Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Celebrating Infinite Jest and David Foster Wallace - 1 - Obsessions and Compulsions

Last year I had written a post about 'Infinite Jest' which didn't do justice to the book. I had even then wanted to write a series about the novel, but as usual left it at that. Rereading Don DeLillo has made me revisit DFW again and spurred me into action. This too would mostly probably end up midway like 'The Illiad' series, but I am going to give it a try anyway. I have no major ideas, am not going to analyze the novel, just trying to share the joy and wonders of DFW's writing, in terms of what's written, it's context and how it is done.


This chapter starts with Erdedy waiting for a woman who has promised to bring him dope. We get an idea of Erdedy's neurosis at the very beginning 

There was an insect on one of the steel shelves that held his audio equipment. The insect kept going in and out of one of the holes on the girders that the shelves fit into. The insect was dark and had a shiny case. He kept looking over at it. Once or twice he started to get up to go over closer to look at it, but he was afraid that if he came closer and saw it closer he would kill it, and he was afraid to kill it. He did not use the phone to call the woman who'd promised to come because if he tied up the line and if it happened to be the time when maybe she was trying to call him he was afraid she would hear the busy signal and think him disinterested and get angry and maybe take what she'd promised him somewhere else.

The contradictory emotions about wanting to kill/not kill the insect, wanting to use the phone/afraid to use it tells us instantly that Erdedy is under great anxiety. The part about fearing that the line could tied up when he tries to call the lady and leading her getting angry shows his paranoia. Now, a thing we would all have noticed about junkies, alcoholics or anyone with any addiction/problem it is that the person tries to pass it off as someone else's. Take the help columns in papers or phone in programs (assuming that they are real issues), where in most cases people call in for the problems of people they know. Very few people call in/write saying that they have an issue. Likewise Erdedy also procures dope as if it were for his friends. This time though he can't do that as he has not paid money for the dope and hence feels that he has lost grip on the lady because if he had told her that the dope was for her friends, then he could call her up, pester her all the while under the cover of doing it for his friends thereby absolving himself of any inconvenience caused to the lady by his pestering. 

He was caught in the middle, is how he would represent it. He could say his friends had given him their money and were now anxious and exerting pressure, calling and bothering him. This tactic was not possible with this woman who'd said she'd come with it because he hadn't yet given her the $1250.
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. He'd been too casual with the woman, he should have made her take $1250 from him up front, claiming politeness, claiming he didn't want to inconvenience her financially over something so trivial and casual. Money created a sense of obligation, and he should have wanted the woman to feel obliged to do what she'd said, once what she'd said she'd do had set him off inside.

DFW shows a fractured mind with all these internal arguments, counter arguments, the shift in his mind from having been casual to have appeared as not caring, the 'what if I had done that' scenarios that are playing around in Erdedy's head.  One can visualize him restless in his room, hands/lips starting to tremble, legs becoming unsteady, a adrenaline rush running through his body in view of the impending pleasure which is tempered by the notion that the lady may not come and the whole plan would come to naught. Even for people who are not addicted to any particular thing, the period where they await the result of anything can be nerve-wracking, more than the actual result itself. So one can imagine the plight Erdedy is under not knowing if he would get his dope.

Next DFW describes the routine that Erdedy undergoes before he gets ready for a bout of doping. Only someone like DFW could have given such a painstaking account of the preparations done and made it readable instead of making it seem a bore.

Once he'd decided to own marijuana one more last time, he was committed to several courses of action. He had to modem in to the agency and say that there was an emergency and that he was posting an e-note on a colleague's TP asking her to cover his calls for the rest of the week because he'd be out of contact for several days due to this emergency. He had to put an audio message on his answering device saying that starting that afternoon he was going to be unreachable for several days. He had to clean his bedroom, because once he had dope he would not leave his bedroom except to go to the refrigerator and the bathroom, and even then the trips would be very quick. He had to throw out all his beer and liquor, because if he drank alcohol and smoked dope at the same time he would get dizzy and ill, and if he had alcohol in the house he could not be relied on not to drink it once he started smoking dope. He'd had to do some shopping. He'd had to lay in supplies. Now just one of the insect's antennae was protruding from the hole in the girder. It protruded, but it did not move. He had had to buy soda, Oreos, bread, sandwich meat, mayonnaise, tomatoes, M&M's, Almost Home cookies, ice cream, a Pepperidge Farm frozen chocolate cake, and four cans of canned chocolate frosting to be eaten with a large spoon. He'd had to log an order to rent film cartridges from the Inter-Lace entertainment outlet. He'd had to buy antacids for the discomfort that eating all he would eat would cause him late at night. He'd had to buy a new bong, because each time he finished what simply had to be his last bulk-quantity of marijuana he decided that that was it, he was through, he didn't even like it anymore, this was it, no more hiding, no more imposing on his colleagues and putting different messages on his answering device and moving his car away from his condominium and closing his windows and curtains and blinds and living in quick vectors between his bedroom's InterLace teleputer's films and his refrigerator and his toilet, and he would take the bong he'd used and throw it away wrapped in several plastic shopping bags. His refrigerator made its own ice in little cloudy crescent blocks and he loved it, when he had dope in his home he always drank a great deal of cold soda and ice water. His tongue almost swelled at just the thought.

