Five Times David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest FAILS

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 15)

In an effort to write about something other than the Coronavirus for a moment, even if it’s just one moment, I’m now on page 592 of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. This means I’ve got just a little less than 400 pages to go before completing the late author’s famous magnum opus. If I can keep up with my reading schedule, I should spend no more than two weeks from today finishing the legendary novel.

David Foster Wallace was a brilliant writer and thinker whose non-fiction I really enjoyed before his fiction, but I’ve actually got quite a few issues with Infinite Jest. The vast majority of reviews hail the work as pure genius, but today it’s clear that such reviews are of a different time, and mostly written by white generation X-ers like Mr. Wallace himself. This makes it so that as a millennial Latinx blogger from Los Angeles, I’ve got a different take to share. So here are Five Times David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest FAILS:

1. When the book is highly unreadable. Sure, the epiphanous literary oases that make up each “chapter” (or Sierpinski triangle) of the novel read musically for book-worms or lovers of Dead Poets Society everywhere, but at some point they tend to muddle the author’s point more than clarifying it, and this is not helped by the author’s titanic footnote excavations or “side-explanations.” As a result, it takes nearly 400 pages into the novel to get a firm sense of who’s who and just where the characters of Infinite Jest may be going. And I get it. Wallace wanted to challenge his readers in a critical way, demanding their full and undivided attention during what he rightly saw as an era of mass distraction. He was prescient for seeing how reductive and repetitive American pop culture was becoming in its numbing of attention spans everywhere, but how much did he really need to pontificate about aerodynamic theories as divulged at elite institutions like his book’s Enfield Tennis Academy’s? In 2005, during Wallace’s famous speech at Kenyon College, at one point during his lecture the author skips through his own lengthy descriptions, saying “etc, etc., [I’m] cutting stuff out because it’s a long ceremony.” At many moments throughout Infinite Jest, it feels exactly like one of those “long ceremonies” that could use some cutting out.

2. When the book is totally White and from the Mid-West, meaning that yes, it frequently enjoys throwing racist jabs at minorities. The year was 1996. Nirvana and MTV ruled the billboards, ratings, and t-shirts. Black superstars were either “latchkey” kids from New York or South Central L.A., while “Latinos” were basically Mexicans “randomly” spread throughout the states (according to the dominant pop culture). Infinite Jest, despite frequently being called “ahead of its time,” offers virtually no alternative reading of these groups’ contributions to American culture, instead relying on stereotypes as much as any other novel during our beloved 90s era. But ask these types of groups today if treating their culture as such was as grossly reductive then as it is today, and yeah, it totally was then too, and is only more so now.

3. When the book treats women in its plot really, really badly. In 2020, three years after the rise of the #metoo movement–and despite nationalist white guys in tandem insisting otherwise–treating women in pop culture as objects serving mostly for men’s barbarities is by and large fundamentally unacceptable, worthy of the utmost scrutiny. As with the part about minimizing Black and Latino characters in its story to “n-words and spics,” this is another area where Infinite Jest was actually not only NOT “ahead of its time,” but waaaaay privileged and condescending. This really demonstrates the first point about the writing “going on and on” in a way that’s not only unnecessary, but downright obnoxious. A case in point, in one sequence of Infinite Jest Wallace describes an abortion for one of the many side-characters in truly harrowing detail, presumably to give us “an example” of his Ennet [Rehab] House’s many dysfunctional characters. But what purpose does the detail serve? Is it supposed to be like gore in a horror flick? It comes off as indulgent. Moreover, the fact that treatment of women throughout the novel in this way is almost never discussed in the vast majority of the book’s reviews also speaks to the “trade-offs” overlooked when reviewers praised Wallace’s literary genius.

