Infinite Jest Reread, pages 49 – 87

As noted the other day, there’s currently a group reread of Infinite Jest in progress on the wallace-l mailing list. We’re only on the second week of it, so there’s time to catch up if you’re interested. I introduced pages 49 – 87 last night and have pasted in my introduction below. If you find it at all enticing, be sure to tune in via the list, as the discussion that follows these intro posts tends to be really good. If you fall asleep or die before you manage to get to the end of this thing, I’ll hardly blame you. Since this is a reread, the spoiler rule’s out the window.

Main things that happen and concepts that appear in this section:

  • Hal gets covertly high.
  • Oh look, an underworld in the form of tunnels (even including a sort of limbo for the poor protectors).
  • Gately dons a toothbrush.
  • A weird detached list on page 60 that I didn’t give any attention to below but that maybe merits some attention for its weird detachedness.
  • Note 21, the first of a series of inter-referential notes.
  • A face in the floor (and other nightmares).
  • Note 24, the filmography (brace yourself).
  • Orin in cardinal gear, reluctantly.
  • Pemulis teaches his little buddies about shrooms.
  • Kate Gompert, reluctant to admit to a pot addiction, wants ECT.
  • The medical attaché’s wife comes home to find him enthralled. Others follow.
  • Schtitt and Mario go for ice cream.
  • Tiny Ewell goes to detox.

I actually write about very little of that stuff below.

A theme that runs through this section and in fact through the whole book so far is failure to communicate. It begins of course with Hal at the university and moves back through time to Hal being interviewed by a father who doesn’t believe he speaks. But we also see it in things like Erdeddy’s inability to choose between answering the phone and the door, his habit of cutting off communication with anyone he’s dealt with before to get pot. We see it also in Gompert, who for example displays sometimes a flat affect and sometimes forced facial expressions (recall Hal at the beginning) while speaking with a singsongy voice that leaves the doctor (also trying hard to communicate using both voice and mannerism) confused.

I think there’s also some interesting stuff pertaining to communication going on in the end notes. For one thing, they are themselves a sort of barrier to direct communication, and even today I think sometimes about skimming the ones that just give drug info or don’t seem to relate in terribly important ways to the main story. In the big note 24, the matter of communication gets really out of hand, though. The editors of the book that the note quotes haven’t seen some of the films they describe, for example (some of which weren’t ever filmed), and yet they write about them, communicating in some cases non-information, which if you think about it is very strange indeed.

Consider the film Annular Amplified Light: Some Reflections. Well, its title is a silly pun, first off, but that’s superficial. It’s got sound and is sign-interpreted for the deaf, but although it purports to be a “nontechnical explanation of the applications of cooled-photon lasers in DT-cycle lithiumized annular fusion,” it’s hard to imagine that one could do such a topic any justice in a nontechnical film, much less in one whose almost certainly specialized language it’s hard to imagine could be signed efficiently.

And: Union of Nurses in Berkeley, silent and closed-captioned interviews with hearing-impaired RNs and LPNs. I suppose it’s silent either to elicit a sort of empathy with the interviewees or maybe to avoid what could be a comical treatment of audible interviews of people whose pronunciation and enunciation may have suffered thanks to their hearing impairment. It’s a strange audiovisual blend, at any rate, that seems to be fooling around with ways in which people communicate.

And: Cage II in which a blind convict and a deaf-mute convict placed in solitary confinement attempt to figure out ways of communicating with one another. This is a bad joke, of course (and calls to mind the old Wilder/Prior movie), but it also demonstrates a concern with how people manage to connect. It’s a wonder this one wasn’t at least captioned if not signed.

And: Death in Scarsdale, in color, silent, with closed-caption subtitles, which almost becomes hard to visualize once you’ve got all this business on the brain. In this one, an endocrinologist begins to sweat excessively while treating a boy who sweats excessively, which again, with this stuff on the brain and maybe under no other circumstance, makes me think of things like how you never stutter until you find yourself speaking with somebody who stutters, when you suddenly start channeling Porky Pig out of maybe sympathy or self-consciousness.

A couple of the other films are sign-interpreted as well, and in general, JOI’s films demonstrate an awareness of the interplay between sight and sound, different ways of perceiving things, of being perceived, and of being perceived while perceiving things such that you morph from subject into object and back into subject again.

All of this of course is mediated through films and (usually) soundtracks themselves devised by makers whose communication with you is from the past and not at all personal, which can be a little creepy if you think about it too much. And all of that is further mediated through a book of fiction and yet further through end notes that put it at an even greater distance.

