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Infinite Winter Church Camp, Part II

To quote the late, great Chick Hearn, “This [group read]’s in the refrigerator: the door is closed, the lights are off, the eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard, and the Jell-O’s jigglin’!”

One of my students painted this for me. See, it's the personal connections that result in gifts like this that made this experience worthwhile.
One of my students painted this for me. See, it’s the personal connections that result in gifts like this that made this experience worthwhile.

Last week, I likened my experience over the last thirteen weeks to spending a weekend at church camp. And to be honest, I did not expect it to be like this. I mean, my responses to Wallace’s writing is often deeply personal, but I typically don’t talk or write about them publicly, especially not to this large of an audience. But somehow, in the safe company of several hundred of my closest friends, I found the nerve to open up and share some deeply personal things, like one might do during the open-mic sharing time done on the last night at church camp.

I don’t think it’s been that I have learned all these things about myself. But rather, I came to accept these things; I became more comfortable in my own skin and a little less worried about what others might think. I don’t remember the context – and I’m too lazy to go look it up – but the titular line in Lipsky’s book became true for me. I ended up becoming myself.

But just as meaningful is the friendships this has created and strengthened. My fellow guides have been awesome to collaborate with; I can’t imagine a better team. But it’s gone beyond the six of us. Infinite Winter has permeated my other relationships. I’ve engaged in conversations with coworkers about IJ. I’ve convinced several current and former students to attempt to read the book. I even shared the Eschaton scene with my senior English classes, and some of them actually enjoyed it.

It is this that kept me going, even though I dropped off the reading schedule weeks ago.

So thanks, Dave (Wallace, not Laird), for this gift of Infinite Jest. A novel that begs to be read in groups. A novel that forges relationships and bonds like no other book I know. A novel that gives us space to look deeply into ourselves and the safety to share what we find with others.

Thanks, Dave, for a thousand-page church camp.

Infinite Winter Church Camp, Part 1

Reading through IJ again has, in some ways, been like going away to church camp for a weekend (a VERY LONG weekend). At church camp, you bond with your friends in ways that just doesn’t happen back at home. There’s something about spending every moment – both waking and sleeping – with a group of people that creates wonderful memories and strengthens wonderful friendships.

But also at church camp, you also learn things about yourself and grow deeper in your faith. There’s something about the crisp mountain air and high-carb camp food that brings a certain enlightenment not is not available to us at home.

And but so I feel that this analogy describes much of my experience over these past thirteen weeks.  Bonding with friends from near and far, and learning things about myself and my faith that I might not have otherwise. All that’s been lacking has been roasting marshmallows over a campfire while singing camp songs.

I’ll expand more on these thoughts next week, but for this week I wanted to share some of my LEGO images that have not yet been shared in my posts. So without further ado, a little shameless self-promotion:

Lyle (played by Santa Yoda) in the ETA locker room
Lyle (played by Santa Yoda) in the ETA locker room
Don Gately visited by the Wraith
Don Gately visited by the Wraith
Madame Psychosis records her radio show
Madame Psychosis records her radio show
Orin Incandenza parachutes into the football stadium
Orin Incandenza parachutes into the football stadium
Hal discovers that JOI has eliminated his own map
Hal discovers that JOI has eliminated his own map

You can buy the book here (and please do, Mama needs a new pair of shoes).


Don’t worry about getting in touch with your feelings; they’ll get in touch with you.

This is maybe pretty close to verbatim what we hear during one AA scene (much) earlier in Infinite Jest and it seems that, as Gately recovers from a gunshot wound, he’s visited by more than candid AA-ers and wraiths.

Gately’s being contacted by (I’m [understandably] not quite comfortable with “being got in touch with by”) plenty of feelings, which he has to find a way to deal with. It makes an interesting contrast to Hal who, as he encounters Kenkle and Brandt (perhaps the book’s most Pynchonesque hat-tip, after the explosive and parabolic trajectory of Orin’s incredible punt [which, if you haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow, you probably won’t quite get what I’m getting at – though it has something to do with long, encyclopedic novels with annular structures in which something taking a parabolic trajectory has some structural importance. Ahem, sorry.]), is experiencing either some disconnect with either his face or the actual feelings that are determining his face’s output.

