8 November Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment Interdependence Day Gaudeamus Igitur. Mario’s first finished and “halfway-coherent” film was of a finger puppet show, and it was such a surprising hit with E.T.A. students and staff that it is screened every year on Interdependence Day. (An endnote here explains that Charles and Schtitt spent I-Day giving presentations about E.T.A. at tennis clubs and missed the whole Eschaton fiasco. Charles has also been preoccupied with the imminent arrival of Helen Steeply on E.T.A.’s campus.) Mario gives a very short introduction to the film, which is loosely based on a political propaganda film made by James called The ONANtiad.
Like every other part of life at E.T.A., Interdependence Day has its own complex set of norms and rituals. This includes both Eschaton and the screening of Mario’s film, both of which are loosely relevant to the holiday considering that they concern geopolitics and the relationships between nations. (After all, though we don’t yet know what Mario’s film is about, it’s based on a political film with “ONAN” in the title.)
The film features a lounge singer and B movie actor called Johnny Gentle who became President of the U.S., and it mixes historical facts with Mario’s own inventions. The O.N.A.N. era is introduced with President Gentle telling the Mexican President and Canadian Prime Minister: “We North Americans have to stick together… we’re interdependent.” The Canadian P.M. replies: “It is a smaller world, today,” and this leads into the song “It’s a Small World After All.”
Mario’s childlike approach to the political events that led to the creation of O.N.A.N. is best expressed by the fact that he chooses to include “It’s a Small World,” the song from a children’s ride at Disneyland. This is reminiscent of the ways that historic political events are oversimplified in elementary education so as to be understood by children.
Down in the weight room, Lyle recalls an E.T.A. student called Marlon whose skin was always wet. There are almost always people in the weight room, even though it’s technically locked at night. Tonight, LaMont Chu confesses that he has “an increasingly crippling obsession with tennis fame.” He is only 11 but completely fixated on every aspect of life as a professional tennis player. Lyle responds by explaining that after the initial rush of fame, professional tennis players end up just as “trapped” and unhappy as LaMont is now. In despair, LaMont concludes that he is therefore trapped either way.
Although LaMont is one of the only characters in the novel to admit to this obsession with fame and success, he is certainly not the only one to suffer from it. Perhaps the fact that he is able to confess to Lyle is actually a sign that LaMont is more emotionally mature than some of his fellow students. While Lyle’s advice is wise, it does not end up giving much solace to LaMont, suggesting that the truth is not always comforting or helpful.
Lyle’s advice tends to be straightforward and effective. Back upstairs, Mario’s film features James’s signature blending of clips from real and fake news cartridges. The headers are listed side by side with no indication of which ones are real. They announce the emergence of the O.N.A.N. pact, the enormous waste problem the U.S. was facing at the time, and the decision to dump this waste in the Great Concavity.
The mixture between fact and fiction in James and Mario’s films reflects a similar mix that occurs in Infinite Jest’s portrayal of world history. While the novel refers to some real people and events, it is set in a near-future where much of the world as we know it has been surreally fictionalized.
One of Lyle’s repeated phrases of advice is “Do not underestimate objects!” When Stice seeks Lyle’s help about the problem of his bed moving around his room at night, he regretfully apologizes for not following Lyle’s advice before, but Lyle dismisses this as no problem at all. Almost no E.T.A. students smoke cigarettes because it makes training so much more painful, but Hal is addicted to nicotine and thus chews and spits tobacco instead. He also has a compulsion issue with sugar, which—when he ingests it in significant amounts—induces strange, unappealing emotional experiences.
Some interpretations of the novel hold that the phenomenon of objects moving around E.T.A. seemingly of their own accord is the result of James’s spirit moving them. Meanwhile, the connection between Hal’s sugar consumption and his strange emotional experiences could suggest that sugar activates the DMZ inside his system (from the mold he ate as a child).
Mario’s interest in puppets is another thing he inherited from James, who once made a short film called The Medusa v. the Odalisque, which depicted a fake theatre production. The Odalisque is a Medusa-like character from Quebecois mythology who is so beautiful that anyone who looks at her turns into a precious stone. The film was not a huge success, but is far from James’ “most hated” cartridge, which is undoubtedly one called The Joke. The Joke’s marketing advised viewers not to see it, which had the effect of encouraging art film fans to see it, only to find that the entire film was just a shot of the audience itself. It ran as long as anyone could bear to stay watching it.
As is probably clear by now, much of the novel is occupied with making fun of avant-garde film fans and scholars. This passage suggests that such fans have a perverse, unnecessarily masochistic relationship to art. Rather than seeking out art that they will enjoy, they deliberately choose difficult, off-putting works (such as “The Joke”). However, they still then get annoyed when the work is not pleasant to see, which suggests that on some level even avant-garde film fans actually do want to be entertained.
Back in Mario’s film, more headlines announce the emergence of birth defects in babies born near the Great Concavity, and the President Gentle administration’s denial that anything shady was afoot. Having initially denied the existence of the Great Concavity, President Gentle declares it a “federal disaster” and offers disaster relief to affected citizens. His administration came to be nicknamed “The Concavity Cabinet”; Mario inexplicably depicts it as consisting entirely of glamorous black women with coiffed hair.
