Guest Post: Exhuming the Father

Blogger Here.  Here is a very thoughtful piece by Thomas Gaflan, which draws comparisons between Infinite Jest and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Dear Dave,

Of course I owe it to you to point out that I’m only putatively writing toward you, and simultaneously, orthogonally, really writing towards some half-imagined group of other people. I’m sorry. On the plus side, I probably never would have addressed this letter to you (or even written it, perhaps) if you had been here to read it: it would have seemed weird and fannish. You hang somewhere between father and analogue to me, and now that you are dead my feelings about you have shifted some distance toward “father,” for reasons that will become clear below. Suffice to say that it is a great marvel that I am in you without knowing you.

So this letter is also especially for people who, like I did, read the final page and then angrily paged back to the Year of Glad at the start of Infinite Jest for some kind of trail of breadcrumbs that indicates what happens immediately after the end (and before the beginning) of the book, whether it’s true that Himself left the Entertainment for Hal to find, whether Hal watched it, whether it was DMZ or withdrawal that drove him crazy, and especially, especially how it was that Hal and Don Gately met each other. Don Gately is older Hal, unluckier Hal, poorer Hal, dumber Hal; he is wiser Hal and stronger Hal, he has been forced to work through his alienness and helplessness, his anger and his ignorance, in a way that Hal in his inflatable Dome has never had to encounter. Gately has had the Crocodiles to guide him and listen to him, and Hal needs Gately, in part because he has been denied his own father, and in part because they are each setting their shoulders (identically, by authorial design) against the immovable block that is the human impulse towards pleasure. Hal mentions in the Year of Glad that he and Gately go to dig up his father; he doesn’t say why, or what happened. I know you designed all this to be knowable, or you expected us not to need to know, but it isn’t, and I do.

The joy of Ulysses, one joy, is Bloom’s contact with Stephen; aliens, others, ready to crawl out of their own skin, hidden, unknown, they luck into each other and are there together for the terrible and free descent into Nighttown. When the bending of shapes begins, they can still see each other and see each other seeing each other: Bloom sees where Stephen is looking, and it helps him guess his own position, his own image. Each is borne up by the other, and out of a crowded city, among strangers, a family is reunited in the Odyssean tradition, except it is simply union, and not reunion; we can find our parents in the world of faces that we pass every day. Joy. The joy of one person touching another person, of standing in the caul of the subway station and asking to be touched, and eventually being touched. The rest of Ulysses, down to its final yes, reverberates with the joy of this moment.

But Gately writhes through Nighttown alone, his friends and his dependents turned to shades, his mind turned terribly inward towards his past — Hal goes through his own version of Nighttown, we assume, without even us there with him, as the drugs take hold or the insane face-hopping and uncontrollable screaming simply descends without trigger. I get that you want us to read you at least in part through Ulysses, the little prandials and postprandials you drop, your wink at Madame Psychosis. We look at you looking at Joyce and it helps us find you by triangulation. The difference seems to be that in Infinite Jest the moment of contact between parent and child is cynicized, taken out into the alley and beaten silly — Hal practically vomiting his way through the high comedy of the men’s group twelve step meeting he stumbles into, one man crawling towards another begging like a cartoon baby — but more frighteningly, Hal’s own encounter with his father is reduced to Gately’s dream of a video cartridge and mislabeled, inexplicably forgotten, extant only as the glittering, weaponized Entertainment, Joelle leaning over the baby-eyed lens and apologizing. In the logic of Infinite Jest, our need for parents — our addiction to needing parents — is killing us, just as Gately’s need to protect those given into his care lands him in a hospital bed, full of shrapnel.

When I compare these books, the comedy Ulysses that ends in union and the tragedy Infinite Jest that ends hallucinating, hungover, guilty, and soiled on the beach at low tide, I think maybe that they’re both real. That I can make a choice between the two, to act either as if fathers and sons exist, that one can be heard by the other, working like Telemachus for a union or reunion with a father who is a near stranger, or like Stephen for a father who is a stranger, for that listening, for that speaking. Or I can act as if intubated, as if touched in Broca’s region by a punitive, addled God, as if it is a weakness and an embarrassment to want a parent, and an arrogance to want to be one.

Mario tells Hal that he doesn’t really understand a lot of Himself’s work, that it is meant simply to be sad, and I think that all your craft and technology and pyrotechnic lens-fitting in Infinite Jest distracts us in the same way that Himself’s focus on technique distracts Hal. You said that “I wanted it to be extraordinarily sad, and not particularly postmodern and jumbled up or fractured, and most of the people, most of the reviewers who really liked it seemed to like it because it was funny or it was erudite or it was interestingly fractured.” Himself is sad, and reaching out, and fails, and Hal is sad, and has learned somehow not to reach out, and suffers for it. It is very hard to act as if fathers and sons exist when your father never comes. Infinite Jest is sad and oddly secretive about it, and its father — Ulysses — is right in front of it with the answer it needs, an answer that Jest knows by heart. The beggar-king of Ithaca, Odysseus, in disguise, instructed by Athena to reveal himself to his son lost all these years.

