The Plague

camus_the-plagueIn Albert Camus’s celebrated novel of a plague outbreak, he tells us that at a certain point, the citizens of the afflicted North African town of Oran turn to reading. Specifically, they show a “remarkable interest” in “prophecies of all descriptions. [. . .] The local printing firms were quick to realize the profit to be made by pandering to this new craze and printed large numbers of the prophecies that had been going round in manuscript.” But there is not enough material to satisfy demand, and so after searching “in the municipal archives for all the mental pabulum of the kind available in old chronicles,” they turn to “journalists to write up forecasts” that are devoured eagerly to find literary clues to their personal fates.

Some predictions were based on far-fetched arithmetical calculations [. . .] Others made comparisons with the great pestilences of former times [. . .] and claimed to deduce conclusions bearing on the present calamity. But our most popular prophets were undoubtedly those who in an apocalyptic jargon had announced sequences of events, any one of which might be construed as applicable to the present state of affairs and was abstruse enough to admit of almost any interpretation. (221-222)

Much the same could perhaps be said of The Plague itself, which surely admits of many possible interpretations and is often enough read as an allegory of the German Occupation of France. Plague does, after all, make for a fine metaphor. Even in Camus’s own text, we see how pestilence is made to signify by those affected by it, not least in the fiery sermon delivered by a Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux, as the fever begins to take hold. “Plague,” the priest tells his congregation, “is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor” (95). Yet as the disease progresses, Paneloux somewhat backs down from his certainty as to what it all means. A second sermon, we are told, “display[s] more uneasiness than power” (229). Perhaps sometimes a plague is simply a plague, and brings with it no great moral lessons or truths.

Indeed, by the end of the novel the narrator’s main worry is how fleeting any such lessons may be, as he observes a population, finally liberated from the epidemic, now prepared to

den[y], in the teeth of the evidence, that we had ever known a crazy world in which men were killed off like flies [. . .]. In short, they denied that we had ever been that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn. (297-298)

The real problem, in other words, is that the trauma is all too easily forgotten, that it is a text that frays or is soon invisible. Hence the narrator’s impulse to write everything down, to draw on his experience as well as the documents left him by others, “so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise” (308). Yet it is not clear whether people’s propensity to amnesia, to forgetting what they have been through, is one of these admirable qualities (a sign of resilience?) or a fault that the text has therefore to rectify.

A similar ambivalence shrouds then the main characteristic imputed to the citizens of Oran, and perhaps to humans more generally: the fact that they are creatures of habit. For it is part and parcel of the way in which the town is described from the outset as unremarkable, ordinary, and frankly mediocre in every way (“a thoroughly negative place” [3]), that in it “everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits” (4). Such routines both hide and are a symptom of “the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it. But you can get through the days there without trouble, once you have formed habits” (5). People don’t think, perhaps they do not even really fully live, dedicated as they are to “fritter[ing] away at card-tables, in cafés and in small talk what time is left for living” (4). So a plague, whose first consequence is to disrupt those habits, might even be welcomed (in theory at least) as an opportunity for reflection, for awakening and seeing what life could be about when faced with the possibility of its extinction. Indeed, for Camus (but surely not only Camus) the question raised by pestilence is precisely the question of existence, of what it means to be human in the here and now when the promise, or threat, of transcendence wavers in the face of calamity.

Yet ultimately, in a book that struggles to shake off the religious vocabulary that it purports to reject, if there is salvation it is to be found in the repetition that constitutes habit. No wonder, as Camus famously argues elsewhere, we should imagine Sisyphus happy, for what is a man endlessly rolling a boulder up a hill but an image of a creature defined by his habits? Likewise, here, the doctor who attends to the plague victims and the others that help him with the task do so not out of any great ideological conviction or faith, least of all out of any illusion that they are making much of an impact against the implacable foe that is the disease. In the end, after all, the plague disappears because it is imagined to have ended of its own accord, “leaving as unaccountably as it had come. [. . .] It had, so to speak, achieved its purpose” (271). Nor, we are told repeatedly, can we regard those who choose to fight it as heroes: “there’s no question of heroism in all this” the doctor says at one point. “It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is–common decency” (163). As for “those who enrolled in the ‘sanitary squads,’ as they were called, [they] had, indeed, no great merit in doing as they did, since they knew it was the only thing to do” (132). The plague itself, rather than being any great spectacle or event, is also a habit–if it means anything, it is simply “the same thing over and over and over again” (161)–and yet it can and should be confronted by a sort of counter-routine, a sense of obligation that is almost unwilled and unconscious. Hence if there is any “saintliness” (and the novel rather doubts that there is), it can only be “an aggregate of habits” (118).

