[I wrote this journal in thirteen sections, writing about each section before reading the next. That meant I never knew what was coming in the rest of the book – and in fact with this novel, I didn’t always know what was happening in the parts I had read.]
3 July 2016
To page 95 (of 981, excluding endnotes)
Whatever else this is, it’s a comedy. And only in America…. It’s in-your-face clever, showily erudite, deliberately confusing. Inevitably, it has been labelled post-modernist. Its chronology is teasingly non-linear, and Wallace keeps introducing new characters, some of whose names we can only guess at. Hell, in the near future of the novel we don’t even know the order of different years, known by brand-names owned by their sponsors. Wallace takes a swipe at a culture that is completely certain of its own entitlement while demonstrating the look-at-me swaggering confidence it satirises. And yes, I get it. That’s the point. Like Thomas Pynchon, surely the grand-daddy of this follow-me-if-you-can style, you just can’t pin Wallace down.
But am I liking it? Mostly, yes. It’s twenty years old now, so perhaps it’s bound to remind me of a lot of other American writing. I’ve mentioned Pynchon – those outlandish names, the impossible conspiracy plots, the suggestive acronyms are all straight out of The Crying of Lot 49, published thirty years earlier. (It took me a while to understand that O.N.A.N. stands for the Organisation of North American Nations, post-‘Interdependence’, an alliance with Canada heavily weighted in the USA’s favour.) And I wonder, could Dave Eggers ever have written his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, if Wallace hadn’t written this novel first? Eggers’ painstakingly maximalist style is just like Wallace’s – but Nicholson Baker had already been doing his hyper-realist descriptions of everyday First World activities for years by the time Wallace came along. (I’m thinking of The Mezzanine, my favourite.) The unashamed egoism of Wallace’s almost exclusively male cast of characters (there are a couple of important exceptions), the exclusive focus on North American culture and geography, the toxic mix of sport, drugs, lowest-common-denominator entertainment and commerce that Wallace satirises…. As I said, only in America. I might actually mean, only in white male America. Perhaps I’ll come back to that.
I can only give an impression of 90-odd densely printed pages. And it isn’t only the printing that’s dense – I don’t know quite how many plots Wallace has set in motion, partly because there are so many of them and partly because they are beginning to be linked in all sorts of unexpected ways. And we never know at what point we’re joining or re-joining them, because we don’t know what calendar years the brand-named years refer to. We start to get an inkling after a while, but Wallace is keen not to give us an easy ride.
In the opening chapter Hal, who is narrating it in the first person but in no way we recognise, is in an interview set up weeks or months before by his uncle, who now runs the tennis academy he attends. It only slowly emerges not only that Hal really is superintelligent enough to have written the papers the admissions supervisor is convinced are copied but, perhaps, that there is some weird mismatch between what he thinks he is saying and what actually emerges from his mouth. An impossibly erudite-sounding response leads immediately to the assembled interview panel to call for security so that he can be restrained. Is he not really saying those clever things, but making the subhuman animal noises the interviewers hear? Or is he on some ethereal higher plane of consciousness that these jocks are deaf to? We don’t know, because Wallace isn’t attempting to present a plausible scenario. He is being satirical, in that clever way he has, of the American college sports system and he doesn’t mind how surreally bizarre it all becomes. The chapter ends with Hal in a secure psychiatric unit – but before this, every single moment of the interview, the restraint he undergoes and his de facto imprisonment is given in almost OCD detail.
In the next chapter – and I’m not going to go through it all like this – the clearly doomed attempts of another character to persuade himself that his planned marijuana binge will be his last are described, in the third person this time, in exactly the same detail. Does ‘The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment’ come before or after ‘The Year of Glad’? We don’t know yet, and Wallace isn’t telling. This new character is somebody called Erdedy. He has his own First World problems, to do with addiction this time. His seemingly hopeless wait for the woman who promised to bring him dope, and his memories of the faux nonchalance he is proud of having shown at the prospect of getting it, are described in such detail it all becomes utterly engaging. His desperation reaches an almost unbearable pitch, and when his phone and doorbell ring simultaneously at the end of the chapter, we leave him as he stands there, too paralysed to answer either.
And then we’re with Orin (who, we later find out, is Hal’s older brother) and his own highly unsatisfactory life. He’s in Arizona, and he laments being in a city built on a primeval swamp. He’s in a heavily air-conned apartment but that doesn’t stop the roaches built like armoured vehicles – nothing like the squashable, almost friendly ones he thought he hated in Boston – from invading his space all the time. He tried squashing one, once. Now he asphyxiates them under drinking glasses before putting the corpses, and the glasses, heavily wrapped, in the dumpster outside. Why am I telling you this, and not about the hideous, one-sided sexual encounters he has with a different ‘Subject’ each time or, for that matter, about his repulsive imaginings of sex while smoking dope? This is an American 20-something man with the appetites of an adult and the self-obsession of a baby.
I need to speed up. Are there any story arcs emerging? The Incandenza family is clearly of central importance: we get encounters or telephone calls between three brothers at different stages in their lives. Orin, the oldest, is a former tennis player turned professional footballer. Wallace can satirise the absurdities of sport turned into mass entertainment, as when we are there, feeling Orin’s horrified disgust, as he is floated down from a great height into a stadium in a bird costume. He’s on the Cardinals team (geddit?). The middle child is Mario, encephalitic and disabled, but endlessly curious – and they refer to their father, dead by the time of Hal’s interview, as ‘Himself’, and to their mother as ‘the Moms’, by reputation a serial man-chaser. ‘Himself’ had been unfeasibly polymathic: he developed almost magical optical systems of both military and industrial usefulness (there’s some talk of the cold fusion techniques his discoveries have led to); he’s made dozens of independent films, some of them released and all of them listed in an eight-page endnote; and he’s become the founder and first principal (I think) of the ETA tennis college. ‘Moms’… is less clearly outlined. She’s massively attractive and as clever as her husband – but so far she is always offstage, a participant in one or other of the male characters’ stories. Complaints have been made, I think, about Wallace’s presentation of women. Maybe things improve.
There are other stories. There’s the Muslim medical attaché, chief nose-blower of a Prince Q–––– of some oil-rich Middle-Eastern state. The attaché, or assistant or whatever, is a Muslim man who could be straight out of a novel by the frankly Islamophobic Michel Houellebecq, and expects his wife to be his willing slave at home. Which she is, except for her Wednesdays off when he always has a late night anyway. But – plot alert – one Wednesday, some petty faux pas or other means he is sent home early and has to fend for himself. He can’t do it, obviously, and has to resort to putting on an unlabelled video-cartridge sent anonymously. Oh dear. Wallace interleaves the story of the next few hours between chapters dealing with other characters and other time-lines, but basically, the medical man has the cartridge on a loop when his wife arrives home in the small hours, having wet both his pants and his reclining couch. She starts watching, and is captivated too. The upshot, we discover in a preposterous covert meeting on a mountaintop above Tucson, is that both they and twenty-odd other people who turn up to investigate and start to watch too, are somehow out of commission. And the cartridge might be of a film made originally by Himself. You couldn’t make it up.
The covert meeting… is between US and Canadian agents supposedly working together against Canadian eco-terrorists. The US – I’d better stop calling them the Americans – are responsible for some ecological atrocity that hasn’t been made quite clear yet… but what is clear is that it causes the Canadians some grief. The Canadian is in a wheelchair and might be a double-agent. The burly US agent has been forced, perhaps in homage to Mancuso the hapless police officer in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, to wear women’s clothes. How we laughed. Their meeting on the mountaintop, complete with the weird Brocken meteorological effect, might be referencing a scene involving the devil in James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. There’s something devilish about Wheelchair Man. Whatever, during the meeting there’s definitely a reference to a robbery that led to the killing (one we know from an earlier chapter to have been unintentional) of a Canadian trying to keep tabs on the terrorists inside the US. They can’t believe that it, and therefore the robber – another of the novel’s addicts – isn’t connected to the terrorist cell. Oh dear.
Another story. There’s a young woman who has been admitted to a hospital’s psychiatric ward after something like her third serious attempt at suicide. She is presented in a highly sexualised way, perhaps because we’re seeing her through the eyes of the young male doctor speaking to her. Perhaps. She is unipolar, suffering from bouts of such depression she simply wants her life to end. And yes, she’s another addict, bingeing in a similar way to Erdedy before giving up for what she says might be the fiftieth time. The doctor wonders whether there might be a connection between her intake of cannabinoids and her depression… and so far I can’t see anything other than thematic links between her and the other characters. Hal, of course, although in what I’m coming to realise is a later time-line, is also in a psychiatric unit. And he’s also, like most of the elite sports college kids, a serious cannabis user – Wallace has gone into far more detail than he needs to about the steps he takes at ETA to keep his habit a secret. But Wallace goes into more detail than he needs to about absolutely everything. You want to know about real drugs, and their imaginary nicknames in this self-indulgent future? You got it.
Two more story threads, before I stop. There’s a short chapter in a dense pastiche of African American argot, concerning the violent and oversexualised lives of young women and the men who make their lives a constant round of fear. Every vice is there – lust, jealousy, violent rage – and I’m not sure what point Wallace is making. The other thread is an old German teacher at ETA, feared by the boys but who goes on little walks with Mario to the ice-cream parlour. Are these story threads at all? Or just incidents to add more layers to Wallace’s already heavily layered portrayal of a dysfunctional America? Maybe it will become clear.
That’s enough for now. I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of this novel, but I haven’t got all day.
I’ve just finished reading a twelve-page chapter (pages 157-169) in which we get an insight into one of the themes that is so important in this book, and in American culture for as long as I can remember: the relationship between fathers and sons. We’re in BS 1960 (BS being Before Subsidisation, when years stopped being numerical). We meet Jim, Jimbo or whoever, who must be the ten-year old James O Incandenza who grew up to be ‘Himself’ – and we discover there had once been another ‘Himself’, this having been his father’s nickname for his own father. It’s my favourite chapter in the book since that first one, a set-piece display of the all-American male psyche gone wrong in a conversation of which we only ever hear one side. The shy, over-tall ten-year-old seems not even to try to get a word in – yet we remember how, in an early chapter, as a grown man he impersonates a professional ‘conversationalist’ in order to get his son Hal to talk to him. Communication is an issue in families.
Why do I find it so good? Possibly because, at first, the older man seems so in control. Every single thing he says and does is considered, or refers to the moment-by-moment attention that every action deserves. The opening of a pull-up garage door can be heavy-handed – and therefore, in his definition, clumsy – or it can be a careful movement, in which a precisely judged touch will be so right it becomes elegant. Young Jim is trying to do this, and is getting it wrong. His father, at first, seems endlessly patient in explaining how, with his help, his gangly son is going to become a man. He might not have any evidence for it, but this father knows his son is going to be a great tennis champion. Starting with the lesson he’s going to give him today. Fine. Except by the end of the chapter, having finished off the contents of an elegant, leather-bound silver flask of whiskey – feel the heft! – he is getting absolutely everything wrong. In telling Jim the story of the only tennis match of his that his father ever watched, he lays the blame for his subsequent failure on everything and everyone except himself. They never get to play tennis that day.
I think I’ve singled out this one chapter because it’s good writing by any standard. It could, almost, stand alone as a short story in which, despite his best intentions, a man is brought back with a terrible crash to the failed hopes he is trying to leave behind by fixing them on to his son. Other chapters don’t often stand alone in that way because they are usually part of what we can only assume to be a larger scheme. Ok, in the father-son chapter we gain insights into the creation of a family mythology that is threading through the whole book, but it seems to be deliberately more rounded than most. Aside from our not yet knowing how the shy young Jim could possibly become the overachieving J O Incandenza, we’re left with a satisfying whole.
So, the other chapters in this section. Are things settling down after the disorientating leaps and plunges of the first 90 pages? Maybe – or maybe Wallace’s overwrought style is something you get used to. We’re certainly beginning to have a sense of who the main characters are, and therefore which circles of other characters we need to keep an eye on. (And yes, I know that in a book like this, anybody might turn out to be crucial.)
Of the brothers, as earlier, Hal is the one we get to spend most time with. There’s a long chapter in which he, as one of the senior boys at ETA, does his best for the younger students he mentors. Wallace gives us what seem to be real insights into the horrifying world of the American sports academy as he describes various characters in what is shown as a morbidly enclosed, self-regarding hothouse. The boys who are nominally under Hal’s wing are as young as ten and, as Wallace lets us listen in on other mentor meetings, we get different senior students’ takes on how to get through eight years or more of a life that seems to take away their childhood. (Of course, we can’t help thinking about all this during the scene between ‘Jim’ and his father many chapters later. It’s one of the ways this book works.) We meet other students at ETA, in this chapter and at least one other, like Pemulis the enterprising scholarship boy who sells phials of urine supplied by the younger boys during the three-monthly drugs tests. There’s Struck, Blott, John Wayne… and others, including one who seems intent on undermining Hal’s reputation for expertise with words. (Hal’s photographic memory helps – he can quote whole pages of the Oxford English Dictionary verbatim.) We’ll no doubt be meeting some or all of these boys again.
Neither here, nor anywhere else in these chapters set in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, is there any sign in Hal of the autistic-seeming, hyper-self-conscious bag of nerves that we meet in the first chapter. Clearly, between now and the Year of Glad, when his college interview takes place (it’s the only chapter so far that is set in that year), something happens to Hal. File that away for later. Possibly much later.
