Infinite Jest, 20th Anniversary Edition


Big gap there, eh?  Well, no promises after this post–it might be another three months before I post again.  I should note that I actually finished reading the novel late at night on June 30 (I wanted to finish it before it turned July, because I seem to have some addictive tendencies myself), but it might be 2018 before we get done blogging through it.

Right!  On with the discussion.

About a quarter into the novel, the reader finally sees the schema of the Organization of North American Nations’ (ONAN) Revenue-Enhancing Subsidized Time.  The chronological markers at the beginning of the novel, we find out, happened in the Year of Glad, but then we whipped backwards into the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, with occasional references to earlier years, sometimes back as far as pre-subsidized time, with its Jesus-indexed numbering system.  So the first fifty or so pages came from the near future, and at this point in the novel, we’re in the near past, with occasional flashbacks into more distant (sometimes even early twentieth-century!) scenes.

When I reached this point I realized that this novel is deliberately forcing re-reads, and I found that a bit demanding for a thousand-pager, but I don’t suppose, among the many things I’ve heard about this novel, that humility was among its virtues.

In this section we meet Joelle van Dyne, a Kentuckian of such superhuman beauty that almost all men (we’ll get to the exceptions in a moment) are afraid to approach her romantically.  The parallels with Ken Erdedy’s earlier preference for self-pleasure over sex when he’s high immediately occurred to me: here’s a woman who’s a walking drug, whose appearance is so intoxicating that it shuts off rather than inviting romantic contact.  Joelle, we begin to discover, was involved with Jim Incandenza but never had sex with him, and that involvement chased off Orrin Incandenza, who did have sex with Joelle but only as part of his ongoing fascination with his own powers as seducer, another ongoing addiction in this novel full of addictive personalities.

The most interesting sequence in this part of the novel is a frame-story, a tennis tournament that begins, then gives way to a long narrative about the denizens of Enfield’s halfway house.  Both stories are initiations: the tennis tournament, paragraph after paragraph, focuses on the preparation for play, the psychological games that the teenage boys play to keep themselves from coming apart as they prepare to take the court, enter the arena, warm up against opponents, size up competition, and so on.  Then, with the terse present-tense sentence “Schacht and his pan play” (270), the scene shifts to Don Gately, the giant recovering addict, and Geoffrey Day, the veteran of rehab who tries to leverage his experience in halfway houses to put moves on a young woman who’s just checked in.  (That ends about as you might expect it to.)

Gately, who is about 100 days sober, is learning that the cliches that make up the rehab meeting really are as shallow and as meaningless as he thought they were as a newly-high addict, but the repetition itself, not the content of the cliches, is where the power lies.  Laying this scene down right next to the tennis players’ preparation really sets the scenes in relationship with each other, and the ethical ambiguity is delicious.  Don Gately knows that, as soon as he stops the repetition, removes himself from the structures of accountability that make rehab work, he’s going to self-destruct again.  But Ted Schacht, who knows that he’s never going pro, continues to repeat the rituals of the elite tennis player in spite of its punishing pace and of his knowledge that it’s never taking him anywhere.

So this novel goes: in one passage, characters are dogmatic adherents of repetition and accountability as the only things that will save the addict even as another passage’s characters stare their repetition and accountability in the face as high-stakes lotto tickets, passes into being a loser and having nothing to show for it.

And then there’s Poor Tony, the heroin-addicted thief who stole a woman’s artificial heart earlier in the novel in an almost Looney-Tunes sequence.  When he reappears in this segment, he’s moving from abandoned building to public restroom and all sorts of undignified places, riding out drug withdrawals as a way to punish himself for killing the woman who has no heart, and the description is some of the most brutal prose in the novel.  Tony has spasms and seizures and gushing diarrhea and Tony’s dead, even though he’s going to keep breathing and eventually eating, and whatever line a reader like me imagines between punishment for sins and the physiological results of addiction are gone.  He becomes a mirror of Spenser’s emblematic Malbecco from book three of The Faerie Queene: his vices consume him bodily, and whatever passed for a soul before is gone.  When this segment ends–and Tony disappears for some time–his only thought is where he’s going to commit the next crime to get his next hit.

The last passage in this (arbitrarily-bordered) passage is telling: once more Marathe, the Quebecois separatist assassin, is talking with Steeply, the ONAN counterintelligence officer, about “The Entertainment,” the video cartridge that has already left characters hospitalized and without hopes of regaining their minds.  Waxing philosophical, Maranthe muses that The Entertainment, deadly and addictive and imagination-murdering, is a symptom of the U.S. culture that gave way to ONAN.  Nobody is ever going to force an ONANite to watch it, yet once somebody does start watching, the logic of consumerism will, with a force that’s unstoppable, destroy anyone who indulges.

Steeply can’t conceive of why the separatists want to unleash such a weapon on the population without any demands or political goals in mind: after all, most terrorists want recognition as a state or to overthrow some power structure or something.  There’s no sense that, like a drug dealer, the Quebecois want to make money at it.  Put simply, “Fortier wants us dead” (319).

And having watched all kinds of living death in these hundred pages, what Fortier wants does not make any political sense, but it fits what’s going on.  As Marathe says at the end of this scene, U.S. culture is like a wealthy but negligent parent, giving children candy every time they want it and never teaching them to desire anything beyond the next fistful of sweets.  And in such a family, when the children suffer and sicken and waste away, who is to blame, the children or the candy-maker or the father?

As is the way with this novel, the question does not find any answer.

For those like me who knew Wallace mainly from “This Is Water,” this novel is decidedly a darker event than a college graduation: in this world, all the bad gods are still waiting to consume the consumers, but there’s not nearly the confidence that teaming up with JC or the Eight Noble Truths is going to be worth much more than an indefinite Higher Power that makes no sense but, for a moment or two, keeps the junkie off the needle.  Whether it’s rapidly-closing windows of opportunity, urges for heroin that do not know your unknown god, or the sheer contingent possibility that life will just fall apart despite all of a person’s best efforts, the middle parts of Infinite Jest never let up, never open up real guarantees and maybe not even real possibilities.

And if you’re waiting on the Eschaton, hoping that there might be an end to things that will save us all, just wait for the next post.

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