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The Man Without a Bottom

July 29, 2009

A few sun-and-surf-addled thoughts prompted by the AA meeting section (pp. 343-379 of Infinite Jest):

  1. In the Boston AA addiction/recovery narratives, Wallace places high importance on hitting Bottom, “the kind of a hell of a mess that either ends lives or turns them around” (347). Question, though: what happens to the folks who never hit Bottom? You probably know several borderline addict-types (the friend who always has a drink in his hand, the older person whose One Glass of Wine With Dinner somehow always lasts from about 4 PM till 9, &c.) who bristle at any suggestion of overconsumption and who will never, ever, admit a problem or seek help. Do these people have a place in Wallace’s narrative?
  2. One of the dangers, I think, of focusing on the extreme cases (as Wallace seems to be doing) is that you can inadvertently normalize this type of behavior or minimize the dangers of less-extreme forms of it. Gately sort of addresses this when he tells Erdedy and JvD how he was “thinking how he bled from the ass and I didn’t and how that means I’m not as bad as him yet and I can still be Out There”(365). It’s easy to see how one of the functioning addicts described in (1) could read this book and walk away with a similar conclusion.
  3. The smiley-face meme is really gathering force with Gately’s dream on p. 359, and then Gately’ vision of the smiley-face superimposed on JvD’s veil on p. 367. Recall that the smiley was scribbled on the envelope containing The Entertainment sent to the Near-Eastern medical attaché (36). So we’ve got Joelle, The Entertainment and drug addiction all getting thematically linked via smiley face. I think there’s something crucial here re: Wallace’s critique of American notions of personal happiness.
  4. Did anyone else come away from Wallace’s treatment of the stripper (370-374) feeling that there was a jarring lapse in authorial compassion in this section? I get that the stripper’s main sin was trying to ascribe some sort of causality to her situation, which is a big AA no-no. But Wallace seemed to take this way over the top with the invention of the “Wounded, Hurting, Inadequately Nurtured but Ever-Recovering Survivors” (aka, WHINERS) 12-step group. This isn’t something you can just write off as coming from a biased narrator or speaker or anything, at least not that I can see.
14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2009 11:09 pm

    I’m glad you mentioned the bottomless issue. I think that to a degree, somebody like Erdedy is bottomless. He suffers a sort of paralysis, sure, but he’s not blowing people in the street to scrape for his next bong hit. I’m not sure somebody like Bruce Green is entirely bottomed out either (though maybe we learn more of his story later — I forget). He lives in squalor and has lost his frankly sort of low-rent wife and their child, but I don’t know that he’s on that cliff I think Gately mentions.

    You’re right, though, that so far, Wallace hasn’t given as much care to non-bottomers (maybe because he figures they need it less because they’re coping, so far?). And it’s a category I personally fit into. I’m the guy who gets alcohol for Christmas presents and who, after occasional breaks from booze, goes periodically back to having a drink most nights and then a few drinks most nights and then a few drinks every night until I begin to worry that I won’t get out of the spiral and wind up taking another self-imposed break. I doubt I’ll ever hit any sort of bottom, and yet what tends to make me pull back from what is becoming more and more clearly a sometime-dependence on alcohol is the fear of something like a bottom (if a small one). Seeing so much bottom in IJ has been nourishing for me and has put me back on the wagon again (but for how long?).

    Right on re the smiley face thing. It’s probably not a coincidence that this common emblem is annular in shape. I think there are smiley faces on Tiny Ewell’s happy shoes (though I may have invented that based on the name they give them). And isn’t the bin from which Joelle nearly picks up a copy of a cartridge (the Entertainment?)on her way to Molly Notkin’s also in the shape of a smiley face? Or is it just a smiling man?

    • infinitedetox permalink*
      July 30, 2009 6:22 pm

      Wow, that’s a lot to hang out there — thanks. I noticed a similar alcohol dynamic going on with myself before it all got steamrolled under the opiate thing. What would generally cause me to put the brakes on was the thought that okay, I’m 20-something years old, if this dynamic continues unchecked for another 20, 30 years, where will that put me? It’s something I’m going to have to be real careful with going forward, I think. I wonder if it would make sense to see if you can stay on the wagon through the end of the novel, and see where that takes you?

      I’d be real curious to know how many people have read this book and re-evaluated their substance relationships as a result. I’m guessing there are quite a lot.

      Right on with the happy slippers. The Entertainment advertisement, IIRC, was of a kind of creepily-leering wheelchaired dude. But there may have been an associated smiley that I’m not remembering.

  2. Sarah permalink
    July 30, 2009 3:58 am

    I hadn’t spotted as many instances of the smiley, (and am grateful for the opportunity to check them out) but it caught my attention also, primarily in connection with acid, but also as a symbol from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. It is originally sported by the Comedian, the cynical one who “gets the joke.”

