This entire novel could be Hal talking to Orin, and I’d be thrilled. DFW uses juxtaposition brilliantly in the section from pp.242-258. The main subject is Hal’s account of Himself’s death, which we learn Hal was the first to see the aftermath of (as a 13 year old who had just finished a tough tennis practice and wanted desperately to eat). Surrounding that weighty confrontation is Hal’s “Being in The Zone” toenail cutting (“can’t miss intervals make superstitious natives of us all”), Orin’s “Seduction Strategies” on his “Subjects,” the cover story Helen Steeply is writing (ostensibly) about Orin and Himself, and Hal’s speculation on how one Subject’s trailer was furnished. It’s all DFW at his most lucid and hilarious.
But why are their conversations privileged with such clarity? No physical description to pull us away from what they’re saying; no structural oddities like we saw with the coverage of Joelle’s suicide attempt; no distractions really except for the ones that come up in the course of their dialogue. We could attribute it to the importance of the subject: Death. But Hal and Orin find ways of evading it on their own, so no need for DFW to bring in “abusable escapes” (aka style) to pull the reader to and fro. We get to just sit there and witness a simple back-and-forth, as though they’re warming up for a tennis match. It’s quite the rally.
Let’s highlight a few things from the conversation:
- Himself hated the word “deconstructed,” which is an absurd in-joke, given that the entire novel is a laborious exercise in deconstruction (251). It’s the labyrinthine type of thinking that may have done DFW in. Or as he wrote, it’s “the self-consciousness that kills the magic” (249). But what is the magic? Ignorance? Oblivion? Escape? The more conscious you become, the more vast your alienation becomes. Ignorance seems to grow exponentially alongside the incremental growth of intelligence. To the point that…why bother becoming more intelligent if it only amplifies how monumentally ignorant you are? Not just about the world, but about yourself. If consciousness opens up infinite possibility, what are you supposed to do in that great Void? Consciousness is the Abyss from which DFW could ultimately find no escape. Or rather, he found it: Death. That’s everyone’s escape from this strange purgatorial state of being.
- “Talking about it’s broken the spell. Now I’m self-conscious and afraid” (250). This is Hal in reference to his toe-nail clipping feats, but of course it’s also connecting to any self-consciousness. Naming is supposed to give us the means to escape the thing we name. Like when we can point to a problem – alcoholism – we can pursue freedom. But from what? Ourselves? The path to salvation runs through anonymity. Through letting go of the Ego that took us into the problem in the first place. The Ego makes us undead; anonymity makes us alive. Right?
- Himself’s head exploded. Digest that for a moment. Or imagine being a 13 year old witnessing the product of that reaction. You’d fail to “deliver the goods” too.
- Based on Hal’s “success” with his grief-therapist (how is it that we try to go “by the book” in evaluating feelings? the fuck?), we might conclude that people are most satisfied when we give them themselves; when we reflect who they think they are back to them. But why? Is that a sign that they’re alive/okay? Hal had to perform his way to authenticity, which…No. And he did it by mirroring the grief-therapist. What is grief? How do we atone with it? With our Father (since He’s dead)?
From here, we get a closer look into the amateur competitive tennis world, where John Wayne’s destiny of success proves most unsavory: “he will be an all-business entertainer, citizen of the world, everywhere undead, endorsing juice drinks and liniment ointment” (263). So that’s the appeal of the show? “Everywhere undead?” Yikes. So much sickness, and we’re actively pursuing it, i.e. Zombie-ness. Free from thought and pain and released into the reliable arms of some mechanical operation. It’s a transcendence in its own way, I suppose. It’s a Zone that isn’t this world, which is where we all seem to be trying to go, i.e. out of this world.
Schacht seems to be the ideal: “he’s learned to go his own interior way and let others go theirs…He’s one of those people who don’t need much, much less much more” (268). In other words, we could argue that he’s most alive. Life wants life, and not much else. His lack of ambition and general gratitude and contentment make him live most fully; his peers are all undead, caught in a chase that prohibits them from being alive. From Hal’s view, however, Schact has “some interior decline, some doom-gray surrender of his childhood’s promise to adult gray mediocrity, and [so Hal] fears it” (269). To care and not to care at the same time…why aim for this paradox?
“To turn my will and life over to the care of cliches” (270). Going by DFW’s Kenyon College commencement speech, he earnestly wanted to be able to do this. To let go of all his self-obsessed, hyper-self-conscious thinking. It clearly didn’t bring him any closer to life; it betrayed life and brought him deeper and deeper into a false Self, his Ego. Like why, if I’m equipped with this incredibly capacity to imagine, would life be reducible to cliches? It just…can’t be. What’s the point of all my thinking then? What do I do with this…power? It is power, right? If not, then what it is?
“They identify their whole selves with their head, and the Disease makes its command headquarters in the head” (272). Well, there’s that, I guess. “So bring on the lobotomist, bring him on I say!” (273). Day is on to something here. If this thing, my brain, is only bringing me pain, then what’s the goddamn point? Just cut it out. Free me from my Self. That cruel insatiable Spider.
I don’t have much to say about Gately and the happenings of Ennet House. Gately farted.