Bearing in mind the danger of finding whatever you go in looking for in a book this large and dense, I notice that James O. Incandenza’s filmography (note 24) lists his production company as having gone through several name changes. The last, Poor Yorick Productions, is obviously linked to the line from Hamlet that gives us the titular Infinite Jest. The first, however is Meniscus Productions. As you may recall from high school chemistry, the “meniscus” is the curved surface of a liquid in a container—which can be either concave or convex. Note the connection here to the massive toxic zone the United States is trying to dump on Canada—an act of “experialism”—which is (oddly) referred to as the Great Concavity or the Great Convexity, depending on which side of the border one is on. Or at least, oddly at first blush: A line that appears convex described from one side will indeed be concave on the other. (A later film, Incandenza’s documentary about this region, is itself released under multiple different titles.) Perhaps more relevant in the context of filmmaking, a meniscus is a type of lens, convex on one side, concave on the other—as opposed to the more familiar ellipsoid, biconvex lens. Incandenza’s first production under this imprint utilizes “four convex mirrors,” also potentially suggesting a lemniscate shape. There’s even a connection to tennis, though more tenuous: The meniscus is also the medical name for knee cartilage often torn by athletes. The films under this imprint themselves reference optics or lenses in many cases.
I’d be less quick to ascribe significance to this if not for the whole Great Concavity/Great Convexity business, which suggests that DFW is intentionally repeating this pattern. A lemniscate, of course, is a figure that alternates between concavity and convexity. Somewhat to my surprise, the two terms—”lemniscate” and “meniscus”—despite the superficial similarity, appear to be derived from different roots: “meniscus” from the diminiutive for the Greek mene for “moon,” and “lemniscate” from Greek (with a detour through Latin) lemniskos for “ribbon.”
It occurs to me, incidentally, that DFW may have in mind here not a lemniscate but a Möbius strip—maybe one of our more mathematically schooled readers can give me the skinny here, but intuitively, since that figure has only one “side,” and therefore no real “interior” or “exterior,” it would be impossible to strictly define it as either concave or convex. The key here being “intuitively”—it’s been a long time since I did any serious math, and quick Googling doesn’t reveal an answer. Yet another of Incandenza’s films is titled Möbius Strips, a work of “pornography parody.” The plot supposedly concerns a “theoretical physicist…who can only achieve mathematical insight during coitus,” and it’s described as a possible homage to Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, a semi-autobiographical film about a musical director whose self-destructive addictions are inextricably linked with his creative process, ending in an elaborately staged musical-dance number reflecting the director’s own life. The film, like the Möbius strip, blurs the distinction between “inside” and “outside”—the musical within the director’s story ends up being the frame for that story.
The second production company is Heliotrope Films. In addition to being a shade of pink, a heliotrope is a plant that exhibits heliotropism, which is to say, it moves to track the sun in its path across the sky. If its position is measured at regular intervals, the path the sun traces across the sky over the course of a year is (of course) a lemniscate. Two of the Heliotrope Films productions are infomercials or educational documentaries for Sunstrand Power & Light, involving “Annular Fusion” and “Annular Amplified Light.” As far as I can tell, DFW made up these terms, but “annular” means “ring-shaped.” So “annular fusion,” perhaps, can be read as “the fusion of ring-shapes”? One more under the Heliotrope imprint is titled The Machine in the Ghost: Annular Holography for Fun and Prophet. A hologram is a sort of fractal itself, in that the image of the whole is contained (at lower resolution) in each part of the hologram. Also note the spelling of “prophet.” Philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the phrase “ghost in the machine” to describe Cartesian dualism—the idea of an ethereal/immaterial soul or mind embedded, somehow, in a mechanistic physical body and brain. But perhaps a mechanistic, even mathematical structure underlying a work of creative art or literature might be dubbed the “machine in the ghost”? And what sort of structure? Apparently an annular (ring-shaped) hologram (self-similar or fractal structure) which is both entertaining and “prophetic” in the sense of prefiguring what is to come, which is almost necessarily the case if the microstructure mirrors the macropattern.
