Total Eclipse of the Heart

Before we get down to today’s order of business, I have to thank everyone first for their kind words on my post last week. It wasn’t easy to admit to not liking Infinite Jest and talk openly about my frustrations with the novel, but you were all very supportive and provided lots of comfort and encouragement – exactly what I needed to buoy my sinking spirits.

So, from me to you – yes, you! – thank you.

leslie knope

Thank you for listening and thank you for continuing to make my experience as one of your guides a fun and rewarding one. I really needed to get those feelings off my chest in order to move forward and, thanks to you, I was able to do so and return to you refreshed and ready to go for week ten of Infinite Summer!

(Side note: Does anyone else find it a bit crazy that there are only four weeks left until we read that final page? I can barely remember a time now when I wasn’t carrying around my Sticky-Noted copy of Infinite Jest everywhere…  My God. What will it be like to read a book that weighs less than three pounds?)

Now, I don’t know if it’s because I finally decided to share my struggle with IJ last week or if this is a total coincidence, but I found this week’s assigned pages to be some of the most readable I’ve encountered thus far within the novel. We skipped between characters and story lines at a faster pace in chunks of text that were digestible and didn’t focus too much on peripheral details, or meander in a way that can become tedious. I feel like if this section were a chess move, it would be the queen coming out to play – a show of control on DFW’s part and a decisive push toward the end. I liked seeing all of the different narrative threads starting to come together to form something a bit more cohesive and I particularly liked seeing certain characters break out of what had become their routine in the last seven hundred pages (for instance,  Marathe and Steeply FINALLY GETTING OFF THAT GODDAMN MOUNTAIN AND STARTING TO DO THEIR RESPECTIVE JOBS FOR CHRIST’S SAKE).

That being said, what I believe I enjoyed the most about this week’s reading is that it made me feel like perhaps Wallace and I are on more of the same page than I originally thought.

For awhile, it seemed as if my worldview just wasn’t aligning with his, which was making it difficult for me to connect with Infinite Jest. In the latest sections focused on Hal, however, I saw my theories about him confirmed and expanded upon in a way that made me feel for at least a brief instant like David and I were soul sisters.*

How, you ask? Well, for one, Wallace makes it clear once and for all in this week’s reading that he is, in fact, denouncing the kind of emotional detachment the majority of his characters strive to achieve and that contemporary society deems somehow hip. I honestly think my heart started doing the conga when I read this passage:

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip – and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and Unalone. (694)

If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s affected apathy. I’m a firm believer in loving something to the fullest and being unapologetically enthusiastic about it. While I know that some of my tastes and habits make me a part of hipster culture (i.e. wearing big glasses, frequenting coffee shops, owning a record player, etc.), I cannot fully ascribe to the hipster ethos because it’s one that prizes irony above all else. For example, the popular concept of “liking something ironically” is one that baffles me because it encourages people to distance themselves from things they actually enjoy. What’s the point of life if you don’t allow yourself to feel the joy something brings you – even if that something is the Twilight series or a One Direction album? If you love something, then go ahead and love it. Life’s too short to have “guilty” pleasures, or to like things “ironically.”

What Wallace speaks to in the above quotation – and, I guess, throughout the entirety of IJ – is how dangerous it is to buy into the kind of art that makes apathy look cool. After all, the kind of art we consume shapes who we are and our perception of the world. As a lovely follow-up to the passage I just highlighted, DFW writes:

The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assumer the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïvety. Sentiment equals naïvety on this continent (at least since the Reconfiguration). (694)

It was when I read this that I finally felt that important click with our friend David. It has always made me sad that sentiment is so often belittled and this passage made me feel like DFW feels the same. To be emotional and vulnerable is to be irrational and weak, or, in Wallace’s word, “naïve.” And, while this sentiment is present in our world, it is exaggeratedly so within the world of Infinite Jest with nearly all the characters spiralling into a self-destructive abyss in order to avoid feeling too much of anything.

We saw that this week with Hal who struggles to “look just as perfectly dead” on the tennis court as John Wayne, but who is “more vulnerable” and hence “susceptible to fluctuations. Discouragement. Set-long lapses in concentration” (682). Similarly, the narrator reveals that Hal loves the “unhip earnestness” of his father’s Wave Bye-Bye to the Bureaucrat, but outwardly “maintains it’s basically goo” to Mario (689). While Hal tries with all his might to attain the supposedly enviable state of apathy, he struggles with his emotions – particularly that of loneliness (694).

In fact, Hal indirectly confirms what I’ve theorized all along – that he admires Mario for how open he is with his feelings and how unafraid he is to feel. In a brilliant glimpse into Hal’s head, we learn that he believes “to be really human … is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic” and that, deep down, “he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pulses and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia” (695). Essentially, he’s making himself miserable in this limbo between annihilating all emotion and totally succumbing to it.

