Infinite Jest – Week Nineteen (pages 538-575)

Hi all. Next Tuesday we’ll discuss pp.538-575. Lots of great stuff this week: we get to know Lenz perhaps a little more than we’d like; we learn some more about the habits of Tine and Avril; we have some snippets from Ennet House and Moment Magazine (including a long footnote – beware); and, finally, we meet the Great Idris Arslanian. Looking forward to it.

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“His northern routes back to the House are restricted by the priority to keep Brighton Best Savings  Bank’s rooftop digital Time and Temperature display in view as much as possible.” (542)

This week we spent our time in the company of two hideous men. Wallace’s American Psycho, Randy Lenz, is a masterclass in characterisation and bleak bleak comedy. To our first timers he seems like the antagonist of the text so far, a sort of anti-AA member. We enjoyed our glimpses of cyberpunk Boston in this scene, the enormous digital timepiece, and the way Wallace sews the many meanings of clockwork throughout.

Lenz plays out the whole addiction cycle in a terrible way: his search for a greater fix as he climbs up the foodchain (with humans at the top?), but also his pathetic loneliness, and the wound-up pent-up tension he feels because he can’t connect with another human being in a meaningful way. Perhaps he should have spent more time reading William James.

The scene with Dolores Rusk is equally amusing and sad. Clearly the kids in this novel are all obsessive and anxious and their inner children could probably do with a hug, but Rusk seems to provide the opposite of TLC. Avril, on the other hand, is all about tender loving.

We’re all feeling the plot pick up pace. The Lenz scene is so sustained it feels significant, and we want to get back to it (and our veterans are trying not to give anything away…). At the same time, Wallace pulls out of this larger scene to drop little ones like the one with Tine, or one of Orin’s empty (beautifully written) flings, or bombshells like the moment between Avril and Wayne. Where our first timers expected a second reading of the novel to be rewarding because of all the small details you’d miss, they perhaps hadn’t expected the characters to be thrown into such a different light so late into the novel. Now every Avril scene seems different, and cries out to be reread. How exciting it would be to be able to read the novel as if you’d never seen it before.

Lenz’s scenes sink into the the same manic garrulousness from which Lenz is said to suffer when he takes coke. The speed and details pick up, and the language goes haywire (way too many ‘words of the week’ this week), and now we’re just waiting for the crash.

Word of the Week: “twidgelling” (548).

Infinite Jest – Week Eighteen (pages 508-538)

“Hi all. Next Tuesday we’ll be discussing pp.508-538. We’re with Hal for most of this week, in a really great chapter. We also have another Marathe-Steeply snippet as standard, and a rare Joelle chapter.”

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“For post-Delco-incident legal reasons, the name-plaque on her reception desk has DANGER: THIRD RAIL instead of the name Lateral Alice Moore.” (513)

Blue is the colour, tennis-academy angst is the game this week outside Tavis’s office. Hal’s fixation on the interior design (‘you can tell a lot about an administrator by the decor of his waiting room’) orients himself, Pemulis, Ann Kittenplan and Trevor Axford – all of whom have been summoned and are ‘awaiting what they presume to be some kind of administrative fallout from Sunday’s horrendous Eschaton fiasco’.

All this anxious waiting is in the presence of administrator Lateral Alice Moore, confined to crabwise movements since a traffic-copter crash, whose movement from desk-end to desk-end is facilitated by a electrically-motorised chair. It is only much later in the episode that we realise the scene’s atmosphere – drowning in blue-ness – is also defined by the noise of Alice’s printer. It is clear from this that it is Hal’s consciousness (and his fixation on blue as some kind of therapeutic technique) through which the reader gains access to this world. Meanwhile, other irritating sounds include Pemulis bobbing on a squeaky chair while reading some hairy maths.

