A Murder Neither of You Quite Remember

It may sound strange to say of a thousand-page novel, but Infinite Jest ends abruptly. Most if not all of the various plot threads remain loose, untied, and incomplete or ambiguous at best. Hence there’s an entire cottage industry (especially, of course, on the Internet) devoted to trying to discern what happens next and even what happened before. A small army of close readers have combed the book for clues and put together the fragments with diverse results. Fittingly perhaps, the redoubtable Aaron Swartz contributed one of the most complete and convincing conjectures. But there is little in the way of consensus. Suffice it to say, for instance, that the mystery of the opening scene–which by now we recognize is in fact, chronologically, the last scene–is unresolved and subject to much debate. Why is Hal apparently tongue-tied in his college interview? Is it because of drugs, either Pemulis’s DMZ or some natural variant his own body has synthesized? Is it because he, too, has now watched the “Entertainment”? Or is he even tongue-tied at all? Meanwhile, other more or less major questions include: Is Hal’s brother Orin dead or alive? Was it Orin who was responsible for distributing the Entertainment, Is Joelle disfigured or not? Did Gately survive to dig up the Master cartridge with Hal, supervised perhaps by Quebecois agent John Wayne? Was President Gently’s regime brought down by the separatists? Is the ghost of Orin and Hal’s father real? Is he in fact Hal’s (or even Mario’s) father at all?

No wonder then that so many of those who make it to the end of the book are compelled almost immediately to turn back to the first page. Significant numbers feel the urge to read the whole thing again. Is this because the novel is so satisfying or, by contrast, because there is something so fundamentally unsatisfying about the way it ends that we are convinced it must be our fault, that there are clues out there that we have somehow missed on a first reading? And so the reading becomes infinite (for some, Infinite Jest is its own addiction), and perhaps the jest is that no definitive conclusions can be drawn. But even if we don’t reread the full thousand pages, it has become clear that the book is fundamentally circular–“annular,” if you prefer, like the “annulation cycles” that pervade the background throughout. The novel’s “real” opening is in media res: page 17 to be precise, when someone “blue-collar and unlicensed” is imagined asking Hal “So yo man then what’s your story?” And so as well as beginning and middle, this line is also the novel’s (chronological) endpoint. Hence the circularity.

Sierpinski Gasket

Or if not a circle, a fractal: Foster Wallace once reported that the book was “structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal.” And one of the things about a Sierpinski Gasket (or Triangle) is that it has no center. And even where it is densest, full of interconnections, close observation reveals an increasingly delicate filigree of lines pervaded by pockets of space. So if this is a book about being in the middle of things (and I think it is), that’s not to say that one can ever be at the center of it all. Indeed, by the time the novel ends it’s no longer quite clear who, if anyone, is the central character–I had long assuming it was Hal, but it could plausibly be Don Gately or perhaps the spectral Jim–or even what we might describe as the main plot, and what the subplot or plots. Precisely because things don’t fully converge at the end (however much the various strands do increasingly resonate with and contaminate each other) there are still as many spaces or gaps as there are links and connections. Oddly perhaps for a book that’s in part a critique of insincerity and hollowness (for the trouble with Hal is that “inside [him] there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows” [694]), in some ways Infinite Jest has no heart.

What a circle and a fractal have in common is repetition: a fractal simply repeats in rather more complex ways. We are in the middle because, Foster Wallace seems to be suggesting, we need to learn to master (more or less) infinite repetition. We need, in the Alcoholics Anonymous cliché (and what is a cliché but a phrase that has been itself endlessly repeated?), to “keep coming back” (270), to “Hang In and keep coming” (350) until the routine has become engrained in the body as a new habit that can replace the old habits (the old, dangerous repetitions) of addiction and denial. Gately’s moment of realization is the point at which he understands that he can no longer think of the endpoint, or rather the fact that there is no endpoint, that the repetitions will never end. This is an insight that first comes from Joelle, who compares the wrong way of coming off drugs to a leap by Evel Knievel over an ever-increasing number of cars: “As if each day was a car Knievel had to clear. One car, two cars. [. . .] And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them. [. . .] Who could do it? How did I ever think anyone could do it that way?” (859). The answer, instead, is to think only about the present day, the present hour, “the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time.” Trying to sustain his massive post-operative pain without narcotics, Gately sees himself abiding in “an endless Now stretching in gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. [. . .] It’s a gift, the Now: it’s AA’s real gift: it’s no accident they call it The Present” (860). Living with repetition and in repetition, “one endless day” (860), Gately discovers that “no one second of even unarcotized post-trauma-infection pain is unendurable. That he can Abide if he must” (885).

There are, however, other forms of repetition that are toxic, and unfortunately for the novel many of them are marked by gender. Women get short shrift in Infinite Jest: however much the novel presents a critique of Orin Incandenza’s treatment of them as “Subjects” (by which is meant quite the opposite of endowing them with subjectivity), too often the novel indulges in the same treatment itself. The only real exception is Joelle van Dyne / Madame Psychosis. Her importance arises from the way she joins up many of the threads between the various narratives, thanks in part to the fact that she has long been subjectified/objectified by a sequence of characters from her “own personal Daddy,” who refuses to countenance her as a growing woman, to Orin and even Jim Incandenza himself, who places her at the centre of the (quite obviously) male gaze by repeatedly pointing his camera at her for his movies. One could then argue whether the novel provides Joelle with any restitution: on the one hand, it (quite literally) keeps her faceless; on the other, it grants her the agency to withdraw and leave us all guessing. But the shortest shrift of all is given to Orin’s (and maybe Hal’s and Mario’s) mother, Avril Incandenza.

