Tag Archives: reality

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?

Corrupted Domesticity

The Oblivion presented some problems for me personally. The “it’s all a dream” ending is so annoying, and sort of cheap. I’m wondering: what’s the point?  I see the statement: “none of this is real” as a key thesis of the story.    This statement causes the reader to go back and reexamine the previous text. But does it matter? Well I hope so, because I spent the majority of my day reading it. (Although I don’t have much to show for myself).


Key strangeness in this narrative: the Woody Allen/adoptive daughter affair thing that’s happening. For example: “for, as with most husbands, I had, of course, only seen my face when…masturbating with saffron scented under-garment.” The saffron scent, if we remember, is one connected to “our Audrey.” The daughters emergent sexuality foils the mothers’ aging (another key of the story is the sadness/inevitability of aging): “all the willful clinging to the…vivacity which their own daughters unknowingly serve to mock as they latterly blossom.” These same daughters, “all dispatched to ‘out-of-State’ colleges” (218). Being dispatched myself, this hit home and I think that’s the point. However, DFW’s depiction of a familial nightmare is a bit too strange to identify with fully.

According to my mother, snoring is a common problem in marriages. One of her friends reportedly said ‘earplugs saved my marriage.’ In this story, the couple’s conflict has escalated scarily, because of the different realities each party is functioning under. He finds himself thinking violent thoughts in the breakfast nook (the place emphasizes the strange/corrupted domesticity of the snoring problem). They essentially argue about who is insane, and the insanity of their disagreement justifies the confusion.   The idea of a dream emphasizes the precariousness of reality/perception. Still, their conflict seems to be about many things: “the fact is that Hope is even now returning home from Exercise or the cosmetician…” The traditional gender roles they enact appear as a source of stress. Also, there’s the issue of aging and thus mortality (dream and death kind of thing). I can’t escape from perception as a key theme in DFW’s work (thinking of the fraud thing in “Good Old Neon” most recently).

Boundaries of reality

Once again, our reading for the week touches on and expands the variety of themes we have identified as central to Infinite Jest (and basically to DFW’s writing as a whole). The theme I’m concentrating on here is the one about the relations of varying realities and worlds–the idea that not only games but life has rules.

In this section, Marathe and Steeply continue their conversation on freedom as it relates to the Entertainment, and Steeply speaks up a lot more. He clarifies that the problem is not that
Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents are employing a very insidious weapon against the American population (that type of act is, after all, not out of the question when it comes to U.S.-international history). The problem is that they seem not to have a motive. They are doing it just to hurt America. With past aggressors, actions were understandable: “It’s like there’s a context for the whole game, then, with them. We know where we stand differs from where they stand. There’s a sort of playing field of context. . . . Rules of play. Rules of engagement” (421). When it comes to the AFR, there are no rules. They have broken those bounds that Steeply and most others cannot see around. What they have done, really, is completely abstract the idea of an enemy that Americans can define: an enemy wants to hurt, yes, but there is a goal in mind. That enemy is an Other who is its own Self, and we can understand the desire to harm for the sake of Self. When harm is caused without intention, without Self-gratification in some way, it is utterly puzzling. Because that Other is not doing it for its own Self, is that Other even an Other? It does not define itself as a Self, which paradoxically seems to be a prerequisite for being called an Other (viz. a Self that is separate from the POV’s Self). So, then, who is this enemy that has no purpose but hurt? If it is not Other . . . What else is there? (Is the abstraction beginning to hurt your brain yet?)

Of course, before we can talk about breaking rules and boundaries of reality, we have to recognize that these things exist. In elucidation of this point, one of the biker AA members tells Don Gately a little joke: “This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’ and swim away” (445). In the shallow argument against this, we could say, Look, the fish know they are surrounded by something and just haven’t named it water, like if someone called “air” something else, of course we wouldn’t know what they meant; that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize that air exists. But in a less shallow way, we have to admit, we don’t really know what “air” means either. We are told in science classes that air is made up of a bunch of molecules (a variety mainly including nitrogen) bouncing around with a lot of energy. But we can’t really see this. We can’t really
see anything. Air is right in front of our noses, like the water is right in front of the fish (their eyes, since they don’t have noses (which seems like a better way to put that expression anyway, right?)) and yet we can’t see it. Philosophically, there are probably a lot of things that are right there, so obvious, and yet we don’t recognize their existence. This is probably why, leading into things like AA, we have the ubiquitous “admitting the problem is the first step toward recovery.” It is impossible to change anything unless one first realizes a change ought to be made. For the AA members, the reason they first stepped through the doors is because they finally recognized the reality that had been there for a while. They admitted the fact of addiction (which, to any observer, probably would have been obvious), something very big and encompassing that was for quite a while, unseen and unnamed, like the fish’s water.

To tie these two accounts together, one might say that humans need to see boundaries to live. These boundaries may be of different realities, or they may be the places that divide Self and Other, but they are necessary for our existence. It isn’t always easy to see them, but when they are disrupted, we feel very distressed.