Dig Shallower

Dig Shallower

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Uncovering the Other Other Meanings in David Foster Wallace’s Works

If David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is a literary rabbit hole, there are two double entendres with big “INTERPRET ME” tags right there in the first chapter, waiting to pull in the reader who does interpret. This reader is likely to find herself at the bottom of a rabbit hole whose depths they don’t yet know and whose way out they can’t yet see.

There’s the un-missable double entendre Wallace practically wallops us over the head with (Hal’s “I am in here.”) but the other is much more sly, hidden in a list of titles of essays by Hal and read by another character: “The Implications of Post-Fourier Transformations for a Holographically Mimetic Cinema”. The term we’re looking at is “holographically mimetic”, and I like it because it demonstrates so much about how DEs — double entendres — work, especially in the hands of a writer like Wallace.

The DE exploits a double meaning (“holographically” suggests both Dennis Gabor’s 3D holograms and a holograph, as in: “A manuscript handwritten by the person named as its author” [definition courtesy the Oxford English Dictionary]) to supply an alternative meaning for the text that contains it and to alter its context.

Alter its context is a pretty broad term, but it includes the DE’s social context too. DEs can be sneaky, almost insidious things (even when they’re not dirty), and unless you’re aware of their dual meaning they’ll slip right past you. “Holographically mimetic” slipped past me on two reads through Infinite Jest before I finally picked up a dictionary. But now I know what it means I’ve gained membership to a special, probably fairly small, group.

This is another sneaky way DEs work — they include people who understand and exclude people who don’t. If you got sexual innuendo at school, you were part of a knowing set, but those who didn’t were marked as naive outsiders. This function revolves around a double entendre itself. The term comes from the French entente, which means “understanding” (hence double understanding = two meanings), but the “understanding” that entente connotes is more like an alliance or a type of sympathy than understanding as comprehension.

All this is super for writers who — like Wallace — want to create a feeling of intimacy between themselves and their readers, and who — very much like Wallace — enjoy working on multiple levels of meaning; but Wallace’s relationship with DEs isn’t completely happy.

Wallace singles out DEs in the most-quoted paragraph from the essay, E Unibus Plurum, that’s most often cited as a kind of manifesto. If you’re like me and come across this quote three times a week, so you always skim over it, just pay attention to the last three words:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.

The problem for Wallace, I suspect, is not that a DE means two things at once but how it arranges those meanings. In the age of irony especially, the alternative meaning is given precedence and held above the first. We see this — more, we actually do this — with the terminology we use to talk about these meanings. We dismiss the immediate meaning as “apparent” or “surface level” while the secondary meaning is heralded as being “deeper”, a value-laden term that marks the secondary meaning as more meaningful.

Wallace enacts an inversion of this way of reading DEs during a pivotal scene in The Pale King. Chris Fogle, a nihilistic “wastoid” who will later find his calling when he is literally “called to account”, is watching TV, watching the TV soap opera As the World Turns.

“You’re watching As the World Turns”, the television tells him. Notice the DE. As “You’re watching As the World Turns” is repeated again and again as every commercial break ends, the deeper meaning becomes more and more apparent to the reader. But for/through Fogle, the apparent meaning becomes deeper and deeper. The two become increasingly dissonant to the point the reader needs to resolve them. Thanks to the momentum of Fogle’s long, “irrelevant” story, and the investment the reader now has in it, we’re likely to side with Fogle: the apparent meaning is deep.

And the apparent meaning really is deep. If part of the importance of the surface-level meaning is its immediacy, it’s reinforced here because it’s meaning is the importance of immediacy:

All of this hit me, sitting there. It could not have felt more concrete if the announcer had actually said, ‘You are sitting on an old yellow dorm couch, spinning a black-and-white soccer ball, and watching As the World Turns,without ever even acknowledging to yourself this is what you’re doing.’ This is what struck me.

The Pale King’s Author’s Foreword works like a key to understanding the novel as a whole (insofar as the “unfinished novel” can be regarded as a whole), and this way of reading DEs that Wallace proposes can help resolve some of the foreword’s central ambiguities. Consider the following:

But this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975–04–2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA

The key term in the above is “address”. (Though if you noticed too that the word “here” refers to two different places, it does play a part). The Author’s Foreword itself is, under the auspices of the DE, Wallace’s address. But so is 725 Indian Hill Blvd., on the surface-level; and if we consider Fogle’s lesson, this is how Wallace is asking us to understand it. This reading helps us to understand one of the questions central to The Pale King — and much else of Wallace’s writing — the role of the author as being either a part of, or external to, the text.

This question seems eerily familiar to the first major DE of Infinite Jest: Hal Incandenza’s assertion that “I am in here” I glossed over in paragraph two. In both DEs, “here” can refer to the book itself, but this is only the secondary meaning.

By considering Hal’s primary, immediate meaning we transcend the “metafictional titty-pinching” of self-reference (which we fail to do in The Pale King) and open an apparent meaning to a deeper understanding. Hal’s “here” is in his own head and the room where he is seated and, if we can understand it that way, the 1000-odd page journey he takes to get there will take on a deeper significance too.

Still, understanding Hal’s “here” is not the same as understanding our own. When the search for meaning pulls us too far into a text, through DEs and deconstruction and poststructuralism and post-postmodernism and so on and so on, we might just need to dig a little shallower — and maybe even look at ourselves. What makes Hal’s journey to understanding personally significant to us is its potential as a guide to developing an understanding of what our own here is. As flesh-and-bone human beings who have mass and take up space and have to navigate this physical world we call reality, we just might need one.