Monday, June 20, 2016

Poor Yoricks' Summer - Infinite Jest, Pages 3-63

... and we have begun!

My first thought is that trying to read this massive novel - and have substantive discussions (be sure to check the Poor Yoricks' Summer website and the Reddit threads) - in only three months is a bit insane. Nevertheless ...

In the first 60 pages of Infinite Jest, we are introduced to a lot of characters and situations set in a variety of years (which are, confusingly enough, sponsored by corporations, i.e., "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" and "Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad", so the reader has no idea in what order the years go). These sections are often packed with information - and Wallace will bury some bit of what seems like tangential information in a page-long paragraph that might be key to something 300 pages later. (Also, do not ignore the endnotes. They contain important and essential information.) For this reason, don't worry if you don't understand what is going on or who these people are or when in time certain events are happening. Everything will be made (reasonably) clear in time.

The book opens with Hal Incandenza, 18-year-old student at the Enfield Tennis Academy, interviewing at the University of Arizona in November, "Year of Glad". He is making great efforts to appear neutral and at ease, though his "heart bumps like a dryer with shoes in it". He is articulate and observant in his narration, but when he does finally speak, the university administrators react as though something quite different, more horrifying, is happening. Hal seems aware of this disconnect between his thoughts and how he is expressing himself (or how his expressions appear to others). We have no idea why, however. Hal says: "Call it something I ate."

In a flashback, we learn that Hal ate some mold as a young child. Hal says he doesn't remember this incident ("It's funny what you don't recall"); the details come from Orin (his older brother). While his mother and Orin were gardening, young Hal came out of the house holding a large patch of mold - Orin posits it came from the home's basement - dark green, glossy, vaguely hirsute, speckled with parasitic fungal points of yellow, orange, red. Worse, some of the mold was smeared around Hal's mouth. Is there a connection between Hal's comment at the university and this mold-eating incident? Following one episode with the next makes a reader think so. But how could Hal eating a bit of mold at age five affect him so drastically 13 years later?

Then we are back at the U of Arizona, where Hal is subdued and taken to the men's room while an ambulance is called. Hal recalls various people and events. These pages (16-17) are rich in cryptic details. Then there is perhaps the most famous sentence in the book: "I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year's Whataburger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father's head."

We know that Hal was playing in this same tennis tournament, the Whataburger Southwest Junior Invitational. He had won a quarterfinal match on the morning of his "attack" and was scheduled to play a semifinal match the next day, probably against the blind Dymphna. Whatever problems he may have had in the university's offices, he is still playing top-notch tennis. (Hal mentions having been in an emergency room almost exactly one year ago, apparently carried in on a stretcher.)

Among the many Hamlet references in the novel:
"I'd tell you all you want and more, if the sounds I made could be what you hear." (9) and "I could, if you'd let me, talk and talk." (12)

"Had I but time ... O, I could tell you—" (Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2)
A marijuana addict named Erdedy awaits a delivery of a massive amount of pot. He has tried 70-80 times to quit in the past, and this time he plans to smoke so much pot in such a short amount of time, he will be thoroughly disgusted and never want to smoke again.

"He would use discipline and persistence and will and make the whole experience so unpleasant, so debased and debauched and unpleasant, that his behavior would be henceforward modified, he'd never even want to do it again because the memory of the insane four days to come would be so firmly, terribly emblazoned in his memory. He'd cure himself by excess." (22)

But the woman who said she would come is late and Erdedy's getting anxious. We are taken through the twists and turns of Erdedy's mind, a stream-of-consciousness flow of information, of decision and indecision. Once the pot arrives, Erdedy plans to "shut the whole system down" and has gone to great lengths to prepare for this last final debauch. In a situation seemingly out of his control, Erdedy has convinced himself that giving in to his addiction can be turned into a sign of discipline and persistence and will.

(Wallace published this section as a short story four years before the novel appeared, in Grand Street as "Three Protrusions". There were minor differences: i.e., Erdedy was unnamed and the price of pot was much lower ($550 versus IJ's $1250).)

We then switch back to Hal at the age of 10, and his appointment with a "professional conversationalist", who may or may not be his father in disguise. The conversationalist notes that Hal's father believes that Hal does not speak or communicate - "Is Himself still having this hallucination I never speak?" - yet Hal seems to converse just fine in the scene. (Hal's age tells us that the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad is well before the Year of Glad.) Hal's father "some days presents with delusions about people's mouths moving but nothing coming out."

Back in April YDAU, a medical attaché (in Boston) has come home to relax, have dinner, and watch some "entertainment". His wife is out playing tennis with her friends. The attaché goes through his mail and decides (out of curiosity more than anything) to watch "a standard black entertainment cartridge" which arrived in "a plain brown and irritatingly untitled cartridge-case in a featureless white three-day standard U.S.A. First Class padded cartridge-mailer ... postmarked suburban Phoenix." The cartridge is "wholly unlabeled [and] has only another of these vapid U.S.A.-type circular smiling heads embossed upon it." The return address says simply, "Happy Anniversary!"

