Sunday, August 15, 2010

Infinite Jest’s Enfield Tennis Academy & End Zone’s Logos College

The similarities between Don DeLillo’s End Zone and the tennis sections of Infinite Jest are pretty astonishing. End Zone features a small-time college’s football team as they go through a (mostly) successful season. The team is composed of an eclectic group of student athletes, all with their own little quirks, and they are coached by equally strange taskmasters. This set-up closely resembles the set-up at ETA in Infinite Jest. Here’s a rundown of some of the more overt similarities:

(N.b.: A lot of this stuff has been pointed out by Matt Bucher and Chad Harbach. (And if I can take a quick trip to tangent city here, I feel compelled to mention that Chad Harbach, one of the founders of n+1, sold his debut novel to Little, Brown earlier this year. There was an auction for his book and he reportedly took less money for the opportunity to work with Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch. Which is exactly what I would’ve done. I’m convinced that Mr. Pietsch belongs in some sort of editor Hall of Fame, along with Maxwell Perkins and Robert Gottlieb. To get the chance to work with him, six years after writing an ostensible review of Oblivion that is really just a DFW fan piece, must be the thrill of a lifetime for Mr. Harbach, who is now in the position all Wallace-influenced writers secretly dream about.))

In both books, there are coaches with faux-German names: Rolf Hauptfuhrer in End Zone, Gerhardt Schtitt in Infinite Jest.

The head coach in End Zone, Emmett Creed, observes the players during practice from a tower (“Creed himself was up in the tower studying overall patterns.” [EZ, 9]); Schtitt does the same (“Schtitt is up in his little observational crow’s nest, a sort of apse at the end of the iron transom players call the Tower...” [IJ, 452]).

The coaches have a pithy and enigmatic way of addressing their players:

“Write home on a regular basis. Dress neatly. Be courteous. Articulate your problems. Do not drag-ass. Anything I have no use for, it’s a football player who consistently drag-asses. Move swiftly from place to place, both on the field and in the corridors of buildings. Don’t ever get too proud to pray.” [EZ, 11]

‘Hit,’ he suggests. ‘Move. Travel lightly. Occur. Be here. Not in bed or shower or over baconschteam, in the mind. Be here in total. Is nothing else. Learn. Try. Drink your green juice.’ [IJ, 461]

The players in both books have a playfully antagonistic rapport:

“Is he here?”
“He is everywhere,” I said.
“Supreme being of heaven and earth. Three letters.”
“You know who I mean.”
“He’s here all right. He’s all here. Two hundred and fifty-five pounds of solid mahogany.”
“How much?” Fallon said.
“They’re thinking of playing him at guard. He came in a little heavier than they expected. About two fifty-five. Left guard, I think Coach said.”
“You kidding me, Gary?”
“Left guard’s your spot, isn’t it? I just realized.”
“How much is he weigh again?”
“He came in at two fifty-five, two sixty. Solid bronze right from the foundry. Coach calls him the fastest two-five-five in the country.”
“He’s supposed to be a running back,” Fallon said.
“That was before he added the weight.”
“I think you’re kidding me, Gary.”
“That’s right,” I said.
“You son of a bitch,” Fallon said. [EZ, 8-9]

‘My bones are ringing the way sometimes people say their ears are ringing, I’m so tired.’
‘I’m waiting til the last possible second to even breathe. I’m not expanding the cage till driven by necessity of air.’
‘So tired it’s out of tired’s word-range,’ Pemulis says. ‘Tired just doesn’t do it.’
‘Exhausted, shot, depleted,’ says Jim Struck, grinding at his closed eye with the heel of his hand. ‘Cashed. Totalled.’
‘Look.’ Pemulis pointing at Struck. ‘It’s trying to think.’ [IJ, 100]

In both books there is a player more interested in sportscasting than playing the sport:

Jessup didn’t like the arrangement because Raymond practiced his sportscasting in the room all weekend. When he wasn’t studying theories of economic valuation, he was camped in front of his portable TV set. He’d switch it on, turn the sound down to nothing, and describe the action. [EZ, 23]

A cartridge of a round-of-16 match from September’s U.S. Open had been on the small room viewer with the sound all the way down as usual and Troeltsch’d been straightening the straps on his jock, idly calling the match’s action into his fist, when it came on. [IJ, 60]

I sat on the bench, noticing Raymond Toon down at the far end; he seemed to be talking into his fist. [EZ, 114]

And irritating throughout was the heavy-browed red-nostriled kid James Troeltsch at the very end of the top bleacher, speaking into his fist, coming at the fist from first one angle and then another, pretending to be two people. [IJ, 677]

Even their commentary is similar:

