Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Poor Yoricks' Summer - Infinite Jest, Pages 137-169

(Note: Don't forget the PYS blog, with at least four posts a week.)

This section is an odd part of the book, where the main narratives drop out somewhat and we get in quick succession: a brief bit about the founder of Ennet House, the Bricklayer/Workers Comp letter, Hal's seventh-grade essay, Steeply's stolen heart article, a list of anti-ONAN groups, what could be a standalone essay torn from ASFT about videophones, the sale of clean urine during ETA's drug testing, and a monologue from 1960 from JOI's father (Hal's grandfather) talking of his own shattered tennis career and his poor relationship with his father (also called Himself).

The Ennet House founder's name was not Ennet. But besides that, we don't know him at all. He took AA's idea of anonymity to an extreme and was known simply the Guy Who Didn't Even Use His First Name. He was a "tough old Boston AA galoot" who, according to some accounts, made new residents prove their dedication to staying sober by chewing actual rocks.

The accident email is an urban myth that dates back at least as far as 1902, according to Snopes. The story is also in an Irish folk song/tale sometimes called The Sick Note. Dwayne Glynn suffers terrible consequences from trying to do a job alone, a message that will resonate in the AA sections. Alcoholics who attempt to stay sober solely by themselves do not succeed very often in Infinite Jest.

Hal's seventh-grade essay compares the management styles of Hawaii Five-O's Steve McGarrett ("a classically modern hero of action") with Frank Furillo of Hill Street Blues (a 'post'-modern hero ...a hero of reaction"). In his conclusion, Hal predicts we will soon see "the hero of non-action ... the catatonic hero ... divorced from all stimulus". Greg Carlyle, the author of Elegant Complexity, an excellent guide to reading IJ, notes that at the end of Hill Street Blues' first season, it was revealed that Furillo is a recovering alcoholic.

Steeply's article concerns a unique purse-snatching. The purse contained a Jarvik IX Exterior Artificial Heart that was keeping the 46-year-old victim alive. The transvestite purse snatcher dressed "in a strapless cocktail dress ... tattered feather boa, and auburn wig" is pretty clearly Poor Tony, from the yrstruly section.

The videophony section is one of my favourite parts of the novel. Step-by-step, it goes through the different stages of dealing with the new technology and somehow not becoming a stressed-out wreck.  Wallace charts the evolution from aural-only calls to concerns about how you looked on screen to then wearing a mask while making calls, and then eventually hiding behind a picture of an attractive person that bore only the slightest resemblance (if any) to you, and finally, a return to aural-only telephony, which became "a kind of status-symbol of anti-vanity, such that only callers utterly lacking in self-awareness continued to use videophony" and masks.

"Urine trouble? Urine luck!" ETA student Michael Pemulis (described by Avril Incandenza as "reptilian" back on page 50) makes a tidy profit selling "innocent childish urine" to various other students (those ranked higher than #64 continentally) during quarterly drug testing. Roughly 25% of the ranking players over fifteen cannot pass a standard drug test. Mario Incandenza, "using his strap-attached head-mounted camera", films the entire drug testing (and in-line urine sales) procedure. (We also get some background on the tennis-playing skills of both Pemulis and Hal ("a late-blooming prodigy and possible genius at tennis".)

Then we have a long monologue from Hal's grandfather to 10-year-old James Incandenza, dating from the winter of 1960. Determined to "create" a top-ranked tennis player in his son, the elder James Incandenza bemoans his own wrecked career at tennis and subsequent spotty career as an actor. This section contains no endnotes, as though Wallace did not want to interrupt the section with any of the back and forth he employs elsewhere.

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