True, David Foster Wallace died in 2008, long before the Donald even considered running. It is also true that Infinite Jest–the impossibly long and challenging masterpiece by Wallace that I have committed to read this spring–was written in 1996. Usually parodies are written after the thing they parody. Leave it to David Foster Wallace, though, to break that rule and make fun of an event long before it happened.
The scene in question is a student and faculty gathering at the Enfield Tennis Academy (E.T.A.). It is Continental Interdependence Day (11/8), the day that celebrates the occasion when Washington seceded the Northeast U.S. to Canada when the region became environmentally toxic. The students of E.T.A. gather in a hall and eat junkfood and watch the same film each year. They dig out a film cartridge produced, written, and directed by Mario Incandenza, the physically deformed son of E.T.A.’s director, Avril Incandenza, and probably not the biological son but certainly the artistic offspring of a famous indie film director who had committed suicide by heating his head in a microwave oven (the father, not the physically deformed son).
You will have to forgive the obscure writing and offensive use of contractions and technical details and the piling up of name upon name with no context–and this combined with words most educated people have to look up (or guess in context). It is part of the art of Infinite Jest. It is meant to alienate you, I think. And the voice of the narrator in this piece is probably aping a pretentious and highly intelligent teenager who witnessed the event.
But watch the development of the character of President Gentle, a former Las Vegas lounge singer with obsessive compulsive issues (hence the surgical masks everyone wears) who sweeps to the White House on a populist wave. President Gentle’s rise to power is captured here by the disabled childhood filmmaker using puppets in a broom closet in one of E.T.A.’s lower floors.
Perceptive readers will notice that David Foster Wallace hasn’t gotten every detail perfect about Trump’s rise. Still, Infinite Jest suggests the soft apocalypse that might follow. While this new era is good news for hamsters in the wild, Quebecois terrorists, and indie filmmakers, there are some problems for others. While none of the voters in the Infinite Jest alternative history in the future ever ask what the populist candidate means by “America,’ voters in our timeline might want to consider it.
Most of Wallace’s paragraphs go on for several pages without a break (like 1st year university writing, sometimes). I’ve chosen to break it up for readability. Some of the long paragraphs I couldn’t break up because they are all one sentence. One of compound words below has 478 characters. I have also left out the footnotes. Though part of the humour of Infinite Jest, there are hundreds of pages of these notes: the audiobook has 8 hours of footnotes. I am simply not reading them.
If it’s odd that Mario Incandenza’s first halfway-coherent film cartridge — a 48-minute job shot three summers back in the carefully decorated janitor-closet of Subdorm B with his head-mount Bolex H64 and foot-treadle — if it’s odd that Mario’s first finished entertainment consists of a film of a puppet show — like a kids’ puppet show — then it probably seems even odder that the film’s proven to be way more popular with E.T.A.’s adults and adolescents than it is with the woefully historically underin-formed children it had first been made for. It’s proved so popular that it gets shown annually now every 11/8, Continental Interdependence Day, on a wide-beam cartridge projector and stand-up screen in the E.T.A. dining hall, after supper.
It’s part of the gala but rather ironic annual celebration of I.-Day at an Academy whose founder had married a Canadian, and it usually gets under way about 1930h., the film, and everybody gathers in the dining hall, and watches it, and by Charles Tavis’s festive fiat
… normal E.T.A. dietary regulations are for an hour completely suspended, and Mrs. Clarke, the dietician out in the kitchen — a former Four-Star dessert chef normally relegated here to protein-conveyors and ways to vary complex carbs — Mrs. Clarke gets to put on her floppy white chef’s hat and just go sucrotically mad, out in West House’s gleaming kitchen. Everybody’s supposed to wear some sort of hat — [Director and film-maker’s mother] Avril Incandenza positively towers in the same steeple-crowned witch’s hat she teaches all her classes in every 10/31, and Pemulis wears the complex yachting cap and naval braid, and pale and blotchy Struck a toque with a kind of flitty aigrette, and Hal a black preacher’s hat with a stern round downturned brim, etc. etc.
— and Mario, as director and putative author of the popular film, is encouraged to say a few words, like eight: ‘Thanks everybody and I hope you like it,’ is what he said this year, with Pemulis behind him making a show of putting a maraschino on top of the small twizzle of Redi-Whip that O. Stice had sprayed on the top of Mario’s head-mount Bolex H64, which counts as a hat, when the dessert-course’s zenith had gotten slightly out of control near the I.-Day gala supper’s end. These few brief words and round of applause are Mario’s big public yearly moment at E.T.A., and he neither likes the moment nor dislikes
it — same with the untitled film itself, which really started out as just a kids’ adaptation of The ONANtiad, a four-hour piece of tendentiously anticonfluential political parody long since dismissed as minor Incandenza by his late father’s archivists.
It’s pretty obvious that somebody else in the Incandenza family had at least an amanuentic hand in the screenplay, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet-work personally — his little S-shaped arms and falcate digits are perfect for the forward curve from body to snout of a standard big-headed political puppet — and it was, without question, Mario’s little square Hush Puppy on the H64’s operant foot-treadle, the Bolex itself mounted on one of the tunnel’s locked lab’s Husky-VI TL tripods across the overlit closet, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out past the frame’s borders on either side of the little velvet stage.
