The Brothers Karamazov

We have officially chosen our next book! Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1,000 page novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880), which we’ll begin in October 2017. Watch this space.



Infinite Jest – Week Twenty Nine (Pages 938-981)

“Hello all. This week we finish!”

“I realized I could not distinguish my own visual memories of the Weston house from my memories of hearing Mario’s detailed reports of his memories. […] Cork floors and pre-mounted shelving of woody-smelling wood. The chilling framed print of Lang directing Metropolis in 1924…” (950-51)

It’s difficult to know what to say. Some of the group have finished the novel multiple times, and so are well prepared for the ending (it’s almost lost its disappointment, at this point), while others are left a bit baffled by it. Though of course it is more about the journey than the destination, and though we all agree that no other ending could be all that satisfying (Hal having a nice chat with his dad? the AFR fight the ETA students?), there’s no getting around the fact that this amazing journey ends with a big answerless gap.

Leading up to it, we have a number of really interesting scenes that throw some things into light and most things into further doubt. We learn from Joelle, for instance, that the perfect film was James’s last joke (though it’s a joke that certainly seems to be working…).

James’s ghost looms over all these scenes. Stice believes he is possessed. Hal watches some more of James’s old films, and reflects on his father’s status as an artist, a communicator, an entertainer (what is Wallace?). In fact this chapter is full of artworks: the photograph of Lang directing Metropolis, the Consummation of the Levirates, a bit of Blake and Barth and much besides. Is this a Pynchonian disintegration into multiple texts? Are we to try and reintegrate these fragments into a picture of the Incandenza family, whose members are by turns stentorian, sinful, flat, dispossessed, alienated?

The Mikey-at-AA interlude is frustrating. Who is this guy? What does this have to do with anything? The scene with the A.D.A. at least makes more sense, and shines some light on Gately’s fate (or lack thereof). Can the A.D.A. forgive Gately, as we have done so often?

The Loach saga is great, but again seems somewhat out of place. It’s almost as if Wallace is willfully frustrating his reader, wasting valuable page-space on these side-stories when we really want to hear how Hal and Gately and the AFR all meet up. Wallace puts all that to one side to talk about God and the Devil playing for a man’s soul.

Our first-timers were pleased to see Orin back, if only for a moment. He seems to get his comeuppances at last (and how appropriate that he would try to direct his assailants towards a woman in order to save himself).

Finally, we return to Gately in his memories of his great and ultraviolent low point. What has happened to Gately, by the end? Has he been given Demerol? Has he survived at all? Has he returned to his Bottom indefinitely, or gone there only to come out of it again? The last lines are beautiful, but what do they mean for our characters?

Do the AFR get the entertainment in the end? How do Gately and Hal and Wayne meet up and find James’s head? What happens to Hal between now and his meeting in the Year of Glad? Does it matter? Are we supposed to trawl through the novel to find details, clues, to make answers? Or is the point that there is none?

Is this a deformed ending, or a perfect one, and is there a difference?

Infinite Jest is pretty damn incredible.

Word of the Week: “out” (981).

Infinite Jest – Week Twenty Eight (Pages 896-938)

Hello all. This week we’ll discuss pp.896-938. Nearly at the end!”

Too Late” (934)

‘E lucevan le stelle’: and the stars were shining, Incandescent. The ‘free floating misery’ of Tosca underscores the moment when Hal is ‘hit’ by something he describes as ‘some variant of the telescopically self-conscious panic that can be so devastating during a match’. Like Cavaradossi’s, is Hal’s telos his own pending execution? The experience seems to be totally opposite to Gately’s enforced mental strategy of Abiding in discrete moments. For Hal ‘Everything came at too many frames per second’ as the continuum of the everyday ‘took on a crushing cumulative aspect’. Hal reexperiences and projects the ‘total number[s]’ of his existence: walking up steps, eating, excreting. This is quite a strange moment in the novel (what has Hal been ‘hit’ with, existential angst or something chemical?) yet displays Wallace’s ability to humanize philosophical abstraction. Needing a lie down, finally supine and horizontal in front of a screen, Hal ruminates on etymologies of blizzard as the snow whips outside (conjuring images of Joycean decay and amnesia) (896-7).

Back with the macrocephalic Gately we’re treated to the high school years of the ‘Big Indestructible Moron’. Here Gately remembers, through difficulties in English class, being frustrated in his efforts to progress along the path of a promising scholarship-supported Football career and instead increasingly narcotized on Quaaludes and beer with his friend Trent Kite. Gately labels the time when he was thirteen-through-fifteen years old as ‘The Attack of the Killer Sidewalks’. When his mother ‘suffered her cirrhotic hemorrhage and cerebral-blood thing in late October, just before the midterms Gately was getting ready to fail’ another level of addiction is reached, another threshold crossed: ‘The first gasper he ever smoked was that day […]. He never played organized ball again’ (904-6).

