Thursday, November 21, 2013

Guest Post - Infinite Jest, Take Two

Guest blogger (and son) Ernesto, who gave me this book to read, offers his take:
W/r/t my second complete reading of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest:

While I am baffled that I spent several months reading/lugging this humongous book everywhere (again!), it was all worthwhile. Like with any re-examination of something, I found that a lot was gained, more details observed, and the deeply interwoven world of the book came into full focus.

The main questions I am left with are:
Why does JOI [James O. Incandenza, as a ghost] choose to visit Gately of all people?
Why does Orin [JOI's eldest son] decide to unleash the Entertainment?
The ambiguities of the novel's end are numerous, but like any text so massive, many of the answers can be found within. The master copy of the entertainment which JOI had interred inside his cranium is missing when Hal [Incandenza], Joelle [Prettiest Girl of All Time aka PGOAT], Gately, and John Wayne unearth his remains. The imprisoned Orin cuts a deal with the AFR, giving them the location of the master. The shadow government of the ONAN is prepared to handle the onslaught of the paralyzing entertainment with PSAs and mass electrical outages.

The first time I finished, I was flabbergasted by the lack of closure even with these hints. However, a gimmick I discovered on the internet offered a more comfortable resolution: Flip to the start and read through the first section, ending on page 17. Doing so places the reader at the latest chronological point in the story, the last year of subsidized time. It also refreshes for us all of the poignant details of Hal's opening inner monologue. And since one has already sunken weeks of time into the book, clearly showing some obsession, it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to flip to the beginning and start over (ala the Entertainment or a Substance).

The use of style in the book is likewise infectious, giving the reader a repertoire of slang from across the Bostonian class spectrum. The colloquial writing makes the book even more digestible, at least once you get over the hump of the first 200 pages. The main narrative is colored with disturbing stories told both by individuals from and on their way into AA and nearly indecipherable nuggets of AAVE or phonetic Irish-English. These sections are so numerous and seemingly unconnected, but not a single character or tangent stands alone.

The twisted version of America (ONAN) from a dimension where things are just a shade worse is compelling as well. Not only is it futuristic in its predictions -- 1996 was a long time ago, technologically speaking -- but the technology itself moves people to be radically anti-social (see the section on videophones and the mask industry that comes about as a result). This deeply sad America is caught up in spontaneously disseminated entertainment (cough Netflix, cough cough Amazon Prime) and advertising agencies literally own time itself. The amalgamated TelePuter combines our society's favorite technological distractions into one (as we see rapidly occurring with video-streaming technology). The late Ray Bradbury often pointed out that science fiction's visions of our future serve best as a warning. Infinite Jest should be considered in the same way, something to admonish us and give us pause as we creep deeper into self-absorption and indulgence.

One of  the recurring points in DFW's writing, whether it's short stories, speeches, or in IJ is an urging for human beings to be compassionate; to strive to understand and love someone other than oneself. JOI's stated purpose for having made the entertainment was to get an emotional response out of Hal, to show beyond a doubt that he loved his son despite his own emotional distance and crippling alcoholism. In curbing his own addiction, Hal becomes (by all appearances) a rabid and horrifying animal, which adds to the dark irony of JOI's attempt to elicit emotions from his son.
It's easy to see that Wallace writes what he knows: depression (for which he received electro-shock therapy), addiction/recovery programs, and competitive junior tennis. Reading this 1079 page story for the second time I can't help but applaud David Foster Wallace for creating a world so simultaneously colorful and flawed and an opus so magnum.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Boom and Bust at Uranium Drive-In

Denver's Starz Film Festival screened Uranium Drive-In, a documentary by Susan Beraza featured in both Spotlight on Colorado and Environment in Focus categories. With her film crew Beraza visits the small drying-up towns of Naturita and Nucla in Montrose County in Western Colorado. These towns and Uravan, which was demolished as part of a Superfund cleanup in the 1980's, were founded by mining companies who came for the uranium. Mines and mills offered high-paying jobs, and the residents chose to live with the risks of underground mining and exposure to radioactivity. But when Energy Fuels returned in the mid-2000's to open a uranium mine at Pinon Ridge outside Naturita, they were opposed by a coalition of environmental groups led by Sheep Mountain Alliance, headquartered in the town of Telluride 70 miles to the east. Pinon Ridge in the Paradox Valley lies in the watershed of the Dolores River, which flows into the Colorado - leakage of radioactive water would have magnified repercussions downstream. 

The name Telluride now conjures ski paradise, film and music festivals, beautiful scenery and beautiful people - but before all that Telluride was a mining town, its groundwater poisoned by cobalt, tellurium and other heavy metals. I wonder how many of the owners of multi-million dollar vacation homes are aware of its history. But to the people of Naturita and Nucla, towns without jobs, Telluride is populated by rich people who care more about Paradox Valley's land than about the people trying to survive on it.

Energy Fuels wooed Naturita and Nucla with the promise of high-paying jobs, offering opaque assurances that the contamination "mistakes of the past" would not be repeated under current regulations. However, in Canon City, where Cotter Corporation's uranium mill has been closed and the mandated cleanup has revealed the extent of groundwater contamination, a resident shakes her head at their short-sightedness. Her own father, one of the founders of the Cotter facility, spent his last painful years working against the opening of further uranium mines, before dying of cancer. In fact, the Cotter facility was in the news again this week, for its largest to-date leak of contaminated water.

Residents of Nucla and Naturita waited out the challenges and petitions, but by 2012 when the permit was finally granted, the bottom had dropped out of the uranium market, and Energy Fuels, laying off workers from another mine, was not going to invest in Pinon Ridge.

Mining and drilling are by nature boom-and-bust: when companies have extracted what they value and made their money, they leave. The people who settle remote areas to work for them are left high and dry, on their own to create an economy if they can - or abandon their homes, if they can't.

Naturita residents have started a website,, to explore ways to revitalize their community with sustainable work. Current ideas include a reservations call center for nearby Telluride, agricultural revival, mining tourism, festivals, a shopping district, and boosting outdoor tourism - hunting and fishing, horseback riding...
They are looking for ideas, and more importantly, funding.

In the end, this is a challenge not just for struggling rural areas, but for us all: are we willing to think past our own wallets, to consider who's supported and abandoned every time we buy something? Right now it's hard to find products made in this country, but that can change, if we're willing to pay more knowing the money goes to our neighbors, not primarily into the pockets of the very corporations that took their jobs overseas.