I Walk The Line

On Monday, I left a comment on Phil’s post saying that the Kate Gompert section was my favourite in Infinite Jest thus far and that I wanted to talk more about her in my post for this week.

Well, get ready because I am holding true to my word! Climb aboard the Kate Gompert Express and buckle up, dear readers – it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

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So, I’m going to come clean: yes, the Kate Gompert section is my favourite in IJ so far… but it also left me feeling frustrated. Like, really frustrated.

Why?

Well, first, it showed that DFW can create a pretty cool female character  – something I was unsure of up until that point in the narrative. Aside from the non-appearance of the woman Erdedy is waiting for and an off-stage introduction of Avril Incandenza to the reader through her sons, Wallace chooses to focus the bulk of his first seventysome pages on the male characters and their lives, filtering the world of IJ through a predominantly male gaze.

Please don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed reading the first seventysome pages and enjoyed reading the next sixtysome pages after that. The complexity of all of Wallace’s narrators is exquisite and their voices are crafted with such finesse that their personalities just jump off the page – Hal, Schtitt, Mario, Marathe, Steeply. Even the late James Incandenza is brought to life through his footnoted filmography. It’s been a pleasure to read through their sections and learn more about each character. Truly.

And then Kate Gompert came along. Her female voice read like a breath of fresh air for me. Just as nuanced and sharply delineated as her male counterparts, I devoured every word that came out of her mouth and found myself frantically underlining nearly everything she said. DFW really seemed to pull out all the stops with Kate, particularly in her gut-wrenchingly visceral descriptions of depression: “Lurid is the word,” she muses about halfway through her scene, “Doctor Garton said lurid, one time. That’s the right word for it. And everything sounds harsh, spiny and harsh-sounding, like every sound you hear all of a sudden has teeth” (73).

Gah. That sent shivers down my spine the first time I read that. The undertones of Sylvia Plath in Kate’s voice are so gorgeous – all sharp edges and blood and vulnerability. And, in showing his hand with Kate Gompert, Wallace frustrated me for the first time because, now that I know he can create female characters as great as his male ones, it feels unacceptable that there are so few of them. Up until at least the 137-page mark anyway. Perhaps there are more female characters drawn as vividly as Kate to come and I simply have no idea… I’m seriously hoping that’s the case.

And the second reason why this scene frustrated me? Even though Kate is the closest thing we’ve gotten so far to a female narrator, she isn’t the one telling her story. Instead, her section is narrated by the nameless male doctor and thus presented from a masculine perspective. Despite the fact that the majority of the section is dedicated to Kate  attempting to communicate the depth of her pain, everything in between is devoted to what the doctor sees and thinks. In fact, the male gaze makes its omnipresence known from the opening pages of Kate Gompert’s section when the doctor cannot help but “notice that [Kate] had fairly large breasts that rose and fell rapidly” (69). It seems that female objectification is fair game even in a psych ward.

The scene ends with the doctor writing down his version of Kate’s words – putting quotation marks around her feelings while silently congratulating himself on the quality of his penmanship – until he is interrupted by the sound of Kate beginning to weep. Is she weeping from the weight of her depression? From exhaustion? Out of anger? Frustration?  Because Wallace shuts us out of her mind, we’ll never know. And even though he gave her the chance to speak, it doesn’t feel like enough – especially when I feel in my bones that he could have given her a mental life and voice as intricate and absorbing as Hal’s.

Essentially, my reaction to the Kate Gompert section boils down to a maddening intersection between fascination and frustration, or – put in even simpler terms – love and hate. It’s a thin line I’ve walked across many times, but often a productive one because when I, as someone with an overabundance of feelings, am disappointed by something in which I saw a lot of potential, I get mad. And when I get mad, I either want to talk at length about all the missed opportunities I saw, or I want to just go ahead and fix it myself by starting to write the kind of stories I want to read. There’s something to say for that thin line between love and hate.

