Of all our weekly ‘lenses,’ this week’s theme of otherness fits like a glove.
Let’s start with Orin. Orin, the hale and handsome eldest Incandenza. Orin, the tennis player with a terrific lob, wooed by colleges, lured by a beautiful cheerleader. Orin the punter, effortlessly finding his place in O.N.A.N’s (nee America’s) prestigious sport, seems the farthest from otherness. He exudes wholesome, conformist, almost banal ideals. But Orin is the odd one out. Within the Incandenza clan he is very much the other. His form letters to his mother, his lack of knowledge about his father’s death – Orin has put significant space between himself and his family. (Hal has a lot of very pointed thoughts on this – mostly about Orin’s sexual proclivities and how they may or may not relate to his mother).
In juxtaposition, the details of Mario’s otherness read like a medical textbook was put through a Burroughs-esque cut-up technique. Yet he is a welcome confidante for Schtitt, has carried the torch (or lens) of his father’s craft, and stays close to Hal by being his bunkmate. Mario is not seen as an outsider at all. In the world of Infinite Jest, as in the U.H.I.D, all are welcome.
Poor Tony Krause. Poor, poor Tony Krause. Isolated, drug sick, “gender-dysmorphic” Tony. His own body becomes the Other as he detoxes in the Armenian library washroom stall. During the complete breakdown of his corporeal self, culminating in a subway seizure, (“watching his tumid limbs tear-ass around the car’s interior like undone balloons” – p. 305) Tony is back in his childhood, worried that his “red-handed Poppa could see up his dress, what was hidden” (p. 306), having lived a life that is true to his own self, but decidedly in the realm of otherness as far as his father is concerned.
There was also an incredibly playful sense of otherness w/r/t the endnotes in this section. We are tossed all around in terms of voice, time, and perspective. It’s a complete, beautiful mess. I was tickled by Pemulis’ narrative on the Mean-value formula, as told to and later transcribe by Hal, who interrupts editorially. It assumes Pemulis/Hal are indeed writing this to someone – are they speaking directly to us? Endnote 127 seems to be written entirely by Pemulis, who can’t help himself by adding a “P.S. Wolf-spiders Ruleth the Land.” And the cheeky “…overshot the place to mention” and “…also overshot the spot to include” (e. 117/119 p. 1022) create a false editorial structure that indicates the narrator is somehow prevented from accurately placing his own damn endnotes.
- 47 endnotes!!!
- “The first birth of the Incandenza’s second son was a surprise” (p. 312 – emphasis mine)
- The dense, detailed Eschaton section is in turns so cinematic and so numbingly academic. I love it. But Hal sure is acting strange, and we are kept at a distance from his thoughts that we aren’t accustomed to. He seems to be struggling to articulate his ideas, the narrative voice just scratches the surface, and never dives deeper, and near the end, Hal feels at his face to see if he is wincing (p. 342), a gesture we saw in the opening section of the book in the Year of Glad. It’s November 8, YDAU. Have we started to lose Hal already?
- On November 8, YDAU Joelle van Dyne enters Ennett House, one day after her attempted de-mapping (e. 134 p. 1025)
- Calgarian pro-Canadian Phalanx! That’s where I live!
I would take all of these prorector classes.
Is Don Gately white?
In my mind, the answer is no. I have always pictured Gately as a Pacific Islander. How did I get that impression? I think it may have had something to do with the passage comparing his head to an Easter Island head. It was only on my second read-through that I realized Gately’s race is never explicitly stated. Does that make him white?
What about Poor Tony Krause?
I have always pictured him as a black person. Only this week did it occur to me that I may have completely imagined that. The only clue I could find about his race is the fact that, during his Withdrawal, his skin turns the color of summer squash, which probably eliminates the possibility that he could be black.
And then there’s Mario. This week, we learned of his origins and his myriad physical deformities. We also learned that his skin is greenish gray. Among the many characters of ambiguous race, we have one who, despite being technically Caucasian, doesn’t look like he belongs to any race whatsoever.
Mario is the epitome of otherness. His disabilities are many, and the description of his physical appearance, while exhaustive, is so bizarre it’s hard to picture. Yet despite these challenges, he’s a beloved figure at ETA. He’s carved out a niche for himself as a documentarian. As someone who has undoubtedly drawn the stares of strangers throughout his life, he responds by turning the camera around, rendering himself sort of invisible. If we compare Mario with Poor Tony, another paragon of difference, the text seems to be telling us that sublimation is the way to overcome the challenges that come with otherness. Don’t turn to vice, as Poor Tony does to heroin. Instead, create. Mario uses his camera as a mirror, to reflect people’s reactions to him back to themselves. After all, aren’t our reactions to outward otherness really a fear of the otherness we all sense within ourselves?
This theme’s week is “Otherness.” I think Infinite Jest is all about the “other,” but instead of thinking of it in terms of binaries like ETA / Ennet, or Concavity / Convexity, I want to think about otherness in terms of the porousness of certain borders, particularly during Poor Tony’s withdrawal.
