Wraiths, huh? Jeffrey at Infinite Tasks has expected a ghost for a while now, which goes to show that some people pay a lot more attention to things like Hamlet parallels than some other people. (In truth, the college course I first read this book for was organized around the theme of postmodern ghost stories [House of Leaves, The Body Artist, Infinite Jest, and Beloved—quite a quarter], and still I was surprised when J.O.I.’s wraith showed up. I got so involved in the book that I forgot that part.) But I don’t think any of us expected Lyle to have been a wraith the whole time, although it does explain how he could survive on sweat and Diet Coke alone. Wraith activity wraps up the riddle of why objects are mysteriously appearing around E.T.A. in odd places; the first one, if I remember correctly, was the cinematic tripod that the U.S.S. Millicent Kent found during “MARIO INCANDENZA’S FIRST AND ONLY EVEN REMOTELY ROMANTIC EXPERIENCE, THUS FAR.” When I say “why,” there, though, it’s only the “why” of causation (“Because they are being moved by at least one wraith”). The “why” of intention, the “for what reason?,” I haven’t reasoned out.

Is there any connection between the abbreviation “E.T.A.,” Johnette Foltz’s misreading of Hal’s “weird woolly-white jacket with A.T.E. in red up one sleeve and in gray up the other” (p. 786), and Gately’s dream of himself and Joelle “in a Southern motel whose restaurant’s authoritarian sign said simply EAT” (p. 846)? Probably not, I suppose. Just half the available permutations.

What are we to make, in that same dream, of Joelle’s inhumanly beautiful body topped with Winston Churchill’s head? We’ve seen that description before: It’s Ortho Stice on p. 636. It’s Stice who seems to be most affected by the wraith activity at E.T.A., and Joelle is strongly connected to J.O.I. Perhaps J.O.I. is attempting to get to Hal through tennis, using Stice as a tool, the same way he used Joelle to try to get to Hal through film. Hal’s near-loss to Stice (including some incredibly unlikely points for Stice that may have been shepherded by a wraith) seems to be one of the catalysts that leads to the changes in Hal through the second half of the book.

Why does the header on p. 851 include the “GAUDEAMUS IGITUR” that accompanied Interdependence Day headers 12 days before? Is it just because of the fund-raising gala that day? That seems a weak explanation for the presence of such a charged tag.

On that day, at what may be almost 5:00 a.m., Hal finds a bathroom window open (p. 864); who left it open? Was it the person he sees through the window, stretched out over three rows of the bleachers like deLint at the Hal/Stice exhibition match for Steeply (p. 867)? Who is that person, and why do they just lie there under deeper and deeper snow? For that matter, was the window left open by someone going out, or to allow someone in? And most vexing (in its incongruousness), why does the clock in the bathroom have the wrong date on it (p. 865)? The time seems probably correct—it says “EST0456,” and Hal tells us his dream woke him that morning “before 0500h.”—but the date is two days behind. Someone could have changed the date, obviously, but who, and for what purpose? It wouldn’t make sense as an A.F.R. tactic, since they plan to arrive that day in the stead of the Québecois kids. Puzzling.

We get a lot of emphasis in these November 20 sections on how Hal’s subjective experience of his emotions doesn’t match up with his external expressions, but we also learn that this mismatch appears to have begun on Thursday, November 19. (For Thursday, see n. 321: “Thursday, 12 November”; for November 19, see p. 899: “The woman behind the register at the Shell station last night had recoiled as I approached to present my card before pumping, as if she too had seen something in my expression I hadn’t known was there.” Incidentally, that’s two days after the horrible, excruciating Robert Bly–type meeting in Natick, “the most distant and obscure Tuesday P.M. Meeting” [p. 795].) Interestingly, Stice and Mario read sadness in Hal, while Kenkle and Coyle see great amusement; Hal professes neither. I think somebody slipped Hal some DMZ, but as far as I can tell, there’s no E.T.A. narration of November 19 to back me up or contradict me. My instinct is to strongly believe that it was Pemulis (we know he wants Hal to take the DMZ, and we know he’s not above drugging people without their knowledge), but again, there’s no direct evidence either way. Pemulis tries to talk to Hal about the DMZ on p. 908, and in an undated and context-free graf on p. 916 he finds his stash missing, which together may indicate that someone else has got their hands on the stuff.

