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The Endnoting of Michael Pemulis

August 31, 2009

Spoiler Line: 795

Photo by Flickr user Swamiblu, used under a Creative Commons license

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.’
‘Golly Ned.’
‘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.

47 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2009 10:28 am

    I don’t especially like Pemulis. Well, I think he’s rakish and mischievous and fun, but he’s not a guy I’d really want to be around. Maybe he’d dose me. Maybe he’d exact some kind of chemical revenge for some small inadvertent slight. Maybe, when I was finally trying to come to terms with my addiction, he’d try really fucking hard to pull me back into enslavement, and not merely enslavement to pot but enslavement to one of those harder drugs the pot I’m having such a hard time quitting is supposedly a gateway to.

    Pemulis has had it coming for a long time and has been allowed to slide. I don’t think he often sees beyond himself and his own needs, and maybe that’s why Wallace comes down on him.

    I’m coming down a little harder on him here than I really mean to. Lord, I wouldn’t wish on anybody the fate of going back to be fook’d in the boom by dear old Da (though I think we know MP wouldn’t take that; dear old Da would be doing Ethel Merman impressions long before rolling Mikey over). But I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for him. You sort of root for Jack Sparrow, but at the same time, isn’t there a sense of justice when he gets caught? Isn’t that kind of how this sort of character works? You can live vicariously through him, in a way, until he gets caught, at which point he does the time and you’ve maybe learned to see both sides of mischief.

    Also, Pemulis got careless. When you know your fondest desire (or your biggest fear) is hanging in the balance, you take precautions. As paranoid as he is in a lot of cases, I wonder what’s behind his sudden brass balls (to go with the brass face). Maybe he just figured he had a big enough one on Avril that he could get away with anything.

    I guess where I land is that I wouldn’t have felt outraged if Pemulis hadn’t gotten busted. But at the same time, I don’t have the same sense of unfairness about it that you do. When you reap what you knowingly sow, I think it’s all on your shoulders.

  2. August 31, 2009 10:40 am

    Thank you for this. Pemulis is a great, if misunderstood character, who gets a bad rap and the raw end of this deal.

  3. August 31, 2009 11:04 am

    I agree Daryl, generally — Pemulis has had something or other coming to him. I also think that his celebration of pot as a gateway drug, and trying to pull Hal back into enslavement, is about the most indefensible thing he does in the book.

    But I don’t think Wallace set it up right. For the first 773 pages Wallace is like “Hey! Check out this Pemulis guy! What a card, huh? What a fuckin’ joker! This guy cracks me up.” and then suddenly WHAM, on p. 774 the smile falls off Wallace’s face and he gives you a dead serious look and says “Hey, you know what? I was totally kidding about this Pemulis person. He’s a terrible person. He’s a prick and an asshole. This shit is serious and not at all funny — what the fuck are you laughing at?”

    It’s almost like Wallace’s portrayal of Pemulis for the first 773 pages was exactly the kind of brass-faced lie that Wallace then rips into Pemulis for. Maybe this was intentional?

    If I can indulge in a bit of biographical criticism, I kind of get the sense that Wallace is doing a little self-flagellation for past sins here. In the 93 RCF interview he talks about how during his collegiate career, when he was heavily into mathematics (like Pemulis), he thought of himself as a 98.6 degree calculating machine. This is exactly how he portrays Pemulis, with his encomium to Math right before he gets booted, as well as the robotic “whirring” sound that comes from his cortex as he’s sitting before deLint.

    Pemulis seems to me like a bizarro-Wallace who, unlike the real Wallace, never saw the shortcomings of a coldly analytical worldview.

  4. August 31, 2009 11:16 am

    You may have a point about the set-up. I need to think about that some more. I guess it could be argued that Wallace as much as told us that he was going to give Pemulis the axe, since he said (I think a couple of times) it was his biggest fear. So, knowing what he was risking, Pemulis kept behaving badly, and boom, he got what he kind of knew he’d get.

    In a way, it plays nicely against the whole idea of whether or not people would watch the Entertainment if they knew what would happen to them if they did. Steeply and Marathe talk about this a bit. I don’t mean to suggest that Wallace is going anywhere intentionally with that similarity, but it occurred to me as I was typing the preceding paragraph.

    I’m not sure how comfortable I am with biographical criticism, but what you suggest seems reasonable, especially where you land re the coldly analytical worldview. JOI has a problem with that too, we learn via Orin (if we can trust him) thorough Joelle.

  5. genevieveyorke permalink
    September 1, 2009 1:16 pm

    like everyone else apparently, i’ve loved the character of pemulis, and i also agree that he got a raw deal at the end of the book.

    but i guess more than hal’s description of the brass mask or delint and nwangi and everyone laying into him in footnote 332, the real shocker for me in terms of pemulis’s character was footnote 321, wherein pemulis comes across as diabolical, literally devilish, in his attempts to talk hal into trying the tu-sais-quoi. and in that footnote, he speaks for himself. no one is bashing pemulis except his author, dfw.

    hmm, i’m not sure what i’m trying to say with this comment. i guess i’m not going to make any arguments for or against the way dfw laid out pemulis’s character. my main point, i think, is that footnote 321 was shocking (i’m not hal – i can’t think of a better word than that), dfw clearly sets up pemulis as diabolical, and i wasn’t sure what to make of that until i saw the anti-christ comment above, which helped it all make a little more sense. in conclusion: thank god for these infinite summer blogs, which have added so much to my reading experience.

