(Wow, flashback to opening night of Mortal Kombat. On the one hand, I don’t like remembering that I was such a dork as to stand in line before the box office opened, just to make sure I was there that first night; on the other hand, being in a crowd that whooped and hollered and cheered when the title appeared on screen meant it was a lot easier to ignore that the movie was bad in a bad way.)

So Infinite Summer is finally underway. It’s not like I needed an excuse to reread Infinite Jest again—this is my fourth time through, the third in the past two years—but I’m still excited. Also exciting is the fact that Mimi Smartypants is (unofficially) on board, and that her take on the book is 100% accurate about one DFW’s two main goals, in my opinion.

According to the schedule, the line of completion is still at page 63 (which means I have to save footnote 24, “James O. Incandenza: A Filmography,” for later, which is probably just as well, since it deserves a whole post to itself). Some introductory fragmentary remarks, then:

Hal’s admissions interview is so funny, but it’s also deeply disorienting and defamiliarizing. The incredible attention paid to communication and the concern for making sure that one’s intended meaning is carried over to the person it’s intended for are major signals toward my and Mimi’s understanding of the book. But they’re also tied up in the way the book itself teaches you how to understand what it’s trying to say. Along with The Book of the New Sun, Ulysses, and I’m sure others, Infinite Jest requires you to make sense of it in ways it doesn’t warn you about. There is no “As you know, Bob” infodump at the beginning, no stage-play phone conversation with the other party’s every line repeated for the audience’s benefit; it starts out confusing and makes you construct a provisional framework around it to construe the abundant information in ways that mean something.

(A dim recollection suggests that I’m talking about the invocation of what a very long afternoon’s Googling reveals to be reading protocols. Unfortunately, there is apparently no copy of “About 5,750 Words” available online. Some of its material comes up in this interview with Delany, though.)

The writing is of course magnificent: sensitive, overinformative, thoughtful, urgent, hilarious, tender, bitterly sad, and chameleonic. In the first 60 pages, you get at least four or five different narrating voices, plus various shades of the third person and a sort of transcription style that has its own deadpan quality (questions answered with ‘…’).

I guess the last thing I’d want to open with is a quick mention of the terrifying death of M. Guillaume DuPlessis, anti-O.N.A.N.ist P.I.T.* As a sufferer of seasonal allergies, I think I have never read anything that so quickened my pulse with anxiety as the detailed description of DuPlessis’s last, congested moments. Every time I reread that section, I get a little panicky. It’s not a comfortable thing to read, but much of Infinite Jest is about imaginatively sharing the experiences of others—that’s what empathy is, in some respects—even when they’re difficult. Indeed, that’s when it’s most important to try.

*Une Personne de l’Importance Terrible,’ presumably.

(And that I’m infinitely distractable.)

And to prove that I won’t let a little thing like a storied crosstown rivalry keep me from recognizing excellence:

But note that the TroyTones placed second with that performance—to the “I Want It That Way” that kicked off this post.

Rich and Sisyphus, in the comments at Acephalous, take a turn toward sci fi that tries to imagine other-than-the-case, more purely egalitarian kinds of human (at least, I take that as one of the implicit ground rules; watch as I violate it almost instantly) sexuality. That reminds me of Storm Constantine‘s Wraeththu, which I read some months ago at a friend’s insistence (and might not be remembering entirely accurately). It’s a series about a new species of beings, the Wraeththu, that supplant humanity, on the basis that they’re some sort of evolutionary progress—highly resistant to disease and death, and able to cure by magic almost all of what can afflict them—and are therefore more fit to survive.

I found the series an interesting failure. The writing was lovely; I haven’t read many books as broadly invested in imagery of all five senses, especially smell and taste. The problems were more conceptual and technical. To begin with, it seems to me the literary purpose of the Wraeththu is as an illustration of how sexual dimorphism and the more-or-less compulsory heterosexuality that comes with it breed trouble in a population. (They are also a condemnation of sexual repression, and an example of how to integrate sexuality more fully into identity and everyday life, but some portion of that comes through sex magic, so do with that what you want.) So they’re a race of hermaphrodites. Which is fine, by way of a mechanical solution to the “problem” of heterosexuality, but here’s the rub: To become a har—just as the human race is made of men and women, the Wraeththu race is made of hara—a human being must be converted through a ritual that involves, if I remember correctly, being drugged and then penetrated by a har, whose semen will corrode the human being’s insides (hopefully without killing him, although there’s a significant mortality rate) and cause what remains to transmute into Wraeththu substance.