Also at ETA, because of his family connection to the founder, is Mario. He is presented – Wallace is explicit on this – as the opposite of all the other students there, with their nervy, competitive, driven lives. He has no ambitions, has no need to compete or prove himself – not that he could anyway with his oversized head, misshapen body and innocent attitude that often makes him seem simple-minded. We’ve seen him with Schtitt, the hated German on the staff – one of the boys, possibly Hal, makes the point that the staff work hard to make themselves hated, part of their regime of focusing the boys’ competitive minds – and now we see him with Pemulis. Another string to Pemulis’s bow is his sharp mathematical mind. It doesn’t help him in ETA’s programme of what amounts to verbal callisthenics – a programme designed by the ‘Moms’ and Wallace’s get-out for having the boys discuss things in the language of college professors – but he’s good at other things. Like Himself, Pemulis is good with optics. He helps Mario make his videos, which he is allowed to do wherever and whenever he likes. He has even filmed the illicit buying and selling of urine, because everybody knows the videos will never be seen. File that away for later as well. We also see Mario in a comedy chapter in which a girl at ETA – they are so rarely mentioned you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a boys-only academy – tries to have a sexual encounter with him. In this male world – nothing has made me change my mind about Wallace’s male gaze – she, inevitably, is known as ‘USS Millicent’ because of her Venus Williams proportions. (Venus Williams, then aged sixteen, must already have been famous. She was in a Wimbledon semi-final yesterday.) The encounter is a comic failure.
A lot of other stuff is going on. Between the long chapters in which Wallace lets things happen in their own time – and it’s sometimes a very long time indeed – there are shorter ones, or snippets. The mountaintop meeting continues in this way, as the sun sets and the night becomes chilly, throughout most of this section. Or there are chapters or snippets presented as ‘found’ texts like emails and news features. Our understanding of ETA, of ONAN and the Canadian separatists, of the workings of Wallace’s dysfunctional near future and its business-driven technology, is built up by a process of gradual accretion. As I said, you get used to it. We get to find out, for instance, why the Quebecois agent on the mountaintop is in a wheelchair. He had been a participant in a terrifying game of ‘chicken’ popular amongst the separatists, in which boys would compete to be the last to jump over a train-track in front of the hated waste-carrying trains from the US. (I think. We find this out in an eight-page endnote, the route to which is as tortuous as most other things in this book.) He’s lucky to have survived at all.
Other chapters and snippets…. There’s an ‘oiled guru’ at ETA who… who does what, exactly? Beyond personifying lifelong fitness as an example to us all? There’s another chapter narrated in pastiche of street argot, this time by a character calling himself ‘yrstruly’, about life in the underbelly of Boston. This time there’s a drugs deal going on, but something is odd about it. And when one of the crew cooks up and injects some of whatever they’ve scored, he practically explodes in pain, his eye popping out of his head and on to his cheek, and dies. There’s a transvestite among them, known as C, and someone answering her description appears in one of the agents’ stories. I can’t quite remember the details, but I’m sure that feather boa will make another appearance. Next. There’s a detox place founded by a recovered alcoholic who wants to stay anonymous. It’s called Ennet House, and an endnote helpfully informs us the name has nothing to do with the founder. There’s an insurance claim, an almost verbatim transcript of a famous comic monologue – I remember the version recorded by Gerard Hoffnung – but I don’t know how many of Wallace’s readers might take it to be original. Next. There’s a degree-standard ‘compare and contrast’ critique of the transformation of the police detective between Hawaii Five-O and Hill Street Blues, and an article by ‘Helen’ Steeply, the cross-dressing agent, about the theft of a commercially produced external heart prosthesis by a purse-snatcher who thought it was a purse. There’s a list of seven different Canadian separatist groups, with an indication of politics, willingness to use violence and so on. There’s a six-page speculation about why video phones would never prove to be popular in the long term. (It’s always fun to see how writers get some bits right and some bits wrong in predictions like this.)
That will have to do.
Inevitably, I’m starting to have misgivings. You know when you begin to read a book with a reputation for ‘difficulty’ that you’re going to reach a point when you ask whether, in all honesty, it really needs to be like this. A writer might have a very valid motive for withholding information – it’s only on page 223, for example, that we’re provided with a list of the order of the ‘Subsidised’ years that is one of Wallace’s running gags. There’s another, no doubt equally long-running gag that Wallace is just beginning to reveal, piece by teasing piece. Why are ecologically-minded Canadians – specifically, the Quebecois – so annoyed by the de facto annexation of their country by the USA? Might it have something to do with the ‘block-sized’ catapult machines that send huge tightly-wrapped packets northwards (towards, I think, the great ‘Concavity’), and the huge air-displacers, i.e. fans, that send any noxious air towards what used to be Canada? I think I know what’s going on – and, of course, it’s preposterous. I called it a running gag because Wallace isn’t expecting us to believe that Canada is really going to become a dumping ground for cubic miles of the USA’s waste… but that seems to be it. It shows the same degree of subtlety as the acronym for the international pseudo-alliance, ONAN.
It’s knockabout, comic-book stuff. And as soon as this thought entered my head I began to see that at one level at least, a comic book is exactly what this is. Everything and everybody is drawn larger than life, and issues are portrayed with the broadest of strokes. And, of course, plausibility isn’t an issue. You don’t have to believe that a video cartridge can really send viewers ga-ga any more than you need to believe that corporations, grown bigger than governments, will privatise the calendar….
And there seems to be something else that betrays – or celebrates, perhaps – this novel’s debt to late 20th Century movie and comic culture… and to the dedicated fans of both forms. From the start Wallace’s teasing little revelations seems to be linked to the fad for Easter-egg spotting. Do we need to notice the homages to Hamlet? we’re beginning to work out, for instance, that the reference to the grave-digging scene seems to be telling us that the literally mind-blowing cartridge is called Infinite Jest, a film mentioned in the eight-page endnote. Aside from Oedipus Rex – and I wouldn’t be surprised if we get mentions of Thebes and Laius soon enough – Hamlet is the granddaddy of all father/son dramas, and the uncle in this novel (with the initial ‘C’) might well have been having an affair with his sister-in-law…. Clever me. And clever me for noticing that one of the characters in the long sections on life in Ennet House is… Erdedy, last spotted 200 pages earlier. (I re-read Watchmen recently, and that’s full of opportunities to make clever links in exactly the same way. Who was the original watch-man in that graphic novel? Dr Manhattan’s father. I wonder if Wallace is paying deliberate homage. Probably not – although James Incandenza combines the practical science brain both of a watchmaker and his particle-physicist son.)
Within the broadly-drawn overall structure there can nevertheless be whole chapters, like the father/son scene I described last time, in which Wallace shows himself capable of real psychological insight. Ok, in its own way that scene might be the darkest of dark comedy – but the increasingly evident self-deception of the father is handled with something approaching sympathy. In a novel you can get inside the minds of characters in ways the writers of comic books can only dream of. (Alan Moore must have dreamt of it. Famously, he has recently drafted a novel running to over a million words.) In this section the most intimate insights into the hell that is a single consciousness come during the course of a night that a new character hopes is to be her last. She’s one Joelle van Dyne, and if she’s been mentioned before (she might have been, in passing) it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. She’s so massively beautiful, apparently – although only certain men seem to have told her this – she feels it necessary to wear a veil, and… not only is she behind the ‘Madame Psychosis’ hour on the ultra-exclusive local FM radio band – hands up if you’ve just spotted a Ulysses reference, you clever things – she’s also the star of what might or might not have been that consciousness-cruncher of a video made by the man she knew as Jim.
Is this dense enough for you? No? How about, then, Wallace incorporating her into one of his favourite tropes, the addict who is going to stop after just this one final blast? And how about him keeping the suicide theme up in the air by getting her to have Too Much Fun (a real or invented phrase meaning an off-the-scale illegal high), in a literal sense? ‘Too Much Fun for anyone mortal to hope to endure’? At the end of a 21-page section (aside from a single half-page break containing the purported CV in journalism of ‘Helen P Steeply’, i.e. the cross-dressing agent) she has been locked in the bathroom for long enough to cause a big problem for whoever is waiting outside, and she’s rigged up an oversized home-made contraption for getting more stuff inside her than even her body can stand. This time she means it… although, after leaving her as she vomits out the contents of her guts, the reader might feel that the success of her attempt looks doubtful.
It’s a more multi-layered chapter than most. Not only do we get the bizarre interior life of a denizen of Wallace-land – and her radio show has been bizarre enough, with its ultra-cool insistence on darkness, doom, and music so obscure that listeners spend forever trying to track it down – we get an oblique take on the time she spent with James Incandenza. Was she his muse? In her memory, she was, in a way, as she remembers the scene (in that film, I guess) in which she looks down at her own breasts, all innocence, remarking in wonder on how beautiful they are. But… it didn’t last. After she had known him for 21 months he killed himself by putting his head in a microwave oven. She wonders how he got that to work, and remembers the story – an urban myth, surely? – of the wet cat a stupid woman tried to dry in the microwave. The animal ended up – well, you can guess. All over the kitchen.
We get different insights from her into the weird family life of the Incandenzas. I’ve mentioned what might or might not have been the failing marriage – why should we believe her version? – and Orin features at least as much in her memories as he has featured in the whole novel so far. (Not much, compared to how much we’ve heard about his brothers.) Orin, it seems, was Joelle’s lover before his father moved her into his own life. Ah. And the supposed adultery of Avril Incandenza – I remember at least one chapter has been set on April 1, just the kind of pointless-seeming echo that Wallace goes in for, like James’s initials being those of Infinite Jest in reverse – reminds us of the link with the uncle. He, of course, is the one we remember from the first chapter of the novel, the one who has taken over at ETA from the no doubt more competent brother who had founded the Academy. But, nudged by that reference to the gravedigger scene, it’s only now that alert readers might start to think of Hamlet. And, perhaps, stifle a yawn.
Sorry. But, as I think I’ve mentioned before, it can all get a bit much. Sometimes, as I wade through page after single-spaced 9-point page (I’m guessing), I just wish Wallace would get on with it. In the meantime… other stuff is going on, mostly in the now familiar this-will-take-as-long-as-it-takes style that makes up most of the novel. There’s a long chapter about Ennet House, ranging from pastiche transcripts of the kind of low-life conversations you’d find there to detailed descriptions of different addicts’ attitudes to their own detox. As well as Erdedy, there are at least two other names I recognise, Don Gately and Kate Gompert. He’s the burglar turned accidental murderer in that earlier chapter, the one now suspected by the counter-terrorist agents because the victim was a Quebecois counter-insurgent, and she is the one in the psychiatric unit following her latest suicide attempt…. Hang on, I need to check dates. She was in hospital some time during the same year as the scenes in Ennet House (the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, when most of the novel is set, in fact). Gately’s crime was apparently perpetrated the year before. The supposed counter-terrorism agents, Marathe (the Quebecois wheelchair man) and Steeply are meeting earlier that year, in April. So when Gately is at Ennet House is he still only a suspect? Can we expect an arrest soon, having been told how he has humiliated the DA in the past?
Wallace spends a lot of time cataloguing stuff to do with Ennet House, it can become almost mesmerisingly repetitive. There are the different substances that people are addicted to. There are different attitudes to addiction, ranging from an honest determination to give up to an equal and opposite determination to relapse, sometimes several times a day. (And there are those like Erdedy, and in a different chapter Joelle van Dyne, who always think the next hit will be their last.) There are the different help-groups, all based on AA’s twelve steps, in which ‘God’ – even if not the God – is a given. There are the obsessions that for some people are a major part of rehab – like one man’s fixation on tattoos. This leads to a long section on different tattoos, how people got them – professional or very amateur – and the different degrees of pride, shame or regret of those who wear them. And so on. I don’t know how much is sociology and how much is invented, but when it comes to addiction Wallace seems to be writing about what he knows.
We learn about the geography of this part of the fictional Enfield (the ‘E’ in ETA), Ennet House only being one of various mainly hideous buildings whose purpose has evolved over time. The rent for one, almost buried under soil removed from the top of the hill that ETA had flattened for its campus, is still paid by the Academy every year. Not very far away those catapults do their work, sometimes with an audible thump. How far away is the Concavity? Does anybody care? It’s just another dumping-ground (a metaphor that Wallace hasn’t made explicitly).
Next. What else do I need to tell you about the Incandenza family? (And I find myself thinking of another father and son, referenced in James Joyce’s Portrait: Daedelus and Icarus. If young Jim in the garage-door scene is Icarus – his father has impossibly high hopes for him, which he nonetheless spends his life striving to fulfil – the heat is bound to get too much for him. ‘Incandenza’. Just saying.) The Moms – is she living with the uncle now? – lives in ETA’s HmH, as they call the Headmaster’s House. My, this family loves acronyms as much as Wallace does. They eat there, Hal and any other tennis friends devouring any meals ‘like a wild dog’, a phrase Wallace likes so much he uses it at least twice. Mario always listens to Madame Psychosis’s radio show, 0000-0100 as Wallace designates the hour. (Or is it 2300-0000? Does it matter?) Avril is responsible for the curriculum at ETA, a weird mix of Classical rhetoric and other subjects, listed in more detail now. As for James…. We don’t know what disastrous thing happened to him during, or just after the almost two years Joelle van Dyne knew him.
It’s starting to be a pattern. Wallace sets something up – Hal’s apparent inability to speak in the first chapter, his father’s suicide, mentioned more than once now – and we have to wait to be enlightened. As a narrative technique it isn’t ground-breaking, and it goes with those other teasers the book is laden with. The truth of ONAN and the Concavity. The ongoing suicide stories – will Kate eventually succeed? Has Joelle really had Too Much Fun, or did she vomit it all out? – to go with the one that has definitely happened, but which remains a mystery. (Suicide is something else Wallace knew about, I guess.) All those characters – addicts, tennis players, criminals, anti-terrorist agents – whose futures hold we know not what….