  6. September 1, 2009 3:59 pm

    Yeah, genevieve, you’re absolutely right — footnote 331 becomes more damning the more I think about it. It just comes from out of the blue, is my problem. Up until 331 Pemulis is a lovable rogue, and then suddenly he’s Hal’s Spider personified. If I were a creative writing instructor I’d deduct points for the abrupt shift in character-trajectory.

    Or, if I were Thierry Poitrincourt, I’d circle the episode in red pen and write “QUOI???”

  7. September 2, 2009 12:53 am

    I just caught up to this point this afternoon (and then had to stop, one of those IJ gets really powerful you have to put it down and take a bath or something moments), so this is all very not-yet-processed for me.

    I don’t see any real shift in character trajectory. I don’t think Pemulis gets what he deserves; yes he’s a rogue, but the satisfaction of deLint, &c. in that scene (flipping the papers of 17 into 56, which if Pemulis did do himself, and n.324 is not clear on this, then that was way-out-of-line and just shows that his practical judgment is at least twice, maybe thrice compromised) puts all the sympathy on Pemster.

    But, one replies, his devilish activities in n.321 make him Spidey-representative #1, who must be crushed? I didn’t read it that way. Think of this as the Schacht-guy talking, and bust my chops if necessary.

    Hal’s got an Inside problem, as we already know. And he compensates for that problem with Hope, Bob-class. Pemulis tells him that, without it, he’ll shrivel up and die, but if he keeps smoking, he’ll grow man boobs and use up all his spare socks and die that way.

    Spiders feed off emptiness, as I see it. Kate puts Hope in to try to stop the pain of the Void; the Spider hops a ride on Hope and once it’s in, it starts to create even more pain – the pain that feeds off the cure for the pain. The obvious solution, then, is not to face the original pain by Abandoning Hope, but finding a new means to divert the pain, fill the Void that is also a need. Pemulis is against the White Flag, because he is justly worried that there is death in that Flag. After all, we are led to believe via Molly that J.O.I. died of exactly this.

    It doesn’t have to be “onward and up”, as Pemulis says. But, I was very happy to find onwards and upwards as I got older, and to leave behind other substances that were no longer serving me well. Bad trips, more than one too many, no more. Paranoid pot, worked fine when I lived alone, but no fun around other people, drop it. Three beers was enough for a hangover. X was on and up, worked great great great for awhile, worth keeping on hand for that special rainy day.

    See, I don’t yet believe that Hal is Kate, or Lenz, or Gately, etc. And if there’s one thing I’m very unhappy with, it is a boy that says “whom” showing up at “The” Ennet House, where it is not at all obvious that he belongs.

    Oh, and a last note: when Pem says “I’ve been friends to you in ways you don’t even have a clue,” I think that’s da ‘troof.

    My chops are available for busting.

    • September 2, 2009 7:56 am

      The impression I get is that Pemulis is much more dickish than we see within the text. I think he’s probably pretty smarmy. Take the whole sarcastic “gracious me and mine” that introduces the note in question, for example. So while at first, I was inclined to agree with you that Nwangi and deLint were themselves kind of dickish. Well, and I still agree. ETA staff members are pretty much never sympathetic characters. But this doesn’t really make me feel that much more sympathy for Pemulis. Or maybe it does within this particular context but not generally.

      Re Pemulis being a friend to Hal in ways he doesn’t even know, he’s got to be talking about deflecting the ONANTA drug test when he (Pemulis) didn’t really even need the deflection. Which was a nice thing to do, a noble thing, in a way. Yet calling it (even indirectly) to Hal’s attention seems to me to undercut the friendliness of it, almost inviting a sort of quid pro quo.

      I guess I can agree that this whole ton-of-bricks approach to ousting Pemulis isn’t quite right. If there were suspicions accruing against him, they should have been addressed with appropriate warnings, etc. So maybe this was an extreme surge of punishment for Pemulis that’s too much to say he really had coming all at once. Still, I sort of feel like Pemulis has dished out plenty, and maybe even he (I’m thinking now of his discussion with the blindfolded Arslanian) could in a way appreciate that annular cliche that what goes around comes around.

      Re 17 into 56, totally one of the funniest gags in the book.

      • September 2, 2009 10:12 am

        You are too kind, Daryl. I love your point about Pem appreciating the annularity. And I do think that someone of his immense talents will end up o.k.

        I also have a kind of Hogwartsish desire to see Pem go ballistic on ETA, sort of the way the Weasley twins did when they got the boot. The Avril/Wayne dirt can’t be the only stuff he’s collected over the years!

      • genevieveyorke permalink
        September 2, 2009 11:15 am

        wow, i totally did not get that 17 into 56 comment until now. i kept on taking it math-literally. like, “what’s so dirty about 3.294…???”

  8. September 2, 2009 12:55 am

    Oh, and even if the 17 into 56 was out of line, it was still one of the very highlights of the book for me!

  9. September 5, 2009 1:47 pm

    I hope I’m not wrong about this, but this all takes place on Nov 17th, right? And I don’t think we’ve had anything after the 14th before (Is that right…I’m checking my timeline but I’ve forotten to update it [gasp!]. Could soemthing else go on in those few days (which may come later, or was indeed excised) that makes him seem more devilish?

    On the whole I didn’t read Endnote 321 as Pemulis being devilish, I read him as being a party guy/addict (?) who doesn’t want to party alone. It’s that sort of peer pressure that looked at objectively you say, jesus what a dick, but in the heat of hanging out with your friends, a little peer pressure comes with the turf, right?

    Or does that say a lot about the kind of people I hang out with?

