(There are no spoilers in this review.)
So I finally broke down and purchased a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. My love of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder prompted me to scour the internet for “mind bending literature,” the results of which invariably pointed me in one direction.
I had a wicked dream about the book the night I started reading it, due surely to the oversized hype surrounding both author and title. I crave the bizarre in literature, and the opening passage did not disappoint. In fact it left me on the floor.
I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.
That night my dreams generated pages and pages more, whole chapters even, remotely imagining the intolerably strange. I felt that I had been given a secret handshake and waved into a dark circuit of caves from which no one escapes unchanged. As of today I am only sixty pages deep, and already my neurons are rearranging themselves in very real and hilariously terrifying ways eerily reminiscent of my young mind’s reaction to my first private screening of The Shining.
The next morning I thought of Mulholland Drive, a film I had only lately rediscovered. Like the David Lynch masterpiece, knowing what I’m getting into ahead of time will either help me or hurt me, or maybe a little of both. In any event, I already knew quite a lot about Infinite Jest before opening to the first page. My boyfriend read it last summer, and the summer before that I heard Slate’s excellent audio book club tear it (and Wallace) expertly apart for nearly an hour. I knew it was thought of (by some) as an overly ambitious work of grand scale with dense narrative, many unused characters, and little in the way of tidy story telling, so it didn’t take long for Mulholland Drive to spring to mind.
Mulholland Drive is the more coherent of the two, if for no other reason that it takes only two hours of your life, not several weeks or more. What’s more, if you’re willing to suspend some personal disbelief and do some digging online, a coherent story can arguably be pieced together. On the other hand, Lynch had every intention of making Mulholland Drive into a television serial ala Twin Peaks, and likely attempted to squish as much of the story into a 150-minute long movie as possible. I prefer to think of the plot as open-ended, but of course I’m one of the many viewers who immediately went online in search of answers. (For someone who claims to love it when the plot is the victim in a mystery, I sure did hit the search engines pretty fast after my first private viewing.)
I don’t know if the same tentative sanity can be said for the narrative within Infinite Jest. The consensus seems to be that the story does have a semi-coherent arc, depending on which set of characters you focus on. Both have been compared to a Möbius strip. The participants of Slate’s book club seem to agree that the opening pages of Infinite Jest pick up where the book leaves off, and the Memento-esque time fracturing of Mulholland Drive shuffles the story’s plot into a dozen different directions and back, the beginning of which pokes its head unwelcomely out about three quarters into the film.
Both go out of their way to not make it easy. Anyone who’s made even the meekest attempts at either will cop to this. Hell, Lynch comes right out and says it in the last third of the film:
Camilla: “Don’t be mad. Don’t make it be like this.”
Diane: “Oh, sure. You want me to make this easy for you. No. No fucking way. It’s not gonna be. It’s not easy for me!”
A telling exchange, with Lynch speaking through Diane at us, the audience, playing the part of Camilla. This is a cruel and unexpected (but not undeserved?) slap in the face after Diane (through Betty) takes a confused Rita’s / Camilla’s hand through the first half of the mystery with a brave don’t-worry, let’s-see-what-we-can-make-of-it attitude. The overwhelming consensus online seems to be that Lynch both lets us fall in love with the mystery and punishes us for wanting it in the first place, reflected no doubt in his maddening struggle to get the damn thing off the ground in the first place.
I’m not going to dive into the specifics of either plot, especially not Infinite Jest, since I just started it. But I would like to address the idea of the dream as narration, a concept made crystal clear within the first few minutes of Mulholland Drive (the sheets, the pillow, the breathing). I understand that many reviewers try the Wizard Of Oz approach, in which one character takes a few real events and creates a semi-related but wholly different dream world with them, either consciously or otherwise (“You were there, and you, and you…”). It’s a convincing case, one I’m tempted to go along with, but I think we should allow that Lynch is really working us on a subconscious level throughout the entire film, not just parts of it. His dislike of tidy narratives is well known. To say that part of the film takes place in the real world and part takes place in an alternate universe or a dream feels lazy and a bit too tidy.
I suspect that in Mulholland Drive we are not meant to know where dream begins and real world ends. I suspect Lynch was trying to make us feel like we just survived a traumatic dream. Think of how you feel when you wake from a long, intense sleep. You remember the last thing first, and then plumb backwards, like a reverse caving expedition. (The key to the riddle within Mulholland Drive is supposedly found in the opening / closing moments.) Eventually you remember more and more details, and various small arcs begin to connect with each other in real and confusing ways. You can get a feel for how all the threads touch each other, but you can’t seem to back up far enough to see how the larger picture comes together to form a coherent story. What’s more, you know—you just know—that a coherent story is in there somewhere. You can feel it screaming out at you, itching, wanting to make sense at you. Laurie Anderson, in Sharkey’s Day, says,
There was this man, and there was this road, and if only I could remember these dreams, I know they’re trying to tell me… something.
So we know some meaning or larger picture exists under the artifice of the film. We know this if for no other reason that the film exists. Only this larger picture exists as some impossible object, some paradoxical, six-dimensional thing that lies to itself and to you when you turn on the light and put it on a table and try to look at it, and you can only see as far back as it wants you to see. The story folds back in on itself at the beginning, only to emerge again somewhere in the middle, as part of another arc to another sub-arc in a never ending cascade of infinite recursion. It both wants to be found and refuses to be found at the same time, a maddening, teasing lump of pulsing red flesh in your bathroom sink while you try to brush your teeth in the morning.
I suspect this is how Lynch wants us to walk away from Mulholland Drive, and how Wallace wants us to enter Infinite Jest: confused, intrigued, angry, sleepy, in love. Both Davids make us work for it.