What have I missed? Pemulis’s acquisition of a 1970s drug, DMZ – it’s like acid that’s dropped acid, he (or somebody) says – then, in a later chapter, his persuasion of Hal and another boy that they should try it in small, safe doses. Oh dear. I’m wondering – this is in November of the Undergarment year, a few months before Hal’s disastrous college interview, and I immediately began to wonder if DMZ might be what has rendered him incapable of speech. There’s the transcript of the voiceover, by Hal, of a pastiche of an instructional video of Mario’s, focusing on the grinding drudgery of any would-be tennis star’s fitness regime. There’s one of Madame Psychosis’s shows, in which she riffs – at huge length, obviously – on certain real or imagined societies for the physically challenged, ugly or downright crippled. (It isn’t clear by the time she’s taking off her veil before having Too Much Fun whether she’s beautiful as her daddy always told her, or as ugly as the poor souls she gathers under her wing of ice-cold irony. If that’s what it is.) We get a couple of pages describing a particularly sadistic-sounding gym session, at the end of which Pemulis whispers to the poor sap whose every muscle hurts, ‘Pussy.’ And we get that list of the names of the Subsidised years… although we don’t know what year they started. Some circumstantial evidence suggests that they began sometime around 2000, making the Undergarment year around 2008, give or take. Maybe it will become clearer. Or not.
A quarter of the way into the novel, after all those teasers and clues, Wallace needs to come clean over some facts. He doesn’t usually come straight out with them, obviously. Twice in this section, at great length, we get long conversations between Hal and Orin, averaging fifteen pages, and Wallace gets through a lot of stuff – for instance, Hal tells his brother everything the reader needs to know about Canadian nationalism. But this being the novel it is, that’s not all we get in either conversation. In one, after Orin has called to find out all he can, Wallace sets up a parody of narrative suspense by having Hal in that zone that sportsmen love so much, the winning streak. Almost all his toenail clippings are flying directly into an impossibly distant wastebasket, and he worries that Orin’s urgent questioning will undermine the magic. In the other conversation, a follow-up to the first in the longest endnote so far (it even has twelve footnotes of its own), the suspense comes from his lateness for an unmissable night out with Pemulis and others. It ends when Pemulis, who has been hovering for page after page, disconnects the phone as Orin is mid-sentence. He’s mid-word, and all we get of the cut-off word is ‘connec–’ How we laughed. Orin hasn’t connected with anyone in a very long time.
Wallace loves games. There’s no reason for him to have the second conversation take place in an endnote, but he does it anyway – and it’s a brilliant set piece. Here, and elsewhere, we find out much more about Orin than we’ve learnt so far – a lot of it is highly problematical and often unattractive – and in other chapters we get more of the back-stories of Mario, Joelle the ‘PGOAT’, and ‘CT’. He’s the man I’ve been referring to as Himself’s brother, but I’d got it wrong. He’s the half-brother – or did I read adoptive half-brother? – of the Moms. As with the Orin/Hal phone conversations, we don’t usually get straightforward exposition. In fact, Wallace has a lot of fun getting all this stuff into the reader’s head as entertainingly as he can. Usually.
Where to start? There are very few of those snippet-length inserts now – maybe Wallace has decided we’re ready for longer chapters – so why not rewind to page 242? It’s the first of Orin’s urgent calls to Hal. It’s November in the Undergarment year, when Hal is seventeen and, we discover later, Orin 26. Orin rarely phones – Hal’s not-quite good-humoured resentment of this becomes a running joke – and Hal hasn’t seen him for four years. Which, we find out, is when Himself really did die from putting his head in the microwave and when CT moved in with Avril. He’d already taken over the day-to-day running of ETA, as we find out in another informative chapter later, in which Hal’s uncle, if that’s what he is, explains how he can perfectly understand why Orin (or Hal, or both – I forget) might have got the wrong idea about him and his mother. CT’s denial of all responsibility for anything is another bravura set piece. There’s a lot of denial in this section.
Orin is particularly interested in the Quebecois Separatist factions. It’s ridiculous that such a self-centred man should suddenly become interested in politics, obviously, but Wallace has brought together two plot threads. A rather attractive Subject – Orin is the one thinking about his sexual conquests in this way in the early chapters of the book – but one who is uncharacteristically half as big again as his usual taste, ‘in every direction, Hallie,’ is supposedly working on a magazine feature about him. We guess, rightly, that this is ‘Helen’ Steeply, and she is asking him what he knows about the Separatists. Did I mention that the Moms is French Canadian, and had some ‘non-violent’ links with the Separatists at college? I’m mentioning it now – and I’m also mentioning that Orin tells Hal he thinks he’s being stalked by men in wheelchairs. …. We know ‘Helen’ Steeply is not a real journalist – s/he has only ever written one feature, the one about the prosthetic heart, so we know that whatever agency s/he is employed by thinks he has information they could use. It comes as no surprise to the reader that Orin seems to know nothing, but maybe they think he does. And all the time, Wallace keeps it entertaining with the running toenails gag. Meanwhile there are constant reminders of Hal’s disgust over Orin’s deep cynicism with regard to women, his refusal ever to communicate with the Moms despite her (truly creepy) loving letters to him, his absence from Himself’s funeral, his way of only phoning when he wants something…. Not an attractive character, Orin.
We’re getting some of this in the endnote chapter, in fact only a day or two later. A lot of it is like the first conversation – Orin tells Hal all about a foolproof technique (#7) for getting a married woman into bed – but there’s also a lot of background to the creation of ONAN, the way ‘the Concavity’ is referred to as a ‘Convexity’ on the north side, presumably because it’s filling up with garbage from the former USA, and to the inexplicable way the die-hard Quebecois Separatists have given up all talk of secession from Canada, turning all their terrorist activities south of the border. Quebec shares a border stretching hundreds of miles with the Concavity, so what game are they playing…? Hal, in that way that happens in novels by authors who like playing games, is attending a class on this very subject, given by a politically-minded ‘pro-rector’, so he is a mine of information. (Wallace jumps through some hoops to explain why classes at ETA can be so ridiculously arbitrary, but he didn’t really need to.) As he tries to get dressed for his night out, Hal pieces together a theory. The Quebecois are making trouble in the USA simply in order to cause embarrassment for Ottawa, over so-called ‘Interdependence’ in general and the Concavity scandal in particular. The theory is that the Quebecois will be able to secede if they take the Concavity off Ottawa’s hands. 250 years of failed separatist activities have made them that desperate. (I think that’s it, anyway.)
There’s more straightforward exposition concerning Orin in one of the chapters headed by the printer’s mark of a disc. (These chapters, we’ve come to realise, tend to cover a longer period of time than the more common dated chapters, or offer the back story to an issue or character.) Orin had been a pretty good tennis player at ETA, but he had peaked too early and was clearly never going to make the ‘Show’, the top professional circuit. He got a place at the local university in Boston, ‘BU’, because he was still several leagues above most college players and was offered all the usual privileges. But he knew he would never get any better, so gave up on that after three weeks. He told everyone he was going to change to football, a game he’d never played, and… he was hopeless. Hmm. What can a comic-book author like Wallace do about that? Answer: give him a superpower. The first time Orin ever kicks a ball – his training hadn’t involved that, apparently – he shows that he has a magic ‘touch’. As it happens (thank you again, DFW), the team’s star punter has just been injured beyond recovery in training – the description of the accident is farcical and cruel at the same time – and within weeks, Orin proves himself to be far better than him anyway.
Alongside this goes the story of the PGOAT – an acronym invented by Orin and a friend in his college days before he’d spoken to the stand-out girl on the cheerleading team. Nobody goes ‘within four metres’ of her because she’s in that zone in which even the most confident of seducers – i.e. people like Orin – are somehow disempowered by her loveliness. Never one to turn down a readymade trope, Wallace has gone for Love at First Sight and, luckily, it’s mutual. (As ever in this novel, it isn’t important whether we actually believe it.) They soon move in together, and at this time her cocaine habit isn’t an issue. Orin doesn’t mind it, and she seems not to have a dependency yet.
But things move on. From this chapter and Orin’s conversations with Hal we get another angle on the story we first got in the long chapter about Joelle’s suicide attempt at the party. There’s a whole theme to do with film (or ‘cartridges’) in this novel, and she has a movie camera. Her ten-second slo-mo clips of Orin’s punts are an added bonus for him – narcissist that he clearly is, he could watch them for hours at a time, and often does – but it gives her a dangerous connection with Himself. She becomes – what? – a helper? A muse? Whatever, she spends a great deal of time with him, accepts gifts of top-spec cameras with the lenses he’s developed…. You can imagine how Orin takes all this. And there’s the whole CT subplot taking place at the same time. It’s no wonder that when CT moves into HmH with the Moms Orin finds a place on a team as far away from Boston as he can.
So that’s it for Orin. He’s the man who has loved and lost, and it has left him the emotional husk we first met in that early chapter with the asphyxiated roaches. Maybe they are a metaphor: you can’t crush a feeling like his, you can only suffocate it. Maybe. So we get his refusal to have any contact with his mother – his Xeroxed non-replies to her gushing, I’ll-never-pressure-you letters are one of the book’s many cynical jokes – and his complete inability to engage with anybody on a human level. Bizarrely, Helen Steeply seems to be the first ‘Subject’ to have got under his skin since he cut off all relations with the PGOAT. I wrote with regard to Himself and Hal in an early chapter (seven years earlier, we now realise) that communication was always an issue in this family. That broken ‘connec–’ isn’t only a joke.
Meanwhile… Hal’s career both as a rising tennis star at ETA and serious (if ultra-careful) drug user are given space. There’s only one player better than him in the A-team, a former Canadian whose citizenship has been revoked following his decision to throw in his lot with the USA. (It’s John ‘No Relation’ Wayne.) Time is moving on. Most of the action is taking place in November in the Undergarment year (I suppose I should call it YDAU), including the long phone conversations and Pemulis’s acquisition of DMZ. And the whole issue of Hal’s mental health is brought into focus. Almost since the start we’ve been wondering how this clever adolescent, seemingly no less well-adjusted than anybody else at ETA, should end up unable to speak in the New Year. I’ve been speculating about the drug, but there’s something else. He was the one who discovered Himself, or what remained of him, after what people insist on calling his felo de se. He was thirteen. Ah.
It leads to yet another set piece, a sub-section in the first of Hal’s phone conversations with Orin. As he tells the story of the industrial-strength counselling he received for six weeks afterwards, it’s all told in terms of tennis training. He hates the therapist with his greasy moustache and hands that he always hides from sight, and decides he needs to research how to provide the creep with responses that will get him off his back. For all those weeks, nothing works. And then there’s a breakthrough. He presents his most appalling memory in the language he has researched from all the books written for professional therapists – we know what a vacuum-cleaner he is for information – and it works. What the therapist needed to hear – and, the reader is thinking, what Hal needed to admit to – was that when he first arrived at the house he was struck by the smell. It smelled delicious.
The reason why we know that this really is a breakthrough for Hal, and not just a clever ruse, is that he very quickly begins to get over the trauma that has led to sleeplessness, loss of weight, and a terrible loss of form on the tennis courts. And it’s soon after this (although I can’t remember if it’s made explicit at this point) that Hal begins to move up the rankings. Perhaps – and I hesitate to suggest it, however tentatively – he needed to reduce his father to a delicious meal. In this universe, you don’t only have to kill your father, you have to eat him.
A few last things. There’s an exposition-filled chapter to fill in Mario’s back-story. A grotesque premature birth (don’t ask), what seems like genuine mother-love and an interest in helping Himself in his film-making all come together in the character we know. His arms are undersized, his hands are like useless claws, his face (and presumably head) are huge and he leans forward on to a kind of prop in order to stand up… and I don’t know yet why Wallace has created a loveable monster, but there are some clues in there about his parentage. The Concavity leads to birth defects in the territory to the north – and CT, like Avril, is Canadian and was working in Canada around the time when Mario must have been conceived. And in one half-hidden description, we get this: ‘the thin lank slack hair, at once tattered and somehow too smooth … looked at 18+ like the hair of a short plump 48‐year‐old stress engineer and athletic director and Academy Headmaster.’ Ah.
The other last things are taking place during the same few days of November YDAU. One is a chapter describing everyday life in Ennet House. Gately is ‘staff’ now, a position taken by inmates for board and lodging so long as they keep things moving along smoothly. It isn’t easy, as we see. New arrivals have a settling-in period, often involving heavy-duty denial, during which their resentment comes out as anger or sarcasm against everybody else. There’s one character in particular, Geoffrey Day, whose nasty comments and sarcasm about the meaningless mantras of the ‘programme’ have a habit of getting under other inmates’ skin. We wonder how long he’ll last. This is in the late autumn of YDAU as well, so things in Ennet House might well impinge on things outside – as might the luridly described ‘seizure’ suffered by poor Tony Krause. He’s the cross-dressing, boa-wearing petty crook and addict, now scared to go out following his accidental theft of that prosthetic heart. He’s been going through self-administered cold turkey, is failing, and has gone out to find a hit from someone, anyone. The seizure takes place on a subway train. This is just around the time, maybe even the very same evening, when Hal, Pemulis and others are about to go for their ‘Interdependence Day Eve’ night out.