We are now, of course, in 2020 learning new habits. And let us hope that one day we will have forgotten many of them. One I personally rather like is the custom of applause, of making a noise of some sort, every evening (here in Vancouver) at 7pm, in tribute to the health workers and other key workers, often underpaid and long overlooked, who are going about their jobs in the midst of the pandemic. It is rightly pointed out that that, indeed, is what they are doing: simply what they have to do. And that the applause is ritual without much meaning. But if we learn anything from Camus’s depiction of the plague, it is that such habits may be part of what is quietly admirable, and should not be so readily despised.

“Habit is what destroys the world”

Clune, White Out

Something that’s always new, that’s immune to habit, that never gets old. That’s something worth having. Because habit is what destroys the world. [. . .] Trees, stop signs, people and books grow old, crumble and disappear inside our habits. The reason old people don’t mind dying is because the time you reach eighty, the world has basically disappeared. (Michael Clune, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin. Quoted in Miranda Critchley, “Don’t Be Dull.” London Review of Books 36.21 [November 6, 2014]: 41.)

Interview in eldiario.es

Jon Beasley-Murray

I was interviewed by Amador Fernández-Savater for eldiario.es: Jon Beasley-Murray: “La clave del cambio social no es la ideología, sino los cuerpos, los afectos y los hábitos”. An extract:

12- Los movimientos políticos que te interesan son “enigmáticos, invisibles, misteriosos y fuera de lugar”. No representan ni se dejan representar. Funcionan de alguna manera como los propios afectos: opacos y sin discurso articulado, sin demanda ni proyecto. Pero ese tipo de fuerza, ¿puede ser algo más que destituyente? ¿Puede convertirse también en un poder constituyente, creador de instituciones que organicen nuestra vida cotidiana?

Jon Beasley-Murray. ¡Son muchos los movimientos políticos que me interesan! O, en otras palabras, son muchos (¿todos?) los que tienen su costado enigmático, invisible, misterioso y fuera de lugar. Para mí, no se trata de escoger los movimientos que te gustan y apostar todo en ellos, como si se tratase de una carrera de caballos. Los movimientos son procesos de experimentación y los resultados nunca se pueden predecir ¡ni prevenir! Esa experimentación sin garantías es la esencia de la política, de otro modo no estamos hablando de política, sino de implementación de planes técnicos. En cada caso, en cada momento, está presente la posibilidad de ambivalencia, de error, de desastre.

No vamos a ninguna parte sin reconocer esa opacidad inherente e inevitable de la política. Mejor afirmarla que negarla o intentar eliminarla. Sobre todo, porque es desde ese lado oscuro que emerge cualquier posibilidad de lo nuevo, de la creación. Así que lo veo todo al revés de como lo plantea tu pregunta: lo que es claro, visible, ordenado, previsible y cognoscible me parece que nunca puede ser constituyente, porque (para bien o para mal) es pura repetición de lo mismo.

Pero bueno, algo que aprendemos del hábito es que la repetición de lo mismo es otra ilusión: aún dentro de las repeticiones más regulares, algo se escapa, entra siempre la opacidad y el enigma. Y es por esto que debemos atender a estos momentos, de desviación y deriva, por sutiles y (casi) invisibles que sean.

13- Si no es la toma del poder, ¿qué sería un éxito, un logro, una victoria para los movimientos que te interesan?

Jon Beasley-Murray. La creatividad, la creación, la invención de nuevas formas de vivir; la expansión de lo común, de la comunidad. Un éxito nunca acabado, por supuesto; una victoria siempre por venir. O, en palabras del marqués de Sade, supuestamente en reacción a la Revolución Francesa: encore un effort si vous voulez être vraiment républicains! (todavía un esfuerzo si queréis ser verdaderamente republicanos)

There should be a second piece before long, with a focus on corruption. In the meantime, there’s quite a lively discussion of this one, not only in the comments on eldiario.es, but also on a page dedicated to Podemos on Reddit.

