INFINITE JEST pp. 322-398 (notes 120-155)
In the seventh grade, when i was twelve or so, my best friend and i were assigned to invent a game from scratch to be played in P.E. So over the weekend we cooked up something really elaborate, with a convoluted point system and involving every ball on offer in the gym. Implementing the game with our class on Monday was so frustrating that the teacher, swear to Satan, threw down her clipboard on the floor.
Still, not nearly as crazy as Eschaton.
The tennis/nuclear war simulator game plays out over twenty pages or so of prose like this:
An AMNAT minesweeper of the Sixth Fleet on maneuvers in the Red Sea is hit and sunk with REDCHI Silkworm torpedoes fired by LIBSYR MiG25s. Italy, in an apparently bizarre EndStat-generated development Otis P. Lord will only smile enigmatically about, invades Albania. SOVWAR goes apeshit. Apoplectic premier rings AMNAT’s president, only to be asked if his refrigerator’s running. LIBSYR shocks the Christian world by air-bursting a half-megaton device two clicks over Tel Aviv, causing deaths in the low six figures. Everybody and his brother goes to DEFCON 5. Air Force One leaves the ground. SOUTHAF and REDCHI announce neutrality and plead for cool heads. Israeli armored columns behind heavy tactical-artillery saturation push into Syria all the way to Abu Kenal in twelve hours: Damascus has firestorms; En Nebk is reportedly just plain gone. Several repressive right-wing regimes in the Third World suffer coups d’etat and are replaced by repressive left-wing regimes. Tehran and Baghdad announce full dip-mil support of LIBSYR, thus reconstituting LIBSYR as IRLIBSYR. AMNAT and SOVWAR activate all civil defense personnel and armed forces reserves and commence evacuation of selected MAMAs.
i didn’t comprehend most of it, but the “map is not the territory” jokes were amusing, and the scene devolves into chaos and childish spite. Maybe it’s the opposite of “entropy.”
But now ill backpedal to the Marathe and Steeply dialog right before this strand. We haven’t seen these guys in a while, but they’re still up on that mountain. Marathe has some passionate lines about the US and its Thanatos-complex, a drive for death-by-entertainment of which “the Entertainment” is the symptom and epitome: “can such a U.S.A. hope to survive for a much longer time? To survive as a nation of peoples? To much less exercise dominion over other nations of other peoples? If there are other peoples who still know what it is to choose?”
Then the narrator tells us that Marathe is embarrassed by his own expression of his genuine thoughts:
Marathe wondered why the presence of Americans could always make him feel vaguely ashamed after saying things he believed. An aftertaste of shame after revealing passion of any belief and type when with Americans, as if he had made flatulence instead of had revealed belief.
It’s one of those moments that feels “True,” in that way we’d like valuable novels to be. Why is there a sneering ironical disdain for sincere feelings, especially when they come from a place of radical dissent? Lots of writing has been done about this. Mark Fisher and Deleuze have talked about the capitalist system as having no “realistic” alternative, that it’s the One True Faith, the perspective from nowhere of which there’s no outside. But i feel like it’s better to care, anyway. The kind of tolerance threshold people have for capital’s social destruction, or what colonization does to children in Palestine, is just plain sociopathic.
(Why is Eschaton addicting if it’s so slow and complex and boring? The same might apply to a high-concept film like IJ itself. And having just done this irony as a repudiation of radical politics thing above, it seems clear from the comic militant groups and the digs at feminism that radical politics is just another addiction in this novel. What’s the way out?)
And then there’s a strand ive avoided talking about: Poor Tony’s withdrawal. Poor Tony was in the Yrstruly section, which i had a beef with. And i still have a beef with this section. i need to reread but i dont want to because i have to keep moving ahead since im behind on the bookclub. But also because that section is amazingly written, and was more painful for me to read than the entirety of THE ROAD; am i crazy?!
im feeling more strongly that Poor Tony is being misgendered but i also feel strange about discounting the narrator’s pronoun. The whole sequence is harrowing, but once again i find myself resisting the treatment of this material. Like other moments of extreme violence and pain, i feel like im being pulled to a semi-comic register of exhibition and over-the-topness that i just plain dont want to go to. It’s not like i don’t like dark humor, or think that Wallace isn’t free to lend a comic treatment to whatever material he wants. But it’s too well written for me to go there, know what im saying?