As well as jokes about women and people with disabilities, Infinite Jest also features a remarkable amount of humor based in racism. While on the surface there might be nothing wrong with depicting Gentle’s cabinet as entirely staffed by glamorous black women, we ought to pause and reflect on why this is considered funny. Is it because the existence of such a cabinet is seen as incongruous?
In Mario’s representation of the meeting between Gentle’s cabinet, the President of Mexico, the P.M. of Canada, and various other statesmen, Mr. Rodney Tine, the Chief of the Office of Unspecified Services, announces Gentle’s plan to “give it away” (“it” meaning the Great Concavity). The Secretary of State is appalled that Gentle let Tine persuade him to have the toxic waste dumped on that site in the first place. Yet Tine insists that the Great Concavity will be a “an unprecedented intercontinental gift,” which the Secretary of State calls “a kind of ecological gerrymandering.”
The idea of the American government giving a toxic wasteland to another country and framing it as a generous gift would be ridiculous if it weren’t so close to reality. Once again, Wallace exposes how absurd the current state of the world is by creating a surreal, fictionalized, but not entirely unbelievable version of the world in the novel.
More headlines describe Gentle’s effort to force Canada to accept the “gift” of the Great Concavity, despite the Canadian P.M.’s extreme reluctance to do so. One news cartridge announces that Gentle has isolated himself in a private suite in hospital and is engaged in extremely erratic behavior. Tine publicly claims that the President “has completely lost his mind” and is threatening to both commit suicide and bomb his own nation if Canada doesn’t accept the gift.
While President Gentle (who like former U.S. President Ronald Reagan is a former actor) seems to be naïve and incompetent, Rodney Tine serves the role of the smart, sneaky, and sinister advisor who is really pulling the strings. Of course, when it becomes advantageous to him, Tine is quick to disaffiliate himself with the president.
Some E.T.A. students know that this part of the film is a “puppet-à-clef-type allusion” to the story of Eric Clipperton. Clipperton was an independent junior tennis player who owned a gun and, if he was losing a game, would play with it pressed to his head. As a result, no one could bring themselves to beat him. No one knows where Clipperton came from; the only person he befriended was Mario, who was eight at the time they met.
To further complicate Mario’s blend of fact and fiction, his film does not simply aim to represent O.N.A.N.’s political history but also the legends of junior tennis. “Puppet-à-clef” is a play on roman-à-clef (“novel with a key”), a literary genre wherein a real story is told using fictionalized names and details.
Hal has smoked weed four times this I-Day, and while watching the film has eaten four chocolate cannolis in half an hour. The film mentions Tine’s love affair with a mysterious Quebecoise woman called Luria P——. Hal is well informed about the contemporary American advertising industry, having once written a long research paper about advertising and television for Mr. Ogilvie’s Introduction to Entertainment Studies class in seventh grade. Ratings for TV networks have been falling for some time, and in his paper Hal argued that the pressure of fighting for short-term financial viability made it impossible for TV execs to adequately plan for how to adjust to longer-term changes in entertainment culture.
While the society depicted in the novel may seem to have a problematic obsession with entertainment, it is also true that Hal and other students who have taken classes like Introduction to Entertainment are much better informed about media than most people in our reality. This is significant, as it is widely believed that having “media literacy” makes people better citizens. Understanding the ways in which media influences one’s life is important and empowering.
A trio of black and white ads for a small company that made tongue scrapers was ultimately what sealed the TV networks’ fate. The ads “shook viewers to the existential core,” and for a year the whole American population became obsessed with tongue hygiene. At the same time, the “big four” TV networks suffered complete financial collapse, taking the major advertisement agencies who focused on TV ads with them. A visionary video-rental mogul persuaded the big four to consolidate behind a front company she founded after predicting this exact turn of events. She advocated a future of self-selected programming, rather than viewers passively choosing a particular channel.
This is another moment in which Wallace accurately predicts our contemporary reality. At the time when he was writing Infinite Jest, on-demand TV was still in its early stages, and the total domination of streaming sites such as Netflix within the entertainment market was very far in the future. Yet Wallace had an accurate grasp of people’s appetite for constant entertainment, and as such was able to accurately predict the future of our media landscape.
Thus began the cartridge era. Suddenly, televisual production no longer depended on advertising. For the first time, “personal pleasure and gross revenue looked… to lie along the same demand curve.” Cartridges were played on Teleputers (TPs) and featured no ads at all. Advertising agencies were overrun with panic and chaos. The enormously successful ad exec P. Tom Veals, on learning about the lounge singer Johnny Gentle, decided to serve as the manager of his presidential campaign.
While the desire for on-demand viewing was not solved by “cartridges” in reality, there are again key similarities between the future Wallace predicts here and what has transpired in real life. The advent of streaming revolutionized advertising, as TV adverts very quickly became less popular.