Ifigenia III

Teresa de la Parra, Ifigenia

And so Teresa de la Parra’s novel ends as the title always indicated that it would: with a sacrifice, and a willing one at that. María Eugenia has at least two opportunities to avoid her fate of an unhappy marriage with César Leal, which she variously describes as a “death sentence” and “hidden slavery” (336). She could take the risky route of eloping with her former suitor Gabriel Olmedo, whose impassioned letter urges her towards an early-morning street-corner assignation, from which he would whisk her to the port and a steamship and on to a voyage of discovery through Europe. She seems about to take up this option, but hesitates as she runs into Aunt Clara while seeking out a suitcase in the darkened house. Then her second chance to escape her fearful destiny comes when, shortly afterwards, she summons Leal to see her, determined to break off the engagement. She has her speech ready: “In the past few days while you have not been here, I have confirmed that I do not love you enough to marry you [. . .]” (331). When the time comes, however, she cannot bring herself to say these words. And again, Aunt Clara has something to do with her unwillingness to follow through: she imagines herself like her, an “old maid,” her beauty long gone and dependent on Uncle Eduardo. At least with Leal she would have a house of her own, a place of asylum.

In any case, the truth is that her fiancé barely lets her get a word in edgewise: his voice is “full of energy and absolutely clear, always knowing what he wants and always saying exactly what he has to” (332). By contrast, María Eugenia ends up without a voice at all: ”he didn’t let me speak, and as he carried on explaining things to me so loquaciously, I didn’t say another syllable, but set to watching him as I sat mute, perplexed, and absent” (333). Far from being the protagonist of the novel of her own life (as she had, at the outset, excitedly exclaimed to her friend Cristina), she is now at best a bystander, at worst a victim of decisions made by others. She has been an object for some time: a commodity for sale. Now, however, she faces the horror of being an object aware of her objectification and the treatment she is undergoing, but without the chance of calling out or doing anything about it. Like the nightmare of the patient on the operating table whose anaesthetic has failed but who cannot move a muscle, any self-awareness she has won only makes everything worse.

Of course, in theory María Eugenia’s options remain open as the book comes to a close: the wedding with Leal is still a week away, and Olmedo, rejecting her negative response to his suggestion as a sham, seems to be offering her one more chance. But one can hardly imagine her making such choices. Indeed, one can hardly imagine her making any choices of any significance at all. To put this another way: if the traditional Bildungsroman is a narrative detailing the birth of the adult subject, through trial and error, experience and gradual self-knowledge, Ifigenia is better described as an inversion of the genre. Here we have a subjectivity that is almost comprehensively dismantled, that enters into utter crisis; and the only knowledge that María Eugenia seems to have gained about herself is the fact of her own unknowability, the otherness that haunts her and that, at the crucial moment, “spoke through my own mouth, took my destiny in its claws, [and] cruelly destroyed it” (328). More broadly, this is a tale of psychic disintegration; as such, it perhaps has more in common with ”The Yellow Wallpaper” than would first appear to be the case. In other words, the essence of María Eugenia’s tragedy has little to do with the fact that she does not (cannot) elope with Gabriel: his paean to natural rights and Romantic freedom hardly disguises the fact that the choice he’s offering her is merely between two forms of patriarchal subjugation.

Our would-be heroine’s tragedy, rather, concerns the nearly catatonic state, dominated by fear and anxiety, to which she succumbs by the end. She is unable to achieve liberal subjectivity and personhood, and at the same time has failed to establish any alternative path. She has failed, for instance, to write her way out of her predicament: the literary project that at first seemed to offer some kind of liberation finally loses its way. María Eugenia tells us that this novel’s final chapter is also her adieu to writing: it’s the “final page of [her] spiritual life” (315). What had begun as gossipy and jocular confidences to a far-flung friend has by the end taken on the tone of a suicide note: when she drops the suitcase, signifying that eloping is no longer an option, she describes herself as “forsaken and suicidal” (329); later she says she is “pale, lifeless, hollow-eyed, almost ugly” (331; of course, that “almost” indicates the hook with which her anxiety has snared her). This novel that is obsessed with the idea of “life” in all its various connotations (a span of time as well as a form of intensity) ends up being the tale of a woman consigned to what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life.” This is the sacrificial logic of the modern-day Iphigenia, who chooses oblivion only because all other choices are impossible or unimaginable, and what remains is mere habit.

