Roles and Regulations (Mount Up)

I’ll admit that I had to resist a strong compulsion to write about Hawkeye Pierce this week. Damn, M*A*S*H, you get me every time. Tokyo, this is Radar. Colonel Potter requests an incubator stat! The unit is under heavy shelling and one of our POWs is pregnant and due to give birth any day now! TOKYO DO YOU COPY? OVER!


Radar O’Reilly Doing His Duty

(and so on)

As tempting as my pals at the 4077 were (Maxwell Klinger, BJ Honeycutt, Father Mulcahy and Margaret Houlihan, I’m looking in your direction!), I decided that I’d like to probe a little into the idea of roles and the importance that they seem to play in IJ, because as we know,

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts”–Bill S.

Enter: Mrs. Avril Incandenza, aka The Moms (plural, for a reason, probably: a woman with many different sides). She typifies the type of person described in the Shakespeare quotation inscribed above: a (wo)man playing many parts. Her wide array of roles seems to be the key to holding her together: mother, ETA headmistress, member of MGM, lover (to who knows?), overseer of the educational system at ETA, and etc. She is so completely absorbed by her various roles that she doesn’t have any time or mental energy to even think about breaking down. She goes through the motions, and thus continues humming along, fulfilling her roles and getting through, one day at a time.

Hm, this sounds familiar!

So, what of the importance of these roles?

This week, the question I asked about Avril and the flagpole way back in the early going  seemed to be answered in footnote 269, as M. Bain replies in his letter to Steeply (or Starkley, or Steeples, or Starksaddle, or WHATEVER) that in Orin’s presence, Avril would act “more cheerful and loquacious and witty and intimate and benign” so that he might not feel “bad or guilty” for woozily running over her poor old Samuel Johnson (canine) and reducing him to nothing more than a leash and nubbin.

So, as was suggested by many of you guys, after Himself’s felo de se, she likely compensated way in the direction of feeling fine and dandy so that she could perfectly perform/embody (in her mind) the role of mother (and now, in JOI’s absence, father, maybe?…double the pressure, double the fun?), which I assume means to protect her children from all unpleasantness/discomfort. Essentially, Avril desires a bubble (i.e.- E.T.A) in which she can raise her kids, but unfortunately, that bubble proves not to be impervious to the fucked-upedness of life. No type of environment ever is, is it? She exerts such energy to ensuring that by all appearances everything is fine, even though it’s pretty clear that everything is not alright, in so many different ways.

Then M. Bain goes on to probe into the nature of Avril’s loquaciousness and motherly love. On page 1051, he writes,

“Is it mind bogglingly considerate and loving and supportive, or is there something…creepy about it? Maybe a more perspicuous question: Was the almost pathological generosity with which Mrs. Inc responded to her son taking her car in an intoxicated condition and dragging her beloved dog to its grotesque death and then trying to lie his way out of it, was this generosity for Orin’s sake, or for Avril’s own? Was it Orin’s “self-esteem” she was safeguarding, or her own vision of herself as a more stellar Moms than any human son could ever hope to feel he merits?”

Is this a parenting fail, or are we supposed to admire Avril for her heroic effort to protect her children from harm? I’ve always thought that Avril deserved more credit than she is shown in the text: there doesn’t seem to be much sympathy shown for her. Hal is annoyed by her, as is Orin (who has gone many steps further by actively disowning her). Does she deserve this type of treatment for wanting to protect her kids from sorrow? Is her willingness to look the other way really a selfish act, or is she merely the victim (victim of abuse, as M. Bain suggests…) of a blind spot in her awareness that she perhaps developed as a defense mechanism in the face of childhood abuse?

So this leads me to my next question(s):

Can a person ever act with pure unabashed altruism, or is there always going to be some level of self-interest at play? Does the self-interest nullify the altruistic act simply because there is something in it for the person attempting to act selflessly?

It does seem like there is a selfish element to Avril’s behaviour toward her sons, but does that really qualify her actions as abusive?

I doubt it. To me, this line of thinking seems juvenile and entitled (perhaps fitting for a son of the founders of a prestigious tennis academy). It reminds me of a thought one of my old friends once uttered (while intoxicated) as an adolescent. Basically, he expressed that he was entitled to mooch off of his parents because he didn’t ask to be born. So, in essence, he absolved himself of any responsibility for his actions because the decision to come into this world was beyond his control.

Hrmpf. Thank God we (well, at least some of us) grow up (at some point).

Returning to my point about roles, it seems like the roles a person plays in IJ are of great importance to many of the characters’ ability to “keep it together.” By keeping “it” together, I guess I mean holding themselves (mentally) together—to keep from melting into a steaming puddle of primordial goop.