As in Hamlet, mothers draw a short straw, and for a reason that is perhaps clarified during one of Don Gately’s fever-dreams. Here, he is visited by Death, “Death Incarnate,” who turns out to be a woman for it “is a woman who kills you and releases you into the next life. [. . .] This is why Moms are so obsessively loving, [. . .] why there’s always a slight, like, twinge of selfishness about their obsessive mother-love: they’re trying to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember, except in death” (850). And this, finally, is also (film theorist Molly Notkin tells us) the essence of the “Entertainment,” Infinite Jest (V or VI), in which Jim has cast Joelle / Madame Psychosis as “the Death-Mother figure [. . .] explaining to the camera as audience-synecdoche that this is why mothers were so obsessively, consumingly, drivenly and yet narcissistically loving of you, their kid: the mothers are trying frantically to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember” (789). Indeed, the “Entertainment” would seem to be a fever-dream whose moral is to distrust motherly love, to sense a conspiracy of silence behind the mother-child bond. No wonder then that the end of the book (the physical end, at least: the last page before the footnotes begin) should comprise a strange kind of rebirth, courtesy of a rather fearsome gangster, immeasurable violence, and a great deal of drugs, in which Don Gately is left on the shore “in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out” (981). Infinite Jest gives us new respect for the power of objects, the importance of the body, and the construction of habits as a dance with repetition. It proposes self-regeneration through self-forgetting, an eternal present without past or future. I only wish it did so with fewer sacrifices and, frankly, less machismo.

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4 thoughts on “A Murder Neither of You Quite Remember

  1. Pingback: A Murder Neither of You Quite Remember | Posthegemony

  2. If there’s a hero in the novel, I think Gately is that hero. He’s an unlikely hero because he’s a double murderer and also because he is completely inarticulate. He’s the hero, in part, because he’s disinterested in the original sense of that term; that is, he puts the needs of others before his own. He even fights and is almost killed for the animal killing Lenz, a character who by that point is long past gaining the sympathies of any close to normal reader. He’s the hero, too, because Foster Wallace, I think, is insisting that all forms of language be taken equally seriously. That’s one reason the characters in the novel speak in such different ways. He judges characters on what they do, rather than on what they say, or on how they speak. Gately is, or becomes, sincere, and it’s difficult to say that about any other character in the novel–Mario may be the only exception. He doesn’t lie; he tells the truth. He finds a way, too, as you suggest, to live in the present.

    Gately is empathetic, too, and Foster Wallace here, there, and everywhere praises empathy. It’s difficult to summarize the position Foster Wallace takes on empathy in the novel, but I think he’s suggesting that while people should always be empathetic, most people are not, and that those who practice empathy always find it difficult, and often find it impossible to practice. There’s no obvious reward for empathy, either, as the beating Gately takes for defending Lenz clearly testifies. Where that leaves the reader, I’m unsure. I’m tempted to read Infinite Jest as, in part, an analysis of empathy that mimics Gramsci’s claim that one should practice “pessimism of the intellect, [and] optimism of the will.” Gately, as I’ve said, becomes empathetic, but he begins the novel as a bad man, and ends it–if ends it is the phrase–beaten to within an inch of his life. That’s a depressing way to think about life, but the book is clearly, whatever one makes of it, the book of a life long depressive who wishes people would be kind to one another. That sounds hackneyed, but the novel is in some ways hackneyed, as its faith in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and “cliché” suggests. It’s old-fashioned, too, in its emphasis on empathy and disinterestedness—an emphasis I see in other contemporary American novels, and which speaks to what I assume such novelists see as missing—and I don’t think they’re wrong to see it as missing—in contemporary American life.

    I agree with you about the end of the novel, which I found utterly dissatisfying. That said, the book was much funnier than I thought it would be. It was also much more violent, off-puttingly so, at times, than I expected it to be. The violence, and it takes many forms, psychological as well as physical, is part of Foster Wallace’s bleak take on the world, and the book offers no solution for it, except perhaps for on the individual level practiced by those won over by the dubious virtues of AA, which is in the novel, a novel written by a man who loathes irony, seemingly the only organization committed to treating others—sincere others is more accurate—well, no matter what they have previously done. I end there, like the book, mid-stream. Much as I, at times, liked it, I don’t plan, despite its invitation, to read it again. There are sentences and sections that are wonderfully written. It also, as I more or less said, laugh out loud funny at times. I read Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again while I was reading Infinite Jest. They cover much of the same material, and stylistically they’re very similar to the novel, too. I preferred them, and I’m not sure if that’s because of their length, and/or, because they may be one and the same thing, because they felt less in need of an editor. I want to write about repetition, good and bad, but I’d need to sit down with the book again to do that, and I’m afraid that, right now, even though I’d recommend the book to others, I’m not about to do that.

    • Gareth, thanks for this. I basically agree with everything you say here. Not least that there is indeed a lot more to talk about (even though I found I’ve now written about 10,000 words on it), but frankly I don’t feel drawn to sitting down with the novel much longer at present to do so.

  3. I just typed out a long comment and it disappeared. Here’s the short version:

    Mario is the hero. He has naturally what everybody else chases after through their addictions: inner peace. Hal wrote an essay about him (or someone just like him) that begins on p 140.

    I glossed over that essay the first time I read the novel. The second time through it stood out.

    Mario is the hero.

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