Todos los fuegos el fuego

Julio Cortázar, Todos los fuegos el fuego

In the middle of a short story entitled “Instrucciones para John Howell” (“Instructions for John Howell”), Argentine author Julio Cortázar has his protagonist, a man called Rice, complain loudly about a play that he’s watching with some frustration: “It’s a scandal! [. . .] How can anyone stand the fact that they change actors halfway through a scene?” (133). But the man sitting next to Rice in the audience responds with little more than a bored sigh: “You never know with these young authors. [. . .] It’s all symbolic, I suppose” (133). And though by the time this collection of stories, Todos los fuegos el fuego, was published in 1966, Cortázar was 52 (and so a full decade older than fellow Boom writers such as Donoso, Fuentes, or García Márquez), one could still imagine that this might be the reaction it elicited: a contradictory blend of uncomprehending shock and knowing world-weariness. For by 1966 authors continued trying to shock their audiences, and yet the shock of the new had itself become old. The risk was that that text might get lost, stranded between scandal and déjà vu.

One might imagine a reader making a complaint much like Rice’s when faced with the story “La señorita Cora” (“Miss Cora”), which constantly and abruptly shifts between narrators, often in mid-paragraph. A young boy is in hospital for a minor operation, and we switch rapidly between the perspectives of parent, nurse, and patient. Similarly, the title story “Todos los fuegos el fuego” (“All Fires the Fire”) jumps back and forth between a story of gladiators in Rome and a much more contemporary tale of a fatal love triangle in Paris. Why do this? What does it add? Is there not something almost perverse in this drive to disrupt our reading that surely puts so many off? But the more resigned response of anyone familiar with the Boom might be to observe that such narrative fragmentation and changes in point of view are par for the course in mid-century experimental fiction. From Roa Bastos to Vargas Llosa, Fuentes to Lezama Lima, Boom authors and their peers seem devoted to making life hard for the reader, and ironically it’s the fact that these gambits have become so very common that gives readers a way out. For if sheer puzzlement leads to an emotive refusal to read, perhaps with a denunciation of innovation as elitist or unnecessary, jejeune familiarity is little better in that it entails a nonchalant declaration that a detailed reading is superfluous in that there’s nothing really new under the sun. “It’s all symbolic, I suppose.“ Or, as a free translation of this book’s title might have it: if you’ve seen one fire, you’ve seen them all.

By encoding these two apparently opposed (but secretly complicit) reactions within the text itself, Cortázar is also surely trying to ward them off. As such, if we can be sure of anything, it has to be that it’s not “all symbolic.” Readings that take refuge in symbolism and allegory have missed the point and neutralized the real impact of what the writer is trying to achieve. For there surely still is something at least faintly scandalous about abrupt shifts of points of view that disrupt grammatical or syntactical propriety. As soon as we see experimentation as just another trope, then we miss something of the text’s affective reality. After all, in the case of the play that Rice is watching, it’s been whispered in his ear that someone’s life may be at stake. Perhaps still more to the point, Rice knows that the actors have been changed because at one point he was up there on the stage himself. And perhaps this is also where the scandalized and the world-weary responses to the text join forces, in that both gloss over the reader’s own affective investment in the reading. When Rice complains to his neighbour about the scandalous nature of the play they are both watching, his comment hides his own contribution to that scandal.

In the end, what outrage and (purported) ennui alike deny are the ways in which readers get caught up in the text’s machinic assemblage. Machines are everywhere to be found in this collection of stories, from the opening tale of an almost interminable traffic jam on the outskirts of Paris (“La autopista del sur”) to the aeroplane from which (in “La isla a mediodía”) a flight attendant glimpses what he imagines to be a pristine Mediterranean Island. In “Instrucciones para John Howell,” it is the reader, as he or she becomes actor and thus (to an extent, however limited) author who is depicted in mechanistic terms. In the wings, preparing to go on-stage, Rice is described as “mechanically” changing his clothes (129). When in front of the footlights, realizing he has to “submit to the madness and give himself over to the simulacrum” (125), he finds his entry into the spectacle (which, while he is within it, is no longer spectacle) to be eased by his recourse to the automatism of habit. He picks up his role through gestures that he doesn’t even need to think through: the “trivial ritual of lighting a cigarette” for instance (125). What counts now is less the big scene or the broad overview, less the scandal or the context that neutralizes it, than “the details” and the detailed reading, because it is there and only there that reader, author, and actor finds his or her “maximum freedom” (128).

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.

What Happened?

[Crossposted to to Infinite Test.]

