A Supposedly Fun Blog

July 1, 2009

The Misspelled Assassins

Filed under: Uncategorized — myglesias @ 2:56 am

By Matthew Yglesias

On page 87, we’re introduced to one Marathe, an operative with the Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, a Québécois separatist group whose name we’re told (in a footnote, naturally) means “Wheelchair Assassins.” But as best I know, “rollent” is not a French word at all—”wheelchair” is, rather, “fauteuil roulant.” My first guess was that perhaps this is Quebec dialect or something, but Google indicates that’s not the case—the only hits for Wallace’s spelling are direct references to Infinite Jest.

I suppose I’ll chalk this up as just another minor effort to disorient the reader, which is clearly one of the overarching goals of the early sections, but would be interested to know if anyone else has a grander theory.

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45 Comments »

  1. Neologent?

    Comment by eriks — July 1, 2009 @ 3:06 am | Reply

  2. The book is full of bad French that can’t be explained as Quebecois. Not sure why that is.

    Comment by Jb — July 1, 2009 @ 3:49 am | Reply

  3. hey matthew,

    i think as you read the book, you’ll gradually notice that one thing DFW plays with a lot is the question of “who is narrating this thing?” You’ve already encountered one of those moments– the switch from first to third person after the Year of Glad section. There’s many others. There’s in fact one roughly fifteen pages away from the end of the book. For me, the french stuff plays into that.

    Comment by isaac — July 1, 2009 @ 12:28 pm | Reply

  4. [...] after all). So writing a post is an end-run around that and a way to weigh in via trackback on a post over at A Supposedly Fun Blog that sucked my comment into a spam black [...]

    Pingback by Infinite Spam « Infinite Zombies — July 1, 2009 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

  5. Getting pretty darn picky about the spelling there, aren’t we, Matthew Yglesias?

    Comment by southpaw — July 1, 2009 @ 1:41 pm | Reply

  6. I was talking to my mother about ‘rollent’. She is a) Canadian, as I am; b) has lived in France for much of the past 28 years; and c) fluent in French (including a lot of Québécois).

    The word “fauteuils” would actually be something more like an armchair, and “rollent” is not French at all, but (she says) an amusing play on the actual French word ‘roulant’ using the English ‘roll’.

    She found it quite funny.

    Comment by Lonita — July 1, 2009 @ 1:54 pm | Reply

  7. “I suppose I’ll chalk this up as just another minor effort to disorient the reader, which is clearly one of the overarching goals of the early sections [...]”

    Really? I don’t think it’s clear at all. Actually, I don’t think that it’s the case. Though I’d love to see anything you have to support this notion. With the understanding that you can’t really use the fact that you find it disorienting as very strong evidence — that’s like saying (of another hypothetical book) — “this is a really shitty book. Clearly one of the author’s overarching goals was to write a really shitty book.” Now, clearly the author in this case is thoughtful, and aware of the response that different rhetorical tactics are likely to educe in readers, so it probably isn’t fair to say that he’s unaware that the beginning can be disorienting … there are clearly (different!) narrative motives for the (different!) sorts of disorientation you experience near the start. But disorientation as a goal — lot alone an ‘overarching’ one — stretches things a whole lot in my view. If anything, I suspect that (some of) the disorientation you experience is one of the novel’s minor flaws.

    As for the really bad french — that’s a mystery that nobody seems to have a good theory about, least that I’ve seen.

    Comment by the teeth — July 1, 2009 @ 1:57 pm | Reply

    • “this is a really shitty book. Clearly one of the author’s overarching goals was to write a really shitty book.”

      Now, I think you’re onto something here. Such an author would be only too aware that a certain type of reader would be completely unable to accept the enormity of such an act of literary malpractice, and would subject him- or herself to enormous intellectual agonies, even to reading the thing all the way through, in an attempt to make sense out of it.

      Any doubt that Gravity’s Rainbow was an enormous literary pimp job vanished on learning Pynchon sent Professor Irwin Corey to accept the NBA for him.

      I got a definite feeling of deja vu reading IJ, but I read it all the way through anyway.

      Comment by aretino — July 1, 2009 @ 10:08 pm | Reply

      • Well, the difference for me was that I found Pynchon excruciating, and I loved every minute of reading IJ

        Comment by Dan Summers — July 1, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

  8. One thing I had to let go of when I read IJ was a desire to know what all the words meant. I finally just gave up, since Wallace plays fast and loose with English. That he also did so with French comes as no surprise.