In short, this breakthrough moment was huge for me because I not only felt closer to Hal, but also to our friend David for giving me this moment of connection I was craving. If the novel is really all about encouraging its readers to live an open and engaged life full of the things that truly make us human (read: emotions), then maybe this is heading in a promising direction… In any case, I remain optimistic.

Until next week, dear readers. Cheers!

gatsby

F O O T N O T E S :

Further confirmation of our bond? David’s sly reference to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with Himself’s film The Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell (687). I know it was mentioned in that filmography footnote from way back when, but seeing the film referenced directly in the text made me smile. Blake is my fave cuckoo-clocks-crazy Romantic poet and I have to give David kudos for that little nod to one of Blake’s lesser known and tragically overlooked works.

Roles and Regulations (Mount Up)

I’ll admit that I had to resist a strong compulsion to write about Hawkeye Pierce this week. Damn, M*A*S*H, you get me every time. Tokyo, this is Radar. Colonel Potter requests an incubator stat! The unit is under heavy shelling and one of our POWs is pregnant and due to give birth any day now! TOKYO DO YOU COPY? OVER!

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Radar O’Reilly Doing His Duty

(and so on)

As tempting as my pals at the 4077 were (Maxwell Klinger, BJ Honeycutt, Father Mulcahy and Margaret Houlihan, I’m looking in your direction!), I decided that I’d like to probe a little into the idea of roles and the importance that they seem to play in IJ, because as we know,

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts”–Bill S.

Enter: Mrs. Avril Incandenza, aka The Moms (plural, for a reason, probably: a woman with many different sides). She typifies the type of person described in the Shakespeare quotation inscribed above: a (wo)man playing many parts. Her wide array of roles seems to be the key to holding her together: mother, ETA headmistress, member of MGM, lover (to who knows?), overseer of the educational system at ETA, and etc. She is so completely absorbed by her various roles that she doesn’t have any time or mental energy to even think about breaking down. She goes through the motions, and thus continues humming along, fulfilling her roles and getting through, one day at a time.

Hm, this sounds familiar!

So, what of the importance of these roles?

This week, the question I asked about Avril and the flagpole way back in the early going  seemed to be answered in footnote 269, as M. Bain replies in his letter to Steeply (or Starkley, or Steeples, or Starksaddle, or WHATEVER) that in Orin’s presence, Avril would act “more cheerful and loquacious and witty and intimate and benign” so that he might not feel “bad or guilty” for woozily running over her poor old Samuel Johnson (canine) and reducing him to nothing more than a leash and nubbin.

So, as was suggested by many of you guys, after Himself’s felo de se, she likely compensated way in the direction of feeling fine and dandy so that she could perfectly perform/embody (in her mind) the role of mother (and now, in JOI’s absence, father, maybe?…double the pressure, double the fun?), which I assume means to protect her children from all unpleasantness/discomfort. Essentially, Avril desires a bubble (i.e.- E.T.A) in which she can raise her kids, but unfortunately, that bubble proves not to be impervious to the fucked-upedness of life. No type of environment ever is, is it? She exerts such energy to ensuring that by all appearances everything is fine, even though it’s pretty clear that everything is not alright, in so many different ways.

Then M. Bain goes on to probe into the nature of Avril’s loquaciousness and motherly love. On page 1051, he writes,

“Is it mind bogglingly considerate and loving and supportive, or is there something…creepy about it? Maybe a more perspicuous question: Was the almost pathological generosity with which Mrs. Inc responded to her son taking her car in an intoxicated condition and dragging her beloved dog to its grotesque death and then trying to lie his way out of it, was this generosity for Orin’s sake, or for Avril’s own? Was it Orin’s “self-esteem” she was safeguarding, or her own vision of herself as a more stellar Moms than any human son could ever hope to feel he merits?”

Is this a parenting fail, or are we supposed to admire Avril for her heroic effort to protect her children from harm? I’ve always thought that Avril deserved more credit than she is shown in the text: there doesn’t seem to be much sympathy shown for her. Hal is annoyed by her, as is Orin (who has gone many steps further by actively disowning her). Does she deserve this type of treatment for wanting to protect her kids from sorrow? Is her willingness to look the other way really a selfish act, or is she merely the victim (victim of abuse, as M. Bain suggests…) of a blind spot in her awareness that she perhaps developed as a defense mechanism in the face of childhood abuse?

So this leads me to my next question(s):

Can a person ever act with pure unabashed altruism, or is there always going to be some level of self-interest at play? Does the self-interest nullify the altruistic act simply because there is something in it for the person attempting to act selflessly?

It does seem like there is a selfish element to Avril’s behaviour toward her sons, but does that really qualify her actions as abusive?

I doubt it. To me, this line of thinking seems juvenile and entitled (perhaps fitting for a son of the founders of a prestigious tennis academy). It reminds me of a thought one of my old friends once uttered (while intoxicated) as an adolescent. Basically, he expressed that he was entitled to mooch off of his parents because he didn’t ask to be born. So, in essence, he absolved himself of any responsibility for his actions because the decision to come into this world was beyond his control.

