I ended my last Infinite Jest post wondering about all the Daddy issues in the book, and this section picks that ball right up and keeps dribbling down the saddest metaphorical court imaginable. Hal attends an NA meeting, moves about in cartoonish fashion just trying to take a seat, and immediately witnesses a grown man open up about his “Inner Infant standing holding the bars of his crib and looking out of the bars…bars of his crib and crying for his Mommy and Daddy to come hold him and nurture him,” which gives terrifying insight into the foundation of our psychic realities and the enduring existential dread of abandonment and condemnation to tortured freedom that comes with this desperate cry and no response, all while we’re in a crib, aka child’s prison (802). Hal realizes he knows the guy, Ken Bain, through Orin, and he “wonders what the etiquette is in NA about getting up and leaving right in the middle of somebody’s Infantile revelation of need” (803). There is no escape. Perhaps hell is other people.
And then Hal, without much self-implication, thinks that “getting held and told you were loved didn’t automatically seem like it rendered you emotionally whole or Substance-free. Hal finds he rather envies a man who feels he has something to explain his being fucked up, parents to blame it on” (805). Because what of the kid who presumably inherits and all and gets more than enough love from his Mommy and Daddy and gets all his needs met? On whom can Hal blame his persistent substance abuse and emerging anhedonia? But before Hal can enter this rabbit’s hole, “overdeveloped troll” Kevin Bain starts crawling toward a guy behind Hal to simulate his Inner Infant getting his Infant’s needs met, and so Hal is reasonably unsettled by this strange act of sincere hope (805). It’s a creepy, cloying display that includes “projectile-weeping” and awe at how “hysterical grief becomes facially indistinguishable from hysterical mirth, it appears” (806-7). But it’s also a display of courage, of risking vulnerability for the sake of feeling alive, i.e. taken care of. In a book that sees so many characters surrender their lives to want, it’s refreshing – and grotesquely bizarre – to observe a character seeking need. We experience it through Hal’s POV, and despite him following Mario’s advice to give into the same feeling, he’s not quite ready to let himself go in this way. To abandon his Ego and awaken his Inner Child. To walk upright, must we first learn to crawl again?
Shift to Gately’s POV. A vision of his crib also appears, which is appropriate to his present condition. He is infantilized in his hospital bed, paralyzed and utterly dependent. On life support. Except, unlike Kevin Bain, he didn’t get the chance to ask for help. It was thrust on him. For heroism. The added reward for his heroism? He must play unwilling-but-captive spectator for his visitors, who come more for their own sake than his. Gately effectively becomes everyone’s therapist/preacher/Christ figure. They unburden themselves onto (perhaps unto) him. Confessions abound. Tiny Ewell is the first up, with his gift for “the emotional appeal of adult rhetoric…the first time [he] felt personal power” (811). As a third grader, somehow, he “lived only to feed the dark thing in my personality” (812). Let’s settle into that for a moment: as a third grader, Tiny Ewell was already leaning into what he knew (as a third grader) was “dark,” i.e. evil. He ruled others. As a third grader. He wanted out. He “longed to be able to lean into [his] mother’s arms and weep and confess all. [He] could not. For the shame” (813). How early our morality sinks in. How early it sinks us. We believe our own wickedness, and further, we believe it a despicability over which we have no control. We buy into our innate fallenness. The horror…the horror.
Gately could ID with Tiny’s childhood trauma, but he was mute, and off he went into his own inner world with Job-like visions of tornadoes and destruction, all seemingly aimed at his mother. As though it were revenge for her murder of him (as we soon learn of the mother’s terrible/beautiful dual role).
Pat Montesian and Calvin Thrust follow, Montesian to provide reassurance of Gately’s salvation from punishment for crimes against the Nucks, Thrust to magnify for the reader how claustrophobic and purgatorial this whole reality is for Gately, i.e. Thrust’s story should’ve remained figurant for all I care, and but then also for all Gately cares, e.g. “He finds Thrust insufferable and wishes he’d just fucking go already” (826). But at least Thrust distracts from the pain. The problem still being the pain, and the fact that no one visiting Gately seems to understand it, the pain, or even recognize that Gately, a human being capable of experiencing this pain thing, is even there really. “It seems like Don G.’s gotten way more popular as somebody to talk to since he’s become effectively paralyzed and mute,” and so the self-absorbed train continues with Geoffrey Day (828).
But then we’re all saved by the arrival of “a self-proclaimed generic wraith” (829). Gately is no longer a “sympathetic ear,” or “like a wooden carving or statue of an ear,” or just a “huge empty confessional booth” (831). He’s a wraith whisperer.