    Comment by Dan Summers — July 1, 2009 @ 2:23 pm | Reply

  9. There is a lot of nonstandard French in IJ. Rollent could be derived from “roller,” the French word for roller or inline skating. I speak French and when I read “Fauteuils Rollents,” I pictured something akin to armchairs with roller-skate wheels. That image was a whole lot funnier than a conventional wheelchair.

    Comment by Andy — July 1, 2009 @ 2:56 pm | Reply

  10. Wallace is just following Pynchon in making up often punny historical and lit refs, and inserting them straight-faced.

    There are other similarities between Pynchon and Wallace.

    You know how, in old houses, nothing is plumb and square, and doors one wishes to be open and doors one wishes to be closed can tend to creep back to their preferred mode of alignment?

    I was reading “Gravity’s Rainbow” in my old house one day and glanced up to see just such a door, one which I wished to remain open, swing closed in a lazy arc.

    “Ah!” I thought. “Gravity’s.Rainbow.”

    I got up, opened the door and placed Pynchon’s book on the floor snugly against the wayward door. The book not only kept the door open, it lent a certain National-Book-Award-winning panache to the decor.

    I think Wallace’s book resembles Pynchon’s master work very much in this regard.

    Comment by aretino — July 1, 2009 @ 4:52 pm | Reply

  11. Hi all. Actual university French Literature professor here… IJ is my all-time favorite book in English and I first read it back in the 90s and have been wondering about the French ever since then. The “fauteuils rollents” question is just the first instance of weird or just plain incorrect French (and it has nothing to do with Quebecois French). A lot of the other French titles and expressions that appear throughout the Marathe/Steeply sections are also full of strange little misuses of details like relative pronouns and prepositions. To my eye, they’re just wrong, but I, like so many of us, have always wanted to find some other explanation for the mistakes. I don’t completely buy the “pun/playing-with-French-like-he-plays-with-English” idea because the French given here just doesn’t work that well as language play. I do, however, really like the idea someone proposes above that the French has to do with narrative voice, that it has to do with actual, incorrect student usage: cool idea. Other thoughts?

    Comment by Jeff — July 1, 2009 @ 6:40 pm | Reply

  12. When does Megan McArdle show up at this thing, dragging Suderman’s corpse in her teeth?

    Comment by Infinite Incest — July 1, 2009 @ 6:51 pm | Reply

  13. “I don’t completely buy the “pun/playing-with-French-like-he-plays-with-English” idea because the French given here just doesn’t work that well as language play.”

    Of course not. In the Pynchonian style, the punny fabrications must be groaningly, sophomorically, bad.

    Comment by aretino — July 1, 2009 @ 7:19 pm | Reply

    • Yes, but. In Pynchon, punny fabrications may be groan-worthy and sophomoric, but they are still punny. IJ’s French can usually only be described as incorrect. Fauteuil rollent isn’t really a pun at all, though in this particular case it may (just barely) be Pynchonianly bad. All of the other French titles and phrases I can think of (and I don’t have IJ in front of me at the moment so I’ll need to go back and look)are merely grammatically wrong. This is why I like the notion that this may be connected to the origin of the narrative voice(s). Because what the French does resemble more than anything else is sort of intermediate student French, valiantly deployed, but weirdly askew.

      Comment by Jeff — July 1, 2009 @ 9:20 pm | Reply

  14. Like, just for example, “O.N.A.N.” Man did that get old after a few hundred repetitions.

    Comment by Knemon — July 1, 2009 @ 7:23 pm | Reply

  15. Jeff, considering that some of the central ambiguities of the text revolve around possibly unreliable narrators, I think it makes sense that the third-person narrator be chronically unreliable, as well.

    That being said, there are a few things in the text that I know simply to be factually wrong, so there is always that possibility, too.

    Comment by Dan Summers — July 1, 2009 @ 8:55 pm | Reply

    • That makes a lot of sense and makes me think that supporting this view would require going right to the epicenter of the whole novel’s structure, which in turn makes the whole “French issue” even more interesting. Since I’m only 150 pp into the current read, I’ll need to wait and see and be reminded how things unfold…

      Comment by Jeff — July 1, 2009 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

  16. [...] — Why does Infinite Jest feature all this incorrect French? [...]

    Pingback by Matthew Yglesias » Endgame — July 1, 2009 @ 10:14 pm | Reply

  17. It might be relevant that there’s also a fair amount of incorrect math in IJ. It always made me think DFW enjoyed playing up the air of authorial omniscience, and didn’t always manage to fact check.

