Bradykinesia, Infinite Jest, and The End of the Tour

I haven’t seen The End of the Tour yet, though the first fumbling, bandana’ed seconds of the trailer sold me. I liked Jason Segal in Forgetting Sarah Marshal; he brought a earnest, kind pathos to a role lesser comedic actors would have made merely whinging and pathetic. From the End of the Tour trailer, it seems the earnestness and the kindness — and certainly, the pathos — are on full bore in Segal’s portrayal of David Foster Wallace, which makes the late, mostly-revered author seem appealing rather than intimidating.

By some accounts, including Mary Karr’s, David Foster Wallace was intimidating — intimidatingly brilliant/moody/prickly/verbose/manic/lumbering/out of control. And certainly, Infinite Jest, the novel Foster Wallace is touring for in the film, feels intimidating. There’s a hesitance, even among my bluest stockinged friends, to discuss his work, for fear of coming off as pretentious. But that’s a shame, honestly, because his writing is a cracking cat o’nine or else a cat on a hot in roof or else the cheshire cat: it’s unspooling and sardonic and frenetically observant and there really isn’t anything else like it, which means it’s prime for discussion. And instead, it’s in the clutches of the humble braggers who paint it as some TOWERINGLY INSURMOUNTABLE WORK OF INFINITE GENIUS and thus, avoided by everyone else.

If you haven’t read Infinite Jest, don’t believe the humble braggers. It’s a dense plot, sure, and stocked with little-known and occasionally made-up words, and those footnotes, some of which have their own footnotes — but at the same time, this is no Finnegan’s Wake. If you like rapier-smart and detached teenage protagonists trying to solve the mysteries of their shadowy parents, and/or if you like gritty-yet-reverential, minutely-detailed depictions of addicts and A.A., and/or if you like semi-corpordystopias set in the murkily near future, and/or if you live in Inman Square or Brighton, check it out. At the very least, you’ll learn a lot of words, and come away with a jaded take on video conferencing.

I read Infinite Jest a few years ago, on a Kindle, during a period of my life that occasioned a lot of 4 hour bus trips between Boston and New York. On a Kindle, Infinite Jest is no larger than any other book, and there’s a built-in Oxford English Dictionary, and you can jump to and from footnotes easily.* I liked it enough to finish it, though I didn’t devour it the way I did The Corrections (that cruise dinner party scene!), and a quick glance at its Wikipedia page reveals I’d largely forgotten whole hunks of its plot (e.g. the entire Arizona conversation. Stream of conscience dialogue is not so much my thing.**)

I came away from Infinite Jest with a handful of images and threads: a boy flying on a bike down Comm Ave, a cold, sexually rapacious mother, violence in Inman Square, tough recovering addicts in leather jackets drinking grubby coffee, a killer video, years named after corporations, toxic, Underworld-style waste, a woman in a head scarf, a psychic radio show, the aforementioned video conferencing and lots and lots of new words. Some of them were architectural, like “lintel,” some were perfectly suited for describing teenage boys, like “cambering” and “fantods,” and some were medical, like “thrush,” and “bradykinesia,” the latter of which stuck in my head because I had just started dating (and riding Chinatown buses in order to see) a man named whose first name was was, and is, the first half of that pathology.

Bradykinesia means “slowness of movement,” from the greek bradys, “slow,” and kinesis, “movement.” It’s one of the “cardinal manifestations of Parkinson’s Disease,” though you don’t have to have Parkinson’s to be bradykinetic. In the book, one of the narrator’s brothers is bradykinetic, in addition to having an oblong head and a crab-like, tilted walk and possibly other maladies I cannot remember. My now-husband is, it should be said, NOT bradykinetic, though he is very measured, and certainly not frenetic. When I first came upon this word, I looked it up, gloated, wondered if Brady’s and my relationship was advanced enough to text him the meaning of his name, and decided it was.

“My name is Irish,” he texted me back. says the name Brady means “spirited” in Irish or “from the broad island” in English. says it stems from a last name that means “large-chested,” a definition with which Wikipedia agrees and offers an alternative: “thievish.” “Spirited” is a much better descriptor of my husband than “slow,” “large-chested” is … perhaps slightly better? “Thievish”… not so much. In Massachusetts, where I’m from, “Brady” means “god,” but my husband is from Southern Connecticut, Giant’s-land.

Anyways. In Greek, bradys indisputably means “slow,” and I know that thanks to David Foster Wallace. Read Infinite Jest. Or read the Pale King, which is engrossing enough for a book set at the IRS, but also truly depressing and doesn’t have an ending. Or don’t read either, and read “Consider the Lobster,” which is absolutely fantastic and rocks the footnotes.

*Or, shhh, skip them.

**If it’s not yours, skip these chapters too!

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