The New Yorker this week published online an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King that has stirred quite a bit of discussion on the wallace-l mailing list, most of it centering, as the fragment does, on religious feeling. As an atheist myself, I have a tendency to think/wish/hope that smart people I admire are also atheists. It’s strange, I know, but why not hope for an extension of affinities into that area of thought and feeling? Although I don’t feel as if I really need (as in emotionally need) external validation of my position, it’s still neat to share a viewpoint with people you admire. It’s not really clear what Wallace’s beliefs with respect to religion were, though. We know from various sources that he went to church but wasn’t raised religious. He certainly seemed, in Infinite Jest, to acknowledge that there was value in recognizing a higher power. Yet he wasn’t the evangelical sort by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s pretty easy, from where I sit, to imagine that he valued the cultural and communal bits of religion while relying more on secular thought for his personal ethics. We’ll probably never know exactly where he stood in real life. In the new fragment, entitled “All That,” he seems to be pretty open to religion and to a sort of spiritualism.
Here I’ll begin to talk about the story, so if you haven’t read it yet and are anti-spoiler, you might want to mosey on along.
The narrator gives accounts of two events in his life that were instrumental in helping him form a religious sensibility. The first, in which his parents convinced him that a toy truck was endowed with a sort of magic, speaks (I think) to the idea of faith and how the not knowing via evidence that what you have faith in is true is a part of what makes it special. How sad it would be, he suggests, to actually trap the tooth fairy. And, by extension, how disappointing it would be, I suppose, to finally find empirical evidence of God. A belief system constructed around the idea of faith becomes meaningless when faith is no longer a necessity. Magic tricks aren’t as fun to watch once you know how they’re done. Faith, which people like me see as a flaw of religion, may in fact be one of the points and joys of religion.
The second formative event centers on the narrator’s recollection of a movie’s plot and how it differs from his father’s recollection. The difference has less to do with faith than with actions. I guess it has something of love thy neighbor in it. More on that in a moment.
At the heart of both episodes is a sort of duality. The narrator says the following about differing perceptions:
Possibly, though, another cause for the sadness was that I realized, on some level, that my parents, when they watched me trying to devise schemes for observing the drum’s rotation, were wholly wrong about what they were seeing—that the world they saw and suffered over was wholly different from the childhood world in which I existed.
Later, we have the father and son’s vastly different recollections of the movie. And within the movie itself, we’re told of a prevailing sentiment and a sentiment (on the part of the narrator within the movie) at odds with it. In all cases, given the same objective inputs, opposite subjective conclusions are reached. There’s a failure to align perceptions.
Interestingly, our narrator hears voices as a child whose speakers do inhabit the same space he does. Their perceptions agree with his in a way that, he figures, biological adults’ perceptions can’t, and the voices are a source of real fits of ecstasy (as in rolling on the floor, capital-E Ecstasy) on the boy’s part. Of that ecstasy, we learn the following:
[M]y father (who clearly “enjoyed” me and my eccentricities) once laughingly told my mother that he thought I might suffer from a type of benign psychosis called “antiparanoia,” in which I seemed to believe that I was the object of an intricate universal conspiracy to make me so happy I could hardly stand it.
I suppose there are certain resonances of this fragment with parts of Infinite Jest. There’s the infantilization of rolling around on the floor, being stroked lovingly by his mother, being more or less cradled in the father’s lap, and of course this idea of being the center of a happiness conspiracy. But the first of Wallace’s works that sprang to mind when I read the fragment was “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from it All” (the state fair essay), in which Wallace writes the following:
One of the few things I still miss from my Midwest childhood was this weird, deluded but unshakable conviction that everything around me existed all and only For Me. Am I the only one who had this queer deep sense as a kid? — that everything exterior to me existed only insofar as it affected me somehow? — that all things were somehow, via some occult adult activity, specially arranged for my benefit? Does anybody else identify with this memory? The child leaves a room, and now everything in that room, once he’s no longer there to see it, melts away into some void of potential or else (my personal childhood theory) is trundled away by occult adults and stored until the child’s reentry into the room recalls it all back into animate service. Was this nuts? It was radically self-centered, of course, this conviction, and more than a little paranoid. Plus the responsibility it conferred: if the whole of the world dissolved and resolved each time I blinked, what if my eyes didn’t open?