Ann Kittenplan and two older crew-cut girls sit in identical snap-brim fedoras with their arms crossed, Kittenplan’s right hand bandaged. Mary Esther Thode is grading midterms on the sly. Rik Dunkel has his eyes closed but is not asleep. Somebody’s slapped an ad hoc Red Sox cap on the visiting Syrian Satellite pro, and the Syrian Satellite pro sits with most of the prorectors, looking confused, his shoulder taped up with a heatable compress, being polite about the comparative authenticity of Mrs. C.’s baklava.
Everyone gathers and all’s quiet except for the sounds of saliva and chewing, and there’s the yeasty-sweet smell of Coach Schtitt’s pipe, and E.T.A.’s youngest kid Tina Echt in her giant beret gets to be in charge of the lights.
Mario’s thing opens without credits, just a crudely matted imposition of fake-linotype print, a quotation from President Gentle’s second Inaugural: ‘Let the call go forth, to pretty much any nation we might feel like calling, that the past has been torched
by a new and millennial generation of Americans,’ against a full-facial still photo of a truly unmistakable personage. This is the projected face of Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner. This is Johnny Gentle, né Joyner, lounge singer turned teenybopper throb turned B-movie mainstay, for two long-past decades known unkindly as the ‘Cleanest Man in Entertainment’ (the man’s a world-class retentive, the late-Howard-Hughes kind, the really severe kind, the kind with the paralyzing fear of free-floating contamination, the either-wear-a-surgical-microfiltration-mask – or – make – the – people – around – you – wear – surgical – caps – and – masks – and -touch – doorknobs – only – with – a – boiled – hankie – and – take – fourteen – showers – a -day – only – they’re – not – exactly – showers – they’re – with – this – Dermalatix – brand -shower – sized – Hypospectral – Flash – Booth – that – actually – like – burns – your -outermost – layer – of – skin – off – in – a – dazzling – flash – and – leaves – you – baby’s -butt – new – and – sterile – once – you – wipe – off – the – coating – of – fine – epidermal – ash-with-a-boiled-hankie kind) then in later public life a sterile-toupee-wearing promoter and entertainment-union bigwig, Vegas schmaltz-broker and head of the infamous Velvety Vocalists Guild, the tanned, gold-chained labor union that enforced those seven months of infamously dreadful ‘Live Silence,’ the total scab-free solidarity and performative silence that struck floor-shows and soundstages from Desert to NJ coast for over half a year until equitable compensation-formulae on certain late-millennial phone-order retrospective TV-advertised So-You-Don’t-Forget-Order-Before-Midnight-Tonight-type records and CDs were agreed on by Management.
The facial stills that Mario lap-dissolves between are of Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner, founding standard-bearer of the seminal new ‘Clean U.S. Party,’ [C.U.S.P.] the strange-seeming but politically prescient annular agnation of ultra-right jingoist hunt-deer-with-automatic-weapons types and far-left macrobiotic Save-the-Ozone, -Rain-Forests, -Whales, -Spotted-Owl-and-High-pH-Waterways ponytailed granola-crunchers, a surreal union of both Rush L.– and Hillary R.C.–disillusioned fringes that drew mainstream-media guffaws at their first Convention (held in sterile venue), the seemingly LaRoucheishly marginal party whose first platform’s plank had been Let’s Shoot Our Wastes Into Space, C.U.S.P. a kind of post-Perot national joke for three years, until — white-gloved finger on the pulse of an increasingly asthmatic and sunscreen-slathered and pissed-off American electorate — the C.U.S.P. suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reactionary voter-spasm that made the U.W.S.A. and LaRouchers and Libertarians chew their hands in envy as the Dems and G.O.P.s stood on either side watching dumbly, like doubles partners who each think the other’s surely got it, the two established mainstream parties split open along tired philosophical lines in a dark time when all landfills got full and all grapes were raisins and sometimes in some places the falling rain clunked instead of splatted, and also, recall, a post-Soviet and -Jihad era when — somehow even worse — there was no real Foreign Menace of any real unified potency to hate and fear, and the U.S. sort of turned on itself and its own philosophical fatigue and hideous redolent wastes with a spasm of panicked rage that in retrospect seems possible only in a time of geopolitical supremacy and consequent silence, the loss of any external Menace to hate and fear.
