Close Reading One

Page 26-27 “He thought very broadly of desires and ideas being watched but not acted upon, he thought of impulses being starved of expression and drying out and floating dryly away, and felt on some level that this had something to do with him and his circumstances and what, if this grueling final debauch he’d committed himself to didn’t somehow resolve the problem, would surely have to be called his problem, but he could not even begin to try to see how the image of desiccated impulses floating dryly related to either him or the insect, which had retreated back into its hole in the angular girder, because at this precise time his telephone and his intercom to the front door’s buzzer both sounded at the same time, both loud and tortured and so abrupt they sounded yanked through a very small hole into the great balloon of colored silence he sat in, waiting, and he moved first toward the telephone console, then over toward his intercom module, then convulsively back toward the sounding phone, and then tried somehow to move toward both at once, finally, so that he stood splayed, entombed between the two sounds, without a thought in his head.”

This passage gives a distinct and accurate portrayal of both anxiety and Wallace’s term “marijuana-think” which I believe must closely resemble each other. The first thing to notice is that this 200 word wall is one sentence, which signifies the way an anxious mind transitions from one thought to the next seamlessly and rapidly, without stopping. While I was reading this passage, I found myself reading faster and faster in a way that can only be described as frantic. Wallace may have intended this hectic structure to mirror what Erdedy (the character who is delivering the soliloquy) was feeling. The proof for that comes from the final moments of the passage, when Erdedy ends up splayed between the door and his phone. Just like Erdedy, Wallace intended his reader to be a bit frazzled after reading this passage.

Wallace included symbolism in at least three separate places to denote this anxiety. The first comes from Erdedy’s first line of thought. He feels like any idea that is not fully fleshed out ends up being dried out and wasted. This effectively conveys why Erdedy thinks in such a hectic way. Each and every thought that appears in his head must be contemplated, or else he feels that he wasted the idea’s potential. Of course, since people think many thoughts at once, usually they disregard the ones that are deemed unimportant. Not so for Erdedy. He tries to entertain every single thought, and is left confused in his own head.

The next symbol to note is the insect that keeps retreating and reappearing from the hole in the girder. It may represent ideas that keep popping in and out of Erdedy’s head. Sure, it’s just an insignificant insect that shouldn’t have an influence on anyone, but Erdedy is obsessed by it anyway. Just like the random ideas that pop into his head, Erdedy cannot help but to contemplate the bug and draw parallels back to himself, because he is putting way more thought than is necessary into it.

Finally, Wallace includes an image of the physical manifestation of Erdedy’s anxiety. In his mind, Erdedy entertains each of his thoughts, and it leaves him reaching for a new idea even before the old ones have been fully formed. This is identical to what happens to Erdedy’s physical body when he tries to reach for two separate “ideas” at once. He cannot decide whether to go for the door or the phone, both of which are like two separate ideas in his head. He tries to go for both at once, and ends up stuck in the middle, almost paralyzed. This is also reminiscent of another of Wallace’s terms, “Analysis Paralysis.” Erdedy ends up physically “paralyzed” (literally stuck) when he tries to reach for two things at once in the physical world, just like he might get stuck in his mind when he tries to fully entertain and contemplate two separate ideas at once in his head. It is also ironic that Erdedy contemplates the how wasteful it is for an idea to be conceived and then for it not to come to fruition when he answers neither the door nor the phone, when all he could think of for the past day had been to answer either of those things. Erdedy is kind of an idealist in that way. He can sit around trying to entertain every single idea in his head, but when he tries to put that into practice in the real world, where time is a factor, he finds that it is impossible. This might have been a wake-up call for him, as, several hundred pages later, we find him in the Ennet House.

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4 Responses to Close Reading One

  1. This is a relatively strong reading of a significant and well-chosen passage from the novel, but I’m unclear about the stakes of your reading here. Why is it important that you’re noticing what you are about this moment?


    • mattdice says:

      In a book rife with themes of addiction, Wallace delves into the realm of different things that people usually do not associate with addiction. There are the obvious addictive substances are in the forefront, like alcohol, cocaine, crack, and amphetamines, which everyone instantly recognizes as addictive. However, there are more subtle allusions to substances that aren’t usually recognized as addictive, because they aren’t physically addicting. Sex (in Orin’s case), entertainment (e.g. The Entertainment), and even pea soup (Steeply points out the Canadian obsession) can all be addicting as well, although these are on the periphery of the usual lineup of addictive suspects.

      By reading carefully through this passage, I have come to believe that Erdedy is addicted to two things, one of which is obvious, and the other one is much more subtle. He is addicted to both marijuana and thinking. The marijuana addiction is relatively simple to establish: Erdedy periodically fights himself to throw out his paraphernalia, yet he always buys more. Also, he no longer enjoys smoking, but he cannot stop doing it. The thought addiction is more challenging to identify, but there are definitely pieces of evidence. The one that stands out to me is that Erdedy vehemently doesn’t want even the smallest thought to go to waste, kind of in the same way that crack users are portrayed to scour their carpets for “promising looking pieces of lint” and smoke them. Also, Erdedy’s thinking is ritualistic, time consuming, and thorough, just like other drug user’s habits. His whole chapter has him just sitting on his couch, but he thinks hard about almost every aspect of his life, considering every possible angle, and returning to previous thoughts cyclically. Finally, Erdedy cannot stop thinking and overanalyzing until he physically cannot anymore, when his body finally shuts down from too much thought. This is about the closest thing a “thought addict” can come to an overdose, when he is finally ripped out of his mind by “thinking all of the thoughts.” He is left “without a thought in his head,” signifying that his brain has had enough, and that it is time for recovery, which he see he finally gets at Ennet House.


  2. argyle8 says:

    Mattdice, your interpretation of this passage made me wonder about the connection between waste and thought processes in this novel. If a character is stuck in “marijuana-thinking,” then he never wastes a thought, but instead considers every possible idea. If a character is stuck in “analysis paralysis,” then he exists in a stasis, which implies wasting time, thoughts, and other resources by lack of action. My question is: if “marijuana-thinking” is inherently waste-less, and “analysis paralysis” is wasteful, then how would you describe Erdedy’s thought process in terms of waste?


    • mattdice says:

      The way I see it, these two concepts are two sides of the same coin: Marijuana-thinking leads to analysis paralysis. When a person stops to weigh every possible outcome and consider every possible angle (marijuana-thinking) they must step back from the action in order to sit down and think. Thus, they enter the state of Analysis Paralysis, which doesn’t mean that they are paralyzed and unable to analyze, but their never ending analysis leads to them become “paralyzed,” not in a literal sense but in a way that implies no physical action, although their mind is racing. So if the two are inherently the same thing, then Erdedy isn’t wasting a single thought, but instead is wasting time by choosing to analyze instead of to act. He is also wasting movements, since he cannot decide whether to answer to the phone or the door, and so he goes back and forth, until he finally tries to go for both, and fails.


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