It’s time for a historical exercise: Picture yourself as a traveler in an early modern age. You have your sturdy traveling shoes on and a bindle over your shoulder. Around you is all the world, looking as if it had been created by the Hudson River School. Now imagine: The dirt track you tread is time itself; your destination down that track is unknown to you. If you turn and look behind you, golden mists obscure the distance, making your past path indistinct. But if you peer intently enough, shielding your eyes from the sideways glare of the glorious sun, you can see as far back as three weeks ago. There, under a canopy of translucent leaves, is Week 3 of Infinite Summer.
What’s interesting to me about the section of Infinite Jest on the schedule for that week is how much of it is made of embedded documents. I may be fudging the boundaries of the week’s assignment a little bit, but starting at page 138, there’s a 13-page flurry of intercalations that almost amounts to an evidentiary record, with still more over the next 40-ish pages. Coming to these bits feels a little like reading a novel about the Civil War and finding a letter from a Union soldier to his wife pressed between two of the pages, and then a photo of John C. Calhoun, and then a newspaper clipping about a Fourth of July celebration in 1860, and then an editorial cartoon on John Brown. It reminds me of the DBQ (document-based question) on the AP U.S. History exam. It says, Here are some documents you should use with the knowledge you’ve already gathered to create a context.
What’s funny, then, is that none of these documents are actually useful to the plot. The first one, the worker’s-comp-scam e-mail, is funny in a way that reminds me of Abbott and Costello: Every stage of the joke sets up the next one so clearly that you can actually predict what’s coming, but still it’s funny. Kevin’s post at Infinite Summer wonders about the propriety—and, more to the point, the effectiveness—of embedding received text in the book without very clear markers, but I think wheat pretty well settles the question for me with his suggestion that it’s the scammer who’s trying to pass the text off, not DFW-as-author. In any case, it’s pretty much just a comic interlude with some thematic ties to things going on around it in the book: Glynn supposedly gets himself in trouble by “trying to do the job alone” (as dislexicon notes, this was a specific alteration DFW made from the received text), and of course the entire slapstick accident described is a result of ignoring Lyle’s advice from nine pages before: “And the Lord said: Let not the weight thou wouldst pull to thyself exceed thine own weight.”
The next segment of text is where the headers start to really get out of control. We got a slight foreshadowing of this on page 121, with “MARIO INCANDENZA’S FIRST AND ONLY EVEN REMOTELY ROMANTIC EXPERIENCE, THUS FAR,” but the introduction to Hal’s paper “The Emergence of Heroic Stasis in Broadcast Entertainment” is a doozy. (See Gerry Canavan for an interesting and theory-informed reading of what’s going on here.) Ah, but where, you ask, did that title come from? Did you miss it somewhere? Well, probably not. But when the Dean of Admissions at the University of Arizona read it off on page 7, in the middle of a list of essays Hal submitted with his application (which for some reason also includes “A Man Who Began to Suspect He Was Made of Glass”; I’m very curious how that relates to his father’s film The Man Who Began to Suspect He Was Made of Glass), you probably didn’t have any particular reason to remember it. Again, though this embedded document is a fun read, and stylistically even more of a whiplash from the previous segment than we’ve already grown accustomed to in IJ, it doesn’t have any bearing on the plot. The subject of media studies is clearly relevant to the book’s obsession with entertainment consumption. But even more evocative is Hal’s paper’s thesis that North American culture’s understanding of heroism is shifting more and more away from action of any kind. There’s a quick description of Captain Frank Furillo as the previous dispensation’s “‘post’-modern hero, a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration,” that sounds suspiciously like Charles Tavis, but the most tantalizing bit is the final graf. (Back to Nick Douglas’s post at Infinite Summer last week; he touches on this part specifically.) It’s tough to read Hal’s description of
the hero of non-action, the cataonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines
and not think of his evacuation to the men’s room during his abortive admissions interview—where, after all, we first read about this paper. This is one more example of the book’s fractal structure, from that “Bookworm” interview I’m not going to keep linking to (check a couple posts back).
