Mark Reads ‘Infinite Jest’: pp 49-60

Given that it’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, it’s bizarrely logical and terribly easy in its own way. Here, for the section that I’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 Hal’s, but in an entirely separate context.

Shall we?


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. (It’s also not in first-person, too.) But I’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 that’s simply the way they are differentiated. So, it wouldn’t be something like 2011. We’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 it’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. It’s something that’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 don’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 don’t get a choice about seeing advertisements in our lives unless we avoid doing most of what actually makes up our lives. Hmmph.)

I’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 I’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 it’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 that’s the thing about why DFW’s style in this book works so well for what he’s writing about. This particular “chapter” 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 Lung’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 “through a grille’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 Lung’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.”

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 I’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 “drugs” were. Hell, even for me, after I’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. (Editor’s Note: It was food. And lots of it. I think it still sort of is. Oh, fuck, I’m eating hummus and wheat crackers while I’m writing this. Ooops.)

But out of everything I’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 I’m a fan of literature that rewards you. I suppose that exact thing applies to television, and it’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, it’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.


Man, that is such an irritating (but entirely believable) name.

Don Gately’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 isn’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. I’m not saying that it’s something to be stoked about, but, like I said earlier, this is a chance for DFW to build these characters for us and I’m glad he takes the time to do so. In fact, it’s because DFW takes the time to explain to us Gately’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 don’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 homeowner’s cold and his Québecois accent, he apparently cannot understand, he ties him up and gags him, despite the man begging not to. And I don’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?

That’s just a smaller issue. What I care about is DFW’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 Québecer Separatists and Albertan ultra-rightists united only in their fanatical conviction that the U.S.A.’s Experialistic ‘gift’ or ‘return’ of the so-calledly ‘Reconfigured’ Great Convexity to its northern neighbor and O.N.A.N. ally constititued an intolerable blow to Canadian sovereignty, honor, and hygiene….

So, in short….


So what the hell does all of this mean? What is the Great Concavity? Convexity? Why are there Canadian Separatists? DON’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 can’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?

I’ll have to read on to find out.

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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21 Responses to Mark Reads ‘Infinite Jest’: pp 49-60

  1. Andrea says:

    I am so glad you are picking this back up! Have patience, it will all be explained in the end. Here is some non-spoilery info for you (Do NOT read the "Quebec sovereignty movement in fiction" section, obvs):
    It will help when characters start referencing actual and fictional history later.

    • Pip_Harper says:

      TBH, I wouldn't advise Mark to read that article, or anything that would help his understanding of stuff in the book that he really isn't expected to know yet – Wallace doesn't want you to understand yet or he would have explained, so it seems silly to me to preempt him. As you say, all will be explained by the end, and part of the joy of the novel is gradually working things out on your own and putting together all the hints.

  2. Pip_Harper says:

    I love this book. I can't really think of anything of note to say other than how much I'm enjoying reading about you reading what I read and fell in love with.

  3. Emily Crnk says:

    So excited! I finally got my library copy of this book after being on the waiting list for months, and now I can make an attempt at it! I'm about 25 pages in, and already enjoying it.

  4. monkeybutter says:

    This is as far as I read a few months ago! And yet I still have a vivid image in my mind of Don Gately's antics. Toothbrush up the butt. Talk about an assault on honor and hygiene. I really hope that comes back, too. Not that I hate Gately or wish him ill (he seems to be fucked up enough on his own), but I'd like to see more of him. He seems promising.

    I loved the vague background DFW dropped in that section, too. I have no idea what's going on, but I love separatists, and I'm glad to see that they're real and a hint of why they're pissed off. I was pleasantly surprised by the far-right Albertans, but it made me wonder if there are Texan separatists. There would have to be, right? Unless there is no Texas. My heart's palpitating.

    As for the coroporate sponsorship thing, I hate it too. Aside from the ridiculous onslaught of brands, I have trouble associating them with places. There's no emotional connection. It's even worse when you're talking about arenas paid for with public money. I was soooo happy that the Lerners couldn't find a buyer for the naming rights to Nationals Park, and I don't even like baseball.

  5. pennylane27 says:


    That was my reaction too.

    I did start writing down the names of the years and what happens in each to try to build a chronology, but I can’t remember where I put it! I need to find it.

  6. xpanasonicyouthx says:

    True, and while I did end up looking up some of what is there after I read this section, I'm hoping to learn most of it through the context of the book. Thanks though!

  7. TreasureCat says:

    Suffocation is literally one of my biggest fears and reading the section about the man dying because he couldnt breathe almost made me have a panic attack. DFW's writing is unbelievably detailed and descriptive in the most fantastic way, to the point where it made me feel like I couldnt breathe.
    Also, I happen to have an exam on drugs and drug dependency coming up soon, so it pleases me that this book is like background reading and revision all at the same time XD

  8. Kate says:

    I'm really enjoying Infinite Jest, in part because of its use of Canadian politics (being Canadian, I think that's neat, and also find it funny that most Americans would have no idea what he's talking about). Here's a primer of the "real life" versions of the groups described here (it's super-basic for those who have no background, which is likely only some of you):

    Quebec is a traditionally French area. The French and British fought a number of wars over it, and in the end it became a French-speaking island in the middle of the British dominion of Canada. This has always been a source of tension. Canada is technically bilingual, but realistically the whole country, with the exception of Quebec and some Acadian areas in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland, operates in English. Some Quebecois feel that their culture is at risk, that it's being diluted by English Canada. As a result, the province has serious cultural protectionism laws and rules that don't exist anywhere else. Some of them seem silly (on a bilingual sign, the French print must be larger than the English print), while some of them are based on ensuring that children's first language is French (there are restrictions on who can go to anglophone schools). There is also an active separatist movement, including a party in the federal Parliament (Bloc Quebecois) and a provincial party (Parti Quebecois). In the past few decades, referendums on separation have been held twice; both times, Quebeckers have voted to remain in Canada by a narrow majority.