What makes this interesting, in a more parallelish-rather-than-contrasty way (cf. Jenni’s awesome post yesterday) is that Gately is able to “abide” his most severe (albeit physical) feelings by essentially erecting internal walls around their (the feelings’) moments.

But where they do actually contrast in quite a significant way is around one of the book’s key – yet very under-explored – themes: memory.

From the discomfort of his hospital bed Gately gets to relive the memory (among others) of his bottom, as it’s known in Boston AA. Reading the story of Kite and Fackelmann and 60s Bob and the bet and match-rigging that went so horribly wrong and then so right and even more horribly wrong again and the Dilaudid in mountain form, the skittles and the Linda McCartney and the eyelid thing – well, it seems like there’s just so many opportunities for Gately not to take responsibility for it all. For his bottom.

But he does. He owns up to every choice that leads him to that situation and every opportunity to get out that he never took.

Circling forward to the book’s first scene (have you reread it yet?), let’s compare it to the way Hal “gets in touch with” the memory of one of his formative episodes:

It’s funny what you don’t recall. Our first home, in the suburb of Weston, which I barely remember – my eldest brother Orin says he can remember…

And if the point about Hal’s own distance from this memory hasn’t yet been brought home hard enough, there’s this:

O. says he can only remember (sic) saying something caustic as he limboed out a crick in his back. He says he must have felt a terrible impending anxiety.

So if you’re wondering whether Hal’s on an upward or downward trajectory I will leave you with this quote, from the end of the aforementioned Pynchon and, in honour of coming “full circle” (as Nick M. points out), a new version of the circle watercolour I closed my post #1 with.

And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.


Keep Coming Back

No one’s taken this title yet, right?

Alright. Good.

So what I want to do this week is (um) talk about Infinite Jest for a little bit – maybe take a bit of a break from (double um) talking about myself.

And as we’re getting to the really pointy end of the book now (I’m afraid it’s going to hurt a lot of you, for very different reasons) I want to make a point that’s (probably) gone unsaid (mostly) by most of us “guides”, but which nonetheless has been right there in most of our posts.

It’s that Infinite Jest rewards re-reading. Big time. Just this week I’ve come across three cherry-ringers I’ve never noticed before that I want to share with you now in case, like me, it’s taken you several reads to notice them.

We finally get to endnote 304.

Throughout at least five or six hundred pages Wallace has been trying to get us to skip ahead to the three-hundred-and-fourth endnote, promising juicy details about the wheelchair assassins and some kind of train cult.

When we finally get there, the information is presented as a quasi-academic paper framed by Jim Struck trying to plagiarise it, but what’s interesting is that the paper is by one G. Day – a character who’s familiar to us and is, right at the moment we’re taken to Struck, sharing a room with (none other than) Remy Marathe – an AFR and former train-cultist himself.

Steeply really is grotesque – in one of the ways it really matters

Remember Helen Steeply’s only putative published article for Moment magazine? Back on page 142, about the woman who’s handbag-receptacled Jarvik IX Exterior Artificial Heart was stolen? That contained all these advertorialish quotes and descriptions like “the extraordinary prosthesis”, “extroardinary heart in her purse,” and “That the prosthetic crime victim gave chase for over four blocks before collapsing onto her empty chest is testimony to the impressive capacity of the Jarvik IX replacement procedure” that made you question why the article so glowingly commended the medically miraculous exterior heart?

It’s much, much later when Marathe is drunkenly exposition-ing to Kate Gompert that we learn that he is Steeply’s Moment‘s article’s intended audience:

‘I have been knowing since the wedding night her death was coming. Her restenosis of the heart, it is irreversible. Now my Gertraude, she has been in a comatose and vegetating state for almost one year. This coma has no exit, it is said. The advanced Jaarvik IX Exterior Artificial Heart is said by the public-aid cardiologists of Switzerland to be her chance for life.

Yeah, you probably should take what Molly Notkin says in a fairly high-sodium way.