  10. September 8, 2009 9:41 am

    Here’s a manual TrackBack, because the automatic sort has been broken for a while: ping.

    Short version: like you, I find the end of Pemulis’s plotline unsatisfying, but I think it has to do with the way I view Substances, which is different than the view Wallace is taking in the novel.

  11. andthenyoufall permalink
    September 8, 2009 1:29 pm

    I disagree with some of the premises here.

    First, this is not about desert. Awful things happen to people in this novel, without any iota of desert. Matty Pemulis is an especially important point because he’s Mikey’s brother (and I take it their fates are supposed to be commentaries on each other) and we learn that he was obsessed with the idea that he was raped because he was doing something to upset his father.

    Second, I point-blank disagree that there is a volte-face here. At the end of the book, we see Pemulis’s devotion to Hal, his intellectual interests, his hopes and fears, more and more. I would say it’s at the beginning of the book that Pemulis seems like a (zany, comic) manipulative asshole and cruel to boot, and it’s as the book goes on that he seems to be genuinely good.

    2.1: In this thread people are taking the view that Pemulis is “Hal’s Spider”. That assumes that the novel is a simplistic pro-AA polemic, where the good characters are full-throated pro-AA, anti-drugs, and the bad, pathetic characters lure people into temptation. I think it’s much more ambiguous. A number of characters present a number of different perspective, different bits of evidence. Pemulis trying to get Hal to shift addictions, and his explanation for it, dovetails in very interesting ways with the suggestions in the AA parts of the book that you never really become unaddicted, you just switch your addictions, but also really shows Pemulis’s love for Hal.

    Three, a major facet of the Pemulis character is that he is (i) obsessed with the possibility of getting caught in his misdeeds and punished, but (ii) never stops. (Which is hinted at in the “am I paranoid enough?” episode. Pemulis doesn’t get the joke.) This connects to a number of themes of addiction, of secrecy, and of dealing with consequences. If his paranoia was never justified, he would just be a decorative flourish. Instead he’s one of the centerpieces of the novel.

    • September 8, 2009 1:35 pm

      Wow, I don’t at all get the sense that Pemulis is like looking out for Hal near the end. He disappears for a while and then suddenly comes sniffing back around. I almost get the sense that he’s wondering if Hal has gone poking around in the ceiling to get the DMZ (hope that’s not past the spoiler line — it’s not too big a spoiler if so, anyway). The Peemster wants a buddy to get high with and wants some resolution re what’s going to happen at the Whataburger (which he won’t be going to) w/r/t the DMZ. Never occurred to me that there was tenderness or love involved at all.

      • andthenyoufall permalink
        September 8, 2009 1:54 pm

        Daryl – Taking the drug-test bullet for Hal, retaliating at Wayne and Avril (which can only be explained as outraged loyalty to Hal, and which is arguably Pemulis’s huge mistake), tutoring Hal (this is described as totally uncharacteristic for Pemulis), and trying to talk to Hal about what it will be like to go off drugs and trying to keep him from ending up like people in Allston. I don’t think he’s being disingenuous in any of these cases.

        Also, his interest in the Whataburger, crescendoing towards the end as it does, is an important part of his character. I really think we see towards the end that the two things Pemulis values are his friendship with Hal, and excellence in tennis. The other things… drugs, money, going to a good school and staying out of Allston… more and more take a back seat.

      • September 8, 2009 2:11 pm

        Taking the drug test bullet seems to be a show of something like love, I’ll grant. Then again, one could also cast it as Pemulis’s way of keeping Hal either (A. indebted to him or (B. out of harm’s way precisely so that he can drop the DMZ with him, which is as much a self-interested act as not.

        Retaliating at Wayne and Avril for Hal’s sake? I don’t see that as loyalty to Hal. It’s potentially embarrassing to Hal, sure. It’s alienating in a way, also, since Wayne is Hal’s doubles partner. What’s more, we later learn that Hal actually has known about Avril and Wayne for some time and doesn’t really care. Pemulis won’t have known this, of course, so we can’t factor it into his part of the equation. But I don’t see how his trying to out Wayne and Avril can be chalked up to loyalty to Hal. It’s Pemulis being a dick (if a funny one).

        Re the drug talk, I disagree wholly. I read Pemulis as basically rationalizing to Hal.

        Pemulis’s increasing interest in the Whataburger has essentially nothing to do with tennis and everything to do with the fact that that’s when they get a breather that will afford him a chance to try the you-know-whatzky. I think of Pemulis as a basically blood-sucking character. He’s similar to Avril in a way, in that he shows outward concern for Hal but that this outward concern seems in a way to be in service of hijacking Hal to provide for Pemulis the thing he wants for himself, which is, for whatever reason, to have Hal get high with him.

      • andthenyoufall permalink
        September 8, 2009 2:39 pm

        We never see Pemulis being a dick when there’s no angle for him… certainly not to an authority figure when there’s no angle in him for it, and when it’s obvious to Avril who the culprit is. Agreed, he doesn’t know that Hal knows; Pemulis trying to keep it secret. But he assumes that if Hal knew, he would have the emotional response that Pemulis imagines he would have, which is a sign of their bond.

        Pemulis is not just rationalizing. We know that Pemulis organizes his life around avoiding his roots, so it’s not out of character for him to draw on examples from Allston as a sort of reverse WWJD (in fact, this is the only time he talks about Allston, isn’t it?), and the argument he makes has the exact same points that DFW has other narrators make, explicitly or implicitly, at different points in the novel.

