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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: What Happened, Pt. 2

This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Previously on “Words, Words, Words”:

Had Wallace “completed” the story, he would have distracted from what I think is the real meaning of Infinite Jest.

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I’ll tell you what that is.

Commence Part 2…

Credit: “KN/PC: Infinite Jest” by Cody Hoyt. Buy it in print, canvas or shirt form here.

So, I may have misspoke.  The truth is that isolating a single “real meaning of Infinite Jest” is next to impossible. On one hand, it can be said that the novel is about many things: fathers and sons; mothers and sons; addiction; communication; entertainment; politics; greatness, mediocrity and failure. It’s a coming of age story alongside a recovery story that is also possibly a love story, all wrapped in a cloak-and-dagger-ish mystery about international realignment and terrorism. Choose your favorite combination and go with it. The book is about a lot of things.

On the other hand, it’s tough to say the book is actually “about” anything at all.  As we have noted, there is no clear resolution. We never see the characters learn lessons, come of age, fall in love or be at peace in any way that warrants a Happily Ever After type of closure. The book literally stops far away and chronologically ahead of the main events in the novel (sort of) and we don’t entirely know who lives or dies, or what the shape of the continental borders look like, or whether fathers connected with sons.  I’m sure many of the most frustrated readers have tossed up their hands and decided that Infinite Jest is really about nothing at all, some kind of post-modern experiment in reader-annoyance-tolerance-levels where we’re supposed to be thinking about what it means to read stories when really all we wanted was to just plain old read a story.

Rather than walking away from IJ in one of these two unsatisfying directions, it is possible to follow a third and potentially satisfying way.

I believe there is a unified theory of Infinite Jest that explains the various particles and waves of the novel — or most of them, at least — and helps clarify why Wallace made some of the choices he made. Continue reading

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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: What Happened, Pt. 1

This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

It’s been a little over three months since the last post of the Infinite Jest liveblog, and I recently noticed the first tiny urges to jump back in and read the book again. I’m not quite ready for all that, but it seems like the right time to tackle some of the most difficult questions lingering at the end of the novel: What the hell just happened? And why did it happen that way? (I’ll tackle the latter in a second post).

If your experience finishing Infinite Jest mirrors mine, then after you threw the book across the room, picked it up and re-read the first chapter, then threw the book again, you went to Google and entered: “WHAT HAPPENED IN INFINITE JEST?” 

This approach leads to some good resources for piecing together the actual events. Aaron Swartz at Raw Thought has the best explanation I’ve seen so far, a concise, linear and well-built case for what happened, even if some of his conclusions are debatable. Ezra Klein has some interesting thoughts about the impact, if not the actual details, of IJ’s ending in a post called “Infinite Jest as Infinite Jest.” And Dan Schmidt’s “Notes on Infinite Jest” answers some questions while raising others.

I’ll be using these sources — without which I would not  have grasped what happened — to walk through things in detail here. But first, let’s establish that there actually is something happening at the end of Infinite Jest. The abrupt closing is easily written off as arbitrary or too clever, an easy way out of a monstrous narrative that offered no satisfying path to the finish line. But Wallace appears to have had an arc — or a circle — in mind, and filling in the blanks does not disappoint. Continue reading

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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: Monsters

This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” 

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February 9, 2012, pgs 755-785/1062-1066. I recall reading, in an essay I can’t dig up for the life of Google, how DFW’s fiction shows a special affinity for the deformed, the ill, the afflicted and so on. It was not that Wallace wrote with a special sympathy for them; kind of the opposite really.  It was that they seemed to be the only category of people in his fiction who were capable of genuine happiness.  They were not Frankenstein monsters that deserved pity so much as genuine heroes.  Exhibit A in this theory is Mario Incandenza, the homodontic, bradykinetic, macrocephalic and eternally cheerful middle son, who is wandering the halls getting footage for his annual ETA documentary.  His conversation with LaMont Chu (perfectly healthy; punished by desire to appear in magazines) taps us in to the gossip around the grounds, and as Mario shuffles into his mother’s office (tall and beautiful; wildly unhappy and neurotic), the scenery has more to tell us than the interaction itself. A blue blazer with the O.N.A.N.T.A. logo on it hangs in the office, curiously similar to the one the urologist was wearing previously. Avril still has a coach’s whistle around her neck, and the reference to “An old folded pair of U.S.A. football pants and a helmet” as Avril’s “one memento of Orin” (professional athlete and excellent seducer; let’s not even get started on how nuts he is) comes creepily soon after Avril volunteers to be “a subject” for Mario’s filming.

It’s easy to make the assumption that Mario is as mentally slow as he is physically, but there is a mention here that his awareness goes all the way back to his days in the incubator. Or at the very least, as he says, “I have a phenomenal memory for things that make me laugh.”

Remy Marathe (deformities self-inflicted; losing his faith) and Kate Gompert (physically attractive; metaphysical horrorshow) have a late-night rendezvous in Ryles Jazz Bar (a real place), where she has come after being mugged by post-seizure Poor Tony Krause (who himself is headed towards the Antitoi’s shop and another kind of rendezvous), and where Remy has come to call Steeply and betray his comrades. Both are drinking as Remy tells his own story of need and addiction, and how he has no choice in the matter of loving and saving his wife.  Kate seems to have been well-cheered by adrenaline and alcohol, though Remy’s story seems to bring her down, as most stories with lots of bodily fluids will.  Here again we have someone physically grotesque who, if not happy herself is the sole source of happiness for Marathe.

When Remy asks Kate if she would like to go view The Entertainment, it’s hard, knowing her history, not to think that she probably should say yes.

