There’s been a lot of buzz around Randy Lenz in the last couple of weeks, so I’ll try taking him on (thanks for the challenge, Nathan Seppelt!). For instance, in our roundtable discussion on Saturday, we visited the question (at about the halfway point), “Is Randy Lenz the novel’s most despicable character?” which generated some interesting answers, ranging from wild disturbance (Mark) to mild adoration (Nathan).
In Episode 3 of the The Great Concavity, artist Robyn O’Neil made the claim that one of the things that really struck her about Infinite Jest was its ability to confront deep parts of the reader, that she sees herself “in way too many characters.” In that sense it has a kind of morally instructive quality to it, prompting the reader to serious self-reflection and inner interrogation. I jokingly asked if she saw herself in Randy Lenz, and we all three laughed abjectly at the thought of that, but it’s recently got me to thinking.
In our present section, we catch Lenz doing some pretty appalling stuff:
- Demapping rats with chunks of detached concrete (540)
- Poisoning and capturing cats in Hefty and SteelSak bags, swinging them into street signs and telephone poles, lighting them on fire (541-5)
- Slitting the throats of neighborhood canines (545-6, 587)
- Putting an injured bird down the kitchen sink garbage disposal, alive (547)
- Trying to get Yolanda Willis to kneel at the altar of his own personal Unit, making it her Higher Power (565)
- Treating the urban city as one big commode (578)
- Using Don Gately like a shield at gunpoint, like a coward (611)
It’s really easy to waggle morally judgmental fingers at those we deem to be bereft of axiological sensibility, like the Hitlers, Maos, Stalins, Dahmers, and Lenzs of the world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that we’re able to differentiate their kinds of behaviors from those that are nourishing and redemptive, but in each of our darkest souls’ nights, are we really all that much different? Given the right social and psychological circumstances, do we not all have the capacity to become moral monsters? Had our own mother, like Lenz’s, died from an overdose of peach cobbler in a truly grotesque fashion, and with “three ex-husbands and feral attorneys and a pastry-chef that used pastry-dependence to warp and twist her into distorting a testament toward the chef and Lenz’s being through red-tape still in Quincy’s Y.C.A. hold and in a weak litigational vantage, the ruptured Mrs. L.’s will had left him out in the cold to self-fend by his urban wits while ex-husbands and patissiers lay on Riviera beach-furniture fanning themselves with high-denomination currency, about all which Lenz says he grapples with the Issues of on a like daily basis” (577), might we have turned out a little differently?
Sufjan Stevens brings this sentiment hauntingly to life in his song about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. After cataloguing the disturbing list of ways in which Gacy would treat his victims, Stevens sings, “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” It’s a grim thought, but I hear what Stevens is saying. In his theologically-mapped worldview, we’re all irrevocably fallen, morally bankrupt, and bereft of sincere goodness. For Stevens, it takes an outside force to redeem humanity.
In my MA thesis (which is almost ready for defense), I argue that Infinite Jest is a soteriological novel, consumed by theological themes relating to salvation and redemption. In this context, Randy Lenz becomes a fascinating case study. While I don’t spend a ton of time talking about him in my paper, he does show up in this moral context. One of the things that strikes me about Infinite Jest is its ability to hold up the mirror to its reader, to urge them to take stock of where they find meaning and value, and of how they empathize with and care for their fellow humans.
If Stevens’ song were about Randy Lenz, it might urge us to take stock of what’s in our own kitchen garbage disposals. I’d presently be looking down mine, if I had one.