All posts by Jenni B. Baker

Breaking Up with Infinite Jest

Reading Infinite Jest for the first time was like the start of any new relationship.

Someone I trusted had put in a good word for it, and I decided to give it a go (a new book is always a bit like a blind date). I spent some time getting to know it, and for awhile, I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. There were some good times during the first few hundred pages – some moments of humor and sincerity – but some frustrating and confusing ones too. I didn’t know if it was the book for me, and I thought about breaking up with it several times. Was it really worth my time?

But, like any really good book, Infinite Jest won me over. I found myself eager to spend more time with it. I found myself thinking about its characters and plots between meetings at work and on the subway ride home. It was exciting. I felt all the feelings. We had a good thing going, this book and me.

And then we broke up. It had no more pages for me, and I was devastated. I’d sunk so much time in this book, these characters, this author. Not only was the book no more, but the author was no more. It was over. All over.

Even though we parted on good terms, I was reluctant when it came knocking at my door again earlier this year.  I didn’t know if the rapport was still there — if our time together would still be as good as I remembered. It was the same book, but I was a different person.

The last few months have been good – different than before, no doubt – but good. The excitement and thrilling uncertainty of the first read were gone, but in their place arose a calm space. In this space, and with more time together, I noticed new things I didn’t pick up on in the initial whirlwind of the first read. I appreciated the small things – the details you only notice after you’ve spent a long time with some thing. Our connection grew deeper, more intricate.

The latest break up feels less like a severance and more like a mutual separation. Sometimes a book and a reader need space to keep the relationship strong.  I know we’ll be in touch again.


 

Thanks to all who read along and followed along during Infinite Winter. If you’re attending the David Foster Wallace Conference this year, be sure to find me and say hi. I’ll be the introvert at the back of the room.

Seeking Order

The first thing that many people do after finishing Infinite Jest is hunt down (aka, do a Google search for) a chronological timeline of the events as they happened in the book. It’s natural to crave some order after 1000+ pages of bouncing back and forth between characters and years, and after an ending which provided more questions than answers. There are some good timelines out there — this one by Drew Cordes (PDF) is my favorite and the one that I deem most complete.

One difficulty I have with these timelines is that they present everything linearly, intermixing characters and scenes. What I’d like to see is more of a grid, where the  timeline is tracked on the Y-axis, with the novel’s key characters or settings mapped out across the X-axis. I think this format has a lot of potential to better show what’s happening around the same time frame in each location.

I tried this in a limited scope, focusing on what happens to Hal and Gately on November 6, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and beyond. Viewed this way, we start to see some interesting parallels.

TIME HAL GATELY
YDAU November 6 Hal participates in the Port Washington tournament. We hear he “has made a kind of quantumish competitive plateaux-hop” and is at the top of his competitive tennis  game. Gately remains at the top of his sobriety game, having been off substances for 421 days.
YDAU November 11 – early hours November 12 Hal plays a showdown-style exhibition match against Ortho ‘The Darkness’ Stice with everyone watching the match. Hal, nearly beaten, emerges the victor from the match, but walks away spiritually (existentially?) injured. We learn, through his conversations with Mario, that he is facing an arduous recovery – not just from the exhibition match, but from the Bob Hope, as he has 30 days to produce clean urine. Gately enters a showdown with the Canadians outside of Ennet House, with all of the residents watching on. He emerges a victor (in that he was not killed), but walks away from the encounter physically injured. We learn that he is facing an arduous recovery of his own, as he attempts to recover from his physical wounds without the aid of narcotics and painkillers. He, like Hal, has a lot of ‘feeling’ to get through.
YDAU November 12-20 The wraith (James O. Incandenza) visits Enfield Tennis Academy – Pemulis finds his DMZ missing, and Ortho Stice’s bed becomes attached to the ceiling. The wraith visits Gately, and talks about his horror in seeing his youngest son (“the one most like him”) slowly disappear and be unable to express himself. The wraith talks about his desire to create “The Entertainment” as a way of drawing Hal back out.
YDAU November 12-20 Hal inadvertently attends an “Inner Infant” meeting on November 17. Gately in the hospital becomes like an infant, unable to communicate his needs and forced to have others take care of him. He has a dream from the perspective of an infant, with Joelle (as Death) leaning over him.
YDAU November 20 Hal brushes his teeth (possibly getting dosed with the DMZ), and we see his slow descent into emotional affect and a panic attack – a series of events that we know will later end up with him being wheeled into the emergency room. I have to believe this is right around the same time that we see Gately going through the worst of his physical recovery and descending mentally through the worst days of his drug addiction. Both he and Hal are going through their respective bottoms.
Late YDAU / Early Year of Glad (?) Hal and Gately, who we can presume met in the hospital, are together with John Wayne in Quebec as they dig up the skull of James O. Incandenza.

