Puppetry

Each year on Interdependence day, the residents of E.T.A. watch Mario’s filmed puppet show. Step back for a second and think about all the frames through which we’re seeing this entertainment. It is:

  • A film
  • made purportedly by illiterate Mario
  • (and thus likely written at least by somebody else) of
  • a puppet show that is itself
  • an homage or derivative work of
  • a film by JOI that portrays things like
  • a fake softball game that is
  • a cover-up for some nasty activity and is (the film) at any rate
  • an account of events as imagined by JOI.

The filmed puppet show is pretty zany and slapstick and in my opinion becomes tedious pretty quickly, even as it explains to us some important background about things like how subsidized time came to be. I can’t decide whether I like these sections or not, though I think I mostly lean these days more in the direction of not.

Puppetry

The Grotesque and Rhetoric

On page 370, Wallace gives us the story of the ex stripper adopted into a family whose father routinely diddles the severely impaired unadopted daughter. A few pages later on 376, we hear the story of the freebasing prostitute and her tragic stillbirth with aftermath. There’s plenty of tragedy in Infinite Jest, and I always feel a little conflicted about the way in which Wallace writes about it.

On the one hand, it seems sort of appropriate to address tragedy with a sort of solemnity. Desiccated stillborn fetuses and a father who takes sexual advantage of an impaired daughter really aren’t laughing matters, and the way in which the narrator tells us the stories is sort of off-hand and in a way that somehow both magnifies and trivializes the horror of these events. The lack of solemnity in the telling’s telling (remember that we’re getting this second-hand via a narrator listening to the original storytellers) seems a little crass.

On the other hand, maybe the style of the narration here actually makes the horror of the stories even more extreme and memorable. If we’d been given given the story of the diddling in a more conventional, solemn narrative, would we find it so distinctive or would we begin to glaze over and actually manage to sidestep some of the horror?

I’m not sure how much what we’re experiencing here is just an authorial tic vs. how much is a sort of intentional rhetoric, how much it’s calculated to really burn these scenes into our brains so that the ravages of addiction are more difficult to gloss over. In a way, it feels a bit like those anti-abortion campaigns that go out of their way to depict dismembered fetuses; people who may not respond to careful arguments on the abortion issue will likely respond in one way or another to these graphic depictions. Is Wallace pulling sort of a similar trick with the way in which he uses shock value in these stories?

The Grotesque and Rhetoric

Confarmed Bowl-Splatterer

One of the sections of the book that makes me laugh the  most is the account, given in what’s clearly supposed to be an Irish accent, of a recovering alcoholic’s first solid stool since he can’t remember when. In my copy, the section starts on page 351, and I giggle every time I read it.

‘d been a confarmed bowl-splatterer for yars b’yond contin’. ‘d been barred from t’facilities at o’t’ troock stops twixt hair’n Nork for yars. T’wallpaper in de loo a t’ome hoong in t’ese carled sheets froom t’wall, ay till yo. But now woon dey . . . ay’ll remaember’t’always. T’were a wake to t’day ofter ay stewed oop for me ninety-day chip. Ay were tray moents sobber. Ay were thar on t’throne a’t’ome, you new. No’t’put too fain a point’on it, ay prodooced as er uzhal and … and ay war soo amazed as to no’t’belaven’ me yairs. ‘Twas a sone so wonefamiliar at t’first ay tought ay’d droped me wallet in t’loo, do you new. Ay tought ay’d droped me wallet in t’loo as Good is me wetness. So doan ay bend twixt m’knays and’ad a luke in t’dim o’t’loo, and codn’t belave me’yize. So gud paple ay do then ay drope to m’knays by t’loo an’t’ad a rail luke. A loaver’s luke, d’yo new. And friends t’were loavely past me pur poewers t’say. T’were a tard in t’loo. A rail tard. T’were farm an’ teppered an’ aiver so jaintly aitched. T’luked … constroocted instaid’ve sprayed. T’luked as ay fel’t’in me ‘eart Good ‘imsailf maint a tard t’luke. Me friends, this tard’o’mine practically had a poolse. Ay sted doan on m’knays and tanked me Har Par, which ay choose t’call me Har Par Good, an’ ay been tankin me Har Par own m’knays aiver sin, marnin and natetime an in t’loo’s’well, aiver sin.