Finally, there’s Latrodectus Mactans Productions. Latrodectus Mactans is the scientific name for the Black Widow spider. Conceivably this is a hint at his wife’s involvement in his supposed suicide: An early dialogue between Hal and Mario suggests that Avril does not seem outwardly all that broken up by his death—seems, indeed, somewhat relieved by it. Though given that spousal infidelity is a recurring theme in the films, it may simply be an indirect, more metaphorical sort of accusation. Alternatively, though, there’s the spider’s characteristic dorsal marking, which looks rather lemniscate-ish, though I suppose you could argue it’s typically more of a bow-tie.
The first film under this imprint is literally concerned with poisonous spiders; several others involve some sort of femme fatale: a female “figure of death,” a pair of “lethal mythologic females” (who duel with mirrors that transfix the audience by literally turning them to stone), a “lethally beautiful woman,” a girl delinquent on a “rampage of recidivist revenge.” The stuff under the Poor Yorick imprint is much more overtly heavy on autobiographical films, though this previous theme continues with an “ecstatic encounter with Death” (again played by a woman), a “beautiful cadaver,” yet another (female) “figure of death” in a work based on a play about a female assassin… in fact, just looking quickly, the first “deadly female” we encounter under the Latrodectus Imprint is described in precisely the same language—”figure of death”—as the final instance of the archetype under the Poor Yorick imprint. An intriguing incongruity I don’t know how to read yet: An elaborate farce called Dial C for Concupiscence is described as a parodic “tribute to Bresson’s Les Anges du Peché” [sic: should be Péché]. But in fact, the plot of the Bresson film resembles not at all the summary of Dial C, while it is actually incredibly close to the “rampage of recidivist revenge” film described earlier, Blood Sister: One Tough Nun. A weirdly precise misattribution I’m inclined to think must have some significance, but I don’t see what just yet.
I note also that the films themselves—many of them hilariously on point send-ups of art film, not a few of which sound more interesting than anything I saw on my last round through the Hirschhorn—frequently play on the idea of some kind of strange loop between art and viewer. Cage III involves two sets of viewer/performers, each transfixed by the bizarre transformations the other goes through in order that each may observe the other. One of these is described as so “grotesquely compelling” that the viewer becomes nothing but an enormous eyeball—an obvious nod to the hypnotic power of the Infinite Jest cartridge itself. There’s also the film adaptation of Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade which takes the famous play-within-a-play and transforms it into a play-within-a-play-within-a-film-within-a-film. Another art piece project a distorted image of the audience on the screen, where the “antinarrative” consists of “the theater audience watching itself watch itself get the obvious ‘joke’ and become increasingly self conscious and uncomfortable and hostile.” Several other films appear to depict scenes from the book involving James and Hal. The filmography itself is littered with superscript 1s, though it’s unclear where they point. Not to any sub-footnote (those are indicated by letters)—possibly back up one level of hierarchy, to the first endnote of the series within which the filmography is contained? Somewhere else?
This seems to be emerging as a broader issue within the book: Where, in a hierarchy or tangle of nested and overlapping stories, is the reader? Is the narrator inside or outside the story? Or, if it is structured like a Möbius strip, does the question rest on a false premise?
Postscript: In the interest, again, of setting myself up for future embarrassment: In line with the thematic and structural patterns of recursive loops and illusory boundaries between art and observer, I’m going to make a prediction. This is, of course, a real book titled Infinite Jest about a fictional, preternaturally transfixing entertainment film called Infinite Jest. If I’m anywhere near correct about what DFW is doing, it is almost structurally obligatory that the film at some point be revealed to contain a book also called Infinite Jest, though it may be obliquely referenced rather than directly named. If this pans out, I’ll take it as a sign that I’m on to something; if it’s not, I’ll probably have to reconsider. But at this point I’d frankly be surprised if it doesn’t turn up at some point.
Post-postscript: Is it excessively macabre if, from a certain point of view, it seems like DFW’s own suicide was also structurally obligatory? You write a book called Infinite Jest about the mentally-ill creator of a work of fiction called Infinite Jest who kills himself, with the consistent theme throughout being the blurring or erasure of the boundaries between nested hierarchies of self-similar fiction. How else do you close the loop?