Endings I: Like a Roach Under Glass (or, Orin’s Dread, Concluded)
I have been waiting and waiting for Orin’s return. Perhaps you recall that, throughout our reading of IJ, I identified Orin as a character who is beset by the strains and struggles of despair, hope, desire, lack, and other classic existential categories, especially marked by the feeling of entombment. I thought, perhaps, that resolving Orin’s existential dread would help us to determine some insight into DFW’s concept of authenticity. Well, it turns out that Orin makes a brief appearance (pp. 971-972) late in the book: he is being “technically interviewed” by A.F.R. agents Luria P– and M. Fortier. And in this appearance, we find no existential dynamics, no special relation-to-self, no question of authenticity. Instead, we find Orin, trapped under a huge hotel water tumbler, pebbled bottom now replacing any hint of sky, with sewer roaches clambering down the sides toward him.
I will speak of Orin, briefly, in Endings II. And here’s why: I believe (though this is not original to me) that Orin was responsible for the distribution of the lethal Entertainment. But for that you’ll have to wait. Still, some of the following commentary depends on it being true.
There are three notables in this horrifying little set piece: (1) the shift of Subjects; (2) the fogged-up glass; and (3) the Winston-like confession. Before addressing them in turn, I’ll say a few words about the overall scene. Orin has had the tables turned on him in many ways. His own hotel performance has become his fate: “The yellow floor of the bathroom is sometimes a little obstacle course of glasses with huge roaches dying inside, stoically, just sitting there, the glasses steaming up with roach-dioxide. [...] Orin’s special conscious horror, besides heights and the early morning, is roaches” (p. 45). Orin’s imminent death, trapped like a roach under glass, is an emblematic demise, that of a man who must die under the same conditions that he has lived. There is no question here of Orin being able to choose, to face his demons and either confront them or flee. There is no existential moment, only a tightly wound destiny.
I think that Gately can be seen as representing the alter ego of Orin; whereas O.’s life is externally determined, Gately has shown just what self-choosing capacities are available. As the book ends, we see Gately protected by C as Gene “Fax” Fackelmann is horribly murdered, eyelids sewn up so that he can see what is to be done with him (p. 980). This is, we should assume, part of Gately’s being set free to choose sobriety. Earlier, Gately recalled watching Orin the college punter on television (p. 916), after giving us an in-depth account of his one true hope and love in his early years: playing football. Gately was actually the only one of his teammates who chose football over drugs, and it was only his failure to read Ethan From [sic] that led to his being a full-time addict and street thug (pp. 902-905).
As Gately recalls watching Orin, we cannot help but wish that the situations were reversed: Gately is honest, ethical (at least, lives by a consistent code, Sir Osis of Thuliver and noble Night Errand), even admirable. We can ID with his struggles, but in the end we have never been given the opportunity to ID with Orin’s. When Orin’s all-suffusing dread finally makes its way into his life, when he is made into the entombed object of his own fears, we are so far from him as not to feel at all concerned. Compare this, for instance, with our feelings when Gately dreams of the Pakistani doctor who is about to provide him with Schedule C-II or C-III painkillers (pp. 885-889); recall your horrified dismay as Ferocious Francis walks out the door and Gately draws panicked and incoherent scrawls on his writing pad: A, A.
And so, the book ultimately has little to conclude about existential choice and authenticity. There are no levels of of freedom, no return to the ethical, no absolute self-relation, no confrontation with bad faith. Of course, this is fine, not meant at all as a criticism. What it does is help remind us that a post-ironic narrative and world exploration is potentially quite different from the accounts of self-consciousness that come from existential literature. The doom associated with the former is less spun out of naked contingency than it is out of a tapestry of interwoven connections. In this, at least, IJ is strikingly postmodern in a certain fatalism, but also and because of that deeply tragic.