I mentioned denial, which is turning into a big theme. It’s in Ennet House, obviously – who is it who comes out with one of those AA mantras that Geoffrey Day, the greatest denier of all, hates so much, that ‘Denial isn’t a river in Egypt’? – it’s in everybody. Hal, proudly telling Orin that he wasn’t in therapy to recover from the horror of discovering their father’s body, but just to find out what words he needed to use to get the creepy therapist off his case. There’s Avril, in total denial about wanting to control every last thing in her sons’ lives by telling them they have to make their own choices – while all the time she tries to dictate it all. There’s ‘CT’ explaining in great detail how he can understand why the Incandenza boys (and especially Orin) might have got the wrong idea about him – when they’ve clearly got exactly the right idea about him. There’s Orin, bullying, narcissistic Orin (his treatment of Mario as a kid was truly nasty, and his treatment of women now is worse), blaming everybody but himself. Poor Tony Krause is in denial about every last thing, from his blasted appearance that he thinks might still be ok to the idea that cold turkey can only be assisted by a rigid reliance on codeine- and alcohol-based medicines.
Who have I missed? (Sorry, Hal. Whom?)
Wallace seems to have found a pace he’s comfortable with. I suspected he’d get here – after all, we’re over a third of the way through now. Most of these pages are made up of three main sections. There’s a 21-page description of a tennis-based war game that falls apart when one player steps outside the carefully defined system of rules and everybody just starts fighting. There’s a 35-page section, only occasionally interrupted by updates of other threads, based in and around Ennet House. And there’s a ten-page chapter based in ETA, describing the annual showing of Mario’s stop-frame animation satirising the creation of ONAN and, interwoven with this, more about the role played by Lyle, the man I’d described as the oiled guru. Is he a therapist? Father confessor? The voice of God?
The war game, designed by Pemulis, is the improbably-named Eschaton. This is the Greek word for ‘last,’ and has occasionally been used in theological works since the 1930s. It is defined as ‘the divinely ordained climax of history,’ but, as in eschatology, originally referred to the four last things in the Christian life. ‘Eschaton’, when used now, is usually taken to mean the bringing about of the end of history, as in doomsday scenarios. The war game chapter here consists of 21 acronym-heavy pages, brilliantly realised although feeling really dated now. Wallace couldn’t have known – could he? – that in the real YDAU – surely near the end of the first decade of the 21st Century – there would be infinitely more subtle video games based on microchips and algorithms not even dreamed of in 1996 when he was writing this stuff. They render Pemulis’s desktop-based computer and monitor combo, shunted around the playing area in a glorified shopping trolley, seem more steampunk than cutting-edge.
But that isn’t the point. Every few weeks, the younger players at ETA get to act out these fantasy games of nuclear annihilation. It’s the first acknowledgement in this novel so far (aside from ETA’s foreign tours) that that there’s a whole world outside that has problems that are no doubt just as bad as in North America. I’m wondering if the satire is any more biting than what we get in the War Games movie of 1983…. But maybe that isn’t the point either, because Wallace is able to play games of his own as he reaches the last few pages of the chapter. The terminally annoying Ingersoll, for the first time in the history of the game (oh yeh?), breaks its cardinal rule. He aims a tennis ball, representing megatons of nuclear warheads, directly at an opposing player’s head. Pemulis is incandescent as he sees the metaphorical universe of the game being compromised.
And it leads to one of the most knockabout comic/violent set pieces of the novel so far as kids beat each other up with more and more determination. It ends as, trailing diskettes as it goes, the aging computer equipment describes a physics-defying arc through the air just as Otis Lord (O. Lord, I guess), the beanie-wearing ‘God’ of the game, travels along an equally physics-defying arc towards the same spot. In what must be a deliberate echo of the death of James Incandenza: ‘Lord does indeed go headfirst down through the monitor’s screen, and stays there, his sneakers in the air….’ We’ve seen stuff like this in a hundred animated cartoons. And, at last, we get what Wallace is up to. This isn’t fiction as we know it, this is fiction by a man who, like Ingersoll, is tired of the old rules, wants to break them all, and – and what? And just see what happens.
What happens, on the same day – it’s 8 November, ‘Interdependence Day’ – is one of Emmet House’s weekly AA meetings. (I’ll come back to dates. It’s been clear for some time that things are coming together along a couple of time-lines.) As in previous chapters, it’s possible to imagine some parts as stand-alone short stories. We find out how the Boston meetings depend to such an extent on the non-judgmental approach to the speakers’ stories that nobody stops them, however excruciating or embarrassing they become. There are different kinds of speakers, from the near-catatonically nervous to the ones who are quite sure they should never have been placed on the programme and those who are only out to find a ‘cause,’ the thing that more or less forced them into their habit. Whatever they say, other people attending the meeting have been there – and this is part of the process by which new members begin to realise that, yes, there might be a way up from the ‘bottom’ they are convinced they have reached. These other people have survived.
At first it really is just a matter of getting through each day, and Wallace homes in on Gately, whose experience and attitude seem to be at least partly autobiographical. You really get the feeling, again, that Wallace is writing about what he knows. Following on from earlier descriptions of him earlier in the novel, Wallace pieces together every last detail of the almost incomprehensible process that turns a cynic into a believer. Nobody knows how, but the AA’s laughable mantras (we remember the sarcasm of Geoffrey Day in a previous chapter) and insistence on the importance of prayer, whether you are a believer or not, really do bring about change. Go figure.
There are a lot of smaller threads running through the Ennet House chapters. There are the ‘Crocodiles’ – I can’t remember the narrator’s explanation of their name – the ancient members who can’t possibly have any need of the meetings any more, but haven’t missed a single one for years and years. There are the harrowingly detailed individual stories, presented more or less verbatim – including one from an addict whose description of her stillborn child contains weird echoes of the birth of Mario. (Her refusal, or inability to accept that the child was dead went on for days and weeks, until it had to be… never mind. Wallace’s descriptions of the ‘Bottom’ – the narrator explains the group’s love of capitalisation – never leave out a single item.) And there are people we recognise. Joelle is in there, still veiled, and in thrall to an OCD habit to rival any of the other addictions we’ve seen. Kate is there too, keeping herself to herself. Meanwhile Gately, physically huge and able to take care of himself, sort of, is keeping the faith now with the best of them. And I keep wondering whether that DA he once humiliated is going to start making life difficult.
And then there’s Wallace’s oblique way of filling in some historical background. Last time it was by way of Hal’s explanations to Orin. This time it’s Mario’s version of the astonishing rise of crooner Johnny, later President, Gently. It feels odd to read about it during the summer of the most bizarre Presidential election campaign I can ever remember. Donald Trump, after picking an unwinnable fight with the Gold Star parents of a Muslim soldier, is now diverting attention by labelling Hillary Clinton as the devil. Perhaps it will work. Whatever, Wallace’s choice of crude stop-frame animation allows him to gloss over the cartoonish events following Gently’s election. In this alternative future, history seems to have ended – it’s made explicit that there’s no threat of war from the former Warsaw Pact countries and no jihadist threat any more – so Gently leaves NATO, gets rid of nuclear weapons and concentrates on the state of the planet. Or, more specifically, the state of the USA…. Gently’s take on ‘clean’ government is exactly that. His morbid fear of any form of dirt, real or imagined, is a more extreme version of Joelle’s. It explains the catapults and fans. ONAN and the arrangements to send all waste and pollution northwards are as likely as anything else in this fantasy (i.e. Wallace abandoned any pretence of plausibility a long time ago), so we reach the point we’re at in YDAU. Fine.
There’s other stuff. As Mario’s film cartridge plays – it’s become an annual treat in Interdependence Day – mainly young students prepare to ask Lyle for advice. They make sure they arrive in his darkened room complete with a film of sweat – Lyle seems to like that, apparently, and I suppose Wallace thinks the innuendo is hilarious – and they pour out their fears and insecurities. Lyle listens, and advises… and it becomes another way for Wallace to pick away at the indefensible pressures of the sports academy system.
And… what else in these pages? On that long night of 30 April/ 1 May six months earlier, Marathe the Wheelchair Man makes Hugh (not yet Helen) Steeply listen to his mockery of the self-indulgence of US culture. They routinely refer to that lethal film cartridge, made by James Incandenza, as the ‘Entertainment’, and Marathe makes the point that it is the perfect weapon against a country that can’t say no to the next indulgence. He links it to a badly thought through idea of what freedom consists of, ‘freedom from’ – that is, I think, freedom from prohibitions – rather than ‘freedom to’. They have no defence against something that offers what they want… and we seem to have an immediate link with the many forms of addiction and dependence in this novel. Maybe. Also, there has been mention of another film cartridge, also made by Himself, that acts as a kind of antidote to the first. Don’t look for logic in a novel like this.
I said I’d come back to time-lines. The main one is in November YDAU: the preparations for ID Eve (and Hal’s second call from Orin), the game of Eschaton on the day itself – with Hal and the other seniors very much the worse for wear, only gradually coming down from whatever drug high they are on – the meeting of the AA, the showing of Mario’s film. Pemulis’s proposed trial of DMZ, which hasn’t been mentioned for a hundred pages or more, is to come (I think) the week after. Pemulis drugged his opponent’s drinking water to ensure a win in a qualifying match earlier in November, not because he really wanted a place in the up-coming competition, but because it would free him up for the weekend before it.
But there are those frequent flashbacks to April, when Hugh Steeply is only at the beginning of his transformation into Helen. Steeply’s pursuit of Orin for the ‘putative’ magazine article, beginning (I think) in October, is one of the outcomes of the mountaintop meeting. I think the six-month gap is so that Steeply can get his sexuality properly fixed, which brings me (or brings me back) to…
…comic-book logic. My favourites so far, in reverse order:
5: Pemulis needs a place in the big tennis competition so that he has a free weekend to try out the DMZ he’s tracked down. Mysteriously, his opponent in the qualifying match seems to lose any contact with reality. Was it something he ate? Or drank?
4. In an alternative 21st Century in which Moore’s Law doesn’t apply, Pemulis needs his high-powered computer to be portable. So he has it on a shopping trolley, complete with 1990s-style monitor.
3. Numbered years are replaced by sponsored names. (And the Statue of Liberty’s torch is now replaced each year by whatever the sponsor decides.
2. A President with hygiene-related OCD who is responsible for ‘clean’ government needs to get rid of the country’s waste and polluted air. It would be a kind of imperialism to simply dump it on a neighbour – so somebody invents ‘experialism.’ Your country merges with two others on a supposedly equal footing. It isn’t dumping if all the garbage arrives on ONAN territory.
1. My favourite. Hugh Steeply has a long-term plan to get information out of Orin Incandenza. The only way available seems to be through sex, but by the end of April YDAU his transformation into a sex goddess has a very long way to go. However, by the beginning of November Orin is so excited by the oversized charms of the new Subject writing an article about him, he bombards his brother with phone-calls to get the information she seems to want. It’s taken six months and more, but ‘Helen’ Steeply has Orin just where she wants him. Now, there’s dedication.
Last time, I wrote that considering that this is one of the most overwritten novels of all time, I was enjoying it. There was the Eschaton game, those chapters in Ennet House, Steeply’s long-term project. But in these chapters I often found myself thinking things like, Yes David, we already know quite enough about ONAN and Interdependence. Or No David, we don’t need to know every last detail of the eight tennis drills performed every morning…. Ho-hum.
There are a lot of chapters set in ETA. Tennis seems, more than ever, a perfect metaphor of Wallace’s version of the striving, individualistic myth of the American Dream. And, of course, it’s autobiographical: Wallace was always playing the game and writing about it in stories and essays. Tennis, as he presents it, is both narcissistic – how many preening adolescents do we meet? – and lonely at the same time. In an earlier chapter we read about those younger players going to see Lyle, offering him something that he needs while he offers them advice about the tortured places they find themselves in. ‘How can I –?’ ‘What should I –?’ ‘Why do I –?’ In Wallace’s presentation of it, it’s a game designed to force the player into the most introspective corners imaginable. And then we get the story of the hapless Clipperton.
It starts off as one of Wallace’s knockabout comic riffs. Clipperton being an ‘independent’ player who reaches the top by threatening to kill himself with his Glock pistol if he’s beaten. He develops a one-handed style during play, lovingly strokes the gun during breaks.on the court, and the story becomes darker and darker as it goes on. Nobody ever tries to beat him, so he keeps winning trophies – but there’s no official recognition of this in the US Tennis Association rankings. However, following some hasty calculations when the US and other North American associations combine, his name accidentally appears at the top of the list. Presumably, he knows it won’t last. Looking dreadful, he insists on an appointment with James Incandenza in which Mario is also present – and blows his brains out. Suicidal thoughts are something else Wallace knows all about.
I’m not going to write in detail about these chapters. Maybe I’ll get back into that later, but for now, here’s a sentence or two about each one. They’re mostly short, but I’ll tell you when they aren’t.
One of the ETA boys keeps waking up with his bed in different places in his (locked and bolted) room, and with objects arranged in complex patterns. The boy suspects he must be doing it himself – how messed up is that? – and Lyle has no better explanation. Except – ‘Do not underestimate objects!’ – a story in which a man is able to lift his own chair in the air while sitting on it. Go figure.
The Joke – James Incandenza’s non-film in which the audience watches a live projected image of itself becoming more and more dissatisfied until even the die-hard buffs and critics give up and leave.
Nine more pages of headlines and sub-headers about Gentle, Interdependence etc.
The Clipperton story, part 1
InterLace, and Wallace’s satirical take on (or, if you’re feeling ungenerous, his spectacularly wrong predictions about) the future of broadcast entertainment, told via eight pages of summaries of Hal’s essay on the demise of advertising and the rise of media based on the supposed choice of the individual consumer.
Twelve pages of Marathe and Steeply on the mountain ledge.
The Clipperton story, part 2
Ennet House, specifically Gately and his appalling cleaning jobs in other hostels
Clipperton, and the pressures of staying on top. (Lyle had told someone in a previous chapter that it is no more comfortable to be the subject of envy than to be the person doing the envying.)
