Of the many passages of Infinite Jest that I enjoy reading, either for entertainment value or for thought-provoking content, the Eric Clipperton episodes are high up there in the latter category. I’ve even gone so far as to use E.C. in a philosophical debate, about which I have now forgotten. The concept of “Clipperton’s hostage” – this fear of causing death less out of respect to the victim and more out of psychological self-preservation – has always struck me as one of the most subtle and most awe-inspiring metaphors in literature, such that it’s inspired in its own way one of my writing projects. This post isn’t about that. Instead, it’s about the more-mundane topic: evaluating why E.C. does what he does.
What amuses me is that basically everyone who ever encountered E.C., as DFW repeatedly notes, are focused on his victories and believe that he derives some strange pleasure from his pseudo-victories (431 contains a good metaphor for this, in an anatomically-questionable act that drives the “pleasure” point home rather bluntly). The entire concept of E.C., to these kids who live tennis, is anomalous, which creates this sensation of hatred. And E.C. certainly didn’t make this any harder to handle, what with how he “always seemed so terrifically glum and withdrawn and made such a big deal out of materializing and dematerializing at tournaments” (431) – to reduce himself to the level of phantasm and thus strip away any sensation of reality.
However, I hesitate to follow prior writers and gesture toward Clipperton being either a genuine narcissist or an abrupt metaphor for the American Dream. There are several clues that give his story a greater depth, clues that really make the story so resonant in my mind.
For starters, consider Mario Incandenza, a character who at this point of the book hasn’t really been considered. Mario, while older than Hal, occasionally is portrayed as a rather innocent creature, despite his interest in Madame Psychosis’ shows, his penetrating cartridges, and ability to hit home at what is truly underlying the scenes around him. His association with Clipperton is important in that respect. Where everyone else treats E.C. and his gimmick as a joke or a travesty, Mario understands that E.C. is really just a very lonely teenager trying to make his tranqed-out and blind parents recognize his capabilities. He just did it in the most offensive way imaginable. But Clipperton’s home situation isn’t unlike that of Hal, whose parents are respectively [redacted for spoilers] (Avril) or pre-microwave lost in his head/post-microwave dead (Himself). And Mario recognizes this. See, for instance, Mario’s request that Himself not film E.C.’s funeral. Himself’s interest in E.C. is more of an aesthetic or perhaps merely archival. Which isn’t necessarily Himself’s fault, but certainly indicates how Mario related to E.C. In a sense, Mario was the closest thing E.C. had to a friend, and DFW emphasizes this to color Clipperton’s story. At the very least, it takes quite a bit of dedication to insist that you be the sole person to clean up the aftermath of someone eliminating their map*, especially in Mario’s condition.
The Hal-E.C. link is more than just a tenuous “have shitty families” association. Both of them are trying to actively escape their surroundings, both from their families and from their conditions. Hal feels dissociated from his success and his family, and is losing an ontological battle with himself, which he responds to with weed (and a lot of it – it’s mentioned that he smoked four times on Interdependence Day). Clipperton, meanwhile, is facing down a living situation with two basically nonexistent parents and little real potential to escape. Tennis to him provided an opportunity to get away from his circumstances, and succeeding gave him a glimmer of self-fulfillment. He’d never get invited to speak on Atlas Shrugged, for sure, but there’s something, if not admirable, at least a bit interesting about such a need to escape that he’d be willing to put his fate in the hands of people who clearly do not have his best interests at heart.
Clipperton’s story may be viewed as a cautionary tale, for sure, about letting success overwhelm better reason or taste, but I would hesitate to label E.C. himself so one-dimensionally. Clearly his final solution indicates that he wasn’t in it to win it – otherwise he probably would retire to perform the aforementioned anatomically-questionable act. Instead, E.C. represents something that defines and yet is anomalous in the sport of youth tennis: a kid, lost and incapable of coming to grips with a world that’s tearing at the edges.
* Which reminds me – I don’t know if anyone has mentioned “eliminating a map” as a strange choice of phrase in the book. It probably relates in some way to the US giving Canada toxic territory, but when I think this, I think of the Borges story about an empire with a map of the same size ª. Anyone else got an idea? I like the Borges story especially because it gives Pemulis’ “It’s snowing on the map, not the territory” bit a whole new level.
ª From Borges’ “On Exactitude In Science”:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.