Every text presupposes a hypothetical audience. That hypothetical audience here is expected to know a shit load of high math, analytical philosophy, medical jargon, and obscure film culture. But i also find this audience to be sometimes unrelentingly straight dude. ill go out on shaky limb and say i think the “he” pronoun for Poor Tony is a blind spot. There’s a lot of “fag” thrown around when the narrator is aligned with Gately or other men (and the whole main cast is male except for Joelle, really) but it crops up in the omniscient sections too. Sure, these are just givens of the novel’s authorial audience.
This sounds stupid, but these are the points where i feel my own reader response is totally detached from both the hypothetical audience, and the flesh and blood audience that has appreciated this book so deeply. Is my situation (queer, trans enby, whatever IDs you want) that far outside? So many people say the JEST makes them feel less alone, but it makes me want to kill myself.
But i have immense respect for how well done every sentence is. Especially in light of the deliberate disregard of accommodating flesh and blood readers into the presupposed audience. Every text also addressed a hypothetical someone who accepts the fictional world and events and people as true — we “suspend our disbelief” to align ourselves with this position. And the JEST is totally against the reality principle, as James Woods will tell you. (Why would the Arizona college go through the trouble to interrogate Hal in person over just some admission questions? for example.)
So this whole reading set takes place on “Interdependence Day,” and we get a real long steep in the Enfield cast and Boston AA. These are great pages, and it’s when the novel has really started to click for me. In this reading set i finally came across the sentence used in this very helpful post.
i picked this 300 word sentence at random. Joelle is pushing back against the notion of choosing a God or higher power in the AA program on the basis of bad grammar in the task:
Gately looks at the rectangular blue-selvaged expanse of clean linen whose gentle rises barely allude to any features below, he looks at her and has no idea whether she’s serious or not, or whacked, or trying like Dr. Geoff Day to erect Denial-type fortifications with some kind of intellectualish showing off, and he doesn’t know what to say in reply, he has absolutely nothing in his huge square head to Identify with her with or latch onto or say in encouraging reply, and for an instant the Provident cafeteria seems pin-drop silent, and his own heart grips him like an infant rattling the bars of its playpen, and he feels a greasy wave of an old and almost unfamiliar panic, and for a second it seems inevitable that at some point in his life he’s going to get high again and be back in the cage all over again, because for a second a blank white veil leveled at him seems a screen on which might well be projected a casual and impressive black and yellow smily-face, grinning, and he feels all the muscles in his own face loosen and descend kneeward; and the moment hangs therein, distended, until the White Flag raffle coordinator for November, Glenn K., glides up to the podium mike in his scarlet velcour comparison makeup and candelabrum with candles the same color as the things back to whatever passes here for order, for the raffle drawing.
Maybe you can see the basic sentence from which this grows. There’s a clause about Joelle’s clothes over her breasts, the double-teamed adjectival phrases, ” rectangular blue-selvaged expanse,” “huge square head.” There aren’t more of the other mannerisms like multiple prepositions or conjunctions opening a sentence or brand names or science jargon, but i get a counter-intuitive notion that could apply to other Serious modernist or pomo authors of the connections to 19th century literature. (Wallace does the Tolstoy thing of widely generalized similes: “Lyle, like all good listeners, does this and that.”)
i imagine Wallace doesn’t “grow” the sentences, but that they first appear even more dense and complex and have to get sheared down. But it’s always so readable and not like Henry James or anything. im still wondering how it all works.
But then that audience disjuncture happens again. This time when the next AA speaker is a woman who worked as a stripper. She was adopted and had a catatonic “invertebrate” sister who is revoltingly described. The sister was repeatedly raped by her father, and the foster daughter is complicit in all this by hiding evidence involving a Raquel Welch mask and all this fucked up shit. And among other things she coped by joining a 12-Step organization for traumatized survivors whose acronym is WHINERS.
Is that just a cheap gag? Because it’s as cheap as just listening to any shitty man complaining about “triggers” or any of the people damaged by a male supremacist culture. The context changes but this rhetoric has always been around. i dont know what it is about these sort of bits of the novel’s background assumptions, what Lionel Trilling called a novel’s “manners.”
Maybe it’s just me, and that i really hate the 80s.