“There they go. Andy Chudko, in now for Butler, goes in high, number sixty-one, Andy Chudko, fumble, fumble, six feet even, about two twenty-five, doubles at center on offense, Chudko, Chudko, majoring in airport commissary management, plays a guitar to relax, no other hobbies, fumble after the whistle. College football--a pleasant and colorful way to spend an autumn afternoon. There goes five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven yards, big thirty-five, twelve yards from our vantage point here at the Orange Bowl in sun-drenched Miami, Florida. John Billy Small combined to bring him down. John Billy, as they break the huddle, what a story behind this boy, a message of hope and inspiration for all those similarly afflicted, and now look at him literally slicing through those big ballcarriers. Capacity crowd. Emmett Big Bend Creed. Mike Mallon, they call him Mad Dog. Telcon. Multi-talented. A magician with that ball. All the color and excitement. He’s got it with a yard to spare off a good block by fifty-three or seventy-three. Woof. Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. Perfect weather for football. Time out on the field. And now back to our studios for this message.” [EZ, 138-139]

‘Incandenza the controller. Incandenza the tactician.
‘Rare tactical lapse for Incandenza, following the serve in when he’s just finally started establishing control from the baseline.
‘Have a look at Incandenza standing there waiting for Ortho Stice to finish futzing with his socks so he can serve. The resemblance to statues of Augustus of Rome. The regal bearing, the set of the head, the face impassive and emanating command. The chilly blue eyes.
‘The chilly reptilian film of concentration in the cold blue eyes, Jim.
‘The Halster’s been having some trouble controlling his volleys.
‘Personally, Jim, I think he’d be better off with his old midsized graphite stick than that large head the creepy Dunlop guy got him to switch to.
‘Stice being the younger player out there, he’s grown up with the extra-large head. A large head is all The Darkness knows.
‘You could say Stice was born with a large head, and that Incandenza’s a man who’s adapted his game to a large head.
‘Hal’s career dating back to before your polycarbonate resins changed the whole power-matrix of the junior game, too, Jim.
‘And what a day for tennis.
‘What a day for family fun of all kinds.
‘This Bud’s for the Whole Family. It’s the Bud Match of the Week. Brought to you. [IJ, 677-678]

The players in both books are inordinately concerned with the milk they are being served in the refectories:

“This milk is putrid,” Jessup told him.
“What do you want from me?”
“You’re one of the captains. Go tell Coach. They shouldn’t give us milk like this. They should be more careful with the athletes’ milk.”
. . .
“This is shitpiss,” Jessup said. “This is the worst-ass milk I ever tasted.”
Kimbrough drank from his little carton.
“I’ll tell you something,” he said. “This milk is putrid.”
“Damnright,” Jessup said.
“This milk is contaminated. It’s putrid. It’s the worst I ever tasted. Back home it’s the water. Here I guess it’s the milk. I’ll be sure and tell Coach.” [EZ, 24]

Pemulis shakes his head very seriously at Troeltsch. ‘Not a chance, brother.’
‘I’m telling you man this milk is powdered.’ Troeltsch peering down into the tumbler, probing the milk’s surface with a thick finger. ‘Me I can tell from powdered. . . .And do I ever know what to look for, to verify. . . .Namely your telltale residues along the sides of the glass, when swished.’ [IJ, 630]

The players in both books take very weird, abstruse-sounding classes. In End Zone, subjects include monolithic integrated circuitry, Mexican geography, an introduction to exobiology, and aspects of modern war. In Infinite Jest, students take courses with titles such as “Deviant Geometries,” “Introduction to Athletic Spreadsheets,” and “From Scarcity to Plenty: From Putrid Stuff Out of the Ground to the Atom in the Mirror: A Lay Look at Energy Resources from Anthracite to Annular Fusion.”

One of my favorite lines in Infinite Jest apparently comes from End Zone:

“What I know about football you can inscribe with a blunt crayon around the rim of a shot glass.” [EZ, 152]

‘Inc, what I know about your Da could be inscribed with a blunt crayon along the rim of a shot glass.’ [IJ, 1065]

Wallace himself said that my favorite section of Infinite Jest, the eschaton sequence, owed a “rather uncomfortable debt” to a sequence in End Zone where a teacher and student play a sort of war game on paper. The similarity of the two lies mainly in the terminology:

“The commander of an AMAC truck convoy, following orders fails to stop at an East German roadblock along the Autobahn; shots are exchanged and the convoy breaks through. A Dutch-built factory ship, being delivered to NORKOR, is struck by torpedoes and sunk outside Chong-jin. COMRUS objects strongly. Several explosions damage Nike-Hercules installations on Okinawa. COMCHIN negotiators suspend talks with the Japanese over ownership of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Within a time-frama of ten hours there are over a dozen small clashes, involving demonstrators and troops, on both sides of the Berlin wall. Messages are exchanged. There are reports that Egyptian troops have retaken El Arish. COMRUS demands gradual allied withdrawal from West Berlin. COMRUS demands withdrawal of all AMAC auditors in Indochina.” [EZ, 221-222]