Four pages satirising the cynical moves by Gentle and his supposed Svengali, Rodney Tine, to force Mexico and Canada to accede to their impossible demands. (Here and in the earlier section, Gentle had supposedly resorted to threatening a kind of national suicide by turning the USA’s nuclear warheads upside-down in their silos.)
Seven pages on Gately, including his unfeasibly horrible childhood with an alcoholic mother and her abusive partner.
First World problems faced by two of the Incandenza boys: Hal and his recurring dream of splintering teeth, and Mario’s disappointment at the disappearance of Madame Psychosis.
Eleven pages of tennis drills.
Eight pages of Gately at Ennet House, including the unfeasibly tough stroke victim and proud 1964 Ford Aventura owner Pat. She’s a leather-trousered, slightly lobsided woman who is still beautiful in some lights. We find out that Gately’s case has been almost lost in the Boston justice system’s bureaucracy – it’s more complicated than that, obviously – but that he’s full of fear that eventually he will almost certainly have to serve a 90-day sentence in a soft jail for driving offences. How on earth will he manage to stay off Substances when he doesn’t have daily AA meetings to attend? There are also some pages dedicated to the absurdity of Gately’s prayers to a God he knows does not exist, but the ritual of which helps him anyway. Go figure, again.
And that’s it. Except, somewhere along the way, CT is looking at Mario and thinking how yes, the human being he can only think of as ‘it’ could very well be his son.
Wallace’s invented world is a silly place. People’s behaviour might be recognisably human, but it’s often clownishly exaggerated or extreme. The consequences of their actions are often also recognisable – the horrors of cold turkey, the physical effects of extreme violence, the dermatological side-effects of trans-gender medical treatment – but, because they are in this clownish universe, they also often seem darkly comic. It’s as though the knockabout humour of circus performers becomes more and more ferocious as we watch, and not funny any more. I’m reminded of at least two animated shorts I saw years ago, in which a niggly little dispute between clowns descends into violence and death. The satire in them is no more subtle than in Wallace’s novel – the difference being that Wallace has invented a clownish variant of post-modernist narrative techniques, in which it’s part of the games-playing only to reveal the true idiocy over many hundreds of pages. Mario’s animated film, itself a clownish satire, doesn’t fill in the back-story of the creation of ONAN until 400 pages in.
The good news is that there’s another chapter with the young James Incandenza, now aged 13, and his useless, damaged father. As I read it, I was wishing we hadn’t had to wait 322 pages since the single previous episode in the young IJ’s life…. The knockabout comedy this time is to do with the fact that this is an autobiographical chapter about how the young mathematical genius came to fall in love with ‘annular systems’. Before he notices the extraordinary rolling motion of a broken-off knob on his bedroom floor (see diagram, page 502 in my edition), he has left his father lying prone across the empty bed frame broken by his collapse, face-down in his own vomit while his long-suffering wife vacuums the thick layer of dust around him. It becomes, of course, another chapter in the long story of the Incandenzas’ dysfunctionality: nothing in the young James’s early life prepared him for anything other than a complete inability to engage. His childhood was like being taught how to be autistic.
Is it the best chapter in this middle section of the book? Maybe, but we also get a better understanding than we’ve ever had before into the family as is now, years after the death of Himself. It’s in the context of Hal, Pemulis and Axford – the ones who had been out for the ID Eve celebrations together and who had failed to stop the fighting during the Eschaton game – wondering why they’ve been called to wait outside CT’s office two days later. The same waiting room gives on to Avril’s office too, and the detailed insights we continue to be given about Hal’s dark thoughts about his life are interspersed with the absurdities of the two adults’ working lives. CT, who loves to keep his door firmly closed, is always shown to be ridiculous. His awareness of his own absurdity only adds to it: there’s a long flashback to his attempt to calm the youngest girl ever to be offered a place at ETA, in which the language of his apology is as wrong as the things he said to the now sobbing child that upset her in the first place.
Meanwhile, as the boys wait, there’s the Moms’ attempt to get a conversation going with a group of new girls about being vigilant against inappropriate approaches from others. She’s getting nowhere, just as we approach the end of the story of CT’s attempt to calm the weeping child by putting her on his lap…. Later, after Avril has come out into the waiting room – her office door isn’t ever closed, we learn, because she’s had it taken off its hinges – we see her more closely than we ever have before. It’s all from the outside, of course, because we never get inside her head, but there’s always a hint of a sexual charge about her. Wallace describes how she balances her ‘tailbone’ on the edge of a table, and the very feminine way she smokes. (Marathe is always noticing how Steeply seems to have taught himself these same techniques. Gender differences are based a set of almost inexplicable codes in the Wallace universe.) Hal always behaves at ETA as though he forgets he is related to either her or CT, seems slightly shocked when anybody refers to them as his family.
Early on in the chapter in the waiting room, we learn how Lateral Alice got her nickname. It’s as ridiculous as the rest of it, as though Wallace can only imagine even a life-changing accident through a comic prism that makes her incapacity as clownish as everything else. (I’m not saying that it doesn’t make me laugh. Maybe that’s what’s clever about it.) And at the end of the same chapter – slow-burn narrative alert – we get to find out that the person waiting with CT in his office seems to be there to talk about urine samples…. How long ago was it when we were told that the boys let Mario film the boys’ exchange of samples because nobody would ever see the cartridges? Maybe they’re regretting it now.
What else? There are scenes featuring Ennet House residents, like the one featuring Erdedy’s inability to hug. It gets him a lot of trouble at the end of a meeting when another resident tries to make him understand that it isn’t optional. Jesus Christ, does he think anybody wants to do it? Another scene consists of half a dozen pages of Gately loving his drives in Pat’s Aventura as he makes the privileged residents of Enfield fear for their lives, until this segues seamlessly into a set-piece episode involving two grassroots Canadian activists whose place he passes by. I’ll come back to them. And there’s an eight-page scene in Ennet House, featuring… who? Wallace starts it off with a tease: we don’t know who’s talking, but we know where we must be because of the casual, not-quite heartless violence of the anecdote. A drunken night out ends with somebody getting shot in the back of the head. If everybody hadn’t been practically catatonic from the booze they might have thought of getting him to the hospital… but no. So it goes in the city’s ripped backside.
In fact, it’s Gately talking, in role as the night staff on duty. He’s talking to Joelle, and it soon becomes clear that nothing he says is going to impress her. But… she’s interested, somehow. She sees things beneath the tough facade, can tell he’s a lot brighter than he lets on. Meanwhile, he’s fascinated by her veil, doesn’t even try to hide how attractive he finds the parts of her that he can see. She’s used to this from men. She’s also very skilled at fending off questions about what she’s hiding and, as he tells her, all she does is keep changing the subject. But eventually – what? Is it the literal truth when she tells him her beauty drives ‘anybody with a nervous system out of their fucking mind’? We know that she might (or might not) be on the Infinite Jest cartridge, and this might (or might not) be why it’s so dangerous. It’s as logical as most other things in this novel…. Whatever, her conversation with Gately becomes the kind of bantering exchange you might almost expect in a rom-com. Almost. This is still Wallace-land, and banter is as bizarre as everything else. But we await developments with interest.
The scene involving the Canadian activists is a Wallace set piece. They are brothers, and their Hell’s Angels-grade strength and toughness – one of them carries a pistol permanently cocked, and the other has a broom handle sharpened to deadly point – contrasts absurdly with the fastidious care that one of them lavishes on keeping clean their antiques and curios shop. It’s all as lovingly described as anything in Dickens, until the one with the broom starts to hear ominous squeaks. Despite his Quebecois heritage, he knows no French – how we laughed – and therefore has no knowledge of the ways of the wheelchair-bound terrorists. His brother is already dead with a railroad spike in his eye – their trademark – and the violence escalates. They think the brothers have the master cartridge of the Entertainment, and are disappointed when they get no help from their countryman to the questions they ask him. In French. Wallace describes in repulsive detail the way they impale him, from the mouth downwards, on his own broom. We’re not laughing now.
We’re getting to know more about the Entertainment from the four short scenes, scattered among the other chapters, featuring Marathe and Steeply on the mountaintop. (The long night of their April 30/ May 1 conversation never seems to end – it isn’t even dawn yet – and it becomes another of Wallace’s droll narrative diversions.) Among other things to do with their two countries’ imagined shared history since the 1970s – to be honest, I can never bring myself to be very interested in what sounds like a history lesson in South Park – they talk about the master copy of the cartridge they refer to as the samizdat. It really is dangerous – we get anecdotes about the good men and women who have lost their minds to it – and, for some reason, Steeply always feels he has to make the point that it isn’t only self-indulgent US citizens who succumb. Marathe never lets this sway his opinion. And, meanwhile, he is happy to let Steeply worry about whether he is a triple-agent, working for the organisation he is supposed to be informing on. As a satire of the spy genre, it’s about on a level with Austin Powers.
It’s a strange genre that Wallace has invented, a mashup God knows how many popular genres with an apparent desire to deal with serious questions about what it means to be human in a culture that has lost its way. Is his awkward, fractured, impossibly garrulous take-it-or-leave-it narrative style the most fit for purpose in such a project as this? I’ll get back to you.
Let’s talk about Lenz. Is his name a punning reference to lens, offering a different way to look at the world? It might be. Whatever, he is one of the darkest characters in the novel, with his own OCD thing about always being at the northernmost point any room, and his need to know the exact time. We spend a lot of time with him in these chapters, starting when we learn he has almost accidentally discovered his own way of making himself feel more alive. He murders cats. And dogs. We get Wallace’s hyper-exact descriptions of how the obsession develops from squashing rats out of sheer boredom to… something else. And it really isn’t ok. Who on earth would ever…?
But this is Infinite Jest, and if we’re not sure what Wallace might be satirising here, he gives us a helpful little nudge: ‘There evolved for Lenz a certain sportsman’s hierarchy of types of cats and neighbourhoods of types of your abroad cats; and he becomes a connoisseur of cats the same way a deep-sea sportsman knows the fish-species that fight most fiercely and excitatingly for their marine lives.’ It’s a satire of those ‘sportsmen’ – Wallace uses the word twice – who go out every day and do to fish something not that dissimilar to what Lenz does to cats before moving on to dogs. He even has to wait for them to be asphyxiated, their oxygen running out with no way for them to take any more in. (Was Wallace a fisherman? Is he pulling apart this activity with as much violence as he pulls apart his favourite, tennis?)
Wallace uses this habit of Lenz’s to move the plot along. About 50 pages further on, there’s what looks like the most crucial chapter yet at Ennet House, and it’s Lenz’s fixation that brings it on. Wallace is in the middle of describing how Gately, in his role as night-time Staffer, is having a hard time getting all the residents with cars to do the mandatory 0000h re-parking routine the authorities insist on. It’s part of the ongoing satire on police priorities, and that thread is never far away during the chapter. But it morphs into something else. Earlier in the evening, in an earlier chapter, we’ve seen how poor Bruce Green, the man with such low self-esteem he seems to have decided that Lenz is a better friend to have than none at all, tags along with Lenz after meetings. Lenz can’t get his nightly fix of pet-murdering, and has persuaded himself that the best way for him to shake Green off is to use some of his emergency stash of coke. Ah.
What happens next isn’t a disaster, it’s just idiotic. The coke makes Lenz garrulous to the point of psychosis, wanting to keep Green listening. He only loses Green by accident – but Green eventually sights him, again by accident. We get Green’s point of view as he sees Lenz get to work attracting the attention of a tied-up dog, feeding it some titbits, and slicing its throat. The Canadians in the house see him too, and set off in pursuit, It’s a good job Lenz is good as making himself scarce…. But they track him down, and it’s this situation that Gately has to deal with. His anxiety over trying to get the permission of a resident to have his car driven by someone else – the way he abides by every single rule is almost touching to see – is overtaken by the hellish clamour from outside.
The next ten pages or so are told almost entirely from Gately’s point of view. But this isn’t just about Gately going through different stages of stress over the next few slow-motion minutes. The extremity of the situation, as he realises he has to deal with three very angry potentially dangerous men, takes him through different states of being, different former selves as he re-lives situations from his life before he got sober. One of the men clearly knows how to handle his very serious-looking handgun and another has a knife. But Gately knows about this kind of thing, and soon a deeper, more instinctive part of his brain and nervous system take over. It feels like calmness, and there’s a sort of smile on his face…. But, as he beats two of the men – we hear the sickening splintering of various bones – one of them slashes at his leg and he feels a punch in the shoulder that he realises is a bullet. Soon after this, while all the time knowing it’s very important to stay focused, he decides to spend some time lying on the frozen ground.
All around, the house residents do what they do. One screams incessantly, some of them join in the beatings – Lenz, when it’s safe, starts to kick one of the men – and others just look scared. Green helps Gately when he’s wounded, and Joelle does her best to tend him, her night-clothes and veil sometimes moving in the breeze enough to let him register the loveliness of what he can see beneath. (I remember at the beginning of this novel noticing the ubiquity of the male gaze when attractive women are around. Nothing much has changed, and it’s very rare for us to see things from women’s points of view.) Joelle’s tenderness towards Gately rings alarm-bells for Erdedy, listening, because housemates aren’t supposed to get this close. Meanwhile Gately, just conscious, insists that nobody calls the cops, despite two of the Canadians appearing to be dead. Almost throughout the whole chapter, he’s been a hero of authority, self-sufficiency and initiative. Ok, he’s beaten three men almost to death, and his housemates seem to have finished the job… but, by the end, he’s done what he had to do. The chapter ends with Green, Joelle and others preparing to help him into the house. ‘Ready?’ How conventional is that?
