Given that itâ€™s been far too long since I cracked open this book, it was a little tough to swallow the jarring style that David Foster Wallace has, but, as I said in past reviews, once you spend time with it, itâ€™s bizarrely logical and terribly easy in its own way. Here, for the section that Iâ€™m reading, we get two incredibly detailed character insights; one is of Hal, aged seventeen and obsessed with secrecy, and the second is of a new character, Don Gately, whose own obsession mirrors Halâ€™s, but in an entirely separate context.
YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT
I really wish that I had taken the time to draw out or mark down the titles of the years given and attempt to reconstruct what order they are, since this is a different year than when we first met Hal Incandenza. (Itâ€™s also not in first-person, too.) But Iâ€™m getting the sense that, like a lot of things in our world right now, things in this world are named after corporate entities and brands, and thatâ€™s simply the way they are differentiated. So, it wouldnâ€™t be something like 2011. Weâ€™d always refer to it as the Year Of [Whatever Title or Brand Sponsored This Particular Bit of the Calendar]. This may be absurd to some of you, but think about how much branding takes place already. Gone are the days when one could refer to arenas and large venues by their actual names. Now itâ€™s the Blockbuster Pavillion. Or the Gibson Amphitheatre. Or whatever soulless, history-less name can be tacked on by some shitty corporation to constantly deny us the chance to imagine anything else but their product. (Which, if I may make an aside, is one of the many things, but probably one of the worst things about the culture of advertising and the way that capitalistic businesses operate. Itâ€™s something thatâ€™s strange to think about when we realize how pervasive and invasive advertising has become in our lives, from movie theaters to the subway to magazines and to billboards and to almost every public and private space that we can imagine. We donâ€™t get a choice about it, either, aside from the choice to avoid. And that avoidance can sometimes seem completely impossible. No going to the movies or the grocery store or seeing a concert or buying magazines or watching television and the list just goes on and on. We donâ€™t get a choice about seeing advertisements in our lives unless we avoid doing most of what actually makes up our lives. Hmmph.)
Iâ€™m getting the strong feeling that so much of this book (and DFW in general) deals with obsession, as we bounce from one character to another who experiences this sort of intensive compulsive desire to obsess about one specific thing. In this case, seventeen-year-old Hal Incandenza is obsessed with privacy, and with that obsession comes the ridiculous and over-the-top method in which Hal smokes pot in a way that will allow no one (and that is meant literally) to know that he is high.
I understand that desire for privacy and I think that now that Iâ€™ve spilled some of my ~deepest darkest secrets~ to the entirety of the Internet, read by hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of people, that desire has gotten a bit stronger. I think that itâ€™s also steeped in my own person tradition of KEEP EVERYTHING TO MYSELF that my lovely parents taught me when I was just a wee child, but the very concept of privacy is a kind of out-there notion these days anyway. I spoke about my own personal quest to keep my alcoholism a secret from my friends, peers, teachers, and my family, and while I never quite went to the lengths that Hal Incandenza does here, I at least understand the desire to do so.
But thatâ€™s the thing about why DFWâ€™s style in this book works so well for what heâ€™s writing about. This particular â€œchapterâ€ also is the first to have a large bulk of footnotes, denoting the various names and types of recreational and hardcore drugs that he namedrops and providing even more context to some of the periphery information that he gives us. I found it interesting that in a great deal of these footnotes for this and the next section, DFW does this thing where he note only gives more information on the term or detail that he provides, but he speaks about the other characters involved as if this is a non-fictional narrative. He details out what some of the other people in the Academy that Hal knows are taking, what drugs they prefer, and the whole thing gives this such a unique air of seriousness and validity to it all.
What I adore most is how much description that DFW gives towards explaining to us the Lungâ€™s Pump Room, where Hal (and only during months when the pumps are not working) makes his epic journey in order to blow smoke into the proper exhaust vent so that the smell and smoke exits â€œthrough a grilleâ€™d hole on the west side of the West Courts, a threaded hole, with a flange, where brisk white-suited ATHSCME guys will attach some of the Lungâ€™s arterial pneumatic tubing at some point soon when Schitt et al. on Staff decide the real weather has moved past enduring for outdoor tennis.â€
This is also a penetrative look into how drugs can permeate into the culture of a school atmosphere as they do at E.T.A. My own personal experience begins and ends with that year or so of heavy drinking my junior year of high school, just after Iâ€™d ran away from home, but I have an empathetic sense towards what DFW describes here. I also know how utterly believable this is, given that I went to Cal State Long Beach and was housed with a lot of valedictorians like myself, and quite a number of students who were in intensive, time-involved programs. And I saw how all of them (and myself, at one time) sort of gravitated to whatever our own â€œdrugsâ€ were. Hell, even for me, after Iâ€™d already claimed the edge in high school, I found things that gave me a comforted routine during the more stressfully-regimented moments of my schooling. (Editorâ€™s Note: It was food. And lots of it. I think it still sort of is. Oh, fuck, Iâ€™m eating hummus and wheat crackers while Iâ€™m writing this. Ooops.)
