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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: 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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