4. When the book enjoys ridiculing disabled people. Readers need to look no further than the constant reminders of Mario Incandenza’s difference from from others as the prematurely-born and oddly figured member of his family, which tend to run on in a way that aren’t just expansive, but which border on sadist. Take the following passage, for example, when Wallace describes the one romantic experience of Mario Incandenza’s life:

“[A girl] was trying to undo Mario’s corduroys but was frustrated by the complex system of snaps and fasteners at the bottom of his…Velcro vest [which supports his disabled figure]…it was when [Kent] wrapped one arm around his shoulder for leverage and forced her other hand up under the hem of the tight vest and then down inside the trousers and briefs, rooting for a penis, that Mario became so ticklish…”

As a reader, on the one hand, I know that Wallace wants to endear readers to Mario’s extraordinary physical makeup, which in spite of its difference, doesn’t keep Mario from having a strange sexual interaction like any other teenager out there. On the other hand, idunno, it feels like Wallace is–as in other sequences–exploiting the character’s “defects” too. I’m not sure if it’s Wallace just doing Wallace, or if he’s being humorous at the expense of someone else’s “deformity,” which brings up another question I don’t recall being posed to Wallace by popular reviewers: why so many “disabled” characters? If Wallace was in an editing room today, I’m sure he wouldn’t get off as easily with such literary devices just because at the end of the day the writing is simply so witty.

5. When the book blames poor people for their own damn problems. Although the “middle class” kids who make up the Tennis Academy’s student body are all grotesque personalities in their own way, they mostly get away with this for being young and really smart. By contrast, when it comes to say, a Randy Lenz, who’s got issues that go way back to his (Lenz’s) working-class background, when Wallace makes psychoanalytic exhibitions of these types of characters’ experiences with such things as incest, rape, child abuse and other issues that tend to face people in poverty, it doesn’t come off as “just witty,” but as narcissistic, and not in an ironic or ‘gotcha’ kind of way. This makes it so that at many points in Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to view urban Boston as just another petri dish of lost or abandoned characters the way just another white kid in a Michigan basement would view “dirty city-life,” his literary prowess notwithstanding.

(5. Continued) But what about, say, white-collar types who are also addicted types and not far off from the city, exploiting those same “lost or abandoned” types in their own grotesque ways when they aren’t promulgating pop-culture to keep the American population dormant to America’s inequalities? Why not expound on the idiosyncratic mannerisms, of say, an Alan Greenspan or Bill Clinton? Wallace does NOT achieve a “fair-share” of doling out his psychoanalysis even with say, “President Gentle,” who is only a “background” character, the descriptions of which only make him a shallow political figure and nothing else, even though presidents in American history tend to play a major role in “shaping” pop culture. And Enfield Tennis Academy–for all its cruel, elitist tendencies–does NOT come off as an “equal” counterpart to Ennet House’s “trashy” makeup, so the book falls short of juxtaposing these groups for Wallace’s larger point about American culture’s wayside decline.

Okay, even with these gripes, is the massive 1,100 page book still worth reading? If you don’t count the footnotes, the novel is not that long, weighing in at more like 981 pages. And yes, it’s still worth reading. Despite these and other shortcomings, Wallace’s writing still challenges readers to imagine finer, more complex prose as a form of expression. And no matter what verdict different readers might give Infinite Jest, it’s worth pointing out that rather than breaking the rules, Wallace’s book bends them, expanding the bandwidth of literature overall to elasticize the reader’s ability to imagine different ways of expressing ideas.

I just would chill on all the boundless praise that earlier reviewers have tended to give the book, but would still recommend readers to be challenged by its virtuoso achievements. I would also say it’s an especially approachable book during these times, when literary oases have never more been needed to get away from the news. Speaking of which, that’s enough of a retreat. Let’s get back to our coronavirus woes.

J.T.

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How to Beat Summer 2019: Part I

Los Cuentos with Pierre; Spring 2019

Okay, so you’re (finally) done with school and can’t wait to enjoy the summer shine in L.A. but you don’t quite know how to get started. Moreover, it seems like all these other kids have somewhere to go while you’re just sitting at home watching IGTV re-runs on your couch.

I’ve been there. It’s tough when your routine suddenly vanishes like the spammers on Instagram who follow just to unfollow, but here are the first three steps you can take on the very first day of your summer break to create an amazing time by yourself right away.