I knew that Hal and Gately are our two protagonists in the book, but laying out these events side by side in this grid made me realize how similar their journeys and struggles are and how there is — underlying the book’s chaotic surface — an order and a purpose.

What parallels or similarities were you excited to find in your reading of the book?

Contest: #InfWin Meets #NaPoMo

 April marks not only the winding down of Infinite Winter, but also National Poetry Writing Month (abbreviated as NaPoWriMo, or NaPoMo for short). This month, writers around the country are challenging themselves to write 30 poems in 30 days, leveraging prompts like those we’re providing over at The Found Poetry Review for inspiration.

This week, I’m using my post to issue you a challenge: create a piece of found poetry sourced from or inspired by this week’s  Infinite Jest reading. Found poetry is the art of excerpting language from a source text and remixing it or transforming it to craft something new. Read more about found poetry.

Post your work (or a link to it) here in the comments section – I’ll choose my favorite piece out of those shared and send the author a signed Erasing Infinite print.

IDEAS TO GET STARTED

The inspiration for your piece of found poetry should come from this past week’s reading – pages 833-907. Here are a few ideas to get started:

  • Choose a character featured prominently in this section – for example, Gately, Hal or even the wraith. Compose a beau presente (or beautiful inlaw) poem for one of these characters using only words that can be made from the letters in his or her name. For instance, if composing a poem for “Don Gately,” you could use the words atoned, tangled, alone, daylong, delay notedly, only and alone. You can use tools like WordSolver or Litscape to generate a list of possible words from a character’s name.
  • Pick a letter of the alphabet and write down all of the words in this section starting with that letter. Compose a poem – known as a tautogram – from the words you’ve copied down.
  • Compose a prisoner’s constraint – a poem which forbids the use of letters with ascenders (b,d,f,h,k,l,t) and descenders (g,j,p,q,y) – in empathy with Gately’s and Hal’s struggles to communicate. Pull out words from the text containing only the following letters to craft your poem: a,c,e,i,m,n,o,r,s,u,v,w,x,z.
  • Select a series of twenty pages to focus on. Read through the text and copy down the first three words of every sentence. When you’ve finished, use what you’ve written as your word bank for crafting your poem.
  • Photocopy one or more pages from this week’s readings and make a visual collage incorporating the words and images from this section.

Post your completed work in the comments section below by Sunday, May 1, to be eligible to receive the print.  I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

Notkin’s Believe It or Not

As Mark duly noted in yesterday’s post, we’re well into the pages where the novel shifts into overdrive and everything seems to be happening all at once. Characters are meeting, plots are intersecting, and the story in some sections is clear as mud. You don’t know who to trust, and unreliable narrators abound.

In last week’s reading, we saw the return of Molly Notkin, a character you probably never thought you’d see emerge again. She has a mouthful for the U.S.O.U.S interrogator and for us, who have been silently interrogating the book as we’ve gone along. Nothing in her narrative seems outright unbelievable — in fact, with all of the messed up families, weird sexual relationships and stories from people on substances, her revelations seem pretty run of the mill.

And yet, we’re encouraged to look at her narrative with a skeptical eye. Wallace writes:

And it was this, the harsh light on her fully exposed post-Marxist face, more than any kind of tough noir-informed grilling from R. Tine Jr. and the other technical interviewer, that prompted M.I.T. A.B.D.-Ph.D. Molly Notkin…to spill her guts, roll over, eat cheese, sing like a canary, tell everything she believed she knew.

Here are some of the things Molly reveals in this section. Which do you believe (and not)? What do you make out of some of these ambiguities?