Maybe what I really miss now is the fact that a child’s radical delusive self-centeredness doesn’t cause him conflict or pain. His is the sort of regally innocent solipsism of like Bishop Berkeley’s God: all things are nothing until his sight calls them forth from the void: his stimulation is the world’s very being. And this is maybe why a little kid so fears the dark: it’s not the possible presence of unseen fanged things in the dark, but rather the actual absence of everything his blindness has now erased. For me, at least, pace my folks’ indulgent smiles, this was my true reason for needing a nightlight: it kept the world turning.
Back to the story at hand, we begin with the narrator making discoveries about faith and about his own agency. But there’s a sort of inversion from what Wallace writes about in the essay excerpted above: the world (or the cement mixer’s drum) revolves (he believes) only when the boy isn’t looking at it vs. the world existing only when Wallace, as a child, was looking at it.
In the essay, Wallace writes specifically of solipsism, of being trapped more or less within yourself. I am in here. In the fragment, I think he’s writing about getting outside yourself. It’s not that the world stops when you close your eyes to it but that no matter how hard you try, you can’t really see or understand certain forces external to your direct experience. So a certain amount or sort of faith becomes useful. Wallace first gives us something of a thought experiment with the toy cement mixer, but in the movie scenario, he gives us a more complex situation to ponder. The conflict in that scenario is whether it’s nobler to protect your own or to protect others from your own. It’s a very complex question within context, for you have to consider the broader war itself, the particular roles of the participants in question within that context, the particular moods of and recent influences on all participants, and so on. But if we’re a little more reductive about it, I think we can boil the scenario down a bit and understand it as a consideration of the other vs. the self (another duality), with Wallace suggesting that reaching out to protect the other — getting outside your self — may sometimes be the nobler path.
The narrator views the movie’s lieutenant’s last noble act (as the narrator remembers it, that is) with a sort of ecstasy that calls to mind the ecstasy he felt as a younger child when listening to the voices in his head. But this ecstasy is the result of external forces rather than of internal agreeable voices and so shows a sort of development outward from in here.
There’s a lot I’m still trying to unpack about this fragment, and I’m not at all satisfied with what I’ve written above as an interpretive essay. There’s some big connection I feel like I’m missing. But it’s a start.
A couple of other things have come up on the list. For example, why did the narrator’s parents screw with him with the whole magic thing, especially if they’re devout atheists who you wouldn’t think would want to promote superstition? I think the simple answer is that sometimes parents just say silly things because it’s fun to joke around. Every morning that I drive my daughter and a neighbor to kindergarten, I ask if I should speed up and jump the railroad tracks (it’s a big hump and would cause a lot of damage to my vehicle if I jumped it). When they scream gleefully that I should, I slap my thigh and lament that I thought of it too late, that there’s simply not enough runway to get adequate speed. Remind me tomorrow, I tell them. Ever since my children were old enough to understand and respond to language, I’ve presented them with goofy scenarios and waited for them to correct me. Parents just do this sort of thing. In the fragment, it does seem that the parents play an active role in perpetuating the magical thinking, but the germination of the thing doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. And sometimes you just want your kids to work things out for themselves. We do the whole Santa thing, but when my kids start thinking critically about it and questioning the stories, we’ll encourage it obliquely so that they arrive at appropriate conclusions without being force fed the truth.I can’t help thinking that Wallace is saying something else about faith here. There’s plenty of magical thinking involved in faith. You can never really know for sure that God’s there behind the scenes making stuff happen, and maybe the harder you look, the more likely you are to determine that God’s not really there — that the drum isn’t spinning after all. If we think of it this way, then the parents almost become God surrogates, providing information about the truck (or about reality) but requiring that the child work out on his own whatever his beliefs about the truck are. The narrator doesn’t understand why his parents have made a puzzle of this for him any more than people understand why God isn’t more obvious about his existence and plan, and yet the fact that it’s a puzzle has turned out to be valuable to the narrator. Faith, as I suggested above, may be one of the joys of religion.
