All posts by Jenni B. Baker

Respectable

Poor Tony was on my train.

It was mid-July 2009, and I’d just made the multi-block morning trek from my overpriced one-bedroom apartment in Bethesda, MD, to the metro station of the same name. I’d been making this same journey for just over a month, having begrudgingly left academia for a job in the ‘real world.’

It was clear something was wrong as I boarded the metro car from the dimly lit platform: a shaking man does, after all, stand out on a morning train.

He was, like Poor Tony, “one of those loathsome urban specimens that respectable persons on trains slide and drift quietly away from without even seeming to notice they’re even there” (304). He convulsed violently, his mass creating a forward momentum that pulled him further out of his seat with every quake. Within seconds, his body succumbed to gravity, and he tumbled face first onto the floor as the train departed the station. In his new position, his over-sized sweatpants had slid down his waist, exposing the tops of his haunches. At a certain point, he lost control of his bowels, and the carpet darkened underneath him.

2819182505_7d36882c0a_bPhoto courtesy of Eric Fidler (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I’ve shared various versions of this story in the years since the incident; in almost all of them, I paint myself as a gape-mouthed Midwesterner, incredulous that my fellow commuters would refuse to look up from their Washington Posts or offer assistance to someone who was clearly so unwell. I, without a doubt, would have done something if I had known about the emergency call button in the metro car and if I wasn’t, in my big-city newness, still moderately fearful of never-encountered situations. Right?

Yet, like your Infinite Jest respectables who “quietly retreated as far as possible from the puddles in which [Poor Tony] sat,” I kept my distance, my own pink face no doubt looking stricken (403).

Someone pressed the emergency call button. The conductor announced we would be holding momentarily for a sick passenger. Paramedics eventually descended to extract the man from the metro car. I told them I’d seen him seize.

When I read the section of Infinite Jest where Poor Tony has a seizure, it makes me consider what I barely thought of that day: the perspective of the man who shook. I was too focused on what was happening to me on my commute that morning, too eager to tell others what I had experienced, that I’d failed to consider what the same events looked like to the man immobile and alone on floor of the metro car.

I’ll never know if the man on my train was suffering from an addiction, had forgotten to take his seizure medicine that morning or was experiencing a freak event precipitated by external cause. I just know that it didn’t occur to me to really care until I was forced inside Poor Tony’s head during his own shake-up — forced to consider how I would feel if faced with similar circumstances.

Both Poor Tony and the man on my metro car helped drive home one of the themes of the book — that we are each alone and struggling in our own ways. Some of us have the luxury to do so behind closed doors, when we take off the face we wear to meet the faces that we meet, while others among us are forced to fight our private battles in public. What I love about Infinite Jest is that it encourages us to look past appearances, to recognize that what we see of people in public is only a sliver of the self.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on Ryan Blanck’s “Letters to DFW” blog  in May 2012.

The View, Chez Molly

By this point in the book, we know the David is in the details.

While there are certain sections of Infinite Jest where the details start to make my eyes glazy  (see: WYYY broadcasting ranges and Student Union facility descriptions),  I find myself slowing down as Joelle prepares to have Too Much Fun, soaking in the details of the scene in Molly Notkin’s apartment.

Gloss over the details in this section? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered with some visuals.

Molly Notkin / Infinite Jest Collage 1

  • “…offering her that odd kind of British-Columbian apple juice”
  • “…Joelle at home’s…gone back to the Big Red Soda Water of childhood.”
  • “an assortment of bottles of different shapes and dim colors and different levels of what’s inside.”
  • “An old Latin-revival CD issues at acceptable volume from the speakers”
  • “one beautiful young woman, quite beautiful, her back undulating minimally in a thin tight blue-and-white-striped sailorish top”
  • “now it’s the west wall’s framed mirror, hung between two empty ornate gilt frames Notkin thinks she’s been retroironic by having the frames themselves framed.”

 

Molly Notkin / Infinite Jest Collage 2

“On the private side of the bathroom door she’s had to take two damp towels off the top of to close all the way, the same rotten old hook for a lock never quite ever seeming to want to fit its receptacle in the jamb, the party’s music now some horrible collection of mollified rock classics with all soft rock’s grim dental associations, the business side of the door is hung with a Selective Automation of Knoxville calendar from before Subsidized Time and cut-out photos of Kinski as Paganini and Léaud as Doinel and a borderless still of the crowd scene in what looks like Peterson’s The Lead Shoes and rather curiously the offprinted page of J. van Dyne, M.A.’s one and only published film-theory monograph. Joelle can smell, through her veil and own stale exhalations, the little room’s complicated spice of sandalwood rubble in a little violet-ribboned pomander and deodorant soap and the sharp decayed-lemon odor of stress-diarrhea.”

