Guest Post: Allan Wood, “Life And How To Live It”

In David Foster Wallace’s review of Joseph Frank’s multi-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky (which review was written while he was working on Infinite Jest and pulled from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again at the last minute (it was eventually collected in Consider the Lobster)), he posed a series of questions, seemingly to himself, concerning living a meaningful life and how to be a good person. Continue reading “Guest Post: Allan Wood, “Life And How To Live It””

A Little More Than Kin


It’s me.

I’ve been wondering if after all these years you’d –

*Record scratches to a stop*

Sorry. I couldn’t resist a dramatic opening despite the fact that it’s only really been two weeks since I’ve written a proper blog post. (And by ‘proper’ I mean one that is longer than fourteen lines written in passable-at-best iambic pentameter.*)

That said, before I launch into today’s Hamlet-heavy post, I just wanted to apologize once more for my super short post last week. As I mentioned in my sonnet, I was on holiday in New York City with my family and didn’t have enough time to sit down and write out something a bit longer and more in-depth. I hope that you’ve all had enough time to find it in your hearts to forgive me! Because guess who’s back? (Back, back, back… Back again?)

Allie’s back and it’s time for Hamlet-Palooza: Part II!

For those of you who already guessed by the title of today’s blog post that I would be harping on about my tragic Danish Prince again today… Well, you’re right. While I may have shown my hand way back in week four with my first Hamlet-themed post, I’ll just come out and say it here just to be clear: Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play. As clichéd a favourite as it is, I can’t help it – I love it and I don’t care how mainstream that makes my taste in Shakespearean tragedy. Hamlet is my dumpster fire son and Ophelia is my precious cinnamon roll daughter. I love them both so much and – You know what? I’ll stop right there before I get carried away. Suffice it to say that I love the whole play. (Just those two in particular.)

Now, there are lots of other things I could have talked about this week,** but the scene that grabbed me the most was the first real interaction between Hal and Avril outside her office. It opens with an explosion of the colour blue and Hal remarking on how much he hates the overabundance of it in Charles and Avril’s respective offices as well as their joint waiting area. He especially dislikes the “sky-and-cloud wallpaper” in Charles Tavis’ office “because it makes him feel high-altitude and disoriented and sometimes plummeting” (509).

Hal’s distaste for this sky-and-cloud wallpaper reminded me of the first interaction between stepfather and stepson in Hamlet when Claudius asks his nephew, “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?”and a surly Hamlet replies “Not so, my lord; I am too much i’ the sun” (Act I: Scene II: 66-7). Both Hal and Hamlet thus resist their stepfathers by rejecting the ways in which they employ clouds – as wallpaper in C.T.’s case and as a metaphor for Hamlet’s grief in Claudius’ case.

A bit of a stretch? Maybe. But since we’ve already established Hamlet as an important intertext running through Infinite Jest, any overlap – even a tiny one like this – jumps out at me.

Hal’s aversion to the colour blue also indirectly aligns him once more with Hamlet who refuses to “cast [his] nighted colour off” and proclaims his love for “solemn black” (Act I: Scene II: 68, 78). It can be inferred that Hal’s dislike for the cheery sky-and-cloud blue that pervades the office must mean that he, like Hamlet, identifies more with something a bit darker. All the talk of colour in this IJ section brought to mind this particular scene in Hamlet and once more highlighted parallels between Hal and Hamlet.

It is in this same scene that Hamlet speaks his famous “A little more than kin, and less than kind”aside in response to Claudius calling him “my cousin Hamlet, and my son” (Act I: Scene II: 64-5). And while I love the off-the-charts level of teenage snark in this little aside, what Hamlet succinctly speaks to here is the extent to which the dynamics within the Danish royal family are totally whacked. That “more than kin” is so creepy and that “less than kind” even more so no matter which way you slice it – whether you take ‘kind’ at face value to mean ‘nice’, or ‘kind’ to mean ‘natural’ like it did back in Shakespeare’s day. So, basically….

kristen wiig

The narrator in IJ seems to suggest a similar unease in Hal about his own bizarre family dynamics when describing Hal’s stepfather as his “maternal half-uncle” (516) and his “mother’s adoptive brother” (519). This blurring of filial roles to describe C.T. invokes the same twisted image that Hamlet’s “more than kin, and less than kind” line does, pointing to the almost identical situations in which Hal and Hamlet find themselves with their respective mothers and stepfathers.

