An Unspeakably Long Sentence

[Crossposted to Infinite Test].


There’s an extraordinary sentence in Infinite Jest, almost exactly halfway through the novel: on page 488 (out of 981). Or rather, the sentence in fact begins on page 487, continues all the way through page 488, and ends on page 489. So part of what’s extraordinary about it is its sheer length, even in a novel that distinguishes itself throughout for its extension: long paragraphs (just before this sentence, pages 479 to 486 consist of just two paragraphs, each encompassing well over three pages), long chapters or scenes (such as the twenty-page description of the Eschaton game), and of course the novel as a whole. David Foster Wallace specializes in prolixity, which might be described either as a verbose failure of restraint or, perhaps more charitably, as a unfettered stream of creativity. Even if we went for the uncharitable view, however, it’s worth noting that failure of restraint is itself a significant theme of the book, many of whose characters are addicts, and whose plot seems increasingly to revolve around a mysterious “Entertainment” that viewers simply can’t stop watching. The novel’s form, then, sometimes seems to mimic its content: it continually oversteps its bounds because it proposes an uninhibited foray through a disordered world, a garrulous guide to competing, cacophonous discourses. Infinite Jest immerses us in a tumultuous flow of language.

Yet this is a novel that is also laden with irony. It starts, after all, with a scene (Hal’s university interview) in which verbal articulacy is somehow blocked, and all that emerges from our protagonist’s mouth are grunts or other subhuman noises. In short, this is a book that is equally about constriction as well as capaciousness, order as much as chaos, blockages no less than flows. And the extraordinary sentence that spans pages 488 to 489, at the novel’s very center or heart, concerns the relationship between these two competing forces, call them inertia and momentum, or repression and desire. It suggests that they are not simply opposed, that one can emerge from the other, and perhaps that it’s never entirely clear which is which.

The sentence is also about language. It begins with a reference to “words that are not and can ever be words” (487). Indeed, words are the subject (the grammatical subject as well as the theme): words that seek to emerge, to be brought forth from the throat and body of Lucien Antitoi, a burly French-Canadian storekeeper and (with his brother, Bertraund) would-be terrorist member of a “not very terrifying insurgent cell” in an otherwise Portuguese and Spanish low-rent neighbourhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts (480). Lucien is mute, intellectually disabled in some way, a French Canadian who cannot speak French except for the obscene phrase “Va chier, putain!” that his special-school tutors taught him, cruelly claiming it meant “Look Maman I can speak French and thus finally express my love and devotion to you” (481). So the only snippet of language he possesses is in fact an unwitting misunderstanding, product of a heartless joke or jest in which savage rejection is dressed as proud communication and tenderness. And Lucien is desperate to speak out, to say something, anything, because he has just seen his brother’s head (the head of “the brains of the outfit” [480], and of “the only brother he’s ever had” [486]) shattered by a railroad spike driven with such force that its rusty tip protrudes from the socket of his “former blue right eye” (485). In a store whose front room is cluttered with mirrors, vision has now failed. The culprits of this blinding murder are a squad of sinister “wheelchair assassins,” fanatic Quebecois separatists in search of “an entertainment item” (487) they believe that the Antitoi brothers may have inadvertently acquired. Now their leader, who wears a mask decorated with “an obscenely simple smily-face in thin black lines” is threatening Lucien, who shakes “not from fear so much as in an attempt to form words” (487).

The page-long sentence then describes Lucien’s ghastly death, as he is impaled by his own home-made, sharp-tipped broom, with which he has kept the old shop spotless. The chief wheelchair-bound assassin rams it down his throat and through his stomach until it emerges, forming “an obscene erectile bulge in the back of his red sopped johns” (488). It’s truly a disgusting passage, as the pole is thrust into the man’s open throat, rhythmically accompanied by the repeated chant “In-U-Tile”, as if to confirm that there is something fundamentally useless or superfluous about this extraordinary violence, not least because it symbolically silences someone who already has no voice. As the broom’s shaft descends Lucien’s throat, “small natal cries” are heard, “the strangled impeded sounds of absolute aphonia, the landed-fish gasps that accompany speechlessness in a dream” (488). The strange thing here is that the passage suggests that aphonia or muteness is associated with particular noises: the sounds of silence. So that this silencing also has its peculiarly acoustic signature, and we are asked to imagine hearing the unspoken or unspeakable, with its double implication of what cannot speak and what cannot be spoken because it goes beyond (almost) all representation. Again, however, there is a kind of formal contradiction here, as Foster Wallace takes unreasonable delight in describing this horrific event in great and granular detail, as though to probe the limits of what can or should be said. Hence in part the bloated prose, lingering on “the fibers that protect the esophageal terminus [that] resist and then give with a crunching pop and splat of red that bathes Lucien’s teeth and tongue and makes of itself in the air a spout” (488). There is something here of the slow-motion delight in stylized, even aestheticized, violence that is reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah or Quentin Tarantino. But now the vehicle is the word, rather than the image, and the equivalent of the film director’s slow motion is the author’s run-on sentence.

Lucien dies, but in the process he is portrayed as experiencing a kind of extasis or epiphany. Thus the sentence ends: “as he finally shed his body’s suit, Lucien finds his gut and throat again and newly whole, clean and unimpeded, and is free [. . .] soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues” (488-9). From mute constriction to polyglot freedom. If this isn’t a flip fantasy designed retrospectively to justify the gross depiction that has immediately proceeded it (and we can’t rule out, I think, that that’s what it is), it is a picture of rebirth that resonates also the “natal cries” that accompanied the start of the process. It’s a peculiarly monstrous and even perverse parturition, as “the culcate handle navigates the inguinal canal and sigmoid with a queer deep full hot tickle” (488). So is the broom’s slow passage through the body an image of repression or freedom, blockage or flow? Everything becomes unclear or undecidable, precisely at the point at which we are told that clarity and articulacy are achieved at last. Indeed perhaps the strangest thing about it is that this vision of rebirth in grisly death, of “bell-clear” multilingualism forced out of a recalcitrant, mute body via almost impossible violence, turns out to be among the few positive or optimistic notes sounded in the whole book so far.

3 thoughts on “An Unspeakably Long Sentence

  1. Pingback: Will without Thinking | Posthegemony

  2. Pingback: Will without Thinking | Infinite Test

  3. Pingback: Infinite Jest | Posthegemony

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