(1) The shift of Subjects. Ok, this one is rather obvious. Orin has finally become a Subject, which, as Hal tried to point out ages ago, to call someone a Subject, for Orin, is to mean the exact obverse (n. #110, p. 1008): which means actually an object available for manipulation and from which something may be extracted. For Orin, his Subjects had sexual gratification (interestingly, theirs, not his) to be extracted. For Luria P–, it is information. “Where Is The Master Buried,” speaks the stilted, amplified voice. And as the roaches descend, Luria P– is satisfied that she has “predicted accurately what the Subject’s response would be when the speaker’s screen was withdrawn and the sewer roaches began pouring blackly and shinily through” (p. 972).
(2) The fogged-up glass. Along with the above-mentioned roach-dioxide, we have seen fogged-up glass before. A few times, actually (for instance, Stice with his head frozen to the E.T.A. glass), but most curiously in the Incandenza family Volvo, “where apparently Avril had been with someone (Orin would not say who or whether he knew who) in the Volvo and had idly – and disastrously, whether w/ unconscious intent or not – and presumably post-coitally idly written the person’s first name in the steam of the steamed-up car window” (n. #80, p. 999). This story is repeated by Marlon Bain (regarding whom we have every reason to believe that he had relations with Avril, her propensity for athletic youth well-noted), in his communique to Steeply, and is given as a possible reason for J.O.I.’s felo de se (n. #269, p. 1048). O. had also alleged to Hal at some point that “when he took the Moms’s car in the morning he sometimes observed the smeared prints of human feet on the inside of the windshield” (p. 899). And while this post-coital word probably had little to do with that suicide, we can be quite sure that it produced a great deal of anger toward Avril in Orin. (I say ‘probably’ because there is also the possibility that it was O. himself, depending on whether one thinks that Avril’s passion for O. is consummated or not; parallels to J.v.D.’s own personal Daddy serving here as either direct or just fractal reappearances. I just found some discussion on this at IS.) Orin’s susceptibility to a steamed-up window, then, implies that his demise in the technical interview serves as a kind of backlash – again, he dies with all the reminders of what he most hated, and what he has lost.
(3) The Winston-like confession. I expect most of you will recall Orwell’s Room 101, the torture chamber in the Ministry of Love where suspects are forced to face their greatest fear, and thus is their freedom broken and their reality re-constructed. Winston, faced with the rats of his worst nightmares, cries out, like Orin, “Do it to her! Do it to her!” (p. 972). In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston is referring to his co-conspirator Julia, his greatest and only love, proving that betrayal is required for complete self-destruction. To whom, then, is Orin referring? Not to Avril, whom he hates; not to Luria P–, who is standing right there. It must be, sadly, to Joelle, the only one who counts as an Entertainment-related co-conspirator, whether or not she actually has the information that A.F.R. seeks (she doesn’t). But this is more about Orin than Joelle, in any case. We should not blame him, any more than we should blame Winston. In Room 101, everyone talks, everyone wishes there was another to take her or his stead. Perhaps this is a reminder that, at the end, we may pity Orin as well as hate him. He is a victim of tragic familial circumstances, and if his responses were generally horrid, puerile, and misogynist, if he abandoned Hal to a family that he had been unable to withstand and therefore to destruction as well, if he brought on the ruin of E.T.A. and the deaths of so many of Avril’s not-so-secret paramours, he is also the same as the rest of us, the one who betrays at the end.
Like Thomas Hobbes, who reminds us not that human beings are egocentric, selfish, and arrogant, but simply that we each bear the permanent possibility of the bestial state of nature in us, Orwell taught us that human beings are not inherently deceitful, but that we each have the permanent, ineradicable possibility of betrayal. In both cases, we must guard against these most human of dangers, and we must do so by cultivating sympathy and compassion. As Orin dies, I cannot help but be sad that he did not turn out to be the existential subject I had hoped him to be; neverthless, I feel compassion for him in that his suffering and torment would never lead him out of his dreaded entombment.