Coatlicue Complex

This week, we walk right into rejection, like walking into the wall that is righteously pissed off Roy Tony. You reject his hug, like Erdedy does. Roy Tony isn’t looking for a hug, Roy Tony doesn’t like to hug. But Roy Tony has surrendered his will, has risked sharing his “vulnerability and “discomfort” and Erdedy risks the ass-kicking of his lifetime by acting like he, Erdedy, is somehow above this all and can reject AA’s tenet of Hugs Not Drugs.

 

Marathe and Steeply do their own Medusa v Odalisque-esque dance of rejection, itself a fitting double bind (or quadruple bind?). The complete essence of their conversation is to offer up and reject each other’s ideologies, disdain loosely hidden behind their sparrings. And yet both have also on some level rejected their own governments (a deep betrayal on Marathe’s part, and a less impactful but still self-positioned semi-betrayal on Steeply’s).

 

The conversation-slash-argument between Gately and Joelle has always left me feeling very very sad. They speak over each other, and Don gets really testy – the first jerk-like behavior I’ve really seen in him. It would be ridiculous to read IJ as a sacred text and not bounce the idea around that generally Don Gately has a Jesus-figure sort of bent to him (especially later as he is inundated with confessional visits). He seems purpose-driven to  share the AA message and actively tries to live according to a moral code. So he really comes up short in this passage (IMHO), rejecting JvD’s assertion that he is driven by shame about what “might be perceived as a lack of brightness” (p. 537). And his bull-headed persistence asking about her hideous deformity forces Joelle to reject his approach and his questions over and over. Neither Don nor Joelle connect with each other, or even listen to each other.

 

And finally, how do you solve a problem like Lenz? His “impotent rage and powerless fear” (p. 541) is bred deep.  Lenz seems borne from a rejection by the entire universe, so his work to “resolve his issues” escalates, as we know it must, with little effect. And then, when faced with a real-life opportunity to connect with Bruce Green, Lenz fears rejection of such intensity that he is paralyzed to tell Green that he likes him (and to leave him alone).

 

Other Notes:

 

  • Half way through this section I made a note to mention how I love DFW’s acceleration techniques. There is a cinematic, madcap, almost Stoogeian feel to the way he stacks narrative steps on top of each other, alternately piling them up like a swaying tower of bricks, or layering them on like oppressive, heavy blankets. And then to play with this comic technique by paring it with truly grim subject matter (Lenz’ progression from rats to dogs, the Drano deaths, Doony’s accident with the bucket of bricks, the Entertainment itself). It is just so freaking effective. So imagine my delight when I caught up with Pemulis as he talked about “accelerated phenomena which is actually equivalent to an incredible slowing down of time” (p. 573) because that right there is what makes it so great. The slowing down of time becomes this parodic, car-crash scenario that you just can’t pull yourself away from.
  • Orin’s chasing of various Subjects with toddler-aged children is of course a classic cover for deep feelings of rejection. And Tavis is riddled with fear of rejection too.
  • Love the connection between the blue carpet and rodential squeaking of the mattress frame we get in the previous mattress saga of JOI’s childhood and the blue carpet and rodential squeaking of Pemulis’ chair in the Headmaster’s office
  • I would love to see serialized treatments of the smaller character studies in IJ, like poor Bruce Green’s family saga- done Black Mirror style.

Fake it til you make it

Whoa. Hmmmm. Gah. This week was hard.

 

These 100-odd pages of IJ have never really shook me before. Not truly. Of course, the stories that come out of the AA meetings are incredibly dark, as is the tale of Eric Clipperton, but I have always enjoyed Mario’s take on The ONANtiad.

 

But now…now Johnny Gentle just isn’t funny anymore.  To wit:

 

The Totalitarian’s Guide to Iron-Fisted Spin.

 

GENTLE’S “PATHOLOGICAL INABILITY TO DEAL PROACTIVELY WITH ANY SORT OF REAL OR IMAGINED REJECTION”

 

GENTLE HAS COMPLETELY LOST HIS MIND… ‘WILLING TO ELIMINATE OWN MAP OUT OF SHEER PIQUE’

 

Just…ugh.

 

So let’s talk about doubt.  Doubt can double as Denial. Doubt can be paralyzing, sending missed opportunities whizzing past you. Doubt will make you underestimate the permanence of objects.