Speaking of mothers, let’s get to Avril. I loved finally getting to see her and Hal have a proper chat and I was doubly thrilled to be given more insight into their relationship – in particular, Hal’s feelings toward her. I was surprised to see how naturally their banter seemed to flow and how Hal managed to make Avril laugh with his jibe about C.T. bumbling on about a skull (hello, Yorick!). For all of the complicated feelings harboured by Hal in regards to his mother that have been hinted at throughout the novel, it was nice to see the easy rapport between the two.

Another thing I wasn’t expecting was the tender kind of adoration Hal has for Avril. The narrator reveals that her tendency to want to be the centre of attention in every room she enters is “dear to Hal” and that he falls into a planet-like kind of orbit around her when they greet each other (521). This scene also showed just how young Hal still is and how much he still needs his mother when the narrator informs us of how much Hal relishes Avril’s concern for him when she learns that he hasn’t eaten yet (522).

Since I had Hamlet on the brain while reading through this section, I couldn’t help but compare Hal and the Moms’ relationship to the infamously ambiguous one between Hamlet and Gertrude. While Hal and Hamlet are eerily similar in so many ways and Avril and Gertrude are so alike that they’re practically the same character, Hal and Avril’s interaction here differentiates them from Hamlet and Gertrude in the kindness they show one another. As opposed to Hamlet who spends more than half the play raging about or directly at his mother, Hal speaks to her civilly here and even seems – dare I say it – happy to see her.

And while it is possible to read Hal and Avril’s dynamic as somewhat sexual (the offering of the apple and the way it “stimulated a torrent of saliva” (523) in Hal’s mouth, for example), the Oedipal undertones are not nearly as pronounced as they are between Hamlet and Gertrude.

Hal and Avril are therefore echoes of Hamlet and Gertrude – a mother and her son in a practically identical situation – but they are not carbon copies of one another. I can’t help but wonder, though, will that change as we move forward? Will Hal’s repressed bitterness and anger at his mother boil over in a Hamlet-esque moment? Will it be Avril’s relationship with John Wayne that precipitates it? Or something else entirely?

I guess I’ll just have to stay tuned to monitor the development of the mother-son dynamic in IJ… In the meantime, I’m having a blast comparing Hal’s narrative to Hamlet because, well, I’m a nerd. But you know who else I think was a Shakespeare nerd? Our friend David.

In fact, I’m beginning to think that this gif summarizes DFW pretty well:

hiddles gif

Tennis and Shakespeare… Not a bad tagline for Infinite Jest, to be honest.  

F O O T N O T E S :

* Actually, please do me a favour and kindly refrain from scanning my sonnet from last week. Every line has ten syllables, but probably has no meter to speak of, so… Shakespeare would most likely read it and weep (and not in a good way).

** List of Other Things I Could Have Talked About This Week:

  1. How much I enjoyed the brilliant mash-up of Greek and Québecois mythology discussed by Marathe and Steeply on page 529;
  2. How much I loved the conversation between Joelle and Gately on pages 531-8 where they start to bond and Joelle continues to be my favourite character with great lines like “I am deformed by beauty” (538);
  3. How much I hated meeting and spending time with that despicable piece of human trash named Randy Lenz; and
  4. How much I wanted to throw my book off a cliff while reading about Orin “The Worst” Incandenza’s one-night stand and his blatant misogyny (“[B]ecause he needs her he fears her and so hates her a little, hates all of them, a hatred that comes out disguised as a contempt he disguises in the tender attention with which he does the thing with her buttons” (567, emphasis added). LIKE, SERIOUSLY? UGH.)

