11 November Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Helen Steeply has arrived at E.T.A. and watches a match Hal plays against Stice. Both players are left-handed. Steeply has (ostensibly) come to speak to Hal about Orin, but Charles won’t let her have a conversation with him yet. No one knows where Avril is. Back in Arizona, Orin is once again having sex with the “Swiss” hand-model. Aubrey deLint sits with Helen and gives a constant stream of commentary on Hal’s performance. DeLint observes that as a player, Hal is “in essence a torturer.”
There is a marked increase in suspense during this scene, partly caused by the dramatic irony of knowing information that the characters don’t. For example, we know that Helen is really Hugh, that she is not a journalist and that she is at E.T.A. under false pretensions. We also know that the Swiss hand-model is likely Quebecois and possibly associated with the A.F.R.
Steeply asks when she will be able to talk to Hal; deLint initially ignores her, and then says he doesn’t think she will be able to at all. He explains that it is Charles’s decision, but adds that they’ve never allowed a current E.T.A. student to be interviewed before. Steeply is panicked and irritated. DeLint advises her to speak with Charles, and then suggests that she profile Coach Schtitt instead of Orin, because Schtitt is a “genius.” He is confused why she is writing about Orin, considering that he only “appears four times a game, never gets hit, [and] doesn’t even wear pads.”
Although it’s unclear, it doesn’t seem as though deLint is suspicious of Steeply’s motivations in profiling Orin and wanting to interview Hal. Rather, he is simply puzzled by them. He is also acting in a manner typical of a bureaucrat, insisting that Steeply shouldn’t be allowed to interview Hal simply because a current student has never been interviewed before.
The next passage is a letter from Helen Steeply to Marlon K. Bain, who now appears to work for a greeting card company in Waltham, MA. Helen says she is writing a profile on the Incandenza family and asks if Bain would be willing to answer questions about them. Bain’s response reads simply: “Fire away.” Helen’s response is included, but all her questions have been omitted and replaced with the word “Q.” (An endnote contains Bain’s answers, which he sends back to Helen in another letter. Bain explains that he and Orin were childhood friends who met through competitive junior tennis. They were the top two under-10 boys in Boston.)
Once again, key information is hidden away in an endtnote. This requires the reader to act as a kind of researcher or detective, much like Steeply her/himself. The responsibility of figuring out the full story through limited information is heightened further by the fact that Steeply’s questions are omitted, so the reader is forced to figure out what they are based on Bain’s answers.
(In the same endnote, Bain continues that he was one of the first students at E.T.A. after it was founded when he was 15. At the academy, he and Orin experimented with substances; taking psychedelics left Bain with several disabilities that now make his life very difficult. As a result Bain left E.T.A. at 17. He adds that he doesn’t know much about James’ suicide. He knows that James cast Joelle in a “radical new type of filmed entertainment that supposedly was driving him to a breakdown.” Bain warns Helen that Orin has a tendency to misrepresent the truth, convincing himself of his own fabrications.)
Like many E.T.A. students, Bain was left harmed and traumatized by his time in the academy. Yet this trauma also seems to have come from his interactions with the Incandenza family specifically. This is revealed through his cautious words about James’s mental breakdown and Orin’s tendency to lie. This last fact is especially important considering that Steeply seems to have been relying on Orin as a key source of information.
(In the same endnote, Bain describes a horrifying story in which he and Orin drove Orin’s parents’ car without realizing that the family dog, S. Johnson, was attached to it, thereby killing S. Johnson in a gruesome manner. Orin lied to Avril, saying S. Johnson was killed by another driver while he and Bain were taking the dog for a walk. Bain then conducts a more abstract meditation on parental love and abuse, and how parenting so often goes so terribly wrong. He admits that there was always something “not right” and “creepy” about Avril, saying that she extended a “pathological generosity” to her sons. It is almost as if she wanted them to suffer so she could be sympathetic and loving to them.)