        Your last comment is just off, I think. Pemulis can drop acid with Hal after Whataburger (and after SATs) whether or not Pemulis himself goes to Whataburger. And yet Pemulis wants to go. Agreed?

      • September 8, 2009 2:56 pm

        Isn’t having an angle and being a dick to get what that angle’s aim is sort of the definition of being a dick? 🙂

        I’m just not on the same page with you re the bond thing. Feels to me like you’re reaching and reading stuff that’s not there (though it’s also possible I’m not reading stuff that is there, I’ll own).

        Yes, Pemulis is definitely driven by a desire to not sink back down into the pit of Allston. But Hal’s not from Allston. Pemulis’s argument is like some weird impotent slippery slope type argument, it almost seems, which is definitely a kind of rationalization. People do have bottoms, and maybe Allston is a bottom for lots of people, but I don’t think it follows that it’d be Hal’s bottom. That said, I can sort of see Pemulis’s fear of an Allston fate informing how he approaches Hal’s addiction. So I’ll give him a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, but I still think he’s a little slimy and really at least as much self-interested here as he is interested in Hal’s well-being.

        Yes, Pemulis could drop acid whenever he wants. The reason for the Whataburger hangup is that there’ll be a weekend for recovery from whatever effects the DMZ has. So whether or not Pemulis gets to go to the Whataburger, Hal and others will also need that weekend. They only get the Saturday of the long weekend off if they travel to the Whataburger. Pemulis pretty unequivocally wants to go to the Whataburger so that he and the other guys get the long weekend to recover (see page 218). He has no great tennis aspirations beyond getting a ticket to anywhere but Allston.

      • andthenyoufall permalink
        September 8, 2009 3:37 pm

        Hmm, I think you and I have known different kinds of dickishness. 😉

        On Pemulis and Allston – I wasn’t clear. I don’t think Pemulis worries that Hal will end up prostituting himself for drugs (obviously that could never happen to Hal), but that if he quits drugs completely and goes into AA he’ll end up like one of those soulless ex-addicts whom Pemulis saw in Allston. Soullessness knows no class boundaries.

        As for Whataburger, we’ll have to agree to disagree until I can look for some quotes. It becomes clear over the course of the novel that Pemulis, like Schacht, is becoming more calm and confident in trying to achieve a personal best in tennis as he comes to terms with not going to the Game.

  12. brent jenkins permalink
    September 8, 2009 2:28 pm

    Excellent posts–this and your “I’ve Finished” entry. I have been thinking way too much about DFW and IJ, and, dammit, I always tend to be a “nice guy,” you know all supportive and not too critical, especially with something I love, but your posts capture nicely and almost exactly the same sticking points/frustations I struggled with, ie, Pemulis’ fate and The Ending. I initially felt entirely let down and deflated by the ending, like the last 80 pages just had me eating a shit sandwich. Having had time to digest said sandwich, and having gone back and read the first 200 pages over again, I now accept The Ending and IJ as a brilliant piece of work, mostly because, lets all face it, we knew The End was coming despite our desire for it to be otherwise. I mean the title of the book is Infinite Jest; there’s just no way given the tone and the setting and the structure of the thing that resolution is going to reign over ambiguity. Don’t we know that right from the start much as we want to repress it? There’s this human longing and disappointment that the unresolved leaves us but that is exactly “the point” of the book, it’s prima materia (?), what it’s working with. And I think what DFW accomplishes, which to my mind, is entirely unique is to write a 1,000 page novel which not only necessitates you starting over once you’ve finished but also pretty much says (structurally) this book could’ve been 10,000 pages long. I mean, think about it, what “happens” in IJ is very little. What a truly weird and awesome accomplishment, an accomplishment of scale. I once took a physics course called The Cosmos and on the first day of class the professor did one of those scale of the universe lectures, starting with the 15 billion light years “away” of the Big Bang and moving into the smallest of quantum particles. It opened everyone up in this strange, almost spiritual way. Forgive the emotion here, but the scale of IJ and its tenderness despite the fact that almost the entire cast of character meet an unsavory fate, does much the same thing.
    Pemulis’ fate almost killed me, but again, didn’t we know it was coming? In some ways this book is like an apocolyptic zombie movie, ie, no one is going to make it out alive. Again, I think DFW is pretty intentionally working with our allegiances here, tweaking them, causing us to question what they’re made of. We want Pemulis to “win” but, honey, it just ain’t that kinda story, and maybe (especially given what ETA is about)Pemulis wins by losing?


  13. Steve permalink
    September 8, 2009 4:13 pm

    I’m conflicted about what happens to Pemulis. On one hand, I don’t find him to be as sympathetic a character as a lot of other readers apparently do. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about him that turns me against him.

    But it’s *not* the way he seems to be acting as an enabler for Hal’s addiction. I think both AA (at least, as represented in the novel – I don’t have firsthand experience with it) and DFW would reject the simplistic bad-people-are-going-to-encourage-you-to-relapse-and-if-you-stay-away-from-them-you’ll-be-fine line of thinking that I’d have to endorse to really come down on Pemulis for sort of encouraging Hal to continue smoking pot. What I get from AA/IJ (again, I’m conflating them because I really don’t have much of an impression of AA outside of the incredibly rich and full-colored representation of it in this novel) is that the Spider is an intensely personal and internal force to be reckoned with and while, yes, enablers can make it easier for an addict to relapse…to put the blame for any relapses on peer pressure comes dangerously close to the kind of rationalizing of which the Crocodiles are so suspicious. So I don’t like the idea that Pemulis deserves what he gets based on the fact that he’s kind of the devil sitting on Hal’s shoulder telling him to go back to marijuana.