Confarmed Bowl-Splatterer

Eschaton

Starting on page 321, we learn about Eschaton, a game we’ve seen a couple of references to (including one of JOI’s films, Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators, included in the filmography in note 24) and now come to understand in pretty great depth. I don’t love this section of the book. It’s sort of dull, though not without interest — and the interesting parts have nothing to do with the game itself, which we read about in excruciating detail.

So, the interesting parts. The notion of territory vs. map is pretty fun to think about both within the game and without. As an abstract concept, it’s neat to think about, but also, given the territorial conflict between Quebec and the U.S., it’s pretty relevant. I’m not sure how clear the terms of this conflict would be by now to a first-time reader; I think there’ve been enough hints (especially in note 110) that a picture of the state of things is beginning to emerge, but I may as well go ahead and state simply what’s going on. America has made a gift of a part of the northeastern part of the country (the part bordering Quebec) to Canada in a fit of what Wallace calls experialism. If imperialism is when you go into a country and take over and claim it for your own country, well, experialism would be giving away part of your own territory to another people. What a gift, right? We’ve read a bit about waste clouds and these catapults that shoot waste containers 5km up into the air as they sail northward toward this gifted land that Americans call the concavity and Canadians call the convexity. Basically, America ruined part of the country to the point that it serves as a breeding ground for giant feral infants and herds of ravening feral hamsters and then made a gift of it to Canada. The various separatist groups making trouble for New Englanders are responding to this gift. So: The book is very much dealing with notions of maps and territory and geopolitical strife.

We’ve also seen in the book a phrase about the elimination of maps, which in short means at the very least to pretty well screw somebody up physically and I think in most cases to actually kill somebody. I’m not sure really how map/territory comes into play here, but I’ll bet a thesis could be built up around the correspondence.

The other interesting thing that’s going on in this section is the the way the narrative is structured. Note 123 (also 127) is written from the point of view of Pemulis filtered through Hal’s memory and with interplay between the two within the note (i.e. the comment about the length of Hal’s unit, and Hal’s comeback). Also, we’re watching this game unfold, but we’re also watching the older students watch (and shape) the game, and we’re also incidentally sometimes watching Steeply and Thode watch it. There’s a weird mix of exposition and explanation of the apparatus of the game (see p. 338 and also p. 68 for this phrase), but it also has a very present-tense feel, and yet we know from note 123 (and from the fact that the beginning of the book occurs more recently, chronologically, than this section of the book) that we’re receiving this after the fact and filtered. It’s all very strange and disorienting and kind of fun to cogitate on.

The actual mechanics and specifics of Eschaton, though? Dull as ditch water.

Eschaton

110

Note 110 is pretty important in terms of beginning to understand more about Orin and especially his relationship with his family — and more more about the whole weird family in general. It also offers a lot of background into the whole Quebeçois separatist subplot of the novel.

But just look at how buried the information is! Here we are with Hal sitting in a class about separatism and listening to Troeltsch droning on and on announcing the results of recent tennis matches over the loud speaker. It’s kind of a boring section of the book, and it’s here that Wallace drops in a really important, funny, long note. How tempting would it be to skip this note that it’d be easy to assume was just another dull, brief, ignorable expansion of some minor point about separatism?

I’m the sort who’ll sometimes read the notes on a text once all’s said and done. So, I’ll read a chapter of some book and then, especially if the notes are way at the end, I’ll go catch up and read the notes after, to spare myself some flipping back and forth. I was recently talking about IJ with someone who had determined to adopt the same approach here. She was reading the book and was going to read the notes after. I’m not some end note purist insisting with a sniff and on principle that people should read the book as it was given to us, but I really do think that you’d lose a lot of meaning if you didn’t read the notes in their proper places. Reading note 110 after finishing the main text would be frustrating and less enriching to the understanding of the text that follows the insertion point of the note’s superscript.

For all that the notes sometimes seem sort of antagonistic to the reader (I believe that’s a charge that’s been leveled at Wallace, at any rate), a note like this is actually anything but. Wallace could have given us all this information about the separatists and about Orin’s relationship with Avril in exposition, but he gives it to us instead wrapped in a funny conversation that itself shows us more about the relationship between Orin and Hal that we would also likely have gotten in exposition. It’s a kindness rather than an antagonism.

