss piece to the end of the line attached to the crane. The crane operator then (very carefully) maneuvered the truss piece over the house, as closely as possible to where it was supposed to sit on top of the stud walls.

Two carpenters waited on the truss piece to be set down on top of the walls, and using their hammers bumped the truss piece into the pre-measured pencil marks where it was supposed to go. When the truss was in place, they drove a couple nails through the truss pieces into the top of the stud walls.

This was only part of the process, however. The trusses also had to be secured at their tops, otherwise they’d simply fall over, pulling the nails out at the bottom.

This part of the process was performed by a third carpenter, in this instance the fellow I am more or less writing this blog post about, the one who has now been dead for a little over five years.

This fellow climbed up a ladder and nailed pre-measured and pre-cut pieces of 2 x 4 lumber across the tops of these trapezoidal truss pieces. I think he used two pieces of 2 x 4 to connect each consecutive truss piece to the next.

From his position atop the ladder – which was leaned up against the outside gable truss piece, which was secured by a temporary brace to the outside wall of the house – he could only reach the first and maybe second truss piece. So, instead of taking the time to climb down the ladder (which was an extension ladder), retract the ladder, carry it to the next spot, extend the ladder, position it against the most recently placed truss piece, then climb back up the ladder and secure the next one or maybe two truss pieces, and then repeating this process over and over, do you want to know what he did?

He climbed up on the truss pieces he had already secured, on his hands and knees, and waited for the crane to place the next truss. When it was placed, he nailed a couple of pieces of 2 x 4 to it, securing it to the previous secured truss, then he crawled onto it and waited for the next truss to be placed.

He did this without the slightest bit of hesitation or fear. The trusses – big, floppy things that they were – wobbled a little under his weight, even though they were secured by nails at the top and bottom.

There’s probably some sort of moral or something to be derived here: the trusses on this house – and the trusses on your house, if you live in a house – did not have much strength in and of themselves. When the 8′ by 4′ sheets of plywood were laid across them and stapled down, however, they became quite strong. This sort of thing is apparent in many aspects of carpentry, from stud walls to floor joists to garage shelves: each individual piece is not particularly strong by itself, but when put together in the right way, the pieces form something that is quite sturdy. But I digress.

From where I stood – remember that the house in question is built into the side of a hill – the fellow crawling on top of the truss pieces appeared as if he were quite a ways up in the air. The spot where I attached – or helped attach, I honestly can’t remember – each truss to the crane line was at least a few feet above the floor level of the house, and the hill tapered on off another 15 feet or so (from where I stood) down to the far side of the house.

The fellow crawling along the top of the truss pieces was, in fact, somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 or so feet above the floor of the house itself. But remember that the floor of the house was itself off of the actual ground about 8 or 10 feet, because of the house having been built into the side of a hill, and there being a garage and basement under the floor.

So, to me, the fellow appeared to be quite a bit higher off of “the ground” than he actually was. To be sure, falling 16 or so feet and hitting a solid plywood floor – one littered with lumber, power tools, and various hazards, not to mention interior walls one might ricochet off of on the way down – would be no picnic. At any rate, I think I was more worried about the fellow falling off the truss pieces than he was. My own blood pressure was soaring during this part of the construction process, even though I wasn’t in any danger myself.

The fellow crawling along the top of the truss pieces didn’t seem to mind doing it at all. Or if he did, he certainly didn’t say much of anything about it.

I do know one thing: even after several subsequent years of carpentry work, and finally more or less getting over my fear of working on rooftops (I found that my blood pressure could actually reach much higher levels than I had imagined while helping “deck” the roof of this house with plywood, after all the trusses were placed), there is no dollar amount anyone could pay me that would embolden me enough to go crawling on hands and knees (with a hammer in one hand and a couple pieces of 2 x 4 in the other) across wobbly truss pieces like that fellow did. If someone threatened to shoot me if I refused to do so, I likely would ask them to please not aim at my head or at any vital organs.

This fellow impressed me many other times, not only with his climbing abilities and fearlessness on rooftops and whatnot, but also with his skill as a carpenter. Many other times, many more than I care to list here.

It sounds incredibly stuck up for me to say, but if we hadn’t worked together, he and I would not likely have been friends. And I don’t know if he ever considered me to be his “friend,” but I considered him to be my friend, at least my “friend at work,” which if you’ve ever had a job you know what I mean.

After doing quite a few smaller jobs with him – building porches, remodeling rooms, putting metal roofs on (I was always the fellow who handed the pieces up to the people on the roof, ha ha) and various things – we began work on another, smaller house. This house has a concrete slab for a foundation, and we had to do quite a bit of “dirt work” before we got to where we could build concrete forms (this fellow knew a lot about building concrete forms, and I was more or less his “helper” for a week or so; actually I was more or less his “helper” a lot of the time we worked together and I learned a lot by working with him), and anyways at some point during this process we had a few days off where someone else had to come in – maybe it was the plumber laying pipes under what would become the concrete floor of the house, maybe it was the crew that poured the slab, I don’t remember – and work on the job site, and we (the carpenters) were not needed there.

During that time, we did a really small job on a trailer house, repairing a couple sections of floor that had rotted out.

And remember, when I say “we” at this point, I am talking about me, the fellow I have been talking about, and my stepfather. My stepfather had left me and the one fellow at the trailer house either to go get building materials or to discuss something with either the owner of the trailer or the owner of the house we were just getting started on or somebody. At any rate, I and the one fellow were there at the trailer house where the floor was rotting out in places, and nobody else was there.

