A flood-of-consciousness fades out from 18-year-old Hal's adventure in The Interview, an appropriate-enough drowning that allows David Foster Wallace to switch tones in earnest for his next section, The Woman Who Said She'd Come (p. 17-27). Using what James Wood would call the “free-indirect style,” we’re introduced to Erdedy, an addict as much in his repetitious language and fixed descriptions as in his own “meth”odic details of the bulk-quantity binge he’s planning, a so-called “marijuana vacation” that ironically requires vast amounts of work—both in planning the whole affair and then in the actual unpleasantness of smoking through the 120 grams of high-quality resin in four days. Here’s what that sounds like:
This arrangement, very casual, made him anxious, so he'd been even more casual and said sure, fine, whatever. Thinking back, he was sure he'd said whatever, which in retrospect worried him because it might have sounded as if he didn't care at all, not at all, so little that it wouldn't matter if she forgot to get it or call, and once he'd made the decision to have marijuana in his home one more time it mattered a lot. It mattered a lot.If you don’t see the desperate all-encompassing comedy of that, or phrases like “one last final time” and the “grueling final debauch he’d committed himself to” then Infinite Jest is not for you. The nitpicking of grammar in The Interview is meant to be every bit as (if not more) comic as the farcical events it describes; in this section, the quibbling deadpan is meant to smooth over the insanity of what Erdedy is planning. We can be calm and logical without being rational or wise, and seeing that disconnect is funny. The result is an exterior monologue that reads like a Rubik’s Cube being solved by algorithm: patterns of helplessness emerge as the circuitous logic nears closer and closer to resolution (or madness), without every actually getting there. (In fact, this ends with him in “a balloon of colored silence” being “flung” and “splayed” between points.)
None of this, by the way, is exposition. The text lives for us as the lies (read: fictions) do for Erdedy: “He had not sat down and outright bold-faced lied to her, it had been more of an impression he’d conveyed and nurtured and allowed to gather its own life and force.” This is a rather clever way for an author to justify including tangents and rambles, but also a sincere one. Life is tangled, and it’s not the outright stuff that convinces us, but all the cumulative little bits that ring true. For instance, a Naked Lunch-like insect keeps popping out from behind a shelf; there’s no reason for this to happen, but it allows Erdedy to mention “he felt similar to the insect inside the girder his shelf was connected to, but was not sure just how he was similar.” That, in of itself, is a half-reflection, for it offers nothing conclusive: but doesn’t it feel real? Doesn’t that significantly insignificant moment hit the nail right on the head? When Erdedy explains his whole process, the thing that sticks with me most is that he’s bought “four cans of canned chocolate frosting to be eaten with a large spoon.”
By the way, does anyone else think of “A Dream Deferred” when reading the opening of the lengthy run-on conclusion to this section? “He thought very broadly of desires and ideas being watched but not acted upon, he thought of impulses being starved of expression and drying out and floating dryly away . . .”
And now, because he can (and because it works most fluidly in this form), David Foster Wallace treats us to a section entirely comprised of dialogue (and a few sound effects): The Professional Conversationalist (p. 27–31). It is now the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad (seven years before The Year of Glad, in which the novel begins), and ten-year-old Hal can not only speak (despite eating a weird fungus five years ago), but can speak about Byzantine erotica, even though he makes “dry sticky inadequate-saliva sounds,” suffers from caries, and is all-too familiar with dentists. He’s also got a photographic memory (“O.E.D. Condensed Volume Six page 1387 column twelve and a little bit of thirteen.”), tends to get beat up, and wears a bow tie . . . all of which is just incredibly detailed nonsense that Hal makes fun of. Despite these solid facts, what do we really know about Hal?
About as much as we know of his father, Himself, a drunk who wears argyle sweaters and who has masqueraded as this conversationalist in order to get his son to talk (which implies that we are facing either an unreliable narrator or unreliable listener). As the scene continues, Wallace uses an increasingly absurd series of descriptions and vocabulary (style enhancing the setting once more) to get across the comedy:
That your quote-unquote “complimentary” Dunlop widebody tennis racquets’ super-secret-formulaic composition materials of high-modulus-graphite-reinforced polycarbonate polybutylene resin are organochemically identical I say again identical to the gyroscopic balance sensor and mise-en-scene appropriation card and priapistic-entertainment cartridge implanted in your very own towering father’s analplastic cerebrum after his cruel series of detoxifications and convolution-smoothings and gastrectomy and prostatectomy and pancreatectomy and phalluctomy….For what it’s worth, after failing to find a definition for oral-lyrologist, I chose not to bother recording or searching for any of the more esoteric words above. However, one hardly needs to understand the words here to understand the emotion, or to feel the energy. This is an ace of a scene in that it goes right by you and scores a point. However, I wouldn’t let it all go past . . . just like the flashes in The Interview, it seems like many of these things (like “the pan-Canadian Resistance” or a certain “Near Eastern medical attaché” that shows up two pages from now) are more than smoke and mirrors, which means that there may also be more to the madness than we realize, too. Remember: what one person sees—their reality—is not necessarily what another person gets.
After a brief introduction to Mario, Hal’s older brother of the oversized skull and childish behavior, we jump to a full scene with The Attache (p. 33–37). This section gets a lot of humor out of how hypocritical the foreign ear-nose-throat “specialist” is, starting with his labeling of North America’s selling out as “hilariously vulgar.” Not that he isn’t dead on: their calendar has been promotionally subsidized—it’s “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”—and there’s the “idolatrous West’s most famous and self-congratulating idol, the colossal Libertine Statue, wearing some type of enormous adult-design diaper.” However, after a hard day of using the “evacuation-hypo” on the Saudi Minister of Home Entertainment, he indulges in the same behavior, being babied by his wife, and using technological advancements to wholly devolve:
He reclines before the viewer in his special electronic recliner, and his black-veiled, ethnically Arab wife wordlessly attends him, loosening any constrictive clothing, adjusting the room’s lighting, fitting the complexly molded dinner tray over his head so that his shoulders support the tray and allow it to project into space just below his chin, that he may enjoy his hot dinner without having to remove his eyes from whatever entertainment is up and playing.For all the specificity of location—“Boston, Massachusetts U.S.A.’s Newbury Street’s import-confectioners’ shelves”—it’s simultaneously reassuring and frightening to see some common and unacknowledged addictions creep in, too. Our attaché has the aforementioned fixation on television; his client, the Saudi Minister of Home Entertainment craves Toblerone—even though he appears to be allergic.
Another thing that Wallace has worked in is a sort of underlying familiarity—no matter what the situation, there are Easter eggs of repetition (“a triptych of high-quality Byzantine erotica,” Hal’s specialty). Whether we glom onto them or not, they subtly spark our neural pathways, forging new connections and memories out of even the most incidental moments. Whether or not Infinite Jest ever actually goes anywhere, it is remarkably life-like even in its deliberate comedy.
Words looked up: rapacious, pleurisy, magisculed (typo: majusculed), dyspeptic, thrushive (?)