Early in the book we’re exposed to Hal’s precocity with respect to grammar and usage, given to him by good old Avril. She and Steven Pinker make appearances in the filmography in a silent, closed-captioned film documenting a grammar convention. This strikes me as kind of funny and really quite interesting, since closed-captioning would have the effect of memorializing in print the words spoken by the grammarians. Grammar being generally a little looser for even the strident among us when speaking aloud than when writing formally, the idea of capturing in print any non grammatical speech by these super-grammarians would be kind of tantalizing, and of course I can imagine that making the viewers of the film read the language while connecting it to the images moving onscreen could have a weird effect (in the way that watching subtitled films if you’re not accustomed to doing so can make a movie a lot of work and hard to trust that you’ve really grokked). I guess it’s worth noting that though Hal speaks, his father hears no words coming from him, and this film seems to capture the effect.

Grammar of course is just a map of our language. Descriptivists will say that if it’s spoken naturally by a native speaker, it’s grammatical and ought to be recorded, while prescriptivists tend more to demand adherence to an existing set of written rules. (This is a gross oversimplification, I know.) In either case, we can see grammar as a sort of map of language, and the main thing at issue is whether the map ought to change along with the terrain or not. “Map” and “terrain” turn out to be loaded terms when talking about IJ, of course, and they make appearances in the filmography, if obliquely. In the most oblique treatment, we see Every Inch of Disney Leith, in which the eponymous man has his innards mapped. Comically, the title uses the Imperial measure, while in the film he listens to a forum on metricization in North America, which is another way of communicating the same things using different terms. Later, in No Troy, we learn about the erasure of Troy, NY from both terrain and map (by, explicitly, cartographers). Sort of humorously, archivists don’t list the title by the name given here but variously use the names The Violet City and The Violet Ex-City.

So then to me the threads of language as communication, language as a construct (i.e., grammar), and map/terrain — which roughly corresponds to the relationship between language as construct and language as communication — begin to become intertwined very early in the novel in the notes about the filmography, which is itself, of course, nothing if not a map whose aim is to relate the technical features of JOI’s films with what they communicated across his career.

Every time I read the filmography, I spot some new fun detail I had either overlooked or forgotten or just not given enough thought to on previous reads.This time it was the appearance of C.N. (presumably Charles Nelson) Reilly as a narrator in a couple of the early, sign-interpreted documentaries. The idea of CNR as a narrator on a documentary (even a whimsically titled, nontechnical one) is kind of a laugh, and then the idea of someone trying to interpret his self-interrupting, story-nesting style for the deaf is even more comical. Maybe he’d stick a bit closer to the cards in a documentary, though. But it’s also worth noting that CNR was basically ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, crossing stage, film, and TV shows in the form of game shows, talk show appearances, and television series, so that it’s hardly inconceivable that an aging CNR would dip his wick into the documentary wax late in life (and yet no less the funnier). This inter-“text”-uality all seems kind of relevant to the sort of things Wallace was considering in “E Unibus Pluram,” which of course informs a lot of IJ.

I also love how you can see little sub-plots within the filmography if you pay attention to the names. For example, P.A. Heaven becomes Paul Anthony and then goes back to using initials, and one wonders why. And Soma Richardson-Levy apparently marries an O-Byrne and later a Chawaf (also credited within the filmography) and just keeps collecting hyphenated suffixes to her name. Then of course there’s the interplay of the films with things happening in JOI’s life and at ETA.

Now moving away from the end notes for a bit, I’ll note that I like how Wallace is already setting us up for things to come with little one-off references to things like the O.S.U.O.S, cartridges (note 18, page 58), DMZ/M.P. (note 8), DuPlessis, experialism, and annular hyperfloration cycles. These things are easy to read past but all become pretty important later, so it’s neat on a reread to see where he’s left these little breadcrumbs.

It’d be just short of criminal not to at least mention the face in the floor dream even if I don’t say much about it. I love that whole passage, and the way he just slips the face in there is horrifying and I suppose embodies the thing we’ve read before about how the thing that’s great about Lynch’s surrealistic horror is that almost everything has to seem normal for the really bad thing to be really bad.

I haven’t even touched on Schtitt and Mario or on similarities between some of the things we learn about Erdeddy and Gompert, but I’m really just out of wind, and so, I imagine, are you. I feel like the filmography tends to get short shrift, so maybe I’ve corrected that some (however clumsily and single-purposedly) and others can fill in the other huge gaps I’ve left.


One of the most vivid scenes in Infinite Jest for me has always been the description of JOI’s film, Accomplice!, that depicts a sagging old man sodomizing a male prostitute. The prostitute insists that the man wear a condom, and the man takes this as a personal affront. The prostitute happens to be inarticulate. The john vindictively slices both the condom and his penis mid-intercourse, but when he finishes and the boy realizes with horror what he’s done, we learn that the boy was trying to protect the john from contracting HIV, not the other way around.