Narrator? What Narrator? Who? Why? Come Again? Am I Confused? What Was This About Again?

As the weirdness factor in the book continues to go sky high, I wanted to put a few things out there about the narrative style of IJ and get to thinking about what it might mean to suggest.

And boy, oh boy, the narration style takes the weirdness up a level in the reading for this week. I think it’s so fun to see how DFW is able to have 2 or 3 narrators (or should I say, thought patterns or brain waves) buzzing along in even just one particular section or sentence. Sometimes you will get a word that sticks out (think of Gately’s use of ethnic slurs, or Lenz’s poor spelling—phonetically spelled words) alongside a narrative style that appears to be more learned (again, accent on that ‘e’).

When thinking about how this works, I find myself returning to that famous line from James Joyce’s “The Dead”: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.”  In fairness, Lily was not literally run off of her feet. If that were the case, she’d be laying on the floor. Actually, she was figuratively run off of her feet. It’s generally accepted that an author with such a high level of command of the English language (as we find in James Joyce) would not have made this kind of error with meanings of words. Hence, this line is a hybrid of narrative styles: a mix of the character’s brain-voice and the omniscient narrator telling the story. In Joyce’s story, I think the technical term for it is something like free-indirect discourse…but I’m not certain about that. Doesn’t really matter anyway.

So, this sort of infusion of a brain-voice of another character into a separate narrator’s commentary/style happens a lot in IJ, and is sometimes so seamless that it can be difficult to spot (at least I find it difficult, at times).


To return to the text:

Directly following the part where Lucien Antitoi (translated: against you?…haha) I kept noticing the word “squeak” popping up all over the place: I counted quite a few times where the word showed up immediately following that brutal AFR encounter. Suddenly, things seemed to be going squeak, squeak, all the live long day. It’s like the narrator(s) ordered a squeaky number combo with a side of cheesy squeaks and an extra-large squeaker shake with extra ice to wash it all down.

Squeaks from the wheelchairs, squeaks from James Sr’s bed (that part which could perhaps be alternately titled, “Himself Hears a Squeak”), and then Hal getting “the howling fantods” at the “kind of rapid rodential squeaking” issuing from Pemulis’ bobbing chair as the older boys wait for possible disciplinary action being brought against them by ETA’s authorities for the Eschaton kertwang.

But why all this squeaking? Does anybody else think it’s weird how particular details continue to, shall we say, bubble up (eh, Shazia?) here, there and everywhere as we continue to worm our way through the text?

I find it strange, weirdly compelling and fascinating how certain events, turns of phrase, colours (As Phil noted: think of the blues—of the Charles River, of Himself’s father’s bedroom, of the ETA offices) and sounds seem to echo through the narration of this book. It’s as if when something happens in a distant seemingly unconnected part of the text, we find it (for me, perplexingly) popping up in another part of the text. Are these echoes supposed to communicate something to the reader? Maybe…I think?

And what about the particular turns of phrase used to describe events? Take for instance, the description of Lucien as he sits impaled by his prized broom: “[…] bursting then through the wool and puncturing tile and floor at a police-lock’s canted angle to hold him upright on his knees […].” Here, why police-lock? Why (and how?) is the narrator using these words that are so directly linked to Mario (conjuring up his image in the mind’s eye of the reader)?

Here, DFW could have used any description, but for some reason the narrator gives us an image of Mario. So what, is this Hal’s consciousness (or perhaps another Incandenza family member) coming through and speaking to us in this section? If it is, then why? It’s not as if Hal (or Avril, Mario, Orin, or anyone else that knows Mario) is privy to this particularly gruesome and horrifying event: how would he (or the others) even know about it? The characters are not omniscient (at least those that are LIVING aren’t…[Transylvanian accent] muahahahaha [/Transylvanian accent]).  Could it be because the AFR have been watching Mario (and family) and this image is fresh in the narrator’s mind? (if what we’re actually getting here is the narration is being filtered through an AFR member). So, in this case, are these narrative details meant to be clues to a larger mystery/secret plots? Maybe? I don’t know!