I found a few pot seeds in the ratty shag carpet of this trailer house, if memory serves. But I digress.

The fellow – who was known to most people as “quiet,” including his family – told me something that day. I don’t know if “confided” would actually be the proper word, because he didn’t really get specific about what he meant by what he said, and I actually totally misinterpreted what he said when he said it to me.

He mentioned that everybody always seemed to “bitch” at him, no matter what he did. His mom and stepdad bitched at him – he lived in a camper trailer behind his mom’s house for most of the time I knew him – his girlfriend (and mother of two of his four kids) bitched at him, everybody bitched at him, no matter what he did. If he drank too much and got in trouble with the law – something that happened a few times while we worked together – he got bitched at. If he tried to act right and be a good guy, he got bitched at. No matter what he did, it seemed, it always ended up with somebody bitching at him.

“I can’t take this shit no more,” is what he said to me, as we were deciding how to fix the rotten spot in the floor of the trailer house with pot seeds in the ratty shag carpeting.

Since his girlfriend had been the last complaint he mentioned, I took “I can’t take this shit no more” to mean that he was going to break up with her. They had a lot of trouble during their time together, and I assumed he was planning on splitting up with her.

They had begun seeing each other during the construction of the other house I wrote about, the one where he fearlessly crawled across the tops of truss pieces. I think he met her at the gas station she worked at. While we were building the bigger house, she would bring him lunch, and I think they would mess around a little in the back of her car – or maybe it was his car, maybe she was driving his car, I don’t remember for sure – during the lunch hour.

At any rate, he had been telling me and my stepdad that he and his girlfriend hadn’t been getting along very well – he talked to both of us quite a bit, despite his reputation of being “quiet” – and anyways like I said when he told me “I can’t take this shit no more” I thought he meant that he was done with his girlfriend, who he had been seeing for almost three years at that point.

In retrospect, I don’t think that’s what he meant at all.

At the time of his death, he had no driver’s license, and he was unable to get registration stickers for the license plate on his car. Again, I am not a “snitch” of any sort, and if the perpetrator of this minor crime weren’t dead I wouldn’t think of mentioning it, but he forged registration stickers – which were yellow at the time; in Arkansas (and probably elsewhere) these stickers change color every year to allow the police to easily tell if any given driver’s registration is up to date – using the label he peeled off of a can of vegetables – the label was yellow, like that year’s registration stickers – and a pen.

My stepfather and I would pick him up every morning from his sister’s house. Her house was quite a bit closer to the main highway than his mom’s house, and he would drive on backroads to his sister’s house every work morning and we would pick him up and go on to the job site. This was done to save time, mainly; as I said his sister lived closer to the highway than his mom (and he) did.

Going down this highway toward the job site every morning, my stepfather and I would pass a road on the right that leads to where this fellow lived. On down the highway a bit – a mile or two – there is another road on the right that leads to where this fellow’s sister lives. These two roads are connected a few miles away from the highway, and the fellow would drive from his mom’s house – which is about 10-15 minutes down the first road on the right, from the highway – to his sister’s house, which is about 2-3 minutes down the second road on the right, from the highway.

One Monday morning, as my stepfather and I were approaching the first road on the right, we saw an ambulance coming from the opposite direction, lights flashing, turn down the first road. I don’t remember if we said anything to each other, but something told me…well, something.

We went on down the highway to the second road. We went to the fellow’s sister’s house, turned around, and parked beside the road – like we had been doing every work day for at least a few weeks – and the fellow was not there. We assumed he was running late – he ran late sometimes, as I think I mentioned early on – and we sat there and waited for him for a few minutes.

We finally decided that he had overslept, and that we would have to go pick him up from his mom’s house, something that had happened once or twice before.

When we got there, the ambulance that we had seen a few minutes earlier was parked in the driveway. And the fellow’s stepfather – incidentally one of the other carpenters who helped build the larger house mentioned before, someone I also learned a few carpentry things from – was outside. He told us that the fellow had hanged himself.

Construction of the new house was delayed for a couple weeks, not only to accommodate initial shock and going to his funeral and whatnot, but also to accommodate getting a new crew together: the other fellow who was helping on this new house (he also helped on the bigger house) was friends away from work with the fellow who killed himself, and he found that he simply couldn’t work with us at the time, because of grief and that sort of thing. We reminded him of his friend, I mean.

***

You may be wondering what in the hell the title of this post is in reference to. I will tell you:

“FISH CANNOT CARRY GUNS!” is the motto of the “Rhipodon Society,” a group of three people (four if you count Horselover Fat, which no sane person would) in the Philip K. Dick novel “VALIS.” A rhipodon is some sort of fish – maybe some sort of prehistoric fish, I forget – and the narrator of “VALIS,” “Phil,” has a dream where he is one of these fish, and he tries to hold a machine gun in the dream with his fish fins but cannot do so.

Fish are significant in the novel because the fish icon used by early Christians (the same one used today by many Evangelical Christians, you probably know the icon as a “Jesus fish”) resembles a section of the “double helix” of a strand of DNA.

The “nose” of the fish is where the double helix twists, and the “tail” is visible if you cut the double helix in half roughly halfway to the next twist in the double helix.

It’s one of those things you can’t unsee once you’ve seen it, even if you’ve only seen it in your head, such as I did yesterday and today, when I read “VALIS” for the third time. I have “VALIS” on my phone; I bought it and the other two novels in the “VALIS Trilogy” – “The Divine Invasion,” which you practically need a Religious Studies degree to make heads or tails of (I don’t have one, and it made no sense to me whatsoever), and “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer,” which was actually the first PKD novel I ever read years ago, despite it being the last one he published (it wasn’t originally supposed to be part of the “VALIS Trilogy,” FYI, and doesn’t fit especially well there) – as a set for $9.99 at the Kindle Store a few years back. I have read “VALIS” twice on my phone and once (the first reading) in paperback.

