Infinite Jest

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Infinite Jest was written in 1996 by David Foster Wallace. It is 1079 pages long (981 text and 98 footnotes) and was published by Back Bay Books/Little Brown and Company.

Title

The title is derived from a line from Hamlet, in which Hamlet, holding the skull of Yorick: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!"

One working title for the novel was A Failed Entertainment.

Setting

Infinite Jest is set in a near-future version of the world, in which the United States, Canada, and Mexico have merged to form a joint state known as the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). Johnny Gentle, president of the United States at the time, is a pathological mysophobe, and thus, as part of his platform of sanitizing the country, begins dumping toxic waste in New England. After this is discovered, Gentle coerces Canada into accepting the toxic territory, which forms the "concavity/convexity" (depending on the country from which one views it), through a process known as "experialism".

In O.N.A.N., in what is known as "Subsidized Time", years are "branded" and named after their corporate sponsors.

  1. Year of the Whopper
  2. Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad
  3. Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar
  4. Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken
  5. Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster
  6. Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office, Or Mobile
  7. Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland
  8. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment
  9. Year of Glad

The corresponding real-year dates for these years is questionable, as there are few examples of real dates given in the novel (most periods prior to the Year of the Whopper are referred to merely by the label "B.S.", or Before Subsidization). However, it is most likely that Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, the year in which the majority of the novel's action takes place, is 2011, as Don Gately was 9 years old during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and is 27 during Y.D.A.U. in the novel. There is also some speculation that Y.D.A.U. corresponds to 2009, as it is noted that the M.I.T. language riots occurred in 1997 (n. 24), and that those riots occurred 12 years before the present Y.D.A.U. (n. 60).

Character List

The Family Incandenza

Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA)

Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House

  • Joelle Van Dyne (aka "Madame Psychosis" aka "The P.G.O.A.T." (The Prettiest Girl of All Time))

Pages 17-27 showcase Erdedy's neuroticism and DFW's penchant for extended, cascading prose.

Is he redeemable? Or just despicable?

The Quebecois/ONAN

Other

Plot/Setting

Ennet House

Don Gately, one of the novel's main protagonists, works at Ennet House, and is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. He values his time at AA greatly in terms of recovery from addiction, and also meets Joelle Van Dyne there. Gately's upbringing was a tragic one. The product of a broken home, he was a star football prospect, with the skills and frame to play big time college ball. He could not handle the rigors of high school academics and had no family support, so he turned to drugs at an early age. Eventually, they took over his life, and he got involved in a life of petty crime with Gene Fackelmann. Gately is shot by the Canadians, who are looking for the master copy of the Entertainment. In the hospital, he refuses treatment on principle, not wanting to use drugs anymore. Gately is visited in the hospital by the ghost of Himself, who reveals much about the Entertainment and its effects on people. He eventually gets treated, however, and has flashbacks to his life of addiction and crime.

Also in the house is Joelle Van Dyne, who is prominently featured in the film Infinite Jest, Ken Erdedy the marijuana addict, and Kate Gompert, who displays similar characteristics to The Depressed Person from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.

Several other addicts are featured as well, among whom Randy Lenz, animal torturer and cocaine addict, is the most graphic and despicable.

Enfield Tennis Academy

The ETA is a junior tennis academy, at which resides Hal Incandenza and his friends, among whom are Michael Pemulis, Otho Stice, and John "No Relation" Wayne. They are constantly playing and exercising, a routine which Wallace examines in detail. There is a dynamic of fear between the players and Coach Schtitt, which Hal exposes early in the novel. Hal claims that the coaches are mean and nasty to the players because that fosters a sense of unity among them. If they all focus and hate the same thing, the locker room chatter becomes easier and daily life becomes more connected. The fact that Hal can explain this shows just how self-aware he is, and provides a lens through which to view the common Wallace theme of "self and other." Drug use runs rampant at ETA, and Pemulis even sells clean urine come drug testing time. Hal uses cannabinoids frequently, and loses some of his tennis skill after he decides to stop using. Hal has a rocky relationship with his family, described below.

