The structure of Infinite Jest is curious: It doesn’t make the book difficult to read (as long as you catch the places like page 391, where the printing is off and the space before the first section on the page is missable), but it does make it challenging to understand. To a certain extent, reading IJ is like channel-surfing, and to that same extent, it’s a basically familiar exercise. Some sections cut off apparently arbitrarily, as if the reader were no longer being entertained and had therefore switched the channel, while other sections, like Molly Notkin’s party, go on longer, interrupted now and then by little foreign bits in the same way that commercials punctuate a TV broadcast. The trick is connecting the fragmented sections of text to each other across great expanses of other stuff in ways that create meaning—for instance, it appears from p. 254 that Hal Incandenza himself narrates the section that begins on p. 61, and then we have explicit confirmation in note 123 that Hal is at least occasionally the narrator. (And now I find I could have saved myself some trouble by rereading this Larry McCaffery interview with DFW. At least I know I’m on the right track.)

But the jigsaw-puzzle aspect of the structure isn’t what I’m primarily interested in writing about; instead, I want to talk about the necessary corollary of a fragmented structure: the space between fragments. For the most part, these spaces function just as scene changes. They’re like a literary equivalent of a jump cut, making an obvious and visible break in continuity to establish that something different is happening. But every so often, I think DFW thematizes the spaces so that they’re more just a formal device. I’ll give an example first, then make the argument. This is the end of the “Erdedy waits for his pot” section (long sentence, but I’m quoting in full because the length adds to the effect):

He thought very broadly of desires and ideas being watched but not acted upon, he thought of impulses being starved of expression and drying out and floating dryly away, and felt on some level that this had something to do with him and his circumstances and what, if this grueling final debauch he’d committed himself to didn’t somehow resolve the problem, would surely have to be called his problem, but he could not even begin to try to see how the image of desiccated impulses floating dryly related to either him or the insect, which had retreated back into its hole in the angled girder, because at this precise time 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 it something’s been flung, splayed, entombed between the two sounds, without a thought in his head.

Then we get a space. An important one, actually, because it’s marked with that open dot (which I haven’t figured out the significance of yet).

So here’s my argument: Here, and in a number of other places throughout the book, the space between sections of text represents not just a shift in focus, but the actual interpersonal gulf that makes other human beings’ interior states ultimately unknowable. I’m fairly certain this is an old problem in philosophy—how can we know anything about the thoughts and emotions of another human being? (I don’t really know from philosophy, so I may be off base here.) We basically only have two ways of knowing what’s going on inside another person: They can tell us, or we can infer from cues we observe. The trouble is that these are both unreliable methods. Depending on a person to tell us how they feel leaves us powerless in the absence of that communication, and requires that the person be trustworthy and forthcoming on the subject. (It also forecloses any possibility of independent verification.) And inferring is, of course, susceptible of all the failures of interpretation and reading that always bedevil that kind of activity.

But, you point out triumphantly, look at that sentence about Erdedy. It’s full of direct description of his interior state! It draws the very picture of his thoughts! There is no uncertainty! And we’ve have nine and a half pages of that! Yes, that’s true. That’s the great authorial privilege of free indirect discourse: immediate access to your characters’ minds cloaked in the illusion of impersonality. And DFW exercises that privilege freely throughout IJ, so freely in fact that we cannot definitively say who is (and even who is not) the narrator in most parts of the book. But I think as a writer (and—based on readings I’ve been to and interviews I’ve heard and read—as a person) he recognizes that this is rigged. Much of this book’s focus is on communication and understanding, and how vulnerable the interactions between people are to being misconstrued; combine that focus with DFW’s postironic wariness of irony and it becomes clear that he cannot uncritically reproduce the total knowledge of characters’ interior states that is generally a hallmark of third-person narration.

What I’m saying is, DFW doubles back and undercuts this authorial privilege. In that sentence about Erdedy, I see a turn from unreflective authorial mind-reading to exterior observation right after that delightful description of how the noises sound to Erdedy; after that point, the sentence describes him from the viewpoint of an observer. It’s almost clinical, suddenly, objective and cold, practically likening Erdedy to a bug pinned in a display case. Even the last clause—“without a thought in his head”—can’t be free indirect discourse, because you can’t genuinely formulate the thought, “I don’t have a thought in my head.” What’s remarkable to me about this turn is how fast it is. At the end of the sentence, I feel suddenly lonely and sad, and totally cut off from Erdedy. It’s as if the camera that was trained on him and showed his thoughts has quick-zoomed out to very great heights, pulling the keening of a cold wind into the great distance between the reader and the character. It’s like the first half of Ray and Charles Eames’s Powers of Ten in fast-forward.

This isn’t the only place in the book where I see this withdrawal from a character’s consciousness. There’s some of it in the Marathe/Steeply conversation (pp. 92 and 109), which seems appropriate, given how much of that conversation involves trying to read hidden currents of loyalty and intention. Oddly, I think Orin’s viewing of Joelle’s recordings of him in action (pp. 298–9) have a similar feeling, even though they seem to zoom in the opposite direction. My guess is that that feeling comes from the reduction of Orin to a highly scrutinized image, even though he’s the one doing the scrutinizing; if anything, it makes him seem isolated from himself. The Eschaton ends with a sky-oriented pictorialization of the scene of broken and bleeding children that establishes a similar distance. And p. 626, the kidnapping of the WYYY student engineer, does the same kind of thing.