  3. July 30, 2009 11:07 am

    Many times have I wondered about a “bottom-less” professor of mine from years back, who once walked into my closet when (trying to) leave my apartment, who puts away two martinis before the waiter gets the wine to the table, and apparently does this every night. And then gets up at 7 a.m. to attend conference sessions all day, who successfully holds down a well-deserved international reputation, having published numerous influential works, who has been president and/or originator of an abundance of professional societies, who has by all apparent evidence a very successful family life, who mentors graduate students with the highest respect, etc. How to classify this broken-capillaries-on-the-nose drunk who is one of the most impressive people I know?

    On the Stripper – yes, this was bit rough, and Gately perhaps makes it worse by saying that there are White Flaggers whose own stories make this one pale in comparison. Not sure why we’d want to compare tragedies, nor what could make the Stripper’s horrifying tale of It “pale.” No hierarchy-of-oppressions, please!

    Still, what I took to be the most important point was the audience reaction to the Stripper, that causality (like irony) is death, speaking-on-Commitments-wise, and that AA is, at least so far as it is portrayed, a narrow and not a wide approach to Disease: “classically authoritarian, maybe even proto-Fascist” (p. 374).

    • infinitedetox permalink*
      July 30, 2009 6:31 pm

      Yeah — bottoms. Your story about the professor reminds me of similarly high-functioning individuals I’ve heard about. There’s like this whole mythology surrounding certain types of high-octane functional addictions. I wonder what the take-home from this is? I mean, I wonder if it’s the honest-to-god truth that there are certain people whose relationships with their chosen substances are what allow them to function at the level they do? Or is it all bullshit, and that these people could do even more if they weren’t substance-enslaved on some level? Or are they internally chewed-up and on some level tormented by their substance relationship?

      My grandmother, for instance — she died a lonely woman (she had a very complicated and not-too-happy relationship with her only child). For the last, I don’t know, three decades or so of her life she was pretty much continuously pickled on the Bloody Marys she would drink from dawn to dusk, every single day. She was deeply lonely and unhappy, I think, but the alcohol was quite literally her sole comfort. Where would she have been without it?

      I have the same question as you — how to classify these people? This stuff is all super-ambiguous and discomforting to me.

  4. Zach permalink
    July 30, 2009 1:31 pm

    I’ve noticed the smiley face motif, and I’m only a bit from the end and the smiley face keeps on keeping on. It’s interesting to keep seeing this image, especially since Watchmen came out on DVD last week, which is of course rife with smiley faces as well, that these two mammoth works of literature seem to both deal so heavily with this same image. I can’t think of anything else with as much weight that so heavily reappropriates this image.

  5. July 30, 2009 3:28 pm

    I think Wallace does this bit intentionally, giving us the compassionless White Flag response to the Stripper story so that he can then contrast it with the “oh my god I’m shuddering with terrified laughter” section that follows, with the prostitute’s stillborn baby.

    Re: the bottom issue, DFW does seem more concerned with hitting bottom than those who just coast along. After all, isn’t the test Pat Montesian sets up for intake interviews to see whether or not the applicants are DESPERATE enough (i.e., at bottom) to attempt to suck up by petting scabrous dogs?

    • July 31, 2009 9:00 am

      Nicely said, I think you’re exactly right on both points. On the former, we again have the “narrative perspective” issue, in that this is a specifically White Flag response (no reader would be so compassionless).

      And on the latter, AA (and not just Ennet House) has a sort of “entrance exam” = Desperation = inability to live Out There, whatever the reason. Those who can coast – or even be richly successful – while being a heavy user may have an addiction but nevertheless fail to be AA material.

  6. infinitedetox permalink*
    July 30, 2009 6:32 pm

    You know, I totally missed the Watchmen thing. I’ve never read it, but it came out well before IJ, right? It might be worth a read-through…

  7. July 31, 2009 12:35 pm

    Q: Do you suppose that Hal’s dreaded clutch-your-flashlight-in-terror face in the floor is also a smiley? We are never actually given a description of it.

  8. Anthony Cooper permalink
    July 31, 2009 6:07 pm

    Watchmen came out in the late eighties. It is very worthwhile on its own, but I don’t think it has any substantive contribution to give to a reading of IJ.

    And just as another possibility for the origin of the smiley face, I know it was once a symbol used for drug houses, kinda like shoes hanging from their strings on telephone cabling. My understanding was it was primarily an acid culture thing, and that when a house went bad (got busted) they dabbed a bit of red between the eyes.

  9. August 2, 2009 11:27 am

    Ray G: That’s a great point about the face in the floor. I hadn’t thought of connecting it to the smiley motif but it works really well if you think of the face in the floor as the sinister fanged alter-ego of the smiley face; ie the “dark side” of the pursuit of personal happiness symbolized by the smiley.

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