Words, Words, Words: The Infinite Jest Liveblog
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
So much fun you can’t stop
When I’m done you can pick it up, but I’m not mailing this thing.
**JUMP TO THE LATEST ENTRY IN THE INFINITE JEST LIVEBLOG**
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction to the Liveblog
Don’t Read the Foreword, pgs. xi — xvi
Hamlet Sightings, pgs 3-17
Wen, pg 4
Pot Head, pgs 17-27
One Who Excels at Conversing, pgs 27-31
The Entertainment, pgs 32-37
Keep Reading, pgs 37-42
Orin and Hal, pgs 42-55
Don Gately: An Introduction, pgs 55-63
History of JOI and ETA, pgs 63-68
Two Addicts, an Attache and a German who Kicks it Altschule, pgs 68-87
Cloak and Dagger/Towels and Banter, pgs 87-127
Lyle and Friends, pgs 127-144
I Saw a Vision of Your Facetime, pgs 144-156
Justifying Your Seed, pgs 157-176
Anticonfluential?, pgs 176-193
Have a Cigar, pgs 193-219
An Aside, N/A
Too Much Fun, pgs 219-240
Waste Displacement, pgs 240-270
Analysis Paralysis, pgs 270-283
An Anticipated Retraction Regarding Dave Eggers or DO Read the Introduction
The Story of O, pgs 283-306
Double Binds, pgs 306-321/1004-1022
Eschaton!, pgs 321-342/1022-1025
Another Aside: DFW on Charlie Rose, N/A
White Flag, pgs 343-379/1025-1028
ONANism, pgs 380-418/1028-1031
The Pursuit of Happiness/The Clipperton Suite, pgs 418-434/1031-1032
8 NOVEMBER INTERDEPENDENCE DAY, N/A
This is Water, pgs 434-450
Visual Aid, N/A
Fire at Your Will, pgs 450-469/1032-1033
Somehow Relevant, N/A
Antitoi Entertainent [sic], pgs 469-508/1033-1034
Blue, pgs 508-530/1034-1036
Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, pgs 530-538/1036-1037
Lenz Grinding, pgs 538-549/1037
Finding Drama, pgs 550-567/1037-1044
Getting Chewed by Something Huge and Tireless and Patient, pgs 567-619/1044-1045
The Phoneless Cord, pgs 620-638/1045-1046
The Darkness, pgs 638-662/1046
Brief Interview with Hyperhidrosis Man, pgs 663-665/1046-1052
Something is Rotten in the State of Enfield, pgs 666-682/1052
Shallow Hal, pgs 682-716/1052-1054
Cult Classics, pgs 716-735/1054-1062
Every Unhappy Family…, pgs 736-755/1062
Monsters, pgs 755-785/1062-1066
Subsequent Events, pgs 785-808/1066-1076
“….”, pgs 809-845/1076
Alas, Poor Tony, pgs 845-864/1076-1077
Tragedy Comedy, pgs 865-883/1077
When it Comes, pgs 883-902/1077
Using Your Head, pgs 902-911/1077
Too Late, pgs 911-934/1077-1078
Byzantine Pornography, pgs 934-958/1078-1079
And But So Then?, pgs 958-981/1079
What Happened? Pt. 1, pgs 3-1079
What Happened? Pt. 2, pgs 3-1079
“INFINITE JEST” IS A BIG BOOK in so many more ways than just the one. Of the last few decades, it is the one piece of literature regarded as unimpeachably genius, a game changer, a generation-definer, an Urtext of whatever they’re calling fiction after post-modernism, an event, a whatever else you can think of. The almost universal response, whether you love or hate the book, is awe.
Awe at its length, awe at Wallace’s skill, awe at the pages and pages and pages of endnotes, awe that any single human brain — especially such a young one (Wallace was just 34 when the book was published) — could produce such a thing. What’s interesting is that these are only the outward impressions, the understanding of the book that you can get from just looking at it on the shelf, or flipping through the 388 endnotes, or biting off just one sentence, much less the entire book. What’s even more interesting is how these impressions branch and flower when you dive truly in.
Since Wallace’s suicide in 2008, the standard Kurt Cobain/Jimi Hendrix/Jeff Buckley Death of a Promising Young Artist dynamic has been at work, but magnified by the differences between the music and literature worlds. Where the former is constantly rewarding and celebrating the new and experimental, the latter tends to sniff with distrust around anything different. There is plenty of justification in the fear that technical experimentation or unrealism or fragmented narratives or other innovations are just bait to leave us with an indulgent, gimmicky, poorly structured piece of fiction snapped painfully around our wrists. Wallace managed to use experimentation and other weird stuff to get a genuine emotional response (though he may be held accountable for inspiring many terrible graduate writing workshop pieces that did not), and the fact that he had a certain rock star celebrity among American literature’s tweedy dweebs is not insignificant. His untimely and genuinely heart-wrenching death accelerated his stature to something a bit more messianic. Wallace has become a mythology, and because — now that we have “The Pale King” in hand — we know that he never wrote another work of the caliber and quality of “Infinite Jest,” the book itself orders his magnitude.
And so I repeat: it’s a big book. Which is why we’re trying something new here at Trade Paperbacks. Rather than spending the next month or two in hiding trying to read the 1k-plus-pages-plus-endnotes and then spending who knows how long trying to come up with some kind of coherent response, I’m just going to post as I go along. A live blog, or as close to live as I can get. So strap in, check back often, and read along if you like — and don’t hesitate to add your thoughts in the comments.
Finally, cross your fingers and hope that this won’t be as challenging as actually getting through the novel itself.
August 1, 2012. What Happened? Pt. 1, pgs 3-1079. It’s been a little over three months since the last post of the Infinite Jest liveblog, and I recently noticed the first tiny urges to jump back in and read the book again. I’m not quite ready for all that, but it seems like the right time to tackle some of the most difficult questions lingering at the end of the novel: What the hell just happened? And why did it happen that way? (I’ll tackle the latter in a second post).
If your experience finishing Infinite Jest mirrors mine, then after you threw the book across the room, picked it up and re-read the first chapter, then threw the book again, you went to Google and entered: “WHAT HAPPENED IN INFINITE JEST?”
This approach leads to some good resources for piecing together the actual events. Aaron Swartz at Raw Thought has the best explanation I’ve seen so far, a concise, linear and well-built case for what happened, even if some of his conclusions are debatable. Ezra Klein has some interesting thoughts about the impact, if not the actual details, of IJ’s ending in a post called “Infinite Jest as Infinite Jest.” And Dan Schmidt’s “Notes on Infinite Jest” answers some questions while raising others.
I’ll be using these sources — without which I would not have grasped what happened — to walk through things in detail here. But first, let’s establish that there actually is something happening at the end of Infinite Jest. The abrupt closing is easily written off as arbitrary or too clever, an easy way out of a monstrous narrative that offered no satisfying path to the finish line. But Wallace appears to have had an arc — or a circle — in mind, and filling in the blanks does not disappoint. Swartz quotes Wallace saying in 1996:
There is an ending as far as I’m concerned. Certain kinds of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occurred to you, then the book’s failed for you.
And in a 1997 interview with the Boston Phoenix, Wallace said:
Plot wise, the book doesn’t come to a resolution. But if the readers perceive it as me giving them the finger, then I haven’t done my job. On the surface it might seem like it just stops. But it’s supposed to stop and then kind of hum and project. Musically and emotionally, it’s a pitch that seemed right.
The ending’s meaning and intent are debatable, which is one of the great things about the book, but we should agree that there are both meaning and intent — and that the first step in deciphering them is an inventory of the main players as of pages 981 and 1079.
DON GATELY — The book ends with Don Gately on a beach after a massively unpleasant experience with his old crew and some Dilaudids. This is not the moment when Gately decides to get into recovery and head to Ennet House, but the image of him emerging from the warm, liquid womb of the drugs onto a cold beach with the tide way out is a strong, and significant, suggestion of a harsh “rebirth.” If this isn’t rock bottom, it’s hard to imagine any experience tough enough to chip down to lower level of shittiness than watching your friend get his eyes sewn open while you lay in a puddle of piss and M&M dye listening to Linda McCartney vocal tracks. I think the Linda McCartney part might be enough for me to seek help.
Of course, Gately is actually in his hospital bed dreaming of all this. He has been receiving visits from Joelle van Dyne, assorted Ennet House residents, and the JOI wraith as he recovers from a gunshot wound without the help of any addictive painkillers. I have wondered (but found no firm supporting evidence) whether Gately was given painkillers in the hospital against his uncommunicative will. On the one hand, it would explain why he dreams of taking massive doses of substances. On the other hand, if reintroducing Dilaudid into his system sends him straight back to memories of his rock bottom, let’s hope it means he won’t be getting back on the horse when he wakes up.
Gately has a hospital room vision on page 934:
He dreams he’s with a very sad kid and they’re in a graveyard digging some dead guy’s head up and it’s really important, like Continental-Emergency important, and Gately’s the best digger but he’s wicked hungry, like irresistibly hungry, and he’s eating with both hands out of huge economy-size bags of corporate snacks so he can’t really dig, while it gets later and later and the sad kid is trying to scream at Gately that the important thing was buried in the guy’s head and to divert the Continental Emergency to start digging the guy’s head up before it’s too late, but the kid moves his mouth but nothing comes out, and Joelle van D. appears … while the sad kid holds something terrible up by the hair and makes the face of somebody shouting in panic: Too Late.
Which echoes Hal’s memory from the first chapter:
I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father’s head. There’s very little doubt that Wayne would have won.
JOHN “NO RELATION” WAYNE — We can confidently assume that John Wayne was an AFR plant at the Enfield Tennis Academy, along with Poutrincourt and possibly Avril Incandenza. He was last seen to have lost his composure after accidentally ingesting Pemulis’s Tenuate.
In Hal’s memory from the first chapter, Wayne is “standing watch” for them, and is then not able to play in the WhataBurger tournament.
JOELLE VAN DYNE aka MADAME PSYCHOSIS aka PGOAT — Joelle van Dyne is scooped up by Hugh “Helen” Steeply and questioned about The Entertainment.
HAL INCANDENZA — We know that Hal Incandenza is bound for his ill-fated college interview in the first chapter, but the last we see of him in the book (before Wallace meanders off to tell us all about Barry Loach) he’s acting weird in the pre-match locker room. Prior to this, Hal was wandering around the Enfield hallways in the early morning of the snowstorm. This is, notably, the last we hear from Hal in the first person, and he is just beginning to have trouble communicating. He’s showing the earliest symptoms of his condition in the first chapter.
Theories vary on what’s happened to Hal, but everyone seems to generally agree that he is feeling the effects of DMZ, the drug that caused a dosed convict to belt out Ethel Merman tunes every time he tried to speak. Hal too is losing control of what he is saying, but his manifestations are much less melodic.
One theory goes that Hal has synthesized the DMZ in his own body, a combination of the mold-eating incident from his childhood, the marijuana withdrawl, and possibly a significant intake of sugar on Interdependence Day that fed the DMZ still in his digestive system. The best explanation of this theory is the aforementioned Dan Schmidt’s “Notes on Infinite Jest.”
Another theory goes that Hal has been dosed with DMZ by the toothbrush. There have been prior incidents at ETA of toothbrush-as-vector for drugging, which Hal mentions in his last first-person sections. The toothbrush theory splits into two additional possibilities: One, that Pemulis did it out of anger at being expelled; or two, that JOI’s wraith did it. I think clues point to the wraith — because Pemulis’s stash is missing when he goes to retrieve it, and because Hal has not left his toothbrush unattended. It’s clear by now that JOI’s wraith is responsible for moving items around ETA, and for helping Ortho Stice in his match against Hal. It’s possible the wraith also left the bathroom window open on Hal’s hall.
Swartz at Raw Thought has some interesting speculations on why he thinks it was JOI-wraith, speculations that are linked to the origins of DMZ and the ultimate outcome of the novel — but these are the conclusions I was talking about when I said that some of them are debatable.
Based on the first chapter, we can also assume that most things get back to “normal” for the Incandenza’s by the Year of Glad. There is no mention of Hal’s mother disappearing, his brother dying or anything about Mario offered up as excuses for Hal’s questionable academic performance. It seems like there would have been if anything had happened.
MICHAEL PEMULIS — Whereabouts unknown, presumably not at ETA. Last seen searching for his missing stash of high-powered drugs and trying to talk to Hal about something important. Pemulis is currently living out his greatest fear of being expelled from ETA and going back to Allston. His behavior at this point is, therefore, presumed to be erratic and is possibly but, as discussed above, not likely to be linked to Hal’s developing issues.
ORIN INCANDENZA — After being seduced by Luria P(erec) aka the “Swiss hand-model,” Orin is undergoing a technical interview at the hands of Luria and the AFR leader M. Fortier. Orin is believed to be the holder of a master copy of The Entertainment, since reproductions have appeared in regions where he lived and places where his father’s enemies are, for example the Near Eastern Medical Attache in Boston and the Berkeley film critics. Orin breaks under the 1984-style interrogation, crying out “Do it to her! Do it to her!” Who this “her!” is is a subject of speculation, and had led some to assume that Avril Incandenza is present, and possibly is the same person as Luria P. This theory is sick and gross, but interesting.
It seems like Orin is still alive in the first chapter, since Hal mentions him without alluding to any kind of loss.
AVRIL INCANDENZA — Whereabouts unknown. Suspected agent of AFR, known enemy of Michael Pemulis and confirmed “ally” of John Wayne. It’s speculated though unlikely that she is also AFR agent and OUS-infiltrator Luria P., who hails from the same region of Quebec. Honestly, Avril’s behavior seems too genuinely neurotic for her to be functioning with alter-egos, and it doesn’t really add much to the story to clear up whether she is or isn’t Luria P.
LES ASSASSINS DES FAUTEUILS ROLLENTS (AFR) — Have captured Orin and infiltrated Enfield.
ORTHO “THE DARKNESS” STICE — Most of Ortho Stice had been forcibly removed from his post at the window, though some face remained, according to reports.
In the first chapter, he is set to possibly play Hal in the WhataBurger finals in the first chapter. One of Swartz’s debatable conclusions is that Stice is possessed by JOI’s wraith, which is thus prepared to “interact” with Hal through the match at the WhataBurger.
THE ENTERTAINMENT MASTER COPY — In the hands of AFR after either being recovered from the Antitoi’s, who picked it up from Gately’s partner in the DuPlessis robbery, or more likely, from Orin. Either way, they get a hold of it, which means that — as far as the standard plot progression goes — the “bad guys” actually win in the end of Infinite Jest.
THE ENTERTAINMENT ANTIDOTE — An Entertainment antidote may or may not actually exist. After looking through the book and the various interpretations online, I can only repeat what Marathe says: “Of this anti-film that antidotes the seduction of the Entertainment we have no evidence except craziness of rumors.”
MARIO INCANDENZA — Mario is fine.
So, then, what?
After the pages stop, Hal goes to the hospital, escaping the AFR who have come to ETA. He ends up in the bed next to Gately (previously occupied by Otis P. Lord), which is where Gately, Joelle, and Hal come together for the adventures ahead. John Wayne betrays the AFR to help in the search, and they try to dig up whatever is in JOI’s head — most likely the master copy of The Entertainment….
But it’s too late, Orin has already retrieved the master copy and sent a few out. He gives it to the AFR in exchange for his life/for not having roaches dumped on him…
The AFR uses The Entertainment to upend the current geo-political arrangement, ending subsidized time and the Gentle administration and starting some manner of military engagement. As someone better at putting clues together has pointed out, Hal mentions “some sort of ultra-mach fighter too high overhead to hear” in the first chapter. The AFR also does something to John Wayne, presumably something unpleasant, that prevents him from being at the WhataBurger tournament…
Hal’s condition worsens and he is unable to communicate, though he is still able to play tennis. He scares the administrators at his college interview and is sent to the hospital and etc.
Okay — so why, then, didn’t DFW just say so in the first place?
Well, for one, there was probably another 1,000 pages of action to write, which, if you think a mysterious ending is a lot to handle, I ask you to consider that alternative. There is also the fact that Wallace probably wanted to finish the way he’d been going for most of the book, by fracturing the narrative. Though in this case, it’s a full, if not clean, break. I’d also wager that he liked the idea of creating a loop, an endless entertainment, a novel with annular fusion. And whether he meant it to be or not, the “Back to Front” method of the book echoes Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the apex of difficult fiction. Wallace was never shy about wanting fiction to be challenging; he wanted readers to be more than passive receptors of entertainment.
There are, I’m sure, many more defenses, but the last I’ll offer is this: The events that are left out are not what the book is really about. The continental emergency is not the thing to focus on or worry over. The final tying together of these anti-confluential narratives, this Byzantine pornography of characters, is not the goal. It doesn’t matter whether Gately and Joelle ever get together. Had Wallace “completed” the story, he would have distracted from what I think is the real meaning of Infinite Jest.
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I’ll tell you what that is.
Previously on “Words, Words, Words”:
Had Wallace “completed” the story, he would have distracted from what I think is the real meaning of Infinite Jest.
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I’ll tell you what that is.
Commence Part 2…
So, I may have misspoke. The truth is that isolating a single “real meaning of Infinite Jest” is next to impossible. On one hand, it can be said that the novel is about many things: fathers and sons; mothers and sons; addiction; communication; entertainment; politics; greatness, mediocrity and failure. It’s a coming of age story alongside a recovery story that is also possibly a love story, all wrapped in a cloak-and-dagger-ish mystery about international realignment and terrorism. Choose your favorite combination and go with it. The book is about a lot of things.
On the other hand, it’s tough to say the book is actually “about” anything at all. As we have noted, there is no clear resolution. We never see the characters learn lessons, come of age, fall in love or be at peace in any way that warrants a Happily Ever After type of closure. The book literally stops far away and chronologically ahead of the main events in the novel (sort of) and we don’t entirely know who lives or dies, or what the shape of the continental borders look like, or whether fathers connected with sons. I’m sure many of the most frustrated readers have tossed up their hands and decided that Infinite Jest is really about nothing at all, some kind of post-modern experiment in reader-annoyance-tolerance-levels where we’re supposed to be thinking about what it means to read stories when really all we wanted was to just plain old read a story.
Rather than walking away from IJ in one of these two unsatisfying directions, it is possible to follow a third and potentially satisfying way.
I believe there is a unified theory of Infinite Jest that explains the various particles and waves of the novel — or most of them, at least — and helps clarify why Wallace made some of the choices he made. Be warned, however, that this theory drops deeper into Wallace’s other writings and his biography, and may not relieve the ailments of readers hoping for clarification on plot points. There’s also a good chance you will simply find this theory boring. But also note that IJ is just as enjoyable, in my opinion, with or without the ideas below.
The theory is this: Infinite Jest is Wallace’s attempt to both manifest and dramatize a revolutionary fiction style that he called for in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” The style is one in which a new sincerity will overturn the ironic detachment that hollowed out contemporary fiction towards the end of the 20th century. Wallace was trying to write an antidote to the cynicism that had pervaded and saddened so much of American culture in his lifetime*. He was trying to create an entertainment that would get us talking again.
You are advised to go and read “E Unibus Pluram,” but a quick and dirty rundown goes like this: television watching specifically (even in the relatively speaking “innocent” days of just a few dozen channels) and entertainment generally have occupied a startling portion of our lives and thus become a major, undeniable influence on How We Are. Watching television for an average of six hours a day (Wallace’s figure) means that people are functioning as passive receptors of entertainment for much, if not most, of their waking lives. And when our lives are filled with passive entertainment rather than active engagement with other humans, we are lonely. Also, because we tend to envision ourselves as the central characters in our own life-dramas/comedies, we imagine ourselves as being watched in the times when we are around other people. Thus, the average viewer’s “exhausive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier.” Therefore, more loneliness.
Now, TV didn’t invent human loneliness. Eleanor Rigby was darning her socks well before we got all these channels. But TV watching seems to interest Wallace in particular because it meets the criteria for an addiction — it creates/exacerbates a condition of loneliness and separation in its watchers, and then offers the cure in programming that plugs us into human communities and active lives being lived, though strictly as a watcher. Watching TV in excess leads to isolation and loneliness, but is also something very lonely people can do to feel less alone.