  1. The Infinite Jest (V or VI) cartridge features Joelle Van Dyne (Madame Psychosis), naked and hugely pregnant, representing death, leaning over the viewer while explaining that “Death is always female, and that the female is always maternal.” Her face is “hideously deformed” and hidden, and she may or may not be holding a knife.
  2. James Orin Incandenza (JOI)’s kitchen appliance suicide may have been inspired, at least in part, by Joelle’s mother, who killed herself by putting her arms – one at a time – down the garbage disposal.
  3. Joelle and JOI were not sexually involved.
  4. Joelle was not present at JOI’s suicide, funeral or will-reading ceremony.
  5. Joelle was named a beneficiary in JOI’s will.
  6. Avril Incandenza doesn’t have any connections with anti-American groups, cells or movements.
  7. Joelle only agreed to star in Infinite Jest under the condition that JOI stop drinking alcohol.
  8. JOI was sober for three and a half months, up until the day of his death.
  9. Avril placed the bottle of Wild Turkey next to JOI’s body, upset that he had been unwilling to give up drinking for her, but that he would “for” Joelle.
  10. Joelle is hideously deformed, after indirectly getting hit in the face with acid.
  11. Avril (possibly) had incestuous relations with Orin.
  12. That Joelle’s real name is Lucille Duquette.

When it comes to these revelations: believe them or not? I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Oral Fixation

I started off wanting to write about the appearance of teeth in Infinite Jest. I used my concordance tool to pull out every mention of tooth, teeth, dentistry, cavities and the like. I was going to write something academic and analytical. I changed my mind, and started to make an index of dental mentions.

What I ended up with is a creative, conceptual piece about teeth, weaving in lines from Infinite Jest with slightly altered pronouns and verb tenses. Enjoy.


Urban November P.M.: very last leaves down, dry gray hairy grass, brittle brushes, gap-toothed trees. Everything sounds harsh, spiny and harsh-sounding; every sound you hear has teeth. Your tooth way back on the upper left twinges electrically in the cold air. You look at your breath, wincing as the cold air hits the one bad tooth. You try to focus very intently on the pain of your tooth without judging it as bad or good. It gives off little electric shivers with each in breath, and you feel unwell. You ask about someplace you can pick up a good toothbrush cheap, then crawl, hunch and tiptoe into an unoccupied men’s room and brush your teeth with your portable Oral-B. Your teeth have a palpable film on them — a paste of dust. You are concerned for your teeth. You begin to worry obsessively about your teeth.  You carry expensive toothpaste with alleged enamel-revitalizers and anti-corrosives. You minister to your teeth. You brush your teeth all the time. You tap at your teeth with a pen. A couple of times, you use your teeth on the rinds of tape. The grinding? The tooth-grinding? A tic. A jaw-strengthener. You try to talk and grind your teeth together at the same time. Your teeth clack together in a mouth that wears a slight smile. Your smile is rictal and shows confused teeth. You have this horrible new recurring dream where you are losing your teeth, where your teeth have become like shale and splinter when you try to chew, and fragment and melt into grit in your mouth. In the dream, you go around and spit fragments and grit, getting more and more hungry and scared. Everyone you see seeing your crumbling teeth looks at their watch and makes vague excuses, a general atmosphere of your splintering teeth being a symptom of something way more dire and distasteful that no one wants to confront you about. When the dental nightmare tears you upright awake, your mouth is open and screams out, THESE ARE TEETH THAT HAVE BEEN UP TO THINGS. THESE ARE TEETH THAT CAN BE SAVED.

The Big Dig (Out)

I’m enjoying re-reading Infinite Jest, and I’m ready for it to be over.

I knew it was a risk, re-reading a book that was the epitome of “the right book at the right time” for me, now seven years ago. A lot has changed in that time. I have changed in that time. I was worried it wouldn’t feel special the second time around, that the spell would be broken.

It still feels special. It also feels dangerous.

I’m in a much better spot mentally and spiritually than I was when I first read the book. I feel connected to other people. I have a job where my talents are utilized and valued. I have a creative outlet through poetry. I have someone to love and who loves me. I feel secure in my present and my future. My brain, in short, feels better.

But my brain feels heavy when I read Infinite Jest. I can sense all of the characters and conversations about loneliness, depression and anxiety trying to worm their way back into my head. I can hear them asking, “Are you sure you don’t still feel this way, underneath it all?” Like Hal and the others, I start to wonder if I’m a good person, and if I’m good enough.

Because I’m reading a fresh copy of the book, I can’t always see the dangerous sections coming – the sections where, in my original copy, I made deep underlines throughout paragraphs, sometimes drawing a giant bracket in the margin that extended down the entire page. The sections where I once wrote “yes!” and drew sad faces in the margins. My reading is always accompanied by a slight sense of dread, not knowing when one of those sections is going to come up. [Spoiler: I’ve read ahead, and there’s a particularly gutting one on 693-696].