Some connections to the other sections we've read: The attaché travels between Boston, Mass. and Phoenix, Arizona, the two hubs of InterLace TelEntertainment; the cartridge was mailed to Boston from Phoenix; Hal lives near Boston and might attend college in Arizona; we will learn later that Orin lives in Phoenix.

Bruce Green and Mildred L. Bonk (a "fatally pretty [and] wraithlike figure") met in high school and are now married with a baby. She gets high at home and he works at Leisure Time Ice. They live in a trailer with another couple and a drug dealer who keeps snakes (this is most likely the same drug dealer mentioned in the Erdedy section).

In the Year of the Trial-Sized Dove Bar, a girl named Clenette tells us about Wardine and Wardine's abusive family. Wardine is being sexually harassed by her mother's boyfriend, Roy Tony. Wardine's mother also beats her. Four years previous, Roy Tony killed Clenette's mother. A boy named Reginald wants to confront Roy Tony and/or Wardine's mother about the abuse.

Many people do not like this short section. It's narrated in a type of fractured ghetto-speech (or a very poor attempt at ghetto-speech). "Wardine be like to die of scared. She say no to Reginald beg." It is not quite as bad reading it through for the second or third time as it is when you first encounter it. Many readers have wondered how someone as astute and intelligent as Wallace could have such a tin ear when it comes to Clenette's speech. Obviously, Wallace was not that dumb. And in a book that has a lot to do with communication and has already laid out two instances of Hal seemingly unable to make himself understood, there may be a reason for this.

Back in YDAU (May 9), Hal gets a very early morning (and somewhat cryptic) phone call from his brother Orin. The first part of their conversation are the lyrics to the Beatles' "I Want To Tell You". Then the phone connection is cut. In the Wikipedia entry for the song, George Harrison says the lyrics are "about the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit". This is cool, because Wallace was trying to produce the feel of that flood of thoughts in this book. From his short story "Good Old Neon" (included in Oblivion):
[I]t could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents on one split-second's flash of thoughts and connections, etc. ... What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.
Hal and Mario talk about belief in God, their father's death, and grief. Even though their mother seems more happier and alive after Himself's death, Hal thinks she was probably quite sad. "She just got sad in her way instead of yours and mine." Hal also tells Mario there are two ways to lower a flag to half-mast. One is to lower the flag. The other is to raise the pole twice as high. ... Meanwhile, the medical attaché continues watching the cartridge.

We then meet Orin Incandenza, a professional football player, at home in Phoenix. We learn about his dread in the mornings and his fear of insects. Orin also fears an upcoming interview.
"And out of nowhere a bird had all of a sudden fallen into the Jacuzzi." (44)

"There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." (Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2)

"Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows." (Matthew 10:29-31)
The other two big sections:

Hal gets secretly high in ETA's Pump Room. He "likes to get high in secret, but a bigger secret is that he's as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high". (Hiding, secrecy, and masks are some of the recurring themes of the book.) Hal's mother, Avril, has "a black phobic dread of hiding or secrecy in all possible forms" and she is more than a little worried that Hal is using drugs/alcohol, in light of his father's addictions.

The narrator talks about people devoting themselves to a cause, such as the young students at the tennis academy:
Some persons can give themselves away to an ambitious pursuit and have that be all the giving-themselves-away-to-something they need to do. Though sometimes this changes as the players get older and the pursuit more stress-fraught. American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels. ...

Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he's devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It's hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency. (53-54)
This theme ties in with Wallace's 2005 Kenyon Commencement Speech ("This Is Water") in which he stresses the importance of choosing what we pay attention to.

Don Gately, an oral narcotics addict and "a more or less professional burglar ... the size of a young dinosaur, with a massive and almost perfectly square head", accidentally kills Guillaume DuPlessis (a "meek-looking Canadian-terrorism-coordinator") while robbing his Brookline, Massachusetts, home. Because this burglary resulted in a death, it comes under greater scrutiny and a certain "remorseless Revere A.D.A." sees evidence of Gately's signature M.O. re killing power to the house - and is quietly biding his time. Gately doesn't know it yet, but he is "in the sort of a hell of a deep-shit mess than can turn a man's life right around". Endnotes 13 and 16 are perfect examples of a reader getting "extra" info outside the main text, as we learn that Gately's associate in this break-in was Trent "Quo Vadis" Kite.

Finally, the colour blue is mentioned many times in this week's reading and throughout the novel and I would have guessed that blue was the most common colour mentioned in the book, but, apparently, it's not. Corrie Baldauf has gone through Infinite Jest several times, marking each instance of colour with a similarly-coloured tab. You can listen to an interview with her on The Great Concavity, a podcast devoted to all things Wallace. Also, Baldauf contributed a guest post ("How To Read Infinite Jest") to the PYS project.

1 comment:

allan said...

As much as I love this novel - and it is my favourite book of all-time - I am not a big fan of the opening. I am not sure why. Maybe because it lacks the hyper-descriptiveness of so much of the novel and Hal's inner thoughts don't quite have that "brain voice" that I associate with many sections of the book (Erdedy in our reading this week, Gately later on).