When Poor Tony is experiencing withdrawal on the train he recalls scents from his childhood, like his father’s Old Spice. Tony loses all self-control and shits in his clothes. “He suddenly felt nothing, or rather Nothing, a pre-tornadic stillness of zero sensation, as if he were the very space he occupied.” (305)
This description of the experience of Poor Tony’s withdrawal reminds me of the description of the experience of an astronaut (whose name I can’t remember now) in outer space. The astronaut said he felt that there was no distinction between him and the space around him.
I think that Tony’s experience might seem to be different from the astronaut’s at first (Tony sees it as “Nothing” but the astronaut’s experience was more fulfilling and closer to awe) but both these experiences involve a loss of the self and a sense of merging with the space outside of oneself.
I think that stepping outside of oneself is one of the driving questions/challenges for many characters in IJ — how they try or fail or succeed in these many many small ways.
During my reads of IJ, I’ve found myself questioning the extent to which characters have really been able to “step outside” of themselves. I’ve changed my mind often and continue to do so. The initial sadness I felt when I read IJ the first time (I didn’t think anything was funny then!) returns to remind me just how difficult it is to “step outside” for all the characters of IJ. Today I find Tony leading me to questions about Mario. What does it mean for Mario to be disabled; to live with an awareness that he’s dependent on something external to him for functioning? Does this allow him to step outside of himself much more easily than the other characters (because it allows him to acknowledge the interdependence on other factors and people, and to understand others better)?
The pursuit of intense pleasure is only enjoyable as long as it meets our expectations. For Joelle van Dyne (aka Madame Psychosis), Too Much Fun just isn’t fun anymore. “It no longer delimits and fills the hole. It no longer delimits the hole” (p. 222) Molly Notkin’s party is going to be her OUT, her true exit from the cage. Here we are treated to another beautifully cinematic segment, as JvD walks the streets of Boston gathering the items she needs to freebase cocaine one final time. Echoing Erdedy’s habitual tossing of all paraphernalia (itself done with the short circuited expectation that this action will somehow influence one’s willpower), she rebuilds her weaponry – ready to aim it squarely at herself and eliminate her own map.
“Joelle has never seen the completed assembly of what she’s appeared in, or seen anyone who’s seen it, and doubts that any sum of scenes as pathologic as he’d stuck that long quartzy auto-wobbling lens on the camera and filmed her for could have been as entertaining as he’d said the thing he always wanted to make had broken his heart by ending up” (p. 228)
Peppered within this lengthy section are many significant details about Infinite Jest V, that most fatal of all entertainments. Here we are party to practically the entirety of the sum of the details we receive throughout the novel. That they are delivered to us through JvD’s own words and reflections puts its own wobbly lens on the information.
She knows that it is an “allegedly fatally entertaining and scopophiliac thing” and coupled with the snippets of conversation at Molly’s party, it is revealed that the existence of IJ is known to the general public, and that it has already had a fatal impact on more than just the medical attaché’s household (“He said a good bit o Berkely isn’t answering their phone” – p. 233).
What does Joelle feel overhearing these conversations? Does she feel complicit in the creation of this deadly film? She does question her role in his suicide (“Did she kill him somehow, just inclining veilless over that lens?” – p. 231) Her own expectations in becoming JOI’s muse may have begun as a way to better learn film techniques from a master, but it is apparent that the relationship (though platonic) grew into something much, much heavier, ruining her relationship with Orin and further enabling her addiction.
The phone conversation between Hal and Orin also serves to further the narrative of the death of James, and also illuminates the incredibly broken family dynamics of the Incandenzas. Orin did not attend his father’s funeral, and did not have even the most rudimentary information about how he died. The reasons for Orin to break with familial (and social) expectations of mourning must be incredibly significant.
Hal’s encounter with the grief therapist is, obviously, all about expectations. The counselor flummoxes Hal. Hal wants this to be over, but he can’t seem to offer up the appropriate responses. Hal, the golden child, he of perfect test scores and a constant need to meet the expectations of teachers, parents, etc, is at a total loss. As he describes it to Orin, Lyle gave him some solid advice, and Hal was able to turn the tables and serve up what the therapist wanted.
[Side note to Orin’s statement that the advice Lyle gave Hal doesn’t jive with the Lyle that Orin knew (p. 255) further serves the unreliable narration that infuses IJ, playing with our expectations of linear and trusted narration. Additional side note to this point is the end of the phone call, when Hal starts speaking of nails as the vestiges of talons and Orin’s reaction “I can call back when you are more yourself” (p. 258) is so out of whack with what Hal is saying that we are asked to question if Hal is actiually saying something else, or if Orin is hearing something else].
- With the full list of subsidized years published (p. 223) we can now place the novel in actual time. James Incandenza, born in 1950, died at age 54, in the year 2004, aka Year of the Trial Sized Dove Bar. That means subsidized time began in 2002, with the Year of the Whopper, and most of the book takes place in what would have been 2009, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Endnote 78, which infers that the Year of Glad has yet to be ratified, implies the book itself is being written in YDAU.