Another issue that came up on the list was the narrator’s statements that he wasn’t very articulate and the fact that he is actually pretty articulate. Whether it points to insecurity or to false modesty or to real modesty I’m not sure. It certainly seems like one of those framing or narrative tricks that Wallace has used before to remind us that what we’re reading is mediated.
Not discussed as yet on wallace-l is the Catholicism present in the story. It’s minor, but the boy mentions going to Mass with neighbors. Given my last paragraph, I’m having trouble not saying something about the mediation inherent in that religion, though I don’t think Wallace is really doing anything with that here. But the ecstasy, in association with the presence of Catholicism, calls to mind the various references to The Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Infinite Jest, and I wonder if more couldn’t be mined out of this material. In the gruesome ecstasy scene in IJ, there’s actually quite a bit more Catholic subtext than is apparent to a recent or non-Catholic (do a little research on the titles of the magazines named in the scene, if you’re curious), and that makes me all the more curious about the reference to Catholicism in this fragment.
If I have had a more enriching reading experience in my life than Infinite Summer has been, it was the semester I spent studying Milton as an undergrad with a professor who can be described as brilliant and probably on speed. That semester was intense and focused. I don’t know really how to describe this summer briefly other than to say that it’s been fun.
When I answered a call to write for Infinite Zombies, I had this to say (among other things):
I guess I shouldn’t try to sell myself as one who’s terribly likely to be prolific or brilliantly insightful. I’d enjoy having an excuse to write about my reading this summer and was already thinking (cued by Matt Bucher’s post at infinitesummer.org about his first reading) about putting something together about how I first got a taste of Wallace’s work. If you’re up for occasional casual (and probably not terribly probing) observations about the book as I go along, I’m game. If not, no hard feelings.
So much for occasional and casual and a failure to be terribly prolific, huh? I really had intended just to read the darned book and write something about it every once in a while. But as I began to anticipate the read, I started writing these little preparatory posts because I was the veteran reader of Wallace (among the Zombies), and these posts got me pumped up to write about what I was reading, and before I knew it, I was churning out 2-4 posts a week. Having the structure of IS to push me along really helped keep me honest, and then people started actually reading the stuff and responding back to me in the comments, and there was just no slowing down (or wanting to).
What I discovered about the little bit of something like accountability that came with having a schedule and a small following was that it made me a more careful reader, which made the whole experience so much richer for me. And while I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to keep up with the forums or all the blogs, the ones I was able to read provided that much more insight and incentive for me, showing me things I hadn’t thought of and often providing depth where my own reading (and writing) had been shallow.
So thanks for that. Thanks for reading and thanks for writing (here and elsewhere). And special thanks to Matt Baldwin for thinking this whole thing up and ushering us through the summer and to Scott Porch for dreaming up this blog venue. It’s all meant a lot to me and been a great experience.
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)
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?
One of the most vivid scenes in Infinite Jest for me has always been the description of JOI’s film, Accomplice!, that depicts a sagging old man sodomizing a male prostitute. The prostitute insists that the man wear a condom, and the man takes this as a personal affront. The prostitute happens to be inarticulate. The john vindictively slices both the condom and his penis mid-intercourse, but when he finishes and the boy realizes with horror what he’s done, we learn that the boy was trying to protect the john from contracting HIV, not the other way around.
This has always had the feel to me of something like a double-bind, though that’s not quite what it is. It’s not quite cutting off your nose to spite your face, either. I’m struggling to articulate it, but I think maybe it has something to do with irony. The man undercuts his appearance of complying with the prostitute’s wish — irony being the presentation of something contrary to fact or actual meaning — and it winds up being his undoing. The pathos in this scene always gets me, something about the combination of grit and, in a way, tenderness (on the boy’s part). And it supports what we’ve been told in many of the bits about AA and in one kind of touching description of Mario: that irony is toxic.