Overall it is difficult to ascertain if the book is fair in its judgment of Avril. On the one hand, Avril does exhibit qualities of an overprotective, smothering, and perhaps disturbed mother. Of course, her most serious offence is that she is sexually involved with a student, a fact that should seriously cast doubt on her parenting abilities. Yet at the same time, it is worth noting that James is not blamed in the same way for his children’s issues, despite the fact that he was also a terrible parent.
Back in the main narrative, younger players involved in the Eschaton fiasco—while not in as much trouble as their Big Buddies—are punished by being made to inspect the underground tunnels that workers will have to use in the construction of the Lung, a new inflatable covering for the E.T.A. courts. Some of the tunnels have been used for storage and are now strewn with random items and litter, including a microwave and TP cartridges. James’s old editing “facilities” are also located in the tunnels. The young Eschaton players spend much of their time hanging out in the tunnels anyway, even having a sort of informal “Tunnel Club.” The club has no clear purpose, but members are adamant that girls are not allowed to join.
The disciplinary procedure whereby the Big Buddies absorb harsher punishments on behalf of their Little Buddies is intriguing. In a sense, this is one way in which E.T.A. imitates the structure of a family (where usually, though of course not always, older kids receive harsher punishments than younger kids).The mention of James’s belongings, along with the microwave and cartridges, remind us of the dark “underworld” of E.T.A. hidden beneath the prestigious exterior of the institution. (Especially as the microwave evokes James’s suicide and the cartridges the Entertainment.)
The boys have filled several trash bags and are making Kent Blott, who was also denied membership to the Tunnel Club, drag them up to the tunnel’s entrance. In the distance they can hear the applause from Hal’s match. LaMont Chu takes an inventory of everything they find in the tunnel. The boys are all hoping to find an infestation of feral hamsters—the kind that originate in the Great Concavity—which would distract Charles from the Eschaton situation. Avril has a severe phobia of rodents.
It is not clear what the younger generation of characters think about the political situation in which they live. Do they find it odd that they are part of a super-nation, or is it normal to them because they were still young when O.N.A.N. was formed? Are they frightened of the Great Concavity? It seems like the answer is no, given their desire to find the toxic feral hamsters.
The boys discover a fridge and at the same time smell something horrible. At first they accuse each other of farting, but then they realize the smell seems to be coming from the fridge. Inside, they discover a jar of mayonnaise with maggots crawling in it. Horrified, they flee the tunnel as fast as possible. Meanwhile, above ground there is a tie between Hal and Stice. DeLint has left, and Thierry Poutrincourt has come to sit next to Steeply instead. She explains that E.T.A. staff might seem unfriendly because they are protective of their students, who she calls their étoiles (stars).
Again, when it comes to taking care of children the border between protectiveness and cruelty is shown to be thin. Avril is also accused of being overly protective of her children, but it’s ambiguous if this is really the right way to think about her (and the other E.T.A. staff’s) behavior. After all, E.T.A. staff can actually be quite neglectful and oblivious of problems that exist among the student population.
Steeply reiterates that she is profiling Orin, not a current E.T.A. student. DeLint returns, and Steeply offers to switch to French; Poutrincourt shrugs, unimpressed, but continues in Quebecois. The two of them discuss competitive sport and the difficult transition from promising junior to adult player. Poutrincourt also talks about the challenges and pressures of professional tennis. DeLint interrupts to say that E.T.A.’s best player is John Wayne, and that Helen can see him play tomorrow. Helen casually mentions James’s filmmaking, but no one seems to notice.
Overall Steeply’s visit to E.T.A. has not been a success. While on the one hand s/he has at least not been discovered as an undercover operative, the ruse of the magazine profile of Orin has not proven to be an effective way of getting information about the Entertainment. This is perhaps due to the fact that people at E.T.A. have little interest in Orin, who in turn has little to do with the Entertainment (supposedly).