John Wayne is the top player at ETA, almost machinelike on the court, but has Canadian roots and is revealed to be a member of AFR. He holds Gately and Hal at gunpoint on a trek to dig up Himself's body and retrieve the master copy of the Entertainment. He is also involved in a bizarre sexual relationship with Avril Incandenza, a development which Pemulis uses to his advantage.

Stice gets his forehead stuck to the wall, and has to gruesomely rip it off.

Marathe and the AFR

Rémy Marathe is a quadruple agent, manipulating both the United States Office of Unspecified Services (USOUS) and Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (A.F.R.) in order to procure medical support for his comatose wife. His conversations with Hugh Steeply (dressed as Helen), reveal that the A.F.R. is interested in procuring a Master copy of Infinite Jest (film), also known as the Entertainment. The A.F.R. is a Quebecois separatist group, who wants to use the lethal powers of the Entertainment to terrorize the United States and break apart from the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). O.N.A.N., was a creation of the United States, and left many Canadians unhappy. The A.F.R. is among the more extreme and brutal of the Quebecois separatists, and has its roots in a game of will and courage called La Culte du Prochain Train (explained in detail in Rémy Marathe's character page). The A.F.R. slowly closes in on Ennet House and Ennet Tennis Academy throughout the novel, as it learns more about its creator James Incandenza and those close to him. It is Quebecois separatists that shoot and wound Don Gately after a standoff at Ennet House. John Wayne, a top player at ETA, is revealed to be a mole for the A.F.R., and mention is made of Wayne holding Gately and Hal Incandenza at gunpoint and making the two of them dig up the casket of James Incandenza, where the Master Copy is buried.

The Incandenza Family

Wallace uses the Incandenza family as a way to examine close human relationships, and the passions and anxieties intrinsic to them. James Incandenza is concerned with forming a true relationship with his son Hal Incandenza, and tries various methods to form that bond, from impersonating a professional conversationalist to creating Infinite Jest (film). Hal Incandenza himself is incredibly intelligent, but exhibits extreme insecurity and Awareness. Hal cannot help but to degrade mentally and physically, as his tennis game withers after he stops using marijuana. Eventually, (although it is the book's first scene) Hal can no longer form coherent words or control his own body, although he believes he is calm and in complete control. This scene focuses on a Wallace theme of Appearance, the idea that we can never truly know what is going on inside someone else's head, or experience their thoughts or feelings in even remotely the same way as he or she does. Avril Incandenza, the widow of James Incandenza, is a Quebecois woman who carries on illicit affairs with uncountable partners, among whom are scores of medical attachés, Charles Tavis (the father of Mario Incandenza, and John Wayne. Avril is quite self absorbed and obsessive, watching over Hal, Mario, and ETA with a keen eye that goes unnoticed by many (although her relationship with Orin Incandenza, her oldest, is nonexistent). Orin is a professional football player, punting for the Arizona Cardinals, who is also a showcase of sexual dysfunction. Since his breakup with Joelle Van Dyne, Orin cannot get truly close or intimate with a woman. Instead, the sexual act is all about himself, (much like what Wallace focuses on in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) and he even calls the women his "Subjects." Orin meets a Swiss hand model with A.F.R. connections and beds her with the same mental distance. Mario Incandenza, the middle child, is grotesquely deformed and stricken with afflictions that affect his body type, his gait, and his head. Mario's head is enormous, much like that of Don Gately. Mario films ETA matches and practices, having inherited James's film equipment, and is constantly upbeat and truthful in what he says. Mario is Hal's roommate, and they share much, including feelings about Himself's funeral. He spends most of his time either at Ennet House or on the ETA facility. Mario has made a film about ETA, called Tennis and the Feral Prodigy, and one film about the formation of O.N.A.N., North American political history, and the origin of Subsidized Time.

