Tag Archives: Orin Incandenza

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: Every Unhappy Family…

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

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February 3, 2012, pgs 736-755/1062. The strangeness with Orin and his mother puts Joelle van Dyne in the habit of getting high and compulsively cleaning, the irony of which being that compulsive cleanliness is one of Orin’s mother things. Joelle has retained the habit into sobriety, and as she careens around her shared room at Ennet House, we get a look back at her own family and some of the interactions with the Incandenza family. Contrary to the “Anna Karenina” bit referenced in our title, Joelle notes that “Orin’d had no idea how banal and average his same-sex-parent-issues were…Joelle’d known her mother didn’t much like her from the first time her own personal Daddy’d told her he’d rather take Pokie to the pictures alone.” Here again we have the possible indication that Joelle’s father abused her at the movies.

Joelle’s impressions of JOI’s movies sound like Wallace’s critique of his own writing. She describes JOI’s films as “the work of a brilliant optician and technician who was an amateur at any kind of real communication. Technically gorgeous, the Work, with lighting and angles planned out to the frame. But oddly hollow, empty, no sense of dramatic towardness — no narrative movement toward a real story; no emotional movement toward an audience.”  This probably sounds just about spot-on to anyone who’s stuck with it for 740 pages, and Wallace himself seemed to feel the same way.  He was quoted in a D.T. Max New Yorker piece that, in his early writing, he “saw himself as having been driven by a “basically vapid urge to be avant-garde and post structural and linguistically calisthenic.’” Interestingly, after this sort-of layered in apology by the author, Joelle talks about the split second shots in The Medusa v. The Odalisque where his fighting monsters seems to feel a deep concern over the audience, showing brief flashes of pain when their actions turn the seated people into stone. “It was like he couldn’t help putting human flashes in, but he wanted to get them in as quickly and unstudyably as possible.”

In Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell, the Ecstasy of St. Theresa figures heavily again, as it does in M v. O  and in Joelle’s own life (another drug induced experience along with compulsive cleaning was to visualize the Ecstasy at the peak of her high). In Pre-Numptial… a slow four-minute shot of the sculpture is the only point indicating “Freedom from one’s own head, one’s inescapable P.O.V.” Again we see the building blocks of “This is Water.”

Marathe, while successfully interviewing for admission to Ennet House, spots some potential versions of The Entertainment. He makes his decision about which side to land on once the ONAN-AFR battle begins, and decides correctly since Fortier does not plan to let him live. But Marathe doesn’t decide on when he should make his move, leading to a possible but unlikely Hamlet Sighting.

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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: Brief Interview with Hyperhidrosis Man

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

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January 11, 2012, pgs 663-665/1046-1052. On the matters of Orin and Avril Incandenza we hear directly from Marlon Bain, uncontrollably sweaty and nonfunctional obsessive compulsive; founder of the successful Saprogenic* Greetings (now owned by ACME Family of Gags N’ Notions which formerly employed Bruce Green’s father); late son of parents killed on Jamaica Way by a falling traffic helicopter, presumably Lateral Alice Moore’s; former ETA student and childhood companion of Orin Incandenza; former and potentially current unrequited love interest of Lyle the fitness guru; current reclusive dweller in some kind of doorway-less children’s room of a former pubic library and apparent answerer of only odd-numbered questions. To “Infinite Jest” what Eli Cash was to The Royal Tenenbaums.

Other than his uncanny connections to various other players in the story, Marlon sheds little light. We see that he was (or at least thinks he was) irrevocably changed by using “deadly-serious hallucinogens at a sort of larval psychological stage.” There is another appearance of the Near Eastern medical attaché, this time with Avril. And we learn more about Orin’s unsavory past. And of course Bain’s sweatiness is akin to the author’s own struggles with constant public sweating (allegedly the impetus behind the bandana), and is a character trait that is repeated in greater detail with David Cusk from “The Pale King.”

*/ˌsaprōˈjenik/ Adj. Causing or produced by putrefaction or decay.

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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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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: Finding Drama

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

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December 14,2011, pgs 550-567/1037-1044. Plot points abound as our seemingly anti-confluential drama moves along. Pemulis, attempting to look insolent but actually looking “less insolent than just extremely poorly dressed,” uncovers a sordid bit of role playing between John Wayne and Avril. I suppose it’s worth remembering here that in Oedipus’ story, he actually married his mom.  What’s happening in Avril’s office is an important piece of information, but what’s missing is an answer to the question: What did Pemulis have to say to Avril as he swaggered into her office dressed that way?

