Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Summer of Jest Part the Fourth: Chapters 7 and 8 with a bit of leftover 6

First of all, I have to say oops, but to add that this is the sort of thing that can happen to someone who has read a large and complicated book like this multiple times. I've mixed up the appearance of an incident, namely Hal's and Mario's discussion of Avril's reaction to their father's death with an earlier scene in their dorm room when Orin makes a kind of pointless, aimless phone call that basically just serves to introduce his character. Apologies! I wonder how many lazy students' homework I've just screwed up.

Also, I left out of yesterday's post the last bit of Chapter 6 in which we meet Bruce Green and Mildred Bonk, a charming, melancholy interlude in which we meet the housemates of the pot dealer with the harelip who is the supplier, one way or another, for most of the marijuana users in the story. In Wire terms, he's maybe Proposition Joe, though without Joe's sophistication or swagger, being instead a trailer trash guy who keeps snakes whose stinky tanks he can't smell due to the harelip blocking his nose. How Bruce and Mildred become his roommates is deftly told in a sketch that could come straight from the Wire: boy falls for girl when they're in middle school and she is "a vision in a sundress and silly shoes", girl starts to hang with a bunch of burnouts in high school, boy becomes the biggest burnout to win girl, boy impregnates girl but they're both such burnouts that living with Harelipped Pot Dealer seems like a reasonable choice for living environments in which to raise their child. Ah, me.

I also left out our first Orin interlude, in which he sleeps in and we learn about his routine with women whom he refers to as "Subjects" and regards them as interchangeable and just sort of makes me want to kick him in the crotch almost as much as it makes me want to scream at them to have some self-respect. Which is really all I have to say about that part, as Orin mostly just bores me, at least until the wonderfully Tim Powers-esque Helen Steeply gets hold of him later on, and even then it's mostly for Steeply that I read, there.

But so finally moving on to Chapter 7, we are at last getting a good look at the physical plant at Enfield Tennis Academy, founded by Hal's and Orin's and Mario's parents as a serious academic institution-cum-sports academy, and aping the old, old curriculum of the great medieval universities to make sure that the next generation of hotshot tennis pros is full of highly erudite smartasses who will do things like quote Spinoza in interviews with the jock sniffer press and make everyone else feel really, really dumb. Or at least are prepared for unspecified brainy careers of some sort if/when they fail to make it as professional tennis players and all the "prorector" positions at E.T.A. are taken by earlier washout alumni. As such.

DFW goes into staggering detail in describing the school's layout and facilities and especially its equipment for turning the middle section of its outdoor tennis courts into habitable playing space in wintertime: the Lung. I'm pretty sure a talented HVAC professional could build the apparatus from DFW's descriptions, shared with us from the point of view of Hal Incandenza as he goes through his elaborate rituals for getting high in secret. Of course, this interlude just makes me anxious for when we'll finally get to meet his friends and schoolmates, who are highly entertaining people of the sort I wish I'd had as friends and classmates when I was growing up but who would probably have eaten me alive because I'm nowhere near as athletically or intellectually gifted as they were so I'm probably just better off being a fly on their walls via DFW. Sigh. Anyway, them. I'm really looking forward to them.

But first, back to the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland (the year before YDAU, i.e. this is a one-year flashback from the perspective of most of Hal's story) and one Don Effing Gately, whom I now cannot imagine as anything other than Rory Cochrane on steroids (Cochrane turned in a bravura performance as Charlie Freck in Richard Linklater's film adaptation of A Scanner Darkly). I'm not sure I can exactly justify or defend this, but that's how my brain casts this part now.

Gately has perhaps the broadest character arc of anyone in IJ and sometimes I think of him more than Hal as the novel's real hero, even though he appears much less.* Oh, what's not to love about Don Gately? I mean, if you're going to love a character who's a drug addict and a criminal and kind of a dumbass until he finally learns all of his lessons the hard way. I still laugh like a loon at the story of the revenge he took on an Assistant District Attorney who got him convicted of one crime, revenge I won't spoil for first time book readers who will have to read its disgusting hilarity for themselves. And I still shake my head in wonder at the bumbling, ridiculous story of how he accidentally became a murderer due to a language barrier and a headful of snot. Someone else's snot. In someone else's head. Oh, go read the story. I don't want to spoil that either. Except insomuch as to observe that Gately's choice of burgla-murder victim wound up having vast implications for the rest of the story in that said victim was a key figure in Quebecois objectionism to the United States' having "gifted" Canada with a big chunk of uninhabitably polluted and ruined former New England territory and other such "experialistic" crimes, which objectionism takes on some truly bizarre and surreal forms and will be discussed at length later on, I'm sure.

Also, yuck, thanks a lot, DFW, for making us focus on snot and matters nasal again. No, really, thanks.

Now we move on, back to YDAU and the good old ETA, where there is as yet no sign that there is any connection between the ETA/Incandenza story and the Gately story OR the sad tale of Wardine OR that of the medical attache, we just have to have faith that there WILL be and yes, indeed, there is, but hundreds of pages of text and footnotes and thinking on your part, dear reader, yet separates you from all of those aha moments. For now just trust us and enjoy finally meeting some of Hal's schoolmates, whom up till now we've only seen in footnotes. Chief of these here, in terms of focus, is Jim Troeltsch, the one who dreams of someday being a sportscaster and spends most of his non-tennis-playing, non-academic time practicing/pretending he already is one, but whom we find here at first in bed with a cold, allowing DFW to indulge in another round of rubbing our noses in various studies and observations of the theory and practice of nose goblinology, as it were, ew and harumph. Fortunately, though, this go-around DFW is more interested in making observations about the kind of fugue state-cum-four-alarm-nightmares that I usually only get when I take Nyquil but which Troeltsch just needs to be sick to have -- observations which are startlingly accurate, I think.**

While that's going on, we get the barest glimpse of another favorite character of mine, Michael Pemulis, townie from good old, bad old Allston Mass ("broken dreams strewn amongst the broken glass" as the old song says), affector of a yachtsman's cap the way Hal affects a bow tie (yes, bow ties were cool long before Matt Smith), discriminating drug connoisseur and dispenser of dubious advice, but only at a remove. We will hear more of his wisdom later.

