A Murder Neither of You Quite Remember

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

It may sound strange to say of a thousand-page novel, but Infinite Jest ends abruptly. Most if not all of the various plot threads remain loose, untied, and incomplete or ambiguous at best. Hence there’s an entire cottage industry (especially, of course, on the Internet) devoted to trying to discern what happens next and even what happened before. A small army of close readers have combed the book for clues and put together the fragments with diverse results. Fittingly perhaps, the redoubtable Aaron Swartz contributed one of the most complete and convincing conjectures. But there is little in the way of consensus. Suffice it to say, for instance, that the mystery of the opening scene–which by now we recognize is in fact, chronologically, the last scene–is unresolved and subject to much debate. Why is Hal apparently tongue-tied in his college interview? Is it because of drugs, either Pemulis’s DMZ or some natural variant his own body has synthesized? Is it because he, too, has now watched the “Entertainment”? Or is he even tongue-tied at all? Meanwhile, other more or less major questions include: Is Hal’s brother Orin dead or alive? Was it Orin who was responsible for distributing the Entertainment, Is Joelle disfigured or not? Did Gately survive to dig up the Master cartridge with Hal, supervised perhaps by Quebecois agent John Wayne? Was President Gently’s regime brought down by the separatists? Is the ghost of Orin and Hal’s father real? Is he in fact Hal’s (or even Mario’s) father at all?

No wonder then that so many of those who make it to the end of the book are compelled almost immediately to turn back to the first page. Significant numbers feel the urge to read the whole thing again. Is this because the novel is so satisfying or, by contrast, because there is something so fundamentally unsatisfying about the way it ends that we are convinced it must be our fault, that there are clues out there that we have somehow missed on a first reading? And so the reading becomes infinite (for some, Infinite Jest is its own addiction), and perhaps the jest is that no definitive conclusions can be drawn. But even if we don’t reread the full thousand pages, it has become clear that the book is fundamentally circular–“annular,” if you prefer, like the “annulation cycles” that pervade the background throughout. The novel’s “real” opening is in media res: page 17 to be precise, when someone “blue-collar and unlicensed” is imagined asking Hal “So yo man then what’s your story?” And so as well as beginning and middle, this line is also the novel’s (chronological) endpoint. Hence the circularity.

Sierpinski Gasket

Or if not a circle, a fractal: Foster Wallace once reported that the book was “structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal.” And one of the things about a Sierpinski Gasket (or Triangle) is that it has no center. And even where it is densest, full of interconnections, close observation reveals an increasingly delicate filigree of lines pervaded by pockets of space. So if this is a book about being in the middle of things (and I think it is), that’s not to say that one can ever be at the center of it all. Indeed, by the time the novel ends it’s no longer quite clear who, if anyone, is the central character–I had long been assuming it was Hal, but it could plausibly be Don Gately or perhaps the spectral Jim–or even what we might describe as the main plot, and what the subplot or plots. Precisely because things don’t fully converge at the end (however much the various strands do increasingly resonate with and contaminate each other) there are still as many spaces or gaps as there are links and connections. Oddly perhaps for a book that’s in part a critique of insincerity and hollowness (for the trouble with Hal is that “inside [him] there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows” [694]), in some ways Infinite Jest has no heart.

What a circle and a fractal have in common is repetition: a fractal simply repeats in rather more complex ways. We are in the middle because, Foster Wallace seems to be suggesting, we need to learn to master (more or less) infinite repetition. We need, in the Alcoholics Anonymous cliché (and what is a cliché but a phrase that has been itself endlessly repeated?), to “keep coming back” (270), to “Hang In and keep coming” (350) until the routine has become engrained in the body as a new habit that can replace the old habits (the old, dangerous repetitions) of addiction and denial. Gately’s moment of realization is the point at which he understands that he can no longer think of the endpoint, or rather the fact that there is no endpoint, that the repetitions will never end. This is an insight that first comes from Joelle, who compares the wrong way of coming off drugs to a leap by Evel Knievel over an ever-increasing number of cars: “As if each day was a car Knievel had to clear. One car, two cars. [. . .] And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them. [. . .] Who could do it? How did I ever think anyone could do it that way?” (859). The answer, instead, is to think only about the present day, the present hour, “the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time.” Trying to sustain his massive post-operative pain without narcotics, Gately sees himself abiding in “an endless Now stretching in gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. [. . .] It’s a gift, the Now: it’s AA’s real gift: it’s no accident they call it The Present” (860). Living with repetition and in repetition, “one endless day” (860), Gately discovers that “no one second of even unarcotized post-trauma-infection pain is unendurable. That he can Abide if he must” (885).

