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”

Feeling This One Out

I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to write anything particularly coherent this week (but then again, is any of it, really?) after just reading Shazia’s post/thread regarding the truth of what (mostly) Hal says in his conversation about his grief therapy sessions.

That one there’s a brain-buster, y’all. How does Hal really feel after the bullshit apparatus/structure of the interface is removed? Did Hal just figure out the “trick” to the grief therapy sessions just before he was about to make a real breakthrough, or is the entire thing a complete fabrication start to finish? I guess we might find out if we tune in next week: same bat time, same bat channel.

It does make sense that Hal simply discovered the “trick”, given his ability to learn what is expected of him and find a way to deliver the goods through sheer effort. It seems like it all goes back to Mario secretly procuring the copies of the O.E.D for Hal during the time when he was being assessed for damage as described on page 317: “It was Mario, not Avril, who obtained Hal his first copies of the unabridged O.E.D at a time when Hal was still being shunted around for the assessment of possible damage […] months before Hal tested out at Whatever’s Beyond Eidetic on the Mnemonic Verbal Inventory designed by a dear and trusted colleague of the Moms at Brandeis.” I honestly never thought that it might be possible that so much of who Hal thinks he is might have something to do with a fear of being somehow damaged or being found out as some kind of fraud by others, but now, so it seems to be! It seems like I keep seeing stuff from “This is Water” at almost every turn: “if you worship intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” I don’t know, I just feel like that speech gives such a clear summary of so many of the big ideas that have been fictionalized in Infinite Jest.

Oh man, now I don’t know what to think about the characters…what is real? What is the truth? Oh, God, where art thou?!

It’s a crisis (Arnold voice)!  An existential crisis! (Oh no…not again! *no celebrity emphasis)

And here we have Mario (seemingly) tied up with Hal’s fears. But what is it about Mario that freaks Hal out exactly? It certainly isn’t his appearance.

More pointedly, why does Hal “fear Mario’s opinion more than probably anybody except the Moms”? Is it simply because Mario knows the truth about how Hal came to be identified as “Beyond Eidetic” and Hal fears being found out? It’s probably part of it, but somehow, I think it’s more than just that. It’s not like Hal hates him for it, and there seems to be a genuine brotherly tenderness between the two brothers that is sorely lacking between Orin and the others.

I think it’s pretty clear that Mario loves his brother. Take for example the instance where he participates in a whole bunch of shit that doesn’t make any sense, simply for the sake of being near his brother: “Hal remembers the unending hours of blocks and balls […] tangrams and See ‘N Spell, huge headed Mario hanging in there, [again, AA language mysteriously popping up in something that is seemingly unrelated…why?] for make-believe in which he had no interest other than proximity to his brother.” It’s like Mario is acting out how the ideal convert to AA should act: he wishes to simply just be present in the moment, toughing it out so that he can just get close to his brother. He may well never understand on an intellectual level, (probably like Gately, Ferocious Francis, and most of those that adhere to the AA program, day in and day out) but he tries simply because it affords him an opportunity to be with his brother, who he loves.

And then, several sentences later, we hear of “Hal, brandishing his Dunlop stick, [at the representative from the UHID rep] who told the guy to peddle his linen someplace else.” This part made me smile. I think it’s pretty clear that Hal is protective of Mario. I would probably say tenderly so, even. But still, I’m not completely sure if Hal’s love for his brother is totally “agendaless”, as the narrator tells us that “Hal fears that Avril sees Mario as the family’s real prodigy, as an in-bent savant-type genius of unclassifiable type, a very rare and shining thing[…]” . Maybe on some level Hal in a way sees Mario as another logic puzzle to crack or another skill to master to gain the complete approval of his Moms, and this is why he keeps him close?  Like grief counseling, might there be a “trick” to this “unclassifiable genius” that he sees in Mario?

It’s interesting when the narrator mentions that even at age thirteen, Mario still wanted help with bathing and dressing from Hal, “and wanting the help for Hal’s sake, and not his own.” Mario is acting with selflessness here, but why? What is wrong with Hal, and how does he know?

It’s like even then, Mario just senses something in Hal that is missing and wants to help him by enlisting his help in these basic activities of daily living. Mario is born helper/listener (carrying the lenses, and etc.), and seems to recognize and appreciate the basic, child-like glee in being able to be of assistance to somebody in need. It’s another pure type of pleasure that costs nothing: or as mentioned earlier, a type of “raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness.” NO THOUGHT REQUIRED (*tentatively*…right?…). It seems like this impulse goes on in Hal (as in the scene in which he delivers advice to his little buddies).

