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)?