- In her wanderings, Joelle passes a cardboard cutout of a legless man in a wheelchair, with a face frozen in ecstatic rapture, in his cardboard hand a label-less black cartridge case, which Joelle takes out, looks at and puts back in the display. The case is empty.
- We learn that Orin thinks Helen is “weirdly sexy” (p. 247) which goes against the descriptions we have had of Steeply’s disguise, from both Marathe and our unreliable narrator, who calls her “enormous, electrolysis-rashed” on p. 142.
- The introduction of DMZ is another critical plot-forwarding moment. Pemulis is (thankfully) taking it very seriously, but Hal’s guess that “two, or even three tablets maybe” (p. 213) could be an appropriate dose scares the hell out of me!
- I love spending time in Ennet House, with Gately supine on the couch and the residents nattering all around him, especially Day’s simpering complaints about his expectations of what rehab would be vs the realities of AA.
So how are you doing? If you’re reading along with the schedule, then you deserve a Mega-breakfast from Denny’s, because you’ve cleared what is considered by many to be the hardest stretch of Infinite Jest. You reached the Chronology of ONAN’s Revenue-Enhancing Subsidized Time, which grants at least a little relief from the onslaught of confusion. How are you feeling about all this? Are you in love with this book? Are you frustrated? Bored? How is this experience measuring up to your expectations?
This week we delved deeper into the twin worlds of ETA and Ennet House. The former sits atop a hill, the top shaved flat to accommodate its purpose. The latter sits in the hill’s shadow, underfunded and crumbling into decay. These two settings seem diametrically opposed: the untarnished potential of young privilege and the destitution of ruined lives. Yet certain images pop up in both places. Toenail clippings much like the ones Hal aims into a wastebasket turn up in an ashtray at Ennet House. The coaches at ETA watch the student athletes for warning signs of burnout, just as the staff members at Ennet House monitor the residents for red flags of compromised sobriety. The recovering addicts and junior tennis players are both aiming to meet high expectations that are somewhat nebulous and unclear.
A large portion of this week’s reading was dedicated to Hal and Orin’s phone conversation, wherein Orin grills Hal about the particulars of their father’s suicide. Hal reveals that it was he who discovered Himself’s body, and as a result, wound up in grief counselling. Hal’s a people-pleaser, a goods-deliverer. He’s used to knowing clearly what’s expected of him and meeting those expectations expediently. However, his performance of grief does not satisfy the counselor. Hal makes himself sick trying to parse out what emotional reaction this grief counselor expects from him, paradoxically exhibiting the outward signs of mourning as a consequence of this stress. When trauma occurs, it can feel like all eyes are on you, the traumatized, and you don’t know how you’re expected to react. Hal fixates on that problem instead of confronting his real feelings about finding his father dead. When he finally finds the solution in a text for grief counselors (as advised by Lyle) Hal is finally free from the weight of unmet expectations. The story ends with a final subversion of expectations, when the grief counselor reveals his previously-hidden, tiny, pink, “butt-smooth” hands.
Sound like anyone you know?
This twist in the grief counselor anecdote has been stuck in my mind since I first read it, and I’ve never known quite how to make sense of it. Reading it in the year 2017 has lent me new insight. Hal reacts to the tiny hands with uncontrollable laughter. He could be laughing because, hey, it’s objectively pretty funny. But the fit of hysterics Hal describes seems to signify some deeper emotion, like relief. I think Hal is feeling ridiculous for having ever been intimidated by this man. The grief counselor’s demand for Hal to exhibit some sort of hidden shame about his father’s suicide stems from the counselor’s own shame about his itty bitty baby hands. People’s expectations of you are invariably shaded by their own private neuroses and insecurities. The most imposing, oppressive authority figures have their own soft little miniature hands hidden beneath the desks over which they expect you to deliver the goods. What’s a guy to do but laugh?
At the Port Washington Invitational, Pemulis faces the crushing force of expectations to be great at tennis, and responds by vomiting, and then (probably) drugging his opponent to secure a default win. His foil is Teddy Schacht, who has been relieved of the burden of expectation by a chronic knee injury and Crohn’s Disease. The interactions between Pemulis, rendered touchingly vulnerable by performance anxiety, and Schacht, comforting, compassionate, and only privately judgmental, are nothing short of cockle-warming. It’s telling that Schacht has found such peace in the face of his dimming tennis future. Perhaps the most mentally-healthy student at ETA, Schacht has let go of the pressure to be a tennis star and redefined the expectations placed upon him. And ironically, since he ceased caring whether he wins or not, his tennis game has only improved. When we’re freed of the expectations others put on us, we find out what really matters to us, and can reach new levels of success.
The scene that ends this week’s reading shows us what meeting expectations looks and feels like. On the bus home from the Port Washington Invitational, the athletes joke, and talk, and do homework. The atmosphere is pleasant, but not exactly celebratory. There are always more expectations to meet, and never enough time to revel in victory. You get your Denny’s Grand Slam, and you move on to the next hurdle that needs clearing. I hope having cleared nearly 300 pages of this monumental book has you feeling the same way. Be proud, but don’t get cocky.
We’ve really only just begun.