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September 15, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

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.


Leave a Comment
  1. tom collins / Sep 15 2009 11:34 pm

    Thank you for part two of “the walk-on.” There was a lot of expectation built up with your three questions from part one of “the walk-on.” 1) why the micro-wave incident? 2) why is Hal aphonic? and 3) What exactly is the Entertainment.
    “And what I have to say here will, I hope, all be perfectly obvious” something between irony and post-irony one would suppose.

    My thank-you was perfectly sincere! As is the expression of the impatient expectation of reading answers to these three questions. Now that the comments have begun, it’s difficult not to feel a little let down, almost like infinite detox, and perhaps Gerry Canavan, or maybe even Avery!
    It’s slightly unsettling that you never confront the possibility that these questions don’t have answers. That there is no readable or writable motivation to the microwave incident. I would say the same thing to you here, in 2009, that Wallace said w/r/to Wittgenstein’s mistress in 1998: there’s not much explaining to be done: the cross-over does its own work, and weakens the more we give in to the temptation of seeking out motivation.
    In short, I find your anwers pure speculative, somewhere on the spectrum between what can be dismissed and the sublimest results imaginable.
    I hope some day you’ll return to the frequent references to Derrida, which should aggravate your case, as they say in that other language. The revenant, the figurant, and the infinite lateral shift of the signifier! I predict it will give you nightmares on the order of the return of the ghost! But I would like, and kindly request, that you speculate some more on the quite negative, if not violently hateful, reception of Derrida’s strange work on the ghost by JOI.
    A last parting shot: now that’s it’s written, don’t you feel that the third question has been given rather short shrift?
    I see no reason to conclude this comment. Its whole drift is that it would be stupid to conclude. Thanks again, in all sincerity.

    • infinitetasks / Sep 17 2009 8:28 am

      Thanks, Tom, but I admit to being doubly confused by your self-attributed sincerity. I’m confused because you point out that you are let down by this post, both because I try too hard to give answers to internal textual issues (pure speculation), yet also because I don’t give enough shrift to the third question, the nature of the Entertainment. Well, I agree with you on the latter, but I don’t quite see how I can satisfy you on both counts. Do you want more or less?

      Next, are you sincere in your “hope” that I return to Derrida to “aggravate” my case? I can’t see why. Here’s what you say about IJ readers on your own blog:

      Wallace’s legacy is perhaps narrower than any of us can imagine today. I would say, today, that it is indeed a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, if that were not the title of another piece of literature written by his friend Dave Eggers. The audience for Wallace, the people who can identify with him, are pretty bland as a sociological category. He didn’t live through a war, he endured no racial or sexual prejudice, and he spent his childhood a few miles away from ours in Catlin. The people who read Wallace are people who have upstairs what I’ll call an educated American mind, choked with jargon and references to French philosophers and critics, and who come out of this education with a mound of prattle and pretention: what on this blog, and the other related family blogs, is regularly referred to as either bullshit or horseshit. That’s his audience. His readership. People who have been insanely well-educated, and who whine nevertheless, and seem to those with less education to be of questionable maturity.

      So far as I can tell, either your appreciation of my work on this blog is feigned, or your criticism of IJ readers.

  2. Dan Summers / Sep 17 2009 9:35 am

    I have an odd psychological affinity for the idea of figurants. I don’t know how I stumbled upon it, what it means about me, etc, but apparently I’m going to share.

    At some random moment or another during a play or movie or similar performance, I sort of noticed all the non-principal actors on stage (or screen). It must have been some kind of period piece, because I imagined that all of those people were the real people who lived at that time, and whose lives briefly intersected with the action of the performance, but were otherwise unaffected by it, and went about their lives. And somehow, I came to the idea that for those random real people who had been alive at the time, there they were again, alive and wandering around the stage.

    This all led to the happy idea that I’d like to be the guy wandering around in the background for future period pieces that are set in the time that I was alive. My own particular life hasn’t been of the kind that would make for an especially interesting movie, but who knows how many other movies I’ve wandered through? (Lord knows I’ve been in enough places where historic things were happening all around me, just not to me.) I find some very odd kind of comfort in thinking that, in some future play or movie or what have you, some extra will be wandering around in the background while the action is going on, and he’ll be playing me. And I’ll be alive again, right there on stage, so long as the performance goes on.

    Weird, I know. But it makes me happy, and gives me a unique, special spin on the afterlife.

    • infinitetasks / Sep 17 2009 9:36 pm

      I like the thinking! My cousin was one of the original cast members of The Laramie Project, and since the cast was written into the script, when the play was picked up by other theater companies and universities, he was a “part,” and someone would play him. I always thought that was cool.

  3. itzadrag / Sep 18 2009 6:18 pm

    but who knows how many other movies I’ve wandered through?

    Dan, I absolutely LOVE this notion. In a population of ~6bil, we cannot all be limelight characters; some of us are the context within which some other heroic epic takes center stage. But context is the pretext for memory-formation, neuro-plastically speaking, and for all learning. And all the supporting characters, &c, &tc.

    And the traditional (Greek origin) chorus provides critical commentary, which critique is the solvent for all our floating notions, keeping them in creative flux so they might crystallize out again, differentially over time and variant conditions. I find this an apt view our our summer together, in this social chorus, in this open critique and investigation, in all these different readings.

    I, for one, am not an overtrained, overindulged literary seal (see above comment), and am beyond grateful for the brief summer sojourn in this blog B&B. Thanks for the temporary lodgings, and the opportunity to sign the guest book.

  4. itzadrag / Sep 18 2009 6:21 pm


    Hope your brother is MUCH recovered,IT.

  5. infinitetasks / Sep 19 2009 9:54 am

    Thanks, Itza! I never knew quite how much fun it would be to be part of the critical chorus. If I had been singing alone, who knows how flat the notes would have sounded? We’re all temporary lodgers in the shelters we build (uh oh, mixing metaphors, again), since we can reside in them only so long as there are others present in them, too. In that way, you are no more of a figurant than I.

    And thanks, my bro is doing well, out of the hospital surprisingly quickly. I appreciate the thoughts!

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