Turn That Frown Upside Down With Happy Slippers
At only 87 pages in, I’ve hardly scratched the surface of David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’, but it’s so dense, I feel I can only do it justice by taking a page or two at a time. Even so, there is something to write about on every page. The razor-sharp observation of minutiae is staggering. The multitude of crazed and crackpot characters ping off the page, and the prose is, well, nothing short of dazzling.
I’ve just been introduced to Tiny Ewell. It is the year of the Depend Undergarment (In the near-future setting of the novel, even time is sponsored), and Ewell, accompanied by a rehabilitative staff member, is in a taxi taking him to the Marine hospital complex after a short stint in the detox unit. His shoes had finally been returned to him after his first 24 alcohol-free hours had him bashing the walls and floor with the heel of his shoe to stop the DT-induced plague of rodents pouring out of the walls and electrical sockets. Ewell’s roommate spends the entire day, every day sitting in a blue plastic chair, staring through glasses with only one lens with rapt attention at the vents in the air conditioning system as he randomly changes the settings. His only movements are the rise, fall and tap of his cigarette, and ‘the little smiles and grimaces of a person who’s being thoroughly entertained’.
Like his roommate before him, Ewell’s shoes have been substituted for a dose of Librium and a pair of Happy Slippers:
They gave him slippers of green foam-rubber with smiley faces on the tops. The detox’s in-patients are encouraged to call these Happy Slippers. The staff refer to the footwear in private as ‘pisscatchers’.
‘Happy Slippers’ made me catch my breath. Like the ‘Happy Meal’, the name manages to convey not only the ubiquitous candy-coating of rubbish via branding, but the patronising belief that we, the people, are too stupid to see through it. Alas, If the popularity of the ‘Happy Meal’ is anything to go by, we are – or maybe it’s that we choose to be hoodwinked because the truth is too ugly. In contrast, the staff name for the slippers, ‘pisscatchers’ gives a damning indication of the grim reality of their working environment, and shows the way that language can be used as resistance at grass-roots level.
In two brief sentences, DFW paints a picture of contemporary American culture that is frighteningly accurate. ‘Infinite Jest’ is simply breath-taking.