A Russo-Chinese border dispute goes tactical over Sinkiang. An AMNAT computracker in the Aleutians misreads a flight of geese as three SOVWAR SS10s on reentry. Israel moves armored divisions north and east through Jordan after an El Al airbus is bombed in midflight by a cell linked to both H’sseins. Black Albertan wackos infiltrate an isolated silo at Ft. Chimo and get two MIRVs through SOUTHAF’s defense net. North Korea invades South Korea. Vice versa. AMNAT is within 72 hours of putting an impregnable string of antimissile satellites on line, and the remorseless logic of game theory compels SOVWAR to go SACPOP while it still has the chance. [IJ, 325]

There are major snowstorms and very tall widowers of founders of schools who become president of their respective schools and occurrences of the word “picayune” in both books. Probably a few other connections. I hope this has been halfway interesting.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

DeLillo’s Americana: A Pre-DFW David Foster Wallace Novel

Don DeLillo's debut novel Americana seems like one of those novels whose influence cannot be overestimated. When it was released in 1971, high-caliber writers must have been driven to awe and despair. Here John Updike encountered a writer who wrote as pretty as he did but who had something more than sex on his mind (which, admittedly, sometimes just meant that the sex scenes weren’t as well done). One can imagine Joseph Heller, four years away from publishing another masterpiece, wringing his hands at the first third of the novel--the satire of DeLillo’s depiction of a white-collar community--which is just as incisive as Something Happened and accomplished in about a fifth of the pages.

A lot of top-flight contemporary novelists seem to have been taken with the novel and its influence on their work is evident. Consider:
--The blending of family life with larger societal themes is territory Jonathan Franzen’s mined for his whole career.
--The passage in which bystanders are performing for a camera wielded by the narrator (“They all smiled and waved . . . Maybe they sensed that they were waving at themselves . . . there they stand, verified, in chemical reincarnation, waving at their own old age . . .” [Americana, 254 (All citations will refer to the 1989 Penguin Books edition)]) reads like a summary of the idea propelling Richard Powers’s first novel, and Americana’s prevailing theme of how images and technology shape our perception of ourselves is a major preoccupation of Powers (see Galatea 2.2, Plowing the Dark, right up to Generosity).
--Joshua Ferris’s cribbing of the first sentence (“Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year”) for the title of his first novel.

And then there’s David Foster Wallace. DFW was clearly a DeLillo disciple, calling him the “best fiction writer alive” and describing his prose as something that just clicked. Wallace even singled out Americana as one of his favorite DeLillo novels. Which makes sense. There are some interesting parallels with Americana in his own work, particularly Infinite Jest, which just as easily could have been called Americana. (Conversely, Americana could've maybe in a weird way been called Infinite Jest. There are at least 9 instances of some form of the word “infinity” in Americana, which seems notable in a not terribly long book of 377 pages.)

Take the language of the office executive types in Americana. Their diction and cadence are similar to the way a lot of Wallace characters speak. It’s a type of speech that’s a bit too formal, a bit verbose, pretty funny and weirdly eloquent. Compare:

“Of course you have. No inference meant or intended. But the problem is there and we have to face it. Pressure is being exerted.” [Americana, 62]

“But has he definitely committed?”
“I would say he has just about definitely committed.”
“In other words we have rounded the buoy.”
“Weede, I would go even further than that. I would say he has just about definitely committed.” [Americana, 65]


‘--like conservatively two hours for the matches. Conservatively . . . That’s let’s call it five hours of vigorous nonstop straight-out motion.’
‘Sustained and strenuous exertion.’ [Infinite Jest, 103 (refers to any version of IJ; all extant editions have the same pagination, be it hardcover or paperback, domestic or foreign. God bless you Little, Brown.)]

‘I gather now the Dad’s trying to restructure the original deal all of a sudden.’
Pemulis undid his belt. ‘The dangled carrot’s snatched away, the brass ring plays hard to get, to coin a maxim.’ [IJ, 1068]

And if that ain’t convincing, I’m just gonna admit that this isn’t the most rigorous monograph on the subject. If the DeLillo lines don’t seem like something Wallace would write, you’re just gonna have to trust me on the whole dialogue thing.

Another point of similarity is both authors’ obvious love and knowledge of movies. DeLillo refers to Godard, Buñuel, and Kurosawa, Wallace to Scorsese, Tarantino, and countless others. Movie-making is a major component of the plot in both books.