Many PKD enthusiasts – a subsection of society I consider myself to be a member of – consider VALIS to be PKD’s “masterpiece.” And while I do think the novel has, well, “merit,” I don’t consider it to even be one of his better novels. Other than “The Divine Invasion,” it’s probably my least favorite of any of them…even though it’s the only one other than “A Scanner Darkly” (his best effort, in my opinion) I have read all the way through more than twice.

So why do I feel compelled to reread “VALIS,” even though I don’t think very highly of it? Well, above and beyond searching for whatever intangible thing that makes many of my fellow PKD fanatics like it so much, a central plot element in “VALIS” resonates with me personally.

“VALIS” is narrated by “Phil,” a slightly fictionalized version of its author. Other PKD novels (including “A Scanner Darkly”) are mentioned in “VALIS,” as a matter of fact. The trouble is, it is impossible to tell how much of the narrator is based in reality and how much of him is fictionalized.

Phil has an alter-ego in “VALIS” named Horselover Fat. “Philip” is apparently Greek for “Horselover,” and “Dick” is apparently German for “Fat.” Ergo, “Philip Dick” = “Horselover Fat.”

Horselover Fat, for the biggest part of the novel, is presented as a separate character from Phil, even though Phil mentions early on that he and Horselover Fat are in fact the same person. He talks to Fat and Fat talks to him, and Phil’s friends also seem to interact with Fat as if he were a completely separate person from Phil.

And no, I do not have an imaginary friend whose name is derived from translations of “Michael Walker,” just in case you were wondering…although I do conduct mock interviews with myself on my Facebook author page, no disrespect to any mentally ill person who actually talks to himself or herself intended.

Nonetheless, the event that apparently split Phil Dick’s mind roughly in half does resonate with me somewhat.

As I mentioned, one of the things that I seriously dislike about “VALIS” is that it is impossible to tell how much of “Phil” is based on the real-life Philip Kindred Dick and how much is made up. In an abstract sort of sense, like as in a “how much of any person is really real, people only present a fraction of themselves to other people, and that fraction may not even actually represent the person’s actual self at all” sort of sense, I suppose the novel is quite compelling. But being as how I, a reader who strongly identifies with what might be a completely and totally fabricated major plot element, well, to say the least, in this sense the novel is quite annoying.

“Phil” has a female friend in the novel named Gloria. Actually, I suppose she is Horselover Fat’s friend.

At the risk of copyright infringement, I will type out the first paragraph of the first chapter of “VALIS,” capitalized words appear as they do in the edition I have on my Kindle app:

“HORSELOVER FAT’S NERVOUS breakdown began the day he got the phone call from Gloria asking if he had any Nembutals. He asked her why she wanted them and she said that she intended to kill herself. She was calling everyone she knew. By now she had fifty of them, but she needed thirty or forty more to be on the safe side.”

I have no idea whether “Gloria” was based on an actual person, or if the character is totally made up. What I do know is that in the novel “VALIS,” Horselover Fat becomes something of a scholar regarding ancient religious texts, that Horselover Fat writes page after page of something he calls the “exegesis,” and that Horselover Fat is addicted to “uppers,” i.e. amphetamines.

I also know that the real-life Philip K. Dick was, for much of his career, addicted to “uppers,” and that he spent many hours writing something called the “exegesis” which was published about 20 years after his death in the early 1980s.

The “exegesis” contains Dick’s interpretation of Gnostic Christian texts, intertwined with all sorts of stuff that doesn’t make a whole lot of literal sense. This “exegesis” is something Dick actually wrote, and it is quoted partially in “VALIS” from time to time.

The entirety of what is quoted in the novel itself (plus quite a bit more) makes up an Appendix at the end of “VALIS.” This appendix is labeled “Tractates: Cryptica Scriptura.” This title is also mentioned in the novel, I think it means “Hidden Scriptures,” and I think it’s part of the “exegesis,” or maybe a short version of the “exegesis,” or something. I finished the novel itself this morning and read about half of the 52 entries in the “Cryptica Scriptura,” and they make less and less sense (and get longer and longer, and some entries aren’t in English and have no translations), and anyways I quit reading the damned thing.

It correlates ancient religious scriptures and figures and such things with events that happened in Phil/Fat’s life. The main idea of the “exegesis” is that God – or “the universe,” or something grand and all-encompassing, at least – was split in two a long time ago, that there’s a good half and a bad half, that the bad half thinks it’s the good half (or something) and the bad half is ruled by a blind “creator deity” who thinks he’s the only god, but there’s actually a bigger god above him that’s good, and this bigger, better god is trying to help the creation (the world) of the smaller blind god, but the smaller blind god fights it off, and the bigger, better god is made entirely out of information, and the early Christians got in touch with this bigger, better god through Jesus, and they knew that everything was essentially information, which is why they designed the “Jesus fish” to look like a section from a DNA strand.

It seems like, at the beginning of “VALIS,” that “Fat” is the one who came up with all this, well, nonsensical stuff, and that “Phil” doesn’t really buy any of it. “Fat” apparently seems to be the speed-taking, staying-up-for-days-at-a-time-typing-maniacally half of the narrator, and “Phil” is the more rational side of the narrator, who doesn’t quite believe any of that stuff.

