INFINITE JEST pp. 602-700 (notes 246-286)



i had twenty pages left of this reading set, and then i became disinclined to do much of anything for a little bit. then i had the worst cold of my life for two weeks, and basically, i didnt glance at this novel for almost a month until i read up to p. 700 yesterday morning. so much for finishing it by the end of 2015. this wasnt a good place to break since these hundred pages had a lot of important information in them.

one thing ive felt for a while is this: i wish i hadnt read the D.T. Max biography, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY. it’s not terrible or anything, but it has juicy life details which i then see or project to be embedded in the JEST. there’s the resentful feelings towards the mother, Orin’s sex addiction, the black widow spiders, and the AA business of course — the edition notice has an extended disclaimer:

Besides Closed Meetings for alcoholics only, Alcoholics Anonymous in Boston, Massachusetts also has Open Meetings, where pretty much anybody who’s interested can come and listen, take notes, pester people with questions, etc. A lot of people at these Open Meetings spoke with me and were extremely patient and garrulous and generous and helpful. The best way I can think of to show my appreciation to these men and women is to decline to thank them by name.

Max has an anecdote i cant remember for how this note came to be. it seems wheedling to me right now as i go over it. its not like withholding the real names to the crazy stories an author filches is above the line in terms of consideration. (Max also goes into the mysterious dedication, F.P. Foster, R.I.P., which i cant remember either but it’s something bitter, like Rot in Pieces.)

But so what there are bits of Wallace’s autobiography in the text? i resist reading it in this light because it seems too easy or reductive, but there’s nothing wrong about fabricating around elements from your life. though it is a tricky balance: real life is so absurd that it’s far beyond any average reader’s threshold for credibility in literary fiction, so just telling it as it happened is actually unbelievable. Your mom as a character in the story would never have behaved in that way, even though the real mom in real life did. the writer has to make shit up to give it — not coherency, but an even more elusive quality, credibility perhaps. i took a stab at auto-fiction, mostly to re-arrange events that took place across two days into one action-packed night, and it was dead on arrival when i sent it in for workshop. the “I” persona in my essays is perceptive but very cold and aloof, so once the work became a fiction, the narrator was a bloodless heel who couldn’t react to anything that was happening. it struck me as true: a great deal of the time i feel so estranged from my true emotions that it’s hard for me to make simple decisions like what i want for lunch, or what do i really want to write. this is why two characters that fascinate me deeply are Camus’s Mersault and the narrator of Tom McCarthy’s REMAINDER. Two murderous white male sociopaths — i dunno how that bodes for me.

the first important thing happening in this set is the big Gately gets shot scene — unless there’s another one later. for some reason i didnt expect it to come so quickly past halfway, despite the structure of the whole thing so far. we can take it as his comeuppance for the manslaughter of the guy early in the novel whose house Gately was robbing, but it’s so long ago i forgot about it.

this entire sequence is really exciting, and had a bizarre and digressive chain of events with Lenz and the guy whose grandma died from a Christmas prank: Lenz has been offloading by horribly killing animals, he escalates to killing the pet dog of some young Canadian meat heads and is chased all the way back to the half way house. Gately finds that he must defend himself:

At the blade’s sound the situation becomes even more automatic and Gately feels adrenaline’s warmth spread through him as his subdural hardware clicks deeper into a worn familiar long-past track. Having no choice now not to fight and things simplify radically, divisions collapse. Gately’s just one part of something bigger he can’t control. 

and he goes on to operate smoothly in trying to de-escalate the situation, saying all the right things, “a surge of almost sexual competence,” while Lenz is cowering behind his body. i wanted to call it, Tolstoyan, this “part of something bigger” sensation when a character really gets in the zone. actually this little moment is the most positive and even glorious thing ive encountered so far in the book. as of now ive been pessimistic about what the JEST has been suggesting about our condition — there’s no way to escape into some better way of being because we’re too lonely which makes us turn inward to solipsism and infantile desires and also to drugs, and language and systems bar the way. going beyond language is what Hal initiates in the very first scene, and ive heard arguments that we can read it as him finally breaking free, but i dunno, he gets rushed into an ambulance and will likely be committed. but Gately here, as the guardian of the house, has the same kind of insight Tolstoy pushes in WAR & PEACE with Captain  Tushin in the battle, or Nikolai in the hunt, surrendering your control to the collective movement of humankind making history by following their own immediate interests. i guess it’s an Old Testament notion too: stop anguishing over not knowing yourself and follow the call of the Lord.