The way television deals with this apparent contradiction is to become a purveyor of a sardonic, detached, irony, and a self-referential, chummy knowingness. To keep us from feeling so lonely as constant watchers, TV had to convince us that it was our only friend, and the only place where we could get away from the slack-jawed pack of other humans and enjoy (passively) the company of clever, good-looking and like-minded people. The ultimate result was that shared sentiment was out; individual smugness and disapproval were in. TV watchers were convinced, through commercials etc, that they are not lonely because they spend so much time alone, but because they are unique, special, rebellious, misunderstood snowflakes, and are repeatedly comforted that they have transcended the herd mentality of their sheepish peers while they spend six hours a day as part of the largest group behavior in human history. Let me note, as Wallace does often, that this wasn’t malicious or sinister, but more of an organic response to keep viewers watching more and more TV.
As a fiction writer, Wallace was deeply concerned that fiction was unequipped to respond effectively to these trends. One reason he gives is that traditional forms of realism hadn’t kept up with a televisual world, and weren’t reflecting the reality of a new generation of readers. Another reason is that fiction could no longer parody the TV situation through irony. Irony, once a powerful and meaningful technique used by postmodern fiction (Barthes, Pynchon, DeLillo) to respond to and expose bad situations, had been co-opted by all the undercutting of real feelings and meaningless talk of “revolution” to advertise products on television. Fiction writers were trying to make us feel something — what Wallace famously described as “what it is to be a fucking human being” — in a setting where exposed feelings were regarded with, at best, skepticism and, at worst, scorn. So they fell back on old forms, or said next to nothing, and stuck to a cool and distant irony. But, as Wallace notes quoting Lewis Hyde, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.”
Wallace wanted a fiction that acted as something more than a wry commentary on the emptiness of contemporary culture. As he wrote in “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” in 1988: “the state of general affairs that explains a nihilistic artistic outlook makes it imperative that art not be nihilistic.” The remedy for this unhappy detachment is what he called for two years later at the end of “E Unibus Pluram”:
The next literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.
One of the most pervasive and frustrating misconceptions about David Foster Wallace is that he is the voice of Generation X, we true geniuses of irony. I have more than once heard Infinite Jest described as an “ironic” book, if not the ironic book. People seem to think that Wallace wrote one thousand pages of careening sentences and fragmented narratives and endnotes with no true conclusion as some kind of ironic prank on readers, to make an epic novel that would punish you for reading. My impression is that Wallace made IJ difficult not only because he likes experimental, difficult fiction, but also because he wanted to force readers to engage. To do something that was harder and more active than just watching. If you sweep away all the bullshit expectations from IJ and just read the thing, it’s easy to see Wallace trying to fill the role of the new anti-rebel, with his single-entendre principles and plain old untrendy human troubles. Clichés hide brutally difficult truths about life. Addiction is bad; sobriety is good. Perfection is a myth. Brothers should be nice to each other. Entertainment can be addicting, lethally so, in this case. Unhappy parents make unhappy kids who become unhappy parents and so on.
For all the technical challenges, the stories in IJ follow these principles and are intended to act as the new kind of emotionally straightforward fiction Wallace desired. This is especially true regarding the Ennet House and Don Gately sections, which would have made a deeply moving recovery novel if taken alone without the rest of IJ.
But there is something else at work as well. The overall arc, or circle, of the novel also dramatizes the struggle of finding this new voice, one that can communicate in a way that is new and fresh, and yet still bring forward more “traditional” values.
Central to the dramatization is Hal Incandenza, who opens the novel by unnerving a panel of college administrators when he speaks to them. Hal, in his mangled voice, tries to tell the admissions panel things like
I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I’m complex…
I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions…
Please don’t think I don’t care.
This is quite a contrast from what Hal feels later in the book/earlier in the events about being basically empty of feeling:
Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being — but in fact he’s far more robotic…inside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows.
The admissions panel members respond to Hal’s admissions of feeling, by freaking out. They don’t understand Hal’s voice; they are, in fact, terrified by it.
It is no accident that this scene takes place at the University of Arizona, where Wallace met strong resistance when trying to write experimental stories that didn’t square with the institutional notions of good fiction practice. (Wallace points to this institutional generation gap in talking about a professor in the EUP essay, but there is a better, longer riff on the issue in MFA writing programs in “Fictional Futures.”)
Hal’s new voice is so mangled and unsettling that he ends up being hospitalized. It is when he is eventually asked “So yo then, man, what’s your story?” that the novel begins in earnest. By the last page of the narrative, when readers are compelled to head back to the first page (annular fusion), it’s clear that Hal has undergone a process that transformed him from an unfeeling and successful automaton or cipher** into a person with strong emotions, but who’s new voice makes it nearly impossible to communicate. Wallace doesn’t try to proscribe what that voice would exactly be like, only that it would be unsettling and challenging.
With this framework in mind, other connections between the essay and the novel come to light, with correlations that range from strong to weak to strange.
- The world of Infinite Jest: With its subsidized years, entertainer president and teleputers, this near-future is something Wallace had more or less predicted and discussed in EUP, saying, in short, that advances in TV technology are only going to enhance our dependence (i.e. addiction) to the isolated fantasies that technology provides. Wallace spins this out into a few fantastical but logical conclusions, like having our years up for advertising grabs, or the creation of an entertainment that is so addictive and narcotizing it kills its viewers.
- Mario Incandenza: Two years after the publication of Infinite Jest, Wallace wrote, “The best metaphor I know of for being a fiction writer is in Don DeLillo’s Mao II, where he describes a book-in-progress as a kind of hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebrospinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and burbles and cries our to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it will get: the writer’s complete attention.” Mao II was published in 1991, and the description it provides parallels the physical abnormalities and challenges of Mario Incandenza. Mario, if he is meant to model “the novel in progress” is also the most unjaded, childlike and shamelessly loving and friendly character in the book, i.e. an earnestly feeling human boy. Hal loves Mario, takes care of him, and is fiercely defensive of him. (There is also the story of Remy Marathe, whose wife bears a close resemblance to the description above and has become his reason for living.)
- The Anxiety of Influence: By the time he was writing Infinite Jest, Wallace had made a name as part of a generation of young fiction writers. He complains loudly, though optimistically, in the “Fictional Futures” essay about the station of his particular generation, one weighed down by marketing and high expectations, by MFA-program-manufactured standards of “good fiction,” and by the need to distinguish and establish their own voices and styles separate from their forefathers and -mothers. The novel he eventually wrote in response to this is fraught with generational tension, primarily those in which the young are torn between emulating and resisting the influence of their predecessors. The Hamlet references peeking through call attention to the good old Oedipal issues of both detesting and wanting to be your parent. It also allows Wallace to perform the concept he is writing about. James Incandenza’s alcoholic father — who has failed in the eyes of his own father — bullies JOI into playing tennis. JOI turns around and, himself an alcoholic, starts a tennis academy for his own son and others. Hal excels at tennis the same way his predecessors had, but once he starts speaking in own voice in the first-person chapters toward the end of the book, he debates whether he wants to play. JOI’s brilliance and experimental arts appears to represent a prior generation of experimental writers, the influences with whom the next generation must find a way to both converse with and surpass. Orin Incandenza stands as a failure to escape the shadow of his elders. Once a tennis player, he becomes a punter, a guy whose whole only job is to hand the ball over to the other team. It’s essentially a passive, uncreative role, and one that he excels at. A similar thing happens for Orin in the bedroom, where he is focused on pleasing his “subjects” but not himself, i.e. on being entertaining. Orin is so obsessed with his father that he eventually becomes little more than an imitator, the keeper of the Master Copy. By the end he is made to cheesily re-enact a scene from 1984, voicing nothing original at all. Finally, there is The Entertainment. James Incandenza created The Entertainment to try and draw Hal out of his isolation, to make sure he didn’t become a silenced figurant in his own life. He felt that Hal was going mute, and wanted to give him back a voice. But it didn’t work, and instead he made a movie so entertaining that it sapped the voice of anyone who watched it. This is, of course, the extreme version of what Wallace fears in EUP. It also fits into the ‘what you love in this life kills you’ half of JOI’s cosmology and the novel’s addiction narratives. The second part, about ‘what kills you mothers you in the next life,’ fits with the artistic development process in which a writer will emulate his or her influences and then, with effort and pain, abandon them to create a new voice. Something like that.
- The Tennis Styles: In “Fictional Futures,” Wallace wrote at length about the styles of fiction that had occupied the labors of his generation and the institutionalization via MFA programs of what made for “good” or “successful” fiction. John “No Relation” Wayne’s tennis abilities are reminiscent of the technically proficient writers who succeed in their own mechanical way, and his stark efficiency may even reflect Wallace’s objection to the cult of minimalism, or “Bad Carver” as he put it, in his generation’s writing. Mike Pemulis has a deadly and accurate lob, but has not developed his game beyond that one trick. Lamont Chu’s obsession with being a famous tennis player is preventing him from playing his best game. Troelstch is obsessed with giving commentary on other people’s matches. Schacht has resigned himself to not playing pro and wants to be a dentist. Substitute “writing” for “tennis game” and you have a list of common anxieties and behaviors in any American creative writing program. As for Hal, his tennis style is essentially no style. Being smart, seeing vulnerabilities and drawing his opponents into errors. Like Orin, he plays passively. Hal also worries that, after a rapid ascent, he has plateaued in his game. He must feel similar to, say, a young writer who published a celebrated novel he wrote as an undergraduate, and is stuck wondering if he will ever develop beyond his current level.
- Mark Leyner/Mike Pemulis: In EUP Wallace focuses his attention on image fiction author Mark Leyner and his book My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, citing the jacket copy that calls the book “a fiction analogue of the best drug you ever took.” Leyner reacts to TV by fully absorbing and recreating it in fiction. Wallace’s analysis of the book is respectful of Leyner’s abilities and intelligence, but ultimately dismayed that it is does nothing. His discussion is also full of drug references: “methedrine compound of pop pastiche;” “bad acid trip;” “amphetaminic eagerness.” In a 1992 interview, Wallace referred to Leyner as “a kind of antichrist,” saying, “If the purpose of art is to show people how to live, then it’s not clear how he does this.” Michael Pemulis, Hal’s closest friend, is an extraordinarily capable and brilliant kid. He’s a smart-assed, prank playing math whiz who is the master of a game that simulates the end of the world. He is also the novel’s main source of drug knowledge and substance. As noted, his tennis technique he has one good trick, the high lob. Pemulis urges Hal to try more drugs in order to fix his unhappiness, which is roughly Lerner’s approach: Make fiction look more like television in order to get off the TV fix. In a 2003 interview, Wallace would refer to Pemulis as “one of the book’s Antichrists.”
If it seems strange to you that a person would write 1,000 pages of fiction to make a commentary on the state of fiction, it’s probably because you are a perfectly healthy and rational human being. But David Foster Wallace was not. Fiction was his vocation, his great love and his highest duty. Infinite Jest was also not the first time he wrote a long story about the development of his craft. The novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” was about paying tribute to and dismantling meta- and avant-garde fiction. And before he came to dislike it, it was one of Wallace’s most prized accomplishments. Wallace was obsessed and engaged with fiction writing in the way that a professional athlete is obsessed and engaged with his or her own abilities. His obsession led to the kind of deep study and focus that led to Infinite Jest. But it also appears to have led to his ultimate unhappiness. Reading D.T. Max’s recent biography, it can be tedious to read how often Wallace writes to his friends about the status of his own output. It is difficult and, frankly, frustrating to watch his outward happiness track so closely to his happiness with his own fiction. This is a man who, according to many of the theories, took his own life because he believed he was unable to write powerful fiction any longer. The man who looked at the existing pages of The Pale King and determined they were not good enough to sustain him. Fiction was his great love, so he gave it the best thing he could think of: a story about itself, that is made up of the best fiction he could create, and helps sustain the enterprise for a new generation.
* Before going any further, let me say that — as with most things on this liveblog — I’m not the first or last to come up with the ideas I’m posting here. Samuel Cohen presents the idea of IJ as a “literary history” in his essay “To Wish to Try to Sing to the Next Generation: Infinite Jest‘s History,” which is collected in this year’s The Legacy of David Foster Wallace. D.T. Max, in his biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story pegs the major writing efforts of Infinite Jest as beginning once Wallace articulated his ideas about what a new fiction should look like. And these are just the places where I’ve noticed people mentioning the connection. No reason to believe there aren’t plenty more. My plan here is to dive into this idea a little deeper and see what we come up with.
** Meaning “One having no influence or value; a nonentity.” But also appropriate as “the key to cryptographic system.”
April 21, 2012. And But So Then?, pgs 958-981/1079. An AA story from someone it doesn’t appear we know takes up valuable pages in the few left before this whole thing comes to a close. No clues. No obvious ones anyway.
Then we get the story of the Middlesex A.D.A., who himself is a survivor, and whose wife has had a very hard time indeed after the Gately and co. toothbrush incident. Most importantly here, we learn that Gately is, legally at least, in the clear.
Then we are back at ETA, but not back inside Hal’s head. There are some indications as to what is happening in these pages at least. “Michael Pemulis was nowhere to be seen since early this A.M., at which time Anton Doucette said he’d seen Pemulis quote ‘lurking’ out by the West House dumpsters looking quote ‘anxiously depressed.'” Pemulis might have been searching for his discarded stash, but it’s hard to know for sure. Otis P. Lord returns briefly, but Poutrincourt is nowhere to be found. From the view overhead, Hal appears to be acting very strange: not eating his usual pre-match Snickers bar and asking Barry Loach (recently named the 10th best non-Hal or -Gately character in the book by Publishers Weekly) if “the pre-match locker room ever gave him a weird feeling, occluded, electric, as if all this had been done and said so many times before it made you feel it was recorded…[something about Fourier Transforms]…locked down and stored and call-uppable for rebroadcast at specified times.” This is similar to the feelings Hal had earlier, about how many times he had performed certain actions. Also like before, “[Hal’s] face today had assumed various expressions ranging from distended hilarity to scrunched grimace, expressions that seemed unconnected to anything that was going on.” And then five-and-a-half pages about Loach’s story and his salvation by Mario Incandenza.
After a long absence, we’re back with Orin, who, like the unfortunate roaches in his apartment from ~900 pages ago, is trapped under what appears to be a giant drinking glass. He’s been drugged and seems to have broken his good foot trying to kick his way out, and he seems genuinely confused about the meaning of the repeating announcement of “Where Is The Master Buried.” I always assumed Orin was the keeper of the Master, but this throws some doubt on that assumption. Speaking of roaches, a vent opens and begins to pour them into the enclosure, a la “1984.” Orin responds in kind, crying out “Do it to her! Do it to her!” Luria P—– is unamused, thinking of her fellow torturer as “a ham.”
Gately’s situation is not improving. His fever delirium has him half aware or less of what’s happening around him, though he knows that he is “the object of much bedside industry.” He hears his own head voice, with an echo, advise him to “never try and pull a weight that exceeds you,” and thinks to himself that he might die. The A.D.A. appears to be in the vicinity, no doubt struggling with the issues he discussed with Pat M. just a few pages ago. A voice at the door “laughed and told somebody else it was getting harder these days to tell the homosexuals from the people who beat up homosexuals.” It’s unclear if that has any relevance, except by a very circuitous inference that his hospital stay has revealed that Gately has AIDS and that AIDS is still considered a “homosexual” ailment in Wallace’s near-future. Not terribly likely. It appears that the dangerously feverish Gately is lifted into an ice bath, an experience that causes him to “wake up” back on the cold, piss-stained floor with Fackleman and Mt. Dilaudid.
The situation here is not improving either. A motley and highly unpleasant crew of people make their way into the luxury apartment, led by the always unwelcome Bobby C. Everyone starts ingesting extraordinary amounts of substances, aside from those people who are occupied with things like injecting other people with drugs or sewing Fackleman’s eyelids open. Bobby C has a recording of Linda McCartney’s isolated vocals that he apparently loves, which, I mean really, the guy is just rotten to the core. And yet, he is gentle with Gately as they inject him with liquid sunshine and his senses inflame and he begins to tumble to the ground. The endnotes here contain more than one reference to missiles. For Gately, the experience on the whole is “obscenely pleasant.”
And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.
Before you get angry, at least consider that, for what it’s worth, the imagery here has Gately out of the water and into the cold — contrary to the warm, liquid womb-type imagery from before when he was on drugs.
Now you can feel free to embrace your frustration, and Google “What happened at the end of Infinite Jest,” and head back to the front of the book. If you’ve enjoyed yourself so far, though, take heart. You’re just getting started.
April 14, 2012. Byzantine Pornography, pgs 934-958/1078-1079. A brief moment in which Joelle van Dyne is picked up by Hugh/Helen Steeply pulls us out of Gately’s fever memories. But we’re quickly back in, as Gately and Fackleman descend further into their binge, watching JOI’s Kinds of Light, pissing themselves and being just all around pretty disgusting. Even still, rolling M&Ms through urine, then actually shooting up with urine instead of water is arguably less disgusting than Pamela Hoffman-Jeep’s “standard anti-hangover breakfast” the Phillips Screwdriver made of vodka and Milk of Magnesia. It’s accurately described by Gately as a “lowball.” Within the space of a few pages we catch a few missile references: “he [Gately] might as well have been strapped to the snout of a missile” and “it became the ICBM of binges,” indicating that there may be some “Gravity’s Rainbow” overtones here. A later reference, during Hal’s section, to a “sad and beautiful Aryan-looking boy” adds to the presence of GR in these pages. As things get worse and worse for Gately and Fackleman (who has now shit his pants), Gately reverts more and more to his childhood of the breathing ceiling and the bars of his playpen.
We now appear to be alternating between Gately and Hal and Joelle, who is now describing The Entertainment — and the location of the master cartridge — under USOUS questioning. Just as it is for USOUS, this interview is evidence for us readers to help piece together exactly what the hell is happening.
Hal returns to his room to find Coyle and Mario and some developments in the events around ETA. Apparently Lateral Alice Moore arranged the switch for Axford and Troeltsch, and I suspect there’s not much more to this seemingly significant and perhaps light-shedding turn of events than to embed and heighten in us as readers Hal’s feeling “that something as major as a midterm room-switch could have taken place without my knowing anything about it filled me with dread.” Which is pretty goddam brilliant of old DFW. Coyle tells Hal about Stice’s theory that a ghost is haunting him to raise his game, and Hal futher theorizes “Or hurt somebody else’s.”
Coyle is watching JOI’s Accomplice! which again sparks Hal’s interest in his father’s intentions. Accomplice! appears to be another odd JOI joint, focused on a meta-watching experience. Hal mentions “a self-conscious footnote” and explains that the film’s “essential project remains abstract and self-reflexive; we end up feeling and thinking not about the characters but about the cartridge itself.” Its star, Cosgrove Watt, is first spotted by JOI in a commercial wearing a white toupee, just like JOI Sr. wore and just like Lenz wears. Graduate students start your engines on that one. Speaking of which, Hal watching the reports of snow falling on various people and places across the area, and his calling up of the phrase “smiling mirthlessly,” brings to mind James Joyce and his story “The Dead.” I’ll go ahead and make too much of it by pointing out Hal’s observation that “I had never once ridden a snowmobile, skied, or skated: E.T.A. discouraged them. DeLint described winter sports as practically getting down on one knee and begging for an injury” (emphasis mine, since this basically what happens at the end of “The Dead,” except with love and not with winter sports).
Hal begins to reminisce. The poster he remembers of Lang directing Metropolis is, presumably, the one Wallace wanted to use as the cover of the book. He remembers seeing a knife stuck in a mirror, though not the word KNIFE written on a non-public mirror. Hal’s impression of the Byzantine erotica he was once interested in feels like the organizing idea for all of IJ: “Something about the stiff and dismantled quality of maniera greca porn: people broken into pieces and trying to join, etc.” He realizes he doesn’t want to play anymore, and thinks about injuring himself to avoid ever playing again and “becoming the object of compassionate sorrow rather than disappointed sorrow.” It’s another moment in this book that is harder to read knowing the author’s fate. Hal recalls a sad moment involving Himself, Orin and pornography’s impoverished idea of sex, and he thinks about his mom. He knows about John Wayne, as well as a long list of others including Marlon Bain. He pictures Wayne and his mom in what is presumably a posture of the Byzantine porn.
Joelle comes back to “the House” to find a Middlesex County Sheriff’s car sitting outside.