All these years. You said that “the genesis of that book was people about age 30 who have been incredibly lucky career-wise and education-wise and health-wise and all that stuff. All of us having similar friends and all of us seeming to be unhappy when none of us had ever been hungry for a day, or cold.” As if food and heat were the only basic human needs. As if we can survive without parents — and I am here not talking Freud or Inner Child, all of which happened after Ulysses and far too long before Infinite Jest to be important. Our parents don’t need to perform certain psychological maneuvers when we are small children or tell us what to do; we do need to have in our world that which we can depend on and which exceeds us. This becomes a crisis at “about age 30” when we look around and realize that our parents are gone, or were never present to begin with, and start to believe that under the blank and empty sky we are individually and fully responsible for making all the world’s meaning, for motivating our own continued existence. We are unhappy because we think we are Atlas. We are unhappy because all our friends are just like us, nobody teaching, nobody listening, everybody shifting for themselves.

All these years. It is tiring and damaging to be alone. I never knew my father, never really met him. I lived in a world full of people who I knew for a fact to be basically unlike me, and I am twitchy, hidden, and I can Identify when I see Youtube videos of you hunched behind an interviewer’s desk, trying to be liked and respected as if you were someone’s genius friend instead of speaking to me fifteen years in the future, sending me off into my own life and my own literature. Ulysses taught me what it intended to teach me reading it as a young man, I felt it lead me gently away from dogma, away from insistence on the inside and the outside, the clan and the enemy. I felt better after I read Ulysses, I felt like someone before me, Crocodile-like, had survived what I was running into. At the end of Infinite Jest I felt like something beautiful had been catapulted into the Singularity. Some moment I wanted to experience between Hal and Gately or Himself and Gately or Himself and Hal, fathers and sons, parents and children, something I wanted to experience between me and you, had been intentionally left out just to let me know that I’m as alone as they are.

But I’m not alone. You weren’t, either. Infinite Jest is not the only reality we are allowed, it was not the state of the American mind in 1996 and it’s not today, in 2009. It is a cry of pain and the compulsion to repeat it until something changes. It is no joke. It is a thought held down with as much patience as its thinker could muster. It is an unanswered question. It asks for something that I see in Ulysses, and it shows us what world there would be if we couldn’t have the contact between people that seals Ulysses. We can be drawn together, too, by Infinite Jest, even though we must be drawn together in spite of it, as we look to the left and right of us for other viewers in the theater, alarmed, when Hamlet dies on stage. We reach out in shock. Since before I can remember, this has been my relationship with my siblings, my mother, my aunts — orphans and widows and gray ladies — each losing their home and setting out on a journey to meet others. This is why I’m pretending to write you, but am actually writing everyone else, anyone else.


Thomas Gaflan

Thomas Gaflan is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His essays can be found at Hypocrite Reader.


5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Exhuming the Father

  1. Very strong letter! You clearly have a warm place for DFW + his work but aren’t afraid to take him to task, either. I do think the Pale King is much more about community + even father/son relationships of a sort, generational transmission of information at the very least. It’s less of a tragedy, too, or at least the bit we can read was. Anyway, I liked this + hope to see more.

  2. Perhaps Wallace is trying to broaden the scope of the “Real.” LIke Joyce showing what can be considered as ontologically significant is almost …infinite… Perhaps, Wallace’s cynical ending of the father not communing with the son, isn’t really cynical at all. Can you imagine Wallace leaving enough space in his refusal to close the story for Hal to find his answer to Hamlet’s question “Who’s there?”
    Is it a plausible interpretation to see the singularity and ergo the whole circle of the book as real only if we are forced to close what Wallace left open? It’s not like he left us with no plausible communion. Perhaps with Infinite Jest the “Real” is expanded to include a dream of one character as opposed to a physical meeting of both; or that what is “Real” can only be given authority by our intentional choice and not the author?
    I remember a line of lightning from “The Pale King,” (at least it was for me) where the substitute accounting teacher says “Gentlemen, You are called to account.” And I imagined Wallace, now dead 4 years sizing me up and slicing all my vanity and sense of importance like a knife in butter. I’m 23 and can see the lazy nihilistic attitude inside my sense of self and for me Wallace set a “…pale fire…” by setting aflame my whole life by saying, “Hey grow up kid!” and so in that sense Wallace is a father figure, albeit different, as well.

  3. I think everything said was actually very reasonable. But, what about this?
    suppose you typed a catchier post title? I am not suggesting your information is not solid, however
    suppose you added a title that makes people want more?

    I mean Guest Post: Exhuming the Father | Letters to DFW is a little vanilla.
    You could glance at Yahoo’s home page and see how they create news titles to get people to open the links. You might try adding a video or a related picture or two to get readers excited about what you’ve written.
    Just my opinion, it could make your posts a little bit more interesting.

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