The Infinite Jest Liveblog: Lenz Grinding
This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”
December 9,2011, pgs 538-549/1037. I’m open to suggestion on the point, but for my money, Randy Lenz’s walks home from his AA and NA meetings are the most unpleasant and difficult-to-read narrative thread in a novel with more than its share of unpleasant narrative threads. To start with, Lenz is a terribly unappealing character regardless of what he does during these strolls home. He’s paranoid, arrogant and jumpy, annoying in his compulsions to always walk north and always know the exact time, rude and downright malicious in even the smallest acts (see him “lying on [Geoffrey] Day’s mattress with his shoes on and trying to fart into the mattress as much as possible.”) A quick look through a few Wallace sites turns up commentary like, “reading about Lenz makes me almost physically ill, more so than any other part of the book thus far,” or that his section of the book “has haunted me since I first read Infinite Jest. For 12 years, any mention of Allston made me think of Lenz and his ‘There.'” Also this: “Randy Lenz is a slimeball, frankly.” Most people talked about reading this section in protective supervision over their pets, and it’s worth remembering that DFW was the owner of two dogs for whom his love has been noted in more than a few instances.
This is a hard chapter to read, and was undoubtedly a hard chapter to write. The question is: What’s the significance? There must be more here than an extended stay with an unpleasant character — starting with the fact that, in a book where a key character is an optical expert and filmmaker, this character’s name is lens. He is also known to carry around the large-print version of William James’ Gifford Lectures, better known as “The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature,” and it’s clear by now that religious experience is an important theme. What I find the strangest, though, is Wallace’s level of sympathy with Lenz. While lying (and farting) on Day’s bed, Lenz reads “something about the more basically powerless an individual feels, the more the likelihood for the propensity for violent acting out — and Lenz found the observation to be sound.” It’s also “maybe to his credit that he’s a little off his psychic feed for a few days” after he considers taking out his issues on an actual human being. Even his gruesome, psychopathic, early-sign-of-a-serial-killer executions of an escalating scale of rats, cats and dogs end with a relieved “There,” from Lenz. It’s hard not to somehow ID with his catharsis, though certainly not his method. He genuinely likes Bruce Green, and again, his anxiety about blowing Green off is relatable, even if it is only so that he can continue torturing innocent, domestic animals. So perhaps the extended stay with an unpleasant character is the point. That this is an acknowledgement that not every variety of religious experience is upward progress, and a study in the parts of human nature that most people — and definitely most novelists — don’t have the heart or stomach to explore without laying a clear judgement on the character.
Another important point: Doony Glynn once had an experience with “a reckless amount of a hallucinogen he’d refer to only as ‘The Madame'” that, among other things, projected an accurate vision of the DOW index into his sight for a few days.
There once was a man named Rodney Tine.
He measured his penis every a.m., around nine.
He’s now on the trail
of a film with a revolving door and a woman in a veil.
From Berkeley to Boston and LA to AZ,
seeing it played has been lethal each time.