This week, more than any so far,  I’m reminded more than ever about why I started my Erasing Infinite work. After I finished Infinite Jest the first time, I felt like I’d been trapped at the wrong end of a landslide, burdened down by the weight of what I’d read. As I’ve created poetry, page by page, I’ve been digging out, stone by stone. I’ve been lighter. Less burdened.

But here I am again, hiking a familiar trail, buried again under a fresh pile of rocks. In May, I will dig out again.

How’s your head?

Between Pain and Pleasure

I really cannot deal with Randy Lenz right now (any of you other guides up for the challenge?), so instead of talking about taking pleasure in causing animals pain, let’s revisit the brothers Incandenza. They have their own pain and pleasure issues in last week’s reading.

Mario’s disability, we learn, results in an an inability to feel physical pain:

The birth-related disability that wasn’t even definitively diagnosed until Mario was six and had let Orin tattoo his shoulder with the red coil of an immersion heater is called Familial Dysautonomia, a neurological deficit whereby he can’t feel physical pain very well. A lot of the E.T.A.s kid him about they should have such problems, and even Hal’s sometimes felt a twinge of envy about it, but the defect is a serious hassle and actually very dangerous.

He has a serious burn from inadvertently leaning against a hot stove, and his hip is covered in bandages and salve. When he walks, it makes a sucking sound. The description no doubt bothers readers more than than the burn bothers Mario.

What Mario can feel, however, is psychic pain. It’s been three weeks since Madame Psychosis went off the air, and Miss Diagnosis is not cutting the mustard . He’s becoming less attuned to Hal’s well-being, his heart beating hard whenever he thinks of him. And people are laughing at him laughing at Michael Pemulis’ jokes. We get words like “worst,” “unable,” “sad,” “worries” and “lost.”

Fast forward a few pages, and we encounter Orin, who we learn “can only give, not receive, pleasure.” After his encounters with his latest Subject, the Swiss hand model, he feels “an abrupt loss of hope,” and, when looking at her, feels “the sort of clinical contempt you feel for an insect you’ve looked down and seen and known you’re going to torture for awhile.”

Yet, when the legless interviewer comes to the hotel door, asking Orin what he misses, he rattles off a series of pleasant memories about broadcast television – things he once took pleasure in and can summon in his mind. We get words like “memories,” “floating,” “order,” “love,” and “gather.” After he’s done, he finds himself feeling tender towards the man (who he suspects is there for an autograph) just for a second, before snapping back into his reality “suddenly dimly stunned and sad inside.”

So what about Hal? Like Mario, we’re losing our radar on what Hal is feeling, doing and thinking. For now, he is lying in his bunk in the middle of the day, breathing.

Both Pretty and Not

There’s a phrase Gately uses to describe Pat Montesian: “both pretty and not.”

I would argue that this descriptor pretty accurately summarizes most of Infinite Jest crew. Some of our characters, like Pat and Gately, have done terrible things and are now taking steps to surface and embrace the better parts of themselves. Others, like Hal, appear morally upright to those around them, yet grapple with secrets that leave them wondering if they are, in the end, good people.

Pat, who experienced a stroke during alcohol withdrawal, is described in this week’s reading as follows:

The right side of her face was still pulled way over in this sort of rictus….The half of her face that wasn’t rictusized was very pretty, and she had very long pretty red hair, and a sexually credible body even though her right arm had atrophied into a kind of semi-claw and the right hand was strapped into this black plastic brace to keep its nail-extensioned fingers from curling into her palm; and Pat walked with a dignified but godawful lurch, dragging a terribly thin right leg in black leather pants behind her like something hanging on to her that she was trying to get away from.

Pat’s stroke-affected body is a physical manifestation of the addiction she experienced earlier in her life. No matter how much she turns her life around and tries to distance herself from her painful past, there it is, following her.

Hal, too carries a burden. Whereas Pat is burdened on the right side of her body, Hal carries his pain on his left side, his left ankle and tooth bothering him consistently throughout the first half of the book. (Whether intentional by Wallace or not, I like this contrast. Hal and Pat are alike in that they are both struggling with what it means to be a good person, but differ in how they are perceived by the world. It makes sense that their burdens are physically opposite, but psychically the same.)

