Saturday, 12 July 2014

Infinite Jest and The Sopranos: Annular and Eliptical

There are spoilers ahead, but i'll key you in to the knowledge that I knew all of these spoilers before undertaking any of the Fmega-works, and it didn't hamper my enjoyment of either of them, perhaps that's the point i'm trying to make in the end, about how these stories work, and what they mean to me.

That said, pertinent plot details of Infinite Jest, The Sopranos and Gravity's Rainbow are discussed.

There's a behaviour I've heard is common among book readers: reading the first page and then reading the last page - to what end I can only speculate. Perhaps it's to stop the anxiety that comes from not knowing how something will end, perhaps it's so the reader can feel smarter than the book as it sees the narrative winding together to the finale. Both of those things are probably linked to the human obsession with controlling the self-narrative, of understanding what we're about and how we'll end because we know that we will, in most cases, not be able to control that ending, but hell, this is already getting pretty first year philosophy on me and that isn't entirely my intention.

The first two words in Hamlet are "Who's there?" I've never read Hamlet, or studied it, but I know that in a lot of academic circles this is seen as a pretty rich opener, full of meaning. It only comes into play here because the first words of Infinite Jest are "I am" but they are followed by "seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies." making it not quite a totally neat response to that historic opening. My reading about Infinite Jest (henceforth IJ) has lead me to understand that many themes are shared between Shakespeare's tragedy (including the title, Infinite Jest), and David Foster Wallace's masterpiece, magnum opus, titanic drawl, whatever. The first page, and segment of the book, is impossible to understand and references people and events that will have no significance to the reader without finishing the book, so let's skip to the end:

"And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was was out."

That's from the point of view of a different character, in a part of his life that predates much of the novel, recounting an event that has no significant relevance to the plot other than it signifying a low point in the characters' life, the ultimate low in fact, the low that sends him to AA. There is no resounding thunder clap of a conclusion, and it could be seen as incredibly frustrating depending on your mindset. It's also kind of perfect in its own little way, and foxes the first-page-last-page readers by alluding to absolutely nothing tenuous. You could easily read the first segment of the narrative and the whole of the last segment and only glean from it the fact that Hal meets Gately one day to dig up his dad. Gately, a man who is in hospital after being in rehab, Hal, an aspiring Tennis pro with a mysterious affliction. That's all you get, and even that is almost a total lie in the face of what happens in the book.

Beginnings and endings are fantastic doors that let you enter and exit the corridor of the narrative, arbitrary but structurally necessary points that can mean everything or very little. They're the point at which the story leaves us, and in post-modern fiction that can be a troublesome thing in itself. The Crying of Lot 49 rather unceremoniously dumps the reader at the title, without ever revealing what the result of the titular crying is. IJ is less troublesome, because it creates a chronology of its own and explains rigorously the concept of the 'annular' or the ring like motion or structure that is so important to the understanding of the novel. The narrative is probably best understood as a nose ring - a piercing that's an incomplete ring with two blobs at either end - the focus of each part of the narrative is a bead on that ring, that slides back and forth, and only rarely (and only via the words of other characters) gets past those two blobs. An important section is missing, a glaring omission in a novel as wildly comprehensive as IJ, and it's a section that holds many answers and resolutions that are only alluded to. The ending is in part an invitation to the reader to project beyond the work and into the ruthlessly vivid world that Wallace creates, and also to bridge the gap back to the beginning. Utterly useless end ultimately purposefully vague without the rest of the novel as context, it's a beautiful way of coaxing more thought than a perfectly twining of threads.

An annular narrative is almost like an elliptical arc, something Thomas Pynchon thrust at decisively with Gravity's Rainbow, and the idea that an arc of a rocket was only an orbit cut in half by the firmament, or perhaps an author's purposeful/arbitrary beginnings and ends. If IJ is one of the great encyclopedic novels, then The Sopranos is its equivalent in TV. 8 years and 86 episodes, nearly all of which tie directly into the major narrative strands of the show allow David Chase create a fictional New Jersey that is as comprehensive as Wallace's Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet Recovery House. The scope of the show isn't restrained either, and although it never gets into some of the ridiculous details that Wallace or Pynchon manage to find in their novels, it at least creates a man so believable that his breathing comes through the speakers , humid and strained, and suffocates the room. A point of difference between these post-modern behemoths and Tony's story though; There's no coy disjointed narrative on the whole in The Sopranos, it begins at a point in Tony's life, and ends at another, but the ellipses is definitely there, even if it's very gradual.

The show begins in a state of flux in Tony's life, with the capacity for change on a grand scale staring him in the face. Here is a man who has done terrible things, and he is a man you will become incredibly intimate with over the course of nearly 80 hours, living under his skin and in his head, understanding and empathising with a man perhaps absent of morals. Between his family and his psychiatrist we are given two civilian points of entry into his life, one to his heart and the other to his head. These are the redeeming points of a man who can only move forward with his business, a man who will die without sustained motion, whose entire way of life depends on the continuation of cycles of extortion and death.David Chase's unrelenting vision never really tries to humanise him, or lend him credible hook for empathy. This man is no Walter White - he has a normal family but his values are frequently alien to the average man. He's no Hannibal Lecter either, because his impulses, no matter how disgusting, always manage to resonate. Tony represents a contradiction: a dichotomy within the human condition, that a man can be a monster, yet still a man. He's morally reprehensible, yet his sessions with his psychiatrist and his time with his family over the series perhaps enlighten the viewer to the inherent good in him and the reasons his life may have squeezed out of him. Maybe he will rectify his entire life over the course of the tragedies that will befall him over the show, or perhaps, not.

