“sort of human furniture, figurants” (Infinite Jest, pp.833-875)

I should’ve been writing these things as I was sprinting through the end of the novel, but here I am quite a few days removed from the experience trying to say something intelligent and/or moving about it. Not that anything in my previous posts has been comprehensible. More of a biblical Flood level of mental vomit in the form of words. Ya know, the things that Donal Trump knows and has the best of.

This section begins in the midst of Gately talking (sort of) to wraith Himself, and it bounces beautifully between absurd comedy (e.g. Gately pondering what it’s like to be able a wraith, “able to quantum off anyplace instantly and stand on ceilings and probably burgle like no burglar’d ever dreamed of”) and poignant tragedy (e.g. the wraith’s description of figurants, the fractional human furniture/scenery in the background of television shows like Cheers). Sadly, there’s “no way for a figurant to win. No possible voice or focus for the encaged figurant” (835). This is the thematic thrust of the novel, i.e. all the characters feel like figurants in their own lives. And they try to numb themselves from that reality through any means necessary (drugs, tennis, Entertainment, Eschaton, real war). No matter how desperately you try to make people feel not like figurants, they don’t buy it. They’re all marginalized by something that might be a virtue (beauty, intellect, athletic or sexual prowess) or fractured by something that is unmistakably a vice (incestual diddling, every form of abuse/violence imaginable).

Because we think everything outside of us can’t really see or hear us (or thinks we don’t care and/or aren’t worth being cared for), we escape into our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, which turn into tiny skull-sized prisons. We rule nothing but our own possibility, rushing toward the possibility-of-our-impossibility-not-to-be-bypassed. We summon Death because we can’t believe that we actually deserve Life. What does a figurant matter? Why be here if we’re just furniture or scenery? As Dostoevsky wrote in Notes from Underground, man spends his entire life trying to prove he’s not a piano key, which rationalizes all our seeming irrationality. All the so-called madness in this novel is driven by a similar desire. Every character wants to feel alive, and if that means unspeakable pain, so be it. Perhaps the pain will the draw the camera to them, will bring people’s focus and validation to their experience. Does pain give me purpose? It’s worth a shot! And no amount of buoyant Mario charm will convince me otherwise. His optimism is damning!

And then we see people we love becoming these cursed figurants, and we try to save them by sacrificing ourselves. Wraith Himself explains that he made the Entertainment for Hal “to bring him out of himself…a way to say I AM SO VERY VERY SORRY and have it heard” (839). The lengths we go to…it’s tragic. And comical. It’s everything. It’s nothing. Why are we so roundabout in our efforts? Why not express ourselves sincerely to one another? Why not testify, authentically, which changes moment to moment, to whatever we’re feeling as we’re feeling it? Withholding is only leading us to “the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life” (839). Gately experienced it, watching the M.P. abuse his mother. Gately turned to television and shut out reality. He did nothing. And in retrospect, it’s even worse: e.g. “trying to force a more noble memory” (843). Gately wants to believe he was better, but his past – whether at home or the playground or during his criminal days – betrays his hopes. He can still become better. Every moment is the opportunity for rebirth. We see this in how he thinks of Joelle, choosing not to prey on her.

(All these figurants made real. And for what? One second at a time? For what? Sure, no single second is unbearable, but why bear it? The present is not a gift. It’s a cruel joke, infinitely told on/to/by us. I deny Now. What shall I believe in? Ghosts? Anything?)

Except that if we’re in the grips of anhedonia, there is no hope of rebirth. We’re past the point of no return. We chose our Entertainment, and now we’re stuck as spectators to our own downfall. Death is the End we couldn’t help but choose in the Beginning. But the Entertainment promises a Death that ushers us into new Life, doesn’t it? All we have to do is start watching. Our release will come. Our murderer, our next Moms, is coming. Wait.

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