Elsewhere in these chapters…. Wallace takes us through Orin’s emotional dysfunctionality, as we get every stage – except for the actual sex – of an encounter Orin has with a married ‘Swiss hand model’ he’s met. Women love him because he’s so considerate and giving. What they don’t know is a) he has no interest in them as people and b) it is absolutely necessary for him that the woman derives maximum pleasure from the experience. Orin ‘can only give, not receive, pleasure.’ We don’t know why this is, or how much it has to do with either Joelle or Avril. There’s a long endnote giving his answers to the questions Steeply asks him for the article. He won’t talk about his mother. And there’s a man in a wheelchair who knocks on his hotel room door while the hand model hides in bed. He is supposedly doing a survey, but Orin just knows he’s a fan seeking his autograph – except, he realises, this wheelchair man is the first one he’s encountered since he stopped seeing them while ‘Helen’ Steeply was around, and he has the same accent as the hand model. I’ve no idea what’s going on, beyond some fairly inept surveillance… or the implied threat.
Next. There are some scenes in and around ETA, two of them involving Pemulis. We see him dressed as badly as he can manage, on his way to see Avril in her office outside normal hours. There – perhaps he expected it, because he is completely unfazed – he finds that she is doing something that looks bizarrely unprofessional to John ‘NR’ Wayne, who is almost naked. Another time, there is a scene in which he makes Idris, the Indian student who has blindfolded himself in a farcically hopeless bid to heighten his other senses, wait until his bladder is almost bursting before showing him the way to the john.
Wallace loves these teasing encounters where a character is almost beside himself with anxiety (think of Gately and the parking of the cars before ‘Security’ arrives), and this is almost a re-run of the long scene when Hal was on the phone to Orin, with Pemulis hopping with frustration in the background. Then, Hal was explaining to Orin about Interdependence and the Quebecois’s response to it. Now, Pemulis is explaining to Idris the science of waste management according to the demented physics of Infinite Jest. It’s to do with that slippery concept ‘annulation’, which has given rise to ‘annular fusion’. It seems to involve a kind of recycling of energy, in which nuclear waste is made even more toxic in order to create more energy. The Concavity isn’t a dump, it’s a crucible of TS Eliot-strength barren wasteland (Eliot is actually cited) alternating with the kind of crazed fecundity you only find in science fiction movies. And, if Pemulis is to be believed, the cycle happens several times a month, and gigantic hybrids of creatures have evolved. We remember stories of the dangerously feral hamsters that have become a part of Concavity folklore.
And Pemulis, it transpires, has a motive for taking his time – to soften Idris up to get him to promise to save his pristine urine. This very shortly after that mysterious meeting in CT’s office…. In fact, Wallace is slowly taking us, in both the Ennet House and ETA threads, through that week following Interdependence Day. We’ve now reached November 11, and it’s hard not to believe that things are going to come together in some mighty cataclysm. We’ve seen that Wallace is capable of playing a long game, by having Lenz’s murderous habit lead, step by step, to the disaster that has befallen Gately. We also know that Pemulis’s planned DMZ experiment with Hal and Axford is going to be the following weekend. There’s only one third of the book remaining so, surely, something big is going to have to happen soon.
There’s already been the first hint of a link between ETA and Ennet House. Mario, on one of the late-night walks his mother allows him to go on, finds himself outside Ennet House. Somebody inside is playing a tape – things haven’t moved beyond that in Wallace’s analogue future – of one of Madame Psychosis’s broadcasts. Mario judges it’s an early one, when she used to do a lot of talking, because it was when her Southern accent was more pronounced than it became later. He wonders about visiting the place at some future time to get to hear more. He still misses her.
Joelle, now I think of it, is all kinds of archetypes. She used to be some kind of Siren, luring men in the night into all kinds of dangerous psychological places whilst making them believe that only through her will they find any kind of fulfilment. (The parallels with the Entertainment are clear, to do with temptation and danger.) But with Gately she’s assumed another role, the nurturing, caring woman who can tend to the wounds of the male hero. But her secrets are becoming less secret: one of the Ennet House residents (is it Erdedy?) recognises her voice from the radio, and Erdedy has seen two yards – it’s probably metres – of perfect leg as she has climbed down from her window to help Gately. Gately himself has caught glimpses of her chin and lip that show no signs at all of deformity…. How long before the full unveiling?
Anything else? There’s a half-page scene in which Hal, very much keeping himself to himself on his bed, is briefly looked in on by three ETA residents, who each quickly withdraw. There’s Bruce Green’s unbelievably depressing childhood back-story, involving a practical joke gone wrong – the novelty present his failure of a father gives him to give to his mother leads to a heart attack they think is a joke at first, but which kills her – and the consequent suicide of the father. (Any of this sound familiar?)
Finally… references to Ulysses, the daddy of all father/son novels. I’ve already mentioned that Madame Psychosis must be a deliberate echo of ‘metempsychosis’ in that novel, and it’s to do with transformations. Joelle is transforming before our eyes in her dealings with Gately, while Gately has spent the past year trying to leave behind everything about himself in his addict, criminal phase. The fight scene shows how far he has come – and how far he hasn’t come. How many other transformations are there in this novel? The addicts becoming functional human beings in Ennet House is one. But another one is Hal’s transformation into the gibbering wreck of the first chapter. That one is still a mystery. (The other reference is ‘scrotumtightening’. Where else will you find that word but Ulysses?)
I haven’t particularly been going on about the way Wallace writes – although it’s at least as important as anything else. Like plot, or content. Early on I called it ‘maximalist’, and that’s what we get in the seven-page chapter in which Madame Psychosis’s tech guy at the studio is abducted by wheelchair men, with Steeply and Rodney Tine apparently looking on from high windows. In terms of plot, that’s all that happens in that chapter. The rest is – what? It includes some satirical back-story about the ubiquity of home entertainment, with all the attendant physical and psychological down-sides you would expect from too much ‘choice’ (Wallace’s quote-marks). It leads to people going outside to watch absolutely anything that’s happening on the street, and if it’s a fairly regular event they congregate in concentric rings. I can’t remember if Wallace refers to annulations at this point, but he might do. The tech guy is catching some rays on a slope of public grass, away from the crowds on a November morning while the municipal pond is being cleaned…. The Canadians, every one of them wheelchair-bound, resort to a digger-type scoop to lift him, literally, into the van waiting at the bottom of the slope. You can always pick out their vehicles: only the bottom halves are clean. Think about it, then groan.
Wallace is careful not to tell us exactly when this is in that same November. From the beginning it’s been a thing of his to make us keep our eyes open for any clue – but we don’t yet know what Steeply might have passed on about Madame Psychosis. We still don’t even know whether Marathe is really helping them, or – and this has been Steeply’s problem from the start – whether he’s a triple-agent. But a few chapters later we get one of those Easter egg-style clues which, surely, must have convinced Steeply that ‘the Moms’ is certainly involved. Ok. But, at the point I’ve reached, nothing yet connects her to Joelle/Madame Psychosis and from her to the tech guy…. Maybe the interest that Mario takes in the tapes he’s heard through the window of Ennet House somehow leads to a connection, or a perceived one. If so, it hasn’t happened yet. Wallace likes to play a long game.
The clue relates to the first appearance of the ‘Entertainment’ in the novel. Steeply, fishing around for any information he can find on Orin and the rest of the family, has written to a man who used to be an old tennis-partner of his at ETA. Marlon K Bain’s replies to the questions Steeply has asked him (the ones we don’t actually see, but are presented as a string of bizarrely punctuated ‘Qs’) make up a five-page endnote, and the clue is hidden right in the middle of it: we find out that Avril had known the Muslim medical assistant who, we remember, is the first person described in the novel to suffer the terrible effects of the ‘Entertainment’ or samizdat. Marlon Bain calls him, in the most Wallace-like language possible, ‘the swarthily foreign-looking monilial-internist medical resident’ whom Avril herself describes as ‘a dear and cherished friend.’ This is maybe eight years before, when Orin was still at ETA.
So the man who is completely mind-fucked by the offending cartridge on April 1 YDAU – the date might have been a clue all along – was known, intimately, to Avril I. Avril I might be the person – the other contender is James I – earlier described by Bain as ‘the most consummate mind-fucker I have ever met.’ He says that for eighteen years Orin ‘studied at the feet of’ said mind-fucker, and ‘remains so flummoxed he thinks the way to escape that person’s influence is through renunciation and hatred of that person.’ Orin, of course, hates both his parents, refusing to attend the funeral of one and never replying to the letters of the other. Wallace, by having Bain refer to ‘that person,’ isn’t giving us any help as to the identity of the mind-fucker. Her? Or him?
A couple of other things about the way Wallace writes. In that quotation about the ‘medical resident’ is a word that no reader is going to recognise. From the OED we get ‘monilial: pertaining to the monilia, fungal growths in the throat.’ So he is definitely our man. And there’s a joke, hidden in the same kind of lexical obscurity. Bain’s company is ‘Saprogenic Greetings, Inc,’ and the meaning of that adjective is ‘causing decay or putrefaction.’ Is there a hidden message here? Do Bain’s answers contain only information that will putrefy Steeply’s investigation rather than keep it alive? Or is it just a silly joke? The point is, we don’t know – it’s important to Wallace that he keeps things from us for as long as he can.
There are plenty of other things going on in these chapters. It feels that most of the action takes place in or around ETA, starting with twelve pages in the refectory. We get to know the back-story of Ortho ‘The Darkness’ Stice, a sixteen-year-old we already know. He’s a country boy with the most unpromising background, but the match he’s just had, in which he came close to beating Hal, shows his quality. There’s a lot about players’ relative qualities in these chapters. Later there’s a long rewind chapter, as Helen Steeply has managed to get permission to come in to interview Hal…. But one of the subrectors, DeLint, deliberately seems to be keeping Steeply away from any member of the Incandenza family.
As Steeply is forced to watch Hal and Stice play their match, DeLint goes into minute detail about their strengths and weaknesses, and those of Pemulis, John ‘NR’ Wayne and a whole load of others. Wallace has DeLint go into an almost OCD level of painstaking detail about the precise nature and gradations of different players’ sporting skill. And, inevitably, their failures. Meanwhile, sitting on the other side of Steeply, Poutrincourt describes the existential horror at the centre of the life of any tennis player. It’s easy to imagine the unfulfilled lives of the ones who don’t quite make it; but the lives of the successful ones are just as bad, or worse. They dedicate their lives to the game, which is doomed to eventual disappointment. Or their lives become an ongoing celebration of their success – Poutrincourt calls this the Syndrome of the Endless Party – and they are doomed too. She likes the word ‘doomed’.
Straight after the refectory scene there’s one of the longest chapters yet on the outcrop over Tucson. It’s daybreak on May 1 and, for something like nine pages, Steeply tells the story of his father’s debilitating obsession with the TV series of MASH. Marathe isn’t sure whether it’s true or not, and what point Steeply is making about the Entertainment/samizdat one way or the other. And immediately after that there’s a four-page confessional at Ennet House, in which Kate Gompert (remember her?) is captivated by Geoffrey Day’s description of the ‘billowing’ sense of dread or depression she imagines. Kate seems to recognise it, except with her it’s somehow triangular. Beyond this apparently chance encounter, I’ve no idea whether either of these two will have any other role in the unfolding story. Things are happening, slowly, and Wallace is still keeping a lot of the connections from us. But I bet there’s a connection in there somewhere. And Day’s description of suicidal thoughts sounds terribly familiar: ‘I understood the term hell as of that summer day and night….’
Anything else? Probably – I’ve just remembered that Hal is keeping himself off the dope, has done for days, and this might (or might not) account for the edge being taken off his game. But I’ve left off reading for a couple of weeks and it’s time to get back up to speed.
Will I be glad to finish this novel? Yes. Will I be glad to have read it? Possibly. Do I regret ever starting it? You bet. Wallace is a clever writer, but… but finish that sentence in any of the 20 or 30 ways that would describe how annoying, repetitive, laboured, patronising (etc.) it is. But amongst the stupidity – and I include the unbelievably laboured humour in that – there is, occasionally, some really clever stuff.
Ok. Plenty is happening – including an incident when Orin bores everybody at the Incadenzas’ dining table with an impersonation long after it’s ceased to be witty. I wonder if it might be Wallace’s wry acknowledgment of one of his own bad habits…. It’s an incident recalled by Joelle – 700 pages in, in that teasing way of his, Wallace is filling in a few details at last – and Orin’s isn’t the only impersonation we get. As various threads come together, with Lenz back Out There and snatching two Chinese women’s bags whilst Poor Tony (‘PT’) Krauze snatches the purses of Kate Gompert and another Ennet inmate, Wallace will sometimes imitate the voice of the character whose point of view we’re following. He doesn’t do it with Poor Tony, but he does it with Lenz, using all his malapropisms and presenting his self-justifying fantasies as the literal truth. Getting thrown out of Ennet, in his version, is the best thing that could have happened.
Later, he does it with Marathe, now confirmed as a triple-agent (and considering, to use his own word, becoming a quadruple). He is in Ennet House, impersonating a potential inmate in order to find out if there’s a veiled woman there who used to appear in JI’s entertainments. Every sentence in the chapter is written in an English that feels badly translated from the French, which has always been Marathe’s way of speaking. It makes no narrative sense in this context, obviously, but Wallace likes the joke so much he keeps it up whenever Marathe or the other members of the AFR (don’t ask) are in the frame. He is told about a woman who is one of the ‘living’ staff, and Wallace is so pleased with the joke he explains it in a footnote: ‘Marathe’s malentendu of live-in.’ Thanks, Dave.
A brilliant commentary on the limitations of any mode of narration? Or like being stuck at a dinner party with a bore like Orin? You decide. (And talking about bores. In that long footnote about the origin of the AFR, the one in which we find out about the game of ‘chicken’ that has led to absolutely every member having lost his legs, the almost terminally pedantic Geoffrey Day is mentioned as someone who has done a study of the Canadian separatist groups. You can have revelations like that in novels that break all the rules of conventional feasibility.)
