First, a shout-out to this piece by Tom Bissell in honor of IJ‘s 20th anniversary. Indeed, DFW did write everything about everything in this monolithic – and all the more confounding and revelatory for it – masterpiece.
What forms of everything pop up in this section? We have all sorts of fun at Ennet House, learning the intimate horrors that residents there have endured on their path to redemption, which includes learning to follow “the motherfucking directions” on the analogous cake box of drug addiction recovery and learning to believe in a God that you most certainly do not believe in and cannot possibly ever bring yourself to believe in but like just surrendering and going through the motions brings you into close enough proximity to this God you don’t believe in that you start to believe and realize that you’re getting better (467). This faith-leaning isn’t the same as faith because “how could some kind of Higher Power [you] didn’t even believe in magically let [you] out of the cage” (468)? It doesn’t have to be God really – because what is God anyway? – it just has to be God as far as you understand Him; your understanding can be nothing. It can be anti-understanding, like irremediable disbelief. But at a certain point, when the shit just works (you are your own God, but that doesn’t matter; or you are God, but that doesn’t matter), you stop trying to understand, is what Gately learns. The less you think about it, the better. The point is to live. Open up to God, and suddenly He’s right there with you. (He is You.)
Is life an experiment of pleasure optimization? Is that why humanity evolved, for the Universe to experience the ultimate form of pleasure in mortal coils? Hence the creation of the Entertainment? Is that the Universe’s teleology channeled through humanity? Entertainment: this is water. We are crazed rats in a cage for it, Entertainment. Netflix is this country’s latest Cathedral. We worship at the altar of instant viewing, “volunteering for fatal addiction to the electrical pleasure…by free choice, of course” (473). What a strange species, knowing in advance that pleasure is lethal and choosing it anyway (or choosing it because of lethality, like if I’m going to die, I’ll do it on my own pleasurable terms, thank you). So what are “the implications for any industrialized, market-driven, high-discretionary-spending society” (473)? America of today, of course. We may not literally have subsidized time, but our time is absolutely monetized. We choose how to spend it. We learn how to spend it: consuming. We could create, but our cultural conditions favor consumption. That’s where the pleasure centers are; so too our pain centers, but that neural entanglement has been disentangled, and we are numb to the pain, confusing it with pleasure. Capital P Pleasure comes with creation. The pleasure we get from consumption is really pain. Not the pain of birthing something new, which is Capital P Pain, which is the really juicy stuff. The stuff, literally, of Life. We don’t have time for that.
And then we watch Gately drive around like a madman before a bizarre, absurdly comical, inconceivably gruesome murder of Lucien & Bertraund at the hands (and broom) of the A.F.R. Which, if there’s ever been a more appalling description of a literal broom in the system than what DFW conjures on p.488, I haven’t read it. It’s inarguably beautiful, the death scene, e.g. “the strangled impeded sounds of absolute aphonia, the landed-fish gasps that accompany speechlessness in a dream…the fibers that protect the esophagal terminus resist and then give with a crunching pop and splat of red that bathes Lucien’s teeth and tongue and makes of itself in the air a spout, and his gargled sounds now sound drowned” (488). Terrifying, yes, but so intimate in its observation that I’m inclined to call it empathy. To attend to someone’s expiration so acutely is the work of someone who cares deeply about life (or the work of a sociopath).
It’s unclear if the A.F.R. got the Master copy from the DuPlessis burglary, which casts the grotesque homicide in even darker light, as if the theft would justify the incident…as Michael Caine as Alfred would say sententiously to billionaire pseudohero Bruce Wayne, “some men just want to watch the world burn.” What if the world should burn? What if the world as we know it needs destruction? I’m on the side of the League of Shadows. Batman’s world is a plutocracy, full of the type of life-denying shit that the Entertainment represents. Why protect a world where people willfully consume themselves into oblivion? Give the creators a chance to save the world! The League of Shadows are a league of ubermensch(es?).