There are, however, other forms of repetition that are toxic, and unfortunately for the novel many of them are marked by gender. Women get short shrift in Infinite Jest: however much the novel presents a critique of Orin Incandenza’s treatment of them as “Subjects” (by which is meant quite the opposite of endowing them with subjectivity), too often the novel indulges in the same treatment itself. The only real exception is Joelle van Dyne / Madame Psychosis. Her importance arises from the way she joins up many of the threads between the various narratives, thanks in part to the fact that she has long been subjectified/objectified by a sequence of characters from her “own personal Daddy,” who refuses to countenance her as a growing woman, to Orin and even Jim Incandenza himself, who places her at the centre of the (quite obviously) male gaze by repeatedly pointing his camera at her for his movies. One could then argue whether the novel provides Joelle with any restitution: on the one hand, it (quite literally) keeps her faceless; on the other, it grants her the agency to withdraw and leave us all guessing. But the shortest shrift of all is given to Orin’s (and maybe Hal’s and Mario’s) mother, Avril Incandenza.

As in Hamlet, mothers draw a short straw, and for a reason that is perhaps clarified during one of Don Gately’s fever-dreams. Here, he is visited by Death, “Death Incarnate,” who turns out to be a woman for it “is a woman who kills you and releases you into the next life. [. . .] This is why Moms are so obsessively loving, [. . .] why there’s always a slight, like, twinge of selfishness about their obsessive mother-love: they’re trying to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember, except in death” (850). And this, finally, is also (film theorist Molly Notkin tells us) the essence of the “Entertainment,” Infinite Jest (V or VI), in which Jim has cast Joelle / Madame Psychosis as “the Death-Mother figure [. . .] explaining to the camera as audience-synecdoche that this is why mothers were so obsessively, consumingly, drivenly and yet narcissistically loving of you, their kid: the mothers are trying frantically to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember” (789). Indeed, the “Entertainment” would seem to be a fever-dream whose moral is to distrust motherly love, to sense a conspiracy of silence behind the mother-child bond. No wonder then that the end of the book (the physical end, at least: the last page before the footnotes begin) should comprise a strange kind of rebirth, courtesy of a rather fearsome gangster, immeasurable violence, and a great deal of drugs, in which Don Gately is left on the shore “in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out” (981). Infinite Jest gives us new respect for the power of objects, the importance of the body, and the construction of habits as a dance with repetition. It proposes self-regeneration through self-forgetting, an eternal present without past or future. I only wish it did so with fewer sacrifices and, frankly, less machismo.

Symptom or Cure?

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

Incandenza Festival

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the play that gives Infinite Jest its title (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow / of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” [Act V, Scene 1]) and some of its structure, opens with the dead father’s ghost. In David Foster Wallace’s novel, however, the ex-king’s “wraith” waits over 800 pages before showing up (and when he finally does, the references to Hamlet pile up: “LAERTES [. . . ] POOR YORICK” [832]). Moreover, he appears not to his son but to the semi-conscious Don Gately, former burglar and current staff-member at Ennet House, who is confined to a hospital bed following a tremendous bust-up with three armed and angry Canadians (long story; literally). He features in one of Gately’s many (relatively non-medicated) dreams, as a “ghostish figure [. . .] of a very tall sunken-chested man in black-frame glasses and a sweatshirt with old stained chinos, leaning back sort of casually [. . .] resting its tailbone against the window sill’s ventilator’s whispering grille” (829). As so often in this novel, the reader has some work cut out to identify the figure, who isn’t explicitly named, but the allusions start coming thick and fast: “The wraith says that he, himself, the wraith, when animate, had dabbled in filmed entertainments, as in making them, cartridges” (835); “The wraith says [. . .] they’d thought all his agitation meant was that he had gone bats from Wild Turkey-intake and needed to try to get sober, again, one more time” (838). What other Wild Turkey-drinking entertainment-makers have we met?