April 5, 2012. Too Late, pgs 911-934/1077-1078. We’re back with old Don Gately, lying in his hospital bed. It doesn’t seem like Gately’s been put on pain-killers, but he does keep returning to memories of Gene Fackleman, who was first brought to mind when the MD suggested the use of Dilaudid. Also, it seems like just about every MD in Wallace’s near-future imaginings is South East Asian or Near/Middle Eastern. We’re pretty well embedded into Gately’s memories/fever dreams at this point, and as the pages slip by we are, for something like the first time in 911 pages, deeply engaged in a self-contained linear narrative.
We take a quick break to find out that Pemulis’ stash has been raided, though he still goes looking in his hiding place for something. This section also marks the unhappy return of Bobby C, or just C, from the very early yrstruly chapter where he meets his painful but not exactly undeserved fate.
When Gately comes to he once again feels like “he was trapped inside his huge chattering head,” which brings him back to all sorts of unpleasant feelings about being a helpless child. He refers to himself as a figurant, and thinks of “the wraith’s nonexistent kid.” Speaking of figurants, Gately slips back into a memory/dream about his pseudo-romance with Pamela Hoffman-Jeep, “his first girl ever with a hyphen” and “the single passivest person Gately ever met.” The pages are rife with Gately as caretaker and protector, if we weren’t already aware of that by now. Hoffman-Jeep falls for Gately because he does nothing. While she is telling Gately the story of Fackleman’s fuck-up and impending doom, Gately notes that “Like most incredibly passive people, the girl had a terrible time ever separating details from what was really important to a story.” Kinda hard not to sympathize as we slouch towards the final pages and the only thing that obviously ties together the threads of the previous 930 pages is that they’re not connected to what’s going on in the story now.
BUT THEN…Gately wakes up to see the wraith and a wraith-Lyle licking the sweat off his forehead. HIs attempt to swing at them sends him back into pain-delirium where, in addition to a Buddhist-heavy mirror-wiping dream and one consisting of only “the color blue, too vivid, like the blue of a pool,” he sees himself with a “very sad kid” digging up some dead guy’s head. Joelle van Dyne is there, and Gately feels like he knows the guy they’re digging up. When they get there it looks like the sad kid yells out “Too late.”
And if you’re curious why this liveblog is taking so long, one reason is that this happens every time I try to read:
March 29, 2012. Using Your Head, pgs 902-911/1077. Many questions in just a handful of pages. We continue to get Gately’s backstory, which is kind of funny in a you-don’t-get-the-backstory-of-a-major-character-until-the-last-hundred-pages kind of way. We establish that Gately was nine years old during what sounds like the Rodney King riots. Assuming Wallace is referring to these specific riots, that means Gately was nine in March of 1992, and is 29 here in the YDAU, making it 2011 or 2012. It’s unclear when his birthday is, though I’m sure some enterprising young obsessive could figure it out. For not, it’s another clue in nailing down the exact year.
Gately’s relationship to his head, at least in his younger days, is far different from the way Wallace usually deals with heads. Gately’s is a tool, a physical object so large and indestructible that it serves as a net positive in his social interactions and overall happiness. Most of the other heads in this book are portrayed as something along the lines of locked cages and/or torture instruments. The “here” from Hal’s “I am in here.” on the first page of the book is reasonably interpreted as inside his head. It’s the first of many times when someone is basically trapped by their head — but not the young Don Gately, who uses his head to get laughs, get beers and get touchdowns. For more on how Wallace felt about heads, check his Kenyon University remarks.
Speaking of being inside Hal’s head, we swing back to another of his first person sections. “Some more heads came and awaited response and left.” This section marks the return to the main text of Mike Pemulis, who appears looking haggard. When Hal says “I could see my asking him where he’d been all week leading to so many different possible responses and further questions that the prospect was almost overwhelming,” it sounds an awful lot like the way being high has been described earlier in the book.
As I said, there are many questions, for example…
Pemulis says that Petropolis Kahn, who Hal appeared to ignore a moment ago, had “mentioned hysterics” when reporting to MP about Hal being in the room. Hysterics?
Hal is thinking of his father’s funeral. Why?
There is “a whoop and two crashes directly overhead.” Significant? Or just general ETA-waking-up noises?
There is what seems to be a deliberate mention that Hal hasn’t seen C.T. or his mom all week. Where are they?
When asked about going to get food off campus, Hal finds that “I couldn’t decide.” Hamlet Sighting? (Yes.)
When Hal says that Pemulis “blarneyed” the urinalysis guy into giving them 30 days, Pemulis, who is itching to talk to Hal about something important, replies “Blarney wasn’t why we got it, Inc, is the thing.” Why did they get it, then?
Pemulis remarks that he hasn’t even heard of half of JOI’s stuff, followed by “And me using the poor guy’s lab.” What is Pemulis using the lab for?
Pemulis misreads that Annular Fusion is Our Fiend, and is corrected by Hal that it’s our Friend.
The closing of the section focuses on JOI’s film Good Looking Men…etc, with Hal specifically requesting to watch the last part in which Paul Anthony Heaven delivers a pedantic lecture on ancestors and inherited behaviors. When JOI enters the pages I always consider him as a stand in for Wallace, or at least Wallace’s artistic ambitions, and here we have his work appearing as Pemulis wears rimless specs and talks about blarney, while Hal considers the insertion of references to the artists JOI loved while the lecturer refers to generational hydrophobia. These cues make me think of James Joyce, and may perhaps explain Wallace’s struggle to avoid being “deprived of some essential fluid, aridly cerebral, abstract, conceptual, little more than hallucinations of God,” and step out of the shadow of his ancestor: “it is, finally, artistic askesis[discipline, or asceticism] which represents the contest proper, the battle-to-the-death with the loved dead.”
…tears run down Heaven’s gaunt face…
Last question: The book ends in 70 pages. How is he going to wrap this up?
March 22, 2012. When it Comes, pgs 883-902/1077. We are now into a repeating Gately-Hal cycle. Gately wakes up with the sound of “sandy sound of gritty sleetish stuff” against his room window, which means it may be in the same timeframe as Hal’s morning with the snowstorm. He attempts to argue with his M.D. — a cheerfully sinister South East Asian who echoes the Near Eastern Medical attaché. As the M.D. offers up possible painkillers, “Gately imagines the M.D. smiling incandescently as he wields a shepherd’s crook,” recalling Gately’s painfully obvious dream about relapse. When the M.D. gets around to recommending Dilaudid, Gately thinks of his old crew-mate Gene Facklemann. There are more womb images appearing here and there as well. “Pentazocine lactate is Talwin, Gately’s #2 trusted standard when he was Out There, which 120 mg. on an empty guy was like floating in oil the exact same temperature as your body” and “The thing about Demerol wasn’t just the womb-warm buzz of a serious narcotic.” Gately also continuously refers to his resistance as “not-Entertaining,” which with the capital-E on there on more than one occasion seems hardly coincidental. When McDade and Diehl show up, Gately wants to know what day it is: “That Gately can’t communicate even this most basic of requests makes him want to scream.” Which sounds familiar.
Hal has gone from feeling and apparently acting a little funny to having a full physical reaction. “I was moving down the damp hall when it hit.” He’s perceiving things very intensely and thinking about his accumulated days walking down the halls of ETA in all “kinds of light.” Lying on his back in Viewing Room 5 he thinks about how “if it came down to a choice between continuing to play competitive tennis and continuing to be able to get high, it would be a nearly impossible choice to make.” Hal mentions that the attendant at the Shell Station last night had recoiled from him, meaning that his weird faces and such might have started the night before. Apparently John Wayne had been taken to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital after his encounter with the Tenuate, which means he could have been the person crying with the deep voice next to Gately. But that seems unlikely since Gately says he could tell the shot the man was getting was narcotic. Hal has a sort of teenager-type revelation/recurring DFW theme that “We are all dying to give our lives away to something” and follows up with a literal Hamlet sighting. Tavis’ biological father was killed in a freak accident playing competitive darts, and his mother was at least partly homodontic like Mario. While Gately’s thinking about wombs, Hal lays in his “tight little sarcophagus of space.”
March 14, 2012. Tragedy Comedy, pgs 865-883/1077. Hal, still in first person, goes to brush his teeth. The early morning crying he hears behind closed doors reminds me of the stories I’ve heard from people who were in Teach for America: “Lots of the top players start the A.M. with a quick fit of crying, then are basically hale and well-wrapped for the rest of the day.”
For some reason, the clock in the bathroom reads “11-18-EST456” when the day is actually the 20th. Maybe it’s an uncorrected effect of ETA’s fixing of the mirrors to prevent Pemulis from messing with them. Maybe it’s something else. I like to think that the snow on the boys’ dorm windowsill is a basically meaningless but polite nod to “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Hal wanders out to find Ortho Stice chanting to himself. His forehead is frozen to the window, facing outward much like a night watchman, as a previous commenter has pointed out while posing a pretty compelling theory that this is the point at which the narrative begins to line up with the narrative of Hamlet.
If this theory has legs, it’s possible but (again) probably a stretch to think that Wallace dropped a little hint for us. When Hal speaks to Ortho, Ortho asks Hal if he is crying. At the end of the scene Hal is asked why he’s laughing so much. In neither case does Hal believe he’s doing either — on speaking to Stice: “My voice had been neutral and a bit puzzled.” But these expressions may be referring to the Tragedy and Comedy masks of the theater (or theatre, if you must). It would be appropriate, if this is officially where “Infinite Jest” — or at least this part of “Infinite Jest” — begins to properly parallel the narrative in “Hamlet.”*
Whatever the case is, strange things are all around. There is a figure outside sitting on the bleachers in the snow. Ortho tells his story about waking up in the middle of the night and slips and says “The point’s I’m up there —” about his bed. Troeltsch and Axhandle have either switched rooms or are in the same room on the same twin bed. The Darkness then asks if Hal believes “in shit” like ghosts. He mentions that someone came by before but just stood behind him silently, “Then he went away. Or…it.” Ortho tells Hal that if he pulls him off the window, “I’ll take and show you some parabnormal shit that’ll shake your personal tree but good,” referring to his bed moving around in his room. Stice won’t come unstuck from the window.
Hal goes for help, taking his toothbrush with him because of a previous incident at ETA in which students’ brushes had been dosed with Betel nut extract. Kenkle interrupts a monologue on sex — which sounds an awful like the description of a beast with two backs — to greet “Good Prince Hal.” Hal explains the situation to them and Kenkle asks him why it’s so funny. He appears to be laughing.
A yell sounds from upstairs.
Then — the US Office of Unspecified Services is preparing for a release of The Entertainment, with market tested ideas on how to reach little kids. It’s an interesting idea but feels like a bit of a distraction from the events unfolding with people we really care about. There is one interesting point of note, a connection to way back on page 419, when Marathe is thinking about the “latent and sadistic” assignments USOUS gives to its operatives. One of the things he lists is “healthy women as hydrocephalic boys or epileptic public-relations executives.” In this scene 460 pages later, Carl E. (‘Buster’) Yee, Director of Marketing and Product-Perception at the Glad Flaccid Receptacle Corporation, has an epileptic fit in the middle of the meeting. And I won’t even venture any unwelcome speculation about hydrocephalic boys.
*Maybe it’s crazy to look for such deliberate clues. It’s as stupid as trying to find “Hamlet” in Pi — unless…
Happy Pi Day everybody!
Lenz remains Lenz right up to the very end, apparently cutting Krause’s digits off and offering them up during the AFR civilian testing of The Entertainment. If there was any ambiguity, it seems that Marathe has definitely made his choice since he failed to report Jolene’s presence to Fortier and “had made his decision and his call,” said call being to Steeply. In the meantime, he helps plan an AFR incursion to ETA to get at Hal, Mario and Avril.
Gately dreams. He’s with Joelle getting ready for romance when her revealed face is that of Winston Churchill. This is reminiscent of the description of Ortho Stice from two hundred and ten pages prior: “A beautiful sports body, lithe and tapered and sleekly muscled, smooth…on whose graceful neck sits the face of a ravaged Winston Churchill, broad and slab-featured…” It’s too far a stretch for me to call this a Hamlet Sighting, but I do think it’s funny that there is some possibly family resemblance between our possible Laertes and our almost certainly Ophelia characters. The root cause, however, is most likely David Foster Wallace’s feeling that Winston Churchill was funny looking. Gately’s touching memory-dream of Mrs. Waite morphs into what appears to be the content of The Entertainment, in which JOI’s death/female/mother cosmology is explained to Gately, who submits to it.
Hal wakes from a dream and — for what I think is the first time — speaks in a first person voice that is loudly and clearly identified as Hal (and not just a random, nameless first-person somewhere in the jumble of characters in the previous 850 pages). Hal now has a voice, and it’s one of the coolest tricks in a tricky novel, mostly because it doesn’t feel like a trick. Pemulis is off the stage, but he’s clearly on the mind of Hal, who describes the snow outside as “Yachting-cap white.” He is then struck by that fact that he’s having feelings of not wanting to play tennis: “I couldn’t remember feeling strongly one way or the other about playing for quite a long time, in fact.” Hal is shifting out of neutral, which seems like a good thing, but is also accompanied by the feeling that “without some one-hitters to be able to look forward to smoking alone in the tunnel I was waking up every day feeling as though there was nothing in the day to anticipate or lend anything any meaning.”
Gately wakes up to the real Joelle van Dyne. Like her Ennet House-mates, Joelle unloads her recovery narrative on Gately, only this time he doesn’t seem to mind. He takes inspiration from her progress and has his own kind of breakthrough: “He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding.” We hear a by now familiar Wallace refrain “What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all.” All this business about living in the moment and ignoring the mind carries more-than-subtle notes of Buddhism.
In addition to refusing narcotic painkillers, Gately also tries to convince himself to swear off Joelle.
A police sketch built on descriptions of Hal Incandenza in the book. This was originally on The Composites, a cool site where you can find more of your favorite literary characters pictured as if they robbed a local convenience store and are still at-large. However, Hal’s image has been removed for reasons that are unclear.
And then, from Brain Pickings, “3 Ways to Visualize the David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest” (sic). A flowchart, a geolocation photo tour, and a character diagram.
PS — You can buy this one here (five over, four down).
Finally, an oldie but goodie from The Boston Globe:
February 25, 2012. “….”, pgs 809-845/1076. Gately is laid up in the trauma wing of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, mute and only non-narcotically medicated. As such, he has become a target for Ennet House visitors eager to unload their memories, and for his own mind to unload a few of his own memories as well. Tiny Ewell is first, along with a “tall and slumped ghostish figure” and “the blurred seated square-head boy” who is likely to be Otis P. Lord with the computer monitor still stuck over his head. Ewell’s story of his school boy days makes him sound quite a bit like an early Mike Pemulis. Gately keeps dreaming about “Orientals” for some reason that I can’t identify.
Gately talks about the “airless and hellish, horrid” condition of being unable to speak and it seems that, as we approach the final pages of the book, both of our main protagonists are fighting the temptation to take drugs. Hal sees faces in the floor and Gately sees breathing in the ceiling. Gately’s bed is moved like Stice’s and he ends up next to a crying patient with a very deep voice. No clue who that is.
Enter ghost. The figure that has been resting its tailbone on the window sill (like JOI’s mother in previous scenes) is JOI Himself. The Hamlet Sightings are off the charts here, with the se offendendo that Wallace notes in the endnotes to JOI being the ghost of Hamlet’s father to his insertion of the word LAERTES into Gately’s thoughts. Bear in mind also that Laertes is the father of Odysseus, so there may even be some James Joyce/Homer sightings taking place here as well. We learn from the ghost of JOI about figurants, and how he felt like one his entire life and how Hal had started to become one just before JOI’s se offendendo. The figurants conversation also offers a hefty justification for why this book pretty much features “every single performer’s voice, no matter how far out on the cinematographic or narrative periphery they were.” Immediately the early Clenette chapter (“Wardine say her mama aint treat her right…”) comes to mind.
We learn that the purpose of The Entertainment was for JOI to connect with Hal, “To bring him ‘out of himself,’ as they say. The womb could be used both ways. A way to say I AM SO VERY, VERY SORRY and have it heard. A life-long dream. The scholars and Foundations and disseminators never saw that his most serious wish was: to entertain.” I’m not certain of the exact timeline here, but it seems possible that JOI-as-wraith might be able, at some point during these interactions with Gately, to whisk up the hill to ETA and see his son actually watching and presumably being entertained by his father’s movies.
Gately slips in and out of consciousness, remembering the MP who abused his mother.
He would have been 50 today.
February 16, 2012. Subsequent Events, pgs 785-808/1066-1076. Rather than taking Pemulis’ advice to try something new, Hal visits Ennet House to try and get information on meetings to help him kick the habit he won’t call an addiction. It’s a quick section, but Wallace does a nice job of being Johnette Folz and seeing a well established character through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know him and doesn’t particularly care about him.
Molly Notkin is spilling the beans in the decidedly less-strenuous variety of technical interview performed by the U.S.O.U.S. We get more important details about The Entertainment and Joelle’s history. These revelations include: JOI’s death/female cosmology; two kitchen appliance related suicides; sordid implications that Avril Incandenza was involved in both a sordid relationship with Orin and the sordid details of JOI’s suicide; the story of Joelle’s weird father and the alleged disfiguration that keeps her veiled. All of this seems very enlightening and settling of certain questions until Notkin* tells her interviewers that “Madame Psychosis’s name was in reality Lucille Duquette,” at which point we realize that any of the other details might be lies or exaggerations as well.
Then Hal heads out to an unspecified anti-substance meeting, but not before he “rushed through P.M.’s dispatching Shaw 1 and 3 by the time the regular P.M.’s were even warming up” — which indicates that Hal may be getting his tennis chops back at least. The meeting turns out to be one of the more absurd and horrible things in the book (and this is right after a section in which a woman has been described killing herself with a kitchen sink garbage disposal), where we get a look at at least one variety of feral infant. I’ll sum it up the way Wallace sums up the section:
So Hal’s most vivid full-color memory of the non-anti-Substance Meeting he drove fifty oversalivated clicks to by mistake will become that of his older brother’s doubles partner’s older brother down on all fours on a Dacronyl rug, crawling, hampered because one arm was holding his bear to his chest, so he sort of dipped and rose as he crawled on three limbs toward Hal and the needs-meeter behind him, Bain’s knees leaving twin pale tracks in the carpet and his head up on a wobbly neck and looking up and past Hal, his face unspeakable.
*A possible nod to “A little more than kin, and less than kind,” as a friend and fellow reader pointed out to me. There may be a deliberate connection here, but the line from Hamlet seems less directed at Molly than a perfect description of Avril Incandenza.
** Throughout all of this, the story of Mike Pemulis has been relegated to the endnotes. In two long ones we hear the story of the Seldane-Tenuate mix up that leaves MP in a situation where his “sinuses felt like four-laners and his sense of smell was a lot keener than a man in a locker room might wish” and John Wayne (who Pemulis refers to as The Duke in an oblique Hamlet Sighting) spouting off wildly on Troeltsch’s broadcast. The whole things seems almost too well orchestrated to not have been set in motion by someone with an agenda against Pemulis. Any list of Persons of Interest would have to include certain school administrators who were not likely amused by Mike’s flyer about how 17 could go into 56 way more than 3.294 times.
February 9, 2012. Monsters, pgs 755-785/1062-1066. I recall reading, in an essay I can’t dig up for the life of Google, how DFW’s fiction shows a special affinity for the deformed, the ill, the afflicted and so on. It was not that Wallace wrote with a special sympathy for them; kind of the opposite really. It was that they seemed to be the only category of people in his fiction who were capable of genuine happiness. They were not Frankenstein monsters that deserved pity so much as genuine heroes. Exhibit A in this theory is Mario Incandenza, the homodontic, bradykinetic, macrocephalic and eternally cheerful middle son, who is wandering the halls getting footage for his annual ETA documentary. His conversation with LaMont Chu (perfectly healthy; punished by desire to appear in magazines) taps us in to the gossip around the grounds, and as Mario shuffles into his mother’s office (tall and beautiful; wildly unhappy and neurotic), the scenery has more to tell us than the interaction itself. A blue blazer with the O.N.A.N.T.A. logo on it hangs in the office, curiously similar to the one the urologist was wearing previously. Avril still has a coach’s whistle around her neck, and the reference to “An old folded pair of U.S.A. football pants and a helmet” as Avril’s “one memento of Orin” (professional athlete and excellent seducer; let’s not even get started on how nuts he is) comes creepily soon after Avril volunteers to be “a subject” for Mario’s filming.