 

Geoffrey Day isn’t the only one who doubts that the seemingly benign and trite tenets of AA can actually work.  We spend 36 pages sitting on a hard plastic chair, listening to speakers as they go on their Commitments, sharing their horror stories with each other.  Throughout, Gately shares his experiences with Tiny Ewell, Ken Erdedy and Joelle, encouraging them to release the doubt they have about the efficacy of AA, to just Come In

 

Lyle lives as much on doubt as he does on the sweat of young boys. LaMont Chu recognizes an intense double bind as he chases The Show. Lyle attempts to release Chu from this fixation with fame by placing a seed of doubt in Chu’s mind, telling him “You burn with hunger for a food that does not exist” (p. 389).

 

Both Marathe and Steeply circle each other, doubting their respective motivations. Steeply tries to understand why exactly the AFR, with seemingly with no political motivation, are so set on causing extreme chaos and death to U.S. citizens. Marathe counters with his parable of the can of soup, doubting Americans have the capacity for delayed gratification, which Steeply refutes, stating it is as easy as “simply being a mature and adult American instead of a childish and immature American”(p. 428). SIGH.

 

We never truly learn the motivations for Eric Clipperton’s decision to “win” at any cost, but surely self-doubt as to his own skills, or a crippling need for gratification must be at the core. That his final, actual suicide occurs because he has been given the exact thing he seemed to want seems to infer that self-doubt and an eventual self-awareness pushed him to the other side.

 

Noted Things:

  • I would love to see someone tackle Mario’s film in all its finger-puppet glory
  • The sad career of the drug-addled headline writer was brilliant
  • Note 304 is sub-referenced in both Note 45 and Note 173. Did you read it the first time? The second time? Are you waiting until 304?
  • There were children at that AA meeting listening to those stories.

I Overshot the Chance to Add

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.

 

Additional thoughts:

  • 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.

Let not the weight thou wouldst pull to thyself exceed thine own weight

Insecurity is a doubled-headed beast. This potentially crippling sense that you are unable to live up to your expectations, that you are not your best self, that you may be found out as a fake, is a huge blow to self-esteem. Yet, when we toss this word around, it is often a dig at someone who presents as arrogant, prickish, almost Trumpian. “He’s just really insecure,” becomes the de facto armchair analysis of the egoist.

 

This is a tricky theme to tackle in this section, so I am excited to see what the other guides make of it. To me Lyle’s advice regarding not pulling weight that exceeds your own is a nice summary of the plight of the insecure. Our efforts to prove we are bigger, tougher, stronger than we truly are, only serve to bite us in the ass when the weights pull us up off the ground. (Excluded this week due to the reading structure, the anecdote of the bricklayer on pp 138-140 is a brilliantly comic interpretation of this warning).

 

The pursuit of individual happiness, which of course is a thread throughout the novel, often results in a sense of insecurity – we are overwhelmed with choices, moved along by impulses, and chase fleeting feelings of pleasure with little reflection on our own role in the larger world. This butts up against our own understanding of why we do what we do – why we strive, why we love, why we care. Several sections in these pages speak to this, especially from characters who are motivated by participating in something larger than themselves:

  • In the conversation between Schtitt and Mario, Schtitt’s dismay at the ONAN-ist focus on “the happy pleasure of the person alone” (p. 83).
  • Marathe’s warning to Steeply to “choose with care. You are what you love”
  • The locker room conversation at ETA about striving for The Show, and the questions the Little Buddies have for their Big Buddies about how to navigate through ETA.

 

The insecure often hide behind fragile personas as well, either unsure of or afraid to show their true selves. To wit:

  • Helen (Hugh) Steeply, whose disguise Marthe describes as a “twisted parody of womanhood” (p. 93)
  • Marathe, a triple, possible quadruple agent who posits perhaps he has “merely pretended to pretend to pretend to betray” (p. 94)
  • Orin, who often comes off as incredible insecure (with his Subjects, and “complicated” relationship with Avril) at this point can vocalize his distaste at the high flying stunts he is made to do yet still has not vocalized his morbid fear of heights to anyone.
  • Tiny Ewell, hinted at that it may be hard for him to accept his addiction.
  • Poor Tony’s duplicity, too afraid to admit his role in ripping off Wo.

Observations

 

Some of my favourite sections come up this week, and while I am not going to squish them into the thematic lens of insecurity, let me lay down some initial thoughts and we can take it over to the subreddit for deeper discussion

 

  • James Incandenza’s filmography. On my first read through IJ I admit I skimmed most of this. But on 2nd and 3rd read it revealed itself to be a treasure trove of connective tissues. Even this far along we can already make the connection between JOI’s life and his work (see Was a Great Marvel That He Was in the Father Without Knowing Him) and see that the use of Stokely Darkstar in Accomplice! connects JOI in some way to the narrative of yrstruly.
  • Kate Gompert. One of the best descriptions of clinical depression I have ever read. The resident doctor is so fully fleshed out too, making this an amazing study of their dynamic as well.
  • The language used in the yrstruly passage is absolutely delicious. “rickytick” “elemondae” “not 2Bdenied”

Who do we trust?

