Kevin Guilfoile

Where Everything Was as Fresh as the Bright Blue Sky

09.09.09 | 24 Comments

(Note: I’m going to bend the spoiler line in minor ways with this post, but we’re on the steep downhill to the end and I think most of us are either ahead of the calendar or so far behind it the spoiler line is almost meaningless.)

When I was young–at whatever age it was when I first had an awareness of sex, albeit one poorly informed by nascent hormones and edited-for-TV James Bond films–I can remember being very concerned that when I became old enough to have sex I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I was years and years from having the means, motive, and opportunity to have sex with anyone, but I had this idea of sex as being pleasurable to the exclusion of everything else. And it scared me a little bit because I wanted to be a professional baseball player, which presumably involved a lot of practice time.

Kids are incredibly efficient pleasure seekers who spend every minute of the day trying to evade boredom, so it’s probably not surprising or unusual that a child could conceive of a concept that so mirrors The Entertainment. It’s far more surprising that Wallace had the empathy to conceive of it as an adult.103

As ETA custodian Kenkle says to custodian Brandt on p. 874:

‘And then the Yuletide season, Brandt my friend Brandt — Christmas — Christmas morning — What is the essence of Christmas morning but the childish co-eval of venereal interface, for a child? — A present, Brandt — Something you have not earned and which formerly was out of your possession is now in your po-ssession — Can you sit there and try to say there is no symbolic rela-tion between unwrapping a Christmas present and undressing a young lady?’

Kids have this incredible capacity for happiness. They can give themselves an endorphin rush the likes of which you and I haven’t experienced in decades from just the sight of a new stuffed animal or the mention of chicken nuggets. And although they get sad, for most kids sadness is fleeting. When one of my kids cries because he doesn’t want to go to bed, all I have to do is remind him of some small thing that makes him happy to start him trembling with joy. (“Guess what? We’re going to the dry cleaners tomorrow and you know what they have at the dry cleaners? Lollipops!”) Most kids can choose to be glad almost whenever they want.

To adults this ability to choose happiness seems like a superpower, as enviable as the ability to fly.

Because when you become an adult, the whole happy-sad axis gets inverted. Adults have a limited capacity for happiness and that happiness is always fleeting. On the other hand, it seems like our capacity for sadness is almost bottomless.

This (a little bit spoilery) is from a discussion on page 880 Show Spoiler▼

References to adult longing for the childhood capacity for happiness are everywhere in this book. Mute in his hospital bed, in terrible pain, Gately alternates between feverish adult dreams conflating pleasure and death, and persistent memories of childhood, where he watches TV and trades small kindnesses with a neighbor who, feared by all the grown-ups, eventually hangs herself; Hal stumbles into what he hopes is an NA meeting only to find a group of burly, hairy, sobbing men holding teddy bears and trying to coax out their “inner infant”; Mario, who has managed to prolong childhood into adulthood is worshipped by his mother (who is having sex with a student 40 years her junior) and envied by his brother (who gave up his childhood to pursue greatness in tennis, a profession where you retire when you’re still in your twenties), wonders how you can even confirm when someone is sad.

And of course there is Joelle:

(T)hings had gotten first strange and then creepy as Madame Psychosis entered puberty, apparently; specifically the low-pH father had gotten creepy, seeming to behave as if Madame Psychosis were getting younger instead of older: taking her to increasingly child-rated films at the local Cineplex, refusing to acknowledge issues of menses or breasts, strongly discouraging dating, etc. Apparently issues were complicated by the fact that Madame Psychosis emerged from puberty as an almost freakishly beautiful young woman, especially in a part of the United States where poor nutrition and indifference to dentition and hygiene made physical beauty an extremely rare and sort of discomfiting condition, one in no way shared by Madame Psychosis’s toothless and fireplug-shaped mother, who said not a word as Madame Psychosis’s father interdicted everything from brassieres to Pap smears, addressing the nubile Madame Psychosis in progressively puerile baby-talk and continuing to use her childhood diminutive like Pookie or Putti as he attempted to dissuade her from accepting a scholarship to a Boston University whose Film and Film-Cartridge Studies Program was, he apparently maintained, full of quote Nasty Pootem Wooky Barn-Bams, unquote, whatever family-code pejorative this signified.

Of course, it was her father’s attempts to regress her to childhood that eventually led to her disfiguring.

I don’t have anything to add on the subject that Wallace doesn’t say more eloquently. But one of the real wonders of Infinite Jest is that DFW provides the reader with so many prisms through which to read it–I won’t even pretend to believe I’ve discovered them all–and while the core themes of happiness and sadness remain constant throughout, the experience of the book changes depending on the glass you pick up.