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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: Tragedy Comedy

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


March 14, 2012, pgs 865-883/1077. Hal, still in first person, goes to brush his teeth. The early morning crying he hears behind closed doors reminds me of the stories I’ve heard from people who were in Teach for America: “Lots of the top players start the A.M. with a quick fit of crying, then are basically hale and well-wrapped for the rest of the day.”

For some reason, the clock in the bathroom reads “11-18-EST456” when the day is actually the 20th. Maybe it’s an uncorrected effect of ETA’s fixing of the mirrors to prevent Pemulis from messing with them.  Maybe it’s something else.  I like to think that the snow on the boys’ dorm windowsill is a basically meaningless but polite nod to “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Hal wanders out to find Ortho Stice chanting to himself. His forehead is frozen to the window, facing outward much like a night watchman, as a previous commenter has pointed out while posing a pretty compelling theory that this is the point at which the narrative begins to line up with the narrative of Hamlet.

If this theory has legs, it’s possible but (again) probably a stretch to think that Wallace dropped a little hint for us. When Hal speaks to Ortho, Ortho asks Hal if he is crying.  At the end of the scene Hal is asked why he’s laughing so much.  In neither case does Hal believe he’s doing either — on speaking to Stice: “My voice had been neutral and a bit puzzled.” But these expressions may be referring to the Tragedy and Comedy masks of the theater (or theatre, if you must). It would be appropriate, if this is officially where “Infinite Jest” — or at least this part of “Infinite Jest” — begins to properly parallel the narrative in “Hamlet.”*

Whatever the case is, strange things are all around. There is a figure outside sitting on the bleachers in the snow. Ortho tells his story about waking up in the middle of the night and slips and says “The point’s I’m up there —” about his bed. Troeltsch and Axhandle have either switched rooms or are in the same room on the same twin bed. The Darkness then asks if Hal believes “in shit” like ghosts. He mentions that someone came by before but just stood behind him silently, “Then he went away. Or…it.” Ortho tells Hal that if he pulls him off the window, “I’ll take and show you some parabnormal shit that’ll shake your personal tree but good,” referring to his bed moving around in his room. Stice won’t come unstuck from the window.

Hal goes for help, taking his toothbrush with him because of a previous incident at ETA in which students’ brushes had been dosed with Betel nut extract. Kenkle interrupts a monologue on sex — which sounds an awful like the description of a beast with two backs — to greet “Good Prince Hal.” Hal explains the situation to them and Kenkle asks him why it’s so funny. He appears to be laughing.

A yell sounds from upstairs.

Then — the US Office of Unspecified Services is preparing for a release of The Entertainment, with market tested ideas on how to reach little kids. It’s an interesting idea but feels like a bit of a distraction from the events unfolding with people we really care about. There is one interesting point of note, a connection to way back on page 419, when Marathe is thinking about the “latent and sadistic” assignments USOUS gives to its operatives. One of the things he lists is “healthy women as hydrocephalic boys or epileptic public-relations executives.” In this scene 460 pages later, Carl E. (‘Buster’) Yee, Director of Marketing and Product-Perception at the Glad Flaccid Receptacle Corporation, has an epileptic fit in the middle of the meeting. And I won’t even venture any unwelcome speculation about hydrocephalic boys.

*Maybe it’s crazy to look for such deliberate clues. It’s as stupid as trying to find “Hamlet” in Pi — unless…


Happy Pi Day everybody!

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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: Alas, Poor Tony

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


March 8, 2012, pgs 845-864/1076-1077. Finally, the end comes for Poor Tony Krause and Randy Lenz, two of the most unpleasant characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

But age with his stealing steps/ Hath clawed me in his clutch,/ And hath shipped me into the land/ As if I had never been such.

Lenz remains Lenz right up to the very end, apparently cutting Krause’s digits off and offering them up during the AFR civilian testing of The Entertainment. If there was any ambiguity, it seems that Marathe has definitely made his choice since he failed to report Jolene’s Joelle’s presence to Fortier and “had made his decision and his call,” said call being to Steeply. In the meantime, he helps plan an AFR incursion to ETA to get at Hal, Mario and Avril.

Gately dreams. He’s with Joelle getting ready for romance when her revealed face is that of Winston Churchill. This is reminiscent of the description of Ortho Stice from two hundred and ten pages prior: “A beautiful sports body, lithe and tapered and sleekly muscled, smooth…on whose graceful neck sits the face of a ravaged Winston Churchill, broad and slab-featured…”  It’s too far a stretch for me to call this a Hamlet Sighting, but I do think it’s funny that there is some possibly family resemblance between our possible Laertes and our almost certainly Ophelia characters. The root cause, however, is most likely David Foster Wallace’s feeling that Winston Churchill was funny looking. Gately’s touching memory-dream of Mrs. Waite morphs into what appears to be the content of The Entertainment, in which JOI’s death/female/mother cosmology is explained to Gately, who submits to it.

Hal wakes from a dream and — for what I think is the first time — speaks in a first person voice that is loudly and clearly identified as Hal (and not just a random, nameless first-person somewhere in the jumble of characters in the previous 850 pages). Hal now has a voice, and it’s one of the coolest tricks in a tricky novel, mostly because it doesn’t feel like a trick.  Pemulis is off the stage, but he’s clearly on the mind of Hal, who describes the snow outside as “Yachting-cap white.”  He is then struck by that fact that he’s having feelings of not wanting to play tennis: “I couldn’t remember feeling strongly one way or the other about playing for quite a long time, in fact.” Hal is shifting out of neutral, which seems like a good thing, but is also accompanied by the feeling that “without some one-hitters to be able to look forward to smoking alone in the tunnel I was waking up every day feeling as though there was nothing in the day to anticipate or lend anything any meaning.”

Gately wakes up to the real Joelle van Dyne.  Like her Ennet House-mates, Joelle unloads her recovery narrative on Gately, only this time he doesn’t seem to mind.  He takes inspiration from her progress and has his own kind of breakthrough: “He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding.”  We hear a by now familiar Wallace refrain “What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all.” All this business about living in the moment and ignoring the mind carries more-than-subtle notes of Buddhism.

In addition to refusing narcotic painkillers, Gately also tries to convince himself to swear off Joelle.

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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: The Darkness

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.

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