The Endnoting of Michael Pemulis
Spoiler Line: 795
This is my attempt to talk about the fate of Michael Pemulis without becoming upset or irrational, which is what usually happens when I think about endnote 332 and its consequences. CT and Avril have given Pemulis the administrative boot via their proxy Aubrey deLint. The proximate cause behind this is the inadvertent Tenuate dosing of John Wayne, although it’s clear that deLint has been gunning for Pemulis since the Port Washington dosing incident, while Avril has always disliked him, especially since the electrified-doorknob incident and now, most recently, the episode with the cheerleader outfit.
However, in the logic of the overall book it’s clear that Pemulis’ true sin is that he is a “brass-faced liar,” according to Hal. P. 774:
‘[Pemulis'] face was a brass mask. It was almost frightening… Boo, I think I no longer believe in monsters as faces in the floor or feral infants or vampires or whatever. I think at seventeen now I believe the only real monsters might be the type of liar where there’s simply no way to tell. The ones who give nothing away.’
‘But then how do you know they’re monsters, then?’
‘That’s the monstrosity right there, Boo, I’m starting to think.’
‘That they walk among us. Teach our children. Inscrutable. Brass-faced.’
So, all right. This is an indictment of lying and insincerity, right? It comes right after we learn that Mario never lies and it doesn’t occur to him that anyone else could be lying, and right before Hal confesses the extent of his secret Bob Hoping in the pipe room. This is the new drug-free Hal saying this, remember, who at this point is 48 hours into withdrawal and feeling like he’s stuffed halfway down a chimney. Hal’s having something of a crisis and is re-evaluating his relationships and he doesn’t like what he sees when he looks at Pemulis in this new light.
The problem I have is that from a dramatic standpoint, the wave of Pemulis-bashing that gathers force on p. 774 and crests in endnote 332 isn’t convincing to me. For the first 773 pages of the book Wallace presents Pemulis to us as a lovable rogue and prankster — he has an acerbic wit, he’s nobody’s fool, he’s the Jack Sparrow of differential calculus. He wears a yachting cap, for Christ’s sake. What’s not to like about this guy? The Infinite Summer Twitter board has been intermittently aflame with declarations of love for Michael P. all summer.
Sure, he does some fairly reprehensible things — he nearly electrocutes a janitor and he conducts a drug experiment on his Port Washington opponent. But Wallace casts these episodes in an ironic, cartoonish light — I read these as the japes and capers of a high-spirited young lad, not as indicators of brass-faced monstrosity. But then on p. 774 Wallace does an abrupt about-face and turns deadly serious about Pemulis and the consequences of his actions, and now we’re supposed to be all “Michael P. is an asshole” along with Hal. I’m not buying it. Nearly everyone in this book is a liar of some type or another. What makes Pemulis any worse?
Keep in mind that getting booted from E.T.A. is literally Pemulis’ worst nightmare — his “deepest dread is of academic or disciplinary expulsion and ejection, of having to schlepp back down Comm. Ave. into blue-collar Allston diploma- and ticket-outless” (1035). The administrative boot in the ass delivered in endnote 332 is literally his Eschaton. Matty Pemulis’ story (682) gives us a harrowing glimpse of what the Allston of Pemulis’ childhood looked like — what do you think the chances are for a wise-cracking math nerd in an environment like that? Much like Randy Lenz, Pemulis gets banished from the “in here” of E.T.A. to the “out there” of Allston and environs. Pemulis’ fate seems incredibly harsh to me, especially coming as it does so abruptly. It doesn’t make dramatic sense. It doesn’t feel right to me. I wonder if some Pemulis-development was among the hundreds of pages that had to get cut? Probably.
Finally, note that Wallace relegates the final chapters of the Michael Pemulis story literally to the footnotes of the main story, as a sort of structural “fuck you” to Mikey P. Caleb Crain reports that Wallace referred to Pemulis as one of the “anti-Christs” of Infinite Jest. I don’t know about you guys, but my moral compass and Wallace’s are pointing in opposite directions on this one.