As the novel goes on, the lines between these two blur quite a bit. As does the line between “Phil” the narrator of “VALIS” and “Philip K. Dick,” the author of “VALIS.”

For example, one major plot element in “VALIS” is that Phil/Fat gets “zapped” by a pink laser beam that comes pretty much out of nowhere and enables him to speak koine (common) Greek for a short time. This pink laser also tells Phil/Fat that his son Christopher is suffering from some sort of hernia that his doctor overlooked, and that if the hernia isn’t treated soon, Christopher will die. So Phil/Fat (I am not sure which one, or if it makes any difference) takes young Christopher (who has been complaining about pain) to the doctor, tells the doctor about the possible hernia, and the doctor examines Christopher and finds that he does indeed have such a hernia, and that it is indeed life threatening.

For a sci-fi novel with heavy religious overtones, that makes for an interesting plot device. The thing is, PKD spoke of this “pink laser” incident as if it were something that actually happened to him. As in him, the author, in real life.

I also know that the real-life Philip K. Dick died after having several strokes in a row, that long-term amphetamine abuse can put one at risk for stroke, and that major strokes are often accompanied by hallucinations.

I don’t know how seriously Dick – the real-life author – took any of this stuff. I am sure that (assuming he didn’t just make it all up) the “pink laser” incident was very real to him; nonetheless I have a very hard time even beginning to give any credence whatsoever to the idea that this “pink laser” existed anywhere outside his own addled brain.

So, getting back to the point, I don’t know if Gloria was real or not. And in addition to my being somewhat “annoyed” that one of my all-time favorite authors more or less documented his own descent into insanity in novel form, and that he may or may not have been insane enough at the end of his life to take these insane things he wrote about three-eyed people and “living information” and whatnot seriously, I am also very annoyed that I have no way of knowing whether “Gloria” – who you will remember is credited with Phil/Fat’s nervous breakdown – is merely a fictional character in “VALIS” or based off of someone Philip K. Dick knew in real life.

Gloria ends up committing suicide in “VALIS,” you see. Phil/Fat tries to talk her out of it, but she does it anyway, not by taking a hundred sleeping pills (Nembutals) but by jumping out of a tenth-floor window at – of all places – a drug rehab facility.

It annoys me to no end, not knowing if “Gloria” was based on a real person. Especially since the “Cryptica Scriptura” or whatever you call it repeatedly makes reference to some mythical woman who died long ago, and the quest to bring her back to life.

Gloria’s death is essentially the central theme of “VALIS.” Fat searches ancient religious texts and spends hours madly typing or scribbling notes in his “exegesis” in search of the new “savior,” not in order that he may be saved, but so Gloria can be brought back to life.

The whole book is insane. It presents itself as (at least partially) nonfiction, but which parts are nonfiction (other than references to real-life PKD novels) and which parts are fiction?

Is “Gloria” merely a plot device?

I first read “VALIS” (in paperback; I gave my copy to a friend) in 2008. The whole thing about a female friend committing suicide and giving Phil/Fat a nervous breakdown resonated quite strongly with me at the time.

I mentioned this event obliquely in another blog post, and I am not going to go into any detail here, other than to say that grief related to her quite untimely death is the principal reason I have yet to return to South Korea.

Suffice it to say that my co-worker was not the first person I had been rather close to who committed suicide.

As a matter of fact, I wrote something that could be called a “book” following this first suicide and shared it with a handful of friends. I have it saved on an old external hard drive, and out of curiosity I did a word count on it after I began writing this post.

The word count of this “book” is 82,792. I didn’t realize how long it was. It’s actually longer than my novel, which ended up being about 79,000 words.

The first “book” was written mainly as a sort of therapy; it was never edited, or for that matter even collated into a single document. It did me a lot of good to write it, and I am grateful to the people who read it.

It has not been – and will not be – published. Sorry.

Like I said, though, it was quite therapeutic. I finished it in early 2011, five or six months before my coworker hanged himself. So I guess it’s good I wrote it when I did, otherwise I might have gone full-blown Horselover Fat and started writing exegeses and Cryptica Scripturas and whatnot.

I don’t do any “uppers” stronger than coffee and energy drinks, though. Something else to consider, re PKD, is that long-term amphetamine abuse – regardless as to whether it gives one strokes or heart trouble – often leads to psychosis.

So, yeah, remember that, kids: don’t do drugs.

What led to this rather unpleasant little stroll down memory lane? I will tell you:

I got to searching for a collection of home-recorded “songs” I made in 2010 on my computer, and I couldn’t find them. I thought that I had copies of them on my current computer (which I bought in 2015), but apparently I was mistaken.

After spending an hour or two digging through CDs, looking for a copy of this collection, I looked on an old external hard drive, where I (luckily) found all the “songs” I was looking for.

While I was exploring the external hard drive, I also happened to look at a few pictures I took in 2008 of the bigger house I mentioned.

And so on.

Thank you for reading, if anyone read all of this. I will try to avoid this sort of unpleasant subject matter in the future.

TIT FOR TAT — A LOOK AT “FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD” BY ROBERT A. HEINLEIN

For my second entry under the “Books” category, I will be reviewing a somewhat infamous sci-fi novel: “Farnham’s Freehold” by Robert A. Heinlein.

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I actually don’t know if “infamous” is the right word, but suffice it to say that this particular novel has stirred up a bit of controversy over the years, at least among people who know who Robert A. Heinlein is.

I personally only became introduced to the man’s writing a few years ago, when I read perhaps his most famous novel, “Starship Troopers.”

