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The End

September 21, 2009 15 comments

I’ve agonized a bit over what to write here at the end of the book. There’s a lot to say and nothing to say. I’ll start with a confession. I think I’ve probably never really understood the end of the book, and not just in the usual “what happened to everybody?” way. I think that I’ve probably tended to race down the hill of those last 200 pages and just lost the end amid the swirling thoughts of how ambitious and crazy and good the whole book is, and I’ve never given the actual end — the stuff about Gately specifically — very much thought. I remember that during my first read, the stuff about Gately’s stint as an enforcer and the attendant misadventures seemed almost irrelevant. Why was this whole new history being described for me here at the end of a book when there were so many other things I was eager to read more about? (Infinite Jest was the first thing I ever read that didn’t adhere more or less to standard literary conventions.) I guess I’ve just tended to write if off as a weird ending that was more than made up for by the rest of the book.

We know that the ending has made a huge impression on some. Take Greg Carlisle’s explanation from last week:

I find the depth of the last sentence to be unparalleled in literature. Only the endings of Ulysses and Beloved come close to affecting me so profoundly. Thankfully in that sentence, Wallace leads Gately and us out of the hell of that last sequence into a transcendent moment of peace, cold and fleeting but also unbearably beautiful, striking a chord of sadness that still rings deep inside me.

Greg writes a bit more on the ending in a special section on Wallace in a recent double-issue of Sonora Review:

As the last section of Infinite Jest begins on p. 972, Gately is experiencing dangerous medical complications. Wallace leaves the crisis event undefined and has Gately retreat into a state of hallucination-dream-memory that builds to a horrific crisis event in early Y.W.: Gately’s loss of consciousness as a motley crew of a dozen nightmare characters prepares to kill Gene Fackelmann, who has been on an all-night narcotics binge with Gately. Thankfully, Wallace ends his novel with one of the saddest, most beautiful sentences in all of literature, letting us have a touch of solace in seeing Gately just on the other side of the crisis event.

I can sure agree that the sentence evokes a peaceful image. What’s not altogether clear to me is which crisis event this image is the other side of. What exactly is Gately coming to from? At first, you assume he’s waking up from the post-Fackelmann debauchery. But why would he be on the beach? Would C and the rest of the crew really have moved him? He surely wasn’t moving under his own power when last we saw him. And he was soaked in his own urine and so wasn’t really going to be much of a companion out on the town, so it doesn’t seem likely that he went out and about with C and crew after recovering a bit.

Did you notice this on page 974?:

Somebody overhead asked somebody else if they were ready, and somebody commented on the size of Gately’s head and gripped Gately’s head, and then he felt an upward movement deep inside that was so personal and horrible he woke up. Only one of his eyes would open because the floor’s impact had shut the other one up plump and tight as a sausage. His whole front side of him was cold from lying on the wet floor. Fackelmann around somewhere behind him was mumbling something that consisted totally of g‘s.

Right there in the middle of the paragraph, the scene shifts seamlessly from the hospital to the apartment in which Fackelman and Gately are having Too Much Fun. So what I find myself wondering is whether the book’s last sentence isn’t also a shift. Is Gately perhaps waking up back at the hospital? Well the hospital’s no beach, and it has a ceiling rather than a raining sky, so maybe not. But then, Gately has had sky hallucinations before, when high:

Then after five or so seconds the Dilaudid would cross over and kick, and the sky stopped breathing and turned blue. (915)

And:

moving like men deep under water, heads wobbling on strengthless necks, the empty room’s ceiling sky-blue and bulging (934-5)

Somewhere in the last few dozen pages, Gately more or less surrenders to the fact that if he’s offered Demerol again, he’ll take it. Then on page 974, Gately feels that horrible upward movement as his infection has reached a crisis point and he’s being worked on. So I find myself considering the possibility that during those medical ministrations, Gately was offered and accepted Demerol complete with the little self-dosing button he fantasized about while trying to rationalize surrendering and the further possibility that the final sentence represents not his emergence from the Fackelmann high after which he ultimately began to set his life straight but rather his stepping into a high that signals at least a step backward and at worst a total relapse.

