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!”