I read “Starship Troopers” some years after first seeing Paul Verhoeven‘s film adaptation of it. And to be honest, the film didn’t impress me all that much, at least not the first time I saw it. But subsequent viewings, done on lazy afternoons out of boredom, made me find that I had been in error in dismissing the film so quickly. (I don’t care much for the sequels, by the way.)

A significant part of the story of that film (and the novel) has to do with a slightly modified conception of the word “citizen.” In the film (and the novel; the novel goes into more depth on this issue), one cannot be a “citizen” unless one is in the military. That isn’t to say that non-military people are subjugated, really: the main difference between a “citizen” and everyone else is that “citizens” are allowed to vote. Non-military people, people who aren’t “citizens,” can’t vote.

The novel explains that the rationale behind this is that if one has willingly joined the military – and “willingly” is important; no one is forced to join – one has put his or her own life at risk for the benefit of all humanity. Therefore one has shown that one’s decisions are not based upon selfish whims, but rather on what constitutes the greater good.

To be sure, in our world, this concept seems, to say the least, strange. But in the world of “Starship Troopers,” humanity is no longer divided into countries, at least not in the same way we are divided today. All of humanity is working together to fight off threats from other worlds.

And yes, this idea of “citizens” consisting entirely of military personnel is a little bit, well, “out there.” And I may delve into this issue at some point in the future here on my blog, but not today. I merely wanted to mention it to give an example of the sort of thing Heinlein speculated about.

Heinlein was known as one of the “Big Three” of “hard sci-fi,” along with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Glance at the linked article for a better description of the term “hard sci-fi” if you are not familiar with the term, but it basically refers to sci-fi that is (at least mostly) based in actual science. To be sure, notions such as time travel and parallel universes and unproven things like that creep their way into “hard sci-fi” (including “Farnham’s Freehold”), but these things are always dealt with in such a way that reflects current scientific theories about these things.

I honestly don’t remember which of the other two of the Big Three said it – it was possibly both of them; for all the vast scientific knowledge and vivid imagination Clarke and Asimov possessed, they were refreshingly humble in their approach to writing, as was Heinlein – but at least one of them (Clarke or Asimov) referred to Heinlein as the true “master” of science fiction.

And though I have only read two of his novels, I have to say that if he isn’t a “master” of the genre, I don’t think there has ever been one.

In addition to keeping the “science” part of his sci-fi scientific, Heinlein also speculated quite compellingly about the effects his imagined advances in science would have upon society, and also how society itself might evolve over the millennia. And sometimes these speculations seem quite strange; nonetheless Heinlein presents them in such a way that they make complete sense, within the context of the stories themselves.

But enough blathering; on with the review:

“Farnham’s Freehold” begins in 1960s America, at the home of one Hugh Farnham. Hugh has an adult son named Duke, an adult daughter named Karen, an alcoholic wife named Grace, and an African-American “houseboy” named Joe. In addition, Karen’s friend from college, Barbara, is over for a visit.

You may have done a bit of a double-take at the word “houseboy.” And rightfully so. Joe, at the beginning of the novel, is essentially a live-in housekeeper.

And yes, the term “houseboy” may be construed as offensive. Joe is, after all, an adult.

But one must remember that this novel was first published in 1964. At that time, the Civil Rights Movement was going on. Back then, for a white family to have a black “houseboy” was not at all uncommon. Nor was it uncommon for a white family to treat their “houseboy” (and/or whatever the female equivalent of that distasteful term is) as if they were “beneath” them.

I am not saying that was “right.” Far from it. It was wrong, and it was shameful.

But it happened.

Hugh Farnham, the protagonist and patriarch in the story, is not a racist. He treats Joe – who is incidentally mentioned to be in accounting school – the way he treats everyone else. As an equal.

This is not the case for his wife Grace or his son Duke. These two are, to put it bluntly, bigots. They use racial epithets to describe Joe when he isn’t around. Hugh discourages them from doing so, which only makes them angry at him.

Which is typical bigot behavior.

And I think I have given a short peek at where the controversy lies in this novel. It has been called “racist” by many reviewers.

And I have to say, well, I disagree.

The notion that to illustrate racism in a text is to somehow make the text “racist” is…well, I suppose it’s a matter of opinion. In my opinion, if you want to discredit something like racism – as I posit Heinlein was at least attempting to do in this text – well, you have to illustrate what that something is. You have to show examples of it, I mean. And he does that quite well, I think.

But moving on with the plot, Hugh, Duke, Karen, and Barbara sit down to play contract bridge in the kitchen. Grace is passed out, and Joe has gone to bed. Suddenly, an emergency broadcast comes over the airwaves: the USA is under a nuclear assault.

Hugh is fully prepared for this eventuality. As a matter of fact, Duke has just been making fun of Hugh for building a nuclear bomb/fallout shelter under the house, one that is fully stocked with water, food, and supplies.

At any rate, when the emergency broadcast comes over the airwaves, everyone goes down to the shelter. Joe makes a last minute rescue of the family cat, then the shelter is sealed.

Not long after the shelter is sealed, Hugh declares that he is in charge, that he has made extensive plans for rationing food and supplies, and that anyone who has a problem with that can leave the shelter post-haste. Duke, in a somewhat typical “I’m a grown man, dad, you can’t tell me what to do” scene, tells Hugh he does not agree with this arrangement.

Hugh instructs Joe – the “houseboy” – to shoot Duke, if he refuses to comply. Joe, Hugh says, did not make fun of him when he (Hugh) was planning and building the shelter, Joe helped extensively with the construction and planning of the shelter, and Joe was now, for all intents and purposes, the second in command.

