Infinite Jest – Week Twenty Two (pages 663-698)

Hi all. Next Tuesday we’ll discuss pp.663-698. These pages include a wonderful account of Avril + dog by one Marlon Bain; the adventures of the tunnel club; a discussion of shooting stars; yet another new character; and some of the best and most famous pages in the whole novel, on depression and millennial America.

‘The  Xmas cards had had excruciating little watercolor pictures of locomotives on them. She could barely stand to think about them, even at the best of times, which the present was not.’

Our eyes bask briefly in the acres of white space of letters ‘From the Desk of Helen Steeply’. But not for long: most of the content is tucked away in ‘Notes and Errata’. We’re treated to Marlon Bain’s take on ‘both Orin’s mendacious idiocy and Mrs. Incandenza’s unwillingness to countenance an idiotic lie’, which strikes us all as particularly astute (although, he can’t seem to keep Steeply’s name right – degenerating from ‘Steepley’, through ‘Steeples’ and ‘Starksaddle’ to ‘Bainbridge’ – so maybe not the most reliable witness). The tale of canine S. Johnson became a ‘nubbin’ is, indeed, almost ‘unspeakable’ and I still find the read pretty nauseating. We find Avril’s maternal failings potentially abusive and it makes some of us feel a bit hopeless: as with Don Gately’s return to violence, many admirable qualities are beginning to poison the chalice. We’re noticing that Orin’s imitation of Avril – by ‘assum[ing] an enormous warm and loving smile and move steadily toward you until he is in so close that his face is spread up flat against your own face and your breaths mingle’ – illustrates a perverted philanthropy and that it foreshadows his own behavior with his Subjects.

Back at (or rather, under) E. T. A., another perspective of the Ortho-Hal exhibition. Some of the younger kids involved in the Eschaton debacle are on ‘a semi-punitive shit detail’ in the utility and storage tunnels underneath the campus. Some interesting group dynamics here – the tension being whether Blott was lying about seeing some scuttling horror down here. The Tunnel Club’s Stand-By-Me adventure rides on the hope that they will spot a creature (feral hamster or rat) the mere reporting of the sighting being enough to distract the faculty from further punishing Hal, Pemulis, and Axford. In the end, it is the horror of maggots, of death itself, in a big, subterranean fridge: ‘This is Death. Woe unto those that gazeth on Death.’ Like the ballooning carton in the fridge, this is a tightly-contained episode of a particularly concentrated solution of dread and innocence lost.

Back at the match, Thierry Poutrincourt (whose ‘slight shrugs and way of looking elsewhere while speaking were not unlike Rémy Marathe’s’) becomes the fixation of a suspicious-Steeply narration. The breakdown of each of the students in terms of their game-weaknesses seems slightly cruel from these staff members (like a student’s paranoia over Staff Room character assassinations). When we get to the male #1 and #2, DeLint tells us “Wayne is pure force. He doesn’t feel fear, pity, remorse” and that Hal “looks just as perfectly dead out there” but has an “emotional susceptibility in terms of forgetting”. This is troubling because we rarely get inside Wayne, but there are suggestions (like at Mario’s screening) that he is vulnerable in other ways, while Hal believes he is completely internally empty.

Meeting Matty Pemulis is a cinematic experience (like Robert Altman, Wallace seems to just move the camera) and a tragic one at that: ‘Matty Pemulis was a prostitute and today he was twenty-three’. At a cafe in Cambridge, Poor Tony Krause passes by, almost unrecognizable to Matty (implying their past connection). This haunting by ‘Krause’s spectral mien’ and the horror of human feces in the street provokes Matty’s memory of his father raping him from the age of ten. Like with other narratives of horrific abuse in the novel, Wallace manages here to avoid simplistic judgments like ‘pure evil’ (‘The origins of the big man’s clear familiarity with the stuff [lube] and its nighttime use not even adult perspective could illuminate’) instead suggesting cycles of abuse at the same time as acknowledging the complex pain of the abused (both Matty and his witnessing brother, yes, Michael): ‘Matty still toasted the man’s final memory with his fist shot, whenever he indulged’.

After the match, DeLint explains to Hal that he ‘just never quite occurred out there, kid’ – an unwitting foreshadowing of Hal’s withdrawal (not just from pot, but from the social plane?). We’re speculating whether Hal, who then begins to watch his father’s films, may here, at some point, stumble across the Entertainment… What he does watch is Wave Bye-Bye to the Bureaucrat as he ‘likes to project himself imaginatively into the ex-bureacrat’s character on the leisurely drive home toward ontological erasure’. Hopeless and ‘Bob-Hopeless’ Hal’s left at a bit of a precipice, perhaps like the film cartridges ‘waiting to drop, in order, and be digitally decoded.’

Back with the consciousness of Poor Tony, in the same time-frame as we left Matty Pemulis above, it appears the reborn, but unrepentant detoxing transvestite is about to attempt a purse-snatch to then fleece the goods at the Antitoi brothers. We see his bypassing of Matty Pemulis ‘a sure source of compassion’ as potentially a missed opportunity for salvation. The cliffhanger hangs as we’re treated to the bathos of Geoffrey Day’s fieldnotes on the ‘the way most of the male residents of Ennet house special little cognomens for their genitals’, and his nostalgia for Lenz ‘brandishing the Hog’

Our reading this week concludes with the knockout rhapsody on ‘Kate Gompert and this depression issue’. This crucial episode details Wallace’s distinction between the hip and cool anhedonia (the narrative here blends to J.O.I.’s suicide and Hal’s essential emptiness and resulting loneliness) to ‘the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain’ of clinical depressionmelancholia. Kate Gompert, ‘down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It‘. Like Stephen King’s shapeshifting essence in his 1986 novel (the second King reference this week) ‘It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence’ which makes living ‘not just unpleasant but literally horrible’. We have been waiting to hear this, Kate’s side of the dialogue that has been until now been monopolized by men – first the patronising doctor of ‘brisk good cheer’, then the ID-ing Geoffrey Day with his billowing darkness. Kate’s navigation of the terminology of depression strikes as as particularly exemplary of Wallace – both seeming to arrive at an arresting accuracy by pulling many different literary and scientific sources together – from Milton’s flames to Burton’s melancholia and Yevtushenko’s psychotic depression. The final image of ‘excruciating little water color pictures of locomotives on them’ loops our reading back to the ‘ontological erasure’ of Wave Bye-Bye to the Bureaucrat, yet now we are in darker, scarier territory: the novel has just raised the stakes and the precipices plunge deeper.

Word of the Week: “burning” (697).


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