This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”
January 8, 2012, pgs 638-662/1046. In the case of Steeply’s father and the obsession with M*A*S*H, please note that: (1) should a viewer, obsessed or not, want to watch and study every episode of M*A*S*H it would be (or would have been) entirely possible during the syndication that Wallace describes here. There are, as he says, 29 showings of M*A*S*H every week. Meaning that any normal person could adhere to the “normal” schedule and watch on average four episodes a day. (2) M*A*S*H had (and probably still has) many more interested viewers and dedicated fans — people who could likely recite to you an in-depth history of the show and its characters — than the real Korean conflict it dramatizes; as seen in the fact that (3) the final 2.5 hour series finale was the most watched broadcast in television history when it aired in 1983. An estimated 125 million people tuned in to see it, including viewers watching on TVs set up in barracks and parking lots and other US Army facilities in Korea.
Steeply’s father may have fallen into a spiral of insane obsession, but it’s not a stretch to say he was pushed. He seems to be on one far end of a bell curve of possible reactions to the amount of M*A*S*H in the world, which I think is an important point.
Steeply “gave the impression somehow of having several cigarettes going at one time.” This is an anxiety tell straight out of Salinger, who I continue to see as one of Wallace’s major influences.
The impression Steeply gets from looking in the eyes of his father and the people who have seen The Entertainment, that they are “Stuck. Fixed. Held. Trapped. As in trapped in some sort of middle. Between two things. Pulled apart in different directions” echoes the closing sentences of Erdedy’s chapter way back at the very beginning of the book.
Then, following a chapter in which Geoffrey Day describes the “black shape” that manifested his internal hell of misery and depression, Hal has a match in which he struggles against Ortho Stice, aka The Darkness. Things are changing. Hal wins a volley with a move that is “anti-book” and “one of very few total inspired points from Incandenza.” But ultimately he almost loses, which we already know, and adds to the menace of lines like: “There was no indication Hal even saw it, the shadow, hunched and waiting for Stice.” And if, in the catalog of Hamlet Sightings this match parallels in some ways the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, it is the point in Hamlet when everyone dies. The Hal-Stice match is more mysterious in its origins and outcome, and doesn’t seem to draw influence from the play other than mirroring the specific scene of competition. But it seems clear that Hal is staying just barely ahead of the darkness.
This is also one of the rare moments in which Wallace provides chronological orientation of the many events taking place in the book. It is mid-afternoon on 11 November YDAU. Gately is asleep at Ennnet House (prior to the fight) while Poor Tony has not yet had his seizure and is still in the library bathroom going through withdrawal. Pemulis and Struck are presumably researching a certain hallucinogen. Orin is with the Swedish hand model.
This chapter also allows us to read Wallace doing something he’s probably unmatched at, which is writing about tennis.