If we grant that Hal and Gately do actually meet and try to dig up Himself’s head (maybe not actually possible — consider Joelle’s revelation of the fact that JOI’s burial place is itself buried in a toxic wasteland), then I guess we can say that at least Gately doesn’t have a total relapse into the life of a thug.

Still, I wonder whether the last sentence is a touch of solace, as Greg suggests, or whether it is a further plunge into a deeper sadness, which is, after all, what Wallace said he wanted to write about in Infinite Jest. What do you think?

The Student Becomes the Teacher

September 3, 2009 13 comments

Although Mario is a great listener, he’s a pretty crummy conversationalist, generally. Way back on page 80, we learn that he’s great to talk to or at (not the last time you’ll see this sort of thing, by the way):

That’s why bullshit often tends to drop away around damaged listeners, deep beliefs revealed, diary-type private reveries indulged out loud; and, listening, the beaming and bradykinetic boy gets to forge an interpersonal connection he knows only he can truly feel, here.

In conversations in which Mario is a two-way participant rather than merely a sounding board, he’s usually rather less successful. Consider that infurating conversation with Lamont Chu at around page 758:

‘Jesus, Mario, it’s like trying to talk to a rock with you sometimes.’
‘This is going very well!’

Again and again, Lamont tries to steer Mario toward answering a very direct, clear question, and again and again, Mario manages to deflect. But he’s not doing it intentionally. Mario doesn’t lie, and he’s this sincere, honest, happy guy. Just as it doesn’t occur to him that people might lie to him (772), I don’t think it occurs to Mario to be evasive in the way that his half of this conversation would seem evasive if performed by someone else.

Or take that painful, clueless interaction with the S.S. Millicent Kent.

In most conversations we’ve seen with Hal, Hal is so busy talking down to Booboo (and Mario’s sensitive to this — see on page 592: “when Mario brought up real stuff Hal called him Booboo and acted like he’d wet himself and Hal was going to be very patient about helping him change”) that Mario doesn’t really even get much of a chance to speak with anything that looks like intelligence or nuance.

In the 760s, we witness a pretty lucid conversation between Mario and Avril, but it’s still just not terribly satisfying. He speaks malapropisms, and there are those awkward water-treading exchanges punctuated by phrases like “It’s terrific” and the like, things that show that it’s just not really a wholly two-way, meaningful conversation in places. Even in the spots in which the conversation has some depth, Mario and Avril talk past one another a bit. She finds herself trying to guess obsessively whose sadness Mario is worried about (Hal’s? His own? Tavis’s?), while he’s attempting to really two-way interface with a person for once. Still, it’s kind of a lovely (if in spots also sort of horrifying) conversation.

But where Mario really shines is in a conversation with Hal in the 780s. Hal has quit smoking pot and is having a rough time of it. And you know what he does? He surrenders himself. This exchange at the end of the section (785) is worth quoting at a little bit of length:

‘Tell me what you think I should do.’
‘Me tell you?’
‘I’m just two big aprick ears right here, Boo. Listening. Because I do not know what to do.’
‘Hal, if I tell you the truth, will you get mad and tell me be a fucking?’
‘I trust you. You’re smart, Boo.’
‘Then Hal?’
‘Tell me what I should do.’
‘I think you just did it. What you should do. I think you just did.’
‘…’
‘Do you see what I mean?’

That right there is 100% Grade-A surrender. Hal has admitted to Mario that he has a problem and has surrendered his will (not to Yahweh or even a higher power, I suppose, though it does say somewhere in IJ, I believe, that Hal secretly idolizes Mario). It’s no secret by now that Wallace sort of stands behind the methodology of AA and its 12 steps, even if he doesn’t really understand how they work. And so to have Hal finally break down and Mario effectively affirm that being honest about having a problem and asking for help is just the right thing Hal needed to do — it’s really a big mental/emotional kind of win for Mario, here. He’s not just a simple, damaged grinning kid, and this is kind of a shining moment for him, I think. Gave me chills to read it.