This has always had the feel to me of something like a double-bind, though that’s not quite what it is. It’s not quite cutting off your nose to spite your face, either. I’m struggling to articulate it, but I think maybe it has something to do with irony. The man undercuts his appearance of complying with the prostitute’s wish — irony being the presentation of something contrary to fact or actual meaning — and it winds up being his undoing. The pathos in this scene always gets me, something about the combination of grit and, in a way, tenderness (on the boy’s part). And it supports what we’ve been told in many of the bits about AA and in one kind of touching description of Mario: that irony is toxic.

Beyond its statement about irony, the film has something to say about art as well. Here’s Hal’s assessment of the film:

As I see it, even though the cartridge’s end has both characters emoting out of every pore, Accomplice!‘s essential project remains abstract and self-reflexive; we end up feeling and thinking not about the characters but about the cartridge itself…. Did Himself subject us to 500 seconds of the repeated cry ‘Murderer!’ for some reason, i.e. is the puzlement and then boredom and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1/3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff? (946)

How many people have said similar things about Wallace’s fiction? Those goddamn end notes! Those long sentences! All those words most dictionaries haven’t even heard of! All those words, period! How many critics have said that Wallace needed a more bloodthirsty editor? Are Wallace and JOI guilty of bad editing and self-indulgence, or is there in fact an emotional payload behind the self-consciousness of their work? (Accomplice!, by the way, has a footnote onscreen at some point about the fact that it’s following a particular gay-porn convention.) I don’t really have a pat answer. I’m suddenly reminded of the scene in Blue Velvet in which the female character sings a rendition of Crying that, if memory serves me correctly, is simultaneously very emotional but also self-consciously stilted. [Note: ray gunn kindly reminds me in the comments that this scene in fact appears in Mulholland Drive and not Blue Velvet and that it’s not a main character doing the singing.]

What I can say is that for all that I found myself thinking about the book as much as its characters, by the last 150 pages, I was on a downhill slide. I took fewer notes and had trouble stopping my reading. Even though I had read it a few times before (having forgotten most of the end, conveniently), I was just gripped and wanted to see what exactly was going to become of Gately, Joelle, Hal. It became about the story more than about deciphering the structure and way of meaning of the book, and it happened for me unintentionally. I was just pulled in. Maybe it was just a sort of gravity. Or did something change in the pacing or self-consciousness of the end of the book?

Whatever the case, the facts seem to be that for those readers with whom Wallace’s work resonates, it does so powerfully and emotionally. This is in spite of any distancing effect of all the narrative and lexical gymnastics. And it may even be partially because of that effect. In certain of his short stories, Wallace kind of pulls back the curtain to show the back of the shop, what’s going on in the mind of the author, what insecurities there are, what framework he’s draping his story across. And the effect for me is one of honesty and sincerity: “Yes, I’m manipulating you with an eye toward provoking a particular response, but so that you’re ok with it, I’ll tell you exactly how I’m going to do it, so that it can be an honest transaction.” And because it becomes a self-aware, two-way transaction, you become an accomplice to the outcome. Of course, that sort of exposure or sincerity can have a distancing effect by yanking you out of the very story that is supposed to make you emote. But for some of us, it’s the transaction as much as the payload that has meaning. Is that maybe the answer to Hal’s question? Am I making any sense?

Is JOI Autistic?

Well I’m not clearing new ground here or anything. On page 736, we learn that Jim “said so little to Joelle on their first several meetings that Orin kept having to reassure her that it wasn’t disapproval — Himself was missing the part of the human brain that allowed for being aware enough of other people to disapprove of them.” Less than a page later: “The man was so blankly and irretrievably hidden that Orin said he’d come to see him as like autistic, almost catatonic.” At various times earlier in the novel, we’ve seen glimpses of Jim’s laser-beam focus on areas of specialty, his problems relating to people.

But then, lots of people are like that. I’m reminded of a flowchart or sort of illustrated narrative I saw fairly recently (I can’t find it now or I’d link it) that invited the reader to speculate whether or not he had Asberger’s (lots of people in Information Technology who are probably just weird seem to think they’re somewhere on the autism spectrum, and maybe a lot of them are) and then promptly answered that no, you’re just an asshole.

We surely can’t trust Orin’s assessment of his father. On page 738 (as if we needed such advice regarding Orin), we’re instructed never to “trust a man on the subject of his own parents.” Back on 737, after Orin has told Joelle not to read JOI as disapproving, we’re told “how no amount of punting success could erase the psychic stain of basic fatherly dislike, failure to be seen or acknowledged.” Still, we have these other clues that JOI is a little off-kilter.

So what do you think? Is he autistic or just eccentric? Or something else altogether?