It’s easy to make the assumption that Mario is as mentally slow as he is physically, but there is a mention here that his awareness goes all the way back to his days in the incubator. Or at the very least, as he says, “I have a phenomenal memory for things that make me laugh.”
Remy Marathe (deformities self-inflicted; losing his faith) and Kate Gompert (physically attractive; metaphysical horrorshow) have a late-night rendezvous in Ryles Jazz Bar (a real place), where she has come after being mugged by post-seizure Poor Tony Krause (who himself is headed towards the Antitoi’s shop and another kind of rendezvous), and where Remy has come to call Steeply and betray his comrades. Both are drinking as Remy tells his own story of need and addiction, and how he has no choice in the matter of loving and saving his wife. Kate seems to have been well-cheered by adrenaline and alcohol, though Remy’s story seems to bring her down, as most stories with lots of bodily fluids will. Here again we have someone physically grotesque who, if not happy herself is the sole source of happiness for Marathe.
When Remy asks Kate if she would like to go view The Entertainment, it’s hard, knowing her history, not to think that she probably should say yes.
If many of Wallace’s afflicted are heroes, then the opposite can be true with unafflicted and villains. Consider the lobber: Hal’s unsettled state about Pemulis’ ability to lie starts to reveal a sinister side to a character who was until now just a savvy sidekick. Hal even equates his lying with the monsters that once terrified him: “I no longer believe in monsters as faces in the floor or feral infants or vampires or whatever. I think at seventeen now I believe the only real monsters might be the type of liar where there’s simply no way to tell.” Hal’s confession to Mario reveals some building anxiety around his own situation too — in particular his worry about passing the urinalysis because the THC in pot is “fat soluble. It stays in there, in the body’s fat.”
In (another) extended endnote, Hal tells Pemulis about a dream where he is trying to say words but is unable to do anything but sing Ethyl Merman tunes, a la the soldier who took DMZ. His appeal that “It’s me! It’s me, screaming for help!” sounds similar to the opening chapter of the book. Pemulis’ assurances to Hal that he should take a “cobweb clearing” dose of DMZ, or try some other drug to replace the pot would have sounded like reasonable, or at least normal, advice had it not been endnoted right off a section where Hal is deeply skeptical and almost scared of Mike.
Pemulis’ warnings that continuing with weed will make Hal indecisive tug on the Hamlet themes, and I’d bet some enterprising academic could write a solid thesis on the link between marijuana and Hamlet in Infinite Jest. You could start with the second chapter of the novel with Erdeddy, make some connections between Hal secretly smoking in the subterranean pump room and Hamlet in the crypt, and call it “A Hit, a Very Palpable Hit: Marijuana, Hamlet and Infinite Jest.”
February 3, 2012, Every Unhappy Family…, pgs 736-755/1062. The strangeness with Orin and his mother puts Joelle van Dyne in the habit of getting high and compulsively cleaning, the irony of which being that compulsive cleanliness is one of Orin’s mother things. Joelle has retained the habit into sobriety, and as she careens around her shared room at Ennet House, we get a look back at her own family and some of the interactions with the Incandenza family. Contrary to the “Anna Karenina” bit referenced in our title, Joelle notes that “Orin’d had no idea how banal and average his same-sex-parent-issues were…Joelle’d known her mother didn’t much like her from the first time her own personal Daddy’d told her he’d rather take Pokie to the pictures alone.” Here again we have the possible indication that Joelle’s father abused her at the movies.
Joelle’s impressions of JOI’s movies sound like Wallace’s critique of his own writing. She describes JOI’s films as “the work of a brilliant optician and technician who was an amateur at any kind of real communication. Technically gorgeous, the Work, with lighting and angles planned out to the frame. But oddly hollow, empty, no sense of dramatic towardness — no narrative movement toward a real story; no emotional movement toward an audience.” This probably sounds just about spot-on to anyone who’s stuck with it for 740 pages, and Wallace himself seemed to feel the same way. He was quoted in a D.T. Max New Yorker piece that, in his early writing, he “saw himself as having been driven by a “basically vapid urge to be avant-garde and post structural and linguistically calisthenic.'” Interestingly, after this sort-of layered in apology by the author, Joelle talks about the split second shots in The Medusa v. The Odalisque where his fighting monsters seems to feel a deep concern over the audience, showing brief flashes of pain when their actions turn the seated people into stone. “It was like he couldn’t help putting human flashes in, but he wanted to get them in as quickly and unstudyably as possible.”
In Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell, the Ecstasy of St. Theresa figures heavily again, as it does in M v. O and in Joelle’s own life (another drug induced experience along with compulsive cleaning was to visualize the Ecstasy at the peak of her high). In Pre-Numptial… a slow four-minute shot of the sculpture is the only point indicating “Freedom from one’s own head, one’s inescapable P.O.V.” Again we see the building blocks of “This is Water.”
Marathe, while successfully interviewing for admission to Ennet House, spots some potential versions of The Entertainment. He makes his decision about which side to land on once the ONAN-AFR battle begins, and decides correctly since Fortier does not plan to let him live. But Marathe doesn’t decide on when he should make his move, leading to a possible but unlikely Hamlet Sighting.
January 28, 2012. Cult Classics, pgs 716-735/1054-1062. A second snatch-and-grab c/o the now fully recidivist Randy Lenz is taking shape in the Central/Inman Squares area of Cambridge, while nearby at Antitoi Entertainent [sic] the AFR is scouring the inventory to find a copy or Master Copy of The Entertainment. They have traced the cartridge’s possible whereabouts through “the strenuous technical interview of the sartorially eccentric cranio-facial-pain-specialist, whom they had traced through the regrettably fatal technical interview of the young burglar.” The young burglar being Gately’s accomplice in the unfortunate case of the Fatally Congested French Canadian. We learn that the FLQ was responsible for the blank cartridge dispensing wheelchair statue that Joelle passed on Boylston St., and we get some insight into the true motives of the AFR: “the sort of testicular frappe to the underbelly of U.S.A. self-interests that would render Canada itself unwilling to face the U.S.A. retaliation for this…” and so on. Fortier’s plan does not have Marathe surviving to see such a conclusion. AFR believes that Orin is likely to have copies of The Entertainment and “may have borne responsibilities for the razzles and dazzles of Berkley and Boston.”
Joelle begins to fret about the cosmetic condition of her teeth, which is an odd concern for someone who wears a veil over her face at all times. Speaking of veils, Marathe arrives at Ennet House under cover of the UHID profile searching for Joelle. There is yet another instance of someone who “appeared to have several cigarettes burning at one time.” One particularly troubled resident’s assertion that the people around him are metallic impostors will sound familiar to any IJ readers who also know their Battlestar Galactica. I suspect there is some overlap in the IJ and BG crowds, or at least think that there should be. This part in particular might ring bells:
“You ain’t here. These fuckers are metal. Us — us that are real — there’s not many — they’re fooling us. We’re all in one room. The real ones. One room all the time. Everything’s projected. They can do it with machines. They pro — ject. To fool us. The pictures on the walls change so’s we think we’re going places.”
I make no claims about the origins of this connection. I just found it interesting. No one is saying that in this section heavy with talk of cults, Wallace made reference to one of the ultimate cult classics (the metal people, not projection), and then that cult classic re-referenced IJ later in its re-imagined form. What I will say, however, is that if there’s anything going in entertainment today that you might be willing to saw your own fingers off to keep watching — as the AFR requires of the MIT engineer in their first test of The Entertainment’s power — it’s Battlestar Galactica. It’s that good.
From Marathe at Ennet house we jump to one of the most notorious endnotes in the book: a seven page section of tight, 9-pt font, with its own footnotes, that’s not made any easier to read since much of it is in high academic style (c/o current Ennet House resident Geoffrey Day), and because it doesn’t appear to have specific relevance to the finally-seeming-to-come-together narrative a few hundred pages back in the book. Speaking of those pages, there is one seeming inconsistency here. Geoffrey Day, author of this academic article on La Culte du Prochain Train, is sitting within earshot of Marathe, who is clearly sitting within earshot of another conversation about cults, and yet Day appears to take no notice of the legless, wheelchaired man near him.
The articles here, and Struck’s attempts to plagiarise them, give some insight into the whole territorial dispute and provide some parallels to our own geopolitical disagreements. We learn of the “Faire un Bernard Wayne,” and when Wallace writes that “Disastrously, Struck blithely transposes this stuff too, with not even a miniature appliance-size bulb flickering anywhere over his head,” I don’t think he’s merely referring to the disaster of plagiarism. As we learned earlier, “An employee at the Academy of tennis of Enfield had been recruited and joined the Canadian instructor and student already inside for closer work of surveillance.” And this essay is for Poutrincourt, who may not appreciate what Struck appears to know, even if he doesn’t really know it.
January 20, 2012. Shallow Hal, pgs 682-716/1052-1054. I maintain that when Poor Tony Krause shows up, things are bound to get unpleasant. They do, except this time for Matt Pemulis, and we gain a better understanding of why Mike Pemulis will do anything to not get booted from ETA and return back home to Allston.
Hal, after an unsettling near-loss in which he “just never quite occurred out there,” is compelled to have a James O. Incandenza movie marathon. (For the sake of anyone hosting an “Infinite Jest” trivia night, one of the films he is said to watch is Union of Publicly Hidden in Lynn, which was not listed in the filmography of note 24. Apparently it was part of the original draft and this reference escaped the notice of whoever’s decision it was to cut it from the filmography. If you’re wondering, here is what an Infinite Summer discussion board provides as the missing entry: “Union of Publicly Hidden in Lynn. B.S. Meniscus Films, Ltd. Documentary cast w/ narrator P.A. Heaven; 78 mm.; 60 minutes; color; sound. Filmed proceedings in a Boston, MA suburb of “anonymous” meeting of the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, a support group for aesthetically challenged persons struggling with issues around light and sight. MAGNETIC VIDEO, PRIVATELY RELEASED BY MENISCUS FILMS, LTD.”)
Wave Bye-Bye to the Bureaucrat is at least slightly referential to what appears to be happening to Hal, in which the systems and routines that have helped him excel are now starting to collapse. There is some relevance in the movie’s acceptance of failure to meet the strict requirements of the institution, and bucking the opportunity to do so because you have bigger but less-obvious responsibilities. And Hal secretly “likes to project himself imaginatively into the ex-bureaucrat’s character on the leisurely drive home toward ontological erasure.” Hal’s inability to remember Smothergill is another indication that his faculties are less than intact, and “the one thing he feels to the limit, lately” is that “he is lonely.”
We can cross anhedonia off the list of possible reasons for the suicide of JOI, which still remains pretty mysterious.
The American Century as Seen Through a Brick is about “the queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naiveté are mutually exclusive.” This is roughly the same thing that Wallace’s story “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” a possible pre-cursor to American Century, seems to be about. In fact, one of the story’s characters, D.L., a self-proclaimed postmodernist working on a poem that is entirely punctuation, has a “special delusion…that cynicism and naiveté are mutually exclusive.” Other “special delusions” that IJ and “Westward” have in common: “That a body is a prison and not a shelter;” and the main character’s belief “that he’s the only person in the world who feels like the only person in the world.”
Hal thinks that “to be really human…is to be in come basic way forever infantile.” This raises a question about the opening chapter when Hal says “I have become an infantophile,” which is something quite a bit different and brings us to about 4,967 in our tally of Curious/Confusing Parallels in the book so far.
A quick look around shows Pemulis looking for his stash and Avril “seeming somehow to have three or four cigarettes all going at once” a la Salinger.
A crowd starts to build as Blood Sister: One Tough Nun begins in Viewing Room 6. If you’re having trouble visualizing it, this might help:
As he watches, we hear about The Night Wears a Sombrero with “an ambivalent-but-finally-avenging-son story,” which gives us another Hamlet Sighting. It’s also worth noting that this “avenging-son story” was in Tucson, AZ. Blood Sister features a young girl with burn scars on her face, which may be what Joelle van Dyne is keeping under the veil. Low Temperature Civics sounds kind of like “Mad Men.”
While thinking about Gately, “Something has taken the tight ratchet in Joelle’s belly and turned it three turns to the good.” This is potentially troublesome since, as we hear in a footnote on endnote 292, “The sudden removal of Substances leaves an enormous ragged hole in the psyche.” Regarding which, see Hal supra.
I particularly enjoy that in the climactic fight scene at the close of Blood Sister, the double-crossing Mother Superior, poised to kill, doesn’t have a face filled with murderous rage or malice, but “the absence of humility and the passion for truth-silencing that add up to pure and radical evil.”
Finally, the word “apparition” seems to be showing up a lot in these pages.
January 15, 2012. Something is Rotten in the State of Enfield, pgs 666-682/1052. To answer Steeply’s question, “Carved out of what, though, this place?” Wallace takes us down into the underground tunnels below ETA with the Tunnel Club. This is where The Lung is stored and where Hal went to get secretly high when he was still getting secretly high. The bumbling group of young adolescent males discover a refrigerator that has been stored but not emptied, and its contents have gone completely saprogenic. It’s a long path to take just to say that something is rotten in [the state of] the Enfield Tennis Academy. But nonetheless, Hamlet sighting there. It’s possible that Wallace is making some kind of point about how the exterior of ETA is designed in a cardioid shape, i.e. like a heart, but down below on the inside of the heart is something terribly rotten. But that seems a little too on-the-nose.
Poutrincourt begins to come under suspicion. And deLint describes Hal’s game in a way that is essentially the same way Wallace, who was ranked 17th in the USTA Western Section at the age of 14, described his own game as a “near-great* junior tennis player” in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” From the essay “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley”:
I was, even by the standards of junior competition in which everyone’s a bud of pure potential, a pretty untalented tennis player. My hand-eye was OK, but I was neither large nor quick, had a near-concave chest and wrists so thin I could bracelet them with a thumb and pinkie, and could hit a tennis ball no harder or truer than most girls in my age bracket. What I could do was “Play the Whole Court.” This was a piece of tennis truistics that could mean any number of things. In my case, it meant I knew my limitations and the limitations of what I stood inside, and adjusted thusly.
And from “Infinite Jest”:
Hal’s strength has become knowing he doesn’t have everything, and constructing a game as much out of what’s missing as what’s there.
The essay, from 1992, is where we learn that the real life DFW had a tennis friend/competitor named Gil Antitoi, and see what may be the earliest use of the phrase “chess on the run,” which Herr Schtitt used earlier in the novel. A few pages further on in “A Supposedly Fun Thing…” we get to another great tennis essay, “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness” in which a footnote points out that “very few of them [elite tennis players] wear eyeglasses,” which throws Poutrincourt into further suspicion as not exactly at ETA for the tennis, since she wears “thick rimless specs.”
And while Poutrincourt describes the emotional minefields of the life of competitive tennis, deLint makes clear that Hal is among the more emotionally vulnerable players at ETA.
January 11, 2012. Brief Interview with Hyperhidrosis Man, pgs 663-665/1046-1052. On the matters of Orin and Avril Incandenza we hear directly from Marlon Bain, uncontrollably sweaty and nonfunctional obsessive compulsive, founder of the successful Saprogenic* Greetings (now owned by ACME Family of Gags N’ Notions which formerly employed Bruce Green’s father); late son of parents killed on Jamaica Way by a falling traffic helicopter, presumably Lateral Alice Moore’s; former ETA student and childhood companion of Orin Incandenza; former and potentially current unrequited love interest of Lyle the fitness guru; current reclusive dweller in some kind of wall-less children’s room of a former pubic library and apparent answerer of only odd-numbered questions. To “Infinite Jest” what Eli Cash was to The Royal Tenenbaums.
Other than his uncanny connections to various other players in the story, Marlon sheds little light. We see that he was (or at least thinks he was) irrevocably changed by using “deadly-serious hallucinogens at a sort of larval psychological stage.” There is another appearance of the Near Eastern medical attaché, this time with Avril. And we learn more about Orin’s unsavory past. And of course Bain’s sweatiness is akin to the author’s own struggles with constant public sweating (allegedly the impetus behind the bandana), and is a character trait that is repeated in greater detail with David Cusk from “The Pale King.”
*/ˌsaprōˈjenik/ Adj. Causing or produced by putrefaction or decay.
January 8, 2012. The Darkness, pgs 638-662/1046. In the case of Steeply’s father and the obsession with M*A*S*H, please note that: (1) should a viewer, obsessed or not, want to watch and study every episode of M*A*S*H it would be (or would have been) entirely possible during the syndication that Wallace describes here. There are, as he says, 29 showings of M*A*S*H every week. Meaning that any normal person could adhere to the “normal” schedule and watch on average four episodes a day. (2) M*A*S*H had (and probably still has) many more interested viewers and dedicated fans — people who could likely recite to you an in-depth history of the show and its characters — than the real Korean conflict it dramatizes; as seen in the fact that (3) the final 2.5 hour series finale was the most watched broadcast in television history when it aired in 1983. An estimated 125 million people tuned in to see it, including viewers watching on TVs set up in barracks and parking lots and other US Army facilities in Korea.
Steeply’s father may have fallen into a spiral of insane obsession, but it’s not a stretch to say he was pushed. He seems to be on one far end of a bell curve of possible reactions to the amount of M*A*S*H in the world.
Steeply “gave the impression somehow of having several cigarettes going at one time.” This is an anxiety tell straight out of Salinger, who I continue to see as one of Wallace’s major influences.
The impression Steeply gets from looking in the eyes of his father and the people who have seen The Entertainment, that they are “Stuck. Fixed. Held. Trapped. As in trapped in some sort of middle. Between two things. Pulled apart in different directions” echoes the closing sentences of Erdedy’s chapter way back at the very beginning of the book.
Then, following a chapter in which Geoffrey Day describes the “black shape” that manifested his internal hell of misery and depression, Hal has a match in which he struggles against Ortho Stice, aka The Darkness. Things are changing. Hal wins a volley with a move that is “anti-book” and “one of very few total inspired points from Incandenza.” But ultimately he almost loses, which we already know, and adds to the menace of lines like: “There was no indication Hal even saw it, the shadow, hunched and waiting for Stice.” And if, in the catalog of Hamlet Sightings this match parallels in some ways the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, it is the point in Hamlet when everyone dies. The Hal-Stice match is more mysterious in its origins and outcome, and doesn’t seem to draw influence from the play other than mirroring the specific scene of competition. But it seems clear that Hal is staying just barely ahead of the darkness.
This is also one of the rare moments in which Wallace provides chronological orientation of the many events taking place in the book. It is mid-afternoon on 11 November YDAU. Gately is asleep at Ennnet House (prior to the fight) while Poor Tony has not yet had his seizure and is still in the library bathroom going through withdrawal. Pemulis and Struck are presumably researching a certain hallucinogen. Orin is with the Swedish hand model.
This chapter also allows us to read Wallace doing something he’s probably unmatched at, which is writing about tennis.
January 4, 2012. The Phoneless Cord, pgs 621-638/1045-1046. People like to watch; that much is clear. But the “spect-ops” of crowds gathering around mundane public events are part of DFW’s speculative future that don’t quite compute. I think I understand the point he’s making here, that the logical residual effect of so much private freedom and choice of entertainments — the “floating no-space world of personal spectation” — has created a void. People are entertained but lonely, avoiding all inconvenience but also all interaction. One theory is that, like Orin, they miss the times when “familiarity was inflicted,” so they gather around duck pond drainings* and street vendors for an entertainment they didn’t actively choose to passively watch. The scenario is reversed: by seeing something spontaneous and being part of a crowd, they are passively choosing to actively watch. It’s like a relic, a charming reminder of “simpler” times. A phoneless cord. Wallace didn’t predict the saturation of reality television in what people will choose to watch (the Real World had run three or four seasons when IJ was published, but was still in its culturally significant interactions-of-people-from-an-increasingly-diverse-and-pluralistic-society-microcosm phase before descending into its awful-interactions-between-people-with-various-social-diseases-and-mental-imbalances phase), so maybe this is an illustration of what is at the core of reality TV: a yearning for some sort of “real” unscripted and uncontrolled entertainment. In a sense, this does foresee YouTube videos that gather crowds of millions to watch a normal person do something mildly interesting. Whatever the theory — and I’m sure there are many from the McLuhanites out there — the spect-ops in the book are only that: a theory. We don’t really see them actually happening anywhere else in the book. Most notably, no one seems to notice a speeding wheel chair piloted by a legless rider with a fleur-de-lis mask on flipping over a shopping cart and scooping up a skinny and shirtless MIT student and carrying him directly into the open door of an idling van.
