Scorn of Death
Have we thought enough about the role of death in IJ? I haven’t, but it was brought home to me a few days ago in an at I just Read About That. Paul had described the “funny and yet not” death scenes to his wife, who subsequently indicated she wouldn’t want to read the book. On Infinite Summer there are any number of people – the acute Naptime Writer among them – who are pretty disturbed by the Lenz c. 2216 interval adventures, and the unpleasant scene that unfolds back at Ennet House, too. There is something quite vicious about the creative demises that have been met, and there is a way in which DFW revels in the telling of them that alternately provokes, disgusts, horrifies, as well as amuses, amazes and fascinates.
Let’s review the death scenes we have witnessed thus far, shall we? Feel free to scroll down past them (or just use the pictures as reminders), if having read them once was enough for you, but I think they bear a quick, repellent re-read.
- Don Gately’s suffocation murder of flu-stricken Guillame DuPlessis:
[…] the guy, having worked so hard to partially clear one clotted nasal passage that he tore intercostal ligaments in his ribs, soon found even that pinprick of air blocked off by mucus’s implacable lava-like flow, and so has to tear more ligaments […] at the height of which agony, hearing his head’s pulse as receding thunder and watching his vision’s circle shrink as a red aperture around his sight rotates steadily in from the edges, at the height of which he could think only, despite the pain and panic, of what a truly dumb and silly way this was, after all this time, to die […]. (p. 59)
- C is murdered by Wo’s Drano-filled bundle with a knowing Poor Tony looking on:
[…] C started with the screaming in a loud hipitch fashion instantly after he unties and boots and downhegoes flopping with his heels pouning on the metal of the blower-grate and he’s at his throat with his hands tearing at him self in the most fucked up fashions […] blood and bloody materil is coming out Cs’ mouth and cs’ nose and its’ allover the feathers its’ a sure sign of Drano, blood is and Cs’ eyes get beesly and bulge and hes’ crying blood […] and one eye it like allofa sudden pops outof his map […]. And C turned lightblue and bit through the snakes’ head and died for keeps […]. (p. 134) 
- Himself’s microwaved suicide, as described by Hal to Orin:
‘As we later reconstructed the scene, he’d used a wide-bit drill and small hacksaw to make a head-sized hole in the over door, then when he’d gotten his head in he’d carefully packed the extra space around his neck with wadded-up aluminum foil […]. The B.P.D. field pathologist said the build-up of internal pressures would have been almost instantaneous and equivalent in kg.s.cm to over two sticks of TNT […]. Hence the need to reconstruct the scene.’ (pp. 250-251)
- Eric Clipperton, shooting himself in the head with a blunt-barreled Glock 17 9mm. semiautomatic after being ranked:
[…] which even as both Incandenzas reach for the sky Clipperton places to his right – not left – temple, as in with his good right stick-hand, closes his eyes and scrunches up his face and blows his legitimated brains out for real and all time, eradicates his map and then some; and there’s just an ungodly subsequent mess in there, and the Incandenzas respectively stagger and totter from the room all green-gilled and red-mist-stained […]. (p. 433)
- Lucien Antitois, murdered by A.F.R. Wheelchair Assassins looking for the Entertainment Master (the following description is much attenuated):
Lucien’s first sounds are reduced from howls to natal gargle as the pale wicked tip of the broom he loves is inserted, the wood piney-tasting then white tasteless pain as the broom is shoved in and abruptly down […] the cleric-collared A.F.R. driving the broom home now to half its length, up on his stumps to get downward leverage as the fibers that protect the esophagal terminus resist and then give with a crunching pop and splat of red […] and Lucien finally dies, rather a while after he’s quit shuddering like a clubbed muskie and seemed to them to die […] (p. 488)
- The 0005 a.m. Canadian partiers unsuccessfully seeking dog-related vengeance:
Gately, canted way over to the side, methodically beats his Nuck’s shaggy head against the windshield so hard that spidered stars are appearing in the shatterproof glass until something in the head gives with a sort of liquid crunch […]. Gately begins stomping on the supine face of the Nuck with the heel of his good foot as if he were killing cockroaches. […] the black ladies continue stomping the inert Nuck. You can hear Emil Minty and Wade McDade exhorting Yolanda W. to use the spike heel. […] ‘I think there’s two of them, like, desisted […]. There’s one of their shoes in one of them’s fucking eye.’ (pp. 614-616)
Then there’s some more incidental-type deaths: Lucien’s brother dispatched by the A.F.R.; Bruce Green’s mom, dead of a heart attack brought on my the Christmas macadamia prank; Lenz’s many feline, canine, and rodentine victims; the woman who died of the “seizure” (by Poor Tony) of her artificial heart; the family that died of successive attempts at CPR after an initial Nestle Quik poisoning; maybe Poor Tony himself dying in a seizure (it would obviously be fitting), though I did not read his seizure conclusively as a death; and perhaps we should include Orin’s suffocated roaches, which have made their incessant return in Gately’s active foot stomping.
