The Bonerfied Truth

Telling the truth is fucking hard. That’s my big takeout not from Infinite Jest pages 507-80. It’s fraught is what it is.

Not only do you have to decide whether you’re going to tell the truth – whether you want to, even – but you have to know what it is. How do you know what it is? How do we help each other to tell the truth, to hear the truth and know the truth?

These are the questions I’ve been wrestling with this last week, just like Hal and Avril and Tavis, Steeply and Marathe, Joelle, Gately, Lenz and Green have all in their own ways struggled with finding and articulating truth.

We start our reading with the Dynamic Duo of compulsion: Dr. Charles Tavis and Avril “Dean of Females” Incandenza. While CT is presented as possibly the most pathologically open person on the planet – his “wordy and bluff” way of thinking out loud about thinking out loud re-buries, in their very exhumation, the capital K-T Kernels of Truth in a whole lot of lesser and parenthetical truths. You can just never know with him.

Avril’s a bit the same, openness-wise, except she takes it even further with what Orin and Hal have dubbed “Politeness Roulette”.

This Moms-thing that makes you hate yourself for telling her the truth about any kind of problem because of what the consequences will be for her. It’s like to report any kind of need or problem is to mug her.

While I feel (sorry) that Tavis’s openness is excruciating to behold because you have to experience the full recursive turmoil of a mind in reflexive overdrive, Avril’s is definitely more emotional and it’s more like she’s mugging you by making you mug her, no matter what you do.

[Orin] said she went around with her feelings out in front of her with an arm around the feelings’ windpipe and a Glock 9 mm. to the feelings’ temple like a terrorist with a hostage, daring you to shoot.

Avril’s emotional openness might be a form of honesty, but what good is this honesty without responsibility? What makes Avril the mugger here is that she’s ceding responsibility for her emotions to someone else (here it’s Hal who, judging by his literal orbiting of the Moms and delivering-the-goods-to-authority-type-figures compulsions, has enough maternal issues already thank you very much).

So which puts Hal in a difficult position vis-a-vis his own abilities/desires to be honest – not just to Avril, but we’ve seen time and time again how much Hal has struggled with being honest with himself – finding his own truths. (A brief bit of hand wringing: I don’t blame this on Avril at all – but it’s probably worth noting that many of Infinite Jest’s characters’ issues are inherited from their parents and their parent’s parents and so on – so I don’t think we can completely ignore Avril’s influence in this regard, re little Hallie (Orin and his issues pretty much go without saying). Like, which is the bigger disservice to Avril: to give her too much blame, or too little?)

Wallace shows us how these characters’ desires-slash-abilities to tell the truth (or otherwise) are caught in a kind of feedback loop with the social structures and dynamics that exist between them; but then over the next fifty or so pages lets us continue to ponder the questions way supra as he takes us through a few variations:

Steeply and Marathe are basically professional deceptors, but as they alternate between their deceptions, feigned candor, (possibly) real candor, it’s clear that they are both hiding important truths from their selves. We learn in this section that they each hide something true from their respective superiors – Marathe perceives Steeply needs to satisfy “some U.S.A. desire to hold some small thing back from one’s superiors”.

At Ennet House, a place who more-or-less must facilitate some level of personal/communal inventory-taking, Joelle and Gately are talking past each other – asking but never answering re their own yet-unfaced issues. The whole conversation feels very much like Hal and Orin’s grief-therapist and toe-nail-clipping phone call.

Lastly we get Randy Lenz struggling with whether he wants to tell Bruce Green to screw or not – with whether he wants Green to screw or not. (Sorry Jenni – this is as far into Lenz-territory I’m going to get: maybe Ryan, Corrie or Dave will have the guts).

To tell the truth or not. To know whether you should, or not. To live with the consequences either way. The hurt; the other’s potential hurt. To know what the truth is. To be able to give it voice at all. Wallace keeps reminding us just how fucking hard and complicated it is. How easy it is to be wrong.

If there’s anything we can learn about how to tell the truth from these pages – and not just how not to – maybe it’s that you have to be prepared to live with the consequences, risk the hurt and take responsibility for them.

I can think only of Don Gately’s own p.476 attitude towards developing some kind of rigorous-personal-honesty sense, being Progress Not Perfection.

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12 thoughts on “The Bonerfied Truth”

  1. Nathan, I have thought all day about what I might add to this and I’m empty handed. I just want to let you know that I love this post.
    We are deep into the territory of this book where my synapses are firing beyond my ability to sort. Ah, the sweet spot!

  2. I find the whole honesty thing in IJ SO frustrating, I guess largely because DFW is (as usual) defying literary convention. We are used to reading books where people lie, but in the end we always discover ‘the truth’ – whatever that may mean. Go to a simple Agatha Christie detective novel such as Murder on the Orient Express. Everyone on the train is interviewed, everyone lies (not quite the conventional crime novel where some people lie and some tell the truth and you are guessing all the way through who are the liars and who are not), BUT IN THE END THE TRUTH IS REVEALED. That is the way it is ‘supposed’ to be. Go to a slightly different type of novel such as Happenstance by Carol Shields. A single weekend told from the perspective of a wife……half way through the book that story ends, you flip the book over and read about the same weekend from the husband’s viewpoint; same events very different interpretations of what is going on. And therein lies the problem of what IS the truth. Fact – two cars collide. Interview the two drivers and both will (hopefully) tell you ‘the truth’ about what happened, and you can be sure that these two accounts will be very different.
    We are all desperate to know ‘the truth’ about Joelle – is she so beautiful it’s a real problem or is she disfigured in what we would regard as a more conventional way? It doesn’t matter, does it? We just want to know because we are interested in her as a character and we are curious/nosy. She has simply worked out that to be treated ‘normally’ she has to remove her appearance from the equation – IT JUST DRIVES US MAD NOT TO KNOW DEFINITIVELY.
    Back to what frustrates me. To be told all through the book that certain characters are liars, unreliable witnesses, not to be trusted, but never to let the reader know in the end, strikes me as pointless. You need to be able to have some resolution or everything about a character is rubbish, you might as well make up things about them yourself.