We get about 75 pages of suspense about why Troeltsch is snoring in Axford’s room, until Coyle drops it on Hal that Troeltsch asked for a room switch. I figure that probably had to do with the bad blood that would necessarily arise between Troeltsch and his erstwhile roommate Michael Pemulis after Troeltsch ate “some enormous wedge of putrid deal-cutting cheese” (p. 1075) with regard to John Wayne’s drugging. (Also interesting—and pointed out at Infinite Summer and probably on numerous of the blogs—is that even when Wayne’s speech becomes a major plot point, he never speaks for himself “on camera.” We get reports of what he said, and in other places we get “interpretations” of things he has said, but we never hear him speak.) Any particular reason why Axford, though? Perhaps Troeltsch just wanted to switch away from Pemulis, and Axford was willing because he and Pemulis are close enough that Axford is the only person other than Pemulis and Hal in on the DMZ caper. Which does make him the only other person (excepting the Antitois) who knows that Pemulis has any DMZ, and where Pemulis might keep it. . . . (This may also be relevant to the fact that, as the Infinite Summer folks have worked out, Axford is probably the narrator of the very last E.T.A. section, beginning on p. 964.)

And I don’t know what to make of Gately’s dream about digging up J.O.I.’s head with Hal (p. 934). I’m not sure it can be squared with Hal’s brief mention on p. 17 of the actual digging up. I’m tempted to read Gately’s dream as nonliteral, particularly because of the appearance of Joelle “with wings and no underwear.” Even more, though, the whole mood of the thing doesn’t seem to work. In the dream, Gately and Hal are apparently working to avert a Continental Emergency by digging up J.O.I.’s head (and presumably locating the Master of the Entertainment), and then they find the head and are somehow too late. But if John Wayne (who is not mentioned in Gately’s dream) is forcing them to dig up the head, it must be in pursuit of the Master for the A.F.R., in which case timeliness could hardly avert a disaster; it would rather help perpetrate it. But if it’s a dream-logic dream, rather than a true-prediction dream, I don’t know what we’re supposed to get out of it.

I suspect Hal’s panic attack that starts on p. 896 is the reason for his first-ever trip to the emergency room (p. 16; note particularly that he mentions a “psychiatric stretcher”); the nearest emergency room to E.T.A. would be the same emergency room that’s nearest to Ennet House (St. Elizabeth’s), so it seems likely to me that Hal and Gately meet in the hospital.

So many questions. I don’t know whether the answers can all be worked out; infinitedetox thinks they can’t, and uses the Sierpinski gasket in a wonderful argument for why they aren’t presented that is nevertheless unconvincing on the matter of whether they are knowable. But I guess, to a certain extent, I’m OK either way. I enjoy trying to find the answers, particularly in the company of the Infinite Summer participants, but if it turns out that some of the plot questions are ultimately irresolvable—well, the plot isn’t one of the reasons that Infinite Jest is my number 1 book.

3 Responses to “Enigmas Abound”


  1. Infinite Tasks on September 20th, 2009 7:39 pm

    Great, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that Lyle is a wraith-like entity, and potentially responsible for all the funny objects around E.T.A. I really like your thinking on the possible uses of Stice in that regard, too. Why else would they have been messing with the match?

    I think I have a slightly different take on the “working out of the answers,” though. I know that I haven’t worked them out, but I think they can all* be projected into the space between the last page and the year that intervenes before the opening scene. Of course, some bits and pieces may be on the editing room floor (I want the DFW Master copy). I had a few words on this in my last post (“JOI Part III”), and expect to continue it in a series called “Endings.”

    Oh, and even if the answers aren’t really all worked out, I would be OK with that, too. That is, the significance of the book doesn’t hang, for me, on the workable-outness of the crazy plot. But it sure adds to it!

  2. Jeff on September 22nd, 2009 2:01 pm

    I certainly think the bridging events between the book’s end and its beginning can be provisionally projected into the missing year (although most of what’s in that big write-up that’s been making the rounds this week strikes me as fanfic rather than justifiable extension of the book we have), but I don’t know to what extent we can pin specific fact patterns down as more likely than not.

    But like I waved my hands at in the post, there’s so much in this book that I find so valuable, so vital, that I’ll still love it madly even if I finally decide that some of the essential plot elements are unknowable.

    And I’d love to know what your asterisk was intended to point to. :)

  3. Infinite Tasks on September 22nd, 2009 8:18 pm

    Oops, the asterisk was just the qualification on “all” in the last short paragraph. Your comment about fanfic is interesting. I’d like to imagine there’s a way to project the extra-textual connecting narrative without offering it 100% validation.