Anyway, I mentioned that threads seem to be coming together. (We’re three-quarters of the way through, so it’s not before time.) It’s 14th November in most of the chapters, and we’re both finding things out about what has gone before and seeing new events unfolding. The AFR – ok, it’s Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants – are holed up in the dead Canadian brothers’ shop, searching for the master cartridge. They’ve found a copy, and we get not only the usual details about the effects on the hapless volunteer viewers who confirm what it is, but also how the AFR test it on the abducted tech guy who hasn’t told them anything about Joelle despite brutal torture. Will he saw off a finger if it’s the only way he can continue watching? Will he saw off the ninth digit as willingly? (I just worked it out. He’ll need to keep at least one thumb to have some grip on the saw.)
Marathe, not the only person assigned to checking out the local rehab centres, notices some suspicious-looking cartridges in the office of the woman we recognise as Pat, the unfeasibly feisty stroke-victim warden at Ennet House. Will he kill her in one of the picturesque ways he runs through in his mind? (The psychopathic level of violence amongst AFR operatives is a kind of running gag – as is his disgust with himself that he found it surprisingly distasteful for him to impale the uncooperative brother. He almost felt sympathy, for goodness’ sake.) He decides he won’t – too many witnesses – and wonders which of the useful information he’s gathered he will pass on to his AFR boss, and which to Steeply…. Whichever, he won’t be telling either of them about Joelle, hidden from his view upstairs and cleaning in that OCD way of hers that reveals her permanently high level of stress. OCD behaviour is a running motif, of course. Avril is another who suffers from it, along with… how many others? Lenz, certainly – and most of the students at ETA, I’d say.
Other threads? I’ve mentioned Joelle’s memories of Orin, and we get quite a lot of back-story. How they met, his descriptions of the weirdness of his family, the overbearing mother and remote father, the brothers – she finds Hal, aged about ten, a prissy little brat – and the Thanksgiving dinner that lays bare all their eccentricities. Wallace, quite deliberately, is giving us a new angle on characters and behaviour we might think he’d established well enough already. In fact, we’ve only really had a very partial view of the family so far, largely through Hal and Orin’s eyes, and Joelle’s outsider view is a refreshing change. However extraordinary Orin might consider his unbalanced relationship with his parents, she finds his stories boring and predictable. And we discover how she never wanted to slip into the role Orin imagined for her, as a character in his father’s movies – it seems that at this time he still wanted to win his father over – but to be, as she puts it to herself, on the other side of the camera lens. But, so far, she hasn’t reached the part in which she moves her attention away from Orin and towards James. As things stand, ‘Himself’ – a nickname she finds, like ‘the Moms’, creepy, or immature, or both – is still a literally towering, remote presence. (Did I mention that both parents are almost impossibly tall?)
Joelle’s chapter is the one I’ve found most engaging in this section. It’s one of those in which Wallace does something new, but hidden amongst others whose main novelty has to do with those tricksy, Easter-egg-style hints and revelations of previously hidden connections. At this point, I don’t really care very much about those. So the AFR have two spies at ETA, an adult and a student? Am I supposed to start guessing – is the adult Avril? Poutrincourt? Somebody else? Is the student John ‘NR’ Wayne, the Canadian who has rescinded his nationality? How far will the AFR get in its aim to flood the USA with copies of the Entertainment? Is Joelle really disfigured, the victim of the acid-throwing that has been hinted at so often?
It all seems a little silly, somehow, which I guess is the point. It’s as though Wallace wants to prove that however many tricks and jokes and fireworks he can pull out of his bag, he can still write a serious novel. Well, maybe.
More than ever before, the lines of Philip Larkin haunt these chapters. (What do your mum and dad do, according to him? They fuck you up.) We’re introduced to a new character, Matty Pemulis, older brother of the Michael we know. He’s an addict inhabiting the underside of Boston that we’ve become familiar with, and his story is one that isn’t uncommon in the literary fiction of the 1990s, the routine sexual abuse of children. Wallace, as you’d expect, takes it to an extreme: Pemulis Snr, a stock Irishman, would return from one of his bouts of drinking and force himself on his eldest son. There’s something terribly desperate both about the twenty-something’s memory of the way that his father somehow made him believe that it would be a denial of filial love not to allow this proof of affection, and how long it took him to realise the truth. And, this being Infinite Jest, there’s a mother in the house but somehow offstage, allowing it to happen. Wallace makes sure we get this by bringing our attention to it in an endnote after mentioning her presence in the parental home just once.
Parental abuse, even in this novel, has never been so blatant before. And Wallace adds things to the mix even in relationships we thought we knew about…. I can’t remember who resurrects the subject of Avril’s serial infidelities before her husband’s suicide, even suggesting the possibility that one of these was with her eldest son. Of course, we don’t know the truth of this or any of the allegations against her. When I first began writing about this novel I described her as ‘by reputation a serial man-chaser.’ What I didn’t know then was how reputations in this novel can come about through rumour and speculation on the part of the most unreliable of witnesses. Later it comes to be a given that we should be suspicious of everything a character says. This includes the novel’s main narrator – who doesn’t exist in a conventional form, of course, often taking on the persona of whichever character happens to be in the frame. However… we remember that scene witnessed by Pemulis in Avril’s office, the one in which John ‘NR’ Wayne is one all fours, almost naked, while she looks on. But we don’t actually know what was going on there – I can’t remember what she was actually doing at the time – and when Pemulis threatens to use it against her she lets him know that he can go ahead.
Is Avril evolving into the most witch-like of evil mother characters, or if this is another of Wallace’s games? She certainly has the look of a pantomime witch, two metres tall (that’s six foot eight) with a ‘corona’ of white hair she’s had for as long as Hal can remember. But I’ll be disappointed if she does prove to be the villain. For many hundreds of pages she was almost entirely offstage, looming in the background – so that the narrator’s innuendos that Mario is CT’s son appear even before we’ve met her properly. When we do meet her, she is still a character in her sons’ stories. One of her grotesquely gushing letters to Orin is presented verbatim fairly early on, but not the woman herself. When a typical evening meal in the ‘HmH’ finally is described, one of the most memorable things about it is the fact that she only eats after nightfall, and will not have doors in the house.… But I think it’s at this meal, almost half-way through the novel, that we witness first-hand her way of talking to both her sons. We’ve already heard about how determined she is to let them know how she will never judge them, but up close her constant insistence on this comes over as morbidly compulsive.
Now, 800-odd pages in, we get the most explicit confirmation of what Hal thinks about her. Wallace, through some deliberately ridiculous plot manoeuvring, gets him to witness a luridly dark comic set piece in which men complain about their parents’ failures by way of teddy bears and reversion to the ‘Inner Infant.’ Already almost retching through his withdrawal, Hal feels a lot worse among these bearded, middle-class men who clearly never grew up in the first place. What do they know? ‘All through his own infancy and toddlerhood, Hal had continually been held and dandled and told at high volume that he was loved, and he feels he could have told [this man’s] Inner Infant that getting held and told you were loved didn’t automatically seem like it rendered you emotionally whole….’ This is what Avril never seems to realise, of course. Her overt demonstrations of love and respect – there’s a different scene in which Mario knows she’s studiously not looking at her watch while he talks to her – never, ever seem meaningful.
Hal’s arrival at the meeting is a comic set piece in itself. He’d gone to Ennet House, the nearest rehab place to ETA, to research how to deal with his withdrawal symptoms. By now, we know that there is to be a proper urine test in 30 days’ time, and Hal knows it will take at least this long for his system to flush itself out. (He was very impressed by Pemulis’s ability to persuade the man from the Tennis Association that a 30-day delay would be reasonable, not realising either that Pemulis has a hold over Avril, or that she would pull every possible string on behalf of her son anyway.) We see Hal as one of the Ennet House residents sees him, as privilege personified – these new angles on characters we know have become a feature – and he is given details of an ‘NA’ meeting. But, it later turns out, the brochure is out of date. Attending the wrong meeting, Hal can only survive by imagining himself at different locations in the world, alphabetically. By the time the participant is crawling like an infant towards the man he has nominated as his parent-substitute – the father-surrogate’s name, significantly enough, is Jim – Hal is ‘doing a lazy backstroke in the Azores.’ The water he is spouting is ‘glassy,’ not at all like the nasty-looking saliva he is really producing in pints. It’s a symptom of withdrawal, of course, yet another thread in what has always appeared to be, like suicide, one of Wallace’s go-to obsessions. I’ll come back to that, because…
…long before Hal’s experience with the bearded Infants we’ve heard of more parental abuse. By way of another narrator, being interviewed by Tine using his favourite film noir shining light technique – how we laughed – we find out about Joelle’s girlhood in Kentucky. We already know about her unsuccessful, ‘low pH’ father who always told her how beautiful she was. But now we find out why a super-intelligent student like her is in the baton-twirling team. Daddy didn’t want his ‘Pookie’ to grow up, which was ok for a while. And then it wasn’t. He tried first to ignore and then suppress any evidence of puberty, in fact treating her as though she were growing younger by the year. (Joelle later wonders whether the local boys’ reluctance to speak to her had less to do with her unapproachable beauty than her father’s warnings to them to stay away from his girl.)
All this leads to a key scene, and one of the novel’s most spectacular reveals so far. Not only is Joelle genuinely disfigured; it was her mother who did it, while aiming for her husband. His ‘low pH’ tag is one of Wallace’s jokes, because he keeps a collection of acids in the basement, supposedly as part of his job. (Or not. It doesn’t matter.) Joelle has brought Orin home for dinner – is it a different Thanksgiving? – and, at the table, the mother finally tells how she knows exactly what her husband and daughter are up to. And one thing leads to another. She misses him with the acid, Orin ducks… and Joelle gets it. We don’t know the details or extent of the disfigurement, but we know it’s real all right. And maybe that’s enough about parental abuse for now.
I was talking about withdrawal. How many characters have been able to stay clean after giving up? And how hard does Wallace always present the process as being? I’ve long had the feeling that he protests too much, for instance by making a trope out of the identical hope felt by Joelle and Erdedy – and how many others, would you say? – that this last hit really will be the last. Addicts – I’m talking about real addicts – don’t always find it as hard as Wallace clearly did…. All of which makes me unsure about how to take Pemulis’s Mephistopheles-like words to Hal about the impossibility of withdrawal. Whatever your need is, he says, you can’t just leave it. The best you can do is to find another need you can meet at less cost to yourself. It might be another drug – this is Pemulis’s favoured option, obviously – or, if you’re pathetic (I’m paraphrasing) it could be AA, God or some other cult that closes down rational thought. He’s persuading Hal that he, Pemulis, is the expert now, and that some drugs leave no trace after just a few hours. Like – start ringing those alarm-bells now, as we approach the end of this fateful November week – DMZ. Nobody will ever know you’ve been near it.
Does this come during one of the two long Pemulis-related chapters that Wallace inexplicably places as endnotes? And does the other chapter, the one in which the Moms finally seems to have decided to stop turning a blind eye to what he’s been up to all this time? (I assume that anyone with her controlling tendencies isn’t going to have missed what he’s been doing, especially when he’s always let Mario film anything because nobody ever looks at the end product.) There’s more than one possible reason why she’s out to get Pemulis. She’s wheedled out of Mario that the person he’s noticed a change in since the Eschaton debacle is Hal, and perhaps she knows about the connection between him and Pemulis.
But the ostensible reason for his ejection is John NR Wayne. He, famous amongst the players for being drug-free, has accidentally ingested so much of a particular substance from a pill-bottle of Pemulis’s room-mate’s that he’s gone on the ETA internal radio to make a series of spectacularly disinhibited taunts and accusations about the staff. We hear some of these, recounted distastefully by DeLint during the expulsion process – but, of course, we know we don’t know all of it. What Pemulis is wondering is who put the drugs in the bottle, because he knows he didn’t. (Why am I suddenly thinking about the Aliens film franchise, notably Alien 3, in which the Sigourney Weaver character discovers the Queen Alien, a creature that will do absolutely anything for its brood, but that there is a new queen growing inside her own body? That film came out in 1992.)
So, things are hotting up. Hal is desperate, in that Wallace-like way we know about, to find some way to help him to cope with his withdrawal. Pemulis, unknown to Hal so far, is out of there with no chance of any kind of future success. And Marathe…. What’s he been up to? Still imitating a Swiss national, he is talking to the person we now know he helped after the purse-snatch some chapters back. He gallantly ‘ran over’ the perpetrator, and now he’s having a drink with the woman he calls ‘Katherine’. Ah. The change in name from the Kate we know signals a complete personality change. Is it from the high-octane vodka cocktails he’s feeding her? Or the bang on the head she got when Poor Tony swung her around (accidentally) because her purse-strap wouldn’t break? Before that event, one of the Ennet inmates had been talking about how a head injury can sometimes lead to the solution of people’s problems, but I’d tried to suppress the possibility when Kate was concussed. More fool me.
In a much earlier chapter, of course, a man in a wheelchair and a ‘Swiss’ hand model were having close encounters of different kinds with Orin in his hotel. The chapter was set at an unknown date, and now I’m wondering if Kate might be the woman. (She must be, surely?) And, we discover, the cartridges Marathe saw in Pat’s office, the ones with the smiley face logo just visible through the translucent packaging, are almost certainly from the batch that an inmate salvaged from ETA. (I don’t think I mentioned the smiley face logo before. I take it as another of Wallace’s nods to Watchmen.)
