I am attempting to read David Foster Wallace’s very large novel and write about the experience as I go. That is all.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Two: Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment

Now, is this chapter in fact the story that the Cuban orderly asks Hal to tell? For that matter, is this Hal? He suffers from a dry mouth, the way Hal does. No, this is Erdedy, although it’s too early to say whether Hal and Erdedy are one and the same; or, if they’re not, what if any relationship there may be between the two. A name like Erdedy makes him sound like the Swedish Chef’s Hungarian boyfriend, but this is just a guess. I don’t think he’s Hal; he asks questions without using question marks, a quirk that the pedantic tennis whiz wouldn’t countenance.

Erdedy is alone, so there is no potential for an interlocutor to fill in the biographical details, as the various deans did for Hal; the insect he observes going in and out of the girders does not count. And we’ve switched from first- to third-person narrative, although I still harbour a sneaking suspicion that Hal may be telling the story, which would mean the narrator wouldn’t have changed, even if the voice has. (Incidentally, have you ever read a novel with a second-person point-of-view, in which “you” does all the work? Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney, that’s one. The effect is disconcerting, to say the least. Oh well, it’s better than the film.)

Erdedy is waiting for a large delivery of high-quality marijuana, which he intends to consume all by himself. He claims this is part of his attempt to give up the habit, by over-indulging until he can’t stand the stuff. It’s almost a ritual thing; his pathetic desire to impose pain on himself by putting his thumb on the rough edge of the bong is Opus Dei-style self-flagellation for someone with a very low pain threshold. The implication is that he’s deluding himself, or maybe channelling Mark Twain a little. And to support him in his quest he’s meticulousy stocked up on the right sort of junk food, possibly a nod to the cold turkey scene in Trainspotting. His paranoia, his delusion, his self-justification are all amusing, but who is he? Do we care, or should we?

We’re still fiddling around for clues, hoping they may fall into place a little further down the line. So what fragments have we got? After Hal’s mysterious ROM-drive, Erdedy enjoys
“film cartridges” on a “teleputer”; he uses “modem” as a verb; he receives “protocols” and “e-notes”. Are we in fact in the future, or a future, or a parallel present? And since DFW was writing nearly 20 years ago, his imagined future could well be seen as a parallel now. And those wild and wacky chapter headings; is this future and/or now a time in which whole years are sponsored by brands and corporations. Glad-Wrap and Depend, both means of protecting by sealing stuff in. (Makes note.)

The first footnote appears, but it’s depressingly straightforward; “methamphetamine hydrochloride” is translated as “crystal meth”. Might as well have got the Kindle to explain it.

“He went to the bathroom to use the bathroom,” writes Wallace. Is this meant to be silly? I’ve heard Americans speak like this in all seriousness. But no, it’s silly, whether it’s knowingly so or not. Although he redeems himself with Erdedy’s response to thoughts of masturbation: “He didn’t reject the idea so much as not react to it and watch it as it floated away.” Which sounds like prime Douglas Adams to me, which is a good thing.

And then the end, as Erdedy stands “splay-legged” between two competing calls on his attention, and all I can think of is Jimmy Cliff.

But we still don’t know who this Erdedy is or why we’re being told about him. It’s partly a matter of structure. If the two opening chapters had been switched, we’d regard Hal’s experience at the university as an intrusion into the main narrative of the protagonist Erdedy. As it happens, I wouldn’t be surprised if we never hear from the deluded dope fiend ever again. On the other hand, I don’t know for sure whether Hal will make a reappearance. Still, it’s early days yet. Very early.

(And I know I said I’d try to avoid other sources of DFW-related comment for a while, but this insight into the Ellis/Wallace spat is too good to pass up. Thanks, Slaminsky.)


  1. "Incidentally, have you ever read a novel with a second-person point-of-view, in which 'you' does all the work?"

    Robert Coover's Noir is another. It's not great though.

    "possibly a nod to the cold turkey scene in Trainspotting."

    Unlikely, most of IJ was written at around the same time Welsh was writing Trainspotting.

    "Glad-Wrap and Depend, both means of protecting by sealing stuff in."

    That's an excellent point. I won't say more because it will spoil stuff that's coming later.

  2. Thanks for these, Shane, especially the sealing teasers. Re Trainspotting: once you get into Roland Barthes, the fact that DFW couldn't have read Welsh before he wrote Infinite Jest becomes irrelevant. It's the reading, not the writing, that is susceptible to influence... Which also means I don't need to check publication dates.

  3. I thought of Trainspotting too.

    I've read Bright Lights, Big City twice (including in the past few years) without noticing it was written in the second person.


What do you think of it so far?