Unlike Hal’s intelligence, Mario’s style of intuition cannot be reduced to studying, or reading a manual, or effort, or will, and etc. (or can it?…jeez, I don’t know…maybe it can?). Just contrast the type of empathy/intuition practiced by the resident doctor on Kate Gompert earlier in the book, with Mario’s unaffected intuition. Every gesture that the doctor makes is meant to convey empathy and intuition, but is clearly measured and artificial—he must have read it in some medical student textbook about interpersonal doctor/patient relationships: proxemics and kinesics, and all that jazz.

I guess my point here is that (at least ideally) Mario’s intuitive approach to things has to be freer of thought than Hal’s rampant intellectualizing of every thought and emotion, and these different approaches produce very different results when interacting with others. It’s not to say that one is good, or one is bad—it’s just that they are different. Somebody (Mario) who is intuitive just knows something on a gut level and acts accordingly—while someone (Hal) that thinks with just their head may never act at all for fear of being wrong, or misunderstood, or whatever—teen angst and beyond (Hamlet, anybody?). Maybe Hal’s afraid of Mario’s intuition because it can’t really be rehearsed and mastered. It’s not perfect. There will sometimes be mistakes. But that’s kind of the point, right? Sometimes acting on intuition can open up a conversation with another person by exposing the cracks in your own thinking that you never would have realized were there had you not had the courage to ask or engage in the first place.

Side note:


I’ve always kind of thought that each of the Incandenza boys end up being hyper-developed (or radically skewed) in one particular way. Orin is all sex and body, Hal is (mostly) intellect or brain, and Mario is all heart (I’m sure there’s a Freudian analysis in here, as per Hamlet, etc.). It’s like they could be one reasonably well-functioning child if they could somehow combine their powers by raising their rings to the sky and summoning captain planet (who is [presumably] here, a well-functioning child taking pollution of the soul down to the zero). Or like how the power rangers combine their Dinozords (sp?) into a Megazord (again, sp?), or something, I don’t know.

Eden Kennedy: Reflections on Infinite Summer

Eden M. Kennedy is the co-author of “Let’s Panic About Babies!” (St. Martin’s, 2011), a parody of pregnancy and childrearing guides. She lives in Santa Barbara, California, with her husband and son, and she is nearly finished writing her first novel.

In the spring of 2009, not quite a year after David Foster Wallace died, my friend Matthew e-mailed me with an unexpected question. He asked me if I’d ever read Infinite Jest, and if not, would I like to help “guide” people through the book over the summer by posting about my experience of reading it on a simple web site he had built, called Infinite Summer. The goal would be to read 100 pages a week and then write one post a week about the experience.

I had never met Matthew in real life, and I haven’t still, though we have been internet-friends since somewhere around 2002, when both of us were blogging before it was widely possible to leave comments on, or make money from, personal web sites. Not having any idea what I was about to say yes to, I said, Yes! Of course! Not only because I’d wanted to read Infinite Jest for years, but because how impressive would that be, to read a difficult book and impress a very, very small corner of the internet while I did it!

I’d once been a tackler of big, fat books — toughies like Moby Dick, and War and Peace (abridged edition). What was Infinite Jest if not the next big mountain to climb? I didn’t care if I wasn’t in shape for it; I was sure Infinite Summer was just what I needed to revive brain cells made dormant by motherhood, living in California, and answering phones for a living. More importantly, Infinite Summer would earn me some credibility — if not in the eyes of the paralegals I made coffee for, then maybe among the people who read my tired little blog; maybe even for myself.

But you know what happens when you do something mainly for the ego boost: usually just the opposite. I can’t bear to go back and look at my posts from that summer, and you probably shouldn’t either. I was in way over my head. I was a blogger and part-time receptionist who hadn’t read more than the side of an oatmeal box in seven years. One of my posts seriously asked people to tell me how they made time to read every day. Then I fell asleep and dreamed about David Foster Wallace tearing my college diploma in half.

The only thing that kept me from dropping out halfway through July — besides my friend Matthew’s faith in me and the public shame that would surely have been heaped upon me if I quit — was the group of people who joined me that Infinite Summer. Even after a long day when I didn’t want to turn on a tiny light and crack open a thousand-page book while my husband slept beside me, I sucked it up and ploughed through with everyone else. I was doing this alone, but in beds and chairs  and train compartments and airplane seats all over the world, hundreds of other people had made the same commitment and were ploughing through as well. And some of them must have been as dumb as me, right? (Probably not.)

Have you read Infinite Jest? I don’t know if you’d find the experience as entertaining and humbling as I did, or if as soon as you were done you’d want to go back to the beginning and start reading it all over again, like I did. But if you haven’t read it and you’ve got three months to see what kind of stuff you’re made of, you really should join Poor Yoricks’ Summer and give it a cry. Try! I mean give it a try.