That’s kind of a natural conclusion for this post, I guess, but I wanted to slap on this little coda that I think suggests a neat way in which we see growth in Hal and a sort of actualization of Mario. This conversation ends on the line “Do you see what I mean?” Way way back on page 42, Hal is sort of talking down to Mario about death and mourning, and he gives that neat example of how there are two ways of getting a flag to half-mast. Of course there’s the traditional way, but you can also double the height of the flag pole. And right there in the closing lines of that conversation, Hal says “You understand what I mean, Mario?” I can’t help thinking that the similarity of phrasing and the accompanying shift of helper/helped role is very much by design and really kind of cool.

The Appearance of Control

Joelle says on page 534:

Well Mr. Gately what people don’t get about being hideously or improbably deformed is that the urge to hide is offset by a gigantic sense of shame about your urge to hide… [Y]ou know that hiding yourself away out of fear of gazes is really giving in to a shame that is not required and that will keep you from the kind of life you deserve as much as the next girl… You’re supposed to be strong enough to exert some control over how much you want to hide, and you’re so desperate to feel some kind of control that you settle for the appearance of control.

The passage in which these severely elided quotes appear makes me think of a story within the story of The Broom of the System. Throughout the book, editor Rick Vigorous tells protagonist and girlfriend Lenore Beadsman stories that have come across his desk for potential publication. The first of these that we’re privy to is one Vigorous (of the firm Frequent and Vigorous) gives some context by talking about second-order vanity. This is the sort of vanity a lot of us know kind of a lot about, in which you do care at least to some degree what you look like, but it’s important to you not to seem as if you care. So maybe while you’re at the gym, you take great pains to avoid looking at the wall of mirrors at your kind of hot masculine and freshly pumped muscles lest somebody catch you at it and think you care, but when you’re at home, working, say, on a blog post about some book or another that you’re reading, and you happen after a quick trip to the bathroom to catch a flash of yourself in the mirror stuck to the wall behind your home office door, maybe you stop for a second and lift up the old shirt-tail and lean back a little or maybe give just a little twist so that the newly minted concavity of the slightest little bit of abdominal definition shows up and you feel like maybe it’s just a little worth the daily 45-minute elliptical horror show and the repetitive strained exercises and the rather more strict than usual diet after all. For example.

So but the story Vigorous has had to read and shares, early in TBOTS, with Lenore is about one of these second-order vain folk, a guy with a particularly bad case of second-order vanity who one day discovers a gray patch of skin on his leg. It begins to spread, and he goes to his doctor after a while, and the doctor tells him that the stuff will keep spreading and make him carbuncular and gray and twisted and gross all over unless he pays for a procedure abroad that would wipe out the life savings he shares jointly with his girlfriend, whom he hasn’t told about the gray patch because he’s so vain and yet also doesn’t want to let her know that he’s vain enough about it that he has gone secretly to have it looked at. He’s sufficiently paralyzed by his second-order vanity that he winds up alienating his girlfriend, making up weird excuses to cover, for example, his whole scaly leg, etc. He withdraws completely and, when he finally decides to come clean and put his vanity about his vanity aside for the sake of not losing his one true love, she doesn’t answer his call and we’re left with nothing but ominous suspicions about the outcome. Joelle and others in the U.H.I.D, confronted with deformity, are simply embracing the fact that they care, giving in to the fact that they do want to hide, being in a way more honest about their deformities, though it comes off as if they’re being less honest in their hiding.

The passage I quote also makes me think of Hal, with his compulsion to hide his pot smoking. I think Joelle has it right. In an environment in which nearly every waking moment is scheduled, Hal runs down to the pump room or hides himself in the bathroom blowing thin smoke up at the vent not because he’s especially worried about being caught (being caught by a fellow indulger would hardly, on its own, be much of a worry). It’s to provide for himself a feeling of control, or at least the appearance of it. Of course, what he perhaps doesn’t realize is that this control is ultimately inverted, as the desire to exert control over something turns into his being controlled (to some degree) by it, to the extent that he’ll skip a meal with a pal to run down into the pump room to get high. The appearance of control becomes the appearance of control.

