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.

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4 thoughts on “Both Pretty and Not”

  1. Sounds like the beginning of a Master’s thesis: “… 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?” Now, come up with a title, and be sure it has a colon in it, and you’re halfway to publication. (English majors never die; we just keep coming up with titles for theses.)

  2. “the Enfield offices of a Dr. Zegarelli, D.D.S., which Hal’s just come back from, after a removal: the left side of his face still feels big and dead” (509)

  3. Whoa, cool insight about the left side of the brain’s functions and Hal’s perpetual problems with the SINISTRAL portside [redundancy, sic.] of his body. That never would have occurred to me! The wheels are turning…

  4. Yay — I am finally caught up with the guides! Having never been in a book group of any kind (and coveting my wife’s experience with her long term women’s book group), it is fun and exciting for me, especially to talk about this book, which I have never had the opportunity to do. So thank you ALL!
    In some of your examples, above, Jenni, the characters use/have used their pain (Pat’s leg and arm, Gately’s horrendous past actions, etc.) as motivation for change. Others (Hal’s ankle, the other tennis players’ distorted bodies and injuries, Poor Tony’s monstrous past that fuels his addiction) continue to do what continues to hurt them…
    We can turn straw into gold, if we have Rumpelstilskin’s spinning wheel (which, of course, I believe to be the power of mindfulness) (but do take this with a grain of straw, or soupcon of Cui Bono, since I AM a mindfulness teacher). Or our straw can just get dirtier, and dirtier, and pile higher, and higher…until it impedes, then suffocates, us…

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