So we prick up our ears when the ghost tells us that in life his aim was above all to communicate with a reclusive son whom he feared was “experimenting with Substances” (838). Is this then the key to the “Entertainment”? The desire “to contrive a medium via which he and the muted son could simply converse. [. . .] His last resort: entertainment. Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life” (838-39). There is, after all, an echo here of the diagnosis applied to Hal, currently in withdrawal from his marijuana addiction: a “hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia” (695). Yet Hal has apparently never seen the video, and is one of the few characters who still seem to be utterly unaware of its very existence. Indeed, if the wraith is even now, from the afterlife, trying to communicate with the boy, he’s making rather a mistake by appearing instead to Gately, who can make little sense of the vision: unlike the young Incandenza, who’s memorized half the OED, he barely understands half the vocabulary that crops up in his dream, which is described as a “lexical rape”: “terms and words Gately knows he doesn’t know from a divot in the sod now come crashing through his head with the same ghastly intrusive force” (832). And at this stage, he and Hal have yet to meet, or even to become aware of each other’s existence, as the boy’s one visit to Ennet House comes only after Don is already hospitalized. In other ways, however, the burly ex-burglar’s plight reminds us of Hal’s own situation in the novel’s opening scene: both find themselves strangely inarticulate, their attempts to speak mysteriously short-circuited as they can frustratingly utter only grunts or animal noises. In Gately’s case, the sounds that emerge resemble “a runover kitten” or at best a cow (823; 828): “something in his raped throat won’t let whatever’s supposed to vibrate to speak vibrate” (813). There are here layers upon layers of failures to communicate, that entangle even the misguided ghost.

Moreover, the film that the wraith claims to have made also surely misses its mark, and not merely because it remains unseen by its intended viewer. For the paradox is that the movie that Quebecois terrorists and US secret services alike are desperately trying to track down because of the deadly threat it is thought to pose to the US body politic, was (we are now told) devised as a cure for the country’s malaise. After all, “ennui and jaded irony” are presented as diseases afflicting an entire generation, sadly celebrated when they should be fought: “It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial USA treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. [. . .] Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human” (694-95). The “Entertainment” was contrived as a means to shake its viewers into life, to dispel all cynicism, as “a magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make its eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciously, to laugh” (839). And yet there is surely something ambivalent if not directly counter-productive about a would-be tonic that is also seen as the apotheosis of a mind-numbing popular culture that turns its viewers into inhuman zombies, pale shadows of their former selves.

Given that the cryptic cartridge and the novel in which it features both (it’s now confirmed by film scholar and Joelle van Dyne’s friend, Molly Notkin [788]) share the same title–Infinite Jest–we’re forced to consider the relation between the two works, the one fictive and the other solidly material, all 1079 pages of it. Does the ambivalence and counter-productivity of the one infect also the other? Should Foster Wallace’s novel be envisaged as a cure for the malaise that afflicts us (if indeed we agree with his diagnosis) or as more of the same, if not worse? For now, as we enter the book’s final hundred pages, I think that the jury’s still out. In some ways it surely is a deeply impassioned (and deeply moralistic) cri de couer against inauthenticity, cynicism, and the myriad forces of desubjectation that surround us. In some ways, in short, it is a strangely nostalgic, even modernist novel. But in other ways, it continues and even exaggerates characteristic tics of literary postmodernism–the footnotes, the allusive cleverness, the play and endless deferral–that make it part of the problem (again, if problem it is), perhaps in fact its most hysterical symptom.

Infinite Jest

David Foser Wallace

David Foster Wallace’s novel, in installments. See also Infinite Test.

Will without Thinking

[Cross-posted to Infinite Test.]

Visit Quebec

If the Enfield Tennis Academy promises “self-forgetting through pain”, it’s not as though that’s the only means to self-dissolution. Thinking about Jim Incandenza’s films, Joelle van Dyne suggests that they begin to acquire an “almost moralistic” thesis: “present[ing] the self-forgetting of alcohol as inferior to that of religion/art” (742). After all, presumably Jim knew what he was about: he had been an alcoholic as well as an (increasingly) obsessional maker of films. But pain, alcohol, art, and religion don’t exhaust the ways in which the various characters in Infinite Jest seek what van Dyne terms the “Grail” of self-forgetting, the “mediated transcendence of self” (742). Drugs, politics, and death (by suicide), not to mention mass entertainment, are other routes contemplated or actually taken to achieve this apparently common and universal goal: getting out of oneself, away from oneself. Even recovery programs such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous are, as their critics observe, simply another form of self-renunciation: “an exchange of slavish dependence on the bottle/pipe for slavish dependence on meetings and banal shibboleths and robotic piety” (706). So then isn’t the moral of the story (and surely David Foster Wallace is as much of a moralist as Jim Incandenza) simply that some modes of self-forgetting are better than others?