What these retreats from omniscience do is re-create the actual lived human condition of not being able to know another person conclusively. There is a gap between you (any you) and everyone else that you cannot bridge on your own. In these parts of the book, after forcibly reminding you of that gap through the narration, DFW then symbolically illustrates the gap with white space. And I know that sounds a little pat, when really it just amounts to making this move primarily at the ends of sections rather than within them—but that’s the way the book is structured. The effect of always having a white space after these moments is to visually underscore the impact of what has just happened.

(Lucien Antitoi’s death is an amazing counterexample, where the white space seems instead to indicate all the world, but I want to post about that another time.)

IJ is highly skeptical of any person’s ability to understand another on their own. That is, one-sided communication (based in interpretation only) fails regularly in the book. Conclusively correct readings (of anything) are rare in IJ. The only scenarios that ever seem to work out are the ones where characters actively work together to understand each other, correcting misinterpretations when necessary and building connections to each other. My favorite example of this dynamic in the book is the relationship between Gately and Joelle. They start out literally unable to communicate (check Gately’s dumbfoundedness on pp. 366–7) and then progress through some very expressive not-necessarily-communication (pp. 531–538) to Joelle’s beautiful confirmation of her identity to Gately after he gets shot: “‘And Lo,’ she says softly,” knowing the right way to comfort and validate him. The only bridge over the space is communication.

Quick note: I’m still doing Infinite Summer, but it’s Little League World Series time right now, which means posting, if it happens, will be sparse. See you after the championship!

After the scattershot, disorienting welter of voices and documents and nonplot that made up the third week’s reading for Infinite Summer, week 4 felt almost like a reward. Infinite Tasks commented on my last post that week 3′s reading was “a point in the novel when things appeared to be spinning out of control,” and I agree. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy reading that section—James Incandenza Sr.’s monologue, in particular, was brilliantly done—but it was frustrating in the sense that it felt like it was a lot of marking time rather than marching forward. The satisfactions it offered were various, but they were piecemeal.

Week 4, on the other hand, is much more conventionally gratifying. For one thing, it’s almost a parade of plot and backstory. Joelle’s time at Molly Notkin’s party is almost 21 straight pages of incident. Perhaps this is the influence of Molly’s chairs talking, but this whole section feels almost like a Nouvelle Vague film to me. It’s poetic, it’s elegiac from the very beginning, it’s filled with flashbacks and reminiscences. The present-time plot is pretty compact: Joelle’s at a party, she remembers stuff, then she goes into the bathroom, cooks up, and tries to die. That “she remembers stuff” part, though, opens wide, just like one of Gately’s AA “slogans that looks so shallow for a while and then all of a sudden drops off and deepens like the lobster-waters off the North Shore.” The time Joelle spends wrapped in memory amounts to the most sustained backstory we’ve yet had in Infinite Jest, I think, and a fair portion of it involves Incandenzas.

(Some of it also involves Joelle’s own personal Daddy in ways that make me uncomfortable: He tells Joelle “over and over again how she was prettier than this [movie star] or that one right there,” then she has this whole sexualized response to being at the movies and feeling “about to be entered by something that didn’t know she was there and yet was all about making her feel good anyway, coming in,” then she and her own personal Daddy sit there in the dark theater, “his hand in her lap her hand in the box and rooting down past candy for the Prize.” I feel led to an inference.)

The parade continues, after a short description of E.T.A. and surrounds, with 16 pages of Hal filling Orin in on things he really should already know. But rather than feeling contrived, it strikes me as a pretty economical bit of writing, in that it’s a hefty infodump that’s also designed to develop characters. We learn quite a bit about both Hal and Orin through here, not the least of which is that it is fully in character for Orin to have skipped his own father’s funeral. It’s a funny stretch of writing (“‘That something smelled delicious!’ I screamed”), but it’s also terrifyingly sad; imagine being 13 and coming home to find your own father’s body in that condition, and then being put into a counseling situation with a person who isn’t prepared to recognize your coping methods as valid. Think about how lost and devastated you would be. (I can’t find it now, but I could swear I remember reading DFW say he wanted to write something so sad it would make you sick.)

Then, after some other stuff that’s not really plot or backstory (although we do meet Geoffrey Day, who was introduced to us in note 304 as G. T. Day, M.S., when Struck was working so very hard not to write his own paper), comes another 17-page section on Orin and Joelle.

At this point, reading Infinite Jest is somewhat like reading The Name of Rose. Here’s a passage from the “Postscript” to The Name of the Rose:

After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.

Eco makes the early part of the book strenuous reading on purpose, but not gratuitously; it’s strenuous because it requires the reader to adopt the pace and style of an alien milieu (a 14th-century mountain abbey), but it’s necessary because the whole book takes place in that milieu. Likewise, the early going in Infinite Jest can be disconcerting and difficult, but that’s partly because the book takes place within an unfamiliar, saturated media space, and partly because it strives for effects that rely on overcoming the social fragmentation it depicts—and those effects are much more powerful if the book can first instill in the reader a sense of that fragmentation. I don’t think week 3′s reading (or indeed any of IJ) is difficult just for the sake of it. It’s always in pursuit of the book’s ultimate goals, which do not include pissing off the reader. It looks like we’ve reached a point in IJ where the foundations have been laid and we can really get moving. We’ve climbed the hill, and now it’s time to see what happens up here.

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.

Yesterday, in reading decisions of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, I learned a new word: ubuntu. Might have saved me some trouble at the end of my last post.