 

Molly Notkin / Infinite Jest Collage 3

“On the counter of an old sink the same not-quite white as the floor and ceiling (the wallpaper is a maddening uncountable pattern of roses twined in garlands on sticks) on the counter are an old splay-bristled toothbrush, tube of Gleem rolled neatly up from the bottom, unsavory old NoCoat scraper, rubber cement, NeGram, depilatory ointment, tube of Monostat not squeezed from the bottom, phony-beard whis-kerbits and curled green threads of used mint floss and Parapectolin and a wholly unsqueezed tube of diaphragm-foam and no makeup but serious styling gel in a big jar with no lid and hairs around the rim and an empty tampon box half-filled with nickels and pennies and rubber bands.”

 

Molly Notkin / Infinite Jest Collage 4

“From the purse she removes the plastic Pepsi container, a box of wooden matches kept dry in a resealable baggie, two little thick glycine bags each holding four grams of pharmaceutical-grade cocaine, a single-edge razor blade (increasingly tough to find), a little black Kodachrome canister whose gray lid she pops and discards to reveal baking soda sifted fine as talc, the empty glass cigar tube, a folded square of Reynolds Wrap foil the size of a playing card, and an amputated length of the bottom of a quality wire coat hanger.”

A Face to Meet the Faces That You Meet

A few weeks ago, as I was preparing to record an episode of The Great Concavity podcast via Skype, I exchanged the following message with one of the show’s hosts:

Me: Is this call audio-only or do you turn your cameras on?
Matt: We turn the cameras off. No awkward videophony allowed.

Because, of course, what I was really asking was, “In addition to worrying about sounding interesting and likable in this audio recording, do I also have to worry about visually hiding this worry from you so that I seem like a completely relaxed, well-adjusted person?” 

"Monstrous," erasure from pg. 147 of Infinite Jest.

This kind of questioning plays out in this week’s readings on both the macro level — when we hear about the rise and fall of videophony — and the micro level, as we get some additional exposure to Hal’s inner thoughts in the locker room and Big Buddy scenes.

On a first reading, we might be tempted to write off the teleputer users described in this section as simply vain. Yet, the desire to look “incredibly fit and attractive” to others is about more than aesthetics.

Even with high-end TPs’ high-def viewer-screens, consumers perceived something essentially blurred and moist-looking about their phone-faces, a shiny pallid indefiniteness that struck them as not just unflattering but somehow evasive, furtive, untrustworthy, unlikeable….Almost 50% of respondents who received visual access to their own faces during videophonic calls specifically used the terms untrustworthy, unlikeable or hard to like in describing their own visage’s appearance.

In other words, we feel that what we look like physically says something about the nature of our character (see: every Disney film) and how others will perceive us. Complicating matters is that it is “weirdly hard to evaluate what you yourself look like.” If we can’t accurately assess our own appearance, how can we know how others will view us and, in turn, our character?

Eleven-year old E.T.A. student Evan Ingersoll is Hal’s videophony.

Hal is in the middle of a big change. Having previously “identified himself as a lexical prodigy…plus a really good tennis player,” he is now being “encouraged to identify himself as a late-blooming prodigy and possible genius at tennis who is on the verge of making every authority-figure in his world and beyond very proud indeed.” There are a lot of eyes on him right now, including his own.

And yet, he finds it hard to evaluate what he himself looks like. Only when he’s high and talking to Orin do we start to see him question “whether or not he was really all that intelligent.” And when it comes to Hal’s urge to be cruel to Ingersoll, it’s Lyle the guru who has to point out what Hal can’t see:

Hal some weeks back had acquiesced to Lyle’s diagnosis that Hal finds Ingersoll – this smart soft caustic kid, with a big soft eyebrowless face and unwrinkled thumb-joints, with the runty cuddled look of a Mama’s boy from way back, a quick intelligence he squanders on an insatiable need to advance some impression of himself – that the kid so repels Hal because Hal sees in the kid certain parts of himself he can’t or won’t accept. None of this ever occurs to Hal when Ingersoll’s in the room. He wishes him ill.

Like the teleputer users who engaged in videophony, Hal suddenly spots parts of himself that he finds unlikeable, and tries to advance an impression of himself that disguises those parts. The challenge, as we’ve already seen in the opening Year of Glad section, comes when the impression you’re trying so hard to advance doesn’t match what other people see.

O, Anxiety

Orin is one of my favorite Infinite Jest characters.

I like Orin for many of the same reasons I appreciate Ben Linus from LOST and Snape in the Harry Potter series. He’s clearly got some issues and doesn’t always act in the most morally or socially upright manner, but from the beginning you know there’s something more lurking underneath the surface — something that presses you to look through the character flaws. I mean, who among us hasn’t had a bathroom full of roaches asphyxiating under tumblers at one point or another?

