Figurant / Revenant (The Walk-On of James O. Incandenza, Part II)
Part I of this two-part post was, in my view, a sort of failure due to the intrusion of Poetry. In a typical IJ-type-coincidence, Daryl near-simultaneously put up a very interesting reflection on Poetry that talks about his ambivalent experiences with the genre, along with this choice bit from DFW:
In the short story “Little Expressionless Animals,” Wallace has a character say of poetry that “It beats around bushes. Even when I like it, it’s nothing more than a really oblique way of saying the obvious.” The person that character is talking to replies, “But consider how very, very few of us have the equipment to deal with the obvious.”
I typically have a different way of managing the obvious – to complexify it beyond imagination, so that the original obviousness is obscured. With that in mind, I return to the wraith’s appearance, truly one of the most revealing and long-awaited passages in the novel. And what I have to say here will, I hope, all be perfectly obvious.
At the conclusion of The Walk-On of James O. Incandenza, Part I, I was fascinated that the J.O.I. wraith, the revenant that has haunted the entire book, has identified himself as a figurant. The two terms are related in an interesting way. To quote from myself there: “Yet [the J.O.I.-wraith] identifies himself as a figurant, a walk-on character, a “fractional actor” (p. 835), continually obscured and yet now able to be seen through the clarifying gaze of the veil.” A figurant, as J.O.I. explains to Gately, is a non-speaking part in a balletic performance. (Gately’s own balletic moves in his Nuck-bashing performance have been well-documented in discussion of the Danse Macabre.) In film, which is much more J.O.I.’s concern, a figurant is a bit of “human scenery,” which “could be seen (but not heard) in most pieces of filmic entertainment” (834). Of course, J.O.I. has literally been placed in this “non-speaking” role by DFW, at least until now. However, J.O.I. also gets this wrong – while he has been a non-speaker, he has never been merely a bit of scenery, for the ghost has “hovered” over nearly every scene, constantly in our thoughts, and presumably the key to a number of mysteries.
This timely figurant-like self-identification helps us to consider a long-standing issue: ‘Whatever the heck was wrong with J.O.I. in the first place to make him stick his head in a microwave?’ It will also raise the questions: ‘Why is Hal aphonic in the Year of Glad?’ and ‘What exactly is the Entertainment?’
And either the wraith is saying or Gately is realizing that you can’t appreciate the dramatic pathos of a figurant until you realize how completely trapped and encaged he is in his mute peripheral status […]. No way for a figurant to win. No possible voice or locus for the encaged figurant. (p. 835)
1. Why Did JOI Put His Head in the Microwave?
Just imagine the horror of spending your whole itinerant lonely Southwest and West Coast boyhood trying unsuccessfully to convince your father that you even existed, to do something well enough to be heard and seen but not so well that you become just a screen for his own (the Dad’s) projections of his own failure and self-loathing, failing ever to be really seen, gesturing wildly through the distilled haze, so that in adulthood you still carried the moist flabby weight of your failure ever to make him hear you really speak, carried it through the animate years on your increasingly slumped shoulders… (p. 838)
We are directed by the text to return here to the well-regarded “Brando scene,” in which a young J.O.I. is a mute, peripheral witness to his father’s increasingly drunken monologue (pp. 157-169). J.O.I.’s father recounts his own momentary lapse – a carelessness regarding the body – that led him to a full frontal assault on the tennis court surface that destroyed his knees. He laments that his own generation has been reduced to figurants for the young. “We’re so present it’s ceased to mean. We’re environmental. Furniture of the world. […] Jim, I’m telling you you cannot imagine my absence” (p. 168; cf. Bob Death’s “fish in the water” joke, p. 445).
We as readers are now being pressed by the historical weight of generations of figurants, sons unseen by their fathers (women mentioned hardly at all, in this narrative chain), imposing on their own sons a vision-beyond-vision in which they can see, but never see enough. J.O.I.’s drunken father explains, “I’m so sorry, Jim. You don’t deserve to see me like this. I’m so scared, Jim. I’m so scared of dying without ever being really seen […]. Can you see I was giving it all I had? That I was in there, out there in the heat, listening, webbed with nerves? A self that touches all edges” (p. 168).
J.O.I.’s films attempt, he tells us, to portray a world without figurants, without any walk-on parts at all, to give due respect to all parts of the story. But in doing so, he (the director) is never himself seen, and thus continues to feel the open, gaping wound in his soul that appears so viscerally in the image of his father’s bloodied knees and destroyed body, “dragged forward out of the arena like a boneless Christ” (p. 169).