110

Texture

In my reading tonight, starting on page 258, I encountered the E.T.A. kids playing tennis and (p. 270) a view of a morning at Ennet House. I like both of these sections but in retrospect, I wonder if they might not be kind of boring to a lot of people.

When I first read Infinite Jest nearly 20 years ago, I was a college kid who read the O.E.D. for fun, had some pretty benign substance compulsions (with secrecy issues not unlike Hal’s), and loved playing and watching tennis. It was as if parts of this book had been written with me in mind. So to me the tennis section had the appeal that certain flavors of first-person sports journalism have. It was a good read for me because I could identify with some of the text based on my own experiences (on much less grand tennis courts and at a much lower skill level). But if you’re not into tennis, I wonder if you don’t find this section pretty dull and mostly pointless. Its chief functions seem to be to add a little depth to the portrayals of Schacht and (to a lesser degree) Pemulis and to add a little texture to the tennis portion of the narrative. But is it too much, if you’re not into tennis?

The Ennet House section strikes me in retrospect as probably a confusion of names and personalities if you’re not already pretty familiar with the names. I’m familiar enough with the book that the names and personalities that matter here have significance for me. They add depth to a second or third (or seventh) read because on subsequent reads, you see that Wallace has left breadcrumbs about some of these people already. For example, it’s Geoffrey Day who Struck is plagiarizing in note 304, and Burt F. Smith is who yrstruly describes having mugged on page 130. Unless I’m misreading, Emil Minty is yrstruly, and neither he nor Smith seems to know that they’ve encountered one another before. (Emil Minty, I just learned, is also the name of the child actor who played a feral child in the Mad Max sequel Road Warrior.) So again, to me, this section is pretty interesting both because of how it begins to throw these minor characters together and because of the glimpse it begins to give us of a reformed if flatulent Gately, but I wonder how it comes off to a first-time reader of the book. And again, this section adds some texture, but I forget whether it’s annoying on a first read.

Texture

Madame Psychosis (Again)

On page 215, we learn that the hallucinogenic drug that Pemulis has gone pretty far out of his way to acquire is called Madam Psychosis, which name we’re familiar with by now as the name of a radio personality whose show captivates many in the area. We know that there’s at least a sort of legend of a man who took the drug and that the massive dose he took “picked his mind up and carried it off somewhere and put it down someplace and forgot where” (p. 214). Interestingly, we’ve also just read on p. 201 that when your substance of choice has just been taken away from you, “you will find yourself beginning to pray to be allowed literally to lose your mind, to be able to wrap your mind up in an old newspaper or something and leave it in an alley to shift for itself, without you” and on p. 204 that the sort of compulsive thinking associated with addiction “connects interestingly with the early-sobriety urge to pray for the literal loss of one’s mind.” We know that Hal smokes pot and that, at the beginning of the book (which is more recent chronologically than where we are now in the book, recall), something is badly wrong with him, and we know that he and his pals are planning to try out Madam Psychosis. I think this convergence of facts winds up being pretty important to understanding what happens to Hal, and why, and I’m not sure I’ve ever quite put it all together so tidily until this time through the book. I’ve come close enough to spoiling things already, so I’ll pipe down, but when you find yourself puzzled at the end of the book, maybe consider coming back to these ideas to see if it helps you suss out the why of things.

On page 219, we begin a longish set of sections in which we follow around one Joelle van Dyne, who turns out to be the voice of Madam Psychosis. We learn a bit about her involvement with Orin and with JOI, and we’re given some tantalizing information about JOI’s last film. It’s a pretty important part of the book, and by my reckoning one of the most lyrical parts of the book. If you’re of a poetic turn of mind, read some of this section out loud, and listen to especially the repetitive vowels but also to some of the mb and mp and nd sounds in this passage on p. 221:

and now murky-colored people with sacks and grocery carts appraising that litter, squatting to lift and sift through litter; and the rustle and jut of limbs from dumpsters being sifted by people who all day do nothing but sift through I.W.D dumpsters; and other people’s blue shoeless limbs extending in coronal rays from refrigerator boxes in each blocks’ three alleys, and the little cataract of rainwater off the edge of each dumpster’s red annex‘s downsloping side and hitting regrigerator boxes’ tops with a rhythmless thappathappapathap;

Madame Psychosis (Again)