    At the same time, “rollent” is so obvious it’s hard to put it down as a simple matter of fact-checking.

    Comment by Bettina — July 1, 2009 @ 11:15 pm | Reply

  18. Of course maybe it just is “intermediate student French, valiantly employed but weirdly askew,” however so slyly.

    Comment by Jfp — July 1, 2009 @ 11:20 pm | Reply

  19. Humbert Humbert always spoke in bad French. Maybe it’s a Lolita allusion.

    Comment by frank — July 2, 2009 @ 12:01 am | Reply

    • I was waiting to say the same thing, Ada (and really all of Nabakov) is full of it as well.

      Comment by ptor — July 2, 2009 @ 6:45 am | Reply

    • He did? I don’t remember this at all and can’t imagine how I would have failed to notice it (though I suppose there probably is bad French beyond my ability to notice it).

      Comment by Nick — July 2, 2009 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

  20. Since the laws of physics, the facts of history and geography are different in what is clearly an alternate reality, it would be odd if French spelling and grammar were “correct,” would it not?

    He gives it away in the title.

    Comment by aretino — July 2, 2009 @ 12:31 am | Reply

  21. Can I present the outlandish theory that David Foster Wallace didn’t speak French very well and made mistakes?

    Comment by John — July 2, 2009 @ 2:17 am | Reply

  22. Good question. I think Professor Jeff is right. The word “rollents” seems to me a combination of the anglicism “roller” (for “rouler”) and the common learner’s mistake of confusing the “-ant” and “-ent” verb endings. Bonne soiree!

    Comment by Senator-Elect — July 2, 2009 @ 2:55 am | Reply

  23. he’s trying to be james joyce

    just not as talented?

    Comment by orbital — July 2, 2009 @ 4:29 am | Reply

  24. Can I present the outlandish theory that David Foster Wallace didn’t speak French very well and made mistakes?

    Authors have editors. While they wouldn’t have caught everything, I guarantee you that one got queried. FWIW, I like the ideas presented in the comments at 6 and 9.

    Also, the book gets a lot less disorienting the further in you get, because you get a sense of how the characters interconnect, what the dominant narrative threads are, and how the subplots serve those threads.

    Comment by scythia — July 2, 2009 @ 5:44 am | Reply

  25. David Foster Wallace had multiple errors because he was a sloppy, sloppy writer.

    His essay on English usage was filled with usage errors. His book on math was filled with math errors. He was a master of tone and emotional understanding, which always came through in his excellent literary style, but you should never for even a second trust that he actually understood what he was talking about.

    Comment by WK Hellestal — July 2, 2009 @ 8:11 am | Reply

    • Name a usage error in his essay on English. Every one I’ve heard people claim always turns out to be bogus upon investigation.

      Comment by Aaron Swartz — July 9, 2009 @ 3:04 pm | Reply

  26. To me the sloppiness of his errors is of a piece with the frantic tone of the book, which I suspect was also the tone of Wallace’s depression. I bet many people on this thread can identify with the plight of a very smart, fast-learning guy, driven from a very young age, for whom the ideal of intellectual curiosity becomes a consumptive craving. You end up with vertigo in the face of the infinity of things you could learn, facts you could still get right or wrong, the impossibility of ever deciding what’s important. Of course the book’s full of holes. It’s trying to be infinite, and there’s not much time.

    Comment by Jarrett — July 2, 2009 @ 11:25 am | Reply

  27. Sorry but Wallace is a poor man’s Pynchon.

    Comment by The Fool — July 2, 2009 @ 11:51 am | Reply

  28. @Southpaw FTW!

    Comment by ajw93 — July 2, 2009 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

  29. No, Wallace is a “poor man’s” (= actual human) Barth. As he was the first to admit.

    Comment by Knemon — July 2, 2009 @ 2:08 pm | Reply

  30. As noted, there are a lot of fake English words in the text as well. He’s just playing.

    Comment by Criminally Bulgur — July 2, 2009 @ 4:23 pm | Reply

  31. It’s deliberate. As much as humanly possible, every word in the whole book is deliberate. There are lots of malapropisms, because when people in real life speak to each other, they occasionally bungle things. DFW’s writing is very much free flowing, like speech.

    I suspect that sometimes DFW throws in odd or subtle little things (like the iffy French) to see if anybody would notice.