Of course, in later scenes – Duke submits to Hugh’s authority and Joe does not shoot him – Duke expresses resentment toward Joe, and his resentment often has an ugly bigoted tinge to it. As do other comments made about Joe.

But Hugh always steps up to Joe’s defense. Hugh does not treat Joe any differently – any worse or any better – than anyone else in his family. And he considers Joe to be part of his family.

At any rate, once everyone is in the shelter, the nukes hit. And they cause damage inside the shelter. It is assumed by everyone that the bombs hit pretty close to where the shelter is buried.

I don’t want to give too much away about the rest of the novel, at least spoiler-wise, but I have to give some things away, things that contributed to the controversy this novel generated.

But first, I would like to mention another sci-fi novel – although this other one crosses out of “hard sci-fi” and into “fantasy,” especially in its sequels – Frank Herbert‘s 1965 masterpiece “Dune.” If one glances at the pic provided at the top of this post, one can see my copy of “Dune” on the bookshelf behind me. I put it there on purpose.

At any rate, if you are familiar at all with the “Dune” series, you know that the government in “Dune” consists of a set of feudal lords, and that the mythology of the series borrows quite heavily from Islamic traditions, or at least Islamic nomenclature. “Houses” in “Dune” strongly resemble “Houses” in the Middle East, as do various customs and things like that in the novel and its sequels.

I do not know if Heinlein read any of “Dune” before he wrote and published “Farhnam’s Freehold” – parts of “Dune” had been serialized in late 1963 and early 1964, prior to its 1965 publication as a finished novel – but without revealing exactly how they got there, Hugh Farnham and his family end up in a “house” that also borrows quite heavily from Islamic traditions.

There is a supreme leader of the house, and a system of servants under him who cannot question his authority. The “law” is based on something similar to the Koran – which Hugh has read, being the amateur scholar that he is – the inhabitants speak “Language,” which is noted to be similar to Arabic, and there are many many slaves in the house, divided by sex. The term “harem rules” is mentioned several times. Men in the house are either “studs” or “tempered servants.” “Tempered,” as you can probably intuit without me explicitly saying so, means “neutered.” While this part may or may not have any root in any sort of Islamic custom, this next part certainly does:

The majority of women are known simply as “sluts,” or else “bedwarmers.”

This is where the main controversy surrounding the novel begins. And yes, yes, a thousand times yes, what I have written about is offensive. It’s horrible. It’s inhuman.

But is it impossible?

Has nothing like this ever happened before?

Does this sort of thing not happen today, in certain parts of the world?

(Are you familiar with the word “concubine”?)

But I suppose the main complaint about this novel is not that, believe it or not. And again, our Hugh does not approve of this situation. He finds it abhorrent. He has a “bedwarmer,” one who I believe is fourteen years old – yes, “ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh” – but he doesn’t do anything sexual with her.

And again, this is not the main point that is brought up against this novel, believe it or not. The main point brought up against it is that the people in charge – the “Chosen” – are all dark-skinned. The slaves are white.

The situation at the beginning of the novel – an upper-middle class white family with a black “houseboy” – is turned upon its head. At the end of the novel, the “houseboy,” by virtue of the color of his skin, is considered to be “Chosen,” and he gets all the privileges the other Chosen get.

Considering the disgusting misogynistic Islamic royalty-type setup of this situation, maybe it is racist, to a degree. Because for certain, other historical monarchies also once practiced sickening things like what happen in this weird future Islamofascist sci-fi scenario. Dark-skinned people are not the only ones who have perpetrated this sort of nonsense, historically speaking, and for it to be such a major plot issue…maybe it is a tad “racist.” But I don’t know; the setup of the house makes for some interesting plot points, points I will leave it up to you to find out about, should you choose to read the novel yourself.

But moving on, Hugh and Barbara – to remind, Barbara is Hugh’s daughter’s friend from college; for another spoiler, the six people at the beginning think they are the only people left in the world for a good part of the novel – become husband and wife at one point. And she gives birth to twins.

They – Hugh, Barbara, and their babies – make it out of the situation, eventually. Joe – who is the source of the “tit for tat” quoted in the title of this post – finds that he likes being the beneficiary of racial privilege. At first Hugh is shocked by this, but then realizes that he, too, despite his not being a bigot of any sort – or a misogynist, or any such thing – decides that he can’t really blame Joe for staying there.

Grace and Duke stay. They are, essentially, pets.

***

Reading back over this summary, I can see how this novel could be construed as wildly offensive, on a number of levels.

But I would like to remind everyone that it’s fiction. As in “not true.” As in “what if?”

At any rate, Hugh Farnham is not a bigot. Or a misogynist. And neither was Robert A. Heinlein – at least not from what I can tell of my limited reading of his work – and neither am I.

But all things considered, this novel was a good read. I enjoyed it, and I would recommend it to any fan of science fiction.

Thank you for reading my review of it.

***

And I have let about 36 hours go by, between when I wrote the above review and now. I reread my review of the novel in question, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to post that on my blog.

I am not a racist. I am not a misogynist.

And here I need to make a grammatical point:

“Racist” can be used as a noun, or as an adjective. I think you have to make “misogynist” into “misogynistic” for it to be an adjective, and what I am about to write applies to “misogynist/misogynistic” as well, but for simplicity’s sake, I am just going to focus on the word “racist.”

As a noun, “racist” means, basically, someone who adheres to the philosophy that one race is superior or inferior to another.

Example:

“Person A thinks that his skin color makes him superior to people of a different skin color. Person A is a racist.”