The page-spanning paragraph on 626 is only one sentence.
Okay, well, the match between Stice and Hal is arguably a spect-op. But a crowd gathering to watch a developing upset of the social order in the form of competitive sports is hardly a swell of people watching a duck pond getting drained. This domestic scene at ETA provides news of strange events taking place around the campus. Along with the tripod in the woods, a ball machine appeared in the girls’ locker room, a lawnmower in the kitchen, and squeegees were stuck on the wall of the cafeteria with no evidence of any attachment mechanism. Troeltsch somehow knows that Stice’s bed moves mysteriously in the night. Also, there is a “mysterious and continuing fall of acoustic ceiling-tiles from their places in the subdorms’ drop ceilings.” Hal is uneasy and drinking six cranberry juices, which many of us recognize as the regimen for flushing out before a urinalysis. At the same time, Pemulis seems eerily calm for someone who should by all reasoning be at serious risk of getting the boot from ETA.
*I want to believe there is a reference to “The Catcher in the Rye” happening here, but am so far unable to come up with any compelling evidence.
December 20,2011. Getting Chewed by Something Huge and Tireless and Patient, pgs 567-619/1044-1045. Let’s begin with the mention of the blind tennis player Dymphna, which seems insignificant aside from the fact that he is nine years old here in the Y.D.A.U., yet is sixteen when Hal says he has to play him one year later in the book’s opening chapter. I don’t know whether this is an oversight or something deliberate. What I do know is that the use of the name “Dymphna” here likely comes from St. Dymphna who, according to the prayer to St. Dymphna, looks out for those “afflicted with mental and emotional illness” to whom IJ is practically dedicated. The reference also bears weight based on the story of Dymphna, which is commonly called “The King Who Wished to Marry His Daughter” and is about pretty much what the title says. It’s a flip on the Oedipal themes running throughout IJ and, as we will see, has some serious relevance vis-a-vis Joelle van Dyne.
While Idris Arslanian walks around blindfolded to study the blind-Dymphna method, Pemulis provides a useful explanation of annular fusion and the reasons for giant infants and large hamsters in the Concavity. Pemulis also mentions that James Incandenza helped design “these special holographic conversions so the team that worked on annulation could study the behavior of subatomics in highly poisonous environments. Without getting poisoned themselves.” This brings to mind the speculations Steeply’s people have made on holography in The Entertainment.
One also finds it amusing that the discussion of annular waste reuse happens as Pemulis solicits Arslanian to (re)use his urine.
The story then jumps between Orin Incandenza’s developing situation with the Swiss hand model and Lenz and Green’s walk home, which after a brief section with Mario ultimately climaxes at Ennet House.
Orin maintains his theory about his legless admirers while his dangerous liaison hides under the covers with a pistol and an oxygen mask. Again, this strange situation is balanced with Orin’s sadness and longing, and his Holden Caulfield-esque remark that “I miss seeing the same things over and over again.” Also an offhand mention of feeling “ready for anything” including “Swiss cuckolds, furtive near-Eastern medical attaches, zaftig print journalists.” Emphasis mine.
Bruce Green is sharing another of OJ’s tragi-comic back stories, including a note that “The creepily friendly bachelor that lived next to his aunt had had two big groomed dogs,” which I think is Wallace’s Man in the Macintosh* moment. Lenz is finally back to executing house pets and giving chase to large Canadians. Mario’s sojourn outside Ennet House is a brief, calm island in the middle of raging seas, even despite his uneasiness about Madame Psychosis. His feeling that “It’s weird to feel like you miss someone you’re not even sure you know” now has a sad extra valence of meaning to it. I wonder if maybe Mario is showing something of what Wallace felt like around AA, and why he felt compelled to write about it. “Mario’s felt good both times in Ennet’s House because it’s very real…once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.” You can even hear DFW breaking through when he momentarily slips out of Mario’s voice to complain about the difficulties of finding “valid art” — which just doesn’t sound like Mario — about “stuff that is real.”
Then, during the Herculean and Kafka-esque moving of the cars at midnight, the ever-humble and ever-dutiful Don Gately gets into a brawl defending Randy Lenz. This is an incredible fight scene. Not only because of the balletic choreography of (as I think Lenz puts it) “some righteous ass-kickings,” nor for the beautifully illustrated pain, like the way Gately’s “shoulder blooms with colorless fire,” but because this fight scene is also a character study of Don G, while it is also a romance between Don and Joelle, while also being a pretty incredible ensemble piece about the people at the halfway house and environs. It’s the Ennet House Eschaton.
*Given the lack of any quick and dirty internet explanations to link to here, I should maybe just say that The Man in the Macintosh was an incidental character in James Joyce’s “Ulysses” long thought to be Joyce himself. After an evening’s Googling, however, there is apparently evidence that the Man is actually Mr. Duffy from the story “A Painful Case.” My point is, Wallace had two dogs and likely considered himself a creepily friendly neighbor at times.
December 14,2011. Finding Drama, pgs 550-567/1037-1044. Plot points abound as our seemingly anti-confluential drama moves along. Pemulis, attempting to look insolent but actually looking “less insolent than just extremely poorly dressed,” uncovers a sordid bit of role playing between John Wayne and Avril. I suppose it’s worth remembering here that in Oedipus’ story, he actually married his mom. What’s happening in Avril’s office is an important piece of information, but what’s missing is an answer to the question: What did Pemulis have to say to Avril as he swaggered into her office dressed that way?
It’s no accident that the section immediately following opens with a description of Lenz’s equally cartoonish attire. Lenz on coke becomes a fact-spewing machine, lending a hand to Wallace who can have him jabber about everything from the “dreaded Estuarial crocodile” to Real Estate Cults in S. Cal. (see T. Pynchon, “Inherent Vice” for extended and excellent commentary on the subject) to his wildly obese mother. Wallace’s prose is particularly suited to the unstaunched flow of coked up monologue. While Lenz is undoubtedly doubtable, not everything he’s saying is bullshit. He mentions both La Culte du Prochain Train and something that sounds curiously like The Entertainment. One wonders what else he is saying has factual backing and possible relevance. Toward the end of one of his sections, he refers to himself as “yrstruly,” harkening back to an earlier section in the book and a first-person narrator hanging with Poor Tony who could be Lenz but doesn’t really seem to fit the part.
Hal lies on his bed, doing nothing. “We await, I predict, the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines.”
Gately is interfacing with residents at Ennet House “UP TO ABOUT 2329H., WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 11 Y.D.A.U.”
Orin’s extended endnote interview yields the following information: JOI invented “that new kind of window glass that doesn’t fog or smudge from people touching it or breathing on it,” presumably after seeing a certain name written into the fogged up window of a car. The Mad/Sad Stork was, in a manner of speaking, a functional alcoholic. The Mom’s is a functionally insane person. According to Orin, Hal “is so shut down talking to him is like throwing a stone in a pond.” Echoing Gately and AA in general, “The Mad Stork always used to say clichés earned their status as clichés because they were so obviously true.” Marlon Bain’s parents died in a strange accident, he is (or was) non-functionally insane, he bears a serious grudge against Avril, and he recently sold his Saprogenic Greetings company, which I believe we last saw for sale in Antitoi Entertainent.
For all the absurdities of Orin’s interaction with the hand model, this section has some extraordinary writing about sex for the Oedipally-stricken. Here Wallace rivals Pynchon in his ability to create a situation that is comical and ridiculous, and then drill swiftly down into the honest, human heart of the matter. It is worth slowing down to read that “It is not about consolation…It is not about conquest…It feels to the punter rather to be about hope…” and so on. You get a sense of Orin’s true and deep sadness, as he searches for whatever it is he’s searching for in the one activity he seems genuinely interested in. Once again, it seems no accident that these pages with the football player having sex with a mother are in close proximity to a section with a mother engaging in sexual role playing with a young man dressed as a football player.
December 9,2011. Lenz Grinding, 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.
December 6, 2011. Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, pgs 530-538/1036-1037. Gately and Joelle van Dyne begin to connect while swapping stories on Gately’s staff night. As Joelle speaks she dips in and out of her Kentucky drawl and her Boston/U.H.I.D./academic/12-step language. Without going so far as to call it deliberate, Joelle’s description of the U.H.I.D. process seems to parallel elements of Wallace’s prose:
What you do is hide your deep need to hide…You stick your hideous face right in there into the wine-tasting crowd’s visual meatgrinder, you smile so wide it hurts and put out your hand and are extra gregarious and outgoing and exert yourself to appear totally unaware of the facial struggles of people who are trying not to wince or stare or give away the fact that they can see that you’re hideously, improbably deformed.
The tendency Joelle describes of being “extra gregarious,” to “hide your deep need to hide” sounds like the excesses of DFW’s writing and the way he may have felt when sentences got away from him and the words just kept shooting out. It’s easy to see how that verbal maximalism could be seen as a deformity, and how a defiant Wallace might have gone overboard with it to assert a kind of signature style. It’s a behavior typical of any writer walking a line between a unique voice and really bad habits. Gately’s responses heighten the comparison by asking Joelle to “Use less words” (not far from useless words) and complaining that, “You seem like you drift in and out of different ways of talking. Sometimes it’s like you don’t want me to follow.”
This is a sentiment I think anyone this far into IJ can totally ID with old Don G on.
Joelle tells Gately that she dons the veil because “I’m so beautiful I drive anybody with a nervous system out of their fucking mind. Once they’ve seen me they can’t think of anything else and don’t want to look at anything else and stop carrying out normal responsibilities and believe that if they can only have me right there with them at all times everything will be all right.” It is unclear whether this is actually the case, or if Joelle is genuinely deformed, but her diagnosis of is the same of that for The Entertainment she stars in. Gately responds to Joelle’s admission about her own face by showing her his “Staff face,” where “I nod and smile, I treat you like somebody I have to humor by nodding and smiling, and behind the face I’m going with my finger around and around my temple like What a fucking yutz, like Where’s the net.”
November 29, 2011. Blue, pgs 508-530/1034-1036. The importance of “The following things in the room were blue” eludes me, except as some indication that Hal is beginning to see things with slightly heightened senses. He is focusing strictly on a single color, and he is also troubled by “a kind of rodential squeaking that gave Hal Incandenza the howling fantods,” an affliction he shares with his grandfather from a few chapters back. The walls outside C.T.’s office are covered in “the overenhanced blue of the wallpaper’s sky, which the wallpaper scheme was fluffy cumuli arrayed patternlessly against an overenhancedly blue sky.” This is the same wallpaper in the dentist’s office that Hal has just returned from and is, of course, similar if not identical to the (most popular) cover of the book itself. Thus it seems somehow relevant.
Except that Wallace did not choose the cover of the book, and with all the other tightly planned and intricately placed revelations in this book, this one could bear less weight than it seems and be potentially misleading. Wallace’s original choice for the cover was an image from the set of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. He told the story in “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” while on an airplane leafing through the safety guide:
[Closes it, looks at cover. Clouds and sky.]
This was my major complaint about the cover of the book. …Is that it looks — on American Airlines flights? The cloud system, it’s almost identical.
[On safety booklet for 757]
Oh, that’s funny. What did you want instead?
Oh, I had a number of — there’s a great photo of Fritz Lang directing Metropolis. Do you know this one? Where he’s standing there, and there are about a thousand shaven-headed men in kind of rows and phalanxes, and he’s standing there with a megaphone? It wouldn’t have been…Michael [Pietsch, Wallace’s editor at Little Brown] said it was too busy and too like conceptual, it required too much brain work on the part of the audience….
Because you were making a metaphor on the cover?
No, I just thought it was cool —
So an apparently deliberate and significant reference to the cover of the novel may not mean much at all, it turns out.
While I’m not sure about the blue, I know the following things in this section are true:
Avril’s hair has been vividly white “as of the last few months before Himself’s felo de se.” She has a way of establishing herself at the “exact center” of any room she’s in. The whole apple thing with her and Hal seems a little, or a lot, like some weird Garden of Eden thing where Avril is the Eve and the Serpent and the Tree all at the same time.
Mike Pemulis is the Paranoid King (see: “YES I’M PARANOID — BUT AM I PARANOID ENOUGH?“) and his greatest fear is “of academic or disciplinary expulsion and ejection, of having to schlepp back down Comm. Ave. into blue-collar Allston diploma- and ticket-outless, and now in his final E.T.A. year the dread’s increased many-fold.”
Lateral Alice Moore was in a helicopter crash.
C.T. is one of the most intensely annoying characters ever created, but can also be formidable.
Clenette, current Ennet House resident and controversial narrator from the opening chapters of the book has been in C.T.’s office while the students have been waiting outside — and it is unclear why. Also in the office is the “scrubbed young button-nosed urologist” who is presumably there to chart the inner chemical states of Hal et al.
Marathe and Steeply are discussing mythological/cultural precedents for The Entertainment while the dawn begins to approach.
November 22, 2011. Antitoi Entertainent [sic], pgs 469-508/1033-1034. Marathe and Steeply. Both the American/O.N.A.N. government and the Canadians have experimented with debilitating entertainments — which Steeply points out to demonstrate that choosing to overindulge is not a uniquely American weakness. He is being defensive in every sense of the word, trying to soften some of AFR’s murderous intent through a process of a geopolitical Identifying With. “I’m saying that if he could get past the blind desire for harm against the U.S., your M. Fortier might be induced to see just what it is he’s proposing.” But it doesn’t work; Marathe is Quebecois.
Gately’s missle-strapped joyride takes us not only past the Bread and Circus/Whole Foods where I used to work (moved a few blocks in IJ), but also to the interior of “Antitoi Entertainent” [sic], which true to its translation, “Anti-you”, appears to be a nexus in the IJ universe where lots of harmful things come together. That does not, however, include the Antitoi’s themselves: “Once or twice doing work of affiliation with the Separatist/Anti-O.N.A.N. F.L.Q., they are for the most part a not very terrifying insurgent cell…spurned by the F.L.Q. after DuPlessis’s assassination* and also ridiculed by the more malignant anti-O.N.A.N. cells.” They now have a “previously DuPlessis-restrained flair for stupid wastes of time,” for example, tying the Fleur-de-Lis flag to the statue downtown (which Joelle noticed a few chapters earlier), or taping bricks to the (banned in Canada) postage-paid return cards, a trick Wallace has one of his characters repeat in “The Pale King.” They also sell drugs, including some “trop-formidable harmful pharmaceutical no longer available and guaranteed to make one’s most hair-raising psychedelic experience look like a day on the massage-tables of a Basel hot-springs resort.” This seems to be the DMZ sold to Mike Pemulis.
The Antitoi’s shop is also home to some cartridges, apparently picked up from the weird, wheel-chaired display mannequin on Boylston street that Joelle walks by. They bear the words “IL NE FAUT PLUS QU’ON PURSIVE LE BONHEUR” or roughly, “You no longer have to pursue happiness.” Each was also stamped with “a circle and arc that resembled a disembodied smile” — which sounds a lot like a Copyright symbol to me. These details, followed by information that the cartridges appear blank, followed by an endnote with information that Master cartridges appear blank when played at normal cartridge speed indicates that this is a Master copy of something, if not The Entertainment. It’s credible but unconfirmed.
Then the Antitoi brothers “hear the squeak” in truly gruesome fashion.
Back to Marathe and Steeply. Both OUS and AFR have copies of The Entertainment and are running various tests, checking to see if it can be “defused” and trying to determine how it can be best weaponized, respectively. There was allegedly a Master copy swiped during Gately’s DuPlessis burglary. The OUS theorizes that there is holography involved, because JOI had “used holography a couple times before, and in the context of a kind of filmed assault on the viewer. He was of the Hostile School or some such shit.” This appears to be a reference to The Medusa v. The Odalisque.
Speaking of the filmography of James O. Incandenza, his 1963 memory about annular systems was remade into Valuable Coupon Has Been Removed from the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad. Then the return of Roy Tony, who reinforces Gately’s consistent meditations on need to follow the program no matter where it takes you.
And closing with Marathe and Steeply again. Both groups have lost people to The Entertainment. There is an offhand though potentially relevant mention that “Hercules’ head” in a constellation “was square,” like Gately’s. As the dawn begins to arrive, Marathe notes that “the passive Reward of terminal p, this all seems complex to me. Terror seems part of the temptation for you.”
*DuPlessis being the congested French-Canadian that Gately subdues during a B&E and inadvertently “assassinates.” Bertrand Antitoi, true to his separatist-conspiracy-theorizing character, sees this as “an assassination only O.N.A.N. would be stupid enough to believe Command would be stupid enough to believe was merely an unfortunate burglary-and-mucus- mishap.”
November 16, 2011. Fire at Your Will, pgs 450-469/1032-1033. After some tonal dissonance, we are back in harmony with two sections — one from Ennet and one from ETA — that mirror each other with training motifs. But first, a Hamlet Sighting: Tavis surveying his (usurped) kingdom while working himself into a state of “Total Worry.” There is also a mention that Tavis may in fact be Mario’s father.
Then on to the morning conditioning at ETA, a scene that is physically punishing to read and probably raises unpleasant memories for anyone who’s ever practiced with a team and/or been compelled to do exercises appropriately named “suicides.” (These pages are owed a great debt by many of the pages in The Art of Fielding.) They also bring the ETA part of the story back down to earth after the I-day puppet show. It probably has the same effect on the kids, who are up early the day after their sugar binge to do this conditioning. Some great moments include Wallace’s point about Schtitt: “Like most Germans outside popular entertainment, he gets quieter when he wants to impress or menace.” Along with Edgar Marsalla in chapel at Pency in the early pages of “The Catcher in the Rye” and Gately being “the one who’d farted” earlier in the book (281), the part when “Left-hander Brian van Vleck picks a bad moment to break wind” is among the better uses of a fart in literature.
Over at Ennet House, Gately is engaged in a similar kind of training regiment. But first, a quick “Gravity’s Rainbow” sighting with Gately who feels like he’s “strapped into a missile and launched at the site of a domestic errand” while driving Pat M’s car.
Regarding his struggles with the Higher Power and over whether the program actually works, Gately is told that “it didn’t matter at this point what he thought or believed or said. All that mattered was what he did.” So he does his own daily conditioning, including the calisthenics of getting down on his knees every AM and PM, regardless of whether he believes: “he treated prayer like setting an oven-temp according to a box’s instructions.” He gets active and goes to Commitments and finds that suddenly, he’s gone days without craving substances.
The ETAers and Gately are both following Schtitt’s instructions to “Fire at your will,” a clever mistranslation on Wallace’s part. And Schtitt’s internal world for the players echo’s the in here/out there of AA. To top it off, toward the end Wallace notes “the extremely low resting pulse-rate of a guy with geologic amounts of sober AA time,” a quality that is most often connected to elite athletes, including, presumably, the ETA kids.
November 15, 2011. Visual Aid, N/A. A quick visual recap of Subsidized Time, aka page 223, from the well-worth-exploring book-comics blog English Majeure (click image to enlarge).
November 10, 2011. This is Water, pgs 434-450. In his review of IJ back in February 1996, Sven Birkerts wrote that “Wallace is not afraid to commingle various tonal and thematic registers.” It’s one of the great things about this book. But right around these pages, the registers are more dissonant than at most other times.
Gately’s truly awful day job is almost touching in its extreme unpleasantness, since it’s just a miracle that he’s sober to do it. Set in such close juxtaposition, his trouble doesn’t quite square with the grisly fates of hyper-achieving (and stone sober) tennis kids who do things like blow their brains out after reaching the top rank, or win a tournament and then go home to kill themselves — and accidentally kill their family through a comic, cascading and really pretty gross sequence of events. There’s also the fact that Mario’s puppet show is basically exposition set 400 pages into the book, whereas Gately story is moving along.
To handle the light work first, Mario gives us the advent of subsidized time, as inspired by the “Ken-L-Ration-Magnavox-Kemper-Insurance-Forsythia Bowl.” (This actually does resonate emotionally, as it might for anyone who, like me, has painful memories of confusion and unhappiness from the first time the college Bowl games became the All State Orange Bowl or the Tostitos Insurance Bowl or whatever the hell they were.) There is also note 176, which features a “malevolent young Canadian Candida albicans specialist” as part of JOI’s ONANtiad, who sounds very much like the Near Eastern medical attaché of chapters past and once again mentions Candida albicans.
