The Top 10 Infinite Jest Characters: #3 Michael Pemulis

Gabe Habash -- April 11th, 2012

One of the many joys of Infinite Jest, made possible because of its tremendous length, is its massive cast of characters. The deeper you go, the more characters you encounter and, as you go even deeper, the intersecting lines between the characters become apparent. Just take a look at this diagram. To celebrate the book’s huge ensemble, we’re counting down the 10 best characters over the next two weeks, culminating with the #1 character on Friday, April 13. On that day, we’ll post one giant composite article with all 10 characters. For the list, we’re excluding the book’s two “main” characters, Hal and Gately, because they’re given time and consideration that the rest of the characters don’t get, and thus can’t be evaluated in the same way. So join us as we reveal our favorites and be sure to tell us whether you agree of disagree with our selections in the comments!

#10 Barry Loach, #9 Hugh Steeply, #8 Mrs. Waite, #7 Bruce Green, #6 Ortho Stice, #5 Avril Incandenza, #4 Joelle van Dyne

Today, we’ll look at the master of Eschaton.

3. Michael Pemulis

Pemulis is literally jumping up and down in one spot so hard that his yachting cap jumps slightly off his head with each impact, which Troeltsch and Axford confer and agree they have previously seen occur only in animated cartoons.

Michael Pemulis is Infinite Jest‘s most divisive character, loved by many and hated by many, perhaps including Wallace, who called him “one of the book’s Antichrists.” By the end of the book, his best friend Hal calls him the only real type of monster and his worst nightmare comes true: he gets expelled from Enfield.

But how does Pemulis get to this point? How does the book’s ultimate success story become the book’s ultimate tragedy? He’s a major character without being a main character, and it’s because of IJ‘s depth that the amount of information and development we get regarding him would be enough to make him a main character in a shorter book. So let’s look at the enigma of Michael Pemulis, and you can decide for yourself whether he is a victim or a villain.

“Wiry, pointy-featured” Michael Mathew (sic) Pemulis (“His face is the sort of spiky-featured brow-dominated Feenian face you see all over Irish Allston and Brighton, its chin and nose sharp and skin the natal brown color of the shell of a quality nut”) comes from the tough neighborhood of Allston, Mass, where his “pre-E.T.A. home life was apparently hackle-raising.” At 10, he was a prodigy who played in cut-off shorts and no shirt, able to compete because of his masterful lob game (making him Eschaton’s all-time greatest player), which was the primary reason he was recruited to Enfield. He is “cavalier about practice but a bundle of strangled nerves in tournaments.” Not only is he incredibly enterprising (he’s E.T.A.’s resident drug dealer and, largely due to the latter, runs a clean urine business operation, doubling his intake), he “has the highest Stanford-Binet of any kid on academic probation ever at the Academy.”

But the most endearing thing about Pemulis is how detailed he is, his Pemulisness. He has a tendency of looking warily from side to side before speaking. He’s not good enough to get corporate sponsorship, so he plays in T-shirts with things like “ALLSTON HS WOLF SPIDERS” and “CHOOSY MOTHERS” written on them. When he goes to a meeting with an authority figure, he wears “the most insolent ensemble he could throw together.” (This consists of maroon paratrooper’s pants tucked into fuchsia socks, “radically uncool” Clark’s Wallabies, an orange fake-silk turtleneck under an Engilsh-cut sportcoat with a purple-and-tan windowpane check, a naval shoulder-braid at the level of ensign, and his yachting cap, “but with the bill bent up at a bumpkinish angle.”) Even when he’s doing things that aren’t upstanding–like acquiring the DMZ–he goes to the library and researches the hell out of the drug, showing how steeped he is his own plans and actions. As with Joelle, if one of the reasons we form a connection to a character is because they want something, then Pemulis is one of the best examples of that rule. That goes double when he shows his good-heartedness with Hal (see footnote #123, home of the PEEMSTER and HALSADICK diagrams), Mario, and Todd Possalthwaite. The latter, in a wonderfully touching scene, gets consoled by Pemulis about his (Possalthwaite’s) adolescent existential worry (“Nothing’s true.”). Pemulis is Possalthwaite’s Big Buddy and does his best to make him feel better: “Only that at times like this, when you’re directionless in a dark wood, trust to the abstract deductive. Never trust the father you can see.”

Three final endearing Pemulis passages, just because:

Pemulis is compulsively going around zipping and unzipping everything in the room with a zipper, a habit of his Hal loathes.

Pemulis chews with his mouth open, producing moist noises, a habit so family-of-origin-ingrained no amount of peer pressure can break him of it.

With the door just cracked and his head poked in he brings his other arm in over from behind like it’s not his arm, his hand in the shape of a claw just over his head, and makes as if the claw from behind is pulling him back out into the hall. W/ an eye-rolling look of fake terror.

However, Pemulis does some not-so-admirable things. He doses a tennis opponent, causing him to eat “from the hors d’ oeuvres table without using utensils or at one point even hands” and to “do a disco number when there wasn’t any music going.” He has an inexplicable dislike for Dr. Dolores Rusk, E.T.A.’s bird-of-prey-faced counselor, so he wires her brass door knob up to a Delco battery, underestimating the voltage and inadvertently giving a cleaning lady “a permanent perm and irreversible crossed eyes.”