Hal starts noticing curious passersby as ‘more heads’ which seems familiar from somewhere… As he watches his father’s films we see the titles of J.O.I.’s Filmography in their intended context – i.e. being watched (especially by Hal). Good-Looking Men… provides Wallace another proleptic swipe at academic critique which, in the case of this film, fails to ‘explain the incredible pathos of Paul Anthony Heaven reading his lecture to a crowd of dead-eyed kids picking at themselves and drawing vacant airplane- and genitalia-doodles on their college-rule note-pads, reading stupefyingly turgid-sounding shit’. This latter is exemplified by one ‘Professor H. Bloom’ whose ‘artistic influenza’, i.e. Anxiety of Influence, is a target of J.O.I.’s ridicule (Bloom clearly didn’t take too kindly to this… if he even got this far into Infinite Jest). Alternative readings of Infinite Jest seem to reside somewhere between the tears of Heaven, the boredom of these students, and the playful J.O.I. that directs the experience (911).

Gately’s reverie continues through his early criminal career with partner Fackelmann (‘That’s a goddamn lie’) and employer Whitey Sorkin. Wallace builds this story towards an affect-ed climax captured in this breathlessly dynamic sentence: ‘Gately lay in the Trauma Ward in terrific infected pain, trying to Abide between cravings for relief by remembering a blinding white afternoon just after Xmas, when Fackelmann and Kite were off disposing of some of a furnished apartment’s furnishings and Gately was killing time in the apartment laminating some false MA drivers licenses rush-ordered by rich Philips Andover Academy kids for what turned out to be the last New Year’s Eve of Subsidized Time’ (916). In Gately’s pain is held much of the (dis-)ordered temporal concerns of the novel and he seems much older for this, a fact highlighted by his memory of ‘The B.U. punter’ (Orin) being only ‘two years younger than Don Gately’.

This story is broken by Pemulis’s discovery that the DMZ has  been removed from its hiding place – location unknown but presumed vitally important. When Gately’s story resumes the key plot moments (Fackelmann’s betrayal of Sorkin and its discovery) are outsourced to Gately’s alcoholically narcoleptic girlfriend Pamela Hoffman-Jeep. That she can’t differentiate between important and superfluous narrative details makes the story increasingly hard to follow, undermining its ostensible entertaining value. Gately’s ‘feverish dreams punctuate memories and being conscious’ making it hard to tell if Lyle’s haunting appearance here means anything at all (933). What is surely crucial, however, is Gately’s dream (or vision) of ‘digging some dead guy’s head up’ with ‘the sad kid’ (934): again, where do we remember that from…

Joelle leaves the hospital and is accosted by ‘a grotesquely huge woman’ (whom we recognise as Steeply) with a warning of imminent ‘almost mind-boggling danger’. Is this a threat or an offer of protection? With only a few pages left, perhaps we may not find out for sure?

In a new morning in Gately’s memory (in relation to Pamela’s telling of the story, ‘that night’s next A.M.’) he and Fackelmann are slumped at base-camp of Mt. Dilaudid – the geologically huge pile of drugs Fackelmann had bought with the money stolen from Sorkin. The decay and excretions of these two become nauseating as the narrative draws attention to the scene’s temporal distension, ‘as if the time were honey’ (935). Gately and Fackelmann become detached from a meaningful existence as ‘When the phone rang it was just a fact. The ringing was like an environment, not a signal’ to which Fackelmann’s surreal (and increasingly slurred catchphrase) becomes all the more apt: ”s a goddamn lie.’ When the doorbell rings, however, Gately tries to connect it to Pamela needing entry granted: ‘He wobbled like a toddler’ until, once again, attacked by the Killer underfoot. Trapped, then, with the nightmarish Fackelmann and his spider-like hand, Gately is also imprisoned in this unsolicited dream-memory. Will he wake?

Word of the Week: “bacchanal” (908).

Infinite Jest – Week Twenty Seven (pages 851-896)

Hello all. Next Tuesday we’ll be discussing pp.851-896. These pages include more Hal dreams, more Gately dreams, a public safety announcement, and an elastic forehead. Looking forward to it.

Brazil 2
“For just an instant we both stayed there, straining backward, listening to the little Rice-Krispie sound of his skin’s collagen-bundles stretching and popping. […] ‘Put it back put it back put it back!’ Stice yelled” (871)

This week’s the week of the postmodern hero: static, horizontal, introspective, trapped inside their own heads. Wallace’s narrative style is so perfectly suited to this kind of character. The reader sinks in and out of sleep and fever dreams just as Gately does; the transcript ends just as the lights go out because the typist can no longer see the page to transcribe; and we see what Hal sees as he wanders the halls, sad and lost.