In this week’s reading, Hal continues to experience pain from his “dicky ankle” which, after the summer tennis tour, is “almost the worst it’s ever been.” The pain is constant; it bothers him when he’s walking around and “pulse[s] in the vessels in the raw ligaments” when at rest.

Additionally, he has just been to the dentist when he is summoned to the headmaster’s office. The tooth, which has been twinging along with his self-consciousness throughout earlier chapters, has presumably been treated. As the anesthesia wears off, Wallace notes of Hal, “The left side of his face feels like something far away that means him harm and is coming gradually closer.”

Interesting choice of word: “something.” Pat’s “something” is trying to hold her back and weigh her down. Hal’s “something,” yet unforeseen, is coming for him. In Pat’s stroke-affected body and Hal’s painful tooth and ankle, Wallace reinforces that these characters’ perceptions of who they really are, what they’ve done and what the repercussions are (and will be) haunts them.

As an Infinite Jest obsessive and former English major, it’s tempting to draw out these arguments even further. For instance, if we know that the left hemisphere of the brain controls language and logic, and that Hal consistently suffers injuries on his left side, is it too far-reaching of conclusion to attribute his loss of communication in the opening chapter to something interfering with or injuring the left side of his brain?

And Hal and Pat are far from the only ones with physical manifestations of their psychic condition. Orin’s left arm and leg are monstrous and painful. E.T.A student Anton Doucette is seen consulting with Lyle about the big mole under his left nostril. Gately has a cauliflower ear on the left side. And over at the Antitois, there’s a viewer with a wobble “that makes all cartridge performers on the left appear to have Tourette’s syndrome.”

The delight and danger with reading a book like Infinite Jest is that there are a million of these things that you can notice and assemble into an argument. Let me know what you’re paying attention to lately, in the comments section below.

The Quantified Self

Which is worse: not knowing where you stand, or knowing exactly where you stand? If you could choose, would you opt to, as Ingersoll muses back on page 112, “know just where [you] stand at all times,” or go forward in ignorance, never knowing exactly how you compare to others? Does knowing or not knowing make you care more, or less?

In last week’s reading, we came across the “dark legend of one Eric Clipperton,” an independent player who advanced to the top of the tennis rankings by playing with a loaded Glock 17 at his left temple and threatening to “blow his own brains out publicly, right there on court, if he should lose, ever, even once.”

When O.N.A.N.T.A.’s newly minted computer and ranking center manager ranks Clipperton as #1 in Boys’ Continental 18-and-Unders, he trudges up to Enfield Tennis Academy, gets an audience with James and Mario Incandenza, and eliminates his own map in front of them. The problem, we find out, with knowing exactly where you stand, is that if you finally get to the top, there’s nowhere to go but down.

I’ve been thinking about the Enfield Tennis Academy students (and their competitors) a lot this past week. As someone who invested the entirety of the first 25 years of her life in school and academia, I crave environments where abilities are ranked and quantified. I know what a 97 percent means. I know what a 4.0 GPA means. And I know what those numbers mean in comparison to those who are there, going through life beside me.

Those kind of numbers are an easy answer to the “Am I any good?” question that rattles around in the quiet spaces of our skulls. After all, we all want to feel like we’re doing at least an adequate – if not excellent – job handling our day-to-day endeavors, whether it’s our job, our off-hours pursuits, our relationship skills or our parenting abilities.

But how can we really know? Unless you play competitive sports or work for one of those companies that implements a ranking-based annual review process, your abilities go mostly unquantified. You might get a promotion, earn a salary increase, win a prize or celebrate an anniversary, but you aren’t literally ranked #3 out of your company’s 100 employees, or #5 out of the 20 moms in your daughter’s kindergarten class. Life doesn’t work that way; you can’t rate work and life experiences the same way you can tally wins and losses in competitive tennis.

Hal gets this in a way Eric Clipperton didn’t. We see him, in the tennis practice following the previous day’s Eschaton match, looking back at the shards of computer glass glittering in the sun and reflecting on the fact that he didn’t do more to prevent his Little Buddies from being hurt. He’s good – he’s predicted to be seeded in the top four at the Whataburger Invitational – but what he’s really grappling over is what it means to be a good person.

The Ultimate Eschaton Quiz

The Ultimate Eschaton Quiz

Michael Pemulis may be far and away the greatest Eschaton player in Enfield Tennis Academy history, but you can claim your own glory by mastering the Ultimate Eschaton Quiz.  Answer the most questions out of ten correct, and you’ll have a chance to add your name to the leaderboard!