Hrmpf. Thank God we (well, at least some of us) grow up (at some point).

Returning to my point about roles, it seems like the roles a person plays in IJ are of great importance to many of the characters’ ability to “keep it together.” By keeping “it” together, I guess I mean holding themselves (mentally) together—to keep from melting into a steaming puddle of primordial goop.

Avril does it by assuming her roles. Gately does it by assuming a role of a supervisor in AA. They freely accept responsibilities, and in a way, they become their roles. They pledge themselves to fulfilling a duty. A duty to fulfilling the mandates of the role and by extension they help others by following through. While this devotion to a role is not exactly selfless (as Shazia demonstrated this week), it seems absolutely necessary to staying alive (Bee Gees track here, with movie of person performing CPR on dummy).

But, by focusing totally and completely on the roles, one can run the risk of omitting stuff that’s in the blind spots of our perception (think of Avril and Hal’s inability to connect on painful things, no matter how trivial, like his discomfort/annoyance at quoting bits of the O.E.D for her on command).

Though, on the other hand, by embracing and fulfilling roles, often a person becomes part of a community. The roles become a mechanism that give purpose and keep a person moving forward. A role has the potential to foster a sense of responsibility between people, which (I think, at least) is a good thing.

(I know all of this is nowhere near fully developed, and I’m sorry, but wrapping up because I have to go fulfill my duty to others in T-minus 5 minutes, 7:55am, EST)

But of course, with roles, Marathe would probably caution us to choose wisely, n’est-ce pas?

C’est vrai.

The Lenz-Gately Eclipse and Moloko Plus

Ok, this is going to start off sounding like it’ll be about Lenz. It won’t. But I have to say this: At this point, I stop sympathizing with Lenz. (Face contortions.) Though, he’s high (y’all Lenz haters out there remember that he’s high and actively Bing-ing, yeah?), so I still don’t hate him entirely, but he uses Gately as a shield and gets Gately shot, so, I hate Lenz. Kind of.

Lenz really gives me problems, my god.

pjt-slavoj_zizek-5_

Žižek

LYLEEEE, HALP!

PRACTICING MINDFULNESS. Diverting in 1, 2, 3…

These pages of IJ have always struck me as being quite deliberate. I say “deliberate” because I feel that there is some attempt to bring together the many narrative threads in these pages. I couldn’t help but feel a kind of “genre” shift as it were, especially in the Lenz vs. Nucks scene. It felt like it was out of a movie (even though we are told by our narrator who is aware of the movie-like quality e.g. we’re told that it’s impossible to fight two guys at once, in real life, unlike in movies). I was a bit disappointed with this scene. Ok, I was really disappointed. I felt like there might’ve been some eh… pressure to bring these threads together (dare I ask if it was editorial pressure? Perhaps not from the exceptional and very understanding Michael Pietsch (based on what I’ve read, and based on listening to Pietsch on YouTube), but perhaps pressure from someone else? From DFW himself? I don’t know).

The next thing I have to spill out might make me sound as terrible as Lenz, but I’m going to say it: I disliked the Joelle/Gately romantic inklings. I was not happy with that. I was really disappointed. BUT I can be a robot sometimes and GATELY IS DYING, so it’s just fine. And footnote 292 makes me feel better, so it’s fine. I guess… Was anyone else disappointed? Or elated?! To me it felt as though all the characters were suddenly in a “role,” like in a blockbuster movie. So disappointing.

Then again, in times of crisis, I definitely feel that “roles” take precedence over complex and beautiful character quirks.

You know what bugs me to no end in these pages? Gately’s thoughts about how he’s going to be perceived after his death. This made me see Gately in a whole new light, and his groin-crushing violence (which was excessive, don’t deny it. You will note that Gately is not high and is operating under the influence of himself and the fact that responsibility rests on him in this moment). Gately remembers that he should probably get on his knees (literally or not, this probably could’ve turned the situation around somewhat) and ask his idea of god for help. He does not.

What do we have here (aside from yrs truly satanic guide who is questioning one of IJ’s sweethearts and potentially siding with the murderer)?

We have the Lenz-Gately Eclipse.

so

In the Lenz-Gately Eclipse, our Lenz is totally powerless, hiding behind our Gately, who is very much in the moment, feeling responsible, and arguably, feeling powerful.

The question is: Who is the sun and who is the moon? Where does the earth come into all of this? Earth = field of power!

Jk.

But don’t let those few sentences about Gately slip away into the darker nets of your neural network or be understood as “heroic” …

Not going to stop bugging you all just yet:

Droogies both masc., fem., and everywhere between and around and ~, I just want to remind you of Moloko Plus and what this could tell us about “milk” in IJ!

Let’s go to Wiki!

Moloko Plus

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For other uses, see Moloko (disambiguation).

The Moloko Plus, also called Knifey Moloko is a highball cocktail drink from the book A Clockwork Orange.[1] The book does not specify ingredients, so there are many variations, all of which use a large milk base and some have drugs, such as barbiturates added.

