Posts Tagged ‘Infinite Jest’

Of Swine

September 15, 2009 14 comments

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?

What about Ophelia?

September 9, 2009 5 comments

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?

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.

Is JOI Autistic?

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?

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26 Total

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.

and 294:

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.

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It’s probably coincidence that something of an underworld scene in Infinite Jest happens to start on page 666. But here we have the young male E.T.A. students “punitively remanded below ground” to clear the tunnels in preparation for the inflation of the lung. It’s been a good long time since I’ve read The Inferno (when I did, it was Pinsky’s translation in terza rima, and I thought it was so good that I sat in my dorm room and read the whole thing aloud to myself in one sitting), but I wonder if one might not find a reference or two within this section. Certainly, reminders of sins past abound — the “sweet stale burny smell none of them can place” (668) a node to Hal’s lonely indulgence; “a bulky old doorless microwave oven” (670) possibly the microwave JOI used to eliminate his map (Dante’s representation of Hell itself, if I recall correctly, something of a map). When the boys find the awful refrigerator, one says “This is Death. Woe unto those that gazeth on Death. The Bible” (673).

Avril makes her way from place to place underground as well, calling to mind for me the myth of Demeter (like Coatlicue, a mother goddess) and Persephone (with underground Hal as a sort of Persephone, Avril as Demeter with a real green thumb as far as her Green Babies go but ultimately batshit toxic and stifling to her kids). Although I can’t find it now, I thought I had read a description in this passage of what seemed disembodied (not literally) heads, and it made me think of Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparation of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough

There are variations on the punctuation of the the poem, but the idea is that the heads of people lined up somewhat haphazardly waiting for the subway train resemble petals (I think of cherry blossoms, probably because the poem has kind of a haiku feel to it) lined up on a branch. “The metro” thrown through a European filter can read as “De Metro,” and it’s just one hop from there to Demeter, who prowled around looking for her daughter who was underground, meanwhile affecting the seasons and the earth’s fertility (e.g. flowers).

I am not suggesting that Wallace was making an oblique reference to Pound (he’d be more likely to point to Larkin). I’m not even sure I’d defend too steadfastly the notion that this scene is an underworld scene (though epics tend to have those) in the literary sense. These are just associations that came to mind.

I can’t do those two standout nearly-blank pages 664 and 665 and the just fantastic note 269 anything resembling justice, but gosh are they ever good.

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