Through the open door-less frame of Avril’s office, the Moms is ensuring that no sexualisation of the young academy girls is taking place. This monthly duty is usually administered by Dr Dolores Rusk who is conspicuously absent (could she be waiting behind C.T.’s office door? Then Hal and Co. would really be in the kind of trouble that would necessitate Tavis’s requirement of psychological expertise!) It is through Pemulis, who ‘loathes Rusk with a hard a gem-like flame’, that we get any of her background. Although, this turns out to be an electrocution attempt by Pemulis who has such good and loyal friends in Hal and Schacht (and maybe Mario) that he was never caught and expelled for the deed. We are again directed to the endnote (Wallace testing his reader’s memory) where Pemulis is crowned the ‘Paranoid King’ whose ultimate fear is academic expulsion.

While our narrator may feign that they have ‘No clue’ as to what Rusk might mean by the ‘Coatlique Complex’, we can see it resonates with the echoes of Lolita throughout this section. It occurs to us that, while Avril isn’t uncovering any clear sexual crimes, she is privy to details that Rusk would relish – such as a young girl’s father ‘influencing’ her into rooms.

Hal is overtly situated between Avril and Charles Tavis: ‘pretty much the Dynamic Duo of compulsion’. Indeed this section paints Hal as an Odyssean figure navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis of C.T. (with his ‘jaw-like’ office doors and ‘audible smile’) and the Moms (‘The Black Hole of Human Attention’). Avril’s ‘Politeness Roulette’ routine – where she goes around ‘with her feelings out in front of her with an arm around the feelings’ windpipe and a Glock 9mm. to the feelings’ temple like a terrorist with a hostage, daring you to shoot’ – seems at once a spot-on diagnostic description, and (considering Wallace may have modelled this from his own mother) more than a little uncomfortably unflattering portrait.

Back on the outcropping northwest of Tucson, Marathe and Steeply discuss the Medusa and the Odalisk in terms of American vanity. The episode concludes with a changing of positions and levels as Steeply sits down and, for the first time, looks up at Marathe: indicating a power-shift, just one of the crises or turning-points this week.

Over at Ennet House, we’re eavesdropping on Joelle and Gately. There are questions of authentic voice: Gately seems sensitive to Joelle’s ‘drift[ing] in and out of different ways of talking’. This conversation throws up some of the paradoxes of UHID: such as being ‘open about their essential need for concealment’. It culminates in Joelle’s admission that she is fatally (or at least maddeningly) beautiful (like some kind of terrible angel?) only Gately can’t follow her, won’t understand, or isn’t ready to hear.

Word of the Week: “cyanosis” (512).

Infinite Jest – Week Seventeen (pages 475-508)

Hi all. Next Tuesday we’ll be crossing the 500-page mark! We’ll discuss pp.475-508. These pages include one of my favourite sections in the whole book, with a man and his broom. We also have two mini-Marathe-Steeply sections, a return to James + his father, and a sequence about the perils of hugging. Looking forward to it.

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“the Aventura’s ten-cylinder backwash raising an odd little tornado of discarded ad-leaflets and glassine bags and corporate-snack bags and a syringe’s husk and filterless gasper-butts and general crud and a flattened Millennial Fizzy cup […] which whirls in his exhaust, the tornado of waste does […]” (479)

The best moments in Infinite Jest spear you to your seat.

This week’s pages contain some quite famous parts of the novel, and there was loads to talk about. We all really enjoyed the cinematic shift-in-scene from Gately in car to cup to door to Lucien to horror. This whole chapter is shot through with dramatic irony, which is by turns tragic and comedic, and makes us feel like things are coming together: like the Millennial Fizzy cup that Gately does not see, we know that Gately has rather more involvement in international politics than he realises. We know more about Joelle than he does, and enjoy seeing him try to work her out. And we know that there is some complicated connection between the Antitoi Bros. and someone from ETA.

We liked the baggy sky, the milk-and-honey innocence of those people Gately likes to drive at, and the masterclass in suspense that is the slow legless arrival of the AFR. This scene, we note, has so much in common with DuPlessis’s death: the terror of not being understood, the gruesome detail, and the beauty that marks the ending of a life.