In the book, it is stated one may have moloko plus with ‘vellocet’ (opiate), ‘synthemesc’ (synthetic mescaline), ‘drencrom’ (adrenochrome) or other hallucinogen substances. Minors may be served this drink since it contains drugs that have not been declared illegal.[citation needed]

The drink’s name originates from the Nadsat word for milk, translated as “milk plus”. The main characters in the book prepare for “ultraviolence” by drinking it

Troeltsch says: “You see bags, you see the word MILK. They’re counting on the packaging. Image management. Sensory management.” (630)

Milk is supposed to be pure nourishment to help humans grow! But in both IJ (according to Troeltsch) and Clockwork, it’s turned into something else, and it looks just like milk but it isn’t.

It helps the droogs prepare for very violent acts. It helps (if we think that Troeltsch is right) ETA kids deal with violence of all sorts to their bodies and minds. I’d say that being at ETA is pretty “violent.”

“Violent”; I like this definition from the OED for purposes above:

Undue constraint applied to nature, a trait, habit, etc., so as to restrict its development or use, or to alter it unnaturally. […]

Remember at the start of IJ we learn that Avril might be putting mnemonic steroids into Hal’s cereal? That the organochemical composition of Hal’s tennis racquet is similar in composition to the cartridge in J.O.I.’s head?

Ok, so the examples in the para. directly above are not directly related to milk, but they’re parallel to Troeltsch’s milk conspiracy because they’re both concerned with something deeply nourishing and unsuspect becoming deeply embedded and inseparable and sneakily engrained into the daily life and experience of human bodies and minds!

Now if we read IJ chronologically, the next thing that Hal does after this is watch some of J.O.I.’s films.

Is Hal preparing for ultraviolence?

If we follow this milky logic:

What is the relationship between violence and images, and what about drugs and being “human”?

When people do drugs they become inhuman (speaking in big generalizations),* EXAMPLE: LENZ (mm hmm). How much** “human” is there when there are organochemical things dancing around inside? Organochemical meaning “milk,” meaning mnemonic steroids, meaning tennis racquet chemicals in J.O.I.’s brain….

What is J.O.I. like as a human… with The Entertainment in his head?! What is The Entertainment like?!

Here is a movie in which a character has a camera implanted in his head: Death WatchInteresting that the title in French is translated as La mort en direct.

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A clip. Note that the mirror and glass bits might just drop you deeper into IJ, in which case let’s hold hands really tight and not let go! K!

P.S.: Harry Dean Stanton’s in it!

I am now going to eclipse into my duvet.

 

*There are some people who become extremely human while on drugs. I am not one of them, but this is possible.

**I realize this is a bad question that asks for a quantitative answer, which is not possible. But I’m counting on you to understand what I mean, cause I’m deluded and hopeful at this point.

 

AND MAAAD PROPS TO ALL NEWBS WHO ARE HERE AND STILL GOING STRONG AT PAGE 682. HOLY CRAP YOU’RE MAD!

 

Misplaced or Lost?

I’m going to apologize right up front: I feel like I don’t have much to say about this week’s pages, not because I didn’t find any of the stuff interesting but because I’ve been too consumed with getting myself to feel better. I’ve been trying to get myself out of the debbie downer dumps for some two weeks now (although the struggle has been something constant since June-ish). But, of course, what this has resulted in is a lot of Analysis-Paralysis and dwelling over things too much. But as of this week, I’m feeling good to take on this billowing horror and to move on. And perhaps what I may be feeling is a feeling of being either misplaced or lost, stuck (hence wanting to move on).

Which brings me to Marathe and Steeply’s conversation about Steeply’s father’s obsessions with M*A*S*H. They have an exchange at the end of their conversation on this topic that has really piqued my interest, for reasons I will get into in just a second. Here’s the exchange about Steeply’s father’s eyes:

[Steeply]: ‘Stuck. Fixed. Held. Trapped. As in trapped in some sort of middle. Between two things. Pulled apart in different directions.’

…’Meaning between different cravings of great intensity, this.’ [obviously Marathe]

‘Not even cravings so much. Emptier than that. As if he were stuck wondering. As if there was something he’d forgotten.’

‘Misplaced. Lost.’

‘Misplaced.’

‘Lost.’

‘Misplaced.’

‘As you wish.’

I think there’s an important distinction between the two, and there’s a reason why Steeply settles on “misplaced” rather than “lost.” To me, “lost” connotes death, as in a “loss”; it brings to mind, at least feeling-wise, feelings of disconnection, directionlessness, of being unable to really connect with the world or whatever, as in “I’m so lost,” as in “I don’t know what the hell to do.” For a while, I felt like I have struggled with those questions of being lost – what do I do? where do I go from here? why do I feel alone? I’ve felt so exhausted these days that I am constantly trying to find a little space and time to collect my bearings. But I don’t feel completely lost, or I don’t want to feel that I am lost, that I’m still “here” and I feel connected to those around me, although I may feel (or be afraid of the idea) that I may be losing those around me.