And I think that’s exactly what Wallace is getting at later on with the juxtaposition of the conversation between Marathe and Steeply, and that between Hal and his ETA crew.

Like Joe said yesterday, I found the Marathe and Steeply bits initially a tad tedious to get through. That is, until their debate about love and whether or not it is a choice. I followed the back-and-forth between the two with interest and found myself nodding at both sides of the argument, totally enthralled by their volley of ideas (but agreeing most especially with Marathe, I mean, come on). This discussion is immediately contrasted by the next scene in which Hal informs his peers that their community is built on hatred. “They always give us something to hate,” Hal says of their coaches, “really hate together” (113-4). And while Hal’s proposition is readily accepted by his teammates, we see as readers who are able to weave in and out of Hal’s thoughts that it’s simply not true – the ETA boys are no more united by their hatred than Marathe and Steeply by their belief in love (albeit different kinds).

Now, I’m not sure exactly what Wallace is pointing to in this brilliant pairing of scenes that creates a literal fine line between love and hate, but the notion of grappling with those two opposites seems to be one of the central tensions of the novel.

Or, maybe, what IJ is really setting out to do is introduce apathy as the true opposite to love since it seems to be the (non-)emotion that so many characters struggle with throughout the narrative.

But enough of what I think. What do you think, dear readers?

A Disorganized Reading Rainbow (with LeVar Burton)

(After a few attempts, I’ve decided that this post is going to lack any cohesiveness, so I’ve broken my observations of this section into simplistic terms for the sake of some kind of structure. But yeah, I am aware that this post really doesn’t have any and for that, I apologize. There’s just so much going on in the book that I find it can be difficult to decide what to talk about!)

And so!

Meaningless categorical thing #1: The Good (or the fun)

Point #1:

Isn’t Mario the best?

I just love that part where Schtitt is conducting his philosophical investigation (still don’t understand much of Wittgenstein, though) into how his old-school notion of athletics as a kind of “training for citizenship” now seems nonsensical in a nation “where the only public consensus a boy must surrender to is the acknowledged primacy of straight-line pursuing this flat and short-sighted idea of personal happiness.” This idea of (the difficulty, maybe?) surrendering yourself to a higher ideal and the (apparent) silliness of pledging yourself to (again, APPARENTLY) simplistic or reductive ideas as a way of living seems to be a theme that comes up again and again. But is the purpose of this surrender self-improvement, or simply survival? I’m not too sure about that one.

Returning to Mario, didn’t you find the oscillation between Schtitt and Mario’s thought patterns hilarious, endearing, and fun to read? Just check out this little gem when later in their exchange, the narrator comments on Mario’s choice of ice-cream flavour: “Mario always chickens out and opts for good old basic chocolate when the moment of decision at the counter comes. Thinking along the lines of like Better the flavour you know for sure you already love.”

Forget ice cream flavours. I love YOU, Mario. You make me smile, consistently. I’m like that too with some of my dietary choices too. As they say, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Point #2:

On my first read, I think it was around this point in the book that the recursiveness of ideas in the text began to set in. As the Kate Gompert section progressed, I began to see bits and pieces of Hal’s, Erdedy’s, and even Orin’s experiences refracted through her relation of her experience of quitting pot to the psych ward doctor. Like Hal, Kate Gompert is also obsessed with secrecy: “I’m like so obsessed with Do They Know, Can They Tell.” For Hal, we have seen that “he’s as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high.” Gompert also goes through some of the same thoughts as Erdedy when she goes on a crazy bender of smoking pot and then decides to pitch all of her smoking apparatus into a dumpster: “and so after I’ve smoked the last of whatever I’ve got I always say No More and I throw out my papers and one-hitter, I’ve probably thrown out about fifty one hitters in dumpsters […].” Even Orin’s psychic pain seems to be refracted through her when she describes the feeling that “starts creeping in […] like first thing in the morning when I get up.” Reminds me of the line, “For Orin Incandenza, #71, morning is the soul’s night.”

