Wow. What a whirlwind. What a performance. What an experience. These 75 pages are just the stuff people get excited about when they get excited about Wallace. So much is happening all of a sudden, all the delays are gone. This is it. It’s funny, sad, horrifying, epic, wise, absurd, silly, enthralling. There’s so much to say and no way I can think to say it coherently, but maybe it’s even appropriate to make a discontinuous list of things that together will collage into something resembling sense or at least kick off some sparks. Because it seems to me the book’s peculiar power derives from its scattershot approach to its story, everywhere at once, touching on ten layers at once, forever out of our critical grasp, and that somehow, all these disparate threads are all about the same thing, they all tie in, however tangentially. It’s all just so alive.
I’m going to skip the really major moments (The Wraith appears, Nothing is unendurable, Who’s got the Master, Hal is getting disconnected from his face, The final assault is prepared, Toothbrushing and Red-Purple Psychotropic Betel-Juice) for the most part, leaving them to our able guides, to give me a chance to revel with you in the details.
1. Gately’s Health
Finally, after 190 pages of waiting, our fifty shades of post-modern gray author has let up on the action-interruptus torment and allowed us to return to the story of Don Gately, shot.
I’m not feeling so great about Don’s condition. He’s being fed – kept alive – through a tube. People are visiting in the hospital at the rate that makes you think that someone’s been saying, ‘You’d better get in to see him now.’ And he’s been in for at least three weeks, which is as long as the Wraith’s been waiting for him to notice him sitting there. That’s a long time to be delirious, fed through a tube. The unflappable Pat Montesian cries, and perhaps suggests that Demerol might not be a bad thing to take after all. The doctors think that there must have been “something unclean” on the bullet, as Toxemia has set in. Oddly, in real life, toxemia seems to be most prevalent in childbirth, a non-irrelevant detail, maybe, given all the mumbo-jumbo about the murdering Mom, about which more see below. And then there’s the fever dream in which Joelle appears as the very embodiment of both the film Infinite Jest as it’s been described, and as The Angel of Death. Gately asks Death to set him free, and Death/Angel/Mother/Joelle says, “Wait.” Good. There’s some hope.
2. Sex and Death and Infants and Mothers
I’ve never been able to completely grasp the dark logic, or metaphorical import of the now repeated idea of the IJ film: Your mother kills you in a previous life and then is your mother in the next life, always apologizing for a murder neither of you can quite remember. I like the idea of the wobbly lens and the invention of infanto-vision, but I’ve asked and looked and read about Lacan and Freud and what-not and while I can start in on an explanation what I ultimately come up with is… Wha-hunh? I wish someone could explain this to me. I notice the critical lit tends to avoid the details of what might just possibly be the somewhat embarrassing B-movie nature at the very heart of this very great novel.
3. The Hamlet Watch
For a book supposedly modeled in part on Hamlet, the play is mentioned directly only five times. One is here, in footnote 337. Tiny Ewell (who knows the word “fracas,” maybe the source of Thrust’s mishearing.) “…your display of reluctant se offendendo,” a malaprop of its own, Ewell going for ‘self-defense,’ and winding up with ‘self-offense,’ which gets all twisted up into the self-destructive nature of behaviors in the book, and we will leave lie. In favor of the Wraith’s mention of LAERTES, who kills Hamlet with poison. Back to that unclean bullet? I hope not.
Some mighty portentous faces in this section, matching ones we’ve seen before, like Hal’s at the end of Grief-Therapy phone call with Orin, “his expression terrifically intense.” We have Kevin Bain’s “unspeakable” face reaching out for Inner Infant needs. Then two dream faces of Joelle, as horrifying Churchill and entrancing beautiful Angel of Death. Then Stice – oh, my god, Stice! – and “his rodential real face, aflame with… revelation.”
5. Oh My God, Stice!
Stice stuck to the window, his forehead like bubblegum, undetatchable. On my first reading of the novel, this scene stayed with me more than any other. Just horrifying. And I was sure there was some grand organizing metaphor here about the interior subjective world and the exterior objective world, and how you could get in real trouble trying to break through the impregnable wall that bars us from the Heaven o perfect knowledge of the world. So, Ahab’s white Whale, I give you Stice’s window. And what has happened to poor Stice? Who said this book isn’t a page-turner?