The next section of the book is “Helen” Steeply’s hilariously poorly written Moment article on Poor Tony Krause’s purse snatch/heart theft. This is the most curious of these embedded documents, to me, because it’s so little connected to anything the book is trying to do. Yes, it’s Steeply’s cover, and yes, it describes an incident involving Poor Tony. Outside of that, though, the only thing I find notable about it with regard to IJ as a whole is how miscommunication about what “She stole my heart!” means led to a “tragic, untimely, and, some might say, cruelly ironic fate.” Otherwise, I got nothin’. If anyone reading this has a clue what else this section of the book might be doing, please chime in.
Then there’s a quick-hit listing of terrorist anti-O.N.A.N. groups, complete with a legend for the codes describing the character of each group’s resistance. This part doesn’t even try to pretend to be a narrative; it’s basically just an index, straight-up information. In fact, more than anything it seems to resemble an appendix to a report on the History of Canadian Unpleasantness.
Next comes the undisputed champion of headers in this book. I’m going to lift the veil of spoilers just this once to asseverate that there is no other header in all of Infinite Jest that can compete with this beauty:
WHY—THOUGH IN THE EARLY DAYS OF INTERLACE’S INTERNETTED TELEPUTERS THAT OPERATED OFF LARGELY THE SAME FIBER-DIGITAL GRID AS THE PHONE COMPANIES, THE ADVENT OF VIDEO-TELEPHONING (A.K.A. ‘VIDEOPHONY’) ENJOYED AN INTERVAL OF HUGE CONSUMER POPULARITY—CALLERS THRILLED AT THE IDEA OF PHONE-INTERFACING BOTH AURALLY AND FACIALLY (THE LITTLE FIRST-GENERATION PHONE-VIDEO CAMERAS BEING TOO CRUDE AND NARROW-APERTURED FOR ANYTHING MUCH MORE THAN FACIAL CLOSE-UPS) ON FIRST-GENERATION TELEPUTERS THAT AT THAT TIME WERE LITTLE MORE THAN HIGH-TECH TV SETS, THOUGH OF COURSE THEY HAD THAT LITTLE ‘INTELLIGENT-AGENT’ HOMUNCULAR ICON THAT WOULD APPEAR AT THE LOWER-RIGHT OF A BROADCAST/CABLE PROGRAM AND TELL YOU THE TIME AND TEMPERATURE OUTSIDE OR REMIND YOU TO TAKE YOUR BLOOD-PRESSURE MEDICATION OR ALERT YOU TO A PARTICULARLY COMPELLING ENTERTAINMENT-OPTION NOW COMING UP ON CHANNEL LIKE 491 OR SOMETHING, OR OF COURSE NOW ALERTING YOU TO AN INCOMING VIDEO-PHONE CALL AND THEN TAP-DANCING WITH A LITTLE ICONIC STRAW BOATER AND CANE JUST UNDER A MENU OF POSSIBLE OPTIONS FOR RESPONSE, AND CALLERS DID LOVE THEIR LITTLE HOMUNCULAR ICONS—BUT WHY, WITHIN 16 MONTHS OR 5 SALES QUARTERS, THE TUMESCENT DEMAND CURVE FOR ‘VIDEOPHONY’ SUDDENLY COLLAPSED LIKE A KICKED TENT, SO THAT, BY THE YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT, FEWER THAN 10% OF ALL PRIVATE TELEPHONE COMMUNICATIONS UTILIZED ANY VIDEO-IMAGE-FIBER DATA-TRANSFERS OR COINCIDENT PRODUCTS AND SERVICES, THE AVERAGE U.S. PHONE-USER DECIDING THAT S/HE ACTUALLY PREFERRED THE RETROGRADE OLD LOW-TECH BELL-ERA VOICE-ONLY TELEPHONIC INTERFACE AFTER ALL, A PREFERENTIAL ABOUT-FACE THAT COST A GOOD MANY PRECIPITANT VIDEO-TELEPHONY-RELATED ENTREPRENEURS THEIR SHIRTS, PLUS DESTABILIZING TWO HIGHLY RESPECTED MUTUAL FUNDS THAT HAD GROUND-FLOORED VERY HEAVILY IN VIDEO-PHONE TECHNOLOGY, AND VERY NEARLY WIPING OUT THE MARYLAND STATE EMPLOYEES’ RETIREMENT SYSTEM’S FREDDIE-MAC FUND, A FUND WHOSE ADMINISTRATOR’S MISTRESS’S BROTHER HAD BEEN AN ALMOST MANIACALLY PRECIPITANT VIDEO-PHONE-TECHNOLOGY ENTREPRENEUR . . . AND BUT SO WHY THE ABRUPT CONSUMER RETREAT BACK TO GOOD OLD VOICE-ONLY TELEPHONING?