The punch makes Gately stop thinking in any sort of spiritual terms at all.

Wallace renders the fight in blow-by-blow present tense, lots of mono-syllabic words.

Gately feints and takes one giant step and gets all his weight into a Rockette kick that lands high up under the Nuck’s beard’s chin and audibly breaks Gately’s big toe in the sneaker and sends the man curving out back into the dazzle of the highbeams, and there’s a metallic boom of him landing on the Montego’s hood and the click and skitter of the blade landing somewhere on the street beyond the door.

Marathe and Steeply deliver another addiction parable, this time about Steeply’s dad and his being consumed by the show M*A*S*H. 

but the most substantial thing in this set is Steeply as journalist (in drag or a trans woman? Wallace makes a lot of confusion for me here) talking with DeLint while spectating a showmatch between Hal and Stice. Steeply is pumping DeLint for information about Orin or anybody in the Incandenza family. but to get really juicy data we must go to the endnotes for the two spare letters that barge in on the middle of this section. it was mentioned in the narrative earlier that Orin’s roommate at ETA was a Mr. MK Bain, who runs Saprogenic Greetings Inc. Steeply “fires away” some inquiries, which are redacted. Bain’s voice very much like Wallace’s, as many of the characters and their internal monologues are — it makes the cast seem like a ventriloquism, like Mario’s filmed puppet show. and it was the reason why i foolishly misread the first half of the book. Bain recalls some fucked up stories about the relationship between Orin and the Moms: that the Moms idealizes Orin (and Hal) so much that she is in denial of some of their obvious fuck-ups. in a dark and twisted story, Avril can even be in denial of Orin killing her dog through inebriated negligence (dragging it by its leash attached to Avril’s car while joy riding). and there’s also this thematic bit where he’s reticent to identify how affluent kids get fucked up by their upbringing as abuse per se,

but when I was (long ago) abroad in the world of dry men, I saw parents, usually upscale and educated and talented and functional and white, and patient and loving and supportive and concerned and involved in their children’s lives, profligate with compliments and diplomatic with constructive criticism, loquacious in their pronouncements of unconditional love for and approval of their children, conforming to every last jot/tittle in any conceivable definition of a good parent, I saw parent and unimpeachable parent who raised kids who were (a) emotionally retarded or (b) lethally self-indulgent or (c) chronically depressed or (d) borderline psychotic or (e) consumed with narcissistic self-loathing or (f) neurotically driven/addicted or (g) variously psychosomatically Disabled or (h) some conjunctive permutation of (a) … (g).

how does it go wrong when there seemed to be so much love? it seems that the love is not what is really is, or has a “creepy” aspect to it (Bain speaks generally but is referring to Avril), or perhaps the love seems too conditional to the children (thinking of the young suicides in silicon valley).

we bounce back to the tennis showmatch scene, which Wallace just exhausts of what every character is doing at this moment. we follow a long rally of conversation between Steeply and DeLint and then Poutrincourt, the Quebecois prorector for the women players. when Steeply lands on the issue of defining success for these young players, a pressure we’ve seen voiced by some of them to Lyle, the whole drivenness to “make it,” we get

[Poutrincourt:] ‘One, one is that you attain the goal and realize the shocking realization that attaining the goal does not complete or redeem you, does not make everything for your life “OK” as you are, in the culture, educated to assume it will do this, the goal. And then you face this fact that what you had thought would have the meaning does not have the meaning when you get it, and you are impaled by shock. We see suicides in history by people at these pinnacles; the children here are versed in what is called the saga of Eric Clipperton.’