    I guess the heart of the matter is that Pemulis leaves me strangely cold. I can Identify with many of the characters in IJ at various points, sometimes in ways that horrify me, but I can never really feel anything about Pemulis other than that he’s a highly entertaining character who does a good job of moving along whatever plot there is. The difference between Pemulis and the other characters for me is like the difference between a really wonderfully plotted and well-acted action movie that nevertheless is entertaining fluff to lose myself in for a couple of hours and a life-changing movie that I keep coming back to and pondering.

  14. brent jenkins permalink
    September 8, 2009 4:38 pm

    An added Pemulis thought: isn’t Mikey our hero? Though IJ resists summations re what it’s about, one of the things it’s about is a journey of self. When Hal says “I’m in here,” I take this as revelatory, as an achievement (he hasn’t been in here before), one which only DFW could’ve given us since strangely enough Hal accomplishes this by not being able to speak, ie, his journey has indeed been a radical one, but of course it has because he was screwed into the goalong from the start. His position (as a member of the Incandenza family)perhaps puts him in the worst position and the deepest hole, ie, he’s never known anything different. ETA and Avril and Orin and JOI are in his blood. Here’s the smartest and the most verbally gifted kid anyone has ever known, trapped by a lousy/dysfunctional family, abandoned (that’s stating it euphemistically) by his father, who paradoxically finds himself by giving up/forfeiting both his verbal gifts and his tennis genius. Naturally for Hallie to get “outside” requires some extreme measures. Likewise for his buddy Pemulis. As has been well established, Pemulis fears expulsion more than anything, but of course all the while he is playing with fire, taking huge risks, and somehow I think he knows it. ETA (as inspired by Perec’s W or The Memory of Childhood?), despite our attraction to it, is a hideous place. Pemulis then is the hero who reveals what ETA really is via his heroic non-participation, even as he has to face his worst fears. I like to think that Hal’s rejection(?) of Pemulis comes before he has made his own journey–he’s just beginning.
    Don’t you guys remember guys like Pemulis? I sure do. Yea, they had a big ‘ol antisocial streak and you didn’t want them house sitting for you and they did too many drugs and took too many chances and seemed pretty sociopathic, but they also revealed to us the lie of our upper-middle class dreams, didn’t they?
    But unlike Pemulis, they didn’t have Stanford-Binet scores that were off the charts. Pemulis is as much a product of his family/environment as Hal is. The neat irony here is, it is just Mikey’s antisocial traits that give him the ability/fortitude to challenge ETA. Hal is never going to be able to pull off this kind of brazen challenge. It just isn’t in him. He will go a different and far more radical route, though he achieves, one can imagine, the same results. Both Hal and Pemulis are no longer ETA people. They both, I think we can believe, make it outside.
    As an addendum: Gately does, too. Like Hal, his passage is pretty steep and harrowing. When confronted with the Nucks, he reverts to his “default setting” and enjoys taking them apart rather than bending his knees and asking forgiveness, ie, he has not quite learned his AA lessons, though he will.


  15. jmb permalink
    September 18, 2009 3:50 pm


    “and now we’re supposed to be all “Michael P. is an asshole” along with Hal’

    is the part I don’t buy. The depiction of whatever revelations/doubts Hal is having about MP’s character does not at all have to be read as Wallace telling you, the reader, what you should think of MP’s character.

    • hpv permalink
      August 27, 2016 11:21 pm

      Boom. Exactly.
      Everyone else here has panties in bunch.

  16. doubtful geste permalink
    September 30, 2009 11:42 am

    Didn’t keep up with this thread so much, probably b/c I am a Pemulis fan and hadn’t anticipated this much disagreement. Pemulis is, for me, one of the more heroic characters of the book (which is not necessarily the same as the most enlightened or correct in his choices). Some things I think are just dang hard to get around if you want to kick Pemulis to the curb:

    -Not only the urine-test ruse, but the Avril/Wayne blackmail have protecting Hal at their center — Pemulis doesn’t need either strategy. Sure, you can say “no, it’s all about wanting to keep his drug buddy and go to the whataburger,” but it would be worth reviewing note 129, remembering that extremes of both friendship and enemyhood are basically the defining qualities of the guy. And dismissing the implied bond that this 17 year old has been for a number of years Hal’s closest friend requires an almost manichean view of Pemulis or young drug users (even relatively high-functioning ones) as incapable of having anything but dominantly selfish motives. I don’t buy that at all, not even a little tiny bit. These two may be on the verge of falling out with each other; they may hate each other by the year of Glad or later in life, but that is not a point they are at when we last see them together.

    -As others have expressed, Pemulis’ note 321 arguments are not easily reducible to something akin to “the Spider.” He seems to be largely trying to figure out what it will take for Hal to remain balanced, has clear reasons why he distrusts some elements of full-cessation (his memory of the soulless ex-addicts of Allston), and is not shy about laying out nightmare scenarios of continuing Bob Hope (man-tits and gym socks). I think it is difficult to interpret this note without assuming a fairly large amount of sincere attempt by Pemulis to figure out what a real solution looks like. This isn’t to say there isn’t also a dollop of selfish hope to not have to change his own ambitions re: hanging out and doing drugs with Hal, and it is certainly not to say that the solutions he proposes are all that great or lacking in some real denial on his part. But, again, reducing his attempt to figure out a middle way solely to a sort of polar counter-argument to the benefits of A.A. is pretty reductive.

