A Self That Touches All Edges

Now deceased, Hal’s (& Orin’s & Mario’s) father, the late James Orin Incandenza, is dead. Of a head that was placed inside, and then (presumably) rapidly dis-placed everywhere in the vicinity of, a microwave oven. By and large we don’t know much of what’s happening in Infinite Jest yet, but this much should be abundantly (“ONE YEAR AFTER DR. JAMES O. INCANDENZA PASSED FROM THIS LIFE”), unambiguously (“FOUR YEARS AFTER OPTICAL THEORIST, ENTREPRENEUR, TENNIS ACADEMICIAN, AND AVANT-GARDE FILMMAKER JAMES O. INCANDENZA TOOK HIS OWN LIFE BY PUTTING HIS HEAD IN A MICROWAVE OVEN”) clear.

Although he is, as they say, no longer with us; he is. His absence is palpable, manifest in these pages and therefore, by some kind of postmodern irony, so is his presence. This irony and the capital-T theory that enables it is something that interests me deeply, but would also (I suspect) be kinda cruel to inflict on people who are already devoting more time and energy than they had originally set aside for reading just the book that they’re now coming to a blog, daily, between their assigned daily 4,000ish fictional words, to read even more about.

A personal challenge I’ve set myself during Infinite Winter is to keep this impulse towards theory in check, a bit, and focus more on the humans who live within IJ‘s pages. So in today’s post (yeah – I know. I’m only just getting around to telling you what this post is even about now) I want to look at some of the threads being drawn between J.O.I., his own father and the younger two-thirds of the brothers Incandenza.


153/1079 "head-mounted Bolex"
153/1079 “head-mounted Bolex”


Mario, it’s surely been pointed out by now, bears very little resemblance to his father, James, beyond an enthusiasm for film production and optics. Consider Mario’s cranially-mounted Bolex.

[That Mario, despite not being a terrific reader (which by the way is because he’d “way rather listen and watch”), bears somewhat of a resemblance to Wallace’s “born ogler” merits at least a parenthetical mention, at least]

I’m not widely read enough to know whether this idea/image of a recording device literally strapped to someone’s head is an allusion to anything (like some difficult Frenchman’s 50pp essay that requires you to understand not just French but German too to really get); but I can at least see the connection with a certain fictional avant-garde filmmaker’s inter-cerebral mise-en-scene appropriation card.

That Mario’s recording device is external to his own private head while Jim’s is internal, cf. those characteristics/attributes that make these two characters v. different merits way more than a parenthetical aside, and is worth pondering as we learn more about these characters over the next 700+ pages.

Hal and Jim.

163/1079 "Will there be episodes like this when you're a man at your own tiller? A citizen of a world that won't go pat-pat-there-there?"
163/1079 “Will there be episodes like this when you’re a man at your own tiller? A citizen of a world that won’t go pat-pat-there-there?”


The inter-generational issues seem to begin way back in B.S. 1960 with the gifted young James and his own father.

“Jim not that way Jim.” begins a 13 page drunken monologue on tennis, bodies, presence v. absence, potential, minds v. bodies, father issues and Marlon Brando.

[Just as another (& final) aside, it strikes me that Wallace, while riffing on the whole presence v. absence thing, can’t himself resist Lit. Theory’s siren-song and can’t help but invoking Derrida, Barthes & Co. via his (/Jim’s dad’s) “those elbow-straining books of yours’ lightless pages are going to seem flat by comparison. Static. Dead and white and flat.” Or maybe I’m just jumping at ghosts here.]

174/1079 "Here is how to weep in bed trying to remember when your torn blue ankle didn't hurt every minute."
174/1079 “Here is how to weep in bed trying to remember when your torn blue ankle didn’t hurt every minute.”


Ahem. But so the echoes of this scene reverberate most during Hal’s Year of Glad interview with Arizona’s (!) Deans. A few quick egs.:

Hal’s “I am in here.” / Jim’s dad’s “I was in there, out there in the heat.”

Hal’s Dean’s “Hal, please just explain why we couldn’t be accused of using you […] here you are just using a boy for his body.” / Jim’s dad’s “Son, you’re a body, son.” (& also / Jim’s dad’s (by inversion)) “We’re just bodies to you.”

Hal’s silent listening. / Jim’s silent listening.

But then compare all we know so far about Hal & Jim to Jim’s dad’s “Total physicality. No revving head. Complete presence.” and then especially his “machine in the ghost” inversion of Lyle’s interpretation of Descartes, as a cute little piece of mimesis of the process I’m about to describe, and maybe we start to get a picture of how (and how) ideas & philosophies are passed down through the Incandenzas; reinterpreting, inverting and mutating – as Orin’s fear of cockroaches (and mutated ones at that) is a mutation of Jim’s and Jim’s dad’s latrodectus mactans phobias – in transmission.

[Supposing that I did want to talk theory for a little bit (promises re parentheses aside), I might add that all these evolutionary steps only exist as mediation between the text’s true father (the author) and the reader, and that it’s this that’s the true transmission; but I gotta say this post’s enough of a mess already. So I won’t.]


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3 thoughts on “A Self That Touches All Edges”

  1. Also coming up (SPOILER ALERT) is a whisper about who Mario’s dad might be, if not JOI. As I read through the description of Mario (whew, THAT was a trip), I wondered about paternity.

  2. Also, Mario uses the Bolex, whereas Hal has an eidetic memory. The similarities between the fear of the palm trees hiding the widows and the drains hiding the roaches is great! It’s like both are a fear of the desert manifested in creepy-crawly form. For O it’s worse because the whole reason he escaped New Orleans is because of the roaches

    1. Nice – I love your observation that the bugs signify a deeper desert-phobia.

      Very true too about Mario’s Bolex v. Hal’s memory, though (spoilers?) Mario’s memory will come up again soon that’ll make this even more interesting.

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