Beyond its statement about irony, the film has something to say about art as well. Here’s Hal’s assessment of the film:
As I see it, even though the cartridge’s end has both characters emoting out of every pore, Accomplice!‘s essential project remains abstract and self-reflexive; we end up feeling and thinking not about the characters but about the cartridge itself…. Did Himself subject us to 500 seconds of the repeated cry ‘Murderer!’ for some reason, i.e. is the puzlement and then boredom and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1/3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff? (946)
How many people have said similar things about Wallace’s fiction? Those goddamn end notes! Those long sentences! All those words most dictionaries haven’t even heard of! All those words, period! How many critics have said that Wallace needed a more bloodthirsty editor? Are Wallace and JOI guilty of bad editing and self-indulgence, or is there in fact an emotional payload behind the self-consciousness of their work? (Accomplice!, by the way, has a footnote onscreen at some point about the fact that it’s following a particular gay-porn convention.) I don’t really have a pat answer. I’m suddenly reminded of the scene in Blue Velvet in which the female character sings a rendition of Crying that, if memory serves me correctly, is simultaneously very emotional but also self-consciously stilted. [Note: ray gunn kindly reminds me in the comments that this scene in fact appears in Mulholland Drive and not Blue Velvet and that it's not a main character doing the singing.]
What I can say is that for all that I found myself thinking about the book as much as its characters, by the last 150 pages, I was on a downhill slide. I took fewer notes and had trouble stopping my reading. Even though I had read it a few times before (having forgotten most of the end, conveniently), I was just gripped and wanted to see what exactly was going to become of Gately, Joelle, Hal. It became about the story more than about deciphering the structure and way of meaning of the book, and it happened for me unintentionally. I was just pulled in. Maybe it was just a sort of gravity. Or did something change in the pacing or self-consciousness of the end of the book?
Whatever the case, the facts seem to be that for those readers with whom Wallace’s work resonates, it does so powerfully and emotionally. This is in spite of any distancing effect of all the narrative and lexical gymnastics. And it may even be partially because of that effect. In certain of his short stories, Wallace kind of pulls back the curtain to show the back of the shop, what’s going on in the mind of the author, what insecurities there are, what framework he’s draping his story across. And the effect for me is one of honesty and sincerity: “Yes, I’m manipulating you with an eye toward provoking a particular response, but so that you’re ok with it, I’ll tell you exactly how I’m going to do it, so that it can be an honest transaction.” And because it becomes a self-aware, two-way transaction, you become an accomplice to the outcome. Of course, that sort of exposure or sincerity can have a distancing effect by yanking you out of the very story that is supposed to make you emote. But for some of us, it’s the transaction as much as the payload that has meaning. Is that maybe the answer to Hal’s question? Am I making any sense?
I don’t know what I have, but I can only assume it’s swine flu. (Right? Because that’s going around?) I’m simply not up for writing right now. I owe a few kind commenters (and other bloggers) comments that I may not get around to posting. I hope I can build up enough steam to write something later in the week, as I sure don’t want to fizzle out right here at the end, having come all this way.
Meanwhile, I’ve gotten about halfway through Suttree (which I had picked up a few weeks before Infinite Summer started) and so got a neat little thrill to read Eden’s post today linking Infinite Jest and McCarthy.
In other Infinite Summer news, my copy of Dracula arrived today. I don’t have it in me to read or write about that one as obsessively as I did about Infinite Jest, but I look forward to reading this classic I’ve always managed to overlook. And I may write a word or two about it from time to time as well, whether here or elsewhere TBD. Anybody else coming along for that ride?