Avril does it by assuming her roles. Gately does it by assuming a role of a supervisor in AA. They freely accept responsibilities, and in a way, they become their roles. They pledge themselves to fulfilling a duty. A duty to fulfilling the mandates of the role and by extension they help others by following through. While this devotion to a role is not exactly selfless (as Shazia demonstrated this week), it seems absolutely necessary to staying alive (Bee Gees track here, with movie of person performing CPR on dummy).

But, by focusing totally and completely on the roles, one can run the risk of omitting stuff that’s in the blind spots of our perception (think of Avril and Hal’s inability to connect on painful things, no matter how trivial, like his discomfort/annoyance at quoting bits of the O.E.D for her on command).

Though, on the other hand, by embracing and fulfilling roles, often a person becomes part of a community. The roles become a mechanism that give purpose and keep a person moving forward. A role has the potential to foster a sense of responsibility between people, which (I think, at least) is a good thing.

(I know all of this is nowhere near fully developed, and I’m sorry, but wrapping up because I have to go fulfill my duty to others in T-minus 5 minutes, 7:55am, EST)

But of course, with roles, Marathe would probably caution us to choose wisely, n’est-ce pas?

C’est vrai.

Guest Post: Allan Wood, “Life And How To Live It”

In David Foster Wallace’s review of Joseph Frank’s multi-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky (which review was written while he was working on Infinite Jest and pulled from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again at the last minute (it was eventually collected in Consider the Lobster)), he posed a series of questions, seemingly to himself, concerning living a meaningful life and how to be a good person. Continue reading “Guest Post: Allan Wood, “Life And How To Live It””

Narrator? What Narrator? Who? Why? Come Again? Am I Confused? What Was This About Again?

As the weirdness factor in the book continues to go sky high, I wanted to put a few things out there about the narrative style of IJ and get to thinking about what it might mean to suggest.

And boy, oh boy, the narration style takes the weirdness up a level in the reading for this week. I think it’s so fun to see how DFW is able to have 2 or 3 narrators (or should I say, thought patterns or brain waves) buzzing along in even just one particular section or sentence. Sometimes you will get a word that sticks out (think of Gately’s use of ethnic slurs, or Lenz’s poor spelling—phonetically spelled words) alongside a narrative style that appears to be more learned (again, accent on that ‘e’).

When thinking about how this works, I find myself returning to that famous line from James Joyce’s “The Dead”: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.”  In fairness, Lily was not literally run off of her feet. If that were the case, she’d be laying on the floor. Actually, she was figuratively run off of her feet. It’s generally accepted that an author with such a high level of command of the English language (as we find in James Joyce) would not have made this kind of error with meanings of words. Hence, this line is a hybrid of narrative styles: a mix of the character’s brain-voice and the omniscient narrator telling the story. In Joyce’s story, I think the technical term for it is something like free-indirect discourse…but I’m not certain about that. Doesn’t really matter anyway.

So, this sort of infusion of a brain-voice of another character into a separate narrator’s commentary/style happens a lot in IJ, and is sometimes so seamless that it can be difficult to spot (at least I find it difficult, at times).


To return to the text:

Directly following the part where Lucien Antitoi (translated: against you?…haha) I kept noticing the word “squeak” popping up all over the place: I counted quite a few times where the word showed up immediately following that brutal AFR encounter. Suddenly, things seemed to be going squeak, squeak, all the live long day. It’s like the narrator(s) ordered a squeaky number combo with a side of cheesy squeaks and an extra-large squeaker shake with extra ice to wash it all down.

Squeaks from the wheelchairs, squeaks from James Sr’s bed (that part which could perhaps be alternately titled, “Himself Hears a Squeak”), and then Hal getting “the howling fantods” at the “kind of rapid rodential squeaking” issuing from Pemulis’ bobbing chair as the older boys wait for possible disciplinary action being brought against them by ETA’s authorities for the Eschaton kertwang.

But why all this squeaking? Does anybody else think it’s weird how particular details continue to, shall we say, bubble up (eh, Shazia?) here, there and everywhere as we continue to worm our way through the text?

I find it strange, weirdly compelling and fascinating how certain events, turns of phrase, colours (As Phil noted: think of the blues—of the Charles River, of Himself’s father’s bedroom, of the ETA offices) and sounds seem to echo through the narration of this book. It’s as if when something happens in a distant seemingly unconnected part of the text, we find it (for me, perplexingly) popping up in another part of the text. Are these echoes supposed to communicate something to the reader? Maybe…I think?

And what about the particular turns of phrase used to describe events? Take for instance, the description of Lucien as he sits impaled by his prized broom: “[…] bursting then through the wool and puncturing tile and floor at a police-lock’s canted angle to hold him upright on his knees […].” Here, why police-lock? Why (and how?) is the narrator using these words that are so directly linked to Mario (conjuring up his image in the mind’s eye of the reader)?

