Close (Infinite) Reading 1

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“He thought very broadly of desires and ideas being watched but not acted upon, the 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 angled 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 splay-legged, arms wildly out as if something’s been flung, splayed, entombed between the two sounds, without a thought in his head.” (Infinite Jest, pg. 26-27)

Here, we see Ken Erdedy, waiting for his weed to be delivered, counting down the seconds with anxious agony.

I knew I wanted to quote the last sentence of this chapter, but I’d forgotten how long it was. My eyes started at “without a thought in his head,” and traveled “infinitely” up the right page and to the bottom of the left, until finally, a tenth of the way up the page, I found the period that marked the end of the previous sentence. The passage above is one sentence. This structure allows for Erdedy’s and the reader’s thoughts to comingle. We are free to read and think without stopping the flow of our thoughts.

Erdedy is hopelessly addicted, not so much to the pot, but to the addiction itself. He doesn’t even enjoy getting high anymore, yet some animal-like part of him still has this unsatisfied need that craves the act of getting high. In fact, he is so sick with addiction that he has decided that he will smoke so much in so little time that he will make himself sick and the memory will be so repulsive that he will never have the desire again. The addiction seems unable to be corked, the unhealthy desire being infinite. The entire scene is a waiting game, a struggle of anticipation. The action starts at the end, when finally the door and the phone sound at once. This jolt of excitement, for Erdedy and likewise the reader, is conveyed through this one sentence rush of events, until it comes to a crashing halt, with Erdedy’s arms stretched between the door and the phone, stuck in addiction purgatory.

In the beginning of the course, we discussed the idea of infinite points on a line. If there are infinite points, can you ever get to the end of the line? The line itself is finite, as is a book, read cover to cover. However, the number of pieces a line can be broken into (the number of points) is infinite. Likewise, a book can be read front to back, but its contents can be never-ending. I find this concept, when applied to Infinite Jest, to be really intriguing to think about. The depth within this book reaches a level rarely seen in other literary works.

If you were to break a particular scene into multiple dimensions, this scene would be a great example. In the first dimension, there is a man in his living room looking out the window. He makes a phone call, apparently doesn’t reach anyone, and hangs up. He goes to the bathroom and then he watches film cartridges on his “teleputer”. Finally, the doorbell rings, as does the phone, and he is stuck between the two. The second dimension would look similar, but the observer could infer that the man is waiting for something, anxiously watching out the window and biding his time. The third dimension is the knowledge of what the man is waiting for (weed) and the knowledge that this man is an addict, who shuts off the switch on his life for days at a time so that he can get high in secret. Well, Wallace brings this scene into a fourth dimension. An insect is poking in and out of its hole on the girder, and Erdedy is metaphorically compared to this hopeless bug, trying to come out of hiding, but always failing ever so miserably and retreating back into his hole (of addiction). Wallace describes society like a child peering down onto an ant city. Rather than the author being one of the ants, describing what he observes as a peer, he describes observations, not so much from a birds-eye, but from a God’s-eye view. I don’t mean this in the way an omniscient narrator knows everything that is happening—I mean that Wallace has a peculiar knack for understanding human character, idiosyncrasies, and all. He can look down on society, see all its absurdities, nonsensical error, human frustrations and stupid mistakes, and recognize the many ways in which human beings are uniform, yet perplexing.

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3 Responses to Close (Infinite) Reading 1

  1. You’re right on the verge of doing some really interesting work here, but I’m not quite clearly following how you’re arriving at your conclusions based on the specific text of the passage you’ve quoted. Working even more closely and carefully with that passage would help you considerably here.

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  2. tangledheadphones1057 says:

    What I find fascinating about this one gargantuan sentence is how close Erddedy comes to accepting his addiction. As an addict, he is so self-aware. As the sentence grows, he slips farther and farther away from that acceptance, until the last few lines when the phone rings and the doorbell buzzes. Suddenly, his addiction is coming at him from both sides; is it the dealer on the phone or at the door? Unlike the insect, he cannot retreat into a hole and hide from his problems.

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  3. drseuss1 says:

    I see Erdedy’s position at the end of this sentence to be an embodiment of the effects which addiction can have on an individual, paralyzing, becoming indecisive, and ‘entombing’ the addict in his own mind as one who can only think but not act upon his thoughts. Among other things, I think a reason for this is due to the law of diminishing returns; the addict needs more and more to maintain the quality of pleasure and many other activities that were once enjoyable have lost their luster. I think Wallace indirectly highlights this facet of addiction in, “the thoughts 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…” Biochemical evidence has supported this phenomenon of addiction with certain substances like heroin and methamphetamine. It has been shown that long-term use of these substances can cause irreversible damage to dopamine receptors in the brain making common dopamine-rich activities such as eating food and sex no longer pleasurable.

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