About a month ago, when we were in the mid-400 page range, I wrote about how there was a lot of water imagery associated with Don Gately. I’ve kept kind of half an eye out for this ever since. We see a lot more of it in this week’s milestone (and, though not covered here, beyond):
- “Gately’s outsized crib had been in the beach house’s little living room” (809)
- “It seemed to him more like he kept coming up for air and then being pushed below the surface of something.” (809)
- “Some things seem better left submerged. No?” (815, spoken by Tiny Ewell, however)
- “He ran through the crazed breakers to deep warm water and submerged himself and stayed under until he ran out of breath… He kept coming up briefly for a great sucking breath and then going back under where it was warm and still.” (816)
On page 814, there’s sort of a hidden reference to water, as the confessional Tiny Ewell mentions Gately’s “reluctant se offendendo,” which phrase has a note that reads as follows:
Latin blunder for self-defense’s se defendendo is sic, either a befogged muddling of a professional legal term, or a post-Freudian slip, or (least likely) a very oblique and subtle jab at Gately from a Ewell intimate with the graveyard scene from Hamlet — namely V.i. 9.
Whether Ewell is making a jab here or not, Wallace is inviting us to take a look at the famous graveyard scene from which he borrows a phrase for the book’s title. I don’t know about you, but I always tend to focus on Hamlet himself during the graveyard scene. What occurred to me this time around, as I had water on the brain, is that the funeral procession that follows Hamlet’s graveyard pontification is for Ophelia (also the referent of the aforementioned se offendendo), a character who went mad and drowned — the hidden water reference I mentioned. The “se offendendo” here would be Ophelia’s self-offense (or suicide) or possibly Gately’s having gotten himself (through no fault of his own and for entirely noble reasons) into a rather self-offending position.
Beyond that link, I don’t know that there’s much kinship between Gately and Ophelia. Ophelia goes mad and incoherent after her father’s death and so does have a sort of kinship with Hal, though it’s never the kinship that springs to mind when reading the book (are we that afraid of crossing gender lines? Wallace sure isn’t). But kinship with Gately? With the water imagery and the pointer back to Ophelia in this Gately/Ewell interface, I can’t help thinking something’s going on here. I just haven’t figured out yet what it is. Thoughts?
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.’
‘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.
Well I’m not clearing new ground here or anything. On page 736, we learn that Jim “said so little to Joelle on their first several meetings that Orin kept having to reassure her that it wasn’t disapproval — Himself was missing the part of the human brain that allowed for being aware enough of other people to disapprove of them.” Less than a page later: “The man was so blankly and irretrievably hidden that Orin said he’d come to see him as like autistic, almost catatonic.” At various times earlier in the novel, we’ve seen glimpses of Jim’s laser-beam focus on areas of specialty, his problems relating to people.
But then, lots of people are like that. I’m reminded of a flowchart or sort of illustrated narrative I saw fairly recently (I can’t find it now or I’d link it) that invited the reader to speculate whether or not he had Asberger’s (lots of people in Information Technology who are probably just weird seem to think they’re somewhere on the autism spectrum, and maybe a lot of them are) and then promptly answered that no, you’re just an asshole.
We surely can’t trust Orin’s assessment of his father. On page 738 (as if we needed such advice regarding Orin), we’re instructed never to “trust a man on the subject of his own parents.” Back on 737, after Orin has told Joelle not to read JOI as disapproving, we’re told “how no amount of punting success could erase the psychic stain of basic fatherly dislike, failure to be seen or acknowledged.” Still, we have these other clues that JOI is a little off-kilter.
So what do you think? Is he autistic or just eccentric? Or something else altogether?
Starting on page 733, a batshit crazy guy camped out in the Ennet House living room approaches Marathe and begins to talk about how most people are metal people, robots or automatons with gears and processors in their heads that emit a faint whirring sound. Incidentally, in note 332 sadly just a wee bit past this week’s spoiler line, a certain E.T.A. student’s cortex is described as whirring sufficiently loudly that its sound is covered (which I suppose it would be, loud or not) by the whirring of a ventilator. So but back to the crazy addict. He goes on like so:
‘The real world’s one room. These so-called people, so-called’ — wtih again the flourish — ‘they’re everybody you know. You’ve met ‘em before, hunnerts times, with different faces. There’s only 26 total. They play different characters, that you think you know. They wear different faces with different pictures they pro–ject on the wall. You get me?’