Sadness

Wallace once said that in writing Infinite Jest, he wanted to write something sad. There are lots of individual fragments of sadness throughout the book that I need not catalogue. As I got to the end of this week’s milestone, I was more or less knocked over by what turns out to be probably the central overarching sadness of the book. And I found it in, of all places, a Steeply/Marathe section. These sections have always felt during previous readings almost like filler, stuff to sort of loosely bind together a couple of the larger plots. I’ve found them a bit more compelling this time around, though still strange and disjunctive, removed somehow (geographically, of course, but also in mood) from the rest of the book.

In the section that struck me, Marathe is trying to coax Steeply through a dialog (in almost the Socratic sense) about desire and delayed gratification. Steeply says the usual platitudes about freedom and being responsible adults and how the social contract is what keeps us from bonking one another on the head, because in order to maximize our own pleasure, we have to make sure we’re not curtailing the pleasure of others. He has also says that, in the case of kids and candy, for example, “[i]t can’t be a Fascist matter of screaming at the kid or giving him electric shocks each time he overindulges in candy. You can’t induce a moral sensibility the same way you’d train a rat. The kid has got to learn by his own experience how to learn to balance the short-and long-term pursuit of what he wants” (429).

Just a page later, we go to Marathe:

‘You believe we are underestimating to see all you as selfish, decadent. But the question has been raised: are we cells of Canada alone in this view? Aren’t you afraid, you of your government and gendarmes? If not, your B.S.S., why work so hard to prevent dissemination? Why make a simple Entertainment, no matter how seducing its pleasures, a samizdat and forbidden in the first place, if you do not fear so many U.S.A.s cannot make the enlightened choices?’

This now was the closest large Steeply had come, to stand over Marathe to look down, looming. The rising astral body Venus lit his left side of the face to the color of pallid cheese. ‘Get real. The Entertainment isn’t candy or beer. Look at Boston just now. You can’t compare this kind of insidious enslaving process to your little cases of sugar and soup.’

Marathe smiled bleakly into the chiaroscuro flesh of this round and hairless U.S.A face. ‘Perhaps the facts are true, after the first watching: that then there seems to be no choice. But to decide to be this pleasurably entertained in the first place. This is still a choice, no? Sacred to the viewing self, and free? No? Yes?’

In the case of the attache in the context of whose viewing we’re first introduced to the Entertainment, of course he had no specific choice in the matter of being made catatonic by the film; he didn’t know what specifically he was in for. One could reasonably enough argue that he was so enslaved by the habit of passive entertainment that he may as well have made the choice to view the cartridge that would leave him slobbering and incontinent. Let’s put that aside for a moment, though, and grant that most people confronted with the choice to watch or not watch a movie that will assuredly prove fatal would choose not to. If we grant as much, then Steeply’s more or less right, and Marathe’s point doesn’t really hold.

But take Steeply’s own words: “Look at Boston just now.” Look at it. Hookers turning tricks with their dead babies still placentally attached. Fathers diddling their catatonic retarded rubber-masked daughters and driving their complicit adoptive daughters to become strippers. Withdrawal-racked transgendered prostitutes stealing hearts and later going into withdrawal-induced seizures on buses. Talented, smart, All-American-type girls going into friends’ bathrooms for what they plan to make their last dance with Too Much Fun. And so on and so forth, all to feed the Spider. Boston just now is full of people who know, in at least vague, Just-Say-No, ways that there can be severe consequences for engaging in certain behaviors known to be addictive. And yet they do them, many well beyond that healthy way in which, say, a Schacht occasionally indulges, and they do them, and they do them until they hit bottom, until they have to bonk others on the head for their fix: they’re kids eating candy all day until they throw up even though, in many cases, they knew better.

As Steeply says, “[y]ou can’t induce a moral sensibility the same way you’d train a rat.” And yet clearly the moral sensibility (or whatever sensibility it is — one of self-preservation, maybe?) isn’t self-generating, or at any rate is pretty easily put aside, for all of the people suffering the horrors of their addictions. How, then, do you fix the problem? You can’t force a fix, but people resist fixes from within. It’s another double-bind, its own sort of dark infinite jest. This is a bleak, bleak view.