There are other instances of this type of thing occurring elsewhere in the book as well, though I don’t have the discipline or rigor to go hunting for more than a couple of examples.

So, here are two more examples:

  • Page 510: “Tavis’s office’s outer door is real oak and has his name and degree and title in (nonblue) letters so big that the total I.D crowds the margins.”


^For me, the words ” total I.D” sends my mind back to the AA process of learning to Identify, or I.D totally. Again, why? Who knows, I really don’t have a good handle on this.


  • On page 486-487, as Lucien tries to communicate something in a language he doesn’t know how to speak with “chin caved” and “lips quivering”, he attempts to form words, but nothing comes out: “Words that are not and can never be words are sought by Lucien here through what he guesses to be the maxillofacial movements of speech, and there is a childlike pathos to the movements […].”


^Then, on page 516, the narrator relates that Hal experiencing a similar type of physical sensation when faced with talking about Avril and Orin at tournaments: “[…] there will be this odd tense moment where Hal’s mind will go utterly blank  and his mouth slack and flabby, working soundlessly, as if the names were words on the tip of his tongue.”


…And then a sentence about how the part of Hal’s brain that holds information about his closest family members (excluding Mario) is “almost like some ponderous creaky machine.” Squeak, squeak, creaaaaak…more bubbles to the surface. But again, from where?

In echoing certain phrases in seemingly unconnected sections/events is the narrator trying to demonstrate how the things are similar or how they diverge (both?).

With the various narrator(s) are we again merely dealing with, as Shazia mentioned in her post, the suggestion or appearance of segmentation or true bonafide segmentation?

I guess the takeaway point here is that the narration is certainly bizarre, and it’s only fixin’ to get even more twisted from this point forward.

I suggest you buckle-up for a bumpy ride through that wormhole up ahead, as the weirdness factor continues to go sky high, I wanted to put a few things out there about the narrative style of IJ and get to thinking about what it might mean to suggest. Mean to suggest. Mean to suggest. Mean to suggest.

To Occur as a Citizen is to get Wormy

I thought I’d end up writing this post about Lucien’s Antitoi’s grisly death and the terrifying and very poetic description of his last moments as he is “free, catapulted home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.” (489)

I also thought I might end up writing about Gately’s drive. But, kinder, we are going to talk about Schtitt! [Whip sound]

Ok, let’s get on the field for a.m. drills.

He tells ETA kids:

“On the tennis court the you the player: this is not where there is cold wind. I am saying. Different world inside. World built inside cold outside world of wind breaks the wind, shelters the player, you, if you stay the same, stay inside. […] This world inside is the same, always, if you stay there. This is what we are making, no? New type citizen. […] Citizens of this sheltering second world we are working to show you every dawn, no? To make your introduction. […]” (459)

Schtitt constantly tells ETA kids that there are no limits except the player’s own limits. He is trying to teach them to make the experience of playing on the court so total that they become unaware of any distinctions between the environment and themselves, or between the court and their mind.

Schtitt is basically saying that the cold and wind are only excuses that give the kids reason not to perform well.

The problem of limits comes up all the time. We’ve seen it before in Eschaton and map/territory failures of representation, we see it in Canada-U.S. relations, we see it in Ennet House friends on their daily basis, and we also see it in annulation!*

*Hold on one minute! Explanation coming!**
**Footnote had to move up here because I didn’t want to lose you as you scrolled to the bottom of the post! … We’re getting into annulation… tighten your brain belts!

[Whip sound] Return to Schtitt:

“So second world […] in that world is joy because there is shelter of something else […] You have a chance to occur, playing. […] This second world inside the lines. Yes? Is this adjusting? This is not adjusting. This is not adjusting to ignore cold and wind and tired. Is no cold. Is no wind. No cold and wind where you occur. No? Not “adjust to conditions.” Make this second world inside the world: here there are not conditions.” (459)

Schtitt doesn’t like the world “adjusting.”