Michael Joyce

Infinite Jest was published in 1996, but is set in what was then the near future and is now the recent past. The chronology is complicated by the fact that in the novel years are no longer referred to by numerals (1996, 1997, or whatever) but by product names as time itself is now “subsidized” by corporations that presumably pay good money for the privilege. Hence we have the “Year of the Whopper,” the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and so on. This shift to a new mode of reckoning time (or at least, naming it) accentuates a general sense of uncanniness that, I think, pervades Wallace’s text. There is much here that is recognizable, familiar; but there is also the impression that everything is just slightly out of joint and that something, possibly something traumatic, must have happened to make it so.

It is not just time that is out of joint; it is space, too. Again, something has happened: some kind of new international organization, the Organization of North American Nations (happily abbreviated to ONAN), has emerged, and at the same time national borders seem to have been renegotiated: territory (Maine? Vermont? Parts of New York State?) has been given to Canada; and yet in some way Canada has also been assimilated to the USA. Hence the various more or less violent organizations, mostly but not entirely from Québec, “whose opposition to interdependence/reconfiguration is designated by RCMP and USOUS as terrorist/extortionist in character” (144). Here, the RCMP is presumably still the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; but the USOUS is an unfamiliar acronym, part of this new, uncanny world that is so like and unlike our own.

The third element in the novel that is slightly (but significantly) misaligned is technology. In the world of the novel it seems that telephones have been replaced by consoles of some sort (there is a chapter devoted to the rise and fall of video telephony [144-151]), and that broadcast television has disappeared altogether. In place of TV, audiovisual entertainment is provided via a system of cartridges dominated by a small number of suppliers: “InterLace, Tatsuoka, Yushituyu, SyberVision” (110), but above all InterLace. The Internet exists–we even get a copy of an email detailing a somewhat bizarre insurance claim–but this is not exactly a wired, or even wireless, world. A long chapter is devoted to the decidedly old-school pleasures of late-night shows on a local (indeed, hyper-local) college radio station.

Of course, there is always something slightly uncanny about any novel, any work of art, which is inevitably both like and unlike, both part of and distant from our own everyday lives. But here there is also a touch of science fiction, even a touch of post-apocalyptic narrative. But only a touch: it wasn’t quite an apocalypse; life continues in many ways much the same. And the answer to the question as to what exactly happened may not be so very important. Something was bound to happen anyhow. In “actual fact” what happened was the world wide web and 9/11, whose effects are perhaps not all that different from the aftermath of whatever the trauma is that haunts Infinite Jest: a vague sense of paranoia, surveillance, and underlying violence; the rampant commodification of everyday life.

In the midst of all this, we are presented with a paper about the modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern hero, written by the character who is probably the closest thing this book has to a hero of its own: Hal Incandenza, tennis player and lexical prodigy. Written “in the year of the Perdue WonderChicken” and “four years after the demise of broadcast television” (140), the essay puts forward Chief Steve McGarrett of “Hawaii Five-0” and Captain Frank Furillo of “Hill Street Blues” as epitomes of modern and postmodern heroism respectively. McGarrett presents us with ”the hero in action” as we watch him “stalk and strut, homing in on the truth. Homing in is the essence of what the classic hero of modern action does” (141). By contrast, Frank Furillo is “a hero of reaction [. . .] his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields.” Furillo is “a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration” (141). But Incandenza then suggests that we are now waiting for a new kind of (post-postmodern) hero, “the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines” (142).

Is Hal himself a “hero of non-action”? It is not yet clear: he and the other boys in the tennis academy seem to be striving, perfecting their game for a place in the “Show.” And yet all that effort is less about action itself than about perfecting the habits of the forehand and backhand, ensuring that playing tennis becomes almost robotic, to produce a kind of catatonia in motion: “over and over, each forehand melting into the next, a loop, it’s hypnotizing, it’s supposed to be” (110). As Pierre Bourdieu used to say, when watching good tennis players it’s not always clear whether they control the ball or the ball controls them: through constant practice and repetition, habits of play and performance are instilled to become almost instinctual. This is the aim of the Enfield Tennis Academy that Hal’s father founded and his mother and uncle run. And perhaps for a good tennis player, as for the post-postmodern hero, the question of “what happened?” becomes unimportant or irrelevant. Something happened–it always does–but true heroism consists in insulating oneself from such events, which are mere distraction.