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

Friday, 5 October 2012

Nine: Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment

When I come to one of these episodes, the ones that appear, on first reading at least, to have no particular connection with anything I’ve read so far – no Incandenzas, no tennis, no piss-stained attaché – I have to create my own context, my own meaning. And although I’ve tried very hard to avoid reading anything else about Infinite Jest or its author, it’s widely known that DFW, like the character Kate Gompert, suffered from severe depression. Moreover, his suicide gives this whole episode a post hoc melancholy resonance. Kate Gompert may not have been intended as a stand-in for Wallace, but she becomes one after the fact.

At the same time of course, Kate is a fictional creation, and on more levels than it first appears. Wallace created her, of course; but the doctor also creates a version of her through his diagnosis; and that diagnosis seems to be that she has created herself, almost as a pastiche of something else:
Something almost too overt about the pathos of the posture: this exact position was illustrated in some melancholic Watteau-era print on the frontispiece to Yevtushenko’s Field Guide to Clinical States.
...which apparently isn’t a real book, but probably should be. Wallace conjures up clinical psychologists named after Russian poets and epistemological philosophers; the revenge of the arts graduate. Later, the doctor himself gets confused as to which parts the patient is creating and which are his own work:
He couldn’t keep himself from trying to determine whether the ambient blank insincerity the patient seemed to project during what appeared, clinically, to be a significant gamble and move toward trust and self-revealing was in fact projected by the patient or was somehow counter-transferred or -projected onto the patient from the doctor’s own psyche out of some sort of anxiety over the critical therapeutic possibilities her revelation of concern over drug-use might represent.
There are further reminders that the whole scene, the hospital, Kate, the doctor, is a fiction; the pillowcase is described as “either green or yellow”. A real case would be one or another or both; the “either” implies that Wallace hasn’t decided what colour to make it yet, like a Biblical god dithering over how many humps to give to a camel. Kate’s mother, meanwhile, goes in the opposite direction, wondering whether she’s hallucinating, refusing to accept the horror of reality.

In fact, the only person that appears to have a grasp of reality is Kate herself, supposedly the mad one, refusing to dramatise her actions or attitudes, coolly analysing why she wanted to kill herself:
“I wanted to just stop being conscious. I’m a whole different type. I wanted to stop feeling this way. If I could have put myself in a really long coma I would have done that. Or given myself shock I would have done that. Instead.”
...and also cutting through the bullshit about why people take drugs. It’s because taking drugs makes you feel good. Although it also makes you get Jack Nicholson’s name wrong.

And the attaché’s wife finally gets home and finds him frozen and apparently happy and she turns to see what he’s seeing. Possibly not a wise move.

And then back to ETA. Gerhardt Schtitt in his boots and helmet appears on the face of it to be a slightly kinky comedy Gestapo officer from ’Allo ’Allo! and the corny ““Verstiegenheit.’ ‘Bless you.’” gag could easily have come from that fondly-remembered-but-not-by-me sitcom. Factor in the “creepy wiriness” that Wallace ascribes to him and one immediately wonders about the purity of his intentions towards the trusting, apparently naïve Mario. But all seems well as Schtitt holds forth on tennis and mathematics; even his pipe-smoke is geometric and his obsession with lines apparently echoing parts of the dream sequence in the previous chapter, although we still don’t know for sure whose dream that was.

It’s not just hypotenuses though. Schtitt is also a philosopher on Nietzchean lines, seeing tennis as an essentially tragic pursuit, “life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without.” Hamlet again, anyone, arms against a sea of troubles and all that? “And then but so what’s the difference between tennis and suicide, life and death, the game and its own end?” And by opposing end them?

In the midst of this, we get the first reference to a year with a number, BS 1989, although whether that’s the same as our 1989 is another matter. Also, the note informs us that subsidization was introduced by one President Gentle. Lots of jigsaw pieces, still no picture...

There’s no time to dawdle, though. Now we meet Tiny Ewell, who is indeed tiny. He’s also – in common with so many of the characters we’ve met so far – overly fond of mind-altering substances and finds himself in a detox facility, the hideous banality of which Wallace sums up thus:
They gave him slippers of green foam-rubber with smiley-faces embossed on the tops. The detox’s in-patients are encouraged to call these Happy Slippers. The staff refer to the footwear in private as ‘pisscatchers.’
But it’s Tiny’s room-mate who really grabs our attention, gazing “with rapt intensity” at the vents of the air conditioner: “His face produces the little smiles and grimaces of a person who’s being thoroughly entertained.”

...which inevitably takes us back to the attaché and his wife, not to mention their various visitors, who are captivated by the looping images, even through the stench.

1 comment:

  1. Great, Tim. Yes. I got here because I was wondering whether Yevtushenko's Field Guide to Clinical States was real, or not, and one of the things in IJ appears to be the total cluelessness (in an objective sense, as in "absence of clues,") when it comes to the factuality of any object. We should spend a bit more time on Kate's depression though, because we can safely entertain the working hyp. that DFW is writing about his own depression here. Will try to do so in a post on my own blog soon.


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