It’s probably coincidence that something of an underworld scene in Infinite Jest happens to start on page 666. But here we have the young male E.T.A. students “punitively remanded below ground” to clear the tunnels in preparation for the inflation of the lung. It’s been a good long time since I’ve read The Inferno (when I did, it was Pinsky’s translation in terza rima, and I thought it was so good that I sat in my dorm room and read the whole thing aloud to myself in one sitting), but I wonder if one might not find a reference or two within this section. Certainly, reminders of sins past abound — the “sweet stale burny smell none of them can place” (668) a node to Hal’s lonely indulgence; “a bulky old doorless microwave oven” (670) possibly the microwave JOI used to eliminate his map (Dante’s representation of Hell itself, if I recall correctly, something of a map). When the boys find the awful refrigerator, one says “This is Death. Woe unto those that gazeth on Death. The Bible” (673).

Avril makes her way from place to place underground as well, calling to mind for me the myth of Demeter (like Coatlicue, a mother goddess) and Persephone (with underground Hal as a sort of Persephone, Avril as Demeter with a real green thumb as far as her Green Babies go but ultimately batshit toxic and stifling to her kids). Although I can’t find it now, I thought I had read a description in this passage of what seemed disembodied (not literally) heads, and it made me think of Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparation of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough

There are variations on the punctuation of the the poem, but the idea is that the heads of people lined up somewhat haphazardly waiting for the subway train resemble petals (I think of cherry blossoms, probably because the poem has kind of a haiku feel to it) lined up on a branch. “The metro” thrown through a European filter can read as “De Metro,” and it’s just one hop from there to Demeter, who prowled around looking for her daughter who was underground, meanwhile affecting the seasons and the earth’s fertility (e.g. flowers).

I am not suggesting that Wallace was making an oblique reference to Pound (he’d be more likely to point to Larkin). I’m not even sure I’d defend too steadfastly the notion that this scene is an underworld scene (though epics tend to have those) in the literary sense. These are just associations that came to mind.

I can’t do those two standout nearly-blank pages 664 and 665 and the just fantastic note 269 anything resembling justice, but gosh are they ever good.

2 thoughts on “Underground

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