Monday, June 3, 2013

Summer of Jest Part the Second, Chapters 3-4

One of the weirdest, saddest and most strangely touching bits of Infinite Jest for me is always this next scene, in which our man Hal, at age ten in the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, is persuaded to take a detour from his normal routine to keep a mystery appointment with a service provider of unspecified function. "Are you a dentist?" he keeps asking as the provider implores him to have a soda to allay the dry mouth sounds Hal is allegedly producing as he talks.

No, he and we learn, this is a professional conversationalist, which (as far as I know) does not exist in our real world, but well might in the IJverse and so we're in danger of just accepting that surface fact and rolling with the scene, at least until Hal notices a lack of credentials on the wall. And that his interlocutor has a great deal of specific knowledge about Hal, such as the boy's fascination with Byzantine erotica, and is also startlingly well-informed about Hal's mother Avril's entertainingly varied sex life.* And other little details that are somehow off.

I love the way this scene unfolds, purely through dialogue, dialogue that is perfectly natural (if you're David Foster Wallace or his alter-ego at least) but still conveys all the details of what's physically going on in the room as the professional conversationalist's disguise and act start to melt away and collapse, revealing none other than The Man Himself, James Incandenza, Hal's Own Dear Personal Father, who may be a "towering figure in optic and avant garde cinema" but at home is sort of coming apart just like his disguise is and suffers from a wide range of delusions, including that Hal doesn't talk to him; even when Hal does talk to him, James seems to think** that Hal is merely moving his mouth, that no sounds come out.

Hence this elaborate charade, staged with the full cooperation of Avril, a charade that, once Hal penetrates it, he abandons immediately for a return to his demanding schoolboy-cum-tennis prodigy life. Nothing gets resolved; James is left forlorn and clinging to his deception and his delusions. It's heartbreaking.

This time around, reading, I feel much more for James than I do for Hal, with whom I of course identified when I first read IJ at age 26. Now I'm at James' time of life, though I don't have children to fret over, but the image of him trying so desperately to connect with his son affects me nonetheless, and more deeply than identifying with Hal's disgust at this ploy ever did.

We then move along to another glimpse of Hal's family life, in Y.D.A.U., which year we can pretty much regard as the novel's present. Hal is trying to sleep, but his older brother and roommate Mario wants to talk, and to talk specifically about Avril, whom the family calls "The Moms" the way they call James "Himself", and how she was the only member of the family who doesn't seem to have been sad when Himself died (we do not yet know the spectacularly weird way that happened, nor will we for a while, but re-readers probably flash forward to such outbursts as "something smelled delicious!"), indeed, seems to have gotten happier. The important bit here is Hal's metaphor for a half-mast flag. There are, he explains to Mario, two ways to bring a flag to half-mast. One is to lower the flag to the necessary height, and the other is to double the size of the pole, the implication being that Avril chose the latter means. I'm not quite, quite sure she deserves that much credit, but just as I find myself identifying way more with James this time around, I may come at last to have some sympathy for Avril. We shall see.

But so, already in just these few chapters we're juggling a lot of themes, aren't we? The impossible illusion of connecting and communicating, first elucidated by Hal's disastrous college interview and then illustrated in new iterations through our brief tour of Erdedy's skull to round out with the Professional Conversation; the agonies suffered by the addict (and especially the addict who is addicted to something most people consider lame and harmless), the challenges of precocity and hyper-awareness, the burden of self-consciousness... it's all, isn't it, very Hamlet. Wow!

*I love this kid. Seriously, does anyone ever read this book and not just freaking love this kid?

**I say "seems" because I can't ever shake the notion that James only pretended to think this, that it's an elaborate passive-aggressive pretense of delusion designed to convey to his middle son that he wishes they'd communicate more. Although really that's more Avril's style, isn't it?


  1. DFW wrote conversations SO WELL. That was something that I noticed right away the first time I read this--all the conversations sound totally natural, like you're eavesdropping on someone else's conversations. That's one of the hardest things to write well, I think, and DFW nails it every time.

    I don't know how I feel worse for, Hal or Himself. I still feel bad for both of them equally, I think.

    1. Agreed. He must have had a near-eidetic memory for speech patterns and word choices. Plus he was pretty obsessive about usage and different varieties of spoken American English anyway. Well, and everything else.

      I bet the family scenes in IJ were really weird for his own dear personal family to read. I bet they were dead-on reproductions of their own dialogue over the years.

  2. I always wondered about that, too--what it must have been like for his family to get a little closer to what was going on in his mind and how he viewed family interactions.

    1. I hope they were flattered rather than mortified. Writers do tend to present their nearest and dearest warts and all, and families don't like showing their warts.

      O Wallace family, know that your David's writing merely increased our affection for you!


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