Themes

Motifs

  • Clicks

Style

Generally, critics and readers refer to the style in Infinite Jest as maximalist, or detail-driven. More specifically, Infinite Jest stands as a paragon of the enormous control and unparalleled sensitivity that Wallace exerts in his writing. Wallace’s style throughout the text displays an acute awareness of the infinite array of details that lie beyond the mere plot of the novel; it is from the deep sense of awareness and understanding of the novel’s setting and characters that the sensitivity of the prose arises. Wallace does not only depict what happens but also what does not happen—the non-events, the silence, the omissions, the what-might-have-happened-but-does-not-actually-happen-moments. By including these details and elements of non-plot, Infinite Jest exudes a rare level of sensitivity—one often absent from other works of fiction. Moreover, this maximalist type of writing aids the reader in understanding and connecting with the character in the novels; such an excesive amount of detail allows the reader to experience actions that he might not have experienced before.

Examples of the sensitivity of the prose:

On the dynamics between two Ennet House residents: “Geoffrey D. has issues with Randy L., also, you can tell: there’s a certain way they don’t quite look at each other” (279). With the simple gesture of pointing out that there is a way in which these characters “don’t” look at each other, the writer reveals his attentiveness to these details of negation and non-behavior. By writing “don’t quite,” the writer adds another layer of nuance and precision to the description of the dynamics between the two characters. In effect, these nuances and non-behaviors become the stylistic main course of the text; they distinguish the text’s style. In a way, they are the text’s style, for the stylist heart of Infinite Jest lies within the extraction of these details.

On the three White Flaggers’ visiting Gately in the hospital: “The three all pause, and then Jack J. puts the back of his hand to his brow and flutters his lashes martyrishly at the drop-ceiling. They all three of them laugh. They have no clue that if Gately actually laughs he’ll tear his shoulder’s sutures” (844). By including the pause of the three visitors, the text draws attention to a moment of silence, which is in a way a moment of non-occurrence, non-plot. By informing the reader that “they have no clue that if Gately actually laughs he’ll tear his shoulder’s sutures,” the text gives the reader access to information apart from and outside of the plot. The text reveals its awareness of everything—the events that occur and those that do not.

On the ambiance of the Ennet House: “Someone has farted; no one knows just who, but this isn’t like a normal adult place where everybody coolly pretends a fart didn’t happen; here everybody has to make their little comment” (279). The description of this non-“normal adult place” effectively captures the stylistic world of the novel—a textual place where not a single detail is overlooked.

The Sensitiveness of the Characters: Not only is the text itself sensitive to its milieu, but nearly every single character in Infinite Jest displays an uncommon level of sensitiveness.

Examples:

Even Randy Lenz is more sensitive than the average human being when he conducts an internal debate over how to tell Green to stop following him and “still have Green know he thinks he’s OK?” Lenz worries about every detail, from “where the fuck is he supposed to look when he says it” to the “voltage or energy there, hanging between you” (554-555).

Gately’s sensitivity, as an eight or nine year-old child: When Mrs. Waite brings a birthday cake, the narrator tells us, “Mrs. Waite had spared Gately the humiliation of putting just his name on the cake as if the cake was especially for him. But it was. Mrs. Waite had saved up for a long time to afford to make the cake, Gately knew” (848-849). These passages and many others imbue an unparalleled quality of sensitiveness in the characters.

A meta-moment: There is a scene in Infinite Jest which depicts the precision and care with which the M.P. takes apart a fly. This scene—a description of the M.P.’s fly-whacking style—in effect illustrates Wallace’s own writing style—not that Wallace’s style is as cruel as the fly-whacking style, but that Wallace’s style seems just as controlled and meticulous as the M.P.’s style. Wallace expounds that the M.P. hits flies— in a controlled way. Not hard enough to kill them. He was very controlled and intent about it. He’d whack them just hard enough to disable them. Then he’d pick them up real precisely and remove either a wing or like a leg, something important to the fly. He’d take the wing or leg over to the beige kitchen wastebasket and very deliberately hike the lid with the foot-pedal and deposit the tiny wing or leg in the wastebasket, bending at the waist. (842) Like the way in which the M.P. smacks flies, Wallace’s writing peels apart each character carefully to his or her bare personality and inner sensitivity (in his non-fiction, Wallace’s writing peels apart issues such as the morality of cooking lobsters and the wars over usage in an equally exceptional and meticulous way). Every word and sentence and phrase in the text seems as deliberate and controlled and carefully selected and architected as this nasty, yet subtly similar act of fly-parsing.