    -Heck, we have other late-novel scenes showing Pemulis as anything but a dick — Is there anyone who would seriously read his locker room scene with Postal Weight and Freer as anything but a sincere attempt to figure out something helpful to say to the kid (made all the more obvious by opposition to the truly dickish stuff Freer interjects). And don’t forget that Hal doesn’t exactly have narrative omniscience during his conversation with Mario. Just how aware of what Pemulis is up to (good or bad) Hal is would certainly affect his ability to judge whether/why Pemulis is lying and what to think about it.

    -I think a few big gestures on DFW’s part could stand more elaborate interpretation. I get the sense that most people (including Infinite Detox) think of the way that Pemulis gets relegated to the footnotes is a judgement on him by DFW. But it has always stuck me as such a huge formal move — heck, the footnotes themselves aren’t even to text, but to blank space — that it highlights the horror of his situation more than if his final scenes had, otherwise unchanged, appeared in the “regular” text. I also tend to assume that DFW’s antichrist statement was meant as a shorthand for a certain structural role, both because he is one side of an ongoing conflict in the book, just as Steeply and Marathe on the bluff take differing sides, and, more importantly, because he does represent a dangerous and likely ultimately wrong path for Hal to take. But the fact that, with greater insight or effort, Pemulis’ arguments of 321 might be dangerous, wrong, or misguided is not the same as saying that he necessarily and consciously is making these arguments only/primarily from dangerous, wrong, or misguided motivations.

    In short, reading Pemulis as being likely wrong in the arguments he makes to Hal doesn’t need to depend on him being primarily devious, selfish, or even conscious of the wrongness of the arguments as he makes them, and dismissing the possibilitiy of a huge huge proportion of loyalty, even some fairly selfless risk-taking (given his own fears and situation) seems to me to require a pretty unsustainable dismissal of other evidence in the book of his history of and capacity for friendship with Hal.

  17. mrchris permalink
    December 9, 2009 3:46 pm

    Mike Pemulis profits from the bad habits of other people. Still, I know what you mean it is hard not to feel bad for him, he is the only character who seems to be thriving in the IJverse.

  18. Keith permalink
    February 7, 2010 11:40 pm

    Has anyone else made a connection between Pemulis and the Antichrist from the Broom of the System.
    I feel that maybe DFW meant the antichrist comment as a sort of reference to their similar personalities and habits.
    *Drug users
    *Surprisingly brilliant
    *Wise asses

  19. Dav permalink
    January 14, 2012 1:01 am

    I realize it’s been a while since this Infinite Summer frolic but I’ve just finished IJ and but so like, what about Pemulis’ comment to deLint in note 334?

    ‘Aubs, no kidding: something pressing I have to interface about with Mrs. Inc. Tell her it concerns U.S.-Canadian relations.’

    Did Mikey have anything to do with the O.N.A.N. vs A.F.R. plot?

    • January 14, 2012 9:50 am

      Nope, he’s talking about Avril (U.S.) and Wayne (Canadian) and their, um, relations. 🙂

      • Dav permalink
        January 14, 2012 1:01 pm

        Ah yeah that’s kinda what I was thinking…

  20. April 11, 2012 12:34 pm

    This was a very interesting article, and I completely agree with you. I too really enjoyed M.P. and was thrown off by his sudden villaining. Additionally, to me, brass-masked, completely irredeemable liars don’t care about anything as much as M.P. cared during the eschatonic meltdown.

  21. Judd permalink
    April 11, 2012 8:24 pm

    Hal’s rejection of Pemulis takes on even greater resonance (and pathos) when you consider the Shakespearean intertext (which is always important to keep in mind in a book called INFINITE JEST): Pemulis is a Falstaff-figure, so Hal’s rejection of him recalls Prince Hal’s renunciation of Sir John in 2 Henry IV 5.5: “I know thee not, old man […] I have long dream’d of such a kind of man, / So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane; / But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.” Obviously Hal in IJ isn’t becoming king, but he is an heir of sorts, and has chosen to renounce his old ways from a new sense of some kind of responsibility, and so renounces the friends that symbolize his “old self.” I definitely don’t think it should be read as Wallace’s rejection of Pemulis, any more than the rejection of Falstaff is Shakespeare’s.

  22. September 23, 2012 5:31 pm

    Thanks for the discussion guys, just the sort of thing you want to come across after finishing Infinite Jest.

    I think it’s entirely justifiable to indict Pemulis; I think the well-reasoned support of the pro-Pemulis position in this thread merely demonstrates DFW’s disinterest in oversimplified condemnation of human beings. Bear in mind that Mario doesn’t really accept Hal’s judgement of Mike as a brass-faced liar, insisting that his (Mario’s) methodology of always believing everybody is a perfectly reasonable response, even to people like Pemulis. So that’s one side of it.

    One commenter compared Pemulis with Avril; I think this is the whole issue in a nutshell. Pemulis and Avril are blindingly narcissistic individuals who, to varying extents and levels of success, are able to portray their self interest and loyalty towards their crew. Avril hates Pemulis because he reveals her game; unlike Avril, most people can actually put a finger on what it is about Pemulis that makes their skin crawl. For me, these two are the most most frightening characters in the book.

