To take a cue from David Foster Wallace, here is a disclaimer. This post is long & probably only interesting if you like textual analysis or Infinite Jest.
So I mentioned awhile back that I started on Infinite Jest. The good news is that I’m still wandering through it. The bad news is that I’m right frustrated with the text. I talked before about surrendering to a book, finding comfort in the large page count.
Like Sacred Games or Anna Karenina, Infinite Jest holds a whole world with its own history & rules. But there’s a self-contained feel to the writing. Wallace, I think, realizes this himself because there are several times where he writes an excuse into the story. Usually something literally along the lines of “This isn’t really interesting unless you are seriously into doubles play/math/the mechanics of vision.”
That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on the book; I just struggle against it to let me in. The section I read a few nights ago was a rewarding moment. (Pages 508-527 in my copy which is CL, ISBN 0316920045.) I think the reason this section intrigued me was because it seemed closer to his stories in Oblivion, the collection I read as prep before taking on IJ. (If you haven’t read the novel or don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now.)
Please be patient while I describe what happens. The scene takes place at the Enfield Tennis Academy in the Headmaster’s/Dean’s shared office space. Wallace layers past & present events in a curious doubling technique, much like my favorite story from Oblivion, “The Soul Is Not a Smithy.” The entire passage has a Lynchian focus on the color blue.
Hal Incandenza sits in the waiting room outside the Headmaster’s (or his Uncle Tavis’) office and the Dean’s (his mother Avril’s) office. Avril, who has “enclosure issues”, has no door on her office; anything that goes on is open to everyone nearby. Tavis’ office has two doors, an inner & an outer. When both are open, it gives the “little inter-door vestibule kind of a jaw-like quality, when exposed.” At least two time periods are at play: the present moment of the story and the past of three months earlier.
In the present, Avril holds a special workshop in her office for the younger students of the school, a sort of “stranger danger” class that they aren’t able to have with their parents. (Enfield functions as a boarding school.) She asks the students if they have been “in any way touched by a tall person in a way that’s made you uncomfortable.” This is also the first time Wallace introduces us to Avril, who at “50+, is still endocrinologically compelling to males.” Tavis’ office, however, is closed, preparing an inquisition of sorts into some of Hal’s shady goings-on.
As Hal watches both doors, readers watch a previous encounter enter the scene through association. Tavis’ double doors are wide open while he interviews Tina Echt, a 7-year-old new arrival abandoned by her parents at the front gate. Hal waits again in the shared waiting room to escort her around the grounds as soon as intake finishes.
Avril appears with an orientation packet and talks to Hal while he waits. Wallace balances our attention between the two “interviews.” While Tavis talks to Tina about breaking her apart to remake her into a tennis pro, Hal is already the proof, so conditioned by the school’s regime that he can’t differentiate Avril & Tavis from their familial & administrative roles. If someone asks how his mother is, he has to take a second to remember who she is. He responds to mother’s questions rather than having a conversation. The focus is on his bad ankle & his talent with words, despite his dislike of “performing” for her.
The two moments in time bleed into one another. Avril’s talk on predatory teachers is parodied in Tavis’ & Tina’s uneven handshake where “for the first split-second he looked, like C.T. was jacking off and the little girl was going Seig Heil.” In another uncomfortable set of juxtapositions, Hal’s awareness of his mother’s attractiveness is echoed when he eats an apple she offers him in the past memory. Her perfume saturates it.
Even events outside the two moments are introduced when Wallace describes the distinctive way Avril hold her cigarette. The same gesture is mimicked by Special Agent Steeply, someone trying to infiltrate the Incandenza family. Hal’s brother is attracted to Steeply for reasons he can’t quite put a finger on. All of these strands of time & act reside in the same space.
So, I guess the question you’re asking is why is this important in the novel. I’ll admit, that was the reason I wrote the post (775 words & counting). I’m still trying to figure it out myself because I feel like Wallace is teasing me with something, but I’m not sure what yet. It could be an elaborate setup for the reveal of a certain administrator’s indiscretions. (Which I already know about since I skipped ahead a little.) Or is Wallace using this moment in an attempt to recreate an associative narrative? (A mode of storytelling he’s fascinated with & which influences all of his stories.)
Or is this a turning point where something predatory enters the story? Because I will not lie to you; I have been worried about Hal Incandenza since page 1. Something happens in this mammoth block of text to make him what he is in Chapter 1, one of the latest points in the novel’s timeline. That’s why I keep reading.
When I first read this section, I was taken back to the opening of Part Two in McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, where Mick first realizes her father is a “true separate person.” While she is on the threshold of puberty, her father still plays this game of hiding coins in his shoes or even wedged into his belt as a way to get her attention. It’s not as predatory a scene but one that also acknowledges the uncomfortable awareness of space, gender, physicality & authority. So the question is does this scene in Infinite Jest point to something preparing to waylay Hal & harm him? Does he suffer from his own misadventures? Or do these 20 pages outline a particular unhappy awareness that he doesn’t want to admit to himself?