So I guess the bigger question would be is why do the characters feel this way? What is the root of their behavioural/physiological reactions? I don’t have the answer to that. Probably a conversation best suited over beers/scotchies and/or one-hitters.

And now we move to,

Meaningless categorical thing #2: The Bad (or the not fun)

Point #1:

Marathe and Steeply.

This is my third time through the book, and I am still annoyed by having to read through their bits. It’s gotten more fun on subsequent reads, but only marginally. I’m more of an Incandenza family/ETA/AA/and Gately man, myself.

The only thing that I really like about this part is the AFR mythology contained in the (cursed!…accent on the e) essay by good ol’ Geoffrey Day (what is it with these Geoffrey’s?) featured in the endnote 304 (sounds like a good name for a horror movie, by the way) about the jeu du prochain train.

While I can understand and appreciate the drama and humour of their exchanges, and the extra level of intrigue to the samizdat/IJ story line, overall, I find both of these characters cartoonish and unnecessary. Although, I have to say that later in the book, I did come to have more of an appreciation for Marathe (and surprise! it’s for reasons to do with his emotional motivations). But again, I could have easily done without this whole side-quest.

Point #2 (continued from point #1):

The Jim Struck essay plagiarism footnote part (footnote 304) where the “verbs and modifiers” of said essay are in the “like total [fucking?…sorry for swearing] ozone.”

Holy shit– No kidding!

The only thing that kept me rolling through this part was the narrator’s self-conscious acknowledgements of the essay writer’s stilted language and Jim Struck’s comedic reactions when reading his source material: “Struck at certain points imagines himself gathering this Wild Conceits guy’s lapels together with one hand and savagely and repeatedly slapping him with the other—forehand, backhand, forehand.”

You said it, Struck, my man!

As a former student, I appreciated this part just because it echoed the warnings of many my former professors not to plagiarize. They always said that it was infinitely more work to plagiarize an essay than to simply just do the work to create an original paper. Having never attempted to plagiarize a paper, it was kind of fun to go along for the ride (but it is also compelling proof that I made the correct decision never to try to plagiarize anything).

God.

If a fictional plagiarism was that bad, just imagine the real thing! No thanks!

So I guess even the bad wasn’t all bad, after all.

Oh, and just one further question, your honour, to make sure I finish this post completely and utterly disorganized:

What do you think Hal’s observation of Avril’s response to J.O.I’s death means exactly? Specifically, the part where Hal is lying in bed (just like Brian Wilson did) in his room, and he’s talking to Mario, and he says,

“So listen—one way to lower the flag to half-mast is just to lower the flag. There’s another way though. You can also just raise the pole. You can raise the pole to like twice its original height. You get me?”

Actually, no…not really.

I always found this idea to be confusing and unclear. Like is Avril really sad about J.O.I’s passing, or is Mrs. Hamlet Sr. actually pretty ok with it? I tend to think that Avril is actually pretty ok with it, since Mario seems to think that “it seems like she got happier”, remarking that “her eyes are better” and that she “laughs way more than she laughed at Himself […] from lower down inside.” I’ve always thought that Mario’s emotional observations/intelligence seems to be ahead of Hal’s, though undoubtedly Mario’s intellect cannot keep pace with Hal’s. Anyone else have an opinion here?

Family dynamics are at play here and are probably one of my favourite parts about the book, hands down (being part of an immediate family with a mother, father and two sisters). It makes me think about how family members have their own strengths and weaknesses and can help each other to work through things in different ways.

More importantly, I’m interested to hear what others think about the flagpole thing. What does it mean?

Alright, that’s enough for now. Pretty sure I’ve reached the TLDR mark. Sorry about that!