Elliptical narratives are defined by their arcs. Tony's arc is low, only barely transforming from a straight line of Mob Hard Man to Mob Harder Man to something akin to change, but it's there. He changes subtly, and redemption is frequently dangled in front of him. He is given epiphanies and second chances, all of which he dispenses with, or uses to entrench his cold, cruel worldview - even death and a chance of a new life further cements his violent attitude as he sees it as a weakness he must rebuff to avoid being whacked by opportunistic New York family members. This is all essentially a digression from the main crux of this piece, which is that the beginning and endings are important of narratives with curves. The start of The Sopranos sees us introduced to a man with a way of life, a vast swell of opportunities and many responsibilities. Skipping to the end shows us the same man in the same situation as before, an utter stasis of personal growth, but with a huge difference in his mob life, something that is frequently written off as an aside towards the end of the show. These two points are perhaps as impossible to read as IJ's without the context of the huge gulf that spans between them, but they are both incredibly tantilising, and perhaps utterly devoid of any kind of real catharsis beyond the thoughts and feeling they hope to provoke in the audience.

The elaborately constructed finale of The Sopranos fits the show' brilliant run of final episodes that refuse to end on a cliffhanger, or even on any kind of totality. Instead it is beautifully evocative, and purposefully contentious. A man sits with his family in a diner, a man who now believes he is invincible, and we are drawn through direction to see him observe himself in the world. With a huge nod to the Godfather, Tony notices a man who is a potential threat, who then goes to the bathroom (to retrieve a gun from behind a cistern?) and some deft invisible editing coupled with the Pavlovian cry of the restaurant doorbell ensure that our last moments of the show are the crescendo of the words "Don't Stop" (from that ever risible Journey song) and the utter oblivion of a silent black screen, ostensibly Tony's point of view. It's suffused with huge levels of meaning, and has spawned nearly a decade worth of debate. Is Tony dead? Was he shot? Did he have a heart attack? What does it mean?

As with Infinite Jest, it represents the end of our time in the world of The Sopranos. It feeds perfectly back into the beginning, via the context of the rest of the show. The answer that the first-page-last-page readers or viewers crave is impossible to see without the wealth of knowledge in between. All the ending affirms is that Tony is a complex man, torn between his humanity he must embody to his family, and the ever looming 'family' obligations represented by the potential hitman. Tony absolutely dies, but it is impossible to tell when, it could be right there or it could be thirty years in the future. The important point for the audience to note is that we leave him as we find him, a man on the cusp of vast opportunity, with another chunk of life experience to contextualise his undeniable motion. The incredibly obvious juxtaposition of the words "don't stop" with the deafening void that follows it only serves to further highlight the arc: as with Gravity's Rainbow, the story crashes to a blank without a satisfying resolution, time and the author become the impact zone, the indelible line from which the narrative launches and finally returns.

These two narrative motions are so evocative because the accurately embody our way of defining our personal narratives and our life stories. Everyone that we meet and lose over our entire life exists in their own impossible narrative. We meet them in a state of flux, and we leave them in that same state. They are totally incomplete to us. We either know them as elliptical beings, or annular beings. Their stories are revealed to us and eventually end. When they are done, they finish in a way that is often entirely arbitrary: poetry is frequently missing in the ending of people's stories, irony is mercifully absent, the exit wound is impossible to reconcile with the beginning - he was born in Nottingham and he died from an overdose in Canada, those first-page-last-page readers are afforded no closure. Birth certificates and obituaries offer only the genesis and collision of an ellipses, random points on an annular form.

Fiction can only ever hope to emulate our way of contextualising life. Even the most ambitious novel or TV show can only fix its eye on an iota of life at a time, every narrative is a blink, the opening and closing of an aperture, an instant rendered glacial by a medium. The endings of these great works are fascinating in their self-imposed finality. They chose to apportion time and context in a way that can come to frame the entire work, impossible to read without ingesting the work, leaving the audience with only the abyss, or the sound and ebb of a low tide of a untold number of narratives opening and closing in much the same way.

1 comment:

  1. Hey fantastic read. Just finished watching Sopranos for the second time through (why oh why), read Infinite Jest a few years ago, and am in the midst of Gravity's Rainbow. I'm no first page-last page reader (though the impulse is there), but I think entries and exits into narratives are fascinating (love the metaphor of the exit wound btw). Searched "sopranos and infinite jest" for no discernible conscious reason, and your piece was the first hit. I'm currently in the process of creating a theatre work, and have found this very helpful in thinking about beginnings, endings, and how to approach them.