Deliver Us From Irony

Well there’s lots about irony (directly and indirectly) in the latest milestone:

He doesn’t know there’s an abstract distance in the look that makes it seem like he’s studying a real bitch of a 7-iron on the tenth rough or something; the look doesn’t communicate what he thinks his audience wants it to. (365)

Speakers who are accustomed to figuring out what an audience wants to hear and then supplying it find out quickly that this particular audience does not want to be supplied with what someone else thinks it wants. (368)

The prior two quotes I guess I’d call indirectly pertinent to irony, insofar as they deal with friction between what seems and what is and the willful deployment of a seem for an is. These quotes aren’t really classic irony, but the mechanics seem sort of the same to me, and the quotes are certainly related to one another.

Dealing a bit more directly with irony:

The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. (369)

And a little later, Wallace describes the Canadian students at ETA huddled together at the Interdependence Day dinner:

This American penchant for absolution via irony is foreign to them. (385)

Compare to Gately’s chatter about listening vs. hearing, really engaging and hearing not only what the person you’re listening to is saying but listening to (or hearing) what they mean, how their experience bears on and enriches your own. This is real engagement vs. showiness or something rather like self-puppetry.

It’s no coincidence that when we get to Lyle, we learn this:

But it’s the way he listens, somehow, that keeps the saunas full. (387)

I’m not going to write a lot of stuff synthesizing it all, but I will leave you with a few (lengthy; sorry, it’s just too good not to quote at length) goodies from Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction (which by the way, you’ve heard that phrase before in IJ, haven’t you?).

I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time, they are agents of a great despair and stasis in our U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fiction writers they pose especially terrible problems (49 — from the collection  A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

As Hyde (whom I pretty obviously like) puts it, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome. (67)

And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionallized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to inderdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself. (67)

Of possible interest, particularly with this last bit in mind, is a quote from page 38 of the same book in which Wallace gives what he calls a “commonsensical” definition of malignant addiction:

[TV] may become malignantly addictive only once a certain threshold of quantity is habitually passed, but then the same is true of Wild Turkey. And by “malignant” and “addictive” I again to not mean evil or hypnotizing. An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to is lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign. But something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problesm for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as a relief from the very problem it causes.

Boundaries

In a post from nearly a month ago entitled “Fragmented into Beauty,” I pulled the following quote from a dream Hal describes on page 68:

We sort of play. But it’s all hypothetical, somehow. Even the ‘we’ is theory: I never get quite to see the distant opponent, for all the apparatus of the game.

So imagine my surprise (I wish I could say I was prescient or that I had picked this out on a prior reading) when I stumbled across this on page 338 in what turns out to be sort of a riveting and hilarious riff on boundaries (which was the context for that earlier quote):

Players themselves can’t be valid targets. Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory. They’re part of the map, not the cluster-fucking territory. You can only launch against the territory. Not against the map. It’s like the one ground-rule boundary that keeps Eschaton from degenerating into chaos.

Within the Eschaton section — about which I’ll be frank: I heaved a sigh when I started in on the first few pages of it, having forgotten what a payoff there was if you only got through the first few sloggy pages — you’ve got this treatment of territory vs. map within the game, which is played by kids framed within a set of tennis courts, framed within a tennis academy, framed within a made-up town in a reconfigured continent. There’s a lot of framing and boundary stuff going on here. Wallace takes it a little farther, even, by interrupting the Eschaton with brief, apparently insignificant, yank-you-out-of-context descriptions of the idling mint-green sedan and then again with note 130 sort of editorializing on Pemulis’s diction.

I don’t know exactly what Wallace is doing here, but I think he’s playing with authorial or narrative boundaries in some way, for one thing. There are several mentions of absorption (even, on 340, of being “paralyzed with absorption,” which, hey, anybody heard of a little film that paralyzes people with absorption?) and engrossment. Maybe Wallace is perforating the Eschaton story frame with these interjections in order to sort of yank us out of what became, for me, at least, absorption in the notion of territory vs. map.