I think what Schtitt’s talking about re: learning to make the world inside the same so that you can occur, is something I think of as an “assimilation” of sorts.

The OED online tells me that “assimilation” could mean “to absorb,” “to make like,” “to cause to resemble,” but for my purposes (leading up to “annulation”) I like this one best:

  1. with with. (In this const. some influence of II is apparent; as not only resemblance, but also alliance or incorporation is implied.)

Ok, now, “annulation”!

I have tried to watch YouTube vids of annulation and read about chemistry, but the definition I found seemed to lead back to chemistry-related stuff ONLY. But this is IJ so of course it’s not just chemistry-related.

“In organic chemistry annulation is a chemical reaction in which a new ring is constructed on a molecule.”

I thought of it like bubbles e.g. when you’re in the bathtub and the bubbles are constantly bumping into one another to join up and and make bigger and smaller bubbles etc.

(Bubble bonus: Thinking of Phil’s blue post made me think of William Gass’s On Being Blue, and Gass who said (in another book) something like God is a soap bubble, infinitely hued…)

Bubbles aside, based on the diagram in IJ, I also thought of the inside of a microwave … Does your microwave have a three-spoked thing with wheel-ish things on the underside of the spokes? And then the big glass plate over top of wheel-spoke thing?

Like this?


I AM HALTING, no worries; won’t get into microwaves and J.O.I’s suicide … today.

So back to annulation…. I knew it was wormyyy! I f*&*^ knew it!!! (All the thinking about boundaries and limits got me to thinking about The Pale King in which there are all sorts of worm-related things at the start, especially w/r/t boundaries and the porousness of certain borders…)

This from Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Among acanthocephalans, rotifers, and some other “aschelminth” groups, external ringlike formations, called annulations, occur in the covering tissues, sometimes so marked as to suggest segmentations; these formations prove to be only superficial, however, and are not indicative of true segmentation.”

Ok so, the important info. for our purposes is that the “ringlike formations, called annulations” suggest segmentations and are not indicative of true segmentation.

Back to Schtitt and Hal at the end of a.m. drills:

“Where is where you apply for citizenship in second world Mr. consciousness of ankle Incandenza, our revenant?
Hal can lean out and spit in a way that isn’t insolent. “Head, sir.”
“The human head, sir, if I got your thrust. Where I’m going to occur as a player. The game’s two heads’ one world. One world, sir.”
Schtitt sweeps the pointer in an ironic morendo arc and laughs aloud:
“Play.” (461)

So, in the passages at the start of this post, Schtitt was talking about being “here” and not in the second world where you’re aware of the conditions of wind and cold. Schtitt’s talking about total absorption, kinder!

But what this chat with Hal tells me is that, in fact, being able to be aware of multiple things at the same time is exactly how one occurs as a citizen. It’s this push/pull between being there in the world and being stuck in one’s head that makes one occur successfully and perform very well. Charles Tavis knows this…

What does this have to do with the definition of annulation I gave you for my purposes?

“The ringlike formations suggest segmentation, but are not indicative of it.”

To me, this makes Hal’s response to Schtitt infinitely complex.

Are you occurring as a citizen?

… The implications of “citizenship” for Canada-U.S. relations in IJ for another time…




Blue is blue is blue is blue is blue

I was once told by a student (who was not an English major but had to take my English course), “I don’t care if blue means whatever. Blue is blue, and that’s all that matters.”

I wasn’t really talking about Infinite Jest, but I was kinda using it as an example for symbols re colours, asking my students what blue could possibly mean. Besides the student stating that blue is blue (that is a fact, I suppose), I got a couple answers: sadness, depression, melancholy, as in the phrase “feeling blue.” Other students mentioned, like, blue skies and how it is kinda peaceful, relaxed, calming. And, you know, blue is blue. Continue reading “Blue is blue is blue is blue is blue”