Also there are interesting character symmetries. Each book has a mother character who is a grammarian shrouded in familial mystery with incestuous overtones. There is a Zen professor in Americana--

Hiroshi Oh was an alarmingly fragile man. In the lecture hall he would ease into his chair in careful stages, always on the verge of blowing away, and then he’d smile desolately at his children . . . I always enjoyed that opening smile. It was the smile of the bored Orient, tired of truth, bound in inland stillness, indifferent to westernization. [Americana, 174]

--who bears a resemblance to the oiled guru Lyle in the weight room at ETA:

And I like how the guru on the towel dispenser doesn’t laugh at them, or even shake his head sagely on its big brown neck. He just smiles, hiding his tongue. [IJ, 128]

There are late night/early morning radio show hosts who drift along free-associatively in both books:

Time to pluck the lint from your omphalos. Time to gnaw at the legs of chairs. I know you’re out there in mamaland, tens of thousands of you, humped up on the floor whimpering, licking the cold steel of the barrel of your shotgun. The agon begins. Time to scream into the pillow. Time to brainpaper the walls. But if we make the next ten minutes we make the night. Three in the morning and werewolves slink in the parlor. American Mean Time. You came home from work to find your wife in bed with your sister. Curiously refreshing. [Americana, 231]

Those with saddle-noses. Those with atrophic limbs. And yes chemists and pure-math majors also those with atrophic necks. Scleredema adultorum. Them that seep, the serodermatotic. Come one come all, this circular says. The hydrocephalic. The tabescent and chachetic and anorexic. The Brag’s-Diseased, in their heave red rinds of flesh. The dermally wine-stained or carbuncular or steatocryptotic or God forbid all three. Marin-Amat Syndrome, you say? Come on down. [IJ, 187]

There's a reference to St. Dymphna in both books: a blind tennis player in IJ, a school in Americana. Moving on, there is a description in Americana of a type of film that sounds like a cross between James Incandenza’s concept of Found Drama and his film The Joke:

In my little home movie . . . what I’ve reduced is movement, the kind of movement that tells a story or creates a harmony. I want language to evolve from static forms. . . . What I’m shooting now is just a small segment of what will eventually include more general matter--funerals, traffic jams, furniture, real events, women, doors, windows. . . . Actors, people playing themselves . . . When I’m done I’d like to put the whole thing in a freezer and then run it uncut thirty years from now. [Americana, 288-289]

There is the same reference to the holes in telephone receivers:

There were thirty-six small holes in the mouthpiece of my telephone. They were arranged in three circles of six, twelve, and eighteen holes each. There were only six holes in the earpiece. This disparity seemed significant but I didn’t know exactly why. [Americana, 96]

A traditional aural-only conversation--utilizing a hand-held phone whose earpiece contained only 6 little pinholes but whose mouthpiece (rather significantly, it later seemed) contained (62) or 36 little pinholes. . . [IJ, 146]

There are also parallels and little similarities to other DFW texts. The second half of Americana consists of a number of dialogues in a question-and-answer format and a few of these segments sound like a brief interview with a hideous man:

But I think the worst thing of all was when I was walking on a crowded street. . . . One day I was trying to get around an old man who kept drifting toward the curb and blocking my path and suddenly I found myself shouting at him in my own head, shouting inwardly and silently: LOOK OUT! LOOK OUT! I never actually spoke the words. I just shouted them out mentally. I began to do that all the time. . . . Then one day a woman slowed down suddenly and I almost crashed into her. I found myself shouting a new word in my head: DIE! . . . After several months of this I tried to make a conscious effort to stop shouting the word. But it was too late. It just popped into my head automatically. DIE! DIE! [Americana, 218]

There’s a television exec talking about something disgusting he wants to put on the air--

“Just once I’d like to see somebody on TV take a tremendous steaming piss. . . . I wouldn’t care where the camera was. We could stay on his face. The important thing is the sound. If we could just get that sound on the airwaves, just once, I honestly think we could take credit for expanding the consciousness of our nation to some small degree.” [Americana, 66]

--who sounds a lot like the television exec in The Suffering Channel who wants to broadcast a person who can excrete little crap figurines:

‘My point is that the whole embarrassment and distaste of the issue is the point, if it’s done right. The transfiguration of disgust. . . . The triumph of creative achievement in even the unlikeliest places.’ [Oblivion, 245]

Even a tiny reference like “I was feeling good and loose, on the verge of inspired dialogue, drink number four, a pale flame rising” (Americana, 226) connects with Wallace’s Kenyon commencement speech (“. . .and the two are arguing about the existence of god with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer” [This Is Water, 18]).

There are probably countless other fun little connections. But that’s all I got.