And only males can become Wraeththu. If a har has sex with a woman, she’ll automatically die. So they’re hermaphrodites, but they’re hermaphroditic males, always referred to by masculine pronouns. According to the elite tribe of Wraeththu, hara are supposed to balance the masculine and the feminine within themselves. (You see the biological determinism in this, I assume: Man parts make you behave one way, woman parts make you behave another. If you have both, that means you’re more advanced, in terms of what behaviors are available to you, than other folks.) Yet they still have gender roles—even though they don’t have genders. All hara are capable of conceiving, and it’s entirely voluntary; the receptive partner grows a “pearl” inside him that transits out of his body through some unspecified mechanism, and then the pearl expands and hatches a full-formed har of about the size of a nine-year-old human boy. The active har in a conception like that is still known as the father, and in one of the only cases presented in the trilogy, the father is relatively uninvolved in raising the child. Even the elite tribe, once they subjugate resisters through warfare (aggression, which they’ve supposedly rooted out of themselves thanks to their equal male and female natures) and become the ruling tribe, has a king called the Tigron whose consort is the Tigrina. That just looks so much like “lady Tigron” to me that I wonder whether Constantine intends it to undercut that tribe’s philosophy.

This persistence of gender roles after the fact of gender has ceased to exist dismays me. I’d like to see the end of gender roles long before the end of the human race (I’m kind of sentimental about my own species that way). On top of that, though, it’s a fairly obvious element of a series of what—if I were a certain kind of reader—I would call countermoves the text makes against its author’s intentions (or perhaps countermoves made through the text by the culture and ideologies in which the text was written, although I’m pretty sure at that point I’m moving into a different area of interpretation): The more she tries to efface the differences between “male” and “female,” the more the text sidesteps her and reinscribes those differences in places she hasn’t yet specifically swept them aside. I’m not kidding. At the end of the third book, the main character discovers the secret capital of a heretofore-unknown Wraeththu-analog race made exclusively of women.

So that’s the trouble that series has with imagining a new kind of sexuality (and that’s not even getting into the brothel one character finds himself working in where they specialize in pretending to be unwilling, since rape kind of doesn’t exist anymore). That’s basically what I meant above when I mentioned the conceptual problems of the series. There is one sex-linked stereotype, though, that I think gets a fantastic reworking, and that’s the otherworldly consumptive girl. In this case it’s a har called Cobweb, who has a child with a tribal war-chief. Cobweb’s basically the stay-at-home mom, except he’s also a powerful sorcerer. He’s long-haired and pale, spends most of his time indoors with the curtains drawn, and lives in a world of clouds and fallen leaves and the shadows of birds’ wings, from where he’s always trying to fight to keep his man—but that world is where he draws his power from. He inhabits that “sickly” world so fully that he’s able to do great deeds of magic and willpower that strongly affect the normal world.

The technical problems are somewhat more pedestrian, although they’re of the “visible machinery” kind that I’m always interested in—being able to see how a piece of art works. In the first book, having converted the main character (Pellaz) into a har, Constantine needs to show off the variations in her idea, so she sends Pellaz on a world tour, which is supposedly necessary for him to learn the various skills required to advance through the steps-and-castes system of Wraeththu civilization. It’s kind of funny, actually; you can almost hear the boards creak as Constantine shepherds you around the whole stage to show you every corner of the set she built. The third book’s basically more of the same, only with a different character and on a different continent.

So like I said, an interesting failure. If nothing else, I think it shows that Rich’s point—that only sci fi can really try to posit new relations to sexuality—while true, assumes an important qualification without expressly mentioning it: Sci fi’s the best arena for that kind of speculation, but that doesn’t give it an automatic leg up on speculating well.