But out of everything Iâ€™ve just praised, I have to say this: This is some damn fine character building. It takes time and it requires a patient mind to plow through this, but Iâ€™m a fan of literature that rewards you. I suppose that exact thing applies to television, and itâ€™s why shows like Rubicon or LOST or Fringe are so uniquely appealing to me. You have to take the time to devote yourself to allowing someone else to build this world for you, to show you the characters and their flaws and failures and idiosyncrasies and their power and joy and obsession, and if you stick with it, itâ€™ll all (hopefully) make some sense. That type of writing and storytelling always seems written with an inherent respect for the reader. And I guess I just want to feel respected in that regard.
AUTUMN — YEAR OF DAIRY PRODUCTS FROM THE AMERICAN HEARTLAND
Man, that is such an irritating (but entirely believable) name.
Don Gatelyâ€™s story is about obsession as well, and while it does involve drugs, I think those two ideas are all that they share in common.
Don Gately is a thief. Not only a pesudo-professional, but a necessary one, as DFW draws this out as some sort of intrinsic need that his own moral intrigue seems to seek out:
But he was a gifted burglar, when he burgled — though the size of a young dinosaur, with a massive and almost perfectly square head he used to amuse his friends when drunk by letting them open and close elevator doors on, he was, at his professional zenith, smart, sneaky, quiet, quick, possessed of good taste and reliable transportation — with a kind of ferocious jolliness in his attitude toward his livelihood.
And I like that these things are mutually exclusive. Being an addict does not mean that Gately isnâ€™t happy. Despite that what he does to the Assistant D.A. and to the unnamed homeowner later and how utterly fucked up it is, Gately operates under these personal codes of joyous revenge. Iâ€™m not saying that itâ€™s something to be stoked about, but, like I said earlier, this is a chance for DFW to build these characters for us and Iâ€™m glad he takes the time to do so. In fact, itâ€™s because DFW takes the time to explain to us Gatelyâ€™s own Revenge-Is-Tastier-Chilled philosophy that we get the context for why he suddenly decided to re-evaluate his actions as a thief.
Gately heads out to Brookline, a town outside of Boston, to find what he thinks is the perfect house to ransack in his own special way. (Again, the details that DFW provides about the wiring and security systems seem so meticulously researched that I donâ€™t even question their validity. He seems like the kind of author to find out exactly what sort of cable the SentryCo alarm system would feed on.) It seems rather obvious to Gately and his associate (whose name literally only exists in the footnotes, which is a stroke of hilarious genius if you ask me) that no one is home: no cars, an unlit road, bad wiring, no patrol route, thick brush. All in all, the perfect hit, right?
Except there is someone home and, while this man is unnamed, it brings up a lot of questions for me that have absolutely nothing to do with the robbery. DFW has been dropping hints and outright references to some sort resistance or political conflict between Canada and O.N.A.N., all of which I only loosely sort of understand as both between them and some sort of separatist, civil war thing. Part of the experience of reading this book is figuring out what all these little things mean, since DFW does not come out and spell everything out for us, and this imagined world is only sort of like our own. So when Gately comes across this man who, combined with the homeownerâ€™s cold and his QuÃ©becois accent, he apparently cannot understand, he ties him up and gags him, despite the man begging not to. And I donâ€™t think this was an issue of Gately being heinous and rude just to spite him, but DFW makes it sound like he literally did not understand what the man said. He says the numbers to the safe in French. Can we assume everything he said is in French?
Thatâ€™s just a smaller issue. What I care about is DFWâ€™s giant knowledge drop of this:
And the bound, wheezing, acetate-clad Canadian — the right-hand man to probably the most infamous anti-O.N.A.N. Organizer north of the Great Concavity, the lieutenant and trouble-shooting trusted adviser who selfelessly volunteered to move with his family to the savagely American area of metro Boston to act as liaison between and general leash-holder for the half-dozen or so malevolent and mutually antagonistic groups of QuÃ©becer Separatists and Albertan ultra-rightists united only in their fanatical conviction that the U.S.A.â€™s Experialistic â€˜giftâ€™ or â€˜returnâ€™ of the so-calledly â€˜Reconfiguredâ€™ Great Convexity to its northern neighbor and O.N.A.N. ally constititued an intolerable blow to Canadian sovereignty, honor, and hygieneâ€¦.
So, in shortâ€¦.
So what the hell does all of this mean? What is the Great Concavity? Convexity? Why are there Canadian Separatists? DONâ€™T ANSWER ANY OF THIS, FYI.
Knowing all this, now I sort of understand why this even would have given Gately pause to reconsider his life of thievery. By bounding up that man with that terrible cold, Gately kills him, since he canâ€™t breathe and he literally tears ligaments in his ribs trying to breathe.
DFW reminds us that through all this, the A.D.A. that Gately pranked with his clever and disgusting toothbrush trick has been doing some waiting of his own. Is this what gets Gately caught?
Iâ€™ll have to read on to find out.