Thanksgiving with the Incandenzas

Revisiting an oldie from David Foster Wallace’s magnificent novel “Infinite Jest”:

At Joelle’s first interface with the whole sad family unit – Thanksgiving, Headmaster’s House, E.T.A., straight up Comm. Ave in Enfield – Orin’s Moms Mrs. Incandenza (‘Please do call me Avril, Joelle’) had been gracious and warm and attentive without obtruding, and worked unobtrusively hard to put everyone at ease and to facilitate communication, and to make Joelle feel like a welcomed and esteemed part of the family gathering – and something about the woman made every follicle on Joelle’s body pucker and distend. It wasn’t that Avril Incandenza was one of the tallest women Joelle had ever seen, and definitely the tallest pretty older woman with immaculate posture (Dr. Incandenza slumped something awful) she’d ever met. It wasn’t that her syntax was so artless and fluid and imposing. Nor the near-sterile cleanliness of the home’s downstairs (the bathroom’s toilet seemed not only scrubbed but waxed to a high shine). And it wasn’t that Avril’s graciousness was in any conventional way fake. It took a long time for Joelle even to start to put a finger on what gave her the howling fantods about Orin’s mother. The dinner itself – no turkey; some politico-familial in-joke about no turkey on Thanksgiving – was delicious without being grandiose. They didn’t even sit down to eat until 2300h. Avril drank champagne out of a little fluted glass whose level somehow never went down. Dr. Incandenza (no invitation to call him Jim, she noticed) drank at a tri-faceted tumbler of something that made the air above it shimmer slightly. Avril put everyone at ease. Orin did credible impressions of famous figures. He and little Hal made dry fun of Avril’s Canadian pronunciation of certain diphthongs. Avril and Dr. Incandenza took turns cutting up Mario’s salmon. Joelle had a weird half-vision of Avril hiking her knife up hilt-first and plunging it into Joelle’s breast. Hal Incandenza and two other lopsidedly muscular boys from the tennis school ate like refugees and were regarded with gentle amusement. Avril dabbed her mouth in a patrician way after every bite. …

Just before desert – which was on fire – Orin’s Moms had asked whether they could perhaps all join hands secularly for a moment and simply be grateful for all being together. She made a special point of asking Joelle to include her hands in the hand-holding. Joelle held Orin’s hand and Hal’s smaller friend’s hand, which was so callused up it felt like some sort of rind. Dessert was Cherries Jubilee with gourmet New Brunswick ice cream. Dr. Incandenza’s absence form the table went unmentioned, almost unnoticed, it seemed. Both Hal and his nonstimulating friend pleaded for Kahlua, and Mario flapped pathetically at the tabletop in imitation. Avril made a show of gazing at Orin in mock-horror as he produced a cigar and clipper. There was also a blancmange. The coffee was decaf with chickory. When Joelle looked over again, Orin had put his cigar away without lighting it.

And on. Turn to page 744 of your copy to read along.

(And Happy Thanksgiving.)

Stephen Schenkenberg @schenkenberg