And I’ve just remembered another character trying to deal with a change of circumstances. Gately is recovering in hospital, drifting in and out of consciousness – a phrase that doesn’t even begin to describe his lurches from one excruciating plane of reality to another – as he tries to imagine what life without a shoulder might be like, if it comes to that. (What would that prosthetic look like?) Ennet House residents appear by his bedside to talk to him, but he can’t talk back. In what must be a deliberate echo of Hal’s speech problems in the first chapter, he can say nothing intelligible however hard he tries. So they drone on about their own problems, as though he were still the rock-like big man they can all rely on. But has Joelle really visited, or was it a nurse in a veil? And who’s that shadowy figure in the hat, at the edge of sight? Does he exist at all?
Which seems as good a question to end on as any other.
Almost from the start, this has been a novel that laughs in the face of implausibility. Now, within hailing-distance of the end – I’ll finish reading it after writing about this section – Wallace decides it’s time to introduce Magic Realism. For a long time now, he has been trying out ways of framing any exposition about the characters as stories told by others. So Joelle’s childhood comes to us via testimony before government investigators, whilst the gaps in our knowledge of Orin’s past can be accounted for by the fact that we only ever hear the partial versions given to us either by other characters, especially Hal and Joelle, or by an omniscient but teasing narrator. (That deliberately unhelpful narrator of Wallace’s remains a big contributor, now I think about it.) None of it feels like radical stuff – authors have been choosing when to reveal key facts since the novel first became popular 250 years before this one – and perhaps Wallace decided he needed to introduce a newer thing. Why not have the story of Himself and his relationships narrated by – the ghost of the dead man?
I couldn’t quite stop myself giving an inward groan when I realised this was what he was doing, embedding it in the Gately thread…. But never mind that. Gately, throughout the whole of this section, is still drifting in and out of consciousness and unable to distinguish between dream and reality. An over-tall, stooping ‘wraith’ appears in his room, and we think little of it at first. This is Gately’s delirium, like the shadow of the mysterious man in the hat and, later, the Pakistani doctor who uses every trick in the book to persuade Gately to have the painkilling drugs that he is refusing. (It’s only after pages of vivid descriptions of the doctor and his arguments that Gately realises that another visitor had been ignoring him because he was completely imaginary.)
Except, of course, the wraith is different. Wallace confirms this for us by having it tell Gately about situations and people he knows nothing of, using complex Latinate vocabulary he’s never heard before but somehow knows is real. (He’s right. The words are real.) This figure – and Wallace nudges us into thinking about the link in a later scene – is as real a character as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. We need to listen to what he’s telling us. (And I’ve just realised, of course, that Wallace isn’t doing anything new at all. Having a ghost fill in the details is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Any book.)
The main thing that he tells us – among a lot of other stuff, because the phantom is as talkative as everybody else in this novel – is that he had a big problem with communication with his youngest son. He would talk and talk to him, but – nothing. (The only other evidence we have for this, of course, came about 800 pages back. In a chapter narrated, like most of the others focusing on Hal, in Wallace’s go-to third person limited. Or very limited. What we got then was the bizarre story of Hal, already anxious about something happening later in the afternoon, having to give up precious time to see a ‘professional conversationalist’ who turns out to be his father. The ruse didn’t work.) So what’s the best option for a film-maker with almost unlimited resources and access to the most beautiful girl in the world? (By the way, it was never a sexual thing, he says. But we don’t have to believe that.) What he does is make an entertainment for his son. Yes, the Entertainment. I can’t remember the tortured reasoning behind this – any man who imitates a conversationalist has some very screwed-up ideas, obviously – but this is what he came up with. Or so he says.
Are we to believe this? Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t mean that the answer is obviously no, but that the answer really, really doesn’t matter. Later, in a conversation Hal has with Stice (I think), one of them wonders why Hamlet never, ever disbelieved the Ghost’s version of events. Maybe his credulity is an aspect of his madness? Whatever. Wallace is reminding us, in the best Post-modernist tradition, that everything we’re reading is made up. Thanks, Dave, again.
In fact, most of this section is shared between Hal, now speaking in the first person – for the first time since the very first chapter, so all sorts of alarm-bells are ringing – and Gately, rendered mute by a mouth tube and unable to communicate in any other way with a series of visitors. A lot of the Gately chapters re-tread old ground, with Ennet House residents being themselves. Most disappointingly, he begins to realise that not a single one of them is going to testify about the gun that will be a crucial part of his defence in any future trial. He is also more or less certain that the man in the hat is the DA, or the Assistant DA, he humiliated in the past. He’s pretty sure that all his troubles are coming home to roost, and he often wonders why he should bother trying to keep himself clean when everything’s going to hell. The imaginary Pakistani doesn’t know how close he came to breaking down Gately’s last defences – the pain is so severe he has to persuade himself to think of it not one day at a time in the best AA tradition, but one second at a time. Whatever happens, he will – to use his favourite Boston AA term – Abide. But what on earth, he wonders, has happened to God? Where is He when you need Him?
And, less than 100 pages from the end, we get much more of Gately’s back story. Is it a bit late now? I couldn’t possibly comment.… Gately is another of Wallace’s prodigies, to go with all the others in this world of comic-book hyperbole. As a child, he has the enormous size – and notoriously indestructible square-shaped head – to mark him out for future football stardom. But, as we know, he’s had a terrible life and gets into drugs at the age of about twelve. Soon he’s mixing with crooks, he flunks English at a time when colleges are tightening up on students who can’t pass that particular test, and stardom is not to be. But – and it’s another comic-book trait – he’s basically a good guy. We still remember Joelle’s tending of the brave warrior after the shooting, and now Wallace wants us to know that the image wasn’t accidental. Despite his size, he’s never, ever been a bully and always finds himself on the side of, or even fighting for, the underdog. (You can imagine how he feels about having put his own future at risk in order to save the life of a man who, one of the Ennet House visitors tells him, is a pet-murderer.) But at this late stage, it’s hard to see how there’s going to be any redemption for him.
It’s hard, in fact, to see how Wallace is going to tie up most of the loose threads in the remaining 70-odd pages. Since I last wrote, we’ve heard little or nothing about Orin, Mario, Pemulis, the Moms, Steeply, Marathe (or any other members of the AFR), Kate, Joelle…. Before this, we’ve had hints from Marathe of the sad ends of Lenz and Poor Tony, but otherwise I’ve no idea if Wallace is even going to try to wrap things up.
But there’s been some tiny movement in the mystery of Hal’s fate in the Year of Glad – and, as things stand, it looks as though none of my speculations were right about how he will reach the crisis we saw in the first chapter. Pemulis has left the building, although Hal doesn’t know that yet and wonders why he hasn’t been near. The big tennis competition seems likely to be cancelled: we saw in the previous section that the AFR is hoping to head off the Canadian players on their way to Boston – don’t ask me how this furthers their plans, because it made no impact on me when I read it – and now there’s been the biggest fall of snow in mid-November that anybody has ever seen.
But, as I’ve mentioned, Hal is narrating his own story for the first time since that first chapter, and there’s a hint that what he says isn’t always what he thinks he says. We know that Hal has perfectly normal conversations with everybody he meets – but, in Himself’s narrative, Hal never said anything to him even when he thought he did. And now, in the present-day, snowy morning timeline, people keep asking Hal what he finds so funny. They talk as if he’s smiling broadly, but he isn’t. Or not as far as he knows, anyway. (Only Mario sees sadness in his face.) What’s going on? Perhaps there’s something deep in Hal’s subconscious – and I’m talking even deeper in his past than his horrific discovery of Himself amidst that delicious smell of cooking. What might there be in his past that somehow gets in the way of him expressing, by speech or look, what he thinks he’s saying? (And why, so near the end of the novel, has Wallace made a different character unable to speak, albeit in his case for perfectly understandable reasons?)
Hal isn’t in a good way in these chapters. He’s waiting for the tennis tournament that probably won’t happen, wondering about messages from Orin on his phone, worrying about the saliva that just keeps on coming. During the early morning of the snowfall, he wanders about the corridors, hearing the occasional sound of weeping that is normal amongst some of the players. Someone is leaning his head against a window, and it turns into one of Wallace’s absurd set pieces. Stice has accidentally let his forehead freeze to the glass, and needs Hal’s help. I don’t need to describe the grotesque failure of Hal’s attempt to yank him free, beyond mentioning that Stice has a lot of loose skin on his face that stretches almost to breaking-point before his screams make Hal let him go. Hal is careful not to let him snap back and break the glass with his head. (I don’t know why I’m telling you this, and I wonder what Wallace thinks he’s doing – unless it’s some absurd existentialist metaphor. It might be.) Basically, Hal is waiting for something, anything to happen when a panic attack brings on his own dark night of the soul. He finds it hard to see any point in carrying on…. Which is no different from normal, except this morning he feels floored by it. Literally, as he stretches out in a room full of horizontals.
Is other stuff going on? There’s a short chapter in which Rodney Tine and others discuss a new and completely stupid-sounding public information film aimed at 4-12-year-olds, designed to discourage them from watching any unmarked video cartridges. Ah. And… there’s some background about the parentage both of the Moms and, much more ambiguously, CT. Hal, or whoever is telling us this stuff at the time, decides they ‘probably’ aren’t actually blood relations – although the evidence seems to contradict this. And… I think I’ll just get on with reading this to the end now. I’m expecting it to be a disappointment, but maybe Wallace is holding back some of his best cards. Maybe.
Pages 907-981 – to the end
Dave, it isn’t envelope-pushing, cutting edge Post-Modernism to behave as though you owe nothing to the reader. The joke, the infinite jest is… well, you know what it is. I wrote last time that I was expecting it to be a disappointment, and any reader holding out for a resolution of all the unanswered questions is shown to have been a hopeless optimist. These final chapters confirm the novel as being, at one level, a shaggy dog story. I’m tempted to leave it there…. But it would be silly to pretend that just because literally none of the loose ends are tied up, then there’s nothing to write about. I’ll try to be fair but, having just finished reading, I’m feeling a bit negative about it.
I’ve often mentioned what I have come to think of as the comic-book aesthetic of this novel. The hyperbole, the prodigies, the outlandish events, the Easter eggs…. It’s the last of these, and those grudging hints that Wallace has occasionally dropped into the narrative throughout, that lull the reader into certain expectations. Here is an author who is playing the game by rules we recognise: if we persist in reading carefully, we think, we really will find out why the Entertainment is so dangerously and instantaneously addictive. We will find out if the Moms is a lifelong double-agent, why Hal is treated as a dangerous psychotic in the first chapter… and so on, and on. But how many times have I written in this commentary that something or other doesn’t matter? (Four times. I just checked.) Maybe these are the hints, dropped in as carefully as any of the others, that we should have been paying attention to. If we’d been concentrating, we would have come to the inevitable conclusion that none of it matters.
There are other unresolved mysteries. Will the DA (or the ADA, in fact) really find it in himself to resolve his own issues by dropping all charges against Gately? Yes, he has been waiting outside Gately’s hospital room – but only in order to pluck up the courage to draw a line under everything that happened in the past. (We find this out in a conversation he has with Pat at Ennet House. You could write a dissertation on how Wallace imparts information in this novel. I bet such dissertations really have been written.) What is the nature of Joelle’s disfigurement? (Not only do we not find out; Wallace has her veil, wet from melting snow, moulding the features beneath – features that he doesn’t describe.) CT is, or isn’t, Mario’s father. Orin definitely seems to have been captured by the ‘Swiss’ hand model and the man in the wheelchair, but… what? We don’t know. And so on, and on. We kind of know the answer to most of the questions, especially if we’ve been paying close attention – but I have been, and wish I hadn’t wasted my time.
Sorry, that’s my resentment coming out again. What, in the place of neat plot resolutions, do we get instead? A continuation of the section I wrote about last time. In fact, of the last xxx pages, xxx are focused on Gately and the terrible things – including dreams and memories – that are going on inside his head. Those memories, for some reason I’m not even going to begin to guess at, culminate in the appalling retribution dealt out to a fellow-employee of the neurasthenic, migraine-prone drugs boss he’d been cheating. Gately is confirmed as the gentlemanly, almost thoughtful one – except when a boundary is crossed and he goes into the kind of autopilot violence we saw with the Canadians outside Ennet House. And he feels terribly guilty that instead of helping his colleague to escape while there was time, he just joined him in a drugs binge. It’s like Wallace telling us in foot-high letters that it’s never good to do drugs.
Meanwhile, unlike Gately, Wallace is confirmed as the nasty one. There’s nothing gentlemanly about the lurid details of violence, death, illness and disability we get from this author. It’s another aspect of the comic-book aesthetic: graphic novels were becoming very graphic indeed at the time Wallace was writing. I was looking again at Spawn (1992) only the other day. And the Alien franchise had been developed into comic books three or four years before. Comic hardcore violence is a particularly American phenomenon, I think.
The Hal thread continues, but ends on the same sort of dying fall as Gately’s, although not literally this time. At first we continue to get his first-person narrative… and then we don’t, as we get one or two chapters (I forget how many) narrated by someone who might be Wallace’s usual unhelpful narrator or an unnamed ETA resident. (Why? As if I care.) We leave him, having just had his injured ankle bound by one of the trainers before a match he is completely indifferent about playing. The narrative, instead of following Hal, leaves him there and gives us the difficult Irish Catholic back-story of the trainer instead. Go figure. Meanwhile Pemulis, one of the most interesting characters in the novel, fades out of sight. First he fails to rouse Hal from his fit of existential anomie, then gloomily hangs around one of the novel’s ubiquitous dumpsters after discovering that the place where he keeps his impossible-to-find stash of drugs has been destroyed. That’s where we leave him.
But is it any good? Is any of what Wallace is doing in these final chapters any good? I’ll get back to you when I’ve had more time to think. Meanwhile – thank God! – I’ve finished.