In his story Mister Squishy, Wallace deals with framing as well, as applies to market research. Sort of the holy grail of market research within the story is a scenario in which the market itself (rather than easily-contaminated focus groups, etc.) provides the data for testing the market. And of course this is actually now possible (and Wallace was flirting with the idea) via web site tracking, A/B testing, etc.. An excerpt (emphases mine):

For now, in Belt and Britton’s forward-looking vision, the market becomes its own test. Terrain = Map. Everything encoded. And no more facilitators to muddy the waters by impacting the tests in all the infinite ephemeral unnoticeable infinite ways human beings always kept impacting each other and muddying the waters.

Both Mister Squishy and Infinite Jest treat of the notions of maximizing pleasure and of giving yourself away to something larger and meaningful outside your own solo frame of reference. I think Wallace was very much concerned with escaping the destructive frames of reference (the cages of addiction and solipsism, for example), and this meditation (though it’s too zany to be a meditation, I suppose) on territory vs. map in Infinite Jest, well, maybe it’s calling attention to how easily our frames of reference (self vs. other; healthy indulgence a la Schacht vs. absorption) can be blurred and how bad things can result from that blurring. I’m still trying to piece all of it together, and I haven’t even given much thought yet to the actual map/territory/concavity/convexity parts of the story yet.

I won’t write today about the AA stuff, though I think it’s brilliant and horrible and beautiful and probably exactly right. There’s also something weird about the page numbers for this spoiler-line, which seems to end right in the very middle of the AA section.

Nails on Chalkboard Spamomatic Reply

Once again, a post over at A Supposedly Fun Blog made me want to comment, but my post, submitted in two or three different non-spammy ways, was marked as spam. So here’s my reply, whose trackback to that post will hopefully cause it to be seen and possibly responded to over there (though I’ll have no way to reply back short of posting another thing here, which I really don’t want to do over and over).

The post’s author talks about skipping over what is admittedly a rough patch to get through as we wander about the streets with C and Poor Tony, et al, as they try to get a fix. My reply:

The sections in this voice (as with the Wardine section earlier in the book) have always puzzled me a little bit. There are certain characters from these sections (especially Poor Tony and Roy Tony) whom you’ll see again in sometimes sad and sometimes funny (and sometimes both simultaneously) ways. How important this sketch is in its particulars I don’t recall, other than that it gives some background on Poor Tony. (That said, I don’t think either of the Tonies is a particularly major character, but my memory of the last half of the book is pretty vague.) I think what Wallace may be doing with this section is in a way trying to be democratic or exhaustive about the addiction thing. He’s trying to present addiction and its effects in many settings. I think he’s also pretty careful about not sitting in an ivory tower about it all. Not only criminals and street folk are drug addicts, he pretty clearly points out. I think that’s a big part of why he wrote the big Erdedy section and put it near the front of the book. Yet a depiction of addiction and the horrors it can lead to would be incomplete without this sort of view from the street. Whether or not it was necessary to write it in a voice from the street is debatable. It’s a difficult section to get through, for sure. I probably had a similar reaction upon my first read of IJ. This time around, it didn’t bother me so much, but I won’t pretend I thought it was the best writing in the book.

Divided Attention and Being in the Body

I took this note on page 146 (the part about video phones):

DFW is concerned here and elsewhere (Mister Squishy) with divided attention — yet look what the full attention of The Entertainment yields.

What I was reacting to was this:

A traditional aural-only conversation… let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles… all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet — and this was the retrospectively marvelous part — even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided…. The bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infantilely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody’s complete attention without having to return it.

He goes on to write about childish self-absorption and the “infantile fantasy of commanding your partner’s attention.” Tangential as this little section seems (almost like a little bit of filler that helps provide some context for the just-barely-future world of the novel), it actually seems to tie in with the infantilizing effect of The Entertainment.

How about JOI’s father’s monologue? What an amazing, sad, funny, unlikely thing. Nobody really talks the way this speaker does, and yet it’s hard not to visualize it happening and to believe it. I always think of John Turturro playing this role.