Full disclaimer: I can be an incredibly linear thinker, and so I enjoy reading Infinite Jest for the fabulous connect-the-dots plot rather than as an exercise in exploring the larger meaning of its thematics. Because themes, well you just feel them, you know? The waves of emotion that wash over you (or drill into the core of your being) almost lose their teeth, their power when we try to explain them. So I was excited by the challenge of taking another tour of IJ through a sacred lens. This to me means we should seek out the novel’s humanness – what it offers us as a path, a way to explore ourselves, our connection to those around us, and ultimately – to me the essence of all sacred texts – to provide a guide on How.To.Be.

 

So self-awareness is a wonderful place to start, and the beginning of this book is a wonderful place to explore the idea of self-awareness. The second read of IJ astounded me when I realized how much is set in motion in these first 60-odd pages. It is dense in character introductions, drops a volume of details about the setting, and contains foreshadowing out the wazoo. But it also sets the tone for our journey alongside Hal Incandenza. Who is Hal, at his core? What motivates him? Is he a trusted narrator?

 

Identity, self-awareness, and how we are perceived by others are strong threads of this work, and as such we begin in media res, dropped into the innermost core of Hal. We are trapped with him inside his head. “There is nothing wrong. I am in here,” says Hal (p. 13). He is aware of how monstrous he will present if he attempts to speak, but also seems remarkably chill about it… This young man is trapped, intellectually intact yet unable to express himself, being hauled around and propped up by C.T. and DeLint, and yet we really don’t get to understand exactly how this feels for Hal.  He asks of the recruiters “Please don’t think I don’t care” (p. 12), but he spends more time reflecting on the esthetic qualities of the bathroom floor than expressing the horror we can only believe he must feel because of his situation.  Is Hal in a place of such self-awareness that he has hit upon some sort of godhead? There’s a tranquility to his demeanor that suggests this.

 

It is this complacency that I want to pick away at and underline 1000x as we move through the novel..

 

The other Hal-centric pieces in this section, including his painstaking efforts to get high in private and his loving yet still distant conversations with his brother Mario give us little understanding of Hal’s inner sense of self, but context a-plenty to better understand his family dynamic and how he is situated within that space. He moves through these scenes like an actor playing a role. There is a considerable lack of agency.

 

In the first of the flashbacks, Hal is just a child, whose consumption of this fuzzy piece of mold has accidentally set something incredible into motion (to be believed if we read p. 12’s “Call it something I ate” at face value).  It is a pure action, bereft of intent, and really only affects Avril. In fact it is not even Hal’s own memory, but told to him by older brother Orin.

 

So let’s have a ‘conversation.’  This segment is so beautiful in its absurdist reveal, and asks for a serious suspension of disbelief, destabilizing the narrative. Who do we trust? Here 10-year old Hal watches and reflects as his father’s absurd attempt at disguising himself as a “professional conversationalist” unravels before his eyes.  The theme of talking and not being heard eerily echoes the previous section. It is interesting to note that Hal and James seem to be able to communicate as long as James is in the persona, but as the mask slips, James seems to lose the ability to understand Hal. Again in this segment, Hal reads as emotionally distant, immersed in a ridiculous situation, yet remarkably capable of handling it. This may infer that he has lived in this sort of chaos for a long time, and can brush it off easily.

 

The character study of Erdedy is fantastic piece – a short story really – that paints a remarkable picture of the addict’s twisted sense of self-awareness. Ken’s strategy that he employs each time he decides that it is the last time (burning all of his bridges and throwing away all of his paraphernalia) has time and time again proven to be an absolute failure, yet it is a process that he holds steadfast to.  He is able to be at once outside of himself and understanding that this is a pattern, but he is also powerless to change. The final frame of this story – with Erdedy paralyzed between answering the phone and answering the door, is a perfect illustration of “analysis paralysis” and how Erdedy’s addiction has eroded his sense of self.

