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Infinite Summer • View topic - Rotten Things

Infinite Summer

Formed in the summer of 2009 to read David Foster Wallace's masterwork "Infinite Jest".
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 Post subject: Rotten Things
PostPosted: Fri Jul 31, 2009 9:47 am 
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In my 1st thread ("Eliminating Your Map") I noted the Hamlet-ish motif of "rot" (as in "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark") in the book, which shows up in myriad ways in the novel. I wanted to share my observations and look for images of rotting in the text.

The image of rotting is used, both in Hamlet and IJ, because when something is rotten, say a tree or an apple, the outer form is preserved but the inside has been hollowed out by insects or disease or other corruption. Hamlet feels that the kingdom of Denmark is rotten because his uncle became the King by killing his father, and then legitimized the coup by marrying the Queen, thus preserving the outer form of peaceful succession. The image of rottenness creates dramatic tension through the use of ironic juxtaposition: the clean exterior with a dirty secret.

In IJ we have lots of images of rotting: the repetitive mentions of Hal's dental caries (cavities), the Great Concavity itself resulting from Pres. Johnny Gentle's "Clean USA Party" platform, the heavy use of drugs by the ETA students while pretending to be clean by using other kids' urine, Orin's pristine Phoenix condo development with its giant cockroaches and dead birds... Can others find more?

There is fractal repetition of rottenness, with images both large (the country) and small (Hal himself)- very much resembling the Sierpinski Gasket mentioned a few days ago by one of our hosts. The Gasket is a shape that you create by starting with a triangle, and then removing progressively smaller triangles of the same shape as the original, ad infinitum, leaving a strange shape with infinite holes (See ). This both is a way of depicting rottenness itself (a hollowing out an initially solid shape) and also helps informs the books structure.

Interestingly, the character with the most unattractive exterior (Mario) seems to have the most wise and balanced inner life - the reverse of rotten, sort of like a kiwi fruit.

I think the image of rotting throws light on another theme: addiction itself is a form of rotting where the addict dies slowly from the inside out, unless he gets help. This helps explain why AA is being juxtaposed with the fancy tennis academy. the addicts depicted in the AA scenes have made a mess of their outer lives but are starting to clean up their inner lives, while many ETA students are doing the reverse.

I'd love to hear from others about what DFW might be trying to say with these images...


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 Post subject: Re: Rotten Things
PostPosted: Fri Jul 31, 2009 10:27 am 
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 Post subject: Re: Rotten Things
PostPosted: Sat Aug 01, 2009 10:35 am 
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There's also a lot of mucus in the book. Mucus isn't exactly rotten, but I think it fits somewhat - the outer appearance begins to hint at the gross inner world.


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 Post subject: Re: Rotten Things
PostPosted: Sun Aug 02, 2009 2:53 pm 
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 Post subject: Re: Rotten Things
PostPosted: Sun Aug 02, 2009 3:12 pm 
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Good stuff, good stuff... There is more on the Hal / the Moms / mold anecdote coming up in next weeks reading (I am a little bit ahead.) Avril is mentioned as being a neat freak several times, which goes along with maintaining a clean exterior despite the family being a psychological mess. I wouldn't know directly but it's my recollection that co-dependent family members of alcoholics (such as Himself) sometimes become neat freaks, maybe to try to cover up the problems in their house.

The mucus and drool is another great example I hadn't thought of ... it's mentioned repeatedly as a side effect of various ingested Substances, and it's a great example of a rotten interior poking through the surface.

Also, there is repeated mentions of Hal and Pemulis vomiting on various occasions due to drugs or nerves.


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 Post subject: Re: Rotten Things
PostPosted: Sun Aug 02, 2009 8:05 pm 
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All the Moms' major anxieties - about cleanliness, secrets, enclosures, grammar and precision of communication - seem like her way of (ok, this is obvious) desperately trying to deny/hide whatever her real feelings are. For a character who is supposedly so adamant about openness we sure don't know much about her apart from how much of her self she hides and how she literally hides herself by never leaving ETA. I've also read ahead to the fleshing out of the mold anecdote - it was one of my favorite scenes when it appeared in the beginning of the book and I only love it more now. It's just this perfect convergence of all her anxieties - like, here is her son holding proof in his hands that no matter how much control she tries to exert over her life there will always be this rot somewhere that will eventually be unearthed.

And I guess if you take it one step further, whatever decay she is trying to hide or deny will eventually spread beyond herself. No matter how much she loves her family, her story becomes their story - all these anxieties (Avril's and Himself's) are passed down through the generations. Actually (maybe now I'm straying off-topic) I think the Incandenza family phobias are mostly general human anxieties (death, loss of control, etc) that manifest according to the preexisting symbolic code that each new generation is born into. So James Incandenza Sr. is afraid of spiders, Himself is afraid of spiders, Orin is afraid of roaches, which are close enough to spiders in my book that I think of it as just sort of an evolution of the spider thing, but they're all really afraid of the same thing.


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 Post subject: Re: Rotten Things
PostPosted: Mon Aug 03, 2009 8:34 am 
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Following up on the Incandenza family, I just noticed that the initials of the Moms and Himself are JOI and AMI, which are the French words for Joy and Love, respectively. Given their actual characters, these seem to be pretty ironic monikers. There is so much stuff in this book that I know I'm missing, but it's fun to keep looking.


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 Post subject: Re: Rotten Things
PostPosted: Mon Aug 03, 2009 8:38 am 
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 Post subject: Re: Rotten Things
PostPosted: Mon Aug 03, 2009 9:25 am 
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 Post subject: Re: Rotten Things
PostPosted: Sat Aug 08, 2009 5:52 am 
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One of the overriding sad themes of this book is the fact that so many of these characters have been damaged by their dysfunctional, if not outright horrific, family upbringings. Is there any message of hope here or are we all doomed to be "victims" of our childhood traumas?

Another theme is one of denying the horror, the seriousness of what's in front of their eyes. Acting as if it's perfectly normal. Enabling to the max. Numerous examples of this throughout the book, both before and past the spoiler line.

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"The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you." DFW


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