Sunday, August 14, 2016

Poor Yoricks' Summer - Infinite Jest - Don Gately: Life And How To Live It

This post first ran at the Poor Yoricks' Summer blog on August 12:

In David Foster Wallace's review of Joseph Frank's multi-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky (which review was written while he was working on Infinite Jest and pulled from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again at the last minute (it was eventually collected in Consider the Lobster)), he posed a series of questions, seemingly to himself, concerning living a meaningful life and how to be a good person. One series of questions concerns faith:
What exactly does "faith" mean? As in "religious faith," "faith in God," etc. Isn't it basically crazy to believe in something that there's no proof of? ... How can somebody have faith before he's presented with sufficient reason to have faith? Or is somehow needing to have faith a sufficient reason for having faith? But then what kind of need are we talking about?
To some extent, these types of circular questions are described in Infinite Jest as (depending on the context) "marijuana thinking" or "Analysis Paralysis". Yet thinking about these questions and arriving at some sort of answer might, at the very least, help a person be comfortable with him-/herself.

Donald W. Gately, 29 years old, the size of "a young dinosaur" and possessing the "smooth immovability of an Easter Island statue", and free of Substances for roughly fourteen months, has struggled with questions concerning Alcoholics Anonymous and matters of faith.

When he first Came In, Gately dedicated himself to "this unromantic, unhip, cliched AA thing", but had no clue how "corny slogans and saccharin grins" and "the limpest sort of dickless pap" could actually make him forget about Substances and remove his overwhelming desire for them.

And then maybe four months in, when he out of the blue realized he had not thought of oral narcotics or even "a cold foamer" for several days, Gately "hadn't felt so much grateful or joyful as just plain shocked. The idea that AA might actually somehow work unnerved him. He suspected some sort of trap."

At the podium at meetings, Gately admits he is both ashamed and pissed off at himself that he still has no real grasp of the "Big spiritual Picture". Even though he gets to choose his own Higher Power, he feels like a complete hypocrite getting down on his big knees every morning and night and "talking to the ceiling". He feels like he is addressing Nothing, "an edgeless blankness that somehow feels worse than the sort of unconsidered atheism he Came In with". It also makes his afraid, scared he is doing something wrong that will somehow compromise or undermine his sobriety.

Gately must have faith in AA despite his ignorance about how it might work. The choice of Hanging In versus going back Out There and dealing with the Spider - it's no real choice at all. And because AA has no rules, surrendering your Diseased will to AA is merely a suggestion. Gately's sponsor, Francis G., "compares the totally optional basic suggestions in Boston AA to, say for instance if you're going to jump out of an airplane, they 'suggest' you wear a parachute. But of course you do what you want."

Gately realizes: "It's all optional; do it or die." Earlier in the novel, yrstruly said: "its' a never ending strugle its' a full time job to stay straight and there is no vacation for XMas at anytime. Its' a fucking bitch of a life dont' let any body get over on you diffrent." Gately knows it is also a never-ending struggle to stay sober.

And he gets scared during a break in one meeting when veiled newcomer Joelle van Dyne talks about the meaningless of a statement like "Being Here But For the Grace of God". And for a moment, Gately's mind goes utterly blank. The cafeteria seems pin-drop silent "and he feels a greasy wave of an old and almost unfamiliar panic, and for a second it seems inevitable that at some point in his life he's going to get high again and be back in the cage all over again". The moment passes, though, and Gately settles in for the second half of the meeting, in his usual front row seat, "asking silently for help to be determined to try to really hear or die trying".

The above bit about Gately being unnerved by AA apparently working is on page 349 and Wallace pretty much writes the exact same thing on page 468, when recounting an early morning that Gately was riding the Green Line to his job at the Shattuck Shelter and realized that he had not thought about Substances for a few days. "He couldn't believe it. He wasn't Grateful so much as kind of suspicious ... How could some kind of Higher Power he didn't even believe in magically let him out of the cage when Gately had been a total hypocrite in even asking something he didn't believe in to let him out of a cage he had like zero hope of ever being let out of?"

The question drove Gately bats, but he soon learns to deal with the not-knowing-how. Whatever he is doing must be the right thing to do, because he's staying clean. Ennet House Executive Director Pat Monestian tells Gately it doesn't matter whether he believes he is praying to something or not, just the simple fact of doing it will magically transform his thoughts and beliefs. And so: "Gately usually no longer much cares whether he understands or not. He does the knee-and-ceiling thing twice a day, and cleans shit, and listens to dreams, and stays Active, and tells the truth to the Ennet House residents, and tries to help a couple of them if they approach him wanting help." Gately still doesn't seem to have a specific Higher Power, but maybe now it doesn't matter. Or perhaps his Higher Power is Pat Montestian's 1964 Aventura. ("Some of the profoundest spiritual feelings of his sobriety so far are for [that] car.")

It's a dangerous game to try to determine where an author has inserted autobiographical details into his or her work, but it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to posit that a really smart young guy like Wallace had issues with the seemingly vapid AA cliches. If so, he likely put those feelings into the character of Geoffrey Day (the academic who "manned the helm" of an obscure quarterly journal). Wallace's process of working through those feelings and ultimately accepting the cliches and discovering they had a depth to them could be reflected in Gately's meticulous ruminations. It obviously no mistake that Wallace put several similar scenes of Gately working through these feelings in the book. It's clearly something he wanted to emphasize - and he gives Gately a warm vulnerability that is very appealing.

Perhaps Gately is so likeable because he's nearly perfect. He has his doubts and frustrations with AA, but he appears to be living a satisfying life. He doesn't get angry or even overly annoyed with guys like Day or Randy Lenz. Rather, he reminds himself that the residents can teach him tolerance and patience. Gately seems incredibly content, living in the moment, one day at a time. Perhaps Gately's character was a goal, an ideal, that Wallace wanted to strive for. (We learn that Gately's "most marked progress in turning his life around in sobriety ... is that he tries to be just about as verbally honest as possible at almost all times, now, without too much calculation about how a listener's going to feel about what he says. This is harder than it sounds." In "Authority and American Usage" (from Consider The Lobster), Wallace writes in a footnote that he has tried to be similarly honest with people and admits "I've actually lost friends this way".)

One final thought: The idea of "giving yourself away" is usually presented in Infinite Jest as a bad thing, a loss of self. In AA, however, this is considered essential: "You have to want to surrender your will to people who know how to Starve The Spider." In This is Water, Wallace famously wrote: "In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."

Is it fair to say that Gately "worships" AA? The narrator of Gately's sections admits that some of AA's tenets do sound somewhat cultish, and Gately will certainly preach the benefits of AA if anyone asks. He understands that he could not have become sober alone -- that solo method is portrayed as almost certain disaster; see the AA cliche, "My Best Thinking Got Me Here" -- and freely admits he has surrendered to AA, and knows the community is essential to his survival. Perhaps it is more that Gately has devoted himself to AA, which is described at one point as "the very loyal friend he thought he'd had and then lost".

(Gately art by Jenny Graf)

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