It’s no accident that the section immediately following opens with a description of Lenz’s equally cartoonish attire. Lenz on coke becomes a fact-spewing machine, lending a hand to Wallace who can have him jabber about everything from the “dreaded Estuarial crocodile” to Real Estate Cults in S. Cal. (see T. Pynchon, “Inherent Vice” for extended and excellent commentary on the subject) to his wildly obese mother. Wallace’s prose is particularly suited to the unstaunched flow of coked up monologue. While Lenz is undoubtedly doubtable, not everything he’s saying is bullshit. He mentions both La Culte du Prochain Train and something that sounds curiously like The Entertainment. One wonders what else he is saying has factual backing and possible relevance. Toward the end of one of his sections, he refers to himself as “yrstruly,” harkening back to an earlier section in the book and a first-person narrator hanging with Poor Tony who could be Lenz but doesn’t really seem to fit the part.

Hal lies on his bed, doing nothing. “We await, I predict, the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines.”

Gately is interfacing with residents at Ennet House “UP TO ABOUT 2329H., WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 11 Y.D.A.U.”

Orin’s extended endnote interview yields the following information: JOI invented “that new kind of window glass that doesn’t fog or smudge from people touching it or breathing on it,” presumably after seeing a certain name written into the fogged up window of a car. The Mad/Sad Stork was, in a manner of speaking, a functional alcoholic. The Mom’s is a functionally insane person. According to Orin, Hal “is so shut down talking to him is like throwing a stone in a pond.” Echoing Gately and AA in general, “The Mad Stork always used to say clichés earned their status as clichés because they were so obviously true.” Marlon Bain’s parents died in a strange accident, he is (or was) non-functionally insane, he bears a serious grudge against Avril, and he recently sold his Saprogenic Greetings company, which I believe we last saw for sale in Antitoi Entertainent.

Credit: Chris Ayers. pooryorickentertainment.tumblr.com

For all the absurdities of Orin’s interaction with the hand model, this section has some extraordinary writing about sex for the Oedipally-stricken. Here Wallace rivals Pynchon in his ability to create a situation that is comical and ridiculous, and then drill swiftly down into the honest, human heart of the matter. It is worth slowing down to read that “It is not about consolation…It is not about conquest…It feels to the punter rather to be about hope…” and so on. You get a sense of Orin’s true and deep sadness, as he searches for whatever it is he’s searching for in the one activity he seems genuinely interested in. Once again, it seems no accident that these pages with the football player having sex with a mother are in close proximity to a section with a mother engaging in sexual role playing with a young man dressed as a football player.

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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: Double Binds

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

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October 3, 2011, pgs 306-321/1004-1022. David Foster Wallace walks a fine line with a lot of the scholarly academic elements of  “Infinite Jest.” For instance, Hal’s term paper on television heroes and the graduate students talking nonsense at Molly Notkin’s party where Joelle van Dyne tries to off herself. These pages open with Schacht taking a test on pathological double binds. On first reading it’s not particularly funny and only merely interesting to have a 16-year old trying to answer word problems about satisfying the needs of a kleptomaniacal agoraphobic. But a second look makes me think it is necessary for Wallace to push things like scholarship and geopolitics just past the line into farcical. Otherwise, readers might start thinking that they mean something, that a statement is being made. Which at times it might be, but it shouldn’t be the focus. By taking these things out of the realm of what’s worth considering, we can see people and their stories rather than tendentious philosophical allegories. Same with politics, where any kind of proposed scenario is going to make people draw lines between the politics in their own lives and the politics in the story. Wallace has more serious and fundamental political considerations to offer, as we see later, and none of that discourse is aided by being able to tag one group as clearly the Dems or clearly the Republicans (or Labour and Liberal, as it were) in this scenario and decide at the outset that they’re jerks just like in real life.

The issues need to be cut from whole cloth, for example, a Québécois separatist movement of armed wheelchair assassins working to undermine the unified North American polity. Hal is both studying and lecturing on the issues at hand in the main text and in a lengthy endnote (with its own footnotes) phone call with Orin. They are teasing out the motivations for such a strange resistance force and what that all might have to do with a samizdat that “Helen” Steeply is curiously interested in. Then Mario’s birth to an unexpectingly expectant Avril Incandenza. The boy has a long list of medical, developmental, dental and cosmetic challenges to overcome, including the thin hair reminiscent of Charles Tavis, who may or may not be part of the equation. Fortunately Mario also has a “younger and way more externally impressive brother” who “almost idealizes Mario, secretly. God-type issues aside, Mario is a (semi-) walking miracle, Hal believes.”

Then a serious political discussion between a man in drag and a wheelchair assassin. Here we have a debate between competing philosophies of government and culture, pitting freedom and individual liberty, along with the messy consequences of letting people do what they want when they want, against totalitarian control. Steeply obviously favors the liberty and freedom parts, even in spite of the consequences that have been put in front of him with the Entertainment. Marathe sees it as, “A U.S.A. that would die — and let its children die, each one — for the so called perfect Entertainment…Who would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving…can such a U.S.A. hope to survive for a much longer time?” In a brief, brilliant moment of the book, Steeply’s retort begins with silently lighting a cigarette, causing Marathe to wonder, “why the presence of Americans could always make him feel vaguely ashamed after saying things he believed. An aftertaste of shame after revealing passion of any belief and type when with Americans, as if he had made flatulence instead of revealed belief.” (Please recall that all of this was written in the first years of the rise of the ironic, slacker Gen X.)