The Moms thinks Pemulis is “reptilian” and she and E.T.A.’s authority figures have been gunning for his expulsion, which they finally get at the book’s end, when they find out John Wayne has been inadvertently dosed with Pemulis’s Tenuate spansules. By this time, Hal, going through the initial stages of his efforts to get clean, damns Pemulis as a monster because he lies to get them a 30-day stay on their drug test and he sees him as an enabler.

The last we hear of Pemulis, one of Infinite Jest’s most important characters, is relegated to a footnote, which many see as an indication that Wallace was turning his nose up at him, by not even giving his exit pages in the main text. That footnote is one of the book’s saddest moments: Pemulis faces a firing squad of E.T.A.’s higher ups, who excruciatingly draw out the meeting before dropping the axe. Reading that footnote, seeing Pemulis grow increasingly panicked, “tasting the metallic taste of a seriously anxious stomach,” and then finally to latch onto the delusion that maybe the Tenuate situation won’t affect his going to the WhataBurger tournament (which he has saved the DMZ for), is positively heartbreaking for readers who to that point had come to love Pemulis’s wit and mischievousness. The last mention of Pemulis shows him “close-mouthed and breathing with terrible ease,” finding the good humor of his executioners “almost infectious.”

Presumably (we never find out what happens to him after his expulsion), Pemulis returns to Allston, an existence we get a glimpse of in a short section about Matty Pemulis, Michael’s brother, who is a prostitute at age 23.

What makes Pemulis’s arc so satisfying (the question of his fate is discussed in the following paragraph) is that where he ends up is so far from where he starts. This is meant in a narrative sense, completely disregarding how Wallace handles Pemulis’s exit–one of the reasons Pemulis wins readers’ affections is because we feel like we’re with him while he goes through a tremendous amount of change in his life. We root for him because he’s an overachieving smart aleck who’s, in many ways, too smart for his own good, and because he’s an underdog who doesn’t view himself as an underdog. For all that his circumstances change during the book, that confidence never wavers.

Much has been made about the complete shift in Pemulis’s story, which turns dead serious very quickly as all characters turn on him. Is Wallace damning Pemulis by doing this, showing us that a teenage drug dealer with a tendency toward pettiness (both of which one could argue are products of his childhood environment) deserves the fate that befalls him? If so, then why does Wallace treat Pemulis’s escapades before the about face as just that–escapades–the light mischief of a teenager? Alternately, could Wallace be trying to show us, with Pemulis’s fate, that escape isn’t possible when we open ourselves to temptation and illicit behavior? It’s possible, but it seems unlikely that Pemulis is a martyr figure, or a symbol for Wallace making his moral points. No, Wallace’s heartless treatment of Pemulis at IJ‘s conclusion seems more personal than that; Pemulis feels like a real person from his first appearance, and he’s too personal to be a symbol. And that’s the one thing we can agree on regarding Pemulis and the incompleteness of his story: he’s one of the book’s most personal characters: a complicated bundle of spite and thoughtlessness as well as virtue. Ultimately, Wallace makes an example of him, showing us that sometimes virtue and good-heartedness aren’t enough.

5 thoughts on “The Top 10 Infinite Jest Characters: #3 Michael Pemulis

  1. Henry Balke

    Are things really so bleak for Pemulis post-Enfield Tennis Academy ?? Hal mentions that he could get a full ride at a college on test scores alone. Doesn’t sound to me like he will be relegated to a dreary life in Allston. And his horror-show ‘Da is dead thank god

  2. Bobo

    My favorite characters shift with every reading, but MP consistently ranks near the top. Was surprised to find so many people online who see MP as being “punished” by DFW, when ultimately his fate is inconclusive. I don’t think a moral point is being made by his (SPOILER) expulsion from ETA, especially as his expulsion was, if not engineered, at least partly administered by Avril, a character who is possibly the most sinister/evil major character in the book. (Obviously depending on whose account of Avril you trust.) I think part of the freedom Wallace earns through the sheer scope and complexity of his narrative is the ability to harness the power of moral narratives (MP’s fall certainly has the shape and impact of a tragic villain’s downfall) without actually reducing his characters to bland, morally stable archetypes. (Just one example: Don Gately, perhaps the novel’s most heroic character, is also a racist.) If I had to pick one thing I love about IJ above all other things, it would be exactly that; IJ is my favorite book because it combines the moral satisfactions of pre-modernist literature with the formal complexity and sophistication of modernist and postmodern fiction.

    Anyhow, I think DFW obviously loves Michael Pemulis, even if he does turn him into a bit (and I would argue JUST a bit) of a moral object lesson.

    Great writeups by the way.

    1. Gabe Habash Post author

      Where does Avril rank for you then (as the force behind changing the grocery sign to “10 Items or Fewer”)?

  3. Judd

    Nice write-up. I love MP. He is, quite brilliantly if a bit obviously, Falstaff to Hal’s, well, Hal. Which is why I am surprised Harold Bloom hasn’t gotten on board with IJ yet, Falstaff-fetishist as he is.

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