Voice

Context

In "David Foster Wallace: In The Company of Creeps" Lorin Stein recounts an interview with Wallace:

Wallace claims that the novel's "sadness-and-addiction stuff" came from his observations of the culture of AA when he lived in Boston during his late 20s. "Boston has open AA meetings and these things are fascinating. You see for the most part privileged people who, through their own inability to preserve autonomy in the face of available pleasure, have ruined their lives and look like Dachau survivors. That is what Infinite Jest is about, in one sense, but at the same time I only came up with this afterwards, in interviews, when I was trying to construct some kind of halfway truthful narrative about why I wrote what I wrote.

For more, see "David Foster Wallace: In The Company of Creeps"

Scholarship/Criticism

Mary K. Holland

In "The Art's Heart's Purpose: Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest" Holland argues that "Infinite Jest fails to deliver on the agenda that Wallace set for it, not only because it fails to eschew empty irony for the earnestness that Wallace imagines but also, and more importantly, because it fails to recognize and address the cultural drive toward narcissism that fuels and is fueled by that irony."

Holland also astutely unpacks the novel's title as an Infinite "gest" or Infinite "story" (35) like "The Arabian Nights (also called, tellingly, The Thousand and One Nights), in which Shahrazad tells one story after another to postpone her death." "The joke of this novel, then, lies in the fact that, from the moment we meet Hal, we know that he is doomed to the solipsistic death of his pathological society, yet the novel defers for as long as possible our understanding of this culture and this moment, parsing out seemingly infinitely repeating examples of its recursive loop over more than a thousand and one pages of Hal's "story," a story told, in essence, to postpone his own certain death." One could extend Holland's argument and add that Wallace's entire ouevre is him telling his own story, with hopes of postponing his own certain death within the solipsistic loop of postmodern irony and narcissism.

Timothy Jacobs

In "The Brothers Incandenza: Translating Ideology in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest," Jacobs refines Marshwell Boswell's argument that Wallace makes "'overt' the theme of artistic patricide" through important references to Hamlet as well as less important references the Brothers Karamazov by arguing that "Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is much more important to Wallace's overall aesthetic agenda than the more obvious Shakespeare allusion," noting particularly Wallace's essay Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky, in which "Wallace aligns himself with the Dostoevskyean tradition." He sees two main connections that support his notion that Wallace intended to rewrite The Brothers Karamazov in a modern, American setting:

  • Both feature alcoholic fathers who compete with their eldest son for women
  • "Characters from both novels are doubled or mirror each other"
    • Charles Tavis "is most commonly referred to as C. T. which reflects former halfway house staffer, Calvin Thrust"
    • "Don Gately is reflected in halfway house resident Doony Glynn"
    • "Joëlle van Dyne's radio persona, Madame Psychosis, is reflected in Gately's stepfather, known only as the MP" and "DMZ is also known as "Madame Psychosis" (170).
  • Both play with various forms of writing, including letters, articles, notes, etc.
  • Ennet House resembles Dostoevsky's monastery, as both "'houses' rely on similar beliefs in a higher power, and both contain residents of varying commitment"

Jacobs concludes that both novels "express the nature of the individual struggling for belief in something larger than the self. Both are concerned with the eschatology of the individual subject and fashion their novels as aesthetic allegories, or dreams and visions - a 'dream-logic' (Supposedly, 200) - of the eschatology of the human individual."

The Brothers Karamazov is considered by many to be a fundamentally existentialist text, lending further credence to existential interpretations of the novel. In the novel, Ivan famously argues that if God does not exist then everything is permitted.

The Brothers Incandenza: Translating Ideology in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

A.O. Scott

A.O. Scott argues that a "lot of Wallace's earlier work, including much of Infinite Jest, slips back toward that abyss—an epistemological black hole" of "stylistic invention for its own sake," but he also notes that in the passage about the unnamed marijuana addict who tries to kick his habit by consuming unbelievable quantities of marijuana, "Wallace happens upon an unexpected exit from the cul de sac of postmodern mannerism—a breakthrough into something that is not old-fashioned illusionistic realism but that is nonetheless alive with captured reality. And he accomplishes this breakthrough by applying the spiraling, recursive logic of his own fictional self-examinations to another person, a person who couldn't care less about literary fashion."