This is why I think Steeply does not want to believe that the look in his father’s eyes was of someone who was “lost.” His father wasn’t lost to him, and he still felt that his father was there.

So what of being misplaced? Contrary to “lost,” “misplaced” does connote a connection, a direction, of being able to situate oneself in the world. But it’s inappropriate, like being stuck in a worldview or a feeling that you have to jar yourself out of. “Misplaced” can also connote something lost, but it’s always like a temporary loss, as in “I misplaced my keys”; it’s a feeling that you will find those keys in time, that you will get out of that feeling, out of that dark billowing shapeless thing’s shadow. And I think that’s what I am…was. I let myself get misplaced, stuck; I felt lost but not completely separated from everyone and everything. I just lost my keys and I’ve been searching my house, hi and low, for them for a while, but I think I’ve found them and am able to come back to the world.

As always, Marathe has the more cynical view in his choice of “lost”: he sees Steeply’s father as gone from the world, destroyed by desire. Steeply, however, is more optimistic: still, even after his father’s death,  he feels that his father was still there, that he had only temporarily forgotten who he was, that he was going to come back and be the father he once knew.

Sorry for a downer of a post, but that’s all I got today. I hope you all have a great week!

Virginia Shay: Observation without Judgment

This week’s reading gave us one of my favourite passages from Infinite Jest, and Allie discussed it yesterday. Mario’s contemplations on being drawn to “stuff that was real” fascinated me, and I found myself astonished (as I do with a lot of passages in Infinite Jest) at the level of self-awareness Mario seems to have about what makes him different from other people. Even more astonishing, he’s able to reflect on this fundamental difference between himself and his friends and family without much judgment. Note that I’m treating this passage on 592 as free indirect discourse; that is, even though it’s written in the third person, I’m choosing to read it here as fairly representative of Mario’s own thoughts and feelings, as opposed to being reflective of the narrator’s interpretation of Mario’s interior life. As such, I’m giving the narrator quite a bit of omniscience here. In her post yesterday, Allie quoted many of the relevant passages, but I’m going to reproduce them here again:

“Mario’s fallen in love with the first Madame Psychosis because he felt like he was listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow letters she’d taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about heartbreak and people you loved dying and U. S. woe, stuff that was real. It is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way. The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E. T. A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy….and when Mario brought up real stuff Hal called him Booboo and acted like he’d wet himself and Hal was going to be very patient about helping him change” (592).

I think it’s worth interrogating what exactly about Madame Psychosis Mario finds so real; it’s suggested that she sounds sad, but what it is about her that sounds so sad? Is it her voice? Can Mario perceive and empathize with some of her suffering simply because her recorded voice is inflected with it? These are really interesting questions, but what I want to focus on in this passage is the reflective, fairly judgment-way that Mario recognizes this key difference between himself and other people. There’s no suggestion that Mario considers himself superior to others because he appreciates and loves “the real stuff”; if Mario was a more egotistical character, this reflection on realness could easily become a frustrated rant about Hal’s and the E. T. A. students’ apparent lack of emotional depth, and a self-congratulatory exposition on his own sincerity. The tone of this passage is reflective, curious about others, but it’s pretty judgment-free. Mario notices that he’s captivated by topics like heartbreak and death, and he notices, in some confusion, that not everyone feels the way he does. I could be wrong, but I’m hard-pressed to find anything really critical in the way that Mario notices this difference between what he wants to talk about and what other people want to talk about. There’s confusion; there’s some awareness that he makes other people uncomfortable with his real talk. There’s some noticing that Hal becomes patronizing when Mario wants to talk about real stuff. But I don’t perceive any “well, fuck them; I’m just a more emotionally well-adjusted human being” vibe in this passage, and I have to confess–as someone who feels like she has a lot in common with Mario’s desire to talk about “real stuff,” this attitude is what I reflexively seem to adopt (if only for a few seconds) when I meet people who seem reluctant to engage with me in this way.

I tend to feel the way Mario does about “real stuff” and “feelings”; if I just met you, I hate making small talk, but I’d love to talk about your childhood, or whether you believe in a god of some kind. I’m always yearning to take interactions with people to a deeper level, and I don’t think I can say I’m as kind or understanding as Mario when I encounter people who aren’t comfortable with that level of emotional probing. So often in life, to make peace with the ways that we’re different with other people, our egos beg us to do some mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that yes, maybe we’re different from other people in some big ways, but that difference makes us better than others. As I read this passage, I found myself thinking about how I respond to situations like this, where everyone in a group seems to share values or approaches to life that are fundamentally different from mine. How often do I find ways, in my own insecurities, to reassure myself that no, these people don’t really get me or believe the same things I do or care about the same things I do, but that’s because I’m smarter/kinder/more compassionate/more sensitive, etc., etc., than them. But what if I could be one way, right here, and you could be something or someone that’s really different from me, right where you are, and I could observe the differences between us without ranking myself as a better (or worse) human being than you? How would it change my relationships and interactions with people if I could allow them to exist as they are without relating everything they say and do back to “WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ME?!?!?!”