1. EXERCISE (yes, not kidding). This does not require WiFi, any long distances, or even that much time, frankly. The fact of the matter is that your body’s health totally affects your state of mind, which means that if you’re just sitting around at home all day, you’re more than likely going to get grumpy. Grumpy kids lead to awkward vibes, and awkward vibes are not at all what you’re looking to get the most of during your break.

So, does this mean you have to suddenly drop everything and sign up for the Olympics? It does not. All it means is that you need to STRETCH OUT your body in order to feel more relaxed throughout the day. You can do this on the very first day of your summer break in multiple ways, including the following:

I. 25 push-ups (or an amount more proportionate to your ability)
II. 25 jumping-jacks (same as above)
III. 1 Mile of light jogging (same as above)

I promise that if you can do any one or a combination of these at least three times a week, you will instantly feel better about nearly everything else in mind.

2. FIND A BOOK. TURN TO THE FIRST PAGE. READ THAT MF. Now let’s be honest, I know that flipping through the pages of a textbook doesn’t prove as IG-worthy as a trip to Magic Mountain or your best friend’s cousin’s quinceñeara, but I’ll explain how it’s just as good, if not better. Let’s be clear about this too: it’s true that when you’re assigned books at school and are required to read them, it can take a lot of the fun out of the reading experience. But this does NOT mean that reading overall isn’t an enjoyable, enriching activity for your mind. It just means that you’ve got to take reading at your own pace is all. Consider three key benefits you’ll gain from channeling your inner-reader this summer season:

I. You’ll improve your vocabulary, which is just better for everyone, including those of us who want to rap, those of us who want to go out on dates to drop a great one-liner or two, and those of us who simply want to better explain to others why they can’t tell ’em nothin’.

II. You’ll get away from home, even if you’re just home. This is especially important when you’re not really trying to go out to anywhere in particular but still want to get away from the predicaments of home. Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: your phone is the best way to get your distance, but consider this: your phone is a warm and tired object that rarely let’s you focus on just one thing. Over the summer, it’s going to need a break from you and vice versa. A book, on the other hand, is literally cooler since it doesn’t require batteries, and is much easier to focus on as it entails just you and the author on an adventure. The latter will not fail you. Trust me.

III. You’ll grow to see yourself in more of the world out there. Again, let’s be honest: your IG is filled with people who are like you but also not. In the throes of being similar to others you’ll inevitably compare yourself to others. But what if you’re really just comparing yourself to an idea you have about someone else based on appearances instead of reality? Don’t overthink it, though; Just consider this: reading allows you to relate to other characters and personalities out there in a way that doesn’t require you to compare yourself to them. This, my friends, is an extremely useful skill that you’ll appreciate being familiar with over the course of many lifetimes.

For a few favorite books by yours truly to get you started, consider Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, or even–if you think you’re tough enough–Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X. You can also check out my BOOKS section on the site for more recommendations, which I’ll be adding more reviews to this summer (because of course I’m going to follow my own list).

3. SUBSCRIBE TO JIMBO TIMES FOR MORE COOL STUFF. By far the easiest thing to do on this list is to make sure you’re in touch for all the latest updates with The L.A. Storyteller. There will be more poems, stories, contests for Los Cuentos, and a world of other stuff in the making through the site. Subscribing will also guarantee that you don’t miss How to Beat Summer 2019: Part II. So, what are you waiting for? Find the subscription button on the bottom section of this column and DO IT ALREADY! And if you’ve already done that, tell a friend! Or FIVE. This is not a drill.

J.T.

Get Literary, Los Angeles

Following another lightning round of work for the day, it should have been just another chill bike ride home. But a force came over me as I decided it was time to give something else a try.