We return to Marathe and Steeply but the former agent is thrown into a whole new light by our first glimpse of the AFR in action. Though the wheelchair assassins are ridiculous, and the novel’s portrait of Canada seems like one big joke, there’s something about the bumbling antagonists that makes them all the more terrifying. Imagine having people in charge who literally don’t know what they’re doing…

It seems significant that the James + James Sr. scene is sit in that cinematic year that, as DeLillo puts it, broke the back of the twentieth-century. Our picture of Hal’s inheritance is growing ever clearer, though we feel more sympathetic for Hal, for some reason, than we do for his equally distant father (whose narrative voice some of us found more stressful to read than the broom-scene).

The book tempts us with the contents of the Entertainment. Like Roy Tony’s hugs, some offers are hard to refuse.

Word of the Week: “anechoic” (503).

Infinite Jest – Week Sixteen (pages 442-475)

Hello all. Next Tuesday we’ll discuss pp.442-475. We have a really great chapter on Gately and God this week. We’ve also got some good old tennis, some more Steeply-Marathe discussion of the Entertainment, and we’re spending more time in Ennet House. Looking forward to it as always.

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“There’s nothing wrong with that food. The salt level was 10% less than the lethal dose.” ~ Futurama, ‘My Three Suns’ (1999).

We’re back to contemplating God’s terrible silence this week: the water we swim in that no one can look at to see. Something that comes out of this scene for us is the problem of truth, and wrestling with the truth, and journeying to find a truth. We talked about the Big Zero that is the root of Gately’s beliefs, and whether or not his journey has a destination.

We had discussed, previously, the absence of animals in the novel. Here they appear numerous times. We have rats in the maze, the gerbil-wheel of pain, scabrous dogs and creepy insects. All of which, we note, seem to be used as ways for Wallace to talk about the humans in the scene. Gately is the rat in his own maze; the dogs are a test of human desperation. Human pain, and human selves, are front and centre.

Some of us find the tennis-drills section relaxing to read, others stressful. It comes as a relief to all that the ETA students feel the need to translate Schtitt, too.

We wonder if Steeply is right that falling to the Entertainment is hardly just an American problem. We talked about the wonderful rhythm of some of these sentences, the shift in tone from horror to comedy throughout, and Gately as both bride and chef and titan.

Word of the Week: “spronged” (465).

Infinite Jest – Week Fifteen (pages 410-442)

Hello all. Next Tuesday we’ll be discussing pp.410-442. Do I even need to say that the pages are great this week? We’re continuing with the long world-building chapter, with more from President Tr– Gentle; the fate of the big American Ad companies and the advent of subsidized time; Marathe and Steeply on soup; and the continuation of the Clipperton + puppetshow saga.

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It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.” (414)

We’d been anticipating this week for a while, as Wallace finally explains the origins of InterLace, Subsidized Time, and how the whole TV thing works in this world. As a group, we don’t know many authors who actually write about advertising, though after discussing, for 20 minutes, all the horrible adverts we’ve seen around Glasgow, we’re kind of crying out for more. Wallace’s arguments about serious fiction requiring some work, vs. TV and adverts that are all about inducing an immediate response (of pleasure or pain) seem really significant here.

Each of these sections complement each other really well. Where Hal’s essay on the TV companies (another nice way of setting up exposition, by the way) segues into Marathe and Steeply’s discussion of empowering American choices, we also have Mario mopping up some remains while Gately does the same. All the characters seem interconnected in this way without ever meeting.

Some of us found this Marathe/Steeply scene quite difficult, partly because it’s so long, and partly because the scene so concerns each ‘spy’ trying to work out the other, that we pay too much attention to that and struggle to keep track of what they’re actually talking about. Lots of interesting pretty-girls and ugly-feet imagery here, in the scene with the cross dresser and the legless terrorist.

We discussed the problems of pleasure, delayed gratification, and the Clipperton suite. We discussed utilitarianism and hedonism, and the exponential growth of tech that gluts but never satisfies.