This motionless face on the E.T.A. screen is Johnny Gentle, Third-Party stunner. Johnny Gentle, the first U.S. President ever to swing his microphone around by the cord during his Inauguration speech. Whose new white-suited Office of Unspecified Services’ retinue required Inauguration-attendees to scrub and mask and then walk through chlorinated footbaths as at public pools. Johnny Gentle, managing somehow to look presidential in a Fukoama microfiltration mask, whose Inaugural Address heralded the advent of a Tighter, Tidier Nation. Who promised to clean up government and trim fat and sweep out waste and hose down our chemically troubled streets and to sleep darn little until he’d fashioned a way to rid the American psychosphere of the unpleasant debris of a throw-away past, to restore the majestic ambers and purple fruits of a culture he now promises to rid of the toxic effluvia choking our highways and littering our byways and grungeing up our sunsets and cruddying those harbors in which televised garbage-barges lay stacked up at anchor, clotted and impotent amid undulating clouds of potbellied gulls and those disgusting blue-bodied flies that live on shit (first U.S. President ever to say shit publicly, shuddering), rusty-hulled barges cruising up and down petroleated coastlines or laying up reeky and stacked and emitting CO as they await the opening of new landfills and toxic repositories the People demanded in every area but their own. The Johnny Gentle whose C.U.S.P. had been totally up-front about seeing American renewal as an essentially aesthetic affair. The Johnny Gentle who promised to be the possibly sometimes unpopular architect of a more or less Spotless America that Cleaned Up Its Own Side of the Street. Of a new-era’d nation that looked out for Uno, of a one-time World Policeman that was now going to retire and have its blue uniform deep-dry-cleaned and placed in storage in triple-thick plastic dry-cleaning bags and hang up its cuffs to spend some quality domestic time raking its lawn and cleaning behind its refrigerator and dandling its freshly bathed kids on its neatly pressed mufti-pants’ knee.
A Johnny Gentle who was as of this new minute sending forth the call that ‘he wasn’t in this for a popularity contest’ (Popsicle-stick-and-felt puppets in the Address’s audience assuming puzzled-looking expressions above their tiny green surgical masks). A President J.G., F.C. who said he wasn’t going to stand here and ask us to make some tough choices because he was standing here promising he was going to make them for us. Who asked us simply to sit back and enjoy the show. Who handled wild applause from camouflage-fatigue- and sandal-and-poncho-clad C.U.S.P.s with the unabashed grace of a real pro. Who had black hair and silver sideburns, just like his big-headed puppet, and the dusty brick-colored tan seen only among those without homes and those whose homes had a Dermalatix Hypospectral personal sterilization booth. Who declared that neither Tax & Spend nor Cut & Borrow comprised the ticket into a whole new millennial era (here more puzzlement among the Inaugural audience, which Mario represents by having the tiny finger-puppets turn rigidly toward each other and then away and then toward). Who alluded to ripe and available Novel Sources of Revenue just waiting out there, unexploited,
not seen by his predecessors because of the trees (?). Who foresaw budgetary adipose trimmed with a really big knife.
The Johnny Gentle who stressed above all — simultaneously pleaded for and promised — an end to atomized Americans’ fractious blaming of one another for our terrible internal troubles. Here bobs and smiles from both wealthily green-masked puppets and homeless puppets in rags and mismatched shoes and with used surgical masks, all made by E.T.A.’s fourth- and fifth-grade crafts class, under the supervision of Ms. Heath, of match-sticks and Popsicle-stick shards and pool-table felt with sequins for eyes and painted fingernail-parings for smiles/frowns, under their masks.
The Johnny Gentle, Chief Executive who pounds a rubber-gloved fist on the podium so hard it knocks the Seal askew and declares that Dammit there just must be some people besides each other of us to blame. To unite in opposition to. And he promises to eat light and sleep very little until he finds them — in the Ukraine, or the Teutons, or the wacko Latins. Or — pausing with that one arm up and head down in the climactic Vegas way — closer to right below our nose. He swears he’ll find us some cohesion-renewing Other. And
then make some tough choices. Alludes to a whole new North America for a crazy post-millennial world. First U.S. President ever to use boss as an adjective. His throwing his surgical gloves into the miniature Inaugural crowd as souvenirs is Mario’s own touch.
And Mario Incandenza’s idea of representing President Gentle’s cabinet as made up mostly of tall-coiffured black-girl puppets in shiny imbricate-sequin dresses is also of course historically inaccurate, though the honorary inclusion, in that cabinet’s second year, of the Presidente of Mexico and the P.M. of Canada is both factual and of course seminal:
PRES. MEX. AND P.M. CAN. [in unison and green-mask-muffled]: It is tremendously flattering to be invited to sit on the cabinet of the leadership of our beloved neighbor to the [choose one].
GENTLE: Thanks, boys. You have gorgeous souls.
It’s not the cartridge’s strongest scene, heavy on stock phrases and two-handed handshakes. But the historical fact that the Presidente of Mexico and P.M. of Canada are honorarily appointed by President Gentle to be ‘Secretaries’ of Mexico and Canada (respectively) — as if the neighbors had already become sort of post-millennial American protectorates — is fore-shadowed as ominous by a wavered D-minor on the soundtrack’s organ — Mrs. Clarke’s Wurlitzer, at home — but the two leaders’ respectively
dusky and Gallic expressions seem unperturbed, under their green masks, as more stock phrases are invoked.
Because budget and broom-closet constraints make artful transitions between scenes impractical, Mario has opted for the inter-scenic ‘entr’acte’ device of having Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner doing some of his repertoire’s bouncier numbers, with the cabinet-members undulating and harmonizing Motownishly behind him, and other puppets bouncing in tempo on- and offstage as the script requires….