    My issues are as follows:
    1) I have trouble interpreting the blackmailing of Avril re: the Wayne affair to be something Pemulis does out of loyalty towards Hal. How does this scenario play out in a way that doesn’t impact Hal negatively, in MP’s mind? Pemulis’ threat only carries any real weight if he might eventually tell Hal, and if Hal would find the knowledge devastating. For all we know this is precisely what Mike is trying to talk to Hal about at the end: vindictive dude that he is. I find it not unreasonable to say that Pemulis views Hal as insurance against his expulsionphobia, and that this is the primary basis for all of the supposedly egalitarian gestures Pem makes towards Hal.

    2) He “comforts” Postalweight by talking about math, which Mike loves to talk about because he’s a math virtuoso, and which Todd has no connection to whatsoever (as he repeatedly tries to tell Pemulis during the conversation). I think it’s a bit generous to suppose this scene is demonstrating anything other than Pemulis’ narcissism.

    3) The whole idea that Pemulis is slighted by the fact of his downfall appearing in the endnotes. Dude, that’s like 100 pages of crucial IJ text in those endnotes! Are we also supposing that the phone conversations between Hal and Orin, which possibly comprise the heart of the depiction of Hal’s relationship to his father and his family in general, are somehow not as important in DFW’s mind because of their placement?

    And, totally unrelatedly, it’s possibly interesting that MP refers to Mike Pemulis, Don’s stepdad, AND Madame Psychosis?

  23. November 19, 2012 3:56 pm

    [sorry for any typos i am at work.] well, part of IJ is demonstrating how so many talented, bright, and otherwise innocent folks get the “administrative boot” in life under circumstances that seem less than fair. is it “fair” that Mikey doesn’t get diddled by Da, but Matty does? is it fair that the attache gets sucked in by the samizdat? he just wanted to relax. is it fair that Don Gately eats shit for that no-good fuck up Randy Lenz (who he was trying to protect, BTW?)? the concept of ‘karma’ here is not appropriate (and i would argue a little sophomoric, given the effect of the whole book): these characters don’t “get what they deserve,” they just get what they get. the infinity of that jest is what is so depressing. just b/c you like Mikey’s antics doesn’t mean he can escape the essentially meaningless and unfair nature of teh universe. in fact, given the scope and literary ambitions of IJ it is all teh more fitting (in context of classical literature & “tragedy”) that such a powerful; and beautiful specimen –a hero, as it were — would be taken down by the very traits that define his super-heroism in the first place. Oedipus, yeah?: his tenacity and desire for truth is what gets his eyes poked out. Mikey P’s spirited hijinks and rule-breaking makes him heroic to a bunch of prep-school smart-assess (and us, the readers, also prep-school smart asses by extension since we have the leisure to read such a thing), and it is those very qualities that get him booted. And since we are talking about Oedipus, we are also talking about Hamlet, and we come back around to IJ. so it would be MORE out of place and LESS satisfying if MP got away with his foolishness.

    if you wanted to talk fairness, however, the guy doped an opponent and dosed Hal against his will/knowledge, and put all of his fellows in risk of their careers (for which they have sacrificed a great deal). so in true Southy fashion “fuck him if he cant take a joke”

  24. December 24, 2012 6:02 pm

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  25. April 9, 2013 12:26 am

    I don’t really have a problem with MP’s send off. It’s made clear early on that he’s a 2nd rate tennis player approaching an age where the academy ruthlessly hands out walking papers. Real world people get fired behind closed doors so as not to distrupt the remaining workforce and the endnotes seem like an equivlent place. I also think that if Wallace wanted to really crush MP he would have taken it alot further (He was offered permission to academically finish the term). Wallace’s meticulous deep-dives into dark-pharmachology occur throughout the novel and validate an intimate familiarity with PM. After Wallace’s death, I was extremely surprised (shocked) to learn that he had been commited to AA since the writing of this Novel. I previously assumed he had some familiarity with “Boston AA”, but the level of effort required to research (or even know what to research) on the chemical front was staggering for the pre-internet age and is not something picked up by attending AA. More staggering to me was the fact that by commiting himself to a life of AA, he basically turned that switch off at a fairly young age. This is enough to explain why PM did not receive a glorious send-off and why no future works resemble IJ on this matter. For good or bad, shutting down PM was intimate and deliberate.

  26. Spencer permalink
    January 4, 2014 5:36 am

    Pemulis seems to really want to have a legitimate ‘interface’ (and I’m inclined to assume an earnest one, although we never know for sure since Hal cuts him off) with Hal at the end, and honestly I read his attempt to get Hal to move on to harder drugs (especially DMZ) to be less a vicious deliberate lie to Hal and more like a lie to himself, partly to explain his own addiction and partly as an attempt not to lose connection with Hal, whom he legitimately likes. The combination of expulsion and Hal cutting him off, which is really more the result of a change in Hal than any character change in Pemulis, is another, maybe final, blow to him. He has nothing left but his drugs, which is why his last mention features him searching anxiously for his drugs in the dumpsters after his stash is found and removed, having finally been deprived even of them. His terror of losing part of himself when the drugs goes away is legitimate, not a ploy to rope in Hal. We get enough actual views into Pemulis’s head to happily sympathize with him, so I don’t think we’re supposed to hate him at all. Worse, maybe, we’re supposed to totally Identify with him as he spirals down and out. Remember also that Hal totally misinterpreted the nature of Pemulis’s lie, the success of which actually lay in effectively blackmailing Avril and Wayne. I think, if we are to take Hal seriously about the ‘brass mask’, the idea is that the only really convincing kind of liar is one who has himself as convinced as everyone else, making Pemulis in the end a much more simply tragic figure than an actually villainous one, IMO.