The way Wallace describes the falling-off of energy in roomfuls of people is really great: the feeling when everything gets “jagged.” Infinite Jest is as busy and noisy as the world it describes, but none of us feel jagged. The novel only seems so far to energize discussion and admiration and debate.

Word of the Week: “whingeocide” (441).

Infinite Jest – Week Fourteen (pages 375-410)

Hello all. Next Tuesday we’ll be discussing pp.375-410. These pages include some snippets of Marathe and Steeply, Boston AA, and Lyle, and they mark the beginning of another long chapter that recounts some ONAN and ETA legends. Looking forward to discussing these.

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‘Mario’s first finished entertainment consists of a film of a puppet show – like a kids’ puppet show’ (380)

Plenty to discuss this week.

Interview endnote we note Wallace’s first use of the ‘Q.’ to designated an interviewer’s question withheld from the reader (a technique later used to structure Brief Interviews with Hideous Men). This leads to an interesting discussion of how to handle this text (and others) in audiobook format – the vocalised repetition of ‘Q.’ is slightly unnerving, and affects the listener differently than the printed letter does the reader. We note that Orin’s sham (or performed) honesty is something like an analogue of postmodern metafiction.

The AA confession that follows here is announced by nothing more than a line break. Nestled between two James-and-Lyle-libation vignettes, this story, by ‘tonight’s meeting’s last and maybe best Advanced Basics speaker, another newcomer, a round pink girl with no eyelashes at all and a ‘base-head’s ruined teeth’ differs in important ways from the horrific ‘diddling’ story of the ‘hard-faced adopted stripper’ we read last week (376). Wallace’s use of ‘the mere mention of D.S.S.’ to skillfully examine the flashbulb ‘shudder’ of the room – where we realise there are children here at the meetings with their ‘alcoholic moms’ – is deft (377). The story ends with the ringing cadence of Gately’s melancholia over the ‘tragic adventure this is, that none of them signed up for’ (379).

The description of Interdependence Day celebrations at ETA is the culmination of something of a ‘hat crescendo’ in the novel: from Pemulis’s introduction, through the Eschaton debacle, and now at the ‘gala but rather ironic celebration of I. Day at an Academy whose founder had married a Canadian[…] Everybody’s supposed to wear some sort of hat’ (380). This seems to be some sort of a nod (or… tip of the cap?) to the Modernist co-option of Symbolism, especially in the importance of hats in the work of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (Ulysses and Waiting for Godot in particular).

Mario’s puppet-show film stars President and Chief Executive ‘Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner […] lounge singer turned teeny bopper throb turned B-movie mainstay, for two long-past decades known unkindly as the ‘Cleanest Man in Entertainment’ (the man’s a world-class retentive, the lat-Howard-Hughes kind[…]) […] whose Inaugural Address heralded the advent of a Tighter, Tidier Nation. Who promised to clean up government and trim fat and sweep out waste and hose down our chemically troubled streets and to sleep darn little until he’d fashioned a way to rid the American psychosphere of the unpleasant debris of a throw-away past, to restore the majestic ambers and purple fruits of a culture […] (first U.S. President ever to say shit publicly, shuddering) […] A President J.G., F.C. who said he wasn’t going to stand here and ask us to make some tough choices because he was standing here promising he was going to make them for us. Who asked us simply to sit back and enjoy the show.’ (381-3).

We talk about presidents and prescience.

Further nods to Ulysses can be seen in the Aeolus-esque headlines in Mario’s film: ‘CHARGES OF AN OVAL OFFICE LITTERED WITH KLEENEX AND FLOSS A ‘CLEAR CASE OF DIRTY TRICKS’ – Respectable Daily Header’ (393). Supplemental to the headers themselves are the information about their composition – in particular the gradual demise of a windbag ‘Veteran but Methamphetamine-Dependent Headliner Finally Demoted after Repeated Warnings about Taking up Too Much Space’ with his protracted, 70+word headlines. Back in the sauna, Lyle warns us ‘Do not underestimate objects!’  and Ortho Stice may be somno-telekinetic or just being punk’d (394-5).

