Tag Archives: Clipperton

Musings on “Big Red Son” and IJ

The opening paragraphs to “Big Red Son” were so astonishing I actually read them aloud to my house-mates, because I felt the need to share the strange experience of reading them. For me, this was the most startling and repulsive and yet engrossing opening of anything I have heretofore read by David Foster Wallace. And based on the fact that the subject of autocastration never again occurs in the approximately fifty-page essay, I can safely say that that was its basic purpose: to mirror for the reader the atrocity of the AVN Awards show’s effect on Wallace. He practically says as much when saying that after being a judge for the AVN Awards, “We guarantee that you will never thereafter want to see, hear, engage in, or even think about human sexuality ever again” (5). Apparently just watching the show came pretty close to this for Wallace, and the disturbing opening paragraphs of the essay are certainly meant to convey some of this feeling of horror.


In the body of the essay, though, the strangest thing was that I kept finding echoes of
Infinite Jest. Take, for example, the description of one of the male porn stars: “The infamous T.T. Boy is here, standing alone with his trademark glower, the Boy who is rumored to bring a semiautomatic pistol with him to the set . . .” (15). (Not to mention that Max Hardcore declares that he will get a trophy whether legitimately or not [32].) Anyone else get the sudden image of Eric Clipperton? One has to wonder what it is about a gun that helps a guy perform in a porn scene, and how that may be similar to Clipperton’s tennis performance. It didn’t sound like the gun was actually a threat for the Boy; rather, it was just sort of there. Clipperton, on the other hand, had the gun held to his head for entire matches–and the threat was implicating others in his suicide. For the Boy, the short sentence didn’t make it sound like suicide was really a possibility. Truly, though the two both had guns involved in their performances, and I immediately thought of Clipperton when reading this, I’m not sure what their real connection is. It seems like the symbol for the Boy is really just a symbol, but for Clipperton it’s a very real thing.


A clearer connection is made between pornography and the Entertainment, though not by Wallace himself. He quotes David Mura: “The addict to pornography desires to be blinded, to live in a dream. Those in the thrall of pornography try to eliminate from their consciousness the world outside pornography, and this includes everything from their family and friends or last Sunday’s sermon to the political situation in the Middle East. In engaging in such elimination the viewer reduces himself. He becomes stupid” (19). Like the Entertainment, it seems Mura is afraid that the porn “addict” ceases to care about anything outside the world on the screen. He uses the word “stupid” not in the sense of “less intelligent,” but in the older sense of being literally stupefied, falling into a state of stupor–much like the watchers of the Entertainment. It makes sense, since pornography certainly claims to be about pleasure in the various forms of sex, that these two would relate. Moreover, the draw of porn for people like the LAPD detective is the open humanity that sometimes appears (despite the fact these people are actors) as a direct result of pleasure (16); and while the Entertainment does not give pleasure because of sex, it does appear to touch on the basics of humanity.


Finally, the discussion of reality and representations thereof appears in both
Infinite Jest and “Big Red Son.” In IJ these discussions mostly arise from things like the map vs. territory dispute during Eschaton. In “Big Red Son,” we get the porn genre “Gonzo,” which “videos push the envelope by offering the apparent sexualization of actual real life,” “. . . whereas traditional, quote-unquote dramatic porn videos simulate the 100 sexualization of real life . . .” (26). The question of which genre is more real becomes unnecessary here, because people know that neither is. It becomes a question more of truthfulness: the dramatic porn never claims to be real life in the way Hollywood movies never claim to be real; but Gonzo porn is by all appearances real–and yet no discerning watcher would believe that. But then, I have a feeling most people watch porn not to analyze it but to gain some sort of pleasure from it. One has to ask, would any watcher even care?

Eric Clipperton

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.