The detail that DFW uses to capture the gruesomeness of these deaths is simply unbelievable, and I can hardly believe we’ve all been able to read them and still laugh or be impressed. Obviously, there is what many refer to simply as “dark humor” and comedic effect, here, but all the same, dark humor does not require the crunchings and splatterings and sprayings in all their Tarantinoesque glory. And there is definitely horror mixed in, a horror I try to recapitulate by repeating parts of these passages at some length.
Clearly it is not the fact of death that is doing the work here, or even the manner of death specifically. An accidental suffocation, a bad bundle, a couple suicides, a beating death – these are not such unusual occurrences (only Lucien’s death is clearly placed in the seriously unusual category). And for all the pages of the book, these are not such a huge amount of recounted deaths.
Then what is the work being done by these scenes? I’m a bit baffled. One thing that seems to shine through is a sort of scorn or contempt that DFW has for death. Part of scorn is an ability to deride, to empty of meaning or consideration. That is, to describe these deaths in such a manner, sometimes bordering on the cartoonish but for the most part described with a hyper-intense realism, is to eliminate (“elemonade”) its significance, to drive death from an all-consuming metaphysical concern to a disgusting biological fact that should be rejected if only because it is humiliating. And death, we are reminded throughout, is not the worst possible thing that can happen, at least according to some of the Ennet House Residents, e.g. Kate Gompert, and later also Geoffrey Day, whose “large dark billowing shape” is “the most horrible feeling I have ever imagined, much less felt. There is no possible way death can feel as bad” (pp. 649-650).
I’m not sure I can believe this, though. If it were just a matter of scorning death, would we really be forced to immure ourselves in the skin-crawling details? And, some of the deaths are doubtless chock full of conceptual significance. JOI’s head in the microwave reminds us of Otis P. Lord’s who-knows-how-permanently-attached monitor as well as the skull-less child in a box described by Lenz; Lucien’s aphonic condition (and achievement of a meta-language once released from his mortal coil) recalls Hal’s Year of Glad difficulties; etc. Ideas here, people – please.
And now, some further reflections on a comparably death-imbued text which might help us understand IJ; I’ll treat it as a foil, for the sole purpose of being able to give you a “foiler alert.”
Thinking about death has reminded me of Annie Dillard’s first novel, entitled The Living (1992). The book covers a couple generations of folks circa 1855-1895 in the Pacific Northwest, specifically the Puget Sound region. The tile is ironic, since pretty much everyone dies in one or another horrible accident or sickness, or the occasional violent act, and this happens with a kind of clockwork regularity.
The overwhelming sense one gets from the book is just how hard life was in that very rugged geography; for instance, one of the recurring struggles/failures in the book is to find a railway route that can get through the mountains, and thus make possible a viable port (and where the port is built will determine who lives and who dies in that fragile economy). There are no “heroes” in the novel, with the possible exception of the region itself, which looms and evokes and threatens and denies and gives plenty, according to its fortunous will. Here’s what Dillard herself remarked in one interview:
So you read about these people so vivid to themselves who are right on the cutting edge of the present looking at the clouds changing overhead, and we read this now in 1992 instead of 1882 when most of the action takes place, knowing that all these people are dead. And knowing therefore that we will be just as dead.
Yikes, Ms. Dillard! Tell it like it is, why don’t you? For her, the incessant feeling of being “on the cusp” of something new co-exists with the human renewal of generations, the biological recapitulation of our dreams and desires, all of which add up to very little, in the end. Because we will be “just as dead.”
There’s no comparison between The Living and IJ in terms of death – The Living wins hands down as a book that is about death. But the deaths are handled so differently – and not because Dillard underthematizes or romanticizes them, au contraire. In IJ, the deaths are handled, I don’t know, a bit callously, a bit over-the-top gruesomely, always for the sake of a joke or a point. But never just, well, dying. And dying is what people do, right?
So to return to the end of my reply to Paul (and his wife, though why she would care what I think is an entirely different question), I think one should never avoid a book because people die, even if they die horribly. Most of us do, after all. But I think I can understand an inability to appreciate or even withstand the scorn with which DFW treats death.