Just as I was about to make the swerve onto the ole block, I decided to keep going in a stroll through la vecindad. I’d gotten an idea. When I came across intersections through the neighborhood where I could find an outpost for the free literature, I stopped, took off my backpack, searched through the folder inside which contained a couple of prints, then grabbed the prints, took them out and dropped them into the boxes. I did this at nine (9) intersections throughout the neighborhood, and the results led to printed copies of JIMBO TIMES’s Los Angeles Students at the following cross-streets:

Virgil and Normal (1 Post: 2 copies)
Virgil and Monroe (1 Post: 2 copies)
Virgil and Clinton (1 Post: 2 copies)
Vermont and Clinton (1 Post: 2 copies)

Melrose and Vermont (3 Posts: 6 copies)
Vermont and Normal (2 Posts: 6 copies)
Vermont and Santa Monica (3 Posts: 6 copies)
Virgil and Santa Monica (1 Post: 2 copies)

Virgil and Lockwood – (1 Post & The Mini-Library: 2 & 2 -3 copies)

Halfway into making these ’rounds’, I realized something. It was a job. A job that used to exist in days before I came onto the scene, when the world was a slightly more literary place. Or at least before all of it became digitized, relinquishing the power of the print into the depths of the past.

Rather than dropping off copies of the New York or L.A. Times, however, I dropped off copies of these JIMBO TIMES. That’s when something else hit me: I want to make more of these rounds for The L.A. Storyteller.  I want to make my own newspaper through the block!

I know that the path towards such a dream can be quite long, but then, how could I not give it a shot? During all these years blogging, the power of the written word has only grown on me, convincing me once and for all that reading and writing are mediums by which a people or pueblo can become aware of their environment in ways that are invaluable to them.

And even if Los Angeles never quite had much of a literary Intellegentsia, as Freire would say, the past doesn’t represent a world we’re confined to forever, but a possibility incumbent on those of us present to uplift for the future.

We’ve got to do it, then, don’t we, Los Angeles? As with all things, one step at a time. We’re not afraid of a challenge when we know it’s in our veins to take it on. Indeed, that’s why we’re here.

Let’s do it then. Let’s get literary and start our own paper for the block, right here in East Hollywood.

J.T.

Ver, oír y callar (2015)

VerOirCallar

Aunque solo tiene 128 páginas, Ver, oír y callar es un libro demasiado importante para reflejar en la guerra a muerte entre jóvenes y adolescentes en El Salvador durante las ultimas tres decadas. Juan José Martínez es un escritor de altas calificaciones, y sus historias dejan a uno marcado con la urgencia de la situación.

Sin embargo, hay más detalles que el autor necesita contar, especialmente sobre las mujeres del país, incluso a las voces de madres, esposas y otras mujeres que siguen siendo parte de esta historia. Pero todo con tiempo. Mientras tanto, el libro es un buen lugar para iniciar un diálogo tan necesario sobre como cambiar el curso del país centroamericano para los jóvenes y adolescentes ahí que merecen mejor.

J.T.

My Mysterious Son

Before I move on with the rest of Quartz, I’d like to take a moment to ‘officially’ review a book for the month. A little while ago, I had the pleasure to learn about My Mysterious Son after meeting the author, Dick Russell, at a writing workshop with the Inside Out Writers. When ‘D.R.’ gave me his book, I thanked him for the journey, without knowing just how challenging its contents would actually be to grapple with. From the opening, D.R. leaves no doubt for readers about just how much of his life he’s sharing with others:

“This is a book about a different interpretation of schizophrenia, based upon almost twenty years of one father’s experience with his son’s struggle against mental illness. Experiences fraught with desperation, confusion, incomprehension, and pain. Experiences also filled with surprise, humor, adventure, and hope. Experiences that ultimately go beyond (but do not discard) the Western “medical model” for treating mental illness.”

Perhaps no moment in the book speaks more to the doubled-edged nature of these experiences than the poetic turning point of the journey, when one morning, the author’s then-seventeen year old son, Franklin, hands him a mysterious note recounting a ‘dream-like’ journey he found himself in the night before.

Russell shares this note in the book, but so as to let readers encounter it for themselves, I’ll leave the note unquoted. What I can say about its contents, however, is that I found myself immediately struck by Franklin’s ability to capture the brilliant images of his journey so vividly.

