Don’t Panic! Everything is under Control.
What started out as a dauntingly hefty cube of a book has, on reading, transformed into the promise of a monumental masterpiece that continually surprises. ‘Infinite Jest’ has already spilled so many new characters out of its pages that it’s hard to keep a grip on who is who. The scope and ambition of the novel seem to be, well, infinite, yet the constricting presence of control in its many guises is palpable at every turn. On the one hand, the writing is exuberant and brilliantly evocative – ‘My chest bumps like a dryer with shoes in it’, yet on every claustrophobic page, characters grapple with their own unique flavour of control freakery, whether that be over their emotions, addictions, contamination anxiety or leisure-time scheduling.
When we first encounter Hal Incandenza’s soup can alphabetizing mother – or ‘the Moms’ as he calls her -she is hysterical over the potential hazard of her son eating a piece of unidentified mold he’d discovered in the basement. Her response is equal to one you’d expect in the wake of a car crash. Death is clearly imminent. Contamination has occurred. Harmful or benign, the damage has been done. The threat of contamination and it’s potential for damage is as real and harrowing as actual trauma itself. And yet within that display of hysteria, there are still control mechanisms in place, the regulation of her physical movements running in perfect concentric circles, serve to keep planet ‘Moms’ spinning in her orbit, even while she voices her hysteria.
God! Help! My son ate this! Help! she kept yelling, running a tight pattern just inside the square of string; and my brother Orin remembers noting how even in hysterical trauma her flight-lines were plumb, her footprints Native-American-straight, her turns, inside the ideogram of string, crisp and martial, crying ‘My son ate this! Help! and lapping me twice before memory recedes’.
Then we meet Erdedy, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a more keenly observed description of someone’s management of addiction. It is often assumed that addicts are all out of control. Their behaviour demonstrates weakness and an inability to resist their appetites even though they may be self-destructive. In fact, managing addiction demands a rigorous structure of rules and rituals that must not only be well-observed, but to a tight deadline, in order to keep the well-oiled machine from turning into a damage-wreaking monster.
While waiting for his drugs to arrive, Erdedy’s relentless angst and agitation fills page after page, and is utterly exhausting to read.
He considered getting up to check the colour of the bong he’d used but decided that obsessive checking and convulsive movements could compromise the atmosphere of casual calm he needed to maintain while he waited… He was also hesitant to get up and check the colour of his bong because he would have to pass right by the telephone console to get to the kitchen, and he didn’t want to be tempted to call the woman who’d said she would come again because he felt creepy about bothering her about something he’d represented as so casual, and was afraid that several audio hang-ups on her answering device would look even creepier, and also he felt anxious about maybe tying up the line at just the moment when she called, as she certainly would.
Wallace also captures with clarity that Erdedy has reached a point where he no longer experiences any enjoyment from his behaviour. It is like an itch that needs to be scratched rather than an indulgence. Buying new equipment each time has now become part of the ritual, because as each session will be the last, all the trappings of substance use must be removed afterwards.
He decided to get Call Waiting added to his audio phone service for a nominal extra charge, then remembered that since this was positively the last time he would or even could indulge what Randi, with an i, had called an addiction every bit as rapacious as pure alcoholism, there would be no real need for Call Waiting, since a situation like the present one could never arise again….He began to grow disgusted with himself for waiting so anxiously for the promised arrival of something that had stopped being fun anyway
To try to take back control, each time he succumbs, he uses intensely in the hope and conviction that it will be the last time, and that the experience will be so uncomfortable that he will not be able to face another.
he’d make it a mission, treating it like a penance and behaviour-modification regimen all at once…. He’d cure himself by excess.
If only it were that easy.