  27. Justin C permalink
    April 24, 2014 9:47 am

    I feel like Wallace’s portrayal of Pemulis is depicted through the eyes of Hal. Once he (Hal) quits smoking pot his perception of Michael P. is altered–Pemulis’ antics which at one time were viewed as harmless pranks become a pattern of shady behavior–and thus the attitude of the narrative toward Pemulis changes as well. Also, DMZ, which is supposed to be the ‘antidote’ for the mold Hal ate as a child, is said to grow naturally from mold. The effects of the mold growing in Hal’s stomach may have been inhibited by the pot and thus didn’t take effect until he quit cold-turkey which suggests that Hal might not have been dosed with DMZ but had it growing inside him all along. In a way, Pemulis might have been responsible (through facilitating Hal’s addiction to weed) for Hal’s prolonged state of emotional numbness.

  28. August 30, 2015 5:43 pm

    I’ve been digging around awhile for Pemulis-related musings. Neglected, most of the time, is the last sentence we are left with:

    “DeLint told Pemulis he just fucking slayed him while Watson looked from face to face and Nwangi rocked and wheezed and slapped at his knee, and Pemulis, close mouthed and breathing with terrible ease, found their good humor infectious.”

    Whatever our opinion of Pemulis, what are we to make of this — whether devil or saint, he is close mouthed, his breathing metered evenly, and on the verge of laughter as he is “slayed.”

    Broadly speaking, he has either found peace or madness.

    He is amused by something in his “downfall.” What is it? Where’s the joke?

  29. Jim permalink
    December 3, 2015 2:47 am

    Bit late too the party. Anyway, any mixed feelings I had about Pemulis’s character were put to rest on a reread. Early on (p. 116-117 and 120 in 10th anniversary edition), in the montage of the Big Brother groups, we see Pemulis swindling his charges with the shell game. The Big Brothers are a pretty lackluster bunch in their roles, but Pemulis goes beyond the neglect and questionable or irrelevant advice of the others and actively cheats the young, certifiably naive children he’s supposed to be watching over. In my opinion, it’s pretty clear from this that he’s not a character we’re supposed to like.

    Of course, a first-time reader at this point is still probably struggling to keep the characters straight and many won’t remember it when they get to know Pemulis later, but it is there early on: Pemulis blatantly ripping people off.

  30. September 27, 2017 2:18 pm

    I agree completely. I like Pemulis. And I was upset with his ultimate fate. Yes, he’s a user (maybe even an addict). Yes, he’s a bad influence on Hal (and likely others at ETA). Yes, he’s done many questionable things, any one of which could serve (for some) to justify indicting him as a “bad person”. But the thing that tells me that, deep down inside, Pemulis is really a decent guy is the fact that he convinced the ONANTA drug test guy (that came as a result of the Eschaton fiasco) that he should give them 30 days before subjecting them to a drug test, not for himself (he knew there wouldn’t be anything in his system), but for Hal (who’s drug of choice, pot, stays in the system for upwards of a month). This tells me that he really does care about Hal and what happens to him. And someone who is capable of truly caring and sacrificing for someone else cannot be a completely bad person.

    Sure, Pemulis is trouble. But who in this novel isn’t trouble? Personally, I think Avril is way worse than Pemulis. Diddling 17 year olds behind her illusory mask of perfection and over-achievement. And, when you consider how f’d up the guy’s childhood obviously was (fook you in the boom), it’s actually surprising that he isn’t way more messed up than he is.

    I see Pemulis as that friend you had in high school who your mom hated because she thought he got you into trouble, but who you actually knew wasn’t responsible for getting you in trouble (because everyone ultimately makes their own choices about whether to get in trouble or not, regardless of any external bad influences). I see Hal’s ultimate indictment of Pemulis as an act of scapegoating. It’s much easier to blame others for one’s problems than to accept responsibility for your own actions. Hal is finally taking an honest look in the mirror and not liking what he sees. Under those circumstances, anyone would look for something/someone to blame for all the things they see in themselves that they don’t like.

  31. Joe Kiva permalink
    September 25, 2018 11:36 pm

    It’s subtle, but the narrator never liked Mike Pemulis. You may have missed it but it was there all along. From Pemulis’ 1st appearance in the novel, the narrator was against him.

    It’s because Wallace actually had a person in mind that he wanted to represent as an asshole when he set out to write the novel, I wouldn’t name the author, as Wallace talked about him in the essay on Televisual culture.

  32. April 4, 2021 3:53 pm

    Pemulis stands out among the book’s “Antichrists” because his corruption spreads. He has the tiniest available kids selling their urine; this is one of the first things we learn about him. In note 332, we have the robotic, impassive Wayne saying these ‘mean-spirited’ things (the prorectors acting like it’s coming straight from Pemulis), and the readers are even made complicit because we can’t help laughing. The fun and seductive side of evil is illustrated in Pemulis, so I think he’s meant to be liked and disliked at once. Maybe he’s not being punished for being a “bad person” so much as things are just catching up to him, as they do to just about all of the characters.

    Besides, the expulsion might be just what he needs to make some kind of 90-degree turn in his life, hypothetically. As far as his external circumstances, I’d guess the Peemster is gonna be just fine. As for his soul, I dunno. While his advice to Hal in note 321 is obviously bad, it’s not impossible that Pemulis will have a positive, transcendental insight on DMZ. If he doesn’t lose his mind.


  1. The Peemster and the Littlest Hoax « Infinite Tasks, Infinite Summers, & Philosophy
  2. Gravity’s Rainbow for the Fall | Nomad Waystation 37
  3. Infinite Summer » Blog Archive » Roundup

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