As an adjective, “racist” means, basically, expressing the philosophy that one race is superior or inferior to another.

Example:

Person A: “Everybody of my skin color is better than everybody of your skin color, Person B.”

Person B: “That’s racist, Person A. That statement you just made is racist.”

Many people like to make the argument that “people are racist, statements (and books, and any number of things) aren’t.”

And strictly speaking, that simply isn’t true. It is true that “Farnham’s Freehold” is not a racist. It is not a person who adheres to the philosophy that one race is superior or inferior to another race.

But, is it true that “Farnham’s Freehold” is a racist novel? Does this novel express the philosophy that one race is superior or inferior to another race?

I don’t really think so. I don’t personally perceive it as such. But does that mean that nobody in the world is entitled to disagree with me? Hardly.

I maintain that it was Heinlein’s intent to denounce racism with this novel. And from my point of view, I would say that he did a decent job of it.

But if you disagree, can I objectively say that you are wrong?

No, I cannot. Heinlein’s approach to racism in this novel was informed by his position in the society of 1960s America. He was a successful white dude*. And so was his protagonist, Hugh Farnham. As Joe (the African-American “houseboy”) mentions, Hugh never had the experience of riding a bus through Alabama as a “[n-word].”

And neither did Heinlein. Does Heinlein’s being a successful white dude mean he can’t be against racism? No! But, at the same time, he may or may not inadvertently have written things that could rightfully be described as “racist” by other people. Including other successful white dudes.

There are, indeed, racist statements made by white characters in the novel. And there are racist statements made by dark-skinned “Chosen” as well, in the imagined future where white people are their slaves. As I mentioned before, though, you can’t really denounce something like “racism” if you don’t show examples of it. And I would argue that’s what Heinlein was trying to do. Whether he succeeded is up to the reader.

I would argue that he succeeded. You may not agree.

At any rate, if you read this novel and are offended immensely by it, I would hope that your being offended would not cause you to label me as a “racist.” Or a “misogynist.”

I don’t consider myself to be either of those things, and I make a conscious effort not to express myself in such a way that may lead others to think I am one of those things.

But if I make a statement – or write a blog post – that makes you think I am a racist, or a misogynist, or any sort of thing like that that I do not consider myself to be, what matters more, objectively speaking:

My intentions behind my actions, which I consider to be anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-everything like that, or

Your perception of my actions?

My intentions matter more to me, of course, but don’t your perceptions matter more to you?

If I write something you construe to be racist, and you say “Hey, asshole, that’s racist,” does my saying “I didn’t mean to say something racist” mean that I didn’t say something racist?

No, it does not. Without intending to, in that situation, I would have made a racist statement. And I would have no right whatsoever to get angry at the person who perceived my statement as racist. The only rational course of action in that scenario, from my point of view, would be to say

“I am sorry I offended you. I didn’t mean to say anything racist, but now I know that what I said could be considered racist, so I will avoid saying that in the future.”

And if you are squirming in your seat, steam shooting out of your ears, with thoughts of “language police” and “political correctness gone mad” swirling through your brain, I am not requiring anyone else to follow my own personal approach to situations like this. I am merely telling you my approach. You are welcome to take it or leave it.

I follow that approach because it allows the lines of communication between me and that hypothetical person to remain open. I can continue to learn from that person through mutually respectful communication.

If I declare that they are crazy for calling me a racist (or whatever), I am cutting off the lines of communication.

And of course, if I don’t want to keep the lines of communication open between this hypothetical person and myself, I don’t have to. My perceptions of their behavior are as important to me as their perceptions of my behavior are to them.

Have I lost you? Have I circled back around to where I started, when I started writing this addendum to my review of a somewhat controversial sci-fi novel? Arguably.

But I would like to add one thing, then finish up:

My intentions, I would venture, are less important to you than your perception of me is to you. Am I incorrect?

I didn’t mean to come off as a racist or as a misogynist by giving this novel a positive review (despite all its abhorrent content), but if you feel I am a racist or a misogynist for doing so, how can I prove to you that my intentions were noble?

I can’t.

Thank you for reading.

*As an aside, please consider the inanity of this statement: “I think identity politics is a dumb concept.” Do you see what I mean? Every rationally thinking person in the world supports political ideas that support their own best interest, or at least what they perceive to be their own best interest. What they perceive as their own best interest is inexorably linked to their own personal identity. Therefore, everyone – yes, even you – is part of the phenomenon known as “identity politics.” You can point to special interest groups, which consist of people from this or that demographic, and scream “identity politics is the bane of society!” all you want, just be aware that when you do so, you are expressing your own “identity” in the political realm by doing so. So you may as well just keep that nonsense to yourself; there’s plenty of nonsense in the political realm already. (And yes, that last sentence is my own opinion, which hinges on my own “identity,” and so on and so forth.)

I KNEW HIM, HORATIO…OR AT LEAST I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO — A GLANCE AT DAVID FOSTER WALLACE’S “INFINITE JEST”

For my first blog post under the “Books” heading (this heading will include both fiction and non-fiction), I will write a short, mostly impressionistic little article about one of my most favorite novels, David Foster Wallace‘s 1996 masterpiece, “Infinite Jest.”

Before I get going, I want to tell the reader what this blog post will not be. It will not be in any way “scholarly,” that is to say I will not apply any sort of literary filter to it. The impressions I will give will be my own, and as I am not preparing in any way for this blog post — and as my second reading of the novel in question was concluded almost a year ago — don’t expect any sort of deep insight from this post.