Jeez, right from informing the company about the leave to setting up the answering machine, to the organization of food, throwing out of alcohol as it would ruin the experience of marijuana and getting ready, cartridges for entertainment, this is not the mind of your normal junkie. This is a mind that obsesses over the minute details, wants the experience of getting high to be just perfect with no distractions. Reading the last line we feel the same swelling in our mouth, the sensation we get when we yearn so much for something that even the memory of it can make us practically salivate. 

Now DFW brings out the pseudo remorse/decision that we feel/take when we do something that we know is bad, but are unable to stop from doing so. Erdedy rationalizes that he would hurt himself so much in this current bout of doping, that he himself would stop doping again seeing the consequences of his behavior  But then, we know that these remorse's/decisions are only fleeting and the next time too he would not be able to resist the lure of the temptation. That is the implied sadness in the below paragraph, the knowledge that all the discipline and persistence that Erdedy mentions would only fail and the vicious circle would start again for him.

He would use discipline and persistence and will and make the whole experience so unpleasant, so debased and debauched and unpleasant, that his behavior would be henceforward modified, he'd never even want to do it again because the memory of the insane four days to come would be so firmly, terribly emblazoned in his memory. He'd cure himself by excess. 

The chapter ends with

his telephone and his intercom to the front door's buzzer both sounded at the same time, both loud and tortured and so abrupt they sounded yanked through a very small hole into the great balloon of colored silence he sat in, waiting, and he moved first toward the telephone console, then over toward his intercom module, then convulsively back toward the sounding phone, and then tried somehow to move toward both at once, finally, so that he stood splay-legged, arms wildly out as if something's been flung, splayed, entombed between the two sounds, without a thought in his head.

I wonder at the line 'entombed between two sounds', which provides an apt end to the chapter in the context of what all happened before in it. How does a writer choose to link 'entombed' and 'sounds', two words linked by 2 other words to form a line that the reader can't get past easily. Why didn't he say 'caught between two sounds'? It would have been easy to do that, but it wouldn't create the same impact and it wouldn't be DFW then. 'Caught' refers to something from which you can extricate yourself. But 'Entombed' implies a finality, a permanence,  a prison from which there is no escape. And that's what is happening to Erdedy here, not just this particular situation where he is waiting for the lady, but his life in general where he is entombed in his addiction to dope. 

What special gift does a writer need to have to create such prose or does he just keep agonizing over the right words until they fall in place. Is DFW playing to the gallery here, wanting to dazzle the reader, maybe stretching things a bit too far, yes he is. And DFW has been often accused of showing off. But so what, I see it as the exuberance of a highly intelligent kid who cannot stop his intelligence from seeping through, he is not a bully or a jerk but he can't help outshining others in his class. I always get the same sense of a purity of talent oozing out from DFW's works, unfettered by malice or a need to look down upon others. Of course, playing to a gallery can hurt if you are limited in our capacity, but when you seem to have boundless capability like DFW to back you up, you just do what you want, conventions be damned. Can every one regularly play a between the legs tennis shot, a ferocious upper cut to a 150 kph delivery, that's just the preserve of a few isn't it. Maybe it's just us lesser mortals who see it as playing to the gallery, for the individuals themselves it would be just another thing. One can't also brush off DFW as another writer who puts form over content, no way. Anyone who reads the chapter 'YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT', whether he be a teetotaler or a junkie of the highest kind is going to empathize with Erdedy and the situation he is in (even if it's own making), and that is DFW's victory, marrying the most intense, subtle, simple of emotions and actions to a spellbinding prose that at first glance seems to be overpowering. It's an unusual marriage in the sense that we have not seen much like it before (there are precedents before DFW too, but sadly they too are tagged as just show offs), but that's no reason for the marriage to fail is it?

So did Erdedy get his dope finally? You'll have to read the book to find out, which I am hoping you will do.

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