Well it just so happens that there are 52 cards in a deck of cards (minus jokers, but they call it 52-card-pickup and not 54-card pickup, so I’m going with 52), which are pictures with different faces. I suppose that really there are 13 different pictures in four different suits, so thinking of cards in terms of the number 26 (so 26 people or cards manifesting two different faces apiece) may not be right on target. (Incidentally, also in note 332 is a little reference to a deck of cards, though it’s not one I’d really play up as important to this particular scene.)
Still, what jumps out at me is that we have a possible reference to a deck of cards given in a scene rather thoroughly steeped in paranoia. It makes me think of some of the Tarot stuff in Gravity’s Rainbow, which book I don’t know well enough to say anything more about, other than that it too trades rather heavily in paranoia and is somehow structured around or at least makes many references to the Tarot deck, which deck, I’ve just learned, has 78 cards. A normal deck of regular old playing cards, with 52 cards, plus the 26 different faces with different pictures the paranoid addict talks about make 78 total. That certain character with the whirring cortex also happens to be marked as something of a paranoiac.
I don’t have any real conclusion to draw here. I’m just connecting a few dots that don’t quite make a picture yet for me. Maybe somebody can shed more light on the connections (or call bullshit) in the comments.
Although I’m still very much a part of Infinite Summer and am staying about a week ahead in the reading (it’s hard to stop myself; I’m within 200 pages of the end and am both revved up about it and a little sad that it’s almost over), I’m having trouble getting motivated to write about it. This is in part because I’m working on a longish essay that I’ve submitted an abstract for for a November conference on Wallace’s work. I’ll find out around September 15 whether they’ve accepted the essay or not (and I’m conflicted about it, to be honest: I’m terrified of doing this sort of thing, of putting myself really out there in any way more formal than a blog post or email list post, which I can just shrug off if it’s deemed insufficiently scholarly; there’s also the crippling fear of speaking in front of people; at the same time, it would be kind of an ego stroke to have my paper accepted and actually manage to pull it off). Until then, I’m frantically trying to pull together notes and hack out a rough draft and reread basically all of Wallace’s fiction and some related material to make sure I can actually pull the essay off. That’s what’s consuming my evenings that’s making it hard for me to write the same sorts of posts here that people seem to have liked previously.
So for today, I have just a few quick observations about Joelle. I think that in prior readings of Infinite Jest, I may have sort of dug Joelle, even crushed on her in a way, sort of the way people have a tendency to crush on the similarly intelligent but troubled Hal. She comes across, after all, as something of an intellectual, and with a sort of darkness of persona (at odds with her background as cheerleader) that certainly appealed to me when I first read the book during my own now-amusingly dark period as a college student.
But now I see a lot more in Joelle that I don’t like. There are undertones of racism, for example. Wallace writes these off in an end note as the product of her rural Kentucky upbringing, suggesting that they’re just sort of encoded in her and not really fully transcendable, as if it’s not that she judges based on race but she still can’t help noticing. I may be reacting to this out of a sort of southern white guy angst, since, as with so much of Wallace’s work, I probably recognize a kernel of this in myself. I think Wallace addresses this sort of white guilt in one of his essays somewhere, this conundrum of noticing otherness (I think in particular blackness) and then knee-jerk reacting to it with a sort of horror and worrying that noticing makes you a racist even if the initial noticing didn’t, but then also knee-jerking that worrying about being a racist actually makes you in a way an even worse racist because you’re no longer as concerned with the people you’re judging by maybe being a racist as with the reflexive property of the racisim itself, making you really more disconnected monster than man.