The note is sharp and enigmatic, taking readers from one edge of a galactic field to another, and right away, it’s clear that Franklin is dealing with a multitude of worlds beyond his own, and that what he’s able to ‘bring back’ from this intersection of realities is something to be treasured.

At the same time, it’s also clear that even if Franklin brings back treasures, there’s only so much understanding one can reach with them, as ultimately, the note leaves readers with more questions than answers.

As fate would have it, Franklin’s note was just the beginning of a tragic divorce from a rather ordinary teenage life up to that point, since what follows next is a harrowing ten years in hospitals, intensive medication, bitter identity crises, effective and ineffective therapy, and so much more for him and his mother and father due to a form of schizophrenia which he’s diagnosed with.

The experience for Franklin is magnified by his status as an only child, as well as the fact that his parents separated when he was still just a newborn. Perhaps most of all, however, Franklin and his family’s journey is complicated by his struggle to come to terms with his biracial identity.

D.R

Franklin is dark-skinned, and like most people of color — and black people in America in particular — Franklin struggles with a world that seems to place little to no value on his life. This proves difficult for his white father to grasp, and leads to more than a number of searing confrontations between them on the difference of their skin colors.

At times, Franklin blatantly calls his father an impostor, or implies that someone else is his true ‘ole man’. This is tough to read through, but I can only imagine how much tougher it is to breathe through for the author. Still, D.R. manages to hang on to every sharp-edged word uttered by his son, determined to learn from and use the words as building blocks rather than not.

Moreover, as Russell states at the outset, in contrast to the bitter words between him and his son, there is also a world’s worth of beautiful ‘gems’ the author hears from Franklin’s voice on things. Along with a magnetic vision, Franklin commands a charming knowledge of esoteric facts on language, people, and geography, which on more than a few occasions leaves readers in pleasant awe.

This is the journey through My Mysterious Son, characterized as much by ‘progress’ as ‘regression’ like the life of any ‘normal’ human being. However, things take another major turning point towards the end of the book, when Franklin and his father meet the famed West African writer and teacher Malidoma, who practices ancestral indigenous healing techniques for illness.

Franklin takes well to the West African, and alongside his father, he develops a significant relation with the world renowned spiritual leader, which each of them express gratitude for, and which the author movingly describes.

This alone makes My Mysterious Son a worthy read, but there’s more, considering the cross-roads at which our country remains stuck at on the subject of race. After all, Malidoma, like Franklin, is ultimately a black man, with spiritual and divine knowledge of the world around him that’s more precious than diamonds or gold can ever be.

This knowledge — like that of the alternative forms of healing to Western medicine which the author encounters in his effort to help his son — is indigenous and ancestral information, which — were it not for the author’s open heart and mind — he might never have found for himself.

By extension then, it’s fair to say that  My Mysterious Son shows how in looking past the differences of their skin colors and the different worlds they contain, and in listening for the value of Franklin and later the West African Malidoma’s voices –coupled with Franklin’s willingness to work with his father on dealing with his condition — both men save each other from certain destruction and loss of one another.

For this, the book is not just a great read and journey, but a reading and journey which all Americans should take part in, and I thank both D.R. and Franklin for the knowledge they share in their unforgettable story together.

Exhaling

IMG_0054IMG_0043IMG_0050IMG_0041IMG_0042

…And just when I thought Miami couldn’t be any more of a dream, I went to the Books & Books store in the Coral Gables area for the V.O.N.A. Faculty Reading! The faculty illuminated the gorgeous house with their magnetic voices, while students and colleagues cheered them on through the evening! By the end of the night, I found myself at a loss for words, and even now, I can only muster a few for J.T.:

I can feel myself falling and falling further into this world, as it flutters through time like the melody of a beautiful song, hitting and blanketing me like the sound of raindrops pelting the window; at once it is all beginning and ending, rising and falling, transfixing me, and all I can do is play and replay the magical moments again and again, trusting to faith that the magic will continue within me even as it fades outside.

I know it will, and that J.T. will serve as a witness to it.

But I also know that for now, it’s time to get right back to it!

With So Much Love,