Notkin claims Joelle van Dyne’s (known, I believe, to the U.S.O.U.S. interrogators as only Madame Psychosis) is Lucille Duquette.

But we’ve seen the name Duquette before: in the James O. Incandenza filmography. And as a film-slash-film-cartridge scholar, it’s likely that Notkin knows Duquette (first initial: E) and has knowingly given the interrogators a false name.

Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but is this Duquette the priapismically guilt-ridden Pabst scholar?

Better question: what have you discovered this week?


Looking Down the Garburator

There’s been a lot of buzz around Randy Lenz in the last couple of weeks, so I’ll try taking him on (thanks for the challenge, Nathan Seppelt!). For instance, in our roundtable discussion on Saturday, we visited the question (at about the halfway point), “Is Randy Lenz the novel’s most despicable character?” which generated some interesting answers, ranging from wild disturbance (Mark) to mild adoration (Nathan).

In Episode 3 of the The Great Concavity, artist Robyn O’Neil made the claim that one of the things that really struck her about Infinite Jest was its ability to confront deep parts of the reader, that she sees herself “in way too many characters.” In that sense it has a kind of morally instructive quality to it, prompting the reader to serious self-reflection and inner interrogation. I jokingly asked if she saw herself in Randy Lenz, and we all three laughed abjectly at the thought of that, but it’s recently got me to thinking.

In our present section, we catch Lenz doing some pretty appalling stuff:

  • Demapping rats with chunks of detached concrete (540)
  • Poisoning and capturing cats in Hefty and SteelSak bags, swinging them into street signs and telephone poles, lighting them on fire (541-5)
  • Slitting the throats of neighborhood canines (545-6, 587)
  • Putting an injured bird down the kitchen sink garbage disposal, alive (547)
  • Trying to get Yolanda Willis to kneel at the altar of his own personal Unit, making it her Higher Power (565)
  • Treating the urban city as one big commode (578)
  • Using Don Gately like a shield at gunpoint, like a coward (611)
  • &c.


It’s really easy to waggle morally judgmental fingers at those we deem to be bereft of axiological sensibility, like the Hitlers, Maos, Stalins, Dahmers, and Lenzs of the world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that we’re able to differentiate their kinds of behaviors from those that are nourishing and redemptive, but in each of our darkest souls’ nights, are we really all that much different? Given the right social and psychological circumstances, do we not all have the capacity to become moral monsters? Had our own mother, like Lenz’s, died from an overdose of peach cobbler in a truly grotesque fashion, and with “three ex-husbands and feral attorneys and a pastry-chef that used pastry-dependence to warp and twist her into distorting a testament toward the chef and Lenz’s being through red-tape still in Quincy’s Y.C.A. hold and in a weak litigational vantage, the ruptured Mrs. L.’s will had left him out in the cold to self-fend by his urban wits while ex-husbands and patissiers lay on Riviera beach-furniture fanning themselves with high-denomination currency, about all which Lenz says he grapples with the Issues of on a like daily basis” (577), might we have turned out a little differently?

Sufjan Stevens brings this sentiment hauntingly to life in his song about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. After cataloguing the disturbing list of ways in which Gacy would treat his victims, Stevens sings, “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” It’s a grim thought, but I hear what Stevens is saying. In his theologically-mapped worldview, we’re all irrevocably fallen, morally bankrupt, and bereft of sincere goodness. For Stevens, it takes an outside force to redeem humanity.

In my MA thesis (which is almost ready for defense), I argue that Infinite Jest is a soteriological novel, consumed by theological themes relating to salvation and redemption. In this context, Randy Lenz becomes a fascinating case study. While I don’t spend a ton of time talking about him in my paper, he does show up in this moral context. One of the things that strikes me about Infinite Jest is its ability to hold up the mirror to its reader, to urge them to take stock of where they find meaning and value, and of how they empathize with and care for their fellow humans.

If Stevens’ song were about Randy Lenz, it might urge us to take stock of what’s in our own kitchen garbage disposals. I’d presently be looking down mine, if I had one.