Over the course of my reading I became aware that DFW liked Cormac McCarthy’s novels a lot, especially Blood Meridian and Suttree. As it happens, those are my two favorite Cormac McCarthy novels as well, and even though it’s been fifteen years since I read either of them, once I became aware of this bibliographical fact I began to pick up threads of McCarthy in Infinite Jest, and threads led to whole hand-loomed rugs bordered with Byzantine pornography.
McCarthy’s and DFW’s writing share several things, including a keen attention to physical and emotional detail, but it’s the way they delve into violence that seems to both unite and separate them. McCarthy, for example, considers the whole scene but then gifts you with just a sketch of the worst details — reading him is like looking at one of Bacon’s howling Popes, it’s the details you have to fill in for yourself that make it ten times worse. But DFW doesn’t let you look away. Think about how the Antitois brothers died. It’s horrible. But their deaths were described with so much detail that by the end I had almost no emotion about them. The image of a man with a spike through his eye or a broomstick shoved all the way through him is, on its own, nearly unbearable. But in IJ these images ride a wave of words that’s already pounded us into submission, and we only come up for air when Lucien Antitois floats cleanly away from his body over the Convexity toward home to the ringing of bells.
The scene where Gately takes the brunt of one Nuck’s aggression toward Lenz and the girls are on the lawn working over the other one echoes this scene from early on in Blood Meridian:
. . . Toadvine seized him about the neck and rode him to the floor and held him by the hair and began to pry out an eyeball with his thumb. The man grabbed his wrist and bit it.
Kick his mouth in, called Toadvine. Kick it.
The kid stepped past them into the room and turned and kicked the man in the face. Toadvine held his head back by the hair.
Kick him, he called. Aw, kick him, honey.
Toadvine pulled the bloody head around and looked at it and let it flop to the floor and he rose and kicked the man himself. Two spectators were standing in the hallway. The door was completely afire and part of the wall and ceiling. They went out and down the hall. The clerk was coming up the steps two at a time.
And so on.
Later on, the way the M.P. beats Gately’s mom in such a slow, considered fashion shows a little more of McCarthy’s restraint. Ultimately I find McCarthy pretty much riveting because he leaves so much out, but the world he creates is one I am heartily glad I don’t live in. Whereas the world of Infinite Jest, despite the horrible things that can happen in it (the family dog being dragged to death and reduced to a nubbin, my God), is one I feel I could navigate maybe just because the nape of the carpet is familiar and I have an accurate sense of how high the nets are strung.
Or, as Gately learns in the midst of his agonizing stint in the hospital bed, focusing on the small things helps you to endure the larger ones.
DFW also alludes to A Clockwork Orange a couple of times, which is well known for its own particular brand of joyous degradation. I think Gately has the self-awareness not to get off on beating the shit out of people the way Alex and his Droogs do — he doesn’t have the heart of a rapist – and the spoiler line limits what I can say about Sorkin’s crew, but I do know that for me, Gately’s redemption and Hal’s trying to Come In and Mario’s sweet nature and a thousand other moments of true humanity balance out the psychic impact of all the brutality in this novel, described in numbing detail though it may be.