    Mainstream politics is one thing, but there are also fringe groups. An extremist group called the FLQ (name translates to Quebec Liberation front) kidnapped two government officials (killing one) in 1970, leading to what is known in Canada as the "October Crisis", in which civil liberties were suspended – an unprecedented peacetime measure. Wiki it to learn more.

    In recent years, separatist rhetoric has cooled somewhat – the Bloc Quebecois was decimated in the federal election earlier this month, and terrorist attacks are not ongoing, but that cultural and political tension between francophone Quebec and anglophone rest-of-Canada continues to shape political realities.

    Alberta is north of Montana. I currently live there (although I'm a recent transplant from Newfoundland). it's sort of like the Texas of Canada. Cows and oil are big business here, including the infamous oilsands or tarsands in the far north. Alberta is also home of Canada's evangelical Christian movement, and a right-wing federal party called the Reform Party, which some years ago merged with the centre-right Progressive Conservatives to create the Conservative Party, which makes up the government of Canada (please note that the Canadian politics spectrum is somewhat to the left of the American political spectrum, so comparing our major parties to yours is not usually helpful). As a result, Alberta is considered by many on the east coast to be a refuge for rednecks and intolerance. There have been fledgling discussions of separation in Alberta, which as a resource-rich province, contributes much more to the federal coffers than many other provinces, and resents it.

    Of course, that is a vast over-simplification. Just as many Quebecois are happy with Canada, many Albertans are progressive and secular. Calgary (where I live) recently elected the first visible minority mayor of a major Canadian city – and a Harvard-educated intellectual at that. But the impressions that others have of the province make more sense of DFW's references.

    In sum, the elements that DFW brings into play are extrapolations of real trends in Canadian politics; it's neat to see how he imagines them playing out in the future.

    If I've missed anything, or if I made an error, feel free to jump in!

    • Pixie says:

      I found this little summary of our northern neighbor’s history fascinating; thank you for sharing!

      • xpanasonicyouthx says:

        Likewise! This was awesome!

        • Kate says:

          I'm glad it was helpful. Recent surveys show that your elected officials consider Canada to be little more than an oil-source with a porous border. In fact, Canada is surprisingly fraught with regional and and cultural tensions, almost all of which are based on long-standing and deep-seated issues – my own home province of Newfoundland didn't get around to joining Canada until 1949 (by a vote of 51%, might I add) and the on-going debate over whether it was a good idea is one of the newer issues in Confederation.

          Maybe it's the sheer mass of our divisions that have led to the emphasis on reaching consensus that has traditionally characterized our domestic and international policies.

          Canadians have a tendency to view our history as boring because it lacks some of the drama of American history (no civil war, our civil rights movement was quieter, etc etc), but frankly, the fact that we've managed to hang together at all, let alone relatively peacefully, is a bit of a miracle.

          Please let me know if there's anything any of you would like to know a little more about Canada, Infinite Jest related or otherwise. I'm a legal dork by day and policy wonk by night, so I'm conversant in topics ranging from our respective constitutions (which bear almost no resemblance to one another) to regional slang to universal healthcare.

  9. Phoebe says:

    I'm pretty sure it was in this section that there was a full page that was like three sentences or something. Completely run-on.

  10. LOTRjunkie6 says:

    Ooh, you're back to Infinite Jest! I was trying to read along with you, but I needed something to read the other day and got about a third of the way in. Seriously, though, Mark, as much as I love your other reading projects (Book Thief! <3), it's getting really hard to wait to read along with you! I've already had to check out another copy of it from the library, because I reached my limits of renewals the last time!

    Also, if I'm coming across as bitchy or trying to tell you what to do on your own blog, I promise that's not my intent and I apologise. I just really like what I've read of this book so far and it's a lot more fun to be reading along with others and seeing what they thought…

  11. Mitch says:

    Come on, those are spoilers. Please don't tell Mark things that are going to happen, he doesn't want to know in advance.

    • xpanasonicyouthx says:

      Hi, I'm a total asshole who likes to just tell people what happens in a book.

      Hope you enjoyed your last comment on this site!

  12. doesntsparkle says:

    I love the year branding, at first it seems completely ridiculous, but that's probably where we'll be heading. It's really frightening how correct DFW's predictions turned out to be.

    I just bought The Pale King, and I'm looking forward to starting it when I finish the book I'm on now.

    • Pip_Harper says:

      I'm fifty pages into The Pale King, already loving it. Even if it's not as… out there and weird and full of crazy ideas as IF because it's set in the real world, to an extent, the style of writing feels much more nuanced and deeper. If that's even possible.

  13. agirlinport says:

    Although I agree in most part about the comments on advertising, it did cause me to think about Wrigley Field, and how although it is branded, it has a lot of history behind it, and has been WRIGLEY field for a long time. That's not to imply that I think Mark's comment excluded the possibility of exceptions, it just made me think about that, that's all.

    I thoroughly enjoyed these pages. I liked how even the little bit about the medical attache in between these two characters was about obsession, albeit a newfound one. It was nicely situated.

    Um…even the endnotes have footnotes! How crazy is that?

    And last thing, just a question for you, Mark. Are you going to be doing the Firefly graphic novels at some point still? Just asking since it wasn't on your confirmed list of books. 🙂

  14. daisysparrow says:

    I finished Infinite Jest about two weeks ago, and this is the first time I'm really looking back at the beginning of the book- through your summaries/reviews. All I can say is…..holy god there is so much more to come.

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