 

 

Faces in the Floor

Is the reason for my nightlight the “face in the floor”?! Is Hal actually talking during the admissions interview? Why are the conversations between Hal and his brothers so tender and tear-causing (at least, for me)? Is Gately just a sicko? What was the bug doing in Erdedy’s room? Is the bug the author’s perspective!? Am I being ridiculous? Did we just read some Ebonics? Why is Jim Incandenza an avant-garde filmmaker? How did that dead bird fall into Orin’s jacuzzi?* Is Duplessis important? What kind of person thinks about spraying perfume while having sex!? Do the Arab Canadian medical attaché and others who view the cartridge regain their senses? Is Kate Gompert a phony or a sensitive genius? Would Kate Gompert be pissed off at that question? And other questions …

… I hope you are all still with us, “in here.”

As much as I want to talk to you about Hal, and his speech and silences, I’ll refrain and be silent, because this is one of my fave scenes, and I’ve discussed it quite a bit in the past.*

So, I’m going to ask you to look at one sentence with me, and then look at the face in the floor scene, and I hope that we shall see part of a face(t) of IJ, overall.

OK! Look at this sentence on page 54, the mini scene that tells us about Mario’s function:

“Eighteen in May, Mario Incandenza’s designated function around Enfield Tennis Academy is filmic: […] he’ll be assigned by Coach Schtitt et al. to set up a camcorder […] and record a certain area of court, video-taping different kids’ strokes, footwork, certain tics and hitches in serves or running volleys, so the staff can show the tapes to the kids instructionally, letting the kids see on the screen exactly what a coach or prorector’s talking about. The reason being it’s a lot easier to fix something if you can see it.” (54)

“The reason being it’s a lot easier to fix something if you can see it.”

The first few times I read it, I got goosebumps. This is because this sentence strikes me as a different voice. The attention is on “you,” instead of a third person “he” or “they” of the passage. It reads to me like a direct authorial voice addressing the reader. If we follow this thought, why is there a need to explain further with this sentence, to explain more than needed for an understanding of Mario’s function?

Now, look at the beginning of the “face in the floor” dream scene:

“I am coming to see that the sensation of the worst nightmares, a sensation that can be felt asleep or awake, is identical to those worst dreams’ form itself: the sudden intra-dream realization that the nightmares’ very essence and center has been with you all along, even awake; it’s just been … overlooked… “ (61)

There is a pattern re: seeing things, and overlooking things.

I’ve interpreted our dreamer’s dream as a sort of self-realization, a “facing himself” moment, generally conveying the fact that one sees what they choose to see, and that self-examination, when overlooked, can produce … things like faces in the floor.

To return to “the reason being it’s a lot easier to fix something if you can see it,” I have to ask: What is it that Erdedy, Kate, Hal, Gately, Orin are trying to fix, and what is it that they need to see in order to fix it?

I feel that in Hal’s and Kate’s stories, they think they’re seeing (because they’re anxious and self-conscious), but they’re not “seeing.”

I feel that with Gately and Erdedy, they know they’re not seeing, but they don’t know what to see in order to fix what they need to fix.

And of course, since this is about IJ, we must come around to more questions: Why does J.O.I make films? For whom was that lethal cartridge intended? What is just below the level of conscious thought for our characters (if we try to look beyond or around the “subconscious” and “desires” as some answers) — if it takes the form of habit and devotion?

The patterns we follow will let us build the “house.

 

* For example, here’s a brief compilation from a thread about Hal’s speech and silences.
**Those interested in causality might fall into the abyss here — I am happy to be your guide; do tell if you’d like to get out of this abyss, or go deeper.

Juggling Endnotes and Sniffing (or pretending to)

The endnotes just come all at once, don’t they?

For the first forty or fifty pages, there is maybe like one endnote. Some people I talked to were like, “what endnotes? They’re not so bad.” And then you get into all of the drugs that ETA students take to come up and come down or level out or have recreational fun, and then you hit the filmography endnote. It is there that you realize (or at least I did) that the endnotes are not just your typical endnotes noting something – they branch off into narratives of their own and they can appear rather frequently. Continue reading “Juggling Endnotes and Sniffing (or pretending to)”