Mario doesn’t simplify and dichotomize his relationships with other people in this way. There are so many ways that he could use his appreciation for the real to reflect that he is of superior moral character to his classmates, and he doesn’t. If we’re being honest with ourselves, I think most of us could recall a time when we observed the differences of others in a fairly critical or judgmental way–it’s a pretty human response to difference. I find it fascinating that, without much effort, Mario is able to transcend that framework of egotistical competitiveness that many of us put ourselves in, in our relationships with other people.

I teach yoga, and one of the ideas we talk about a lot is the idea of observation without judgment. Many people come to yoga with the idea that they need to “change” or “fix” something about themselves. Encouraging people to observe what’s going on in their own bodies without being critical or judgmental of it can be a pretty radical notion. As it seems to turn out, Mario easily observes the world around him with curiosity and interest, and manages here to do something that I find quite difficult–observe without judgment.

The Wind Beneath My Wings

Alright, unpopular opinion time…

I’m starting to get a bit frustrated with Infinite Jest.

*winces*

I’m sorry. I really am. I know how much this book means to a lot of you out there and, believe me, I’m trying every week to remain open to all of the characters and the footnotes and the dialogue and the plot, but… I’m struggling. Not with content (I understand who’s who and what’s what), but with connection. I find it very difficult to enjoy a novel when I’m not connecting with at least one part of it and, even now at page 650, I still don’t feel as if I’ve established that crucial connection with anyone or anything.

Up until now, I’ve focused on the aspects and characters that I genuinely like, but there are few things about the story as a whole that I love. I come back to IJ after every blog post ready to feel differently and change my mind, but I hit a wall time and again and I’m frustrated – there’s no other word for it. I want to love this book so badly, but I don’t and I feel bad that I don’t. In all honesty, I don’t feel much towards it, which is even worse. I just can’t seem to find it in myself to care about 90% of the characters, what is happening to them, or even the history of O.N.A.N. because I don’t feel like I’ve been given a reason to care yet.

If anything, I feel like our buddy DFW keeps reminding me that I should dislike the characters and feel contempt for the choices they make as well as the world they live in. Every section is like a PowerPoint presentation that lays out the reasons why it might just be better to give up on the lot of them and, while we’re at it, humanity as a whole… And maybe I’m missing the humour in Wallace’s prose that prompts several reviewers to call this a “dark comedy,” but I just haven’t found anything funny thus far. Disturbing? Yes. Maddening? Double yes. Sad? Triple yes.

Perhaps my love for Infinite Jest will be one that blossoms later – a love that hits me on the penultimate page – or one that grows in the years after I have finished reading and makes me look back on the book with the kind of sentimental fondness only time can foster. Believe me, I sincerely hope that this is the case. I keep hoping that I’ll turn a corner and finally click with IJ the way I want to because I’m trying.

I’m really trying.

Now, it wasn’t an easy decision to share my frustration with you all this week. Like I said earlier in this post, I know how near and dear IJ is to your respective hearts and the last thing I would ever want to do is hurt anyone’s feelings, but I feel like it’s my responsibility as one of your guides to be honest in my opinions and this is how I’m feeling at this point. I don’t like it, but it’s the truth.

That being said, I drew comfort this week from an unlikely source: Infinite Jest. Granted, it was a short section in the latest reading, but it was enough to make me feel like I’ve finally found a kindred spirit in the novel and his name is Mario Incandenza.

I mean, I knew before now that Mario is a beautiful cinnamon roll of a character,* but there was something about the glimpse we got into his inner life this week that touched me and made me feel like there’s at least one person in the world of IJ who I can really identify with. Those few pages dedicated to Mario’s nighttime stroll and his musings on Hal, Madame Psychosis, and the E.T.A. boys were like a ray of sunshine piercing through the fog of lies and cruelty perpetuated by almost all the other characters (I’m looking at you, Randy Lenz, you murderous piece of trash).

This was literally me reading through Mario’s section:

Because, really, I think that Mario is the hero of the book. He’s stronger than all of the characters who run in fear of their emotions and braver than those who would rather hide behind a mask of affected indifference for fear of opening up to others. In fact, I think that Hal is so in awe of Mario because he is what everyone secretly wants to be: genuinely vulnerable. Mario lives and breathes emotion – he’s actually drawn to it as demonstrated by the passage that talks about how he likes visiting the Drug and Alcohol Recovery House next-door “because it’s very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy” (591).

Throughout this brief section, Mario talks about looking for the things in life that feel “real” and how those things are often expressions of genuine emotion – take, for example, his explanation of why he fell in love with Madame Psychosis’ radio program: “[B]ecause he felt like he was listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow letters she’d taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about heartbreak and people you loved dying and U.S. woe, stuff that is was real” (592, emphasis added). Mario connected with Madame Psychosis because she tapped into her listeners’ softer side and spoke honestly about those intensely human fears that bind us together – pain, loss, death.

