So, the bricklayer story.
On page 139, Wallace gives us a very funny memo sent from one State Farm employee to another. The memo quotes from an insurance claim. Because I know there are folks who aren’t quite caught up yet, and because this discussion is specifically about Wallace’s choices in telling it, here is the passage as it appears in the novel:
I am writing in response to your request for additional information. In block #3 of the accident reporting form, I put “trying to do the job alone”, as the cause of my accident. You said in your letter that I should explain more fully and I trust that the following details will be sufficient.
I am a bricklayer by trade. On the day of the accident, March 27, I was working alone on the roof of a new six story building. When I completed my work, I discovered that I had about 900 kg. of brick left over. Rather than laboriously carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to lower them in a barrel by using a pulley which fortunately was attached to the side of the building at the sixth floor. Securing the rope at ground level, I went up to the roof, swung the barrel out and loaded the brick into it. Then I went back to the ground and untied the rope, holding it tightly to insure a slow descent of the 900 kg of bricks. You will note in block #11 of the accident reporting form that I weigh 75 kg.
Due to my surprise at being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Needless to say, I proceeded at a rapid rate up the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor I met the barrel coming down. This explains the fractured skull and the broken collar bone.
Slowed only slightly, I continued my rapid ascent not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were two knuckles deep into the pulleys. Fortunately, by this time, I had regained my presence of mind, and was able to hold tightly to the rope in spite of considerable pain. At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel from the force of hitting the ground.
Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel now weighed approximately 30 kg. I refer you again to my weight of 75 kg in block #11. As you could imagine, still holding the rope, I began a rather rapid descent from the pulley down the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming up. This accounts for the two fractured ankles and the laceration of my legs and lower body.
The encounter with the barrel slowed me enough to lessen my impact with the brick-strewn ground below. I am sorry to report, however, that as I lay there on the bricks in considerable pain, unable to stand or move and watching the empty barrel six stories above me, I again lost my presence of mind and unfortunately let go of the rope, causing the barrel to begin a… endtranslNTCOM626
Like a lot of folks I’m sure, I read that piece with an acute sense of deja vu. I not only knew the story, I knew specific phrases were coming even before I read them.
My uncle was in the insurance business and he often sent me and my dad and my brothers funny things he encountered (this was in the actual mail, before the days of the casual email forward). I not only remembered getting this story, an alleged insurance claim from somewhere, but I remembered it being identical to Wallace’s text, almost word-for-word.
My first inclination was that Wallace could not have possibly just cut-and-pasted this whole episode from somewhere else. I considered that maybe my memory was faulty–that Wallace had rewritten an old urban legend with such skill that his version had since become the definitive one. And that my Uncle Tom had sent this to me, not in the late 80s when I was in college, but in the late 90s after Infinite Jest had been released.
You can find this story in all corners of the Internet with just minor variations. The following appeared on a University of Vermont ListServ dated February of 1996, the same month Infinite Jest was published. The words in bold also appear in the IJ version:
I am writing in response to your request for additional information in Block #3 of the accident reporting form. I put “Poor Planning” as the cause of my accident. You asked for a fuller explanation and I trust the following details will be sufficient.
I am a bricklayer by trade. On the day of the accident, I was working alone on the roof of a new six-story building. When I completed my work, I found I had some bricks left over which when weighed later were found to weigh 240 lbs. Rather than carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to lower them in a barrel by using a pulley which was attached to the side of the building at the sixth floor. Securing the rope at ground level, I went up to the roof, swung the barrel out and loaded the bricks into it. Then I went down and untied the rope, holding it tightly to insure a slow descent of the 240 lbs of bricks. You will note on the accident reporting form that my weight is 135 lbs.
Due to my surprise at being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Needless to say, I proceeded at a rapid rate up the side of the building.
In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel which was now proceeding downward at an equally impressive speed. This explains the fractured skull, minor abrasions and the broken collarbone, as listed in Section 3 of the accident reporting form.
Slowed only slightly, I continued my rapid ascent, not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were two knuckles deep into the pulley which I mentioned in Paragraph 2 of this correspondence. Fortunately by this time I had regained my presence of mind and was able to hold tightly to the rope, in spite of the excruciating pain I was now beginning to experience. At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground, and the bottom fell out of the barrel.
Now devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel weighed approximately 50 lbs. I refer you again to my weight. As you might imagine, I began a rapid descent down the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming up. This accounts for the two fractured ankles, broken tooth and severe lacerations of my legs and lower body.
Here my luck began to change slightly. The encounter with the barrel seemed to slow me enough to lessen my injuries when I fell into the pile of bricks and fortunately only three vertebrae were cracked. I am sorry to report, however, as I lay there on the pile of bricks, in pain, unable to move and watching the empty barrel six stories above me, I again lost my composure and presence of mind and let go of the rope.
This is a very old story, one apparently even better known in the British Isles, where it’s said that most comedians of the mid-century had some version of it in their repertoire.20 The insurance claim conceit seems to be a more recent development. It appears in Mike Metcalfe’s 1996 textbook Reading Critically in a form almost identical to the one in Infinite Jest. This version also appeared in a 1982 Louisville Courier-Journal column by Byron Crawford. It’s not available on the internet, but except for a few minor details the text of that article is virtually identical to the text in Infinite Jest. 21
All of that was to confirm what many of you already know–David Foster Wallace lifted the text of the entire episode from a pass-around joke. And I was surprised to realize that I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. It surprised me because if a writer had copied someone else’s words so blatantly and without acknowledgment into any other novel I would have been indignant. I wouldn’t have seen any grey area at all. I would have said it was wrong.
But in this particular context, Wallace’s use of this old story is awfully effective. It’s just one of a series of references to urban legends throughout the book, including one to a famous story about toothbrush mischief that Wallace appropriates with more originality. I suppose he’s trying to point out the unreliable nature of any narrative, that our faith in them is something of an illusion. There is also a recurring theme about control that is explicitly described in an earlier scene,22 which takes place in the ETA weight room. It’s one of my favorite lines in the book so far: “Everyone should get at least one good look at the eyes of a man who finds himself rising toward what he wants to pull down.”
I dig all of that.
Still I’m not entirely convinced the ends justify the means. Borrowing and sampling might be done casually by other artists, but words are still sacred to writers. There were a lot ways Wallace might have rewritten this story to make it his own. Whatever your aim, you simply don’t swipe another writer’s words and phrases without acknowledging you’re doing it. 23
Of course Wallace knew all that, and so we have to conclude that he didn’t do it to deceive and had some other purpose in mind. I suppose he was hoping that readers who knew the story would recognize it, but readers who didn’t know it (which was probably most of them in the nascent days of the Internet when this novel was published) would just assume it was original. We’re back now to the discussion of what the reader brings to the novel. The reader who is familiar with that story will probably react to its appearance differently than one who thinks it’s the product of Wallace’s original wit. I suspect Wallace would have anticipated that, too.
So I’m curious what all y’all think. Those who are reading IJ for the third time and those who are reading it for the first. Those who recognized the bricklayer story when they read it and those who didn’t. Where do you come down on this? Is this appropriation of another (unknown) person’s material valid? Or not? Is it okay because it’s a piece of narrative flotsam, the cultural equivalent of abandoned property? If we could attribute authorship to someone, would claiming it be less acceptable? 24 Is it because Infinite Jest seems to be so singular an accomplishment that it frustrates our desire to apply these kinds of standards to it? 25
Maybe no one cares about this stuff except me, in which case you can just enjoy a recreation of the accident on Mythbusters.