The paradox of it all is that being “not yourself” is the problem as much as it is the solution. In a long conversation about melancholy and its symptoms, Jim’s widow Avril tells her son Mario that there is “a certain very strange type of sadness that appears as a kind of disassociation from itself.” Explaining further, she adds: “You know the idiom ‘not yourself’–‘He’s not himself today,’ for example [. . .]. There are, apparently, persons who are deeply afraid of their own emotions, particularly the painful ones. [. . .] As if something truly and thoroughly felt would have no end or bottom. Would become infinite and engulf them” (765). Note here that infinity itself is seen as a curse. The only thing is that there’s no “apparently” about this observation: what Mario’s mother is describing is almost precisely the condition that seems to afflict just about everyone in the book, not excluding Avril herself, whose permanent smile and good humour appear no better than denial and have a perverse effect on those around her. When, for instance, she accepts a “pathetic lie” from her eldest son, Orin, about the death of her beloved pet dog (whose demise had been in fact as gruesome as one could imagine), it leaves Orin’s friend “wiping [his] forehead and wishing the immaculately polished and sterilized hardwood floor would swallow up the whole scene in toto” (1050). Indeed, Orin’s friend continues, Avril’s reaction was in effect abusive because it was “almost too unconditionally loving and compassionate and selfless to possibly be true” (1051; emphasis added). Likewise, van Dyne, on meeting Mrs Incandenza for the first time, finds herself “half-crazed. She could detect nothing fake about the lady’s grace and cheer toward her, the goodwill. And at the same time felt sure in her guts’ pit that the woman could have sat there and cut out Joelle’s pancreas and thymus [. . .] without batting an eye” (747). Just about everyone, in short, in this book flees emotion, and seeks to escape (transcend, forget) themselves with all the energy they can muster.

If, then, we have a choice, then the only (ethical?) question that remains seems to be that of which of these modes of self-forgetting is superior. The problem here is that although choice itself is presented as endlessly burdensome, perhaps because (along with emotion) it is assumed to be the mark of individuality and selfhood. Here perhaps the true hero of the story is turning out to be the curious figure of Rémy Marathe, Quebecois wheelchair assassin and double (quadruple?) agent. Admittedly, Marathe makes a rather dubious hero, let alone ethical exemplar: it is revealed, after all, that it is he who personally administered the most horrific violence of what is already a pretty horrifically violent book: as he “pushed the sharpened handle of the manche à balai broomstick through the Antitoi’s insides during the technical interview of the Antitoit”; and it surely is no great saving grace that he “later had vomited out into the alley under secrecy” (753). Yet Marathe manifests the power and will to choose, and in (potentially) betraying his country is apparently opting to live in a “confusion of choices” (752). This is so even if to begin with these choices are forced upon him from outside, when he sees a woman stuck on the freeway and about to be run over, who thus enables him to decide (perhaps despite himself) to save her. As he puts it in his broken, French-inflected, English: “In one instant and without thought I was allowed to choose something as more important than my thinking of my life. Her, she allowed this will without thinking” (778).

“Will without thinking”: is this then what we are all striving for or should be striving for? This is not complete self-erasure, for (again, perhaps despite himself) Foster Wallace seems to rail, here at least, against such “self-destructing logic” (725). We need, as the Quebecois multilingually put it, to be learn to “say ‘Non’ to fatal pleasures” (722). At the same time, it is not quite a return to the traditional, liberal notion of the rational subject. This isn’t, I think, a particularly humanist book. It’s often suggested that people are really machines of some sort: a crazy guy in the halfway house says that he and Marathe are the only ones there who aren’t (“I could tell you were real. [. . .] The metal ones–have faces” [734]), but this may well not be what makes him crazy. Pemulis and Hal, too, see themselves in machinic terms: “What happens if you try to go without something the machine needs? Food, moisture, sleep, 02?” (1065). What’s more, loss of the self is not the worst of all problems: there are also people who are too much themselves, who (as Mario puts it to his mother) become “even more themselves than normal” (768). The ideal, at least if Marathe is to be trusted–and of course, he isn’t–seems to be a kind of impersonal subjectivity, neither the impossible bastion of rational individualism, not surrender even to the allegedly most superior of “transcendent” forces. A truly corporeal subjectivity, that doesn’t pass through thought or rationality, but expresses rather a conatus of objects and things. Not that even this leads to any great celebration. As Kate Gombert, Marathe’s interlocutor, puts it: “I don’t think I’m like thinking this is a feel-better story at all” (779).

Only Disconnect!

[Cross-posted to Infinite Test].

Infinite Jest is a book of both set pieces and discontinuous strands. On the one hand, there are relatively self-contained episodes: the opening scene of Hal’s inquisition by the college authorities, for instance; or the Eschaton game, or Joelle van Dyne’s (attempted?) suicide, or some of the tennis matches, such as the exhibition put on between Hal and Ortho Stice. These stories-within-stories have their own narrative arcs, their own climaxes and dénouements, and they leaven the strain of having to keep tabs on the novel’s broader, ongoing plot (or plots). On the other hand, there are many intervening strands (which sometimes break up the set pieces themselves) that recur without necessarily seeming to take us anywhere in particular, but that occasionally unfold snippets of information or otherwise resonate with what is happening elsewhere, at another point in the broader narrative.