Gately is struggling with the higher power question, which brings Wallace to the “This is Water” moment, when Robert F./Bob Death tells the joke about the two fish. As DFW unpacked in a 20 minute graduation speech nearly ten years after publishing this book, the “What the fuck is water?” joke gives you some serious things to think about. And Gately does think about it, feeling like he “wanted to both cry and hit somebody” and moving into his own version of exposition, which are the risen memories of a crummy, drunk childhood.
The vision of a child BIM as “Sir Osis of Thuliver,” or as an adult re-hearing the “Clopaclopaclop he used to make” when pretending to ride is just…
Gately dreams that night of being deep in a sea of silent, dim water the same temperature as he is, which is hard to ignore with all the mother business going on around this book.
November 8, 2011. Interdependence Day, N/A. Today is Interdependence Day. For some, it’s a day of high-incident Eschaton and continental reconfiguration. For others, just another 24hrs to take one day at a time. To mark the occasion, a long overdue post of a classic IJ predecessor.
November 7, 2011. The Pursuit of Happiness/The Clipperton Suite, pgs 418-434/1031-1032. Back to Marathe and Steeply debating first principles of the pursuit of happiness. Or more accurately, Steeply running through his own point-counterpoint while “Part of Marathe always felt almost a desire to shoot persons who anticipated his responses and inserted words and said they were from Marathe, not letting him speak.” Steeply is banging the drum of Freedom and Individual Liberty, which are so often used as charged political language and partisan identifiers that it’s hard to tell where Steeply really stands. To avoid diving too much into contemporary politics, suffice it to say that it’s tough to read what he’s saying without lumping him in with folks who use the teflon quality of the ideas to defend actions that aren’t exactly consistent with freedom and liberty themselves. Say for example a party of small government — which it appears Steeply would support — believing that government should say who can and cannot choose to marry each other. At any rate, Steeply (and Wallace) seem like they’re hewing closer to the actual principles in this discussion, which is good because the principles are important. And complex. And deeply relevant to the rest of the book. Not to mention, life.
That’s not to say that Steeply doesn’t over simplify. What he calls the “genius” of “realizing that each American seeking to pursue his maximum good results in maximizing everyone’s good,” is not exactly a that-takes-care-of-that solution to happiness in a crowded, pluralistic nation. Marathe manages to throw it into confusion with a simple thought experiment over two individuals and one single-serving can of soup. Paradoxes come in Steeply’s own behavior as well. The man who rises to the defense of the individual pursuit of happiness is someone who has sacrificed his personal identity, physical form and, it seems, his marriage, not for an increase in his own individual pleasure but for the good of his country*. He is also working to prohibit the distribution of something that, in most cases, Americans would be free to watch or not watch based on their own individual choice.
Steeply can’t explain why the sanctity of individual freedom inherently leads to communal harmony, or as some coincidentally topical Sunday morning reading of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Nature and Destiny of Man: Vol. II” says, “Human experience constantly yields some knowledge of the fact that concern for the other rather than self leads inevitably to consequences which cannot be justified in purely historical and this-worldy terms.” (Niebuhr is a good complement to this thread in IJ.)
Steeply says that people “must be freely enlightened to self,” which is similar to the “benign anarchy” that Gately sees in AA. And his remark that the American educational system works to “teach how to make knowledgable choices about pleasure and delay and the kids overall down-the-road maximal interests” parallels the “teaching you how to think” figuring DFW did in his commencement address.
Then to the conclusion of the Clipperton Saga. There doesn’t seem to be much here than what is obvious: that Clipperton couldn’t stand the success once he got it. It may not be the story itself that is important so much as the fact that this kind of thing seems more or less normal in the ETA/competitive jr. tennis worlds. People are more excited to see Lyle outside of the weight room, and years later the Clipperton Suite is invoked as a sort of humor-laced threat. Let me know in the comments if you see something crucial that I’m missing.
* Speaking of sacrifices and culture, endnote 173 gives you the opportunity to jump ahead and read the history of the AFR. I’m not going to cover it here just yet, but in this liveblog’s commitment to freedom, you may choose to do so.
October 31, 2011. ONANism, pgs 380-418/1028-1031. I think I enjoy this section most as storytelling strategy. Wallace obviously had to at some point explain the development of his near-future reality of subsidized time and President Gentle and Interlace teleputers. He could have done it with a standard flashback, or obliquely through the development of other parts of the story. It’s possible that Hugh Steeply could have been a narrative vehicle, or James O. Incandenza’s ONANtiad. Instead, we get Mario’s puppet show spoof of his father’s film, viewed annually at Enfield Academy on Interdependence Day. The format allows for a fleshed out telling of the story in a way that enhances, without undermining, the fundamental ridiculousness of a microbe-phobic ex-crooner maneuvering his party into governmental leadership and his struggling nation into the Organization of North American Nations. I was reminded of Homer Simpsons rise to Sanitation Commissioner of Springfield, as captured in image and song below:
Then on to Lyle, whose relationship with the hyperhidrostic Marlon Bain seems to have been the basis for JOI’s movie Death in Scarsdale. As Mario’s film plays in the cafeteria, Lyle counsels various ETAers in the unlit weight room. His visitors include Ortho Stice who is struggling (along with this reader, so far) to understand why his bedroom furniture is being rearranged while he sleeps.
At the same time, Hal is ingesting massive amounts of sugar, noticing a toothache, and thinking about his father’s films, in particular The Medusa v. The Odalisque. Again with the St. Therese, who in this case is “a character out of old Québécois mythology who was supposedly so inhumanly gorgeous that anyone who looked at her turned instantly into a human-sized precious gem, from admiration.” A deadly, mythical, Canadian PGOAT.
I count TMvTO as a credible but unconfirmed Hamlet sighting, or at the very least, a Hamlet reference, since it is a play within a play (or movie, as it were). Hal mentions that “it’s not clear what [Medusa and the Odalisque are] supposed to be on the level of the playlet, whether the audience is supposed to see/(not)see them as ghosts or wraiths or ‘real’ mythic entities or what. But it’s a ballsy fight-scene up there on the stage…” and that the movie’s “own audiences didn’t think too much of the thing, because the film audience never does get much of a decent full-frontal look at what it is about the combatants that supposedly has such a melodramatic effect on the rumble’s live audience, and so the film’s audience ends up feeling teased and vaguely cheated…”
It seems not coincidental that this is followed by a description of THE JOKE.
During the puppet cabinet meeting, it becomes clear that the “de-mapping” or “eliminating his map” phrase that Wallace has been using is not just a clever invention of near-future slang. It’s something people would actually say in a nation where considerable portions of the geography have actually been removed from the map.
Then the Eric Clipperton saga, in which the obsession with achievement and victory is illustrated in its full pathology, and where we can learn, in an endnote, that many of JOI’s master cartridges and other such materials are buried with him in a region of Canada that is just over the border from the eastern Concavity.
Finally, the rise and fall of the television and advertising industries, which is a strange thing to read in the age of Hulu and Netflix and YouTube. With its anti-passive passivity and mass-marketed individual empowerment, this bit makes a nice complement to the TV essay from “A Supposedly Fun Thing…”
In closing, happy Halloween everybody:
October 24, 2011. White Flag, pgs 343-379/1025-1028. This is one of those sections that makes you think someone could pull a Jefferson Bible on IJ and, by removing all the tennis and Incandenza and deadly entertainment stuff, end up with a quiet, sad, hilarious novel that would be among the best AA stories ever written. If it wasn’t already taken, a good title might be “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”
The previous chapter was all about fighting; this one is all about surrender. And it’s easily one of the most religious things I’ve ever read. The Don Gately-POV is outlining a conversion experience, complete with capital-M Miracles, and the maintenance of life under a Higher Power. I don’t have any William James to back that up, just some limited experience of interpreting faith in the face of serious skepticism. Wallace is tricky on faith; he was a churchgoer, though for all I know that may be entirely related to AA meetings. According the this story (NYT paywalled, sorry), “Back in Illinois, he began to attend Sunday services at various churches around town — there is something about religious faith, which was missing from his rearing by two atheists, that entices and calms him — and he formed his closest social relationship with an older, married couple, Doug and Erin Poag. They met at a Mennonite house of worship.” Then this from a Details profile: “Brought up an atheist, he has twice failed to pass through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the first step toward becoming a Catholic. The last time, he made the mistake of referring to ‘the cult of personality surrounding Jesus.’ That didn’t go over big with the priest, who correctly suspected Wallace might have a bit too much skepticism to make a fully obedient Catholic.” Gately’s experience with the program sounds, to me, almost exactly how religion should be: humbling, confusing, questioning, supportive, inclusive (i.e. “They can’t kick you out.”) and just in general content with giving people what they need to be normal and functional. “Only in Boston AA can you hear a fifty-year-old immigrant wax lyrical about his first solid bowel movement in adult life.” I would like for church to be like that too.
Again, the pithy phrases that seem banal at first but unfold into profound truths resemble the Jesus Prayer, or Zen koans that bring on enlightenment by breaking your mind out of things it thinks it knows. “Part of finally getting comfortable in Boston AA is just finally running out of steam in terms of trying to figure stuff like this out. Because it literally makes no sense.”After all that, let me be clear that I don’t think this is Wallace’s subtle effort at evangelism. This section is firmly about addiction recovery, it’s just that Wallace’s treatment of treatment reflects other experiences rather well.
A couple of other things: Wallace acknowledges the strangeness of being addicted in the Gompert/Erdeddy way to marijuana, indicating that there’s something more to the condition than meets the eye. He brings out some of the recurring imagery that links the various struggles in the book, like smiley face masks, faces in the floor, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa and the cage. Joelle van Dyne is now at Ennet House, and says something about the origins of Found Drama and anticonfluentialism that appears to be contradicted by Owen in the extended endnote 145. And we learn the logistics of the Statue of Liberty’s new role as advertisement in subsidized time.
Then Wallace runs us through some troubling and grotesque Hitting Bottom stories, making another important AA (and as I see it, religious) point that external attribution for your addiction (sins) is a non-starter. Even such a hideous back story as the one shared by the woman whose downward spiral she attributes to domestic dysfunction is met with little sympathy. She is part of a “splinter 12-Step Fellowship, an Adult-Child-type thing called Wounded, Hurting, Inadequately Nurtured but Ever-Recovering Survivors.” WHINERS, for short. It’s right around here that Wallace refers to AA as an “Irony-free zone,” which I suspect is part of why it appealed to Wallace as a setting, and also why it bugs me to hear people either credit or dismiss Wallace as a spokesperson for an ironic, disaffected generation. As if he wrote 1,000 pages because he was so interested in undermining the institution of 1,000-page books. He is a deeply earnest writer who is more trying to speak to his generation than as his generation. If you really want to hear about it, his hostility to irony is on full display in the essay “E UNIBUS PLURAM: Television and U.S. Fiction,” from “Supposedly Fun Thing,” where he writes about the then-current ironic-phase of culture as tyrannical, empty and weak fuel for American fiction. We have already talked about Wallace’s feelings that affected meaninglessness is ultimately hazardous for large groups of people who will yearn to believe something and will eventually be susceptible to all kinds of nonsense (see: politics 20 years after the essay was written). The essay also quotes an interesting line from Lewis Hyde, who wrote that “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” Emphasis mine, in case that didn’t sound familiar enough after reading this section of IJ.
IJ is by all indicators an argument against an ironic generation, not a champion of it. That’s why it spends so much time in a place where irony is shunned and tough, sincere truths are valued. So that we can get to a point, as Gately has at the end of this section, where “When she concludes by asking them to pray for her it almost doesn’t sound corny.”
October 20, 2011. Another Aside: DFW on Charlie Rose, N/A. The current entry is taking a bit longer than it should. Here is something great to fill the gap — David Foster Wallace’s full 1997 interview with Charlie Rose, taped while DFW was making the publicity rounds for “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”
I have got news for you:
Coming on a television show stimulates your What Am I Gonna Look Like gland like no other experience.
Back to Front
October 7, 2011. Eschaton!, pgs 321-342/1022-1025. The Eschaton game on Interdependence Day is quite possibly the signature piece of writing in David Foster Wallace’s entire body of work. I invite readers to agree or disagree in the comments. Allow me to point out, however, to those inclined to pose some counterargument about the way that the cruise ship essay or “Good Old Neon” or the Kenyon University commencement speech better capture DFW’s intangible essence, my point can almost be proven mathematically, with data. This section has tennis, trigonometry, violence, drugs and alcohol, overachieving kids, a beanie to provide a slight touch of dorkiness, rampant and disorienting abbreviations, chaos, humor, a sinister and mysterious element on the perimeter (the mint green sedan), Utter Global Crisis, serious consequences, technology, bodily fluids and a really long endnote. It is “Infinite Jest” at full throttle, Wallace at his most excessive, showcasing his best as well as his worst.
By way of visual aide, another great graphic from Chris Ayers at Poor Yorick Entertainment (click to enlarge; take some time to explore):
This is “Lord of the Flies” updated for the millenium, right down to the nerdy kid getting his head stuck in a computer monitor rather than crushed by a rock. I don’t actually think Wallace was deliberate with the parallels, I just mean its in the same spirit, that being the spirit of how quickly all hell can break loose.
Despite the elaborate mathematics — in fact, partly because of them — in the long Pemulis-narrated endnote, this chapter is one of the more absurd in the book. I admit I’m not a big fan of when Wallace pushes these boundaries. But even though they can be uncomfortable for 20 or so pages, they’re essential to the novel as a whole. It just wouldn’t be the same without the occasional reality-busting weirdness. This chapter is also a pivotal point for plot movement in the pages ahead, with potentially far-reaching consequences. Plus, we get to hear a bit more from Pemulis, who I truly enjoy, even if he is “a thoroughgoing chilled-revenge gourmet, and is not one bit above dosing someone’s water jug…”
Another piece of evidence for Eschaton’s enduring and ouvre-defining (if such a thing is possible for Wallace) quality is the fact that it has been the focus of a stage adaptation of IJ:
And recently dramatized by The Decemberists in a really fantastic music video:
October 3, 2011. Double Binds, pgs 306-321/1004-1022. David Foster Wallace walks a fine line with a lot of the scholarly academic elements of “Infinite Jest.” For instance, Hal’s term paper on television heroes and the graduate students talking nonsense at Molly Notkin’s party where Joelle van Dyne tries to off herself. These pages open with Schacht taking a test on pathological double binds. On first reading it’s not particularly funny and only merely interesting to have a 16-year old trying to answer word problems about satisfying the needs of a kleptomaniacal agoraphobic. But a second look makes me think it is necessary for Wallace to push things like scholarship and geopolitics just past the line into farcical. Otherwise, readers might start thinking that they mean something, that a statement is being made. Which at times it might be, but it shouldn’t be the focus. By taking these things out of the realm of what’s worth considering, we can see people and their stories rather than tendentious philosophical allegories. Same with politics, where any kind of proposed scenario is going to make people draw lines between the politics in their own lives and the politics in the story. Wallace has more serious and fundamental political considerations to offer, as we see later, and none of that discourse is aided by being able to tag one group as clearly the Dems or clearly the Republicans (or Labour and Liberal, as it were) in this scenario and decide at the outset that they’re jerks just like in real life.
The issues need to be cut from whole cloth, for example, a Québécois separatist movement of armed wheelchair assassins working to undermine the unified North American polity. Hal is both studying and lecturing on the issues at hand in the main text and in a lengthy endnote (with its own footnotes) phone call with Orin. They are teasing out the motivations for such a strange resistance force and what that all might have to do with a samizdat that “Helen” Steeply is curiously interested in. Then Mario’s birth to an unexpectingly expectant Avril Incandenza. The boy has a long list of medical, developmental, dental and cosmetic challenges to overcome, including the thin hair reminiscent of Charles Tavis, who may or may not be part of the equation. Fortunately Mario also has a “younger and way more externally impressive brother” who “almost idealizes Mario, secretly. God-type issues aside, Mario is a (semi-) walking miracle, Hal believes.”
Then a serious political discussion between a man in drag and a wheelchair assassin. Here we have a debate between competing philosophies of government and culture, pitting freedom and individual liberty, along with the messy consequences of letting people do what they want when they want, against totalitarian control. Steeply obviously favors the liberty and freedom parts, even in spite of the consequences that have been put in front of him with the Entertainment. Marathe sees it as, “A U.S.A. that would die — and let its children die, each one — for the so called perfect Entertainment…Who would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving…can such a U.S.A. hope to survive for a much longer time?” In a brief, brilliant moment of the book, Steeply’s retort begins with silently lighting a cigarette, causing Marathe to wonder, “why the presence of Americans could always make him feel vaguely ashamed after saying things he believed. An aftertaste of shame after revealing passion of any belief and type when with Americans, as if he had made flatulence instead of revealed belief.” (Please recall that all of this was written in the first years of the rise of the ironic, slacker Gen X.)
Steeply’s proposed alternative to Marathe’s vision of the end times is a revulsion at totalitarian dominance of the state. This section is cornerstone-level important to the novel, I feel, as it deals with the whole pursuit of happiness and excess stuff that occupies the drug addicts and the over-achievers that populate the text. It’s also something that Wallace has talked about often in other venues. For instance, this exchange with David Lipsky on 157-8 of “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” (Lipsky in bold):
Marathe is basically a fascist. You’re talking about a culture that teaches people how to make moral choices, that teeters very easily into a culture…into a totalitarian, authoritarian culture. But a culture that doesn’t, and that prides itself on not — the way sort of ours does, or has recently…I think we’re just beginning to see, that on either side of the continuum there are terrible prices to pay.
You give no answer to this question, then…
I don’t think there’s an answer. You mean, are there laws that should be passed? Or is there public education we can do […]
So no answer: either that kind of freedom or that kind of guidance.
I think it’s — I mean I think the whole thing is an enormous game of Little Red Riding Hood, and you’re trying to find out what’s just right. And you, you know — what is it? — you can’t find the middle till you hit both walls? You know? The thing that really scares me about this country — and again, I’d want you to stress, I’m a private citizen, I am not a pundit. Is I think we’re really setting ourselves up for repression and fascism. I think our hunger, our hunger to have somebody else tell us what to do — or for some sort of certainty, or something to steer by — is getting so bad, um, that I think it’s, there’s even a, Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom”, I mean, makes a similar argument economically. But I think, you know, with Pat Buchanan, in Rush Limbaugh, there are rumbles on the Western horizon, you know. And that it’s going to be, that the next few decades are going to be really scary. Particularly if things get economically shaky, and people for instance — people who’ve never been hungry before, might be hungry or might be cold.
Marathe talks about the loss of temples and the “confusion of permissions.” Steeply compares Quebec to the Nazis. Both are right and both are wrong and, as a result, both are relevant to the book and to how the book relates to our own lives.
At the end neither of them knows how they’re going to get down off the mountain.
September 28, 2011. The Story of O, pgs 283-306. Orin Incandenza is in the running for saddest guy in this book, which is saying a lot when your dramatis persona is almost entirely comprised of drug addicts, alcoholics, suicides and the suicidal, cripples, violent criminals, the physically and sexually abused, militaristically drilled adolescents, the developmentally challenged and others. Orin actually has some measure of tangible success, including excellence in his field, financial security, casual abstinence from substances, ability to seduce nearly any woman, health and more — which only amplifies the fact that he wakes up each morning on soaked sheets, paralyzed with fear, rarely alone but lonely as hell.
Here, then, is some of the back story of how all that came to be: how Orin left home, left tennis and got involved with Joelle van Dyne aka Madame Psychosis aka the Prettiest Girl of All Time, or PGOAT. Orin bears strong similarities to Mike Pemulis, as both have phenomenal lobs but limited tennis games otherwise, and “Orin was Eschaton’s first game-master at E.T.A.” It’s not hard to see how the young man found his way into serious adult unhappiness, with the glimpses of a home life with his mother, whom he described to Hal as “a kind of contortionist with other people’s bodies,” and Charles “CT” Tavis, who is without question the most tiresome and blandly sinister person in “Infinite Jest,” if not all of American literature. The fact that he lays out the whole Hamlet-esque family drama in E.T.A.’s convocation ceremony speech each year is spreading more than enough crazy seed to grow flowers.
