Three Cheers for DFW!
No quasi-philosophical speculation this post – just some ordinary reflections on part of this week’s reading. I am, to put it simply, rather in awe of the immense entertainment (or is that Entertainment?) value of two carefully structured chapters of IJ, and want to give three Interdependence Day Cheers to DFW.
Cheer #1: The Chapters Heading for these two days, November 8 Y.D.A.U. includes not only the date and location, but also the phrase Gaudeamus Igitur (Let us rejoice), which most readers have probably already googled, but if you haven’t, it is a university song stemming from 1274 B.S., supposedly light-hearted by not by today’s standards; it begins:
- Let us rejoice therefore
- While we are young.
- After a pleasant youth
- After a troubling old age
- The earth will have us.
I wish this song to be sung every Independence Day, or Interdependence Day, or Totally Dependent Day, or whatever. Sure beats “God Bless America”! Simply putting it out there is cheer #1 for DFW.
Cheer #2: There are a number of excellent commentaries on Eschaton (pp. 321-342) out there already, especially here and here and here and now also here (apologies for any overlap between what follows and the insights on those sites). Two central issues have emerged. First, the growing confirmation that Hal is, if not the only narrator, at least a primary one, in something like a “free indirect voice.” This is especially relevant at footnote #123 (from p. 323), where Hal is clearly an active amanuensis to Pemulis’s Tenuate-slurry description. Compare this with the footnotes from the following section, describing Don Gately and the Boston AA Commitment experience, specifically notes #137 (which reads “None of these are Don Gately’s terms,” the “these” referring to a description of the AA Crocodiles, a group of old-timers), #140, and the controversial #141, each of which intentionally surmounts Gately’s own narration perspective.
Second, Eschaton makes clear the difficult relationship between a text and a “real” world, by confusing the Eschaton “scenario” or “map” with the actual territory being traversed by the ETA students. The failed distinction between map and territory recalls both Borges and Baudrillard. Most interesting, though, is that the meticulous details of the game scenario itself, described lovingly by DFW, are not as compelling to Hal as the questions raised by the disruption of the game scenario: “It also occurs to him that he finds the real-snow/unreal snow snag in the Eschaton extremely abstract but somehow way more interesting than the Eschaton itself, so far” (p. 335).
The “so far” is key here, since game-master Lord is ready to throw up his hads and declare Utter Global Crisis by donning the red beanie (p. 336f). After pages of slow build-up, excruciating detail of AMNAT and SOVWAR and going SACPOP or inflicting SUFDDIR, the tempo begins to increase. Nobody is at all clear whether ETA players are mauling each other (they are) and if the game still exists (it does). As the first punches land, “The snowfall makes everything gauzy and terribly clear at the same time eliminating all visual background so that the map’s action seems stark and unreal” (p. 341 – also a clear reference to Joelle’s veiled perception). The intensity of the story threatens a bubble-bursting outcome, but DFW comes through in the end. Eschaton Lord Lord trips while fleeing the melee and at the finale of a long, slow free-fall, puts his head through the Yushityu color monitor, a definitive resolution indeed to the map-territory ambiguity. Cheer #2 for DFW!
Cheer #3: Gately’s ruminations (pp. 343-367, continues to p. 374) on the intricacies of the AA program and its local permutations is likewise fascinating, meticulous, and drawn-out. As with the Eschaton section, it meanders about, discussing Commitments (traveling presentations at other AA meetings), Identification (the primary response to AA speakers), Bottoming, Hanging In, life Out There, etc. I was intrigued by Gately’s earlier comment about how cliches somehow work (e.g. pp. 204, 273), and that is furthered by his skepticism about how AA works combined with the realization that, well, it works. No Why or How, just That it works. “The idea that AA might actually somehow work unnerved him. He suspected some sort of trap…. And the folks with serious time in AA are infuriating about questions starting with How. You ask the scary old guys How AA Works and they smile their chilly smiles and say Just Fine” (p. 349f).
This section, though, is beautiful for the way it slowly draws together all of the characters who have stimulated such interest. As one comment somewhere or other had, nobody really cares all that much about the specific ETA tennis players yet, and may even have a hard time keeping apart Schacht, Pemulis, Troeltsch, etc. But there’s no mistaking the fast and hard impacts made by Kate Gompert, Joelle van Dyne , Ken Erdedy (who apparently has a first name), Clenette Henderson (who apparently has a last name), even Bruce Green. While it seemed like pretty much inevitable that they would meet up at the Ennet House Recovery House (sic), what is amazing about DFW’s writing here is how slowly he re-introduces them. As a reader, we are heart-poundingly excited, but he sure takes his time. And since Gately himself doesn’t have a stake in the characters, he mentions them almost casually.
What does have a stunning impact is how Joelle simply if unintentionally destroys Gately at the end of the chapter. She complains to him that the commonly-used AA phrase “But For the Grace of God” is a subjunctive, and makes sense only conjoined with a conditional clause, all of which is correct, and she is upset that “the foamy enthusiasm with which these folks can say what in fact means nothing at all makes her want to put her head in a Radarange” (p. 366). And for once, Gately has nothing to say “to Identify” with her, and as a consequence:
his own heart grips him like an infant rattling the bars of its playpen, and he feels a greasy wave of an old and almost unfamiliar panic, and for a second it seems inevitable that at some point in his life he’s going to get high again and be back in the cage all over again…
The very last thing I expect was Don Gately being exposed to such fear, and these lines drop on the reader like a ton of bricks. Just as with the parallel Eschaton section, these pages would be perfectly good without a tempo shift, without a sharp and powerful resolution, and they are often so rambly that they seem more likely to evade such a resolution. But when it comes, wow. Third cheer for DFW!