Hal ruminates on watching his father’s film ‘The Medusa v. The Odalisque‘, an episode where we feel acutely aware of our own meta-level as readers. This play – within a film within a novel, which features antagonists who punish (petrify) those who look upon them – feels like a dramatic illustration of the strange optical physics operating within this particular narrative world, while also critiquing our capacity for ogling. The Medusa v. The Odalisque segues into the ‘most hated Incandenza film’ The Joke (397-8). Once again, we are particularly impressed with Wallace’s cutting (yet self-deprecating) parody of academic pretension, such as observing the ‘critics or film-academics in the seats, who studied themselves studying themselves taking notes with endless fascination and finally left only when the espresso finally impelled them to the loo’ (398).

Returning to Mario’s film, we are let in on an allusion to the ‘dark legend of one Eric Clipperton’. Once upon an Unsubsidized Time regional tourney, Clipperton had ‘just sort of seepily risen, some sort of human radon, from someplace low and unkown, whence he lent the cliché ‘Win or Die in the Attempt’ grotesquely literal new levels of sense’. Clipperton’s object – ‘a hideous and immaculately maintained Glock 17 semiautomatic sidearm’ – is certainly not underestimated as he takes himself hostage each time he plays, with the only ransom demanded is that he wins the match. The unsportsmanlike conduct turns the event into a non-sport, allowing the kids he eliminates to enjoy ‘a kind of unexpected vacation […] to reflect a little on what it all might mean’ (407-8). The dark episode ends, unexpectedly, on a note of tenderness as Eric and Mario exchange a moment of apparent friendship (410).

Word of the Week: ‘omniwetness’ (386)

Infinite Jest – Week Thirteen (pages 343-375)

Hello all. Next Tuesday we’ll be discussing pp.342-375. I think this is the first week where the whole thing is just one long chapter (we’re going to struggle, soon, to find neat chapter breaks to arrive at each week). This one is all about AA and what it’s like to be an addict. Looking forward to it.

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‘RAQUEL!’.

Our first weekly-reading to comprise a single chapter, the narration in the AA sections always comes as a kind of relief after the hard work of ETA (not that we aren’t enjoying those sections too). Though we’ve had some sections describing life in- and out-side Ennet house, this is our first sustained section on AA itself (and it’s always surprising, for someone who knows how central AA is to the book, how long it takes to get there!).

We note that this section takes place on the same day as the Eschaton game, and it reads, indeed, like the after-party following an apocalpyse. We talked about the importance of capitalisation in this chapter, about Identification and empathy, and about the way the chapter cuts between characters’ specific tales of addiction and the narrator’s reflections on the same-old pattern these stories all fall into.

It struck us as signifcant that we learn about Joelle’s arrival at AA through a endnote, and we wondered just how much you’d be missing if (for some mad reason) you were choosing to ignore them.

We liked the perfect description of one man’s vanished ass (345), the “whimpery instead of banging” ways to die (348), and the outdated Walkman (363) (not much portable tech in this world: it all seems home-based). We liked Gately’s moment of anxiety–the first time we see him rattled–when Joelle raises a problem for which he has no answer.

The problem of choice is obviously really central to this chapter, and is clearly one of the central threads that ties all the pieces togther. The choice is to die or survive to become a Crocodile (which hardly seems appealing!). Did the girl at the end, who recounts her terrible story, have a choice? Does it matter if she had a choice? Is the only choice that matters the one she makes now? We talked, haltingly, about this last terrible scene, admiring (the wrong word?) Wallace’s construction of it, the little ambiguous details he adds to make a bad story so much worse. We talked about the emptiness of sex symbols, and modern tech-y horror stories, and what seems here like an irreversible turn towards real horror from what had maybe been a little funny before.

Word of the Week: “polyesterishly” (358).