Tag Archives: Infinite Jest

33. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

20 Aug


The dateline at the end of Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin, reads “—Moscow, 1992” which is enough to make a person familiar with recent Russian history break out in full-body chills. Moscow, 1992. Russian society was fully in the throes of perestroika, chaos, collapse and regeneration. The story in the West has always been that this was a wonderful flowering of democracy, but for many Russians it was a period of lawlessness, hunger, total uncertainty, and the end of everything they’d been asked to believe. Pelevin is a cult figure, the most important Russian writer to emerge from the era. He was 30 years old at the time he wrote Omon Ra, living at a time and in a city of almost unimaginable upheaval. Chills.

The book—which is a masterpiece, I can’t believe I’d never read it—is about a Russian boy in the Soviet Union who dreams of being a cosmonaut, but in Pelevin’s hands it’s dreams themselves that will be under interrogation. Is there any reality to them? For main character Omon (a strange name, itself chosen because of a dream), things are determined not by the outer reality, but by the inner.

As a little boy, for example, Omon realizes that he can be a pilot because he sees some pilots on television and:

“…was struck with a sudden thought…that if I’d just been able to glance at the screen and see the world from the cabin where the two fliers in fur-lined jackets were sitting, then there was nothing to prevent me from getting into this or any other cabin without the help of the television, because flight is no more than a set of sensations, the most important of which I’d already learned to fake, sitting in the attic of the winged hut with the red stars, staring at the enlistment office wall that was where the sky should be, and making quiet droning noises with my mouth.”

He goes on:

“That means, I thought, I can look out from inside myself like looking out of a plane, it doesn’t really matter at all where you look out from, what matters is what you see…”

Of course, latent in the book is the era in which it was written: The channel, as it were, that Russians had been looking at, had just been changed. Are you staring at the enlistment office wall or at the sky? What skills might you need to survive when the two become interchangeable? Pelevin takes a fatalistic approach to the question. Omon reflects:

There’s obviously some strange correspondence between the general outline of a life and that stream of petty events which a person is constantly involved in and regards as insignificant. I can now see quite clearly that the course of my own life was already set, determined before I had even begun to think seriously about the way I wanted it to turn out. I was even given a glimpse of it in simplified form. Perhaps it was an echo of the future. Or perhaps those things which we take for echoes of the future are actually its seeds, falling into the soil of life at the very moment which in distant retrospect comes to seem like an echo out of the future.

He goes to flight school. Nothing is as it seems, in ways too brilliant for me to spoil in this review. Omon’s journey could be called a blistering indictment of the Soviet Union—or at least a profoundly disturbing one, since this is a world in which men’s legs are broken to fit the planes instead of the planes being built to fit the men. But there’s a strain of dry humor or meditative detachment throughout, that says that the author knows you can’t  blister something which was never really there.

I wish I could comment on the book’s end without giving away its punch. I’ll just say it is now officially my favorite closing strategy since Infinite Jest, and references another Russian classic, Moscow—Petushki.

31. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, by D.T. Max

18 Nov

The experience of reading D.T. Max’s David Foster Wallace biography has been so riveting and enormously gratifying that it’s taken a while for the dust to settle and me to be able to consider it as a book.

On the personal level, I’ve been waiting since the mid-90s for answers to my many curiosities about David Foster Wallace. Who was he, where was he from, why did he live and teach in the Midwest, why did he wear the bandanna, why did his work mean so much to me and to the many other young people who connected with it so intensely, why wasn’t he writing more…and what was up the night of the Infinite Jest launch party, at the 10th Street Lounge, when he invited me back to his hotel to watch Baywatch? Was he serious? Joking? Did he want to fuck me? Should I have gone?

It’s both an enormous achievement and a little bit frightening that D.T. Max’s book answers all of those questions. He captures Wallace’s work and its meaning so elegantly, and puts forth such a detailed, coherent and revealing portrait of the author, that it’s easy to be distracted from how unsparingly harsh the book is.

Max does not flinch from revealing any of the author’s flaws. The voluptuous acne-picking, the womanizing, the Clearasil-spotted bathrobe, the OCD compulsions with the towels, the self-absorption, the betrayals of friends, the preoccupation with fame and status, the diet soda, the blondies, the meditation retreat Wallace bailed on because the food was bad, the way his dogs slurped food from his mouth. Ouch. God save any one of us from success and a few icky personal habits.

Even the redeeming parts of Wallace’s history come across like they were probably for the wrong reasons. He was by all accounts a great teacher, but the bio implies that the reason was perfectionism rather than love of the students. DFW’s drive to write world-changing literature was immensely complicated and not all that noble. The author’s possible best self, Max speculates, was seen in his friendships with the “real” people from his addiction recovery group. But these friendships were at least somewhat a put-on, a show, a theory.

The biography provides an eye-popping level of intimacy, like what you would get if a gang of your bright, critical, informed, pissed-off best friends sat down to sandbag you. I will now, with curiosity, await the bio of the bio (2040?), which will reveal who cooperated and who didn’t and why, and what everyone involved thought of it. Johnathan Franzen was obviously a major source, and that is not a person I’d trust in an alley with a lead pipe late at night.

The easy answer would be to be outraged, and claim that Max has committed a crime against morality or taste. But I keep coming back to the feeling I had while reading this book, which was…comforted, less lonely. I was sad for David Wallace but, overall in the world, less sad.

This makes me think that Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is too true to be criticized for the ugliness of the portrait that emerged. I think the book was truthful to what Max found out when he went looking, that it stuck to the truth of the people he talked to, and probably close to the truth of Wallace’s excoriated self-image. Honesty and technical proficiency are two of the greatest virtues in art, and this book has both.

It may also be an appropriate coda to a heartbreaking tale. Dave Wallace’s better self wanted to expose himself and us (the reader). He strove for the real, and failed, and flayed himself for his own striving, and for his own failure. Now he has been exposed. And we have been exposed for enjoying it. It’s a love story and a ghost story and one that the subject would recognize, if not deserve.

I should end there, but here is where I start wishing instead. David Foster Wallace revolted me with his first published story after Infinite Jest,  “the Depressed Person,” and lost me on Brief Interviews With Hideous men. I really don’t believe in hideous men. I wish that he’d gotten out of that box, and learned to forgive himself, and by extension the rest of humanity. I wish for something softer and deeper. I think he’d still be alive if he’d learned that, and I think he would have figured out something better to write. I wish he’d had children. I wish he’d surrounded himself with nicer people than Johnathan Franzen. I’m sorry that this story was his story.