We first really get to know Orin and his anxiety in October of Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. The way Wallace shows rather than tells us about Orin’s dread is so good it belongs in any intro to creative writing textbook. The language too, contributes mightily. A few observations:

Unpack Your Adjectives

(Get my reference? Anyone? Okay, anyways.) The Orin section contains so many anxiety-ridden adjectives and adverbs it might as well be a thesaurus entry for the phase “THE WORST.”

Infinite Jest Orin Incandenza Wordle

The Long and Short of It

Next, while long sentences are a David Foster Wallace trademark (try your hand here), they take on additional significance in the Orin section of this week’s reading. Consider that this section of the book is composed in free indirect speech — in other words, written how Orin might think and speak. Combine that knowledge with the fact that racing thoughts are a common symptom of anxiety disorders, and you have another tack to investigate. Longer sentences = racing thoughts = anxiety.

Count the number of words in a sentence, plot it on a graph, and you’ll see a slowly rising tension throughout the section, with sentences containing increasing number of words towards the end.

Infinite Jest Sentence Length - Orin Incandenza

What are those peaks? When we look at the three longest sentences in the section, we see Orin referencing:

  • Flying roaches and dead-body mudslides in New Orleans (201 words, starting with “The parishes around N.O…”)
  • Subjects who are still there when Orin wakes up (139 words, starting with “It’s the mornings after…”)
  • Being forced to watch a CBC documentary on schizophrenia where a patient endures his worst fears via treatment doled out by medical professionals  (413 words, starting with “And so but since…”)

A Is for Anxiety

Finally there are a lot of “A” words in this section and, happenstance or not, a lot of these words correspond to people, places and things that compound Orin’s anxiety:

  • Academy (ETA)
  • Acid
  • Albertan(s)
  • Altitude
  • Ambush
  • Arizona
  • Avril

Needless to say, Orin is one of the characters I’ll be paying more attention to on this re-read, along with the language Wallace deploys when talking about him.

Catch anything else about this section of the book? I hope you’ll share your observations and insights with me in the comments section.

Dancing Cockroach GIF

David Foster Wallace Giveth, and I Taketh Away

To avoid spoilers, the guides will comment on each week’s reading in the week that follows. We’ll use this first week to introduce ourselves and hope you’ll do the same in the comments.

infinite-jest-circle

It goes like this.

I sit cross-legged on the floor of my one-bedroom apartment, nested in the corner where the poetry bookshelves meet the nonfiction bookshelves in a V. There, I place Infinite Jest on my scanner with repeated thunks, scanning its pages in high resolution to an SD card; after scanning a group 20 pages or so, I transfer it to my computer, where the real work begins.

In Photoshop, I open one of the scanned images and fix its imperfections — I adjust page rotation and correct color, and exorcise the ghosts of my hands accidentally captured during the scan. I methodically begin to erase Wallace’s words, whiting out 80-90 percent of the page, until only a few, select words — poems — remain.

Here’s an animated GIF that illustrates the process:

Animated GIF of page 3 of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest turning into an erasure poem.

I’ve been repeating this process as part of my project, called Erasing Infinite, since late 2013 and  posting the resulting poems online as I go. I know that some of you will see this as desecration of a holy text; just know I pursue this project in homage.

I originally read Infinite Jest during Infinite Summer in 2009, and it was one of those rare instances of reading the right book at the right time in your life— something I’d only experienced previously with Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Wallace once said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” and I felt, reading Infinite Jest, that I had finally found an author who really got it. Like so many who first find solace in Wallace’s writing, I’d been feeling adrift and alone for years. To find words sitting in a book that articulated what I’d struggled to express for so long was powerful.

And also heartbreaking. What did it mean that Wallace, the one author who’d been able to give words to these feelings of isolation that so often go unspoken by so many, had killed himself? Should we all do the same?

Jenni B Baker Erasing InfiniteI carried this quandary — this grief, really — around for a few years before I alighted on the idea for Erasing Infinite. I decided that it was only by working through Infinite Jest, page by page, that I could properly pay homage to Wallace. In creating something new from his words, I could create a conduit for him to live on, and new opportunities for connection — between myself and others, and between others and Wallace.

Receiving the invitation from Mark to be an Infinite Winter guide is a great example of the kind of opportunity I’m talking about. It’s satisfying to feel connected to the larger David Foster Wallace community — both the repeat readers whose names I’m used to seeing pop up in my inbox and Twitter feed — and those of you who are new. I can’t wait to see what personal connection points you find in Infinite Jest.

What can you expect from me? I’m not the guide who’s read every book by Wallace or every scholarly article; I have not obsessively tracked down every reference or pursued every plot point to its possible end(s). What I can offer as a guide is a love of language and a lot of heart. I expect my posts will look at how Wallace says things as much as they do what he’s actually saying. (Did I mention I’m a former English major?)  

And while Infinite Winter continues, so too does Erasing Infinite. I’ve just passed the 25 percent completion point — now if only I could work through poems at the same rate we’ll be reading.