Marathe and Steeply

Perhaps the most notable and peculiar of these strands is the long conversation between Rémy Marathe, Quebecois wheelchair assassin and double (triple? quadruple?) agent, and Hugh/Helen Steeply, transvestite operative for the United States “Office of Unspecified Services” and would-be seducer/seducee of Hal’s brother, Orin. For almost six hundred pages (so far) we have periodically returned to Marathe and Steeply as they perch on a mountain ledge high above Tucson, Arizona, talking through the night, neither daring to doze for lack of trust in the other. Here, there is no climax, just the long, more or less patient wait for dawn to come while the two men chat, sometimes friendly or curious, more often guarded and suspicious. Their talk turns increasingly to the “Entertainment,” but in some ways there is little less entertaining than this encounter in which, quite literally, almost nothing ever happens. Something is going on down at the valley floor, but they are (here at least) only spectators who can but dimly discern the main action.

As the book proceeds, these various disparate elements gradually start to contaminate each other, or to reveal the ways in which they are already mutually contaminated. We learn, for instance, that the figure dimly spotted at the edge of the Eschaton disaster, lurking in a Ford sedan by the dumpsters, is Helen Steeply herself, posing as a journalist for Moment magazine who is writing a “soft” profile of Orin Incandenza. The tennis academy staff are wary of giving her the access she wants to what the narrator calls (highlighting the real reasons for her visit) “the samizdat Entertainment director’s other son” (675), but she is permitted to sit in on Hal’s match with “The Darkness” Stice, at which she hears a long disquisition on what makes one tennis player better than any other. It’s all about having a “complete game.” For the boys have “different strengths, areas of the game they’re better at” (679), and for instance “Hal can’t lob half as good as even Possalthwaite, and compared to Ortho or Mike his net-play’s pedestrian” (679-80). But what makes the younger Incandenza a bright hope for the professional “Show” is that his “strengths have started to fit together” (680). And so perhaps it is for the novel at this point: it is starting to fit together.

“Only connect” is the motto that E M Forster used as the epigraph for Howard’s End. This is shorthand for the idea that, even in a modern society torn apart by industrial change, demographic mobility, and the loss of master narratives, it was still possible (perhaps heroically) to envisage at least the shadow of an over-arching totality. Or as Forster expands upon this theme, via his character Margaret Schlegel: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.” By contrast, what often distinguishes postmodern writers such as David Foster Wallace (but also Thomas Pynchon and James Ellroy, say) is the more cynical notion that of course, like it or not, everything is always already connected–by money, or power, or some strange subterranean conspiracy–and that tracing the webs of influence or intrigue leads not to exaltation, transcendence, and love, but to a disenchanted (one might add, posthegemonic) understanding of the way the world really works.

It would be a surprise were Infinite Jest to be leading to a sense of “human love [. . .] at its height.” Its very title suggests otherwise. Indeed, there’s little in the way of any kind of love to be found here: relationships are more likely to follow what, in the case of Orin’s multiple hook-ups with “subjects” (who in fact are treated as anything but), is described as “the Excitement-Hope-Acquisition-Contempt cycle of seduction” (574). Moreover, the image we are given of family lives is almost always of silence and abandonment, atomization if not outright abuse. Steeply’s conversation with Marathe, for instance, ends with a long semi-confessional disquisition on the part of the US agent, in which he describes how his own father gradually became a recluse, obsessed by “M*A*S*H” in a manner that anticipates the devastation allegedly wrought by Jim Incandenza’s “Entertainment”: “every night late at night, for the nightly hour, the old man too wide awake, and hunched over weirdly, head out, as if pulled toward the screen” (640).

So everything is connected, the game is finally coming together, but it appears to be a game nobody can win, or one in which winning is only another form of losing. The best we can expect, and the mission of the tennis academy, Steeply is told, is “self-transcendence through pain. These kids [. . .] they’re here to get lost in something bigger than them. [. . .] To forget themselves as objects of attention for a few years and see what they can do when the eyes are off them” (660). As with the (hideously) beautiful Joelle van Dyne, the challenge is to become invisible, to ward off the gaze and disappear. A more suitable motto than Forster’s, then, might be the (perhaps equally heroic) exhortation: “Only Disconnect!”