Here, DFW could have used any description, but for some reason the narrator gives us an image of Mario. So what, is this Hal’s consciousness (or perhaps another Incandenza family member) coming through and speaking to us in this section? If it is, then why? It’s not as if Hal (or Avril, Mario, Orin, or anyone else that knows Mario) is privy to this particularly gruesome and horrifying event: how would he (or the others) even know about it? The characters are not omniscient (at least those that are LIVING aren’t…[Transylvanian accent] muahahahaha [/Transylvanian accent]).  Could it be because the AFR have been watching Mario (and family) and this image is fresh in the narrator’s mind? (if what we’re actually getting here is the narration is being filtered through an AFR member). So, in this case, are these narrative details meant to be clues to a larger mystery/secret plots? Maybe? I don’t know!

There are other instances of this type of thing occurring elsewhere in the book as well, though I don’t have the discipline or rigor to go hunting for more than a couple of examples.

So, here are two more examples:

  • Page 510: “Tavis’s office’s outer door is real oak and has his name and degree and title in (nonblue) letters so big that the total I.D crowds the margins.”


^For me, the words ” total I.D” sends my mind back to the AA process of learning to Identify, or I.D totally. Again, why? Who knows, I really don’t have a good handle on this.


  • On page 486-487, as Lucien tries to communicate something in a language he doesn’t know how to speak with “chin caved” and “lips quivering”, he attempts to form words, but nothing comes out: “Words that are not and can never be words are sought by Lucien here through what he guesses to be the maxillofacial movements of speech, and there is a childlike pathos to the movements […].”


^Then, on page 516, the narrator relates that Hal experiencing a similar type of physical sensation when faced with talking about Avril and Orin at tournaments: “[…] there will be this odd tense moment where Hal’s mind will go utterly blank  and his mouth slack and flabby, working soundlessly, as if the names were words on the tip of his tongue.”


…And then a sentence about how the part of Hal’s brain that holds information about his closest family members (excluding Mario) is “almost like some ponderous creaky machine.” Squeak, squeak, creaaaaak…more bubbles to the surface. But again, from where?

In echoing certain phrases in seemingly unconnected sections/events is the narrator trying to demonstrate how the things are similar or how they diverge (both?).

With the various narrator(s) are we again merely dealing with, as Shazia mentioned in her post, the suggestion or appearance of segmentation or true bonafide segmentation?

I guess the takeaway point here is that the narration is certainly bizarre, and it’s only fixin’ to get even more twisted from this point forward.

I suggest you buckle-up for a bumpy ride through that wormhole up ahead, as the weirdness factor continues to go sky high, I wanted to put a few things out there about the narrative style of IJ and get to thinking about what it might mean to suggest. Mean to suggest. Mean to suggest. Mean to suggest.

Double Feature Guest Post Part 2: Steve Rigby: The Abnegation of Personal Will in Infinite Jest defines abnegation as ‘the act of relinquishing or giving up a right, possession, etc.’ and even though I really cannot understand how any decent definition includes ’etc.,’ I’ve come to believe that virtually ALL the major characters in DFW’s magnum opus have abnegated their sense of personal will.

They are confronted with realities surrounding them to which they can, at the very best, only react.  They have lost the sense of self-worth which is necessary to inspire any significant action to change that world around them, even when it is apparently affecting them in significantly negative ways. Continue reading “Double Feature Guest Post Part 2: Steve Rigby: The Abnegation of Personal Will in Infinite Jest”

Double Feature Guest Post Part 1: Alana Rigby: Infinite Jest: Mind-Altering Comedy?

*my page numbers are probably useless for everyone else because I’ve been reading on a combination of an e-reader and my phone and Google Play indicates that my copy of IJ is 1819 pages long…

I have never read Infinite Jest before. And like Orin and spiders, I eschew spoilers like the plague, so much so that even reading the blurb on the back of a book puts me at risk for frustration. I like knowing absolutely nothing about a book before I start it because you can only ever have the completely unspoiled experience of a narrative once.

Thus, I began Infinite Jest blind. And when I went to enter the book onto my Goodreads ‘Currently Reading’ shelf, I was surprised to see it billed as a “mind-altering comedy”. Continue reading “Double Feature Guest Post Part 1: Alana Rigby: Infinite Jest: Mind-Altering Comedy?”

Matt Bucher: Imposter Syndrome

If you are a fan of DFW, or a close-reader of Infinite Jest, I would wager that one of these statements contains a ring of the familiar:

  • A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true.
  • Something experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.
  • Victims can develop anxiety, stress, low self-confidence, depression, shame and self-doubt.
  • Sufferers tend to reflect and dwell upon extreme failure, mistakes and negative feedback from others.

All these statements describe a common condition called impostor syndrome. Who among us doesn’t feel inadequate? Who doesn’t harbor a low-level anxiety and major degree of self-doubt? Continue reading “Matt Bucher: Imposter Syndrome”