If many of Wallace’s afflicted are heroes, then the opposite can be true with unafflicted and villains. Consider the lobber: Hal’s unsettled state about Pemulis’ ability to lie starts to reveal a sinister side to a character who was until now just a savvy sidekick. Hal even equates his lying with the monsters that once terrified him: “I no longer believe in monsters as faces in the floor or feral infants or vampires or whatever. I think at seventeen now I believe the only real monsters might be the type of liar where there’s simply no way to tell.” Hal’s confession to Mario reveals some building anxiety around his own situation too — in particular his worry about passing the urinalysis because the THC in pot is “fat soluble. It stays in there, in the body’s fat.”

In (another) extended endnote, Hal tells Pemulis about a dream where he is trying to say words but is unable to do anything but sing Ethyl Merman tunes, a la the soldier who took DMZ. His appeal that “It’s me! It’s me, screaming for help!” sounds similar to the opening chapter of the book. Pemulis’ assurances to Hal that he should take a “cobweb clearing” dose of DMZ, or try some other drug to replace the pot would have sounded like reasonable, or at least normal, advice had it not been endnoted right off a section where Hal is deeply skeptical and almost scared of Mike.

Pemulis’ warnings that continuing with weed will make Hal indecisive tug on the Hamlet themes, and I’d bet some enterprising academic could write a solid thesis on the link between marijuana and Hamlet in Infinite Jest. You could start with the second chapter of the novel with Erdeddy, make some connections between Hal secretly smoking in the subterranean pump room and Hamlet in the crypt, and call it “A Hit, a Very Palpable Hit: Marijuana, Hamlet and Infinite Jest.”

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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: Getting Chewed by Something Huge and Tireless and Patient

This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” 

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December 20,2011, pgs 567-619/1044-1045. Let’s begin with the mention of the blind tennis player Dymphna, which seems insignificant aside from the fact that he is nine years old here in the Y.D.A.U., yet is sixteen when Hal says he has to play him one year later in the book’s opening chapter. I don’t know whether this is an oversight or something deliberate. What I do know is that the use of the name “Dymphna” here likely comes from St. Dymphna who, according to the prayer to St. Dymphna, looks out for those “afflicted with mental and emotional illness” to whom IJ is practically dedicated. The reference also bears weight based on the story of Dymphna, which is commonly called “The King Who Wished to Marry His Daughter” and is about pretty much what the title says. It’s a flip on the Oedipal themes running throughout IJ and, as we will see, has some serious relevance vis-a-vis Joelle van Dyne.

While Idris Arslanian walks around blindfolded to study the blind-Dymphna method, Pemulis provides a useful explanation of annular fusion and the reasons for giant infants and large hamsters in the Concavity. Pemulis also mentions that James Incandenza helped design “these special holographic conversions so the team that worked on annulation could study the behavior of subatomics in highly poisonous environments. Without getting poisoned themselves.” This brings to mind the speculations Steeply’s people have made on holography in The Entertainment.

One also finds it amusing that the discussion of annular waste reuse happens as Pemulis solicits Arslanian to (re)use his urine.

The story then jumps between Orin Incandenza’s developing situation with the Swiss hand model and Lenz and Green’s walk home, which after a brief section with Mario ultimately climaxes at Ennet House.

Orin maintains his theory about his legless admirers while his dangerous liaison hides under the covers with a pistol and an oxygen mask. Again, this strange situation is balanced with Orin’s sadness and longing, and his Holden Caulfield-esque remark that “I miss seeing the same things over and over again.” Also an offhand mention of feeling “ready for anything” including “Swiss cuckolds, furtive near-Eastern medical attaches, zaftig print journalists.” Emphasis mine.

Bruce Green is sharing another of OJ’s tragi-comic back stories, including a note that “The creepily friendly bachelor that lived next to his aunt had had two big groomed dogs,” which I think is Wallace’s Man in the Macintosh* moment. Lenz is finally back to executing house pets and giving chase to large Canadians. Mario’s sojourn outside Ennet House is a brief, calm island in the middle of raging seas, even despite his uneasiness about Madame Psychosis. His feeling that “It’s weird to feel like you miss someone you’re not even sure you know” now has a sad extra valence of meaning to it. I wonder if maybe Mario is showing something of what Wallace felt like around AA, and why he felt compelled to write about it. “Mario’s felt good both times in Ennet’s House because it’s very real…once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.” You can even hear DFW breaking through when he momentarily slips out of Mario’s voice to complain about the difficulties of finding “valid art” — which just doesn’t sound like Mario — about “stuff that is real.”

Then, during the Herculean and Kafka-esque moving of the cars at midnight, the ever-humble and ever-dutiful Don Gately gets into a brawl defending Randy Lenz. This is an incredible fight scene. Not only because of the balletic choreography of (as I think Lenz puts it) “some righteous ass-kickings,” nor for the beautifully illustrated pain, like the way Gately’s “shoulder blooms with colorless fire,” but because this fight scene is also a character study of Don G, while it is also a romance between Don and Joelle, while also being a pretty incredible ensemble piece about the people at the halfway house and environs. It’s the Ennet House Eschaton.

*Given the lack of any quick and dirty internet explanations to link to here, I should maybe just say that The Man in the Macintosh was an incidental character in James Joyce’s “Ulysses” long thought to be Joyce himself. After an evening’s Googling, however, there is apparently evidence that the Man is actually Mr. Duffy from the story “A Painful Case.” My point is, Wallace had two dogs and likely considered himself a creepily friendly neighbor at times.

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