“Hi all. Next Tuesday we’ll be discussing pp. 809-851. These pages focus almost entirely on one character, and they are mind-expanding. Can’t wait.”
At long, long last we check-in on the Don Gately as he suffers through recovery/Recovery in a hospital bed. The Chicken not-so-Little for whom the sky is not falling but ‘[t]he ceiling is breathing’. The narrative voice here seems to hover above Gately’s head yet remains with Gately trapped in observing the unsolicited visitors to his hospital room: ‘he’d maybe been castrated, which was how he’d always heard the term catheterized‘.
Is it Eldred “Tiny” Ewell’s reverie that prompts Gately’s own conscious and subconscious explorations of memories (fever-dreams ‘of dark writhing storm clouds writhing darkly and screaming’ and his mother ‘pulled spinning up into the tornado’s vortex’). And what does this have to do with Alcoholics Anonymous, this deep-rooted shame buried and confessed to across the years? We are a little unsettled by Ewell’s evidently finding pleasure in rhetoric’s power to move and manipulate human hearts – is there a bit of DFW in this? Ewell worries that time and death will deny his reaching the 9th Step – “Even if I could remember the homes of the citizens we defrauded, how many could still be there, living?” – and Gately, ‘unable to vocalize aloud’, cannot give counsel (even if he wanted to).
Wallace paints Gately’s suffering as complex, blending physical, psychological, and moral hues: ‘everything on his right side was on fire. The pain was getting to be emergency-type pain […]. Parts of him kept sending up emergency flares to other parts of him, and he could neither move nor call out.’ Gately finds himself simultaneously in the ‘sit and Hurt’ cage of AA and a hospital ‘crib’ and potentially on the brink of narcotic relapse.
More visits, from ‘a probably real Pat Montesian’ – doesn’t give the much-longed for answer to whether Gately should accept narcotic painkillers – Joelle, Geoffrey Day, and Calvin Thrust fill in some of the gaps in the aftermath-account of the shooting, although Gately still doesn’t know whether he has killed anyone. Clennette and Yolanda, who certainly have killed, are fugitives harbored ‘taking meals in their room and are under orders not to come down or go near any windows’. The camaraderie at Ennet House is tribal – it seems that society and its laws have broken down or are at least subordinated to the codes of E.H. Gately’s visitors mostly treat him, in his disability, like there’s noone in there; instead of truly interfacing with him there is something like a TV/Viewer relationship occurring here. Wallace awareness of his reader’s patience is evident throughout, and acknowledged just as we’re starting to get bored of Thrust’s gabbing : ‘Gately’s eyes keep rolling up in his head, only partly from the pain‘.
A moment us veterans have all been looking forward to is Gately’s ‘unpleasantly detailed dream where the ghostish figure that’s been flickering in and out of sight around the room finally stays in one spot long enough for Gately to really check him out.’ This ‘plain old […] generic garden-variety wraith’ doesn’t appear totally benign. In fact, it subjects Gately to ‘lexical rape’ as capitalised words like ‘PIROUETTE’, ‘LACTRODECTUS MACTANS’, and ‘CIRCUMAMBIENTFOUNDDRAMALEVIRATEMARRIAGE’ come ‘into Gately’s personal mind, in Gately’s own brain voice but with roaring and unwilled force’. From these terms we see a multileveled haunting by ‘James’: stylistically in its allusion to Joyce’s Ulysses (Aeolus and Circe, in particular) and thematically in the association to James Orin Incandenza himself. The dissonance intensifies when the wraith produces a verfremdungseffekt-ed can of Coke (with ‘alien unfamiliar Oriental-type writing on it instead of the good old words Coca-Cola and Coke) in ‘maybe the whole dream’s worst moment’. As Gately begins to think this wraith comes from his ‘personally confused understanding of God, a Higher Power or something […] Carrying The Message’, we recognise it as a masterfully metafictive visitation from the author/auteur Himself that sustains rather than breaks the emotive force of the narrative. This is indeed what it may ‘be like to try and talk and have the person think it was just their own mind talking’ that draws us to Wallace’s writing.
The wraith’s thoughts on figurants, the ‘human furniture’ in television and film, take us to the ‘radical realism’ suggested in Wallace’s ‘E Unibus Pluram’. Within the narrative of Infinite Jest, though, they lead to the revelation of the Entertainment’s true purpose – to save Hal from becoming a figurant via a ‘magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy […] To bring him ‘out of himself […] A way to say I AM SO VERY, VERY SORRY and have it heard.’ This ‘serious’ entertainment is driven by very human tragedy and sadness. The wraith has increasing significance for us veterans on multiple readings, yet new readers are unsure what to make of or take from its visitation.
Following the wraith’s departure, Gately reflects on and takes inventory of his own past, trying to construct a narrative that is both true and which absolves him from guilt that he may not be a good person: his lack of action (from saving flies and his own mother from suffering) is profoundly ambivalent. At this point, Gately’s sponsor, the Crocodile Ferocious Francis G. visits to ask “And are you as yet sober, then?” apparently giving Gately the fortitude (or fear) to keep suffering un-anesthetized.
The narrative flow breaks with the announcement of a new day (19th November YDAU) and yet we’re unsure exactly how the previous action as unfolded in time from the last date-marker (17th). A very short section following Marathe reveals that, due to his refusal to betray Joelle’s location at Ennet House to the A.F.R., a new plan to infiltrate E.T.A. is mobilised. Back at the hostpital, Gately’s morally-ambivalent dreams and memories merge significantly. Wallace captures his spiritual crisis in a heartbreaking short-story memory (which brought a number of us to tears) of ‘Mrs Waite’ a tragic figure from Gately’s past who comes to be fused with Joelle and Death ‘As in the figure of Death, Death incarnate’ who tells Gately to ‘Wait’ for his release: from damage, guilt, and pain. Many of us have reached the point in the novel where it’s very hard to stop reading as Wallace continues to build the great emotional charge of the narrative while increasingly discharging roman-candle bursts of heartbreak and ecstasy. Bring on the next pp.!
Word of the Week: “wraith” (829).