My first post about the book proper was about being trapped. In this section, we see things like this:

  • “Living in your body” (158)
  • “Head is body” (159)
  • “a machine in the ghost” (160)
  • “That’s my kid, in his body.” (164)
  • “I was in my body. My body and I were one.” (165)
  • “The court becomes a … an extremely unique place to be. It will do everything for you. It will let nothing escape your body.” (166)
  • “It was a foreign body, or a substance, not my body” (167)
  • “We’re just bodies to you.” (167 – 168)
  • “That I was in there” (168)

Flash back to early in the book, where Hal says “I am in here.” I don’t have a thesis about what all this means. I do have yet another quote, though, this time from the Kenyon commencement address Wallace gave a few years ago:

Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education — least in my own case — is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.

Almost immediately after saving a draft of this post, I went and read the latest post over at Infinite Summer and discovered that Eden had excerpted from the same part of Wallace’s speech. I swear I’m not just a copy cat. Whether I have a fleshed-out thesis or not, it’s hard for me not to see some thematic similarities between this part of Wallace’s speech and the two sections of the past week’s milestone that I wanted to comment on: divided attention, being (trapped?) in your body/head, a sort of narcissism/solipsism and its infantilizing outcome, the perils of giving yourself too fully to something (The Entertainment, pot, whatever) versus dividing your attention to some degree, and how all that relates to how to think and how to be.

Trapped

Let’s begin.

When I first read Infinite Jest, I didn’t care too much about the Erdedy section. I suppose I found it tiresome and repetitive and too re-hashy of the whole addiction denial/relapse cycle. But every time I reread it, I see a little more truth in it. Even for as light-weight a something-shy-of-an-addict to various mostly-harmless things (as innocuous as, say, rigid routine and no more harmful than alcohol) as I am, there’s a certain truth even for me to the compulsive repetitiveness and desperation of it. Erdedy’s life is an intensification of the whole hugging-the-porcelain-god-and-promising-never-to-drink-again (and doing it every weekend) thing that so many go through during especially their younger days. It rings really true for me during recent reads, and it has morphed from a minor, kind of irritating episode to a key and true description of an authentic sort of human behavior that’s probably more pervasive than any one person, on his own island of addiction to and shame of substance/behavior/thing X, is inclined generally to suspect.

For the wallace-l mailing list, I provided an introduction of pages 17 – 39 of the book at the beginning of a group read that wrapped up in the last few weeks (which I didn’t finish, getting only to page 80-something). Because there tend not to be any spoiler rules for that list (most of the vocal members having read the book and most of Wallace’s work many times), my intro contained plenty of information that could be construed as spoilage and thus can’t really be used here. One pretty safe passage from my intro follows.

There’s a lot of bug talk in the Erdedy section, as in fact there is throughout the book (Orin’s phobia in the next section [and other things redacted]). I’ve always thought there was something sort of Kafka-Metamorphic in the first section, what with Hal thrown to the floor unable to communicate with the heads around him, his arms waggling as he makes sub-mammalian sounds. CT stabs his phone antenna like an insect, I think, in the first section. And here Erdedy contemplates a bug in his home and sees in the bug something of himself. He’s trapped in the geometry of his home (lots of angles cast by shadows, at least one triangle and one parallelogram mentioned specifically) and in the defensive shell of his rationalizations and promises as the bug (and it’s hard really to think of a chitinous bug as anything but its shell) is trapped in its shell in the girder. Erdedy makes basically a bunker of his home to “vacate” to/in, and this is just the beginning of a whole bunch of being trapped in the book [with certain details redacted here]. And then of course there is Hal’s entrapment within himself.