 

If we think of self-awareness as how closely we match the identity that is reflected back on us from others (can we think if it that way?), many of the characters in this section aren’t who they say they are, or they act outside of their stated code: Hal as a secret dope smoker; Don Gately as a murderer instead of a burglar; JOI as a conversationalist; Erdedy as a “casual” dope smoker; even Bruce Green who changes for his love Mildred Bonk. And we are also privy to two sections with a hidden narrator, from both the story of Wardine and the face in the floor.

 

We are also introduced to the visual theme of heads (read into that what you will)

 

  • From the very first sentence, Hal is first surrounded by “heads and bodies”, before they resolve into the Deans of the U of Arizona.
  • The stand-out sentence that seems completely out of place on page 16- 17  “I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Don Gately and I dig up my father’s head”.
  • Himself stating that a cartridge of identical material to tennis rackets has been implanted in his head. (p. 31)
  • The phone conversation with Orin on page 32 when Orin says “My head is filled with things to say”, as well as the first mention of Mario’s oversized skull.
  • Orin’s dream on page 46 of “the Moms’s disconnected head attached face-to-face to his own fine head” and the description of the paranoid schizophrenic’s treatment on the CBC program (pg 48).
  • Don Gately’s “massive and almost perfectly square head
  • DuPlessis’s death from suffocation due to the gag and his terrible head cold.
  • The terrifying “face in the floor” on page 62.

 

 

So what’s the sacred take-away from this segment of the novel?  For me it may be that self-awareness is incredibly difficult to develop. We are skilled at self-sabotage, we bury our emotions, we allow others to manipulate our own intentions for their gain.  In the arc of this narrative, it makes sense that we begin here, and as we follow Hal, and Don, and the rest, we hope to glean something from their journey towards their true selves.

The connective tissues of Infinite Jest

I met Infinite Jest at City Lights on a trip to San Francisco in 2007. It was purely an economic purchase; the 10th anniversary edition had a cover price $10 and seemed a bargain for so many pages. I was already buying a bigger suitcase to take home all of my thrift store finds, so the heft didn’t faze me at all.

When I finished, I immediately turned back to page one and started over again.

For my third and fourth readings, I kept a notebook, writing down words to look up (Festschrift! Anodyne!)   , tracking subsidized time to try and place this world in my own. My notebook filled with triple-underlined exclamation points and emphatic scribbles.

For my fifth time in 2014, I wanted to share the experience with others, and, using the original Infinite Summer reading schedule, launched infinitesummeryyc – a local online reading club, encouraging other Calgarians to join me. Going through the process of hosting a reading club that required weekly recaps from yrstruly solidified for me the greatest pleasure that comes from reading Infinite Jest – watching the balletic confluence of worlds unite.

Much is made of the themes of Infinite Jest; of family, identity, addiction, and the desperate need to feel understood, to have a place. All of these are the hook that kept me connected to the novel on the first read, even when I didn’t understand exactly what was transpiring.

More has been made of the narrative structure, the new use of language, the voices that DFW effortlessly captured. The pathos, the humor, the heart-stricken grief. The lark of the endnotes that send you careening back and forth. These are the reasons I read the book with the dumbest of grins on my face.

But what has made me an archaeologist of the book, why I return time and time again, is the depth of the connective tissues – the pointed collisions, the stunningly significant plot points seemingly dropped into the middle of paragraphs with no fan fare. When they are purposefully, boldly cinematic (see Gately, driving Pat’s car, kicking up the cup on the street that is the beginning of the end of the Antitoi Bros) they take my breath away. When the filmography of JOI is revealed to hold so much historical information I am thrilled to be rewarded by the close read. It is this structural magnificence that I believe is often overlooked, if only because the reveal of how deep and delightful it is takes levels of re-reads (or one seriously intense first read, which would be beyond my ken).

I was able to visit the DFW archives at the University of Texas during SxSW in 2011. They had lined the room with tables and had laid out a small portion of the collection: student newspaper columns, self help books with layers and layers of color coded notes in the margins, letters back and forth from editors, and a handwritten first draft of Infinite Jest. Part of me expected to see a complex system that I always assumed DFW must have kept intact to keep tabs on this spiraling world. I imagined it like a detective’s “theory wall” in a movie – all red string, post it notes, maps with pins in it, and grainy black and white photos. Of course, nothing like that was there, just a HANDWRITTEN draft, where pen follows pen and each piece is laid with the sort of intent that comes from knowing exactly where you are going. I am sure Wallace’s process fell somewhere in the middle, and really, I’m not too eager to peek behind the curtain, because Infinite Jest is the most complete world and world view I have ever come across in a novel. I don’t need to know how he did it. I just am fulfilled because it is.