And it was while reading through Mario’s reflection on how “[i]t is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way” that I realized he was putting into words my exact struggle with Infinite Jest (592). I search for the real stuff when I read – the humanizing glimpses of vulnerability that allow me to feel empathy for the characters I’m reading about – and, so far, Mario is the only part of the narrative that feels genuine, or real. Like, Velveteen Rabbit capital ‘R’ Real. The kind of real that makes you care so much it hurts.

To cap it all off, Mario also reveals that he is living a similar struggle to me in that he feels alienated from the people around him who resist genuine emotion and can only mention real stuff “if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy” (592). So, even though I feel like I’m currently drowning in a sea of unlikeable characters who don’t seem real to me because I can’t connect with them, Mario feels the same.

And honestly? That’s fine by me. If I’m in the same boat as Mario, I’m in good company.

F O O T N O T E S :

* Actual picture of Mario:

cinnamon roll

The Grandson of Kwai Chang Caine Walks Out of the Past…(and other Miscellany)

It’s kind of fascinating to think about what it takes to really get to know other people.

In many ways, Infinite Jest is a book about human relationships in all their various forms: romances, friendships, mentorships, marriages, brotherhoods, sisterhoods and gangs. The structure of the book sort of mimics the arduous process of really getting to know people. I mean, if I think of my own life, I can name a handful of people who I think I’ve gotten to know fairly well, but for the majority of those I know, there are many gaps in my understanding.

So, you’re probably thinking: “Well, alright then, Mr. Miyagi/Chuck Norris/Kwai Chang Caine, then what are the ingredients to getting to know someone, then?”

Caine-13

The Man: The Legend (of Kung-Fu)

Well, I think if you look at Infinite Jest, a few possibilities emerge.

In IJ, knowing someone seems to require a number of things (to my mind), which include (but again, are certainly not limited to):

  • Time
  • Effort
  • Attention
  • Sincerity

And as it is with people, reading Infinite Jest requires all of these things in spades.

It seems like Wallace deliberately draws his characters enigmatically in order to perhaps mirror the process of what it’s actually like to get to know someone in the so-called ‘real’ world.

To bring this thing home for you, I’ll give y’all a real world example.

It’s kind of like when I met Phil back in ’97 (date may be incorrect).

An excerpt from our early conversations:

Deli manager: (not realizing that Joe was actually shy and moderately anxious about meeting new people [at the time] because he showed no signs of this, but still felt this way, secretly, on the inside) “Joe, I hired this new guy, Phil. He said he likes to read, but he seems pretty shy. I thought that because you like to read, you might be able to talk to him a bit.”

Joe: “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.”

*First Shift*

Joe: “So, I heard you’re into books and stuff?”

Phil: *sheepishly “….yeah! I’m going to Brock for English next year.”

Joe: “Cool…”

*Joe and Phil awkwardly look around and sniff*

Joe: “So, you want to see how to clean the slicer?”

An excerpt from a later conversation, one year later, circa ’98 (again, date may be inaccurate):

Joe presses button labeled PAGE on phone: “Phil, call the Deli for customer service. Phil, call the Deli for customer service.” Before hanging up Joe hits the mouthpiece of the phone off of the wall and receiver to make annoying donking and scratching sounds over the store’s P.A system

*Ring-ring! Ring-ring!

Phil: “What’s up?”

Joe: “Can you read this Angus roast beef announcement that Deb Farr (store manager) told me to write over the PA? It’s a real doozy. She’s constantly on me to write these fucking things, and I’m getting real sick of it. We don’t get paid enough to do this stuff.”[i]

Phil: “Sure, buddy, bring it up to the desk.”

*Phil hits page

Phil: “Attention customers: this week on our Easter special, we have Angus Roast beef for $2.99/100g—just like great old grand pappy used to make! What better way to celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ than with a pound of our extra –rare Angus Roast Beef, cut fresh, from our friendly staff in the delicatessen. Happy Easter from all of us at Sobey’s and have a great holiday.”

So, in the end, it took us some time, but our friendship got there. One little bit at a time.

The same is true in IJ:

Wallace cleverly reveals his characters slowly by revealing bits and pieces to the reader, so that an appreciation of their lives and circumstances deepens as you move through the text. For me, this masterful way of characterizing his characters is a big part of what kept me moving along through the text (especially on the first read through). As someone that tends to care about people (so much so that I’ve chosen a career in health care with people that have experienced heavy losses…brain injuries with all kinds of disastrous effects), it’s no wonder that I’m drawn to this thread in Wallace’s intricate tapestry.

So, to get back to the text, I have found that really mind-blowing bits and pieces of characters get revealed at the most random moments (though they’re not really random, they are triggered in the imaginations of Wallace’s characters by unconscious recollections of parts of traumatic memories that even the characters are not aware of…how interesting, as a stylistic device!). All about paying attention, here.

