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?”
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):
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.”
Joe: “So, I heard you’re into books and stuff?”
Phil: *sheepishly “….yeah! I’m going to Brock for English next year.”
*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
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.”
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.
[i] We did get paid enough. Way, way, more than enough.