    Also, the bad French is part of the narration/voice stuff. IJ is constantly shifting narrators (constantly be asking yourself in every passage, who’s telling me this? sometimes you won’t be able to tell until later). If a particular narrator has some sort of identifiable linguistic trait (a regional accent, for example) or some sort of belief/bias, that will show up and be presented as fact. Some characters are more likely to have malapropisms and outright misspellings than others. (There’s a hilarious endnote about calculus where Hal is supposed to be taking dictation from Pemulis, for example.)

    Another example: I seem to recall at some point the word “irregardless” is presented in italics. He will deliberately call your attention to things that are wrong all the time, which I suspect is his way of puncturing and deflating his own erudition.

    Yet another example: at some point late in the book, there is an endnote whose sole content is “[this character] didn’t literally say [this five-dollar word that DFW used].” Which begs the question, who’s narrating this endnote?

    All of this plays into the addiction theme, too, in a deep way that’s hard to understand until you’ve read the book for the fifth or sixth time….

    Comment by nota bene — July 2, 2009 @ 10:53 pm | Reply

  32. On a similar note – what about the metric system? There are several times that a character is described as weighing >200kg, when it seems absurd that the character could be that large. (One fer-instance: Millicent Kent, an ETA female student is described suchly. While she’s obviously supposed to be large (hence her nickname “The USS M. K.”) the idea of a 440lb pubescent female tennis champion seems absurd, given that there are no NFL linemen who top 400. So is this a) unreliable narrator at work, b) (which I find unlikely) a DFW brain fart, or c)some really odd continuation of the pattern that ETA females have extremely physically abnormal bodies. (In which case what, if anything, might this “mean”?) Thoughts?

    Comment by Matt Guthrie — July 3, 2009 @ 1:38 am | Reply

  33. I agree with Isaac and Jeff here, that the language of each section is integral to the POV. Gately’s malapropisms are interesting compared to Hal’s; for all of Hal’s hypermnesia, he may be no more a reliable narrator (although, like Gately, he tells the truth as he sees it–one exception below). Of course, there are many other parallels between Gately and Hal, who are also linked by “the wraith” and Mme. P.

    Hal is, after all, by the “end” of the narrative (20 Nov YDAU–months before “action” is “resumed” at the beginning of the novel), preparing for his immanent board exams in English and (Parisian) French.

    Wallace is too meticulous, and “errors” like “rollent” too droll, for me to just shrug off these choices as bad, or the usage as simply incorrect French. I agree that the language is integral to POV.

    (That said, I do feel that Wallace’s withholding of Hal’s awareness of the Moms’ sexual history is more than a bit of a cheat. His apparent lack of awareness on this topic earlier in the novel creates tension, particularly w/r/t the John Wayne episode involving Pemulis’ Tenuate spansules. This smacks of a “trick,” and I felt quite a letdown when I came to this part. )

    Comment by thedmo — July 18, 2009 @ 10:09 pm | Reply

    • Someone needs to remind all of you smart people to blog about the narration in the novel once we’ve completed it. I think that there are enough threads in the novel to connect the quirks in the narration satisfactorily. The bad French, use of the word ‘faggot’, and other questions that may seem as authorial negligence to some people can be explained pretty neatly. I want to talk about it, badly, but I don’t think it is possible with spoiling things at this point.

      Comment by Sorrento — August 16, 2009 @ 4:45 pm | Reply

  34. I was reading the Wiki discussions a while back, and remember someone pointing out that it might be a simple reference or deeper connection to the Perec novel La Disparition. I also just hit page 664 and noticed that Marlon Bain misspells Steeply Steepley. He does same in footnote 269.

    Comment by Daniel Richter — July 31, 2009 @ 5:39 pm | Reply

  35. Here is evidence for the ‘mistake’ theory: after referring to the organization repeatedly as the “Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents” throughout the whole scene, there is also an occurrence of “Assassins des Fauteuils Rolents” (p.108) by the same narrator (one assumes), in the same scene.

    Comment by MC — August 6, 2009 @ 2:23 am | Reply

  36. Apologies, that should have said (p.109)!

    Comment by MC — August 6, 2009 @ 2:24 am | Reply

  37. Does all the bad French occur in sections in which Remy is the de facto narrator? Isn’t it possible/probable that Mr. Marathe is as illiterate as, say, Gately?

    Comment by renfield — October 19, 2012 @ 3:41 am | Reply


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