There are a great many essays available online which take a much more scholarly approach, such as this one, an essay which applies the philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Mikhail Bahktin to the text. I read this essay a while back, not long after I finished my second reading. A major theme of that essay has to do with how the characters in “Infinite Jest” are isolated from each other by the language they use to communicate: that is to say that while they are all (for the most part) speaking in English, their various slang terms and colloquialisms and dialects and grammatical structures and whatnot often hinder any sort of real communication between them. This same phenomenon happens in the real world: people often get into heated arguments over the meaning of this or that word or phrase. I myself have gotten into heated arguments over certain political or philosophical points — both in real life and online — with people who, as it turned out, saw the issue at hand more or less exactly the same way I did. I and my various argumentative adversaries merely used different words to express our opinions, and these words meant different things to me than they did to my (apparent) adversaries. It’s a relatively rare phenomenon — this phenomenon of arguing with someone only to find out you agreed with them from the very beginning — but it does indeed happen. At any rate, as expounded upon in the essay linked to above, “Infinite Jest” illustrates this sort of stunted communication quite well.

But that’s not what I am going to write about tonight. Nor am I going to speculate upon any one interpretation of the novel’s central plot line, like I did with my post about the movie “Donnie Darko.” Suffice it to say that there are various plot points in “Infinite Jest” that are left somewhat open to interpretation.

This practice of leaving loose ends untied, so to speak, was a hallmark of a lot of Wallace’s fiction, including his first novel “The Broom of the System” and many of his short stories. This practice worked to great effect (in my opinion) in stories such as “The Suffering Machine” and “John Billy,” but honestly can get a little bit frustrating, even for the most patient sort of reader.

Actually, it can get extremely frustrating. “Infinite Jest” made me want to call David Foster Wallace on the phone and scream obscenities at him, after I finished the last page of it.

Unfortunately, Wallace had been dead for a little over three years when I first read “Infinite Jest”. Wallace committed suicide in 2008.

Looking back at his fiction, I suppose Wallace’s felo de se is not especially, well, I hate to say it, but, well, not all that surprising. Suicide is a theme in a lot of Wallace’s fiction (including his unfinished third novel “The Pale King“), and “Infinite Jest” is no exception. Depression is also a recurring theme, as is addiction and substance abuse. Apocryphal tales of Wallace’s experiences with substance abuse abound online. You can look into them if you want to; to my knowledge Wallace never really talked about it much publicly.

Addiction is (arguably) the central theme of “Infinite Jest,” one that is (arguably) borne out through the structure of the novel itself. Throughout the novel’s 1079 pages, the reader is swept up to the heights of ecstasy and joy, flung into the gutter of hopelessness and despair, reluctantly pulled back into something close to normalcy — and then it’s over. And you sit there wondering what happened.

So the book sits there on your shelf, and most of the time you don’t think about it, but it’s always there.

And you just know, if you opened the book and read it again, it would be different this time.

You wouldn’t lose yourself to it again.

You wouldn’t obsess over this or that plot point, or scene, or character.

So you open it up and flip around.

And you start reading in the middle of some insanely long paragraph — just some random paragraph at some random point in the book — and after you read a line or two, you begin to remember what’s going on at this random point in the novel, and whose point of view you are peeking in on, and all the thousands of seemingly insignificant little details that add up to a level of scene and character development last seen in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky begin pulling you back in —

And you close the book. And you put it back on the shelf.

You don’t have time to read this book again, you tell yourself.

You don’t have the strength.

It took quite a toll on you, emotionally, the first time you read it.

It made you laugh. It made you (almost) cry.

It made you want to throw up.

So you leave it on the shelf for a while.

And then you repeat the process above. Multiple times.

And so you decide to just suck it up and read the whole damn thing again. And so you do. And you’re still left scratching your head at the end. But the experience wasn’t as intense this time. So you put it back on the shelf, satisfied that you have gotten all you can out of it, satisfied with the quite visceral experience of reading this masterpiece of modern fiction…

…but almost a year later, you’re still thinking about it. You know it’s going to take you away from whatever you have going on in your life, you know it’s going to take up a lot of your time and energy…

…you know diving into this book again isn’t going to do you any good, not one damn bit…

…but you want to read it again.

And again.

And again.

Because it will be different, you tell yourself, this one last time.

At any rate, the book itself is quite addictive.

There are any number of web pages where you can read all sorts of spoilers and speculation about various unresolved plot points from the novel. This isn’t one of them. I do not want to ruin the experience of reading the novel yourself, should you choose to read it.

As a matter of fact, I feel like I have revealed far too much about the novel already. I knew nothing about the novel before I read it. A friend recommended it, I ordered myself a copy — from my local bookstore, not off of the internet —  and I began reading it. If you have read what I have written here, you know much more about the novel than I did when I read it, despite my not having revealed much of anything about the actual contents of the novel.

You’re not supposed to know what it’s about before you read it. The story begins in medias res, and from the very beginning, the reader is bombarded with terms and acronyms and various odd colloquialisms that may or may not have ever existed outside of the novel itself. Most of these terms are defined, directly or indirectly, as the novel progresses. Some are not. Some colloquialisms — as is mentioned in the essay linked to above — vary in definition and usage, depending on which character is using them.

Some characters are extremely erudite, some are barely literate. Most are somewhere in between. One finds oneself scouring dictionaries for words that don’t exist, words that have been mispronounced by whichever character happens to be using them.

“Infinite Jest” is definitely a challenge to read. But it’s a challenge worth meeting.

At any rate, I would love to discuss it with you some time.

(After you’ve read it, of course.)