Infinite Jest – Week Twenty (pages 575-615)

Hi everyone. Next Tuesday we’ll be discussing pp.575-615. This week we spend some more time with Lenz, a couple of the Incandenza children, and then something really unexpected and interesting happens…

“Which the contents of the macadamia-labelled can is really a coiled cloth snake with an ejaculatory spring…” (580)

So we come at last to the end of what is one of my favourite long sections in the whole novel. This chapter is a wonderful marriage of form and content, because just as Gately has no idea there is a bullet waiting for him, so the reader–on their first time through–can’t know how important it’s going to be when we’re told about Lenz and his addiction to violence (80 long pages ago!). But one thing leads inevitably to another, and on a second or third reading it seems like the bullet that ends the chapter had Gately’s name on it from the moment Lenz took up his habit. While I’m never not enjoying Wallace’s literary firework display, I do sometimes forget, in the middle of his 1100 page novel, why it mattered to me so much the last time. Sections like this remind me.

This last part is quite elegiac, with the loud Hawaiian music and the young people who still use party as a verb, and the substratified sadness this awakens in Green without him even realising. Like the larger section as a whole, when you read this a second time it seems shot through with dramatic irony. Wallace chooses the perfect moments to slip in and out of the characters minds, and it seems all the more tragic that we know more about why Green is suffering than he does himself.

We all enjoyed the hyper-educated machismo of those at the party who say “they found overweight girls terribly compelling in their defiance of culturo-ascetic norms,” the fact that Gately has to stand at the bottom of the lady’s stairs and repeatedly shout his gender, the heroism of Green in the end and the complete whatever-the-opposite-of-heroism-is that Lenz exhibits so pathetically (and comically).

Gately’s brutality is a shock to all of us: our first timers because it seems to so undermine his own heroism, and our veterans because we forget it was that bad… The scene is constructed so brilliantly, with the slow accretion of details and suspense, suspense, suspense. Though the novel gives the impression it’s impossible that Wallace could have been in complete control of its order, he sews the seeds of the Boston-parking-switcheroo just where we need them, to rack up the tension in the scene as Gately tries to get everyone organised. We forget, I think, how good Wallace is at the mechanics of plot and pace (when he gets around to that sort of thing!).

It seems significant that Wallace chooses to intercut the end of this scene with the Incandenza brothers, and Mario’s feelings about God. Orin’s chapter is comic but seems to foreshadow some terrible things on the horizon (made worse, somehow, by his blindness to them). With the Hobbesian collapse in the chapter’s last pages we wonder if Mario might not be onto something. This section seems like one of those moments where Wallace most directly addresses his readers. While we’re pushed away at the end by Gately’s terrible violence, there’s never a moment where we aren’t hooked by what’s happening, and dying to know what happens next, in no small part because what Wallace called the “god stuff” seems like it’s central to the novel as a whole, and it’s starting to come more and more to the fore…

Word of the Week: “plasm” (577).


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