Let’s marvel in silence for a moment, shall we?
A header like that puts an awful lot of pressure on the text that follows it; it’s like coming to the stage after David Sedaris in a group reading. Lucky for all of us, then, that what comes next appears to be one of the book’s most popular set pieces: the six-page cultural history of the rise and steep crash of video telephony. To be honest, it’s not my favorite part of the book. There’s a little too much apparently earnest psychologizing of the entire human race for my taste, in an otherwise mordantly satiric socioeconomic setup. (To me, the best element of this section is the rows of empty masks hanging beside the telephone.) But it’s high-quality satire, and a really sharp speculative post hoc market analysis. Again, though, it’s specifically introduced as a contextualizing history of the world of IJ, not as any kind of narration. It works a lot of the book’s themes—communication, social commodification, emotional immaturity, withdrawal from community into isolation—but it doesn’t forward the story at all. None of the last 13 pages, in fact, has made any progress, plotwise; it’s all been cacophonous background.
So that changes for a few pages. We get some actual incident, with the drug testing at E.T.A. (and I still don’t know the punch line to Pemulis’s joke about what you call three Canadians copulating on a snowmobile). And then there’s another set piece. This one, James Incandenza Sr.’s monologue about Marlon Brando and tennis and not underestimating objects, is not technically an embedded document—it’s just a monologue, pitch-perfect like Erdedy’s wait for the woman who said she’d come, like the (less perfect) narrations by Clenette and yrstruly. But I think we get a document sneaked in here anyway: This is the episode that I would say forms the basis of James O. Incandenza’s film As of Yore, so in a sense this section is like having the film inserted into the narrative. Not the same as, I understand, but similar in a way that resonates with the other documents in this part of the book (especially given the form of the very next one).
There’s another short section of plot, and then we have the actual narration script of an actual film: Mario’s Tennis and the Feral Prodigy, narrated by Hal. I don’t have much to say about this bit, except to note how its focus on process and learning mirrors the litany of new facts that residents at Ennet House acquire (starting on page 200). I think this is the first time so far in IJ we’ve seen such a close parallel (close both physically and thematically) between the E.T.A. strand and the Ennet House strand. In particular, a lot of the things that E.T.A. students and Ennet House residents are both expected to learn involve coping mechanisms, and making it through grueling hardship through unrelenting effort.
The next bit’s nature as a document is foregrounded in the header: It’s specifically identified as “SELECTED TRANSCRIPTS,” rather than selected moments, or some such. The section consists of 20 snippets of monologue, only some of which are actually connected to each other (like Nell’s flying attack with a fork and her victim’s indignant retelling). It’s practically an Altman film. And while it gives a great snapshot of what one probably representative afternoon at Ennet House is like, again, it forwards nothing. It’s pure background and context—enjoyable, but, purely in terms of narrative progress, extraneous. (I take it as understood that one of the things we’re supposed to glean from this giant bolus of non-plot is an understanding that plot progression is not one of the main points of the book.)
Finally we get a long (moody) present-time narrative section, with the 10/22/Y.D.A.U. broadcast of “Sixty Minutes More or Less with Madame Psychosis” and the ways the show’s engineer and the Enfield Incandenzas spend that time. Funny, then, that we practically get a transcript of the radio show—this portion of IJ, anyway, seems so bent on embedding documents in the text that it’ll even back up a level and embed them in a narrative section. This one, at least, feels like it does have plot implications. For instance, actual characters from one of the stories being told in the book appear, and do things. But even more, the focus in the narration and in the action (Mario’s rapt beside the radio) on Madame Psychosis’s show hints that it’ll become important, one way or another. This episode of the show is just an hour-long reading of a recruitment flyer for the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, but there’s a feeling that something momentous will come of it eventually.
The last embedded document in the week’s reading is really something of a throwaway, and it’s not so much embedded as hidden in plain sight. I admit I may be reading too much into this, but on page 214, when Pemulis describes one of the Army’s DMZ test subjects as “found later in his Army cell, in some impossible lotus position, singing show tunes in a scary deadly-accurate Ethel-Merman-impression voice,” it just sounds too ridiculous and similar to this for me to think it’s an accident.