This is the third of a five-part roundtable discussion with the Infinite Summer Guides.
Infinite Summer: Does anyone have a favorite character?
Avery Edison: I’ve written before about liking Hal the most, whilst suspecting that he may be a dick. That’s still holding true. I tend to like the smarter characters, and in a book full of drug addicts and athletes, Hal is standing out a fair bit.
Eden M. Kennedy: I like Hal, too.
Matthew Baldwin: Hal?! I thought you and I shared a crush on Pemulis in common. You’ve changed so much since this project started Eden, it’s like I don’t even know you any more.
Two of my favorite sections–”Erdedy Waits for Pot” and “Erdedy Gets a Hug”–star the same person, so I guess Ken is at the top of my list as well. I hope the second half of the book is peppered with more of his comic misadventures. Oh Ken Erdedy, will you ever win?
EMK: I’m also gaining some affection for Steeply, surprisingly. I want to hear more from Avril. In a novel that’s mainly focused on male characters, it’s hard to find a woman to relate to. Apart from Air Marshal Kittenplan, of course.
Avery, you raised some gender issues in your first post. What are your thoughts on them now?
AE: After learning more about the Office of Unspecified Services, and its strange M.O. of outfitting operatives with highly inappropriate disguises, I feel a little better about Steeply. I have to believe that DFW is going for something a little higher than “ha, ha, look at the man in the dress!” because he’s obviously a smart guy and that would be an easy joke to make.
I hope Wallace ends up treating the infatuation Orin has for Steeply with respect and kindness, although the fact that he’s drawn it out for so long worries me. I’m beginning to wonder if the point of Orin’s crush is for us to laugh at him, as many other works of entertainment wish us to when they feature an un-suspecting protagonist becoming romantically involved with a trans-person. It seems like an innocuous trope, but it reinforces the concept that trans-women “trick” everyone they don’t explicitly divulge their status to. The idea that people are entitled to such information leads to the “trans panic” defense, which is used to justify violence against transgender people on a sadly routine basis.
Aaaaaand I’ve talked for far too long about this.
Speaking or Orin and Steeply, how do you feel about the mix of drama and comedy in the novel?
MB: I have no objection to the absurdity when it is “Out There” (subsidized years, the rise of Johnny Gentle, the history of O.N.A.N., and so on), but find it jarring when it’s in close proximity to the more realistic portions of the novel. I kind of consider Orin to be “Out There” so he’s exempt, but I was truly annoyed at the Clipperton passages. How are we supposed to take the real characters seriously when they are intermingling with cartoons?
EMK: The Clipperton stuff really felt like a parable or a philosophical exercise to me. “Let’s take this premise and draw it out until it collapses.” It seems like it could have been the outgrowth of some philosophical dilemma that Hal might have invented, just to toy with Orin late at night on the phone.
MB: And had it had been presented as such I would have no objection.
EMK: I keep asking myself, “How much disbelief are you willing to suspend in reading this novel? ” Because so much of it is so emotionally real. But then what do we do with the fact that the woman journalist Orin’s so intrigued by is actually a badly disguised man? I find it just so delightful and ridiculous that I honestly don’t care how just plain impossible that would be, I just can’t wait to see how it all shakes out. But still.
AE: To touch lightly (lest I type out another “trans-issues” screed) on the Steeply thing, I tend to assume that Steeply is actually pretty well disguised, and it’s only the fact that Marathe is such an intelligent man that he notices all the costume’s flaws. We also have to bear in mind that every description of Steeply so far has been after he fell down a muddy slope on his way to meet with Marathe. For all we know, his usual appearance is quite passable.
EMK: That’s good, I hadn’t thought about it that way at all, I was assuming that eventually someone like Hal would see through Steeply’s terrible disguise and set Orin straight, so to speak (ahem). I certainly hadn’t foreseen something tragic happening with Orin and Steeply. Now I’m a little worried.
AE: With regard to the mix of drama and comedy, I must say that I’m not finding the book at all laugh-out-loud funny. Every now and then I’ll chuckle at a concept (I think the head-through-monitor part of Eschaton got a giggle) but every attempt at humor by Wallace seems a little self-conscious. When I got to the section with Lateral Alice Moore the other day, I threw up my hands and asked aloud “is there anyone in this book that doesn’t have some ‘comical’ deformity?”
Kevin Guilfoile: It’s an old assumption that no one would recognize a perfect novel even if it were possible for somebody to write one. If I had one major complaint about IJ it would be this inconsistency of tone Eden and Matthew talk about, but that’s also inevitable given the scope of what Wallace is trying to accomplish. When you write a novel of huge ambition you are, by definition, stretching beyond your known abilities and so there are going to be occasional swings and misses along with the tape measure home runs (and obviously readers will disagree about what works and what doesn’t). During the Tournament of Books I said about Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 that in order for a novel to be a masterpiece it probably also has to be at least a little bit terrible. I said that with some tongue in my cheek, although compared to Infinite Jest I found 2666 to be a lot less ambitious and a lot more terrible.