Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Summer of Jest Part the Third: Chapters 5 & 6
These next two chapters have neither of them ever been favorites of mine, though one is a giant plot mover and the other is a pretty remarkable literary achievement. I admire but do not love them.
They made me realize this time around, though, just what a big task DFW set for himself in this novel; the only comparable endeavor I can think of is the brilliant HBO series The Wire. The Wire wasn't so much a police drama as an anthropological/ecological study of community-as-ecosystem, as food web, with the Baltimore Police Department and its internal struggles as pretty much just a convenient framing device for the storytelling. Similarly, IJ is looking at a whole city, Boston this time (and, to a lesser degree, an imagined nation of ONAN), as ecosystem, with the Enfield Tennis Academy in the role filled by the Baltimore Police in The Wire. And DFW did it first, all by himself, and did a whole lot of science fiction-y world building to boot!
But so, Chapter 5 brings us around to the weirdly delimited little world of a Saudi Arabian medical attache, an Ear Nose and Throat specialist whose job is to keep his country's Minister of Entertainment's never-ending naso-pharyngeal yeast infections at bay* while the big man is in Boston striking a big deal with ONAN's big Netflix/Redbox analog, Interlace Entertainment. Which yeast infections the Minister is pretty much constantly aggravating via his staggeringly poor lifestyle choices. Our unnamed attache is pretty much in Sorceror's Apprentice mode without having had the fun of casting the spell, poor guy.
Attache's only happiness is to come home, sink into a futuristic superchair that converts into a bed, sheets and all, when he's ready to go to sleep, strap on a tray that's more like a feedbag, and eat dinner and watch "entertainment cartridges"** while his wife does the hard work of keeping crumbs out of his beard and whatnot. Except on Wednesdays when he usually works late and she gets to go play Burqa Tennis. Aren't we all jealous as hell of her life.
On this particular Wednesday, though, our man gets home early, to no dinner, no pre-selected DVDs, nothing but crap on broadcast/cable ("spontaneous dissemination"), his mail unsorted, himself bereft of options. In desperation he decides to watch an unlabeled DVD some unknown party mailed to him, a decision which seems utterly innocuous and utterly time-wasting, but will turn out to be pretty much fatal and crucially important to the overall plot of Infinite Jest. I'd say it's probably equivalent in its combination of banality and importance, if not in, you know, actual content, to McNulty's spouting off to a judge about how the Barksdale Outfit keeps intimidating witnesses in The Wire.
Our only hint that something unusual is going on is hints toward the end of the chapter that the attache is watching the program for like the third time in a row. It's that entertaining, apparently.
Moving onto the next chapter, we are jolted further out of our contemplation of the Incandenza family's drama (remember the Incandenzas?) by an entire chapter written in, what appears to this white girl anyway, perfectly rendered Black English, a study in unconjugated verbs, phoenetic spellings and all. The chapter, from the point of view of a pre-teen black girl, tells an old, old story, of a pretty young woman, Wardene, who is desired by her icky stepfather figure, Roy Tony, is brutally punished for it by her mother, and runs to her boyfriend Reginald for shelter and comfort. We get hints of a future conflict between Reginald and Roy Tony. All of this will have implications in the larger plot later on, but for now it's just sort of sitting here confusing readers and perhaps annoying them even as they might admire DFW's dual achievement of technical skill and sheer ballsiness.
We'll be doing that a lot.
*Thus introducing the icky theme of dealing with mucous membranes and nasal secretions that recurs in IJ in surprising and sometimes seriously plot-propelling ways, as we'll see shortly in the backstory of one Don Gately.
**Let's just make like they're DVDs, because DFW was very close on this. To the point where I call the TV in my living room, not connected to cable but via an Xbox 360 to Hulu Plus and Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, the teleputer. Which confuses the hell out of my lodger who has not read IJ. Tee and also hee.