One can only experience the cage of the figurant, though, if one is also, already, and always “in there.” Each generation, therefore, remains a Subject of its own Story; each self must constitute itself out of its tragic and horrid circumstances. We should think, here, about the continuation between the legacy of the Incandenzas, who exist whether they like it or not, and the need to occur that is detailed by Schtitt. We may therefore see J.O.I.’s microwave incident as attributable to the eternal and insoluble conflict between a self that occurs only to itself and the cage that is created by an external world that marginalizes each and every potential actor.
See? All perfectly obvious.
2. Why is Hal aphonic in the Year of Glad?
A heretofore dawning suspicion is confirmed – Hal’s aphonia is not simply produced by some DMZ-related event immediately preceding his University of Arizona interview, but is a longstanding and developing condition linked to his emptiness. (There’s a case to be made that it is linked to his various withdrawal symptoms, too, but I’ll leave that aside.) Though we have seen snatches of a visible self in Hal, he is primarily presented as withdrawn, silent, and impersonal. J.O.I.’s great fear was producing another offspring such as he had been made:
that your very own child had himself become blank, inbent, silent, frightening, mute. I.e. that his son had become what he (the wraith) had feared as a child he (the wraith) was. […] the son had become a steadily more and more hidden boy, toward the wraith’s life’s end; and no one else in the wraith and boy’s nuclear family would see or acknowledge this, the fact that the graceful and marvelous boy was disappearing right before their eyes. They looked but did not see his invisibility. (p. 838)
All of J.O.I.’s attempts to show the boy that he was seen, that he did not have to be invisible, were for naught. Recall his masquerade as professional conversationalist (pp. 27-31), unable to break through the already well-fortified defenses of the young Hal, who is neither fooled by the impersonation nor interested in pressing a further point. Unable to identify any need that he might have for his father. Hal’s “marvelous” abilities – an eidetic linguistic memory and a tremendous athletic presence – were enough for him to achieve and master whatever obstacles confronted him, and thus he was unable to come out of himself, to expose any need or vulnerability. He’s “in there,” all right. The problem is how to get Out.
Subsequent (page-wise, anyway) to the wraith scene, we see Hal and Orth “The Darkness” Stice in an early morning interface, while Stice is in fact interfacing more intimately with a frozen window to which a large portion of his forehead has become attached. After a comic attempt to remove Stice physically, in which his flesh stretched “half a meter long extended from his head to the window,” exposing Stice’s “real face” (p. 871), Hal goes for assistance to be found in the team of Kenkle and Brandt, one Submoronic, the other with a doctorate in low-temperature physics. An unlikely pair! Kenkle points out the disjoint between Hal’s expression – one of hilarity and then, when Hal attempts to get it under control, merely “mirthful” (p. 875f) – and his internal experience. This is the same difficulty he had will have in the Arizona interview, in which his attempts to speak are radically disjointed from his actual behaviors.
Hal is indeed a bit perturbed by this, and in his attempt at self-examination becomes aware that he, now, has a ghost-like countenance.
I went forward into the really wet mopped area and tried to make out my face’s expression in the east window. […] I looked sketchy and faint to myself, tentative and ghostly against all that blazing white. (p. 876)
The oddity of this first-person narration (beginning on pp. 851-854 and continuing on pp. 864-876) is something I am not yet prepared to speculate upon. In any case, we have here a nice resolution of Schtitt’s attribution of revenant-status to Hal.
3. What exactly is the Entertainment?
Again, this is “perfectly obvious.” I say that ironically. Here is J.O.I.’s explanation:
Something the boy would love enough to induce him to open his mouth and come out – even if it was only to ask for more. […] Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life. A magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy […]. To bring him ‘out of himself,’ as they say. (p. 839)
If any of the existing descriptions of the Entertainment – for instance, according to Molly Notkin during her technical interview, a lethally powerful monologue of a veiled but nude and fakely pregnant Madame Psychosis explaining that Death is always female (p. 788) – are true, this cannot truly be an attempt to “entertain” above all. But we have little reason to take Molly at her word. And ultimately, we have only a partial reason to take the wraith at its word. For just because it is a netherworld Walk-On, does not mean that it is a shining light of God’s own truth inserting itself into a world of veils and mystery.
I wonder: will someone (someone we know, that is) actually view the Entertainment before IJ is concluded? I’m guessing they will, and I’m further guessing that this viewer will be Hal. And to go a bit further, I’m guessing Hal will do this with DMZ in his system. And he’ll do it soon. He’ll have to. But I worry that it will do little to help him get Out.