In one of a series of Bookworm interviews hosted by Michael Silverblatt, that interviewer brings up the notion of the double-bind in Infinite Jest. Wallace I think first explores these in the antinomies that appear in Broom of the System. Erdedy provides a prime example (a wallace-l member pointed this out during my portion of the group read). For instance, Erdedy desperately wants to use the phone to call his source but is afraid to because if the line is busy when his source for the pot calls, he’ll miss the call he’s waiting for. And he has an impulse to watch TV but winds up flipping around a lot because he worries that if he settles on one thing, he’ll miss something that’s even better on another channel. And at the end, he’s essentially crucified in mid-air, reaching for the door on one side and the phone on the other and utterly unable to move or even think. The recurrent double-bind theme seems to me to be very much tied into the addiction theme, the notion that you can cling with such need to something that you know will do you harm and that you’ll regret.

Isn’t the professional conversationalist section just a riot? This episode will pop up again in a slightly different form in an unrelated (beyond the fact of its occurrence in both places) long end note before too long. This kind of humor abounds in Infinite Jest, and if you like it, you might want to go and read The Broom of the System too. In this section, Hal’s dad contends that he (Hal) doesn’t speak, and it corresponds to the first section in which he actually can’t communicate to the deans. Yet it’s clear that Hal can talk in this section and that time has passed between the two sections (with the first occurring a number of years later).

I love this:

In the eighth American-educational grade, Bruce Green fell dreadfully in love with a classmate who had the unlikely name of Mildred Bonk. The name was unlikely because if ever an eighth-grader looked like a Daphne Christianson or a Kimberly St.-Simone or something like that, it was Mildred Bonk. She was the kind of fatally pretty and nubile wraithlike figure who glides through the sweaty junior-high corridors of every nocturnal emitter’s dreamscape. Hair that Green had heard described by an over-wrought teacher as ‘flaxen’; a body which the fickle angel of puberty — the same angel who didn’t even seem to know Bruce Green’s zip code — had visited, kissed, and already left, back in sixth; legs which not even orange Keds with purple-glitter-encrusted laces could make unserious. Shy, iridescent, coltish, pelvically anfractuous, amply busted, given to diffident movements of hand brushing flaxen hair from front of dear creamy forehead, movements which drove Bruce Green up a private tree. A vision in a sundress and silly shoes. Mildred L. Bonk.

Hal and Erdedy like to get high in private. For Hal, the secrecy is part of the addiction. I don’t think there’s really any shame for him. This little bit of privacy is the one thing he can control within his regimented life at the tennis academy. For Erdedy, it has always seemed to me to be about shame. We’ll see lots of flavors and degrees of addiction from here on out.

So far, we have a weather-protection bubble called the Lung and a campus in the shape of a heart (cardoid). Later we’ll see a Brain building. I don’t remember whether there are more things like this later in the book, but I’m going to keep my eyes peeled.

Have you been keeping tabs on point of view? On page 61, we revisit the first person singular for the first time (I think, after a quick re-scan) since page 17. And what a doozie of a section. It tumbles and spirals, and I think one does well to read it aloud. How important it is to the middle and later parts of the book I can’t recall. It’s a section I always forget about but love when I rediscover it.

Wow, I didn’t even touch on Orin or Gately or Mario, but I’m tapped out from writing and maybe you’re tapped out from reading what I’ve put down so far. I reckon I need a nice pat summary, though. So I’ll circle back to my title. Trapped. Hal is “in here.” In where? In the chitonous shell that his insectile movements suggests he seems to inhabit Gregor-Samsa-like (uh, no, not literally)? In his head? Has he retreated into that ultimate privacy of solipsism? Well, he’s clearly trapped somewhere. And what about Erdedy, with all the angles and boxes of his house, the bug sequestered in its girder much as Erdedy sequesters himself inert in his home? Or the attache, slave to his client and to his nightly routine, or his wife, thrall to the attache’s demands? What about Wardine, stuck in what is clearly a horrific situation? Or The Moms, agoraphobic since the death of Hal’s father? Or Orin, “entombed in that kind of psychic darkness where you’re dreading whatever you think of” (p. 42) or the roaches he traps and his nightmare about being trapped underwater with his own mom’s disembodied head attached to his own? And DuPlessis, whom Gately literally binds and gags, eventually accidentally killing him, and Gately’s own slavery to his addiction? And addiction — well, it is its own sort of trap or cage, after all, isn’t it?

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