I haven’t figured out, other than the all too obvious reason, why Orin traces the symbol for infinity on his “subjects,” but I’m pretty sure it’s not good. He is some kind of preternatural genius at punting a football, which is interesting because, given his father’s and his father’s father’s pursuits of success, Orin’s greatest and most celebrated achievement comes only in the event of failure. What he seems to really enjoy about his job is the ability to shut off his head in the thrum of thousands of cheering fans, which he describes as “the sound of the womb” and “amniotic,” with just about the right level of Oedipal creepiness.
Then it’s off to Poor Tony Krause, which, again, usually means something unpleasant and gross is about to happen. Probably involving bodily fluids. This time it’s a seizure that comes after a headache-inducingly vivid description of pure addictive desperation and heroin withdrawal. But even with all the soiled clothing and incontinence and pain and fingers bit off during Tony’s lowest moments, he still seems somehow better adjusted than Orin. Tony has a bathroom stall and a steady supply of NyQuil and he calls it getting by for a few days, whereas Orin’s misery manages to permeate every surface of his well-ordered life.
September 23, 2011. An Anticipated Retraction Regarding Dave Eggers or DO Read the Introduction, N/A. I knew it was going to happen. I met Dave Eggers and he really is a very nice man. I didn’t dig his introduction to “Infinite Jest,” but I didn’t have to be such an a-hole about it.
And to really drive home the point, I met a woman who told me she read “Infinite Jest” because Dave Eggers inspired her to with his Introduction.
If you are Dave Eggers, my apologies. I stand by my substance, just not my abuse, and I still think the publisher needs to update the intro. If you are not Dave Eggers, then I suggest you help out, with money or volunteering, at one or all of the excellent 826 chapters that Eggers helped found — places that making the world better by tutoring and encouraging kids across the country.
September 23, 2011. Analysis Paralysis, pgs 270-283. First, thank you to The Howling Fantods for honoring this liveblog with a link on their site. THF is an incredible Wallace resource, and I encourage everyone, especially those unfamiliar or just getting started on David Foster Wallace, to spend some time with it.
As for these pages: I find it interesting that the one writer most often accused of excess verbosity, long-windedness, lexical maximalism and just overall overdoing it with the sentences is actually probably the world’s number one all time defender of the pithy phrase. Here we have the former professor Geoffrey Day waxing condescending to the group at Ennet House about AA’s ‘attitude of platitude.’ Per Day: “…life is so much easier now. I used sometimes to think. I used to think in long compound sentences with subordinate clauses and even the odd polysyllable. Now I find I needn’t. Now I live by the dictates of macrame samplers ordered from the back-page ad of an old Reader’s Digest or Saturday Evening Post. Easy does it. Remember to remember…” and so on. These are the phrases and dictates, as Gately describes them, “that look so shallow for a while and then all of a sudden drops off and deepens like the lobster-waters off the North Shore.” Consider the lobster-waters*. Gately looks forward to the Day who will finally surrender in understanding that “the clichéd directives are a lot more deep and hard to actually do.” I was reminded of a recent study about the varying speeds at which different languages appear to be spoken, in which researchers found “the more data-dense the average syllable was, the fewer of those syllables had to be spoken per second.” There is also something reminiscent of the repetition and eventual unfolding of constant prayer, which makes me think of Franny and Zooey. I don’t believe there’s a deliberate connection here, but there is some overlap for any fans of both books. I do see a deliberate connection to Wallace’s own experience with AA, and what seems like a dramatization of his own Before — the skeptical academic who “used to think in long compound sentences” etc. — and his After — the humbled and peacefully reposed Gately, 421 days sober, who looks on Day and folks like Randy Lenz as lessons in patience. It is one of the most important themes in the book.
Then, the Enfield kids are returning victorious from Port Washington. It seems unlikely that any writer has done a better job of capturing the fatigued exhilaration of a dimly lit tour bus of adolescents returning from a well-executed field trip, if any other writer has even tried such a thing, that is.
September 18, 2011. Waste Displacement pgs 240-270. These 30 pages have giant catapults tossing waste into the subannular (?) regions of the Great Concavity, Hal tossing clipped toenails with mystic accuracy into an across-the-room waste basket, and Pemulis tossing his cookies into a bucket at the Port Washington tournament.
Orin’s got “Helen” Steeply around, and I think we all know there’s much more to his wheelchair admirers than he or Hal recognizes. The conversation, which begins “Mr. Incandenza, this is the Enfield Raw Sewage Commission, and quite frankly we’ve had enough shit out of you,” also features discussions on interred bodies and freed souls before turning to the death of James O. Incandenza. With that in mind, Hal’s Orin-esque slip that “Launching the nail out toward the wastebasket now seems like an exercise in telemachry.” (emphasis mine) raises a handful of issues. Telemachus being Odysseus’s son is thematically important in a son waiting/searching for his father kind of way; Telmachus also being the model for Stephen Dedalus in “Ulysses” presents possible Hal I/Don G and Stephen Dedalus/Leopold Bloom parallels at work; and ‘telemachry’ (i.e. search for father) being the replacement for ‘telemetry’ has significance regarding the (to be seen) eerie behavior of objects around ETA and the presence of lost father — which counts as a Hamlet Sighting.
Hal was the one who found JOI after his suicide (on April 1 — infinite jester indeed), and was forced by the adults in his life into some intensive mental rehab from the experience. The talk about self-help books warrants a link to this glimpse into Wallace’s self-help library, which is light-shedding on the attitude the author has on this stuff and will come in handy later when it comes to AA cliches. It’s hard to tell if Hal’s need to perform and excel in his healing is more anxiety inducing than his actual traumatic experience, and we learn that he was the first-person narrator “dreaming of a face in the floor” way back when.
Then the ETA kids wail on some of the Port Washington preps. Schacht (another one of Wallace’s normal-ish but really-hard-to-figure-out-how-to-pronounce names) is relatively at peace with his lot in life.
September 14, 2011. Too Much Fun, pgs 219-240. Here comes Joelle van Dyne, a veiled Boston-ite who, with her knowledge of film making and Incandenzas and hard drugs, is the primary link between the two major plot lines in this book. She arrives on the stage just as she is planning to exit by way of Too Much Fun with some freebase. In addition to a filthily cluttered grad-student bathroom that is so well written it’s annoying at an adult-etiquette level, this section is full of important information. Here is what to look for:
— “The rain’s wet veil blurs things like Jim had designed his neonatal lens to blur things in imitation of a neonatal retina, everything recognizable and yet without outline.”
— “The ultimate annular fusion: that of exhibit and its cage.”
— The chronology of Subsidized Time on page 223 (of my edition) is critical. You’ll want to turn back to this page, so you may as well mark it somehow.
— The man in the wheelchair holding the removable cartridge.
— “She’s had her last fling with film cartridges. Jim had used her several times. Jim at the end had filmed her at prodigious and multi-lensed length, and refused to share what he’d made of it, and died w/o a note.”
— “…after Orin first left, and then Jim came and made her sit through that filmed apology-scene…”
— “Joelle van Dyne” is ” a.k.a. Madame P[sychosis]” from the MIT radio show.
— “Joelle even now lives hand-to-lung on a grossly generous trust willed her by a man she unveiled for but never slept with, the prodigious punter’s father, infinite jester, director of a final opus so magnum he’d claimed to have it locked away.”
— Joelle “doubts that any sum of scenes as pathologic as he’d stuck that long quartzy auto-wobbling lens on the camera and filmed her for could have been as entertaining as he’d said the thing he’d always wanted to make had broken his heart by ending up.”
— “…on either side of the mirror he’d cut for the scenes of that last ghastly thing he’d made her stand before, reciting in the openly empty tones she’d gone on to use on air…”
— “Was the allegedly fatally entertaining and scopophiliac thing Jim alleges he made out of her unveiled face here at the start of Y.T.S.D.B. a cage or really a door?”
— “…brain heaving in its bone-box, memorizing every detail like collecting empty shell…” (this just sounds like a description of what it’s like to be Wallace in a room on a tough day)
— “…a kind of wraith- or phantom-like—”
— “—way it can be film qua film. Comstock says if it even exists it has to be something more like an aesthetic pharmaceutical.”
— “‘This ultimate cartridge-as-ecstatic-death rumor’s been going around like a lazy toilet since Dishmaster… Have a look. See that it’s doubtless just high-concept erotica or an hour of rotating whorls. Or something like Makavajev, something that’s only entertaining after it’s over, on reflection.'”
— “She always sees, after inhaling, right at the apex, at the graph’s spike’s tip, Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St. Teresa,’ behind glass, at the Vittoria, for some reason…”
— “‘The Face of the Deep’ had been the title she’s suggested for Jim’s unseen last cartridge, which he’d said would be too pretentious and then used that skull-fragment out of the Hamlet graveyard scene instead, which talk about pretentious she’d laughed. His frightened look when she’d laughed…”
— There is an oblique indication that Joelle was molested by her father right at the end of 239. This is a potential, credible but unconfirmed threat.
— Hamlet Sighting: Joelle attempts suicide in a blue bathtub. She is Ophelia.
These chapters do an excellent job of capturing the excruciating experience of hanging out with graduate students who are up their own asses with academic syntax and latin phrases. But the whole nexus of addiction and entertainment and annular cycles of cages and doors and death here is, to be honest, kind of thinly veiled.
September 9, 2011. An Aside, N/A. An aside for Friday and a weekend when we should try to remember to be our best selves. David Foster Wallace’s now famous commencement speech at Kenyon University in 2005. Transcript is here, but I recommend listening to the man himself.
I wish you way more than luck.
August 26, 2011. Have a Cigar, pgs 193-219. We continue to cycle back and forth between Ennet House and Enfield Tennis Academy, starting with a quick layout of the Ennet House complex’s buildings and the afflictions they hold. Building #7, we learn, is “rented” by ETA up the hill, since it was apparently almost buried during the academy’s construction. Those wanting to know more can check out James O. Incandenza’s Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad short film (At Least) Three Cheers for Cause and Effect, in which “The headmaster of a newly constructed high-altitude sports academy becomes neurotically obsessed with litigation over the construction’s ancillary damage to a V.A. hospital far below, as a way of diverting himself from his wife’s poorly hidden affair with the academically renowned mathematical topologist who is acting as the project’s architect.” Old “Vector Field” strikes again.
Then to the ETA weightroom, where Kornspan is loudly maxing out on the bench press while Lyle dispenses knowledge. Possible Hamlet Sighting: Is Lyle Polonius? The last bit of this short section is LOL funny, but given that Lyle’s issuance was about the pursuit of success and the willingness to fail, I think it also gives some insight into the elusive nature of achievement. No matter how much weight you can throw up, and how vocally you do it, there’s always going to be someone like Mike Pemulis who knows better.
Contrast this with what’s going on at Ennet House, where there seems to be some actual contentment — not exactly happiness — but at least a sense of peace with past failures and a focus on getting to normal. Right at the end of a long section on the various tattoos of Ennet residents, Gately refers to his own prison-made tattoos as “Rung Bells,” expressing a “Second-category attitude, with most of the stoicism and acceptance of his tatt-regret sincere.” That sincere regret is an accomplishment in itself, not the kind of thing Pemulis could joke about. This importance of it is built up in the early parts of this section, where Wallace repeats the method of the Mario’s tennis prodigy film section with the repetion of “many exotic new facts” one picks up in halfway houses. Some are sad, some are funny, some are thematic: “That certain persons will simply not like you no matter what you do…That no matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that…That it is statistically easier for low-IQ people to kick an addiction than it is for high-IQ people.” A few more highlights: “That boring activities become, perversely, much less boring if you concentrate intently on them,” which sounds like the first seeds of “The Pale King.” “That most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking…That it is simply more pleasant to be happy than to be pissed off…That pretty much everybody masturbates. Rather a lot, it turns out…That there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.” The following inventory of tattoos also serves as an inventory of the dramatis personae: Doony Glynn with the black lines around his neck is the man of bricks and pulley from 139-140. Bruce Green has MILDRED BONK on his triceps, and first appeared on page 38. I think Emil Minty is “yrs truly” from 128 etc. There are a few I don’t remember, then Erdedy, who was the pot smoker from way back when we were just getting started on page 17.
Then some info and planning, regarding the drugs Pemulis has recently procured, that are worth paying attention to.
In “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” Wallace told David Lipsky that the book is broken into chunks by “sort of obvious closures or last lines that make it pretty clear that you’re supposed to go have a cigar or something, come back later.” I think this is one of those times.
August 26, 2011. Anticonfluential?, pgs 176-193. So this section of evasive and antagonistic little snippets of unattributed speaking seems like a pretty good look inside Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, which it is. But it also serves as a really good window into Wallace. A lot of these are examples of addicts and alcoholics being too smart for their own good, trying to find the weaknesses in the program (which we’ll hear more about later) and the regiments that are supposed to be protecting them from their disease. Note, in particular, the second big chunk of text in which someone is “simply asking you to define ‘alcoholic.’ How can you ask me to attribute to myself a given term if you refuse to define the term’s meaning?” and so on. Many of the early Ennet House sections are written almost in quiet awe of 12-step programs and how even really smart people can’t think themselves out of this jam and have to surrender to a series of banal clichés in order to just get through the day (which, one at a time, as they say). This section is pretty excellent on its own, but also benefits from the added knowledge that Wallace himself struggled with similar issues and that the subtext here is something like the confessions of an powerless genius who had to give himself over to people and a program he felt were beneath him. The whole thing is rather beautifully related in an anonymous, suspiciously-Wallace-esque piece called “An Ex-Resident’s Story” posted on the website of Granada House, a treatment facility in Allston, Mass.
Then another drunken-father monologue? Actually, just ‘Those Were the Legends That Formerly Were,” the absurd radio show “right before Madame Psychosis’s midnight show on M.I.T.’s semi-underground WYYY.” There is some stuff happening here. First of all, this is a deliberate feint back to the JOI Sr chapter. It also appears to be a story about Orin Incandenza kicking a football. It’s being broadcast from a building (shaped like a brain) designed by the same guy who designed ETA, A.Y. (‘Vector Field’) Rickey (per endnote 3). And across town the broadcast is being listened to, at very low volume, by Mario Incandenza during one of his and Hal’s visits to the Headmaster’s House (HmH) for the late dinners that Avril eats because, apparently, it’s a Canadian thing. Nevermind, for the moment, who Madame Psychosis is, though Mario’s thinking of the word “periodic” is not coincidental. It is also worth noting the connection to “Ulysses” and the early conversation when Molly Bloom asks Leopold how to pronounce “metempsychosis.” Not that I can explain it, but it’s worth noting.
Also take a look at endnote 61 about “anticonfluential cinema,” which is “characterized by a stubborn and possibly irrationally irritating refusal of different narrative lines to merge into any kind of meaningful confluence.” Read that. Then fan through the remaining 900 pages and wonder — in the comments, if you like — what you’ve gotten yourself into.
August 19, 2011. Justifying Your Seed, pgs 157-176. In these pages we are wading through what I suspect are among the most referential and coded sections of the entire novel. Please chime in with comments if you see more than I will.
The sins of the fathers pile up here, with James O. Incandenza, Sr. giving a drunken lecture to his son, the future Himself, and focusing much of his attention on his own father, Jr’s grandfather, whom Sr also refers to as ‘Himself.’ Describing the whole thing gets convoluted even by David Foster Wallace standards. This is the point at which Sr, a failed tennis prodigy, decided he would go out in the garage and make a high-caliber youth tennis player out of his son. His increasingly drunken monologue begins with a little bit of caustic film theory (“Marlon Brando was the archetypal new-type actor who ruined it looks like two whole generations’ relations with their own bodies and the everyday objects and bodies around them”) and a resentful mention of Jr’s “quick little scientific-prodigy mind she’s so proud of” (“she” being Jr’s mom and sounding here an awful lot like his future wife and her attitudes towards his son, another prodigy). The mention of black widow spiders is multi-valent, connecting to the ominous Avril Incandenza, counting as a Hamlet Sighting regarding dead husbands, and having something to do with Jr’s father that I haven’t figured out yet but is almost certainly what led to the later naming of Jr’s Lactrodectus Mactans Productions. Recall from endnote 24 that the first Lactrodectus Mactans Productions picture is Widower, in which a father takes his son around the house burning up poisonous spiders. Apparently JOI Sr was phobic about black widows. There are also mentions of palm fronds that echo the putrid menace of Orin Incandenza’s introductory chapter way back when, and this chapter precedes the Incandenza family’s move back to California, where Sr would land a job as “The Man from Glad,” harkening back to the opening chapter in the Year of Glad. JOI Sr gives JOI Jr a drink from his flask, foreshadowing the alcoholism in Jr’s future. Then there is the whole thing about talent and achievement, and the need to fulfill your promise. As Sr tells his eleven year-old son, “I’m just afraid of having a tombstone that says HERE LIES A PROMISING OLD MAN.” This affliction seems to have touched the Incandenza boys all the way down the line, minus Mario. Basically, this chapter is like the source waters for the whole Incandenza genealogy of trouble, which may explain why, when he adapted this experience into a film in the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, James O. Incandenza, Jr. gave it the mythological sounding name As of Yore.
Then a quick chapter about Pemulis buying drugs (on my birthday, just FYI), which I’m pretty sure is inserted here to throw readers off the obvious conclusion that the following section is the logical future extending from of JOI Sr’s lecture in the garage: a film made by his two grandsons that is more a less an instructional video on how to be a tennis prodigy. “Here is how to put on a big red tent of a shirt that has ETA across the chest in gray…Here is how to wrap your torn ankle…” all the way to “Have a father whose own father lost what was there. Have a father who lived up to his own promise and then found thing after thing to meet and surpass the expectations of his promise in, and didn’t seem just a whole hell of a lot happier or tighter wrapped than his own failed father…” Then a heavily weighted line, almost a pun if it wasn’t so damn serious: “Reaching at least the round you’re supposed to is known at tournaments as ‘justifying your seed.'”
August 10, 2011. I Saw a Vision of Your Facetime, pgs 144-156. I’m sorry I feel like I have to keep saying this, but don’t let this stop you from reading, this being the page-long headline that opens the section on video-telephoning.
Now that we’ve reached the age of actually being able to see each other over the phone — admittedly just getting off the ground via Apple’s Facetime and Skype and whatnot — this section feels a bit like a relic of those imagined near-futures we saw a lot of in the late 90s. Kind of like those sunglasses from Back to the Future II. That in itself is interesting — looking back from today to what people yesterday imagined today would be like makes me nostalgic, now, for the ‘then’ when people were doing a lot of hopeful imagining about what ‘now’ would look like. I suspect these visions of the future are a pretty good gauge of national mood, considering that these days we’re back on that Bladerunner/Mad Max cycle where any proposed near-future is pretty much focused on how messed up things will be, rather than all the cool new consumer gadgets and hoverboards we have to look forward to. At any rate, Wallace gives a pretty good absurdist shot at explaining why people would go bonkers for then quickly abandon, with some steps in between like masks and avatars, a visual interface during their phone calls. I’m sure there are entire graduate seminars taught about evolving technology and consumer behavior and visual culture and everyone reads Phillip K. Dick and Ray Kurzweil and Really Learns A Lot, but that isn’t what I think is the point here. Because while Wallace gets the technology wrong, he gets the people right.
Then, it’s hard not to love old Michael Pemulis, a smaller but far more successful entrepreneur than the video phone people, who is here selling clean urine in Visine bottles to students who require it to pass certain athletic conference purity standards. Pemulis is a hard-edged Max Fisher, and ETA is his Rushmore — as we learn via note 21/211 “Pemulis’s deepest dread is of academic or disciplinary expulsion and ejection…” Plus he gets a lot of the best lines in the book, here “Urine trouble? Urine luck!” and, regarding his hardscrabble upbringing in Allston, MA, “an old joke in Enfield-Brighton goes ‘Kiss me where it smells’ she said so I took her to Allston.”
August 6, 2011. Lyle and Friends, pgs 127-144. Lyle is another one of those Wardine type sections where readers like us might be forgiven for thinking it seems a little out there and unnecessary. He is a true envisioning of a “fitness guru,” and when Wallace writes that “Some of the newer kids think he’s a creep and want him out of there,” it’s hard not to wonder if he’s actually referring to his editors. But then there is this of Lyle: “I like how the guru on the towel dispenser doesn’t laugh at them, or even shake his head sagely on its big brown neck. He just smiles, hiding his tongue. He’s like a baby. Everything he sees hits him and sinks without bubbles.” (Emphasis mine). No clarity on who the “I” speaking of Lyle might be.
