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Accomplice

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?

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  1. September 18, 2009 at 11:01 am

    Blue Velvet has a lot of interesting musical numbers, but the scene you are referring to is in Mulholland Drive, and it’s neither of the main female leads who sings the song. They go to a movie theater where Rebekah Del Rio is singing “Crying” in Spanish, a cappella, and it’s like everyone has been sucked into a pocket uinverse. The characters in the film are suddenly audience members along with us, and you have to be a pretty cold mutha to not be emotionally moved by the performance. I’ve never found it nearly as self-conscious as it’s probably meant to be. It’s like this one genuine spot in a film otherwise filled with self-reflexive parody and ironic distance.

    I completely know what you mean about the gravity of the last couple hundred pages. I end up losing a lot of my critical faculties as well, being so invested in the story.

  2. September 18, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Ah, wow, I can’t believe I got it so very wrong. I was somehow seeing Isabella Rossellini singing the thing. I agree that that moment in the film is a great genuine moment, not as distanced as much of the rest of the film (though my memory of it is clearly not reliable). But then, I imagine the first few cries of “Murderer!” in Accomplice were pretty emotionally honest too.

  3. September 18, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    I am incredibly reluctant to mention this, but what the hell. Life is short.

    Um… you know that “gay porn convention” mentioned in the onscreen footnote? Er… Wallace was totally wrong about that. I don’t know where he got the idea, or who told him, or what, but… uh… yeah, it’s not correct.

    Please do not ask me to clarify how it is that I know this.

  4. September 18, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Dan, wow, that’s interesting to note. I wonder if he just made it up or if he got this from somewhere.

    • September 18, 2009 at 2:15 pm

      It seems totally inconsistent with DWF’s MO to just make something up, especially since we went to the trouble to mention it so particularly and to hinge a(n admittedly minor) plot point on it.

      Perhaps this was an error that JOI made? I dunno.

      I felt a bit about that mistake the way some commenters in some forums seemed to feel about the “ebonics” sections, early in the novel. It disgruntled me a bit. Like, if you’re going to try to be knowing about gay people, please don’t actually be wrong.

      That said, I loved IJ far too much to hold a minor beef against it. I can overlook this, and the other small errors I noted, because the book is so very wonderful.

  5. September 18, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Speaking of something else that’s repeated over and over again toward the end of the book . . . something rather relevant and sort of frightening . . . “It’s a goddamn lie.”

  6. itzadrag
    September 19, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    thank ye gods & goddesses… I wondered about the gay porn convention. not that i’ve kept up since City of Night was published, but still. glad to know this.

  7. September 20, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Thanks for this one, Daryl! I struggled a bit with the Accomplice! description, and you do a nice job of showing how it fits the “irony is toxic” motif along with, once again, putting us in a very close relationship with the author. Perhaps the “transaction/payload” language is a bit much to transfer over to this relationship, if you know what I mean. But the way in which DFW lays bare the conventions of avant-garde literature, enacting them while surpassing them by being honest with us, is a great way to look at his work and project, and one that I’ll remember!

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