As of Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. E.T.A. was first directed by James Incandenza, and after his death, by James’ brother-in-law, Charles Tavis. James’s father, James Sr., had been both a competitive junior tennis player and a “promising young pre-method actor” who fell from grace and was no longer able to find work. James himself was also a talented junior tennis player who went on to gain a PhD in optical physics. He made experimental films that were “too far either ahead of or behind [their] time,” though some were also just simply bad.
The pressures of early talent and promise have evidently affected more than one generation of the Incandenza family. Both James and his father found success in a particular field early on in their lives, yet failed to sustain this success and ended up having to switch careers. This speaks to the well-known cliché that too much success at a young age can be harmful.
James was a tall and awkward alcoholic, yet still managed to marry Avril, one of the only “bombshell-type females” of the academic world. Avril was a highly successful academic—yet a history of involvement with leftist Québec separatists in graduate school meant that she struggled to obtain a visa to enter the United States. Having a child (Orin) with James helped Avril to overcome this obstacle. In the five years before James’s death, he gave Charles control of E.T.A. and spent all his time making documentaries and other opaque and “dramatic” cartridges. At 54, he committed suicide. He was intensely mourned by those in his many different fields: academia, film, and junior tennis.
James and Avril certainly make an odd match, and part of what makes their union so mysterious is that we still know little about the characters themselves. For example, it is completely unclear why James committed suicide. Similarly, we don’t know whether Avril ever actually loved him or if she was just using him to overcome her immigration issues.