Hal and Gately’s narratives seem closely linked at last here, as we near the end of the novel. Hal seems to be waking up inside himself but it seems like he doesn’t know what to do with himself. Jokes in these scenes seem emptier, the clowns and fools that caper throughout the rest of the novel seem, in this scene, like so many masks that Wallace is starting to peel away.

Gately’s scenes are sad too, but funnier, more joyful, maybe because they’re more hopeful? Some of the writing here is just wonderful. Gately learning all over again to abide “between heartbeats,” to treat what his head tells him like so much noise (860). Hal, on the other hand, is struggling to live in the present. He’s sinking into his past and future, and while we’re getting a better picture of him and his own thoughts on these things, his own emotional response to them seems stunted, unfeeling, less articulate than Gately’s (more honest seeming) reflections on past guilts and wrongs.

The novel is full of different endings: the DMZ, the Entertainment, the Demerol. What use will a children’s TV bit do to stop them? We’re on the lookout for Orin, on the lookout for the AFR. But there’s only so many pages left.

Word of the Week: “Job-type” (895).

Infinite Jest – Week Twenty Six (pages 809-851)

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.”

“the wraith simply disappears the instant the light hits the heart monitor and reappears the instant it moves way […] Gately begins to conclude it’s not impossible that the garden-variety wraith on the heart monitor, though not conventionally real, could be a sort of epiphanyish visitation from Gately’s personally confused understanding of God, a Higher Power, or something […] (833)

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).

Infinite Jest – Week Twenty Five (pages 774-808)

“Hello all. We’re reaching something of a milestone this week, as we tackle the very last of the long endnotes! We’ll be reading pp.774-808. This week: Marathe meets someone who looks like his wife; Hal and Mario talk some more and Hal tries something new as a result; Molly Notkin reveals all; and, buried in the endnotes, Pemulis meets his match. Looking forward to it.”

“‘What you’re saying is I need to actively go over to Jim myself and ask him to hold me,’ Kevin Bain says.” (807)

Marathe is so frustrating. Perhaps we just miss those happy chapters back in the beginning where he seemed to stand for a pretty clear, anti-American point. Now his whole philosophy about choice seems warped. This week he is sitting with Kate and refusing to tell her a love story. Marathe’s love for his weird skullless wife is supposed to be altruistic, but here it comes across as incredibly solipsistic, all about what she opens up inside him, all about how noble a person she lets him imagine he is. On the other hand, Kate’s naive belief in a love that’s “about your eyes meet across someplace and both your knees give out and […] you know you’re not going to be alone and in hell” (780) is maybe equally solipsistic, if love is all about saving yourself. And if that’s all you’re after, why would you say no to the Entertainment when Marathe offers it? An unhappy, lonely chapter.

We learn at last what happened in the room with the urine guy. Hal has to withdraw, and admits out loud, for the first time, that he might just have a problem. Hal’s saga in these pages is captivating, and sad. The fact that Mario both doesn’t seem to get what Hal is talking about, and seems to understand Hal’s problem better than Hal ever could, is really complexly excellent and well done. There’s more crossed wires when Hal pretends he’s on a research trip to Ennet House, and Mrs. Foltz gives him an out of date brochure. If only Hal was as smart as he thinks he is!

It’s always a joy to revisit the post-Marxist Molly Notkin, who tells us everything we’d want to know and more. Just as it’s refreshing to get an outsider’s look at Hal, it’s interesting to see Joelle’s history from the outside for a change (it seems more objective, somehow, if someone else is saying it). Our veterans had forgotten that Joelle’s bottom had stemmed directly from James’s topping himself: at least the chronology starts to come together on the 3rd of 4th reading. We enjoyed Notkin’s mixed metaphors (“no matter how wildly his nautical compass was spinning around, on its tether” [789]), the hints that Avril is death incarnate who might have been jealous of Joelle, and the story of Joelle’s wonderfully creepy father. Also, a big WTF at the mother-death cosmology – where’s that come from?

And what to make of the support meeting Hal attends? Wallace seems to poke fun of this meeting more than he does the AA/NA meetings, with its participants in toast-coloured jumpers and beards and their middle-class jobs. Maybe other readers would see “Needs, Needs, Needs, Needs, Needs” as a motto worthy of AA too, but it feels like there’s a big difference. Is it that AA is about identification and passing the gift on, where the I.I. group is all about taking the gift–the hugs, the teddy bear–for yourself? You can’t help but feel that Hal could use a hug, but perhaps not like this.