    1. Oh man, I totally get you – I was trying my darnedest to avoid getting into any kind of objective v. subjective truth thing. Umm… there’s a lot here to think about, but for now I might just (cop out and) tackle the point you raise about needing some resolution about characters.

      I don’t think “revealing” the truth has been something Wallace has ever been hugely interested in. I think he’s more into putting readers into a position where they need to work at it. There’s a Wallace quote (from an interview) that I keep coming back to:

      “There is something magical to me about literature and fiction and I think it can do things not only that pop culture cannot do but that are urgent now: one is that by creating a character in a work of fiction you can allow a reader to leap over the wall of self and to allow him to imagine himself not only somewhere else but someone else in a way that television and movies, in a way that no other form can do. I think people are essentially lonely and alone and frightened of being alone.”

      This “imagination” that Wallace refers to is something that a reader has to actively do, I think: to flex and strengthen those parts of ourselves we need for empathy. If works of fiction just spoon-fed us everything about what characters are really thinking and feeling, what motivates them, scares them (&c &c) all the time; how could we learn to do it for ourselves? All this to a certain extent of course: we can never know these things for sure about real people, in the real world. So is it realistic – is it even fair – to expect the same in fiction?

      I don’t think any of these questions are easy ones at all, I’d be keen to hear more of your thoughts on them.

      1. So are you suggesting (that DFW suggested) that his writings are akin to ‘story starters’ that you give 6 year olds which they then expand on for themselves? That he has sketched some characters and we are to develop them ourselves, decide what their story should be?
        In some novels characters and their stories are so compelling that millions of readers want to know ‘what happened next’ (Pride and Prejudice is a good example where the reader desperately wants to know how Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett’s lives are lived) and telling those people, “But it’s just a story, they’re not real people, nothing happened next because the author didn’t imagine any further” infuriates readers who have just loved the way these characters and their lives have been described . Is DFW inviting Fan Fiction?

        1. I was thinking along some quite different lines, but you raise some interesting points. The postmodernist in Dave Wallace, of course, was very acutely aware that his characters weren’t “real” people and lived in a world that had a very clearly delineated and tangible kind of terminus (on another level, being well versed in the whole “Death of the Author” thing, Wallace was also just as acutely aware that any text develops its own life independent of its author – which has some interesting consequences for what you’re talking about). His first novel, The Broom of the System (including its infamous ending that even John Green seems to have a dig at in The Fault in Our Stars), engages with these Qs pretty deeply.

          But I don’t think we’re really talking here about what is going to happen (or really what might happen) beyond the narrative frame. I think it’s got more to do with (especially in Infinite Jest) where the intra-textual “author”-figure’s third-personish omniscience breaks down. Ummm… so while something like fanfic or ‘story starter’ responses mean extending and creating outside a narrative (in a way), this kind of inferring and deciding is something that Wallace is trying to get us to work (and I really wish I could italicise here) within the text. It’s a subtle difference – one that I’m totally bollocksing any attempt to explain – but an important one, I think.

          1. I have come to read IJ as a turducken of a novel. Not a grotesque chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey. Rather, a literary novel stuffed in a detective novel stuffed in an encyclopedia.

            The literary novel is there to show us what it means to be human. The detective novel is unresolved – it’s there to keep us hooked not just until the end, but forever. Infinitely. The encyclopedia is there so Wallace could joyfully share, or echo back, everything he learned in life about words, and literature, and philosophy, and art theory, and politics, etc etc.

    2. Good thoughts Geordie (and Nathan too of course, for eliciting them). But IMO Joelle is not a great example of that ambiguity, as I believe there is enough evidence that she was disfigured facially. Which is probably a good thing in the long run, since Big Don Gately won’t have to spend his life fighting off would-be suitors when they marry and sit on their porch swing in the sunset…

  3. Comments, two.
    1) The watercolor is almost unbearable. Incredibly powerful and poignant. But I thought everyone was avoiding Lenz?
    2) The post says that “Wallace shows us how these characters’ desires-slash-abilities to tell the truth (or otherwise) are caught in a kind of feedback loop with the social structures and dynamics that exist between them; …”.
    Maybe it’s terribly off-topic, but every time I re-read IJ, I am shocked and horrified by the seeming tragedy of Avril. Not the character Avril, but that she seems to bear some similarity’s to DFW’s own mother (such as both being “militant grammarians”). How could he wrestle for so long with Hal’s issues around being honest with his (Hal’s) mother, and yet create a character such as Avril…and know that his very own mother would read the book?

    1. Thanks David. Have you read Every Love Story is a Ghost Story – the DFW bio by DT Max? I’m vaguely recalling there’s some things in there about the issues that existed – or at least that Wallace thought existed – between him and his own Moms.

      1. You are very welcome, Nathan! Thank you and the other guides (even those frightened to touch Lenz)!
        Yes, I did read that, and Franzen’s observations, and various other pieces. All of which lead me to believe (“Duh,” as Homer would say) that puh-lenty of IJ is at least based to some extent on autobiographic material… Which of course makes the Avril stuff even more frightening and fascinating, in a horrific sort of way…

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