Late October Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. The show before Madame Psychosis’s on WYYY is called “Those Were the Legends That Formerly Were,” and features students reading in “silly cartoon voices.” WYYY’s engineer is an asthmatic graduate student on work study; the only paid host on the station is Madame Psychosis, who sits behind a screen so no one can see her and smokes. Her show has a fairly small but very reliable listener base. On it, she discusses a wide range of topics, though film is one of the most consistent. Once, she read out instructions for making U-235 (used in nuclear weapons), which—although this was not particularly complex or secret information—got her in a lot of trouble with the M.I.T. administration.
The opening of this chapter explores a different side of fame and success: cult fame, the kind of appreciation that comes from a small group of people who love something even more because it is not widely appreciated. Madame Psychosis’s scientific abilities and interest in film bring to mind another character: James, who had a PhD in “optical physics” as well as being an avant-garde filmmaker.
Avril Incandenza quit her studies at M.I.T. to focus full-time on designing E.T.A.’s curriculum. E.T.A. is one of the few sports academies in North America with a rigorous academic program. There is a six-term Entertainment Requirement on the basis that students who are going to become professional athletes should also know how to be entertainers. Despite the fact that WYYY emits a high-pitched sound while Mario listens to it in the dining room, Avril doesn’t stop him. Mario would love to talk to Madame Psychosis, but would also be too scared to do it.
This passage’s discussion of the link between sport and entertainment is significant. Of course, there are many levels on which sport is a form of entertainment—it would be reasonable to argue that this is sport’s primary purpose in the public sphere. On the other hand, the book often presents tennis as having a deeper meaning than “just” entertainment, suggesting that tennis is more like a philosophy or way of life.
Madame Psychosis has a somewhat negative worldview, and for a while only discussed depressing books on her show. Avril retains the Canadian habit of eating supper very late, just before bed, and twice a week Hal is allowed to eat with her (as well as Uncle Charles and Mario). For dessert, she serves “high-protein-gelatin squares” which are like “Jell-O on steroids.” The dinner always ends in the same way, with Hal and his mother exchanging the exact same words before Hal leaves at around 1 am.
On the surface, Hal’s relationship with Avril seems to be close. He is certainly able to communicate with her better than he could with James, whose very presence made him choke. At the same time, is robotically exchanging the exact same set of words with Avril much better?
Ennet House is one of several satellite units that sit on the grounds of Enfield Marine Public Health Hospital. The other units include a methadone clinic. A methedrine addict in Ennet House laughs at the sight of the people who have been refused methadone that day and told to come back tomorrow. Her laugh is so violent that she drops the binoculars she was holding onto the beloved Corvette of Calvin Thrust, a sober retired porn actor, making a dent in the car.
Once again, silly, light-hearted comedy is mixed with dark themes. The porn actor Calvin Thrust and his Corvette are clearly ridiculous, but the cruelty of the unnamed resident who laughs is disturbing. Being unable to get methadone could easily cause the addicts waiting to relapse.
Another unit houses veterans with Alzheimer’s, and another is nicknamed “The Shed.” (An endnote explains that this is because residents are “stored” rather than “housed” there, and that residents are united by the fact that they are “debilitatingly phobic”—essentially paralyzed by fear.) The final unit, Unit #7, is boarded up and known as the place where Ennet House residents go to secretly relapse. For this reason, any Ennet House resident who enters Unit #7 is immediately discharged. Some Ennet House residents have custodial or kitchen jobs at E.T.A., which sits on a flattened hilltop right behind Unit #7.
The area surrounding Ennet House is essentially a sea of institutions, all of which serve slightly different functions, yet which are united by the fact that they each have a specific reputation and purpose. The residents of (or visitors to) each institution are imagined to behave in a certain way by being there, such as the people paralyzed by phobia in The Shed. In this sense, each individual’s identity becomes collapsed into the identity of the institution.