6. An Ugly Xeno-Racist Mood
Well, there’s a lot of distasteful use of ‘Oriental’ in here and uglier use of the N word, plus a particularly revolting description of the skin-tone of a character as ‘spoiled pumpkin,’ (but of course then he turns out to be brilliant) and just more of the same ‘well, it’s in the voice of these white racist characters, what can you do?’ thing we have to do while reading Infinite Jest. And then, Hal, narrating (Hal narrating??) describes the “ugly xeno-racist mood” that took over when ETA played the travelling Ethiopian team. So Hal, at least, is aware of racism. So maybe the book is, too, some strategic maneuver around the isolated Self and Unreachable Other idea? But it sure goes in for some wallowing. On the ‘it’s deliberate’ front, we also have the rhythm early on in the Inner Infant section of the words: Swart. Swart. Swarthy. And finally “dark-skinned.” The Bain Brothers, apparently, like Hal, are dark. As someone said on the blog, are we all related here?
7. Who’s Narrating This Thing?
We get quite a long and satisfying visit with Hal in the first person in this section, though the narrator also wanders to places that the avid writers in my writer’s group – like me – would pounce upon and say, “But he could have never seen that.”
But then, wherever we go in Jest, the narrator-stance seems to shift. Sometimes first, sometimes third, sometimes this kind of legal-deposition-speak that makes me imagine the book as a kind of Presidential Commission publication, with witness testimony framed by notes and commentary. We get one of those moments in that same footnote 337 that mentions Hamlet, when the writer of the footnote wonders what Ewell meant by his words. How is it that the narrator doesn’t know what Ewell meant? Sometimes the narrator doesn’t even know what was said, as if h/she was transcribing a recorded interview. And then, fueling my paranoid detective fire, on page 826, “weird Federal guys” with “goofy” haircuts … “took depositions.” Is this all some massive after-the-fact reconstruction?
8. Color Coding
Corrie Baldauf, get out your plastic tabs. So much white and pale white in this section. Gately’s room goes to white. It’s bright white, bleached, boiled, brutal white, guys in white show up at the donnybrook. Montpelier is white with snow. Stice’s daybreak is gray-white. I fear the white. And then the red and the purple. Mauve sweaters, Cerise Montclair (14 Montclair Rd. was Mr. Wallace’s childhood address.) Daddy turned red blue purple and died. Joelle’s hair, light purple, darker red. I fear the dark red as I fear the white.
9. Ghostish: The Wraith is afoot, and time is relative.
Someday, I would like to make a complete study of the ways that time speeds and slows in Infinite Jest. Or I would like someone else to do that so that I could read it. Does it make any sense, these elaborate discussions of time’s different ways of passing in the book? Or is it like Iannis Goerlandt put it in his “Put the Book Down and Slowly Walk Away: Irony and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” in which he says that the book makes us paranoid readers, as we search to make sense of the patterns that are… almost… but never quite…. There. Is that why we’re so obsessed?
Wallace at one point wanted this sculpture for the cover image, an impression of what’s it like to be on DMZ for one thing, as described earlier. It’s called “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” by Boccioni.
10. Fun With Malaprops, or The Wonderful Words of Gately and Thrust
10.1 818 (and on) Noxema (Toxemia)
10.2 819 Every Oreida of Self-Control (Iota)
10.3 819 Turnipcut (Turniquet)
10.4 820 Freakus (Fracas)
10.5 822 Embryoglio (Embrolio)
10.6 822 Fleen off (Fled)
10.7 823 Prosfeces (Prosthesis
10.8 824 Breastwork (Deskwork)
10.9 827 Senorio (for scenario)
10.10 834 Sir Osis of Thuliver (Cirrhosis of the liver)
10.11 835 The Heinekin Maneuver (Heimlich)
10.12 836 Angora* (Agora)
*The rare implied malaprop, absent from the page, only appearing as a punch line in the reader’s head when we are told that to Gately, ‘agora’ means ‘expensive sweater.’
10.13 863 Orchasm (orgasm)
10.14 867 Raisin-debt (raison d’être)
11. The Pop Culture and Literary Reference Desk
My favorite part of book is teasing out the pop-culture references and inspirations, drawn from my and likely Wallace’s youth and elsewhere. Wallace said it was simply realism to draw on these things, in Wim Wenders Kings of the Road, a character remarks, “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious.” This week we have:
11.1 Semi-Tough, 1977. The Inner Infant crawling on all fours, is straight outta Move-a-genics, the self-help movement in this Burt Reynolds film. “Billy Clyde, did you crawl when you were a kid?” Check out the link to a Youtube clip.