Finally, buried below all of this in the endnotes, is the end of Pemulis’s ETA career. We can’t help but be suspcious of Avril, given what we’ve learned from Notkin about Avril’s vindictive jealousy, and Wayne’s mysterious intake… Wallace really cleverly constructs his scenes so we keep having to put pieces together. We learn, for example, that Hal’s secret addictions are hardly secret at all if Wayne knows about them, and that Pemulis weaseled out of the urinalysis because he knows about Hal’s mother’s affairs. But what Hal makes of this we’re left to guess, which works really well from a readerly standpoint. And we’re left to anticipate, too: is this the last we see of Pemulis? Will we be seeing more of Wayne? It’s not so much like we’re getting answers, finally; it’s more like the picture of all these lives just keeps getting fuller and richer and easier to see. At last Hal is starting to make sense.

Word of the Week: “enmeshments” (791).

Infinite Jest – Week Twenty Four (pages 736-774)

Next Tuesday we’ll be discussing pp.736-774. We have an illuminating outsider’s perspective on the Incandenza family; Marathe meanwhile is hunting down that outsider; and Mario is trying to take care of Hal.”

“the 240-second motionless low-angle shot of Gianlorenzo Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St. Teresa,’ […] the climactic statue fulled the screen and pressed against all four edges […] the mediated transcendence of self was just what the apparently decadent statue of the orgasmic nun claimed for itself as subject.” (742)

We open in the consciousness of Joelle as she (soberly) cleans her Ennet House dorm with some Kleenex. We’re in agreement that it is here Joelle really becomes one of the very few major main characters alongside Hal, his family, and Gately: ‘She’d barely thought consciously of any Incandenzas for four years before Don Gately, who for some reason kept bringing them bubbling up to mind’ (737). Through the recovering Madame Psychosis, then, we are treated to a meditation on ‘the second-saddest family Joelle’d ever seen’ (737). Wallace writes families extremely well. We ponder the meanings of Jim’s face being ‘any room’s fifth wall’: both an effective theatrical metaphor (the division between critic and auteur) and suggestive of ensuring those around him are cloistered in private spaces. We were seeing potential parallels between J.O.I. and D.F.W. in terms of the ‘unstudyably’ realistic human flashes. Joelle’s memory of the Incandenza Thanksgiving dinner, which ends ‘in a kind of explosion of goodwill’ is a favourite episode of our group: like we felt with Bain’s take on Orin, Joelle’s perspective here allows us to see the picture-perfect Incandenzas for the ‘whole sad family unit’ they are.

Downstairs from Joelle at Ennet House, a veiled Marathe attempts to gain residency from Pat M. We find the A.F.R. simultaneously dangerous (the fate of the Antitoi bro’s) and bumbling – with Marathe’s lie ‘I withdraw from the scag, smack, and H’ blatantly transparent. His fatigue is rather poignant here, as if Ennet House is a safe enclosure in which to lay down the weight of his ‘quadrupling’ espionage; to what ends and to what side will he commit himself for the good of ‘his restenotic wife and entertainment-hungry children’.

Over at E.T.A., Mario’s shooting peripatetic footage around the dorms. Felicity Zweig, caught in a towel, provides some genuine dialogue, but LaMont Chu, under pressure to “say something for posterity […] can’t think what to say.” The kids at E.T.A. are used to being under the gaze of the (Mario’s) camera, yet never seem to acclimatize. We consider how “all conscious performances are self-conscious performances.” As Mario arrives in Avril’s office, so begins some of the novel’s finest sustained dialogue. We get a real insight into Avril’s mendacious interfacing which causes even Mario, who takes everything as truthful, to suffer. As Avril cycles through academic descriptions of sadness, we digress into talking about the laugh-tracks on sitcoms. The way TV shows pace themselves and conceal or transform malignancies (of both characters and script-writing) behind canned-laughter seems to depict some of the unsettling qualities of Millennial conversation that had LaMont Chu unable to ask Mario a question,  and Avril unable to really listen to Mario, with artificial performances denying connection. In both instances sadness is uncomfortable and is avoided through performance. By the dialogue’s end (ostensibly about Mario asking what to do about Hal’s sadness) Joelle’s diagnosis proves correct as the definitions of and anxieties over sadness could apply to any Incandenza.

In the final episode this week, Mario and Hal are finally reunited. In revealing what went down with Pemulis and the urologist, Hal unwittingly reflects on the issues of deceit found in the preceding passages. Here, through Hal, Wallace’s moral concern shines. Pemulis’s ability to lie ‘Brass-faced’ summons in Hal a nightmare: “I think at seventeen now I believe the only real monsters might be the type of liar where there’s simply no way to tell. The ones who give nothing away” (774).

Word of the Week: “Opheliac” (1063).