The part that got me thinking about all of this stuff about unconscious compulsion and getting to really know people is the part (that starts on page 578) about Bruce Green’s experience as a five year old child where (maybe, but who can really say for sure if he caused it, right?…slippery slope, slippery slope…) he scares his mother to death with a novelty can of exploding snake “Mauna Loa- brand macadamia nuts” that his father had made him deliver to her as she lay sick in bed.

This whole bit just sort of pops up out of the aether. There’s no real lead up to it. The reader just sort of happens upon it. Immediately preceding this part is a bunch of Lenz’ self-indulgent (possibly made up, bing-induced blather) and some description about the urban surroundings. Nothing particularly emotionally resonant (except for maybe Green’s thought that, “All he feels is a moment of deep wrenching loss, of wishing getting high was still pleasurable for him so he could get high. This feeling comes and goes all day every day, still.”) But here, we switch to Green. So, maybe this signals that the floodgates are about to open.

And, then, like a torrent released from behind a dam you didn’t even know was there, all of the details surrounding the “searing facts of the case of Bruce Green’s natural parents’ deaths when he was a toddler [that are] so deeply repressed inside Green that whole strata and substrata of silence and mute dumb animal suffering will have to be strip-mined up and dealt with One Day at a Time in sobriety for Green even to remember.” Here, I think that Wallace is suggesting that by sticking with the program and doing the painstaking work of “strip-mining” the painful memories, Green might have a chance to remember and deal with his issues. Maybe move forward and gain an understanding of things that give him the howling fantods. Maybe gain a stoic understanding of himself and learn to live with pain. As they say, “The truth will set you free, but not until it’s finished with you.”

So, on our end of things, by sticking with the book, by Hanging in There, we are granted access to a whole new subconscious intimate world of pain and suffering that has played a role in shaping Green’s experience. This is true of other characters as well: Hal, Avril, Gately, Mario, Joelle, and maybe even Orin. By putting in the time and effort, and making a sincere attempt to pay attention to things, the reader can begin to understand certain characters at deeper and deeper levels. Isn’t this sort of how your run-of-the-mill, every-day human relationships work too?

It’s like the book has many consciousnesses, and is inviting you to get to know them more and more intimately as the book goes on. It requires you to keep track of seemingly insignificant details about many different characters and remember what they could mean when characters act or think a certain way. There are few books that I have read that accomplish this as readily as Infinite Jest (the only other one I can think of is Joyce’s Ulysses—which also left a lasting impact on my perception of what an author could do to represent human consciousnesses—not characters, but consciousnesses themselves).

I feel like Wallace is almost saying to us, “ok, guys—they are in here, but it might take a while to find them.”

ANYWAY,

Getting back to Green: from this passage in the book, we are told that he now has an inexplicable aversion to “any product with ‘N in its name […] any has this silent, substratified fascination/horror gestalt about anything remotely Polynesian.” So things that seem unconnected, and perhaps quirky, are actually just the tip of an iceberg full of razor blades just below the surface once you get down to the business of strip-mining what they are actually all about.

And as if the stuff about the Polynesian-induced-I-am-guilty-because-I-think-I-caused-my-parents’-deaths, wasn’t enough, Green is sent back in his mind to an embarrassing scene (that involved incontinence at a college party he attended with M.Bonk) when he hears the “Don Ho” music coming from the grisly scene of the dog’s death at Nucks party. Sadly, Green doesn’t have any awareness as what to what it was exactly about the whole snafu that causes him to sink into “a paralyzing depression of unknown etiology.” The truth is there, but it’s “been compressed to the igneous point[…]” What an interesting way of thinking about pain: like grains of sand (or sedimentary rock) that have been compressed so that they no longer originally resemble what they were originally: pain transformed. The owner (in this case Green) feels a heaviness, but doesn’t quite know why.

Alright, alright, this post seems like it’s turned out to be a bit of a rambley bust, so I’d just like to leave off with a question I had about Mario on page 92 regarding this passage:

        “It was a joke and a good one, and Mario got it; what was unpleasant was that Mario was the only one at the big table whose laugh was a happy laugh; everybody else sort of looked down like they were laughing at somebody with a disability. […] And Hal was for once no help, because Hal seemed even more uncomfortable and embarrassed than the fellows at lunch […].”

So what is going on in this part? Does Mario actually get the joke? Where is the misunderstanding? Did he get Pemulis’ joke about the ineffectual dial-a-prayer service for atheists, for real, or did he misunderstand? To me, the problem seems to be that he laughed genuinely and not ironically, but the narrator still states that he “got it.” So what gives?

Also, my apologies if I seem to be talking in circles. Seems I’m always coming back to similar things. What’s that old adage about the subject of writing being the writing subject? I gotta have one or two more original thoughts in here…for now, I’ll have to content myself with the Green-ian one full developed thought per minute.

Footnotes:

[i] We did get paid enough. Way, way, more than enough.