One of the greatest lessons authors should learn from David Foster Wallace is how to manage exposition. Actually, no, he doesn't manage exposition by simply ignoring it--it just seems that way because he so slickly provides us with information, all while constantly moving forward. It reminds me of a reality show challenge I once saw in which contestants had to find clues in an amusement park--by looking down from a roller coaster. Everything you need is there, it's just not always obvious, and when it is obvious--that is, when we are thrown the bone--it is entertaining.
Case in point, Wallace's introduction to Marathe and M. Hugh Steeply (p. 87-95, 105-109). In this section, things start being spelled out: namely that Incandenza's film (presumably Infinite Jest V), which they now call "the Entertainment" has been used either as a terrorist attack or as a sick joke, which is why Steeply, an agent of the Office of Unspecified Services, is questioning his agent, Marathe, an agent of the Quebocois terror cell Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (Wheelchair Assassins). The two discuss the death of the terrorism-coordinator Guillaume DuPlessis (who Don Gately accidentally killed back on p. 59), and touch on the unfortunate death of the medical attache (and his wife, and the neighbors, and the Seventh Day proselytizers, and the first responders, and so forth), a plot point that is now, at last, resolved. (Interesting that plots really only ever seem to end end in death.)
Of course, none of these seems like exposition, because Wallace has wrapped it all up in a satire of spy novels. First off, Marathe is a triple agent (and potentially a quadruple agent): sent to infiltrate the B.S.S. (French for the O.U.S.) by the A.F.R. (there's a reason Wallace uses so many abbreviations), he instead actually works for the B.S.S., pretending, in other words, to pretend. Second, the language is terse, informational stuff, stripped from crime novels, only rendered far more humorous here on account of Marathe's less-than-great grasp on U.S.A. English (and Wallace, a grammatical person, is right to distinguish). Finally, there's the biggest divertissment of them all: despite meeting in the middle of nowhere, the B.S.S. has forced Steeply to arrive in disguise, a disguise that is a grotesqued approximation of a woman: "Steeply's eyes were luridly made up," reads one section, and then, "The B.S.S. operative had perspired also through his rouge, and his mascara had melted to become whorish." As if that weren't enough, Wallace then takes potshots at Steeply's accesorizing: "A large odor of inexpensive and high-alcohol perfume came not from Steeply's person but from his handbag, which failed to complement his shoes."
Not only is there constant action neatly breaking up the dialogue, but it's filled with slapstick comedy, too. I mentioned in an earlier post that there were a lot of similarities between Wallace and James Incandenza . . . consider further, then, that both have created an "Entertainment" that is rather hard to put down.
Another clever device Wallace uses to suck the reader in is in the use of tricky language. By using more complicated words, we have to change our mindset, much like those old visual games where you'd have to identify an object by looking at an extreme close-up. The effect is that when we at last decode the image, we are staring so close at it that it literally smacks us in the face, and provkes an emotional response (or at least an empathetic one). Not through the heart, mind you, but through the brain, which is what's so truly accomplished about it.
In any case, Downtime (p. 95-105) is our first casual look at the students of E.T.A., namely Hal and the other 18-and-Unders, plus a few incidental 14-and-Unders who have been entrusted in a Little Buddy sort of way to the older, more accomplished students. The section is about as pure a slice of life as they come, with Wallace explaining years of Jr. tennis preparation through some of the most mundane--and therefore globally applicable--descriptions of locker room antics. They bitch about their coursework, they break each other's balls, they go through their own little rituals and routines, and it's all just one more day in the game. Listen:
To a man, now, the upperclassmen are down slumped on the locker room's blue crush carpet, their legs straight out in front of them, toes pointing out at that distinctive morgue-angle, their backs up aganist the blue steel of the lockers, careful to avoid the six sharp little louvered antimildew vents at each locker's base.These are some vividly different ways to describe things that are so utterly similar, when it comes right down to it. Another example: "One semion that still works fine is holding your fist up and cranking it with the other hand so the finger you're giving somebody goes up like a drawbridge." Does cursing get any classier than that? And yet, isn't that exactly what we do? All this, of course, the technical care and precision with which Wallace addresses childishly casual moments, is funny in of itself--but it echoes within us like a deep booming laugh in the caverns of the soul because it is also true.
In this manner, Wallace also gets away with a lot of digressions. If these seem like tangents, of course, unrelated to the novel, then: (1) you are simply reading for plot and have come to the wrong book, (2) you are missing the point, which is that everything is ultimately connected. And so then but yes, the section that first alerts us to the . . . pains of Schacht's Crohn's Disease, is on the humbling humanity of defectation: be it Martin Luther or the Pope, everyone has found themselves in the "defecatory posture," an "almost religious" pose. This shit, in other words, isn't bullshit: it's the cornerstone of understanding all that we have in common, much like when we were introduced to the medical attache's hypocritical vices way back on page 33. It's also, for what it's worth, a narrative style that Wallace will come to perfect in his nonfiction, as he takes on assignments and then spins them larger, ever larger, making each piece infinitely more than the sum of its parts.
Words looked up: specular, uremia, pedalferrous, fulvous, qua, ephebe, quiesent, carminative, creosote