The first instance of Joelle’s pseudo-racism comes on page 226, when she’s not making any sort of judgment but merely zooms in on the blackness (something of Pynchon in this?) of an older man she’s waiting with on a train platform: “she walked without much real formality to her T-stop and stood on the platform… then a pleasant and gentle-faced older black man in a raincoat and hat with a little flat black feather in the band and the sort of black-frame styleless spectacles pleasant older black men wear, with the weary but dignified mild comportment of the older black man.” He then goes on to address her in a way she finds quaint and to tip his hat, and the anguished hoping-I’m-not-a-racist in me cringes to think that he’s almost like Uncle Tomming here, that Wallace is almost making a just a tiny little bit of an Uncle Tom of the deferential man, or worse: that I’m making this impression up out of my own head, making my own sort of Uncle Tom of this man, which is really only OK to do if you’re Harriet Beecher Stowe, and maybe not really even then. Which makes me really uncomfortable.
Later, at a Cocaine Anonymous meeting, Joelle finds herself listening to a “colored man with a weightlifter’s build and frightening eyes, sloe and a kind of tannin-brown” (707). More from this passage:
- “His story’s full of colored idioms and those annoying little colored hand-motions and gestures”
- “The truth has a kind of irresistible unconscious attraction at meetings, no matter what the color or fellowship.”
- “The colored man…”
- “the standing men are absorbed by the colored man’s story.”
- “Financial Insecurity, which he mispronounces”
- “Two other Holmeses”
And then notes 293:
Apparently the current colored word for other coloreds. Joelle van Dyne, by the way, was aculturated in a part of the U.S.A where verbal attitudes toward black people are dated and unconsciously derisive, and is doing pretty much the best she can — colored and so on — and anyway is a paragon of racial sensitivity compared to the sort of culture Don Gately was conditioned in.
It’s a Boston-colored thing on Commitments to make all speech a protracted apostrophe to some absent ‘Jim,’ Joelle’s observed in a neutral sociologic way.
The thing about this is that it’s really not OK. She’s not doing the best she can. I grew up in the South too, and I had plenty of stupid, regrettable things to say about black people when I was a kid, and not even because I really thought them, but because it was what I grew up hearing (not from my parents, incidentally — just within the broader community) and so was my own default mode. I too was aculturated in the way Joelle was, and yet, I — no towering intellect, but just another reasonably intelligent liberal arts student like Joelle — seem (I think and dearly hope) to have transcended that past. At least mostly, since I still have those weird knee-jerk fears that certain fears or reactions to what are possibly simple observations but what may also be sort of heightened sensitivity to race may prove me still some kind of latent racist. But I still think that to excuse Joelle on the basis of cultural heritage or whatever is a cop-out.
The other thing that stands out to me about Joelle and makes me like her a little less is how she takes special notice of other people’s ugliness. I want to think that she’s above that, that wearing the veil has made her less judgmental. See for example her take on Ruth Van Cleve on page 698:
Her face has the late-stage Ice-addict’s concave long-jawed insectile look. Her hair is a dry tangled cloud, with tiny little eyes and bones and projecting beak underneath. Joelle v.D.’d said it almost looked like Ruth van Cleve’s hair grew her head instead of the other way around.
I can’t point to another example right now, though I can’t help thinking I underlined and took a margin note for at least one more. A couple of times, she’s commented on people’s mental stability, calling one person “crazy as a Fucking Mud-Bug” (370) and another “crazy as a shithouse rat” (532). We may be able to attribute these to Wallace’s trying to provide a sort of regional color to Joelle, exposing the part of her background that creeps in from time to time to contrast with the very cultured, sensitive part of her that I found so attractive during my first reading of the book. Gately notices these shifts too: “You seem like you drift in and out of different ways of talking. Sometimes it’s like you don’t want me to follow” (535). I’m all for having Joelle’s method of discourse drift, but it makes me a little sad that this character who seems so tuned into psychic pain of the sort caused by deformity and mental or emotional instability — whose alter-ego (and maybe that’s just what it is) strikes such a chord with the beloved Mario — can also be so shallow and backwards.
Maybe this is Wallace giving Joelle depth or complexity. Most of us vaccilate between different modes, I guess, reading literary fiction one night, for example, and watching TMZ the next. Whatever the case, as I read her character more carefully this go-around, I’m finding Joelle less appealing than previously.