And so we reach the chapter in which things finally start to come together, with one or two strands looking for the first time as if they ought to belong inside the same novel. And it’s also the point at which I first start asking myself what the hell I’m doing here, as the chapter begins with a few “a-ha!” moments and then tails off into a whole load of “what?” Of course, the Luddites will insist, if I’d been reading a dead tree I could have just used page numbers. But I’m not. So I’ll just have to break this monster down piece by arbitrary piece.
Anyway, we’re back in Arizona, where we last saw Orin. Someone, who turns out to be Marathe, but we don’t yet know who Marathe is, “sat alone above the desert” and immediately I’m thinking of Jesus in the wilderness, with Satan offering him “all the kingdoms of the world”. But maybe that’s just me. OK, there he sits in his wheelchair, which is described as a “fauteuil de rollent”, which isn’t any flavour of French I know. Goethe’s “Bröckengespent”, on the other hand, is legitimate, as well as being the sort of word Gerhardt Schtitt might have come up with; Marathe’s shadow is immense, giving a false sense of his importance. And then a man in a frock arrives and they start talking strangely.
Now, answer me this: is the whole Marathe/Steeply thing meant to be funny? It’s as if DFW is trying to conjure up a pair of Beckettian augustes, but ends up settling for some of the less enduring tropes of lowbrow British comedy, such as unconvincing transvestites and linguistic ineptitude played for laughs. It’s as if Bernard Bresslaw were to make a guest appearance on ’Allo! ’Allo! Which is a shame, because amidst all the pratfalls there several highly useful nuggets. “A cartridge-copy of a certain let’s call it between ourselves ‘The Entertainment’” is implicated in the peculiar incapacity of the Saudi attaché and his associates; and it’s implied, via passing reference to Avril, that this Entertainment can be found in James O Incandenza’s filmography. The unfortunate, snot-choked DuPlessis is also mentioned; so was his death not a stupid accident after all?
But just as DFW starts to hint at explanations, more questions arise. Has Canada in fact taken over great chunks of the north-eastern United States? Is this whole cloak-and-dagger-and-wheelchair-and-fake-tits thing about a plot to get it back? And what’s with the feral hamsters named after the parents in another unfunny sitcom?
I think one of the problems I’m having is not so much the shifts in time and place and between characters and plot lines, but the jarring shifts in tone. Right now it feels as if I’m reading five or six novels at the same time, apparently by different authors, with individual chapters shuffled like cards. Although the cards are all different sizes, some the size of bus tickets, some more like billboards. And I was never good at card games at the best of times. Or tennis, for that matter.
And on that subject...