The first-person “yrstruly” section is also like the Wardine bit, but is much, much more successful. Welcome to life and language and intrigue on the streets of Metro Boston. The section also features some of the more gruesome stuff we’ve read so far. A bit of trivia: The “Bow&Arrow in the Squar” is also known as this place:
In both that movie and this book, people go there to fuck up some smaht kids.
Another weird phone call between Orin and Hal raises Orin’s first question about Canadian separatism, and is immediately followed by another institutional history, this time of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, where old Don Gately is living.
Via email and comedic events we meet one of Ennet House’s characters, and Wallace drastically overestimates the complications of email addresses (firstname.lastname@example.orgINTCOM being the sender here), though it’s fair to assume that, what with continental reconfiguration and finances being what they were to require the subsidization of actual years, technology might not have developed along the same user-friendly trajectory of our own life and times.
Hal’s term paper warrants the first Joycean giant headline of the book, as well as a Hamlet Sighting: “We await, I predict, the here of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines.”
The first article of “Helen Steeply” mentions “a transvestite purse snatcher…bizarrely outfitted in a strapless cocktail dress, spike heels, tattered feather boa, and auburn wig” who we have recently met, and who seems to be followed around by some seriously brutal writing. Poor Tony, indeed.
And then finally a grouping of your various separatist groups. It might be worth marking this page for future reference, though I’m not sure it’s necessary.
Before signing off, I want to raise the possibility of a Hamlet Sighting from the previous entry, in which the Marathe-Steeply conversations juxtaposed with quotidian and peaceful scenes from ETA are a little bit like the gathering forces of Fortinbras and the looming hostility he provides in Shakespeare’s play.
August 2, 2011. Cloak and Dagger/Towels and Banter, pgs 87-127. First things first, something I failed to mention previously from the diagnosis of Kate Gompert: “Classic unipolars were usually tormented by the conviction that no one else could hear or understand them when they tried to communicate.”
As for our current section, we see a secret cloak-and-dagger meeting between Remy Marathe and “Helen Steeply” (30 April YDAU, it seems) interwoven with scenes from the Enfield Tennis Academy, those being primarily end-of-day stuff in the exhausted haze of punishing academic and physical training, specifically on 3 November YDAU, the same day Jim Troelstch came down with his illness.
The Marathe-Steeply sections are a hybrid of the serious and the silly. Other than Gately and co.’s drug addiction sections, these guys and the stuff they’re involved in are pretty much the only things that perpetrate violence and kill people in the novel. And yet, one is from an elite force of wheelchair-bound Canadian assassins, while the other is dressed in an almost slapstick-level drag on behalf on the Office of Unspecified Services. We hear about dangerous herds of feral hamsters that roam the great concavity, as well as a little bit about the so-called Entertainment, which apparently killed or at least zeroed out 23 people in the incident with the medical attache. Whether this was the work of Canadian resistance or a jealous husband — the filmmaker who created The Entertainment — or some hybrid of both, no one seems to know. Or at least they are not saying.
There is also talk of an “anti-Entertainment,” a remedy or antidote that was alleged to have been made by the same filmmaker.
For about 30 pages, this display of the deadly and the absurd is interrupted by scenes from ETA, in which we really just see the everyday stuff and, what I suspect is the purpose here, watch these characters develop. Mike Pemulis is a likeable, nervous con-artist; John Wayne is formidable and entirely silent; Hal is kind and searching in his protagonistic way, and some of the others fill in the space being who they are. We learn that about two weeks or so prior to 3 November YDAU, Mario Incandenza had his first slight romantic experience. But more importantly, I think anyway, we learn that he found a camera tripod in the woods skirting the Academy.
Also, from page 97:
‘Halation,’ Rader says. ‘A halo shaped exposure-pattern around light sources seen on chemical film at low speed.’
‘That most angelic of distortions.’
Possibly the kind of thing one would see in James O. Incandenza’s film Kinds of Light.
July 28, 2011. Two Addicts, an Attache and a German who Kicks it Altschule, pgs 68-87. Meet Kate Gompert, another of our pathologically secret pot smokers though certainly the most troubled of the bunch we’ve met so far. Kate opens the window a little wider onto whatever Wallace is getting at with these folks. Her addiction is also speculated to have something to do with a combination of ingested chemicals, i.e. the reaction caused from smoking pot while also taking the rather extreme anti-depressant Parnate. Kate is now hospitalized after trying to kill herself yet again. When asked why she wants to hurt herself she replies, importantly, “It’s not wanting to hurt myself it’s wanting to not hurt.”
The medical attache’s wife returns home. Her husband has not moved from the chair. She turns to look at why.
Then perhaps my favorite chapter of these early pages, the profile of Gerhardt Schtitt, Head Coach and Athletic Director at the Enfield Tennis Academy, who apparently missed the casting call for “Gravity’s Rainbow” and got picked up by “Infinite Jest,” high boots, epaulets and prior “really unfortunate incident involving a riding crop” included. Schtitt sounds, at first, like someone it would be a serious challenge to like. The most we’ve seen of him so far is when he rides his motorcycle alongside the jogging ETA students and painfully motivates the slower ones by pinging them with a pea shooter. And yet, this is one of the more enjoyable and tender chapters in a book that can be relentlessly grim. That has mostly to do with Schtitt’s friendship with Hal’s brother Mario, who often rides along — joyfully — in the motorcycle’s sidecar and, here, takes a walk with Schtitt to get some ice cream. Both of them seem like such innocents. While Schtitt goes on about excelling and overcoming, “Mario thinks of a steel pole raised to double its designed height,” this just before he bumps into a dumpster and begins to fall, which Schtitt prevents by diving in to catch him.
Tiny Ewell is another addict, an alcoholic this time. In this short section, we catch him on his way to an as yet unintroduced halfway house, “Unit #6 in the Enfield Marine VA Hospital Complex just off Commonwealth Ave.”
The number of people now with the medical attache, who still hasn’t moved, is seven. They are all “sitting and standing there very still and attentive,” in the room which “smelled very bad indeed.”
July 25, 2011. History of JOI and ETA, pgs 63-68. A brief history of the Enfield Tennis Academy and its founder James O. Incandenza* followed by a vision of the future of American football, in which the team members are made to become mascots and act out characteristic and/or thrilling behaviors (let’s hope this is not a condition of the lockout-ending agreement). In this case, Orin Incandenza the Arizona Cardinal, with his fellow teammates, must hang glide in flight suits from the top of the stadium to the field, dressed as cardinals.
Then a quick scene of Mike Pemulis and his extraordinary knowledge of organopsychadelics, just FYI.
And then who is this first-person narrator kid at ETA?
Anyway, the thing to really pay attention to here is endnote 24, the James O. Incandenza filmography, which includes such hits as It was a Great Marvel That He Was in the Father Without Knowing Him, about a discussion between a professional conversationalist and his son, whom the conversationalist suspects of being mute or pretending to be mute. Curiously, Great Marvel was completed one month prior to this. The filmography also mentions a couple of attempts at a film called Infinite Jest, one of which was JOI’s final work and is regarded by writers in Cartridge Quarterly East as “‘extraordinary’ and ‘far and away [James O. Incandenza’s] most entertaining and compelling work.'” Read this section closely, and keep an eye out as we move along. In the meantime, some JOI from the awesome Tumblr Poor Yorick Entertainment:
*Hal/Halo, Orin/Orion, Incandenza/Incadescent?
July 24, 2011. Don Gately: An Introdcution, pgs 55-63. Don Gately is the steady beating heart of this book. His story is the affirmative and black-humored redemptive tale of a truly gentle giant, one who is addicted to oral-narcotics and a rather skilled burglar as we see in this first appearance. Gately owns the heart of this book for a few different reasons, one being that his chapters are quite simply the easiest to read, told in a straightforward, almost page-turning way that, more than any futzing around with strange dialects or organic chemistry, demonstrates Wallace’s true skill as a guy who writes stories. Another is that Gately’s story, though it tangles in with the many plotlines wheeling and caroming around it, is fundamentally about a human’s experience — not ideas about the information society and post-modern living, just about him and the other human beings around him who struggle with what they struggle with. And there is one final reason, that being that more than Hal’s reflections of Wallace’s own lexical genius and tennis skills, Don Gately’s addiction and rehabilitation appear to be a much larger window into the author’s life.
Oh and there is also the fact that I can’t help but picture Don Gately as Waylon from The Wire (starting about 1:10):
That’s how I picture old Don G, at any rate.
From there, we encounter Jim Troelstch at ETA at the onset of a head cold. Other than this being the third quick mention of ear, nose and throat issues, I’m not sure the significance of this aside from the date, 3 November YDAU.
Also, page 60 has what has to be one of the earliest uses of the designation “killer apps.”
July 21, 2011. Orin and Hal, pgs 42-55. Wherein we are acquainted with the misery of sleeping and waking up for Orin Incandenza, #71, star punter for the NFL Arizona Cardinals, and a man for whom “morning is the soul’s night. The day’s worst time, psychically.” This section has the effect of a really good horror-suspense flick in which the scariest things happen in the bright light of the day. Everything seems sinister and uncomfortable, from the blazing Arizona heat, to Orin’s weird dreams about his mom’s face being latched on to his, to the king size roaches, which consititute “Orin’s special conscious horror, besides heights and the early morning.” Orin, note, traps and suffocates these roaches in overturned drinking glasses, rather than smashing them and getting guts everywhere. He calls the women he sleeps with Subjects, one of whom watches a video of mentally ill patient who, note, has his worst fears manifested in science’s effort to understand his illness.
Orin shaves upward, “with south to north strokes, as he was taught.” Presumably by his father.
Then a chapter wherein we are acquainted with Hal’s habit of sneaking away and secretly smoking marijuana. “Hal likes to get high in secret, but a bigger secret is that he’s as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high,” which can be explained by “the fact that not least among the phobic stressors Avril [“The Moms” Incandenza] suffers so uncomplainingly with is a black phobic dread of hiding or secrecy in all possible forms with respect to her sons.” Hal is not the only secret or not-so-secret drug user at Enfield Tennis Academy. Not by a long shot.
Any reason to consider that strategically placing an ‘o’ into Hal and Orin gives you halo and orion?
Also, the medical attache is still watching the entertainment cartridge, “having now wet both his pants and the special recliner.”
July 20, 2011. Keep Reading, pgs 37-42. In the “How to Read Infinite Jest” page at infinitesummer.org, readers are urged not only to keep with it at least until page 200 before deciding to quit, but are also specifically warned about this section on page 37. By now the vignettes have been piling up, and the apparent lack of order, combined with what seems like a pretty bad “ebonics” can be kind of discouraging. Word on the streets is that Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch made him cut about 200 pages off of the already gargantuan draft of this book, so there must be a reason they kept this. Plus, Wallace is no slouch with the mimicry of language, which leads me to believe this may be more of an immigrant-African-American creole dialect rather than a straight interpretation of the 1990s “ebonics” everybody was freaking out about. Then again, maybe it’s just a misstep. Whatever the reasoning behind it, it’s just over a page long before we get to Bruce Green and Mildred Bonk, who shack up with some unsavory drug-dealing types we’ll hear more about later.
Then we are back in good old YDUA, early morning/middle-night in Hal and Mario’s room, with Mario wondering why their mom (“the Moms”) never cried or seemed to get sad when their dad (“Himself”) died, and why she actually seemed to grow more focused, more productive and, even, somewhat significantly happier. Hamlet sighting: the mysteries of Queen Gertrude.
Hal explains to Mario that there are two ways to put a flag at half mast: lower the flag or double the size of the pole.
July 18, 2011. The Entertainment, pgs 32-37. Chronologically reversed in The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment we get in one chapter the first of Hal’s cryptic phone interactions with his oldest brother Orin, the first of his rather tender interactions with his older brother Mario, a slight introduction to a training schedule that is exhausting even to just contemplate; and in the next chapter the introduction to a Canadian-born Near Eastern medical attache and an unmarked entertainment cartridge. Orin calls Hal, who in saying “Mmmmyellow” upon picking up is one of the sons who “once their voices have changed in puberty, invariably answer the telephone with the same locutions and intonations as their fathers.” A point that “holds true regardless of whether the fathers are still alive.” Fathers and sons. Seems we’ve been here before. Orin calls and exchanges a couple of Beatles lines with Hal, saying, “I want to tell you…My head is filled with things to say.” and it seems we’ve been here before too. Hal’s answer, “I don’t mind…I could wait forever,” is met with an ominous “That’s what you think.” before the connection is cut. My question is, did the Beatles exist in the world of “Infinite Jest,” and if so, can it reasonably be called a dystopia?
The medical attache, after a tough day at work, comes home and, without his wife to slave over him, microwaves a meal and decides to watch the only thing that doesn’t seem to actively disinterest him — the unmarked entertainment cartridge.
July 14, 2011. One Who Excels at Conversing, pgs 27-31. I’m guessing this is the first place where most people go “OK, exactly what the hell is going on here?” But if you listen closely, this professional conversation has some solid exposition. For example:
- Hal is some kind of memorization genius and, at the age of ten-almost-eleven, he can recite dictionary pages and has an academic interest in Byzantine erotica.
- There is a pan-Canadian Resistance, and Hal’s mom has some kind of connections. She also gets around, including with several Near Eastern Medical attaches.
- A death by “alpenstock through the abdomen.”
- Hal’s mom spikes Hal’s morning cereal with “esoteric mnemonic steroids, stereo-chemically not dissimilar to your father’s own ‘mega-vitamin’ supplement derived from a certain organic testosterone-regeneration compound distilled by the Jivaro shamen of the South-Central L.A. Basin.”
- J.O.I. to Hal: “…your quote-unquote ‘complimentary’ Dunlop widebody tennis racquets’ super-secret-formulaic composition materials of high-modulus-graphite-reinforced polycarbonate polybutylene resin are organochemically identical I say again identical to the gyroscopic balance sensor and mise-en-scene appropriation card and priapistic-entertainment cartridge implanted in your very own towering father’s anaplastic cerebrum…” Hamlet Sighting: Poison in the ear.
- Hal and his father have trouble communicating.
July 11, 2011. Pot Head, pgs 17-27. DFW’s alternate-reality future seems to have some very potent pot indeed. This is the first of more than a few people talking about their inordinate affinity, i.e. addiction, to the stuff, which is called Bob Hope in the parlance of the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.
Wallace clearly knows his chemicals and the various schedules of controlled substances, as will be seen in several fast approaching endnotes1. And given the fact that any high school junior with access to Google and a Phish t-shirt can make a pretty compelling case that cannabis is not addictive, DFW’s focus on pot is presumably deliberate. It seems intended to demonstrate a more inborn, human potential for abuse and addiction, regardless of the substance. The behaviors — obsessive fixations, heavy abuse, extreme secrecy, dropping out of their everyday lives — would seem pretty orthodox for anyone under the coercive sway of harder-cored chemicals like meth or pain killers, but not your standard issue bong hits. The focus here is, instead, on the people, the true Addictive Personalities (distinct from the annoyingly diagnosed person who claims to have an Addictive Personality because they can’t slow down on the French fries, or whatever). Erdedy, the guy in this section, is one of the people in this book who is at the mercy not so much of a substance, but of his own internal pull towards addiction itself.
And because this internal pull courses through IJ, and because it bears so many similarities to the experiences of more prominent characters in the book, I’m going to go ahead and label this a possible Hamlet Sighting. It’s his madness.
1. You need to read the endnotes, just FYI.
July 9, 2011. Wen, pg 4. Merriam Webster Online: wen, noun \wen\ : an abnormal growth or cyst protruding from the surface of the skin. Middle English wenn, from Old English; akin to Middle Low German wene. First known use: before 12th century. Current usage: Hal Incandenza “I am debating whether to risk scratching the right side of my jaw, where there is a wen.”
‘Wen’ is the first word, of many, that I have to look up in IJ and is, interestingly, not the first time DFW has sent me to the dictionary (i.e. Google) to look up the meaning of some kind of facial blemish (the character/author David Wallace in the “The Pale King” has some kind of severe skin problem that he refers to often in, as you might expect, more expansively Latinate and syllabic words than ‘pimple’ or ‘sore’ or even ‘wen’).
While we’re still here in the opening, a friend has indirectly compelled me to mention that this is not my first time through IJ. I tend to need a second reading of any book, especially a 1k page novel with threads of stories interwoven throughout. Part of the fun and challenge of this book is piecing together the mystery and figuring out exactly what happens. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, and will try to stick to the important stuff.
That said, there’s a lot of talk about marijuana and drug use ahead, and I think it’s worth pointing out that Hal Incandenza in the opening chapter is high like Franny Glass was pregnant.
July 8, 2011. Hamlet Sightings, pgs 3-17. As you may have gathered, IJ has something to do with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (Act V: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…). I also suspect there is word play at work — in a book largely about addiction, entertainment, and all the other things people take in to just plain deal — of ‘in— jest’ as ‘ingest.’ Shakespeare does it, with Hamlet responding to a question from Claudius about the play in Act III: “No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest…” And as the good folks over at infinitesummer.org (a great and accessible resource on the book) have pointed out, “Hamlet” begins with the question “Who’s there?” and IJ opens with “I am…”
I’ll be doing my best to call out whatever Hamlet Sightings I notice. It’s safe to assume our updated Hamlet is Hal (also, not safe to assume he is a stand in for David Foster Wallace), who opens the book with a mysterious freak out at a rigged college application interview. Can’t say much more without giving away way too much, but pay attention to this chapter. It’s, well, riddled with with important clues about what happens in the rest of the book, and even the smallest things are deliberate.
A couple of videos to help ease you in:
At about the :30 mark, an approximation of Hal’s attempts to speak (please disregard the LOL WTF nonsense).
And, if you don’t have time to read “Hamlet” a quick primer, and tribute to another great update of Shakespeare’s classic.
Who said I’m fair?
July 6, 2011. Foreword by Dave Eggers (c.2006), pgs. xi — xvi. If your edition of IJ features a foreword by Dave Eggers, I suggest you skip it, for these and other reasons: 1) Eggers gives an oversimple and warmed-over presentation of the debate between imaginary camps of readers who like difficult fiction and those who don’t. 2) He uses the phrase “barrel of monkeys” — twice. 3) He compares IJ to 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields, because both are long.
I hate saying bad things about Eggers, because I really do think I would like the guy personally. But in everything I’ve ever read from him, he seems almost constitutionally unable to communicate with anyone who doesn’t share or exceed his enthusiasm. He never accepts the burden of proving why we should care about something, and it’s dangerous in this situation. Rehashing the old objections to and difficulties of IJ without presenting a compelling alternative besides “…but, seriously folks,wow!” isn’t going to ease the minds of skeptical people picking up this book, which is the stated purpose of the foreword. Beyond its inability to bring in converts, there’s a strong possibility it will turn people away. Eggers makes this book look like exactly the book people are worried it will be: a deliberately difficult work written for the ironic t-shirt set. Writing things like “It’s to be expected that the average age of the new ‘Infinite Jest’ reader would be about twenty-five,” or that after completing the novel “you are a better person,” is only going to make people who aren’t twenty-five or who don’t go for the reading-as-exercise kind of thing believe this book isn’t right for them. There’s a subtle but important difference between saying, “Conquer your fear of this monster,” when in fact you should be saying, “Don’t be afraid; this isn’t a monster at all.”
Also (and this is not Eggers’ fault) Little, Brown should commission a more up-to-date foreword. One of the things I did like was the description of DFW as a regular guy, a dog owner, a product of the Midwest. This was written in 2006. Following the author’s death, much, much, much more needs to be said.
Some alternative reading w/r/t what Eggers was getting at: On the dispute between difficult and not-difficult fiction, try the “Mr. Difficult” essay from Jonathan Franzen’s book “How to Be Alone.” On the impact of IJ’s debut and Wallace’s “real guy-ness” try the various intros David Lipsky wrote in “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.” For the missing eulogy, “Always another word,” by George Saunders, Don Delillo, Michael Pietsch and Zadie Smith, Harper’s Magazine, March 2009. Wallace’s own Kenyon University speech wouldn’t be a bad place to go either.