11.2 The Bly Poster (806) Robert Bly, he of the Men’s Movement, drumming circles and much other embarrassment for a poet.
11.3 Kevin Bain, waiting for his parents to show is in the exact position of young Marcel at the start of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, angling to get his mother to join him at the bed.
11.4 I don’t know how to how to love him. The Bway Jesus Christ Superstar schmaltz-fest has become a real opera in O.N.A.N. land.
11.5 All That Jazz. The vision of Joelle as veiled Angel of Death bears a striking resemblance to Jessica Lange’s role of the same name in 1979’s All That Jazz.
11.6 Noxema The “Take It Off, Take It All Off” ads of the late 60s were the sexiest thing on TV at the time, searing Miss Sweden’s visage into young boy’s skulls. So here again, we have this weird Wallace mix of sex and the nearness of death, Eros and Thanatos, swimming around in some sort of stew.
11.7 Ginsu Knife. The grand-daddy of all bad late-night infomercials. It slices, it dices.
11.8 Evel Knievel. Always one car too many. But Evel will never die.
11.9 Hal’s NASA Glass. Be careful where you leave it.
11.10 Dean Martin. Rat Packer, Movie Star, Drunk, Withdrawer from life.
and so forth. More upon request.
12. Random Notes
12.1 Intimations of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Kevin Bain crawls down a “Dacronyl” hallway, evidence of Wallace’s abiding interest in carpet manufacturer that will find full flower in his later book.
12.2. Intimations of The Pale King: Kevin Bain’s hobby is “memorizing IRS capital deduction schedules.”
12.3 The Pynchon Watch: Kenkle and Brandt, two Beckett clowns if there ever were a pair, apparently “rode T at night, recreationally.” Much like Slothop and the Whole Sick Crew of Pynchon’s V.
12.4 Part of what makes Infinite Jest so funny, I think, is incongruity of precise objective language applied to scenes of great emotion and intensity: “ He seemed oddly preoccupied for a man occlusively sealed to a frozen window.”
13. Words IJ Taught Me This Week (Thanks Merriman-Webster)
13.1 801 Diglobular. Neologism, one of our author’s favorite moves. A clever insult for the Inner Infant Group leader, puts me in mind of a snowman. Like Gately, he has a huge head, but round, like his round torso.
13.2 A lot of the words that appear in Gately’s head, courtesy The Wraith, on page 832
13.21 Acciacctura – an ornament note that is one half step or one whole step below a principal note and is sounded at the same time as the principal note, adding dissonance to a harmony.
13.22 Alembic – a distilling apparatus, now obsolete.
13.23. Testudo – either a tortoise, a harp made of a tortoise shell, a packed Roman battle formation, a battering ram (IJ the film as battering ram?) or an obsolete constellation.
13.24 Catalept – one suffering from catalepsy, a nervous condition characterized by fixity of posture and muscle rigidity. The Wraith thinking of the Limbo-paralytic in the bed next to Gately?
13.25 Strigil – Roman scraper of dead skin and sweat after a bath. Our man is up for some disgusting body-talk at any moment.
13.26 Impost – a tax, or weight carried by a horse as a handicap. ‘And the Lord said: Let not the weight thou wouldst pull to thyself exceed thine own weight.’ (125)
13.27 Chronaxy – the minimum amount of time needed to electrically stimulate a nerve or muscle. Whether rat’s pushing the pleasure bar or pain wracking Gately’s shoulder.
13.28 Luculus – Legendary Roman general who retired to a life of excess leisure and gormandizing.
13.3 864 Guilloche: an architectural ornament formed of two or more interlaced bands with openings containing round devices.
13.4 871 Subhadronic (from hadronic) referring to any of the subatomic particles (as protons and neutrons) that are made up of quarks and are subject to the strong force
13.5 875 Atheling: an Anglo-Saxon prince or nobleman; especially : the heir apparent or a prince of the royal family. (here, Stice riffing on “Prince” Hal )
13.6 875 Cach-inated (Cachinnate) to laugh loudly or immoderately. (Latin, cachinnare)
Thank you allowing me to guest blog. Let us hope our heroes prevail.
Bill Lattanzi works as a video producer/editor and occasionally leads a tour of David Foster Wallace’s Boston. Find him on Twitter @blattanzi.