Steeply’s proposed alternative to Marathe’s vision of the end times is a revulsion at totalitarian dominance of the state. This section is cornerstone-level important to the novel, I feel, as it deals with the whole pursuit of happiness and excess stuff that occupies the drug addicts and the over-achievers that populate the text. It’s also something that Wallace has talked about often in other venues. For instance, this exchange with David Lipsky on 157-8 of “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” (Lipsky in bold):

Marathe is basically a fascist. You’re talking about a culture that teaches people how to make moral choices, that teeters very easily into a culture…into a totalitarian, authoritarian culture. But a culture that doesn’t, and that prides itself on not — the way sort of ours does, or has recently…I think we’re just beginning to see, that on either side of the continuum there are terrible prices to pay.

You give no answer to this question, then…

I don’t think there’s an answer. You mean, are there laws that should be passed? Or is there public education we can do [...]

So no answer: either that kind of freedom or that kind of guidance.

I think it’s — I mean I think the whole thing is an enormous game of Little Red Riding Hood, and you’re trying to find out what’s just right. And you, you know — what is it? — you can’t find the middle till you hit both walls? You know? The thing that really scares me about this country — and again, I’d want you to stress, I’m a private citizen, I am not a pundit. Is I think we’re really setting ourselves up for repression and fascism. I think our hunger, our hunger to have somebody else tell us what to do — or for some sort of certainty, or something to steer by — is getting so bad, um, that I think it’s, there’s even a, Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom”, I mean, makes a similar argument economically. But I think, you know, with Pat Buchanan, in Rush Limbaugh, there are rumbles on the Western horizon, you know. And that it’s going to be, that the next few decades are going to be really scary. Particularly if things get economically shaky, and people for instance — people who’ve never been hungry before, might be hungry or might be cold.

Marathe talks about the loss of temples and the “confusion of permissions.” Steeply compares Quebec to the Nazis. Both are right and both are wrong and, as a result, both are relevant to the book and to how the book relates to our own lives.

At the end neither of them knows how they’re going to get down off the mountain.

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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: The Story of O

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

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September 28, 2011, pgs 283-306. Orin Incandenza is in the running for saddest guy in this book, which is saying a lot when your dramatis persona is almost entirely comprised of drug addicts, alcoholics, suicides and the suicidal, cripples, violent criminals, the physically and sexually abused, militaristically drilled adolescents, the developmentally challenged and others. Orin actually has some measure of tangible success, including excellence in his field, financial security, casual abstinence from substances, ability to seduce nearly any woman, health and more — which only amplifies the fact that he wakes up each morning on soaked sheets, paralyzed with fear, rarely alone but lonely as hell.

Here, then, is some of the back story of how all that came to be: how Orin left home, left tennis and got involved with Joelle van Dyne aka Madame Psychosis aka the Prettiest Girl of All Time, or PGOAT. Orin bears strong similarities to Mike Pemulis, as both have phenomenal lobs but limited tennis games otherwise, and “Orin was Eschaton’s first game-master at E.T.A.” It’s not hard to see how the young man found his way into serious adult unhappiness, with the glimpses of a home life with his mother, whom he described to Hal as “a kind of contortionist with other people’s bodies,” and Charles “CT” Tavis, who is without question the most tiresome and blandly sinister person in “Infinite Jest,” if not all of American literature. The fact that he lays out the whole Hamlet-esque family drama in E.T.A.’s convocation ceremony speech each year is spreading more than enough crazy seed to grow flowers.

I haven’t figured out, other than the all too obvious reason, why Orin traces the symbol for infinity on his “subjects,” but I’m pretty sure it’s not good. He is some kind of preternatural genius at punting a football, which is interesting because, given his father’s and his father’s father’s pursuits of success, Orin’s greatest and most celebrated achievement comes only in the event of failure. What he seems to really enjoy about his job is the ability to shut off his head in the thrum of thousands of cheering fans, which he describes as “the sound of the womb” and “amniotic,” with just about the right level of Oedipal creepiness.

Then it’s off to Poor Tony Krause, which, again, usually means something unpleasant and gross is about to happen. Probably involving bodily fluids. This time it’s a seizure that comes after a headache-inducingly vivid description of pure addictive desperation and heroin withdrawal. But even with all the soiled clothing and incontinence and pain and fingers bit off during Tony’s lowest moments, he still seems somehow better adjusted than Orin. Tony has a bathroom stall and a steady supply of NyQuil and he calls it getting by for a few days, whereas Orin’s misery manages to permeate every surface of his well-ordered life.

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