[Steeply:] ‘With two p‘s?’

‘Just so. Or the other possibility of doom, for the etioles who attain. They attain the goal, thus, and put as much equal passion into celebrating their attainment as they had put into pursuing the entertainment. This is called here the Syndrome of the Endless Party. The celebrity, money, sexual behaviors, drugs and substances. The glitter. They become celebrities instead of players, and because they are celebrities only as long as they feed the culture-of-goal’s hunger for the make-it, the winning, they are doomed, because you cannot both celebrate and suffer, and play is always suffering, just so.’

waaaaay back, i remember Mario in his head linked tennis to thanatos while listening to Schtitt: “what’s the difference between tennis and suicide, life and death, the game and its own end?” i wonder if this is all developing the entertainment question: is the JEST entertaining? or is it just too painful? is it an encyclopedia of human misery or a human carnival? of course it feels like both. play is suffering — ive been reading Gabriel Josipovici’s wonderful essays, and in “I Dream of Toys” he advances a distinction in art between the “window” and the “toy”.

I want to argue that there are two radically distinct kinds of art: art as window and art as toy. Art as window is the art we are most familiar with, the art of the realist novel and realist painting, the art of Ibsen and Shaw and most films. It asks us to open the book or greet the rise of the curtain as though we had opened a window and were looking out at the world. Art as toy, on the other hand, is art as the hobby-horse on which we can jump and which we can ride for as long as we like, and then discard as a mere stick; it is an art which seeks our active co-operation.

windows cleverly hide their conventionality, toys are never confusing as to what they are. art-as-toy is the investment in pure structural play, into modernism, into what perhaps they mean when they talk about postmodern surfaces — it’s art that doesnt bother promising transcendence into a higher sphere. and INFINITE JEST feels like both a window and a toy. so much about it, the length, the scope, the world, the characters, seems indebted to the great 19th century classics. but then again the reality-effect is punctured right at the start, and the whole thing is structured like a Sierpinski triangle, a simple fractal, just a triforce made of smaller triforces if you ask me.

damn, looking over it, this one cluster of scenes on Nov 11 Year of Adult Undergarment is like 70 out of these hundred pages.

the very last fragment of this set is aligned with Kate Gompert but mostly pontificates on depression, anhedonia versus psychotic depression, and the former being seen as hip and cool and thus something to strive for. this is where the famous passage of jumping out the window because the terror of the flames exceeds the fear of falling comes from. there’s a lot of Freudian business here. we’ve seen a ton of characters fall into substance abuse as a diversion from the self when contact with other humans becomes impossible. contact with humans fails because everyone wants to be cynical and anhedonic, betraying a

fear of being really human, since to be really human…is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big we eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool.

infantile. you may have heard about infant/oral addiction (dont know the real term) from the Freudian tradition, that hitting the blunt or hookah or sipping gin and tonic is a search back to the time of the baby suckling the mother’s nipple. and then the direct call back to the giant mutant baby in the wasteland. a lot of things seemed to have come together here.

at this point ive been re-oriented in a lot of my thoughts about big books, but this post is way too long.


3 thoughts on “marijuancholia

  1. i really enjoyed this post for lots of reasons. i haven’t read Infinite Jest but some of my friends have – this post has given me an insight and piqued my intrigue a bit more, taking me that little step closer to actually breaking the book open myself one day. also i really appreciate your honesty, your sharing of raw responses and the process of reading as you experience it. i’m doing a PhD in experimental literature and utopian theory, and i’ve been encouraged to live-blog but haven’t been sure how to approach it: i’m inspired by your post to have a go at posting up my reading notes on a regular basis. it’s always good to formulate thoughts and share them with others. so thanks. i really look forward to reading more of your stuff.


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