Then it's on to the story of the Enfield Tennis Academy itself, and of its founder, James Orin Incandenza, aka Himself, sometimes also known by his initials JOI. We learn he was sort of forced, Dondi Snayheever-style, into becoming a semi-tennis prodigy, but parlayed his tennis scholarships into advanced degrees in optical physics, which he then put to work pioneering, among other things, the research that led to "annular fusion" and the solution to North America's energy independence issues. He met Canadian braniac Avril Mondragon, the most gorgeous blond bombshell ever to grace North American academics, and married her despite a series of bureaucratic hurdles complicated in no small part by her slender ties to certain angry Quebecois objectionist types (we are told the birth of their first child, Orin, was at least partly a legal maneuver) and together they founded ETA, after which optical genius JOI discovered his true calling as a filmmaker. This last bit being the most important thing about him aside from his being the father of Hal and of ETA.

But speaking of Orin, dreary old Orin, enduring some of the novel's best pure satire, the pre-game spectacle at an away game (he is the punter for the National Football League's Phoenix Cardinals) at none other than Denver, CO's  Mile High Stadium***. This is one of the funniest and stupidest passages in IJ: DFW has taken the hype machine show biz silliness of the NFL's penchant for spectacle and turned it up to eleven. In IJ's world, the players have to dress as their mascots and enact a big dumb and sometimes dangerous bit of pageantry before the game. The Denver Broncos just have to caper about in two-man pantomime horse rigs, but the Cardinals have to don bright red feathers and some kind of hang-gliding suit and jump off the edge of the stadium and swoop down over the crowd to land on the field. Financial incentives exist for players who squawk or otherwise make an effort to sound like a bird to descend. Orin, though, just bitches to the old quarterback plummeting next to him, who tries to cheer him up with a "cleavage check" as they descend. See? Pure foolishness. Like Idiocracy. DFW having apparently shared Mike Judge's general perspective on the American Future.

Tell me he's wrong.

Next on Summer of Jest: we finally meet Pemulis directly. Hooray!

*Kind of the way I've become convinced that Jaime Lannister is the real hero of A Song of Ice and Fire. Hero in the sense of being the most important actor in the plot(s) and in the sense of being what passes for a moral center in the books. I mean, aside from the sister-schtupping, of course. But as a wise woman once told me, we don't get to choose whom we love, or who loves us. But anyway, I may also favor Gately as Hero just because his Boston story comes closest to being something like mine; he winds up in a halfway house for a good bit of the novel and my first real job in Boston was as a temp secretary at a pre-release facility that still counted as a by god Massachusetts State Correctional Center but was focused towards drug and alcohol recovery for the less hardcore types like say, Tobias Beecher on OZ, who was a perfectly law abiding citizen until his drunk driving killed a girl and landed him in the clink. IJ was published just maybe two years after I left that job, so I could totally picture Gately and the rest of his gang as residents of my former workplace though, as I said, it was still a prison rather than a residential halfway house.

**Conveyed as they are in an odd second-person interlude, all they could make me think of, this time around, was what horrible experiences inspired them. I bet DFW was a helluva cabin- or dorm-mate at whatever summer camps he got sent to when he was a kid.

***I'm amused that DFW, inventor of "subsidized time" has the name of Mile High Stadium surviving into his brave new future; that joint was torn down some time ago and is now known as Invesco Field. Unless some other corporation has taken over the naming rights. I can't keep up.


  1. I could probably take or leave Orin, too, except for his fear of roaches and how he disposes of them. I can connect with that because I'm the same way with spiders. Except I actually just take care of them. But I'd love to be able to just leave overturned cups all over the house with suffocating spiders under them.

    IN FACT, I woke up last Sunday to an overturned cup on the kitchen counter with a HUGE spider trapped under it because that's as far as my daughter would go to take care of it. Of course, sj promptly pointed out that Ash is THE PUNTER. Hahaha! Sigh.

    I also love Don Gately. Mucho.

    1. See, his cockroach hate is one of the things that makes me take the most against him, but of course I live in a land where roaches are uncommon and so my fondness for them from my student days raising Blaberus craniifer in a little tank in my dorm room are intact. Still, a bathroom full of suffocating roaches gives me a tremendous sad. And then there's the way he treats women. And his general jockishness. No, I do not love Orin, and find that developing sympathy for him is still my greatest challenge in re-reading IJ. I've skipped from Hal to JOI, in that department, passing Orin right over.

      And yes, all the love to Don. He's like Bubbles from the Wire, except I suppose he looks more like Bubbles' sponsor Walon (as played by the great Steve Earle... so in my head Don is half Rory Cochrane on steroids and half Steve Earle. No wonder I love him!)

  2. I have to say - having only read this once, and having been quite young when I did - that Orin is probably the character I have the most vivid memories of.

    Strange the way the mind works, isn't it?

    1. Orin does get to do some pretty vivid things, like plunging into a football stadium in a suit of red feathers, so that's totes understandable.


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