“This was how I first became interested in the possibilities of annulation” (503) was a confirmation for me of footnote 100 on p.1004, which describes how “99.9% of what goes on in one’s life is actually none of one’s business, with the .1% under one’s control consisting mostly of the option to accept or deny one’s inevitable powerlessness over the other 99.9%.” Because like how else do we read the self-delusional retrospective origin story of Himself, at least in terms of his affinity for annulation (I need Fuller to help me out with possible symbolic values of annulation in this story, which seems to produce rings upon rings upon rings on the molecules – words – dancing about chaotically on the page)? This shit only makes sense because Himself makes it make sense. And we go, “oh, so that’s how it happened,” as if that’s how life works, as if it can be broken down into discrete, interpretable events. What we see in the scene is yet another fucked up father-son relationship (and so “fucked up” really just translates to normal in DFW’s world) and a docile woman (Subject/Object to the likes of Orin, raised by the likes of Himself who learned that social order situates women as silent fixtures in the environment).
Whatever. “Keep Coming Back because It Works” (504). That’s what I assume DFW wants his audience to believe about their faith in this novel. Which then doubles as a faith in life. Keep Coming Back.
To what though? “Monthly diddle-checks” (511)? The hilarious-tragic neuroses of every character stuck in this labyrinth? To question the recurrence of blue – an unnatural color – in a scene? To endure “attitude-adjuster” drills (515)? Is that what this fucking book is? A tennis clinic? An AA meeting? Like just keep believing in it and doing it because this Author says it’s good for you, except well he doesn’t say it directly but it’s like implicit to the Author-reader contract, like the Author promises that it’ll be worth it in the end, except that along the way you question your faith in the putative Author and wonder if there even is one, and like if there isn’t, then why am I reading this shit, because if there’s no point to it, and I’m just like drifting through a bunch of information that I can never really hope to process in any ultimately Meaningful way, then why can’t I just burn this shit? And yet you keep reading anyway, so gullible and faithful, and you start to convince yourself that your belief is paying off, that this does Mean something. That it’s not all sound and fury, told by an idiot, signifying nothing. That the Author is not an idiot for trying. That you’re not an idiot for trying and believing the Author and going along with his gospel. Words, words, words, the inner Hamlet in you might warn. And yet there you are, reading words, words, words, and forgetting that this is all part of the infinite jest. Why so serious? The only thing to be in this world is a Comedian. Who watches the watchmen? Who gives a shit? No one watches anyone because there’s no one to watch or be watched. So just do your drills, read and write your words. They’re all you have. Find Pleasure in them. Create in them. Puke, purge, restart. Repeat. Keep Coming Back.
You feel for Tavis. You identify with Tavis. You feel for the Moms. You identify with the Moms. You are all of these characters that you feel for and identify with. Empathy is not an act. It is a being. It is your reality. You are everyone around you. How could you not love them? How could you not love yourself? Is there any character in this story, if you’re reading it carefully and really focusing in on who they are, whom you don’t love? Don’t you see that that’s why DFW goes to such painstaking lengths to give everyone their time to shine, their spotlight on the stage? So you will love them. So you will love him. Best of all, so you might learn to love yourself. But perhaps that’s granting the Author too much credit. That he’s here to point us toward Love.
But let’s look at Tavis and imagine what he says coming from DFW to the reader: “What actually we do for you here is to break you down in very carefully selected ways, take you apart as a little girl and put you back together again as a tennis player who can take the court against any little girl in North America without fear of limitation…we will take apart your skull very gently and reconstruct a skull for you that will have a highly developed bump of clarity and a slight concave dent where the fear-instinct used to be” (520-521). In other words, we’re getting skull-fucked here. We’re getting lobotomized. But it’s to free us, see? Gives you the fantods, no? Howling even.
Total-Worry persona (526). Drop it, Tavis. Drop it, reader. There’s nothing to worry about here. How can you even worry about nothing?
And why are you seeking revelation in words? There is no genuine dawn to be found. Dawn is made by you, or perhaps in you, with every blinking creative moment. Now doesn’t have to be “the time of false dawns” (528). In fact, Now can never be the time of false dawns. Now is always Dawn. For Now is always a new Birth. The “irony and contempt for selves” endemic to American culture (530)? Born of false dawns. That is when such selves flourish. In the Now is the Self. Alienated from Now are your selves, those foolish actors you send out into the world who think they’re real and get all Total-Worried about everything. Let them go.
“But Don you’re still a human being, you still want to live, you crave connection and society, you know intellectually that you’re no less worthy of connection and society than anyone else simply because of how you appear, you know that hiding yourself away out of fear of gazes is really giving in to a shame that is not required and that will keep you from the kind of life you deserve” (534). Why hide from your own beauty, and then hide your hiding? Why believe that you are too beautiful, that your beauty is deformity, that your perfection is your Fall?