Iannis Goerlandt

In his article, "'Put the Book Down and Slowly Walk Away' Irony and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest" (Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 47, no. 3, pp. 309-28, Spring 2006) Goerlandt says, "I argue that compared with the lethal Entertainment “Infinite Jest”the novel Infinite Jest stands in a completely different relationship to its audience, and that the lethal Entertainment has two functions with respect to its audience, whereas the novel has only one. Drawing on certain textual markers elucidated by Derek E. Wayne, I show that the novel explicitly functionalizes the abstract level of “superstructure”(Nünning) of poetic texts to counter an ironic reading.'

Mark Bresnan

Bresnan's article, titled "The Work of Play in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest," (Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, September 22, 2008) discusses the idea that characters are in fact trapped in a loop of narcissistic infantilism much like the one described by Mary K. Holland, but can engage in certain activities that break them out of that loop. He calls those activities play, like Hal's toenail clipping game, or Gately's AA meetings, but the activities must be unproductive and unpredictable.

Frank Cioffi

Cioffi's "'An Anguish Become Thing': Narrative as Performance in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest" explores the effects that Infinite Jest's extensive narrative has on the reader's consciousness and emotional state. The essay is divided into five parts:

  • The Disturbing Text - the disturbing quality of Infinite Jest is hard to characterize, Cioffi argues, but it elicits a response from a reader that is "unmistakable." The effect of a disturbing book is "powerful and longlasting"; it has the capability to "haunt" or "invade" the reader's mind.
  • Infinite Jest as Performance - the futuristic landscape, multi-layered plots and subplots, 388 endnotes, lists, diagrams, cross-references to other notes, chemicals for drugs, directions for pronunciation, additional narrative information, and commentary on the character's thoughts all combine to make the novel "itself a performance capable of ensnaring the reader."
  • Reader as Performer - Infinite Jest's aforementioned "performative gestures" encourage the "reader's active involvement" to the point that the reader is, in some sense, performing the novel.
  • Reader as Addict - The novel's capacity to entertain combined with the reader-as-performer effect "forces the reader into a narrative-addiction (similar to a drug addiction)in order to 'perform' or read it." In this way, the book parallels James Incandenza's fatally addicting Infinite Jest video cartridge.
  • Fictional World or Real World - The reader's immersion within the novel blurs the boundary "between a real world and a fictive one."
  • Conclusion: The Divided Consciousness- By the end of the novel the reader's consciousness will have divided in two: one part is submersed in the narrative; the other reevaluates the effects of this submersion.

Book Reviews

Discussion

Some starting questions for discussion:

1. On pages 938-941, Joelle Van Dyne is interviewed, presumably by Helen Steeply, about her role in The Entertainment. Joelle mentions that James Incandenza had an "ironic joke" that the film was "perfect entertainment, terminally compelling." What does this exchange reveal about J.O. Incandenza and his relationship to the Entertainment? Meaning, does he truly know about its lethal side effects (and if so, what does that say about his relationship with Hal)? Is anything else notable exposed in this exchange (annularity, etc)?

2. While Don Gately is in the hospital he has several dreams or mental episodes, and spends time examining and coming to terms with his addiction and violent past. On page 922, however, he likens his hospitalization to "just like when he was a toddler...." This is apparently a goal for many in the book, specifically those who watch the Entertainment. But how and why is Gately's experience with this feeling different? Do you think Gately shares this desire to return to an infant-like state?

3. What makes the conversation about sex between Orin and Himself so meaningful (Hal relates it to us on p955-957)? Does it reveal anything about either character's future sexual inclinations/passions and subsequent emotions/anxieties? What about Avril's?

4. Gately, whenever he abuses substances, talks about the floor coming up to meet him. The harder the drug, the more fierce the floor becomes. Is there meaning to this metaphor or just humor? It appears on 904-905 and again on 980-981. What is it about the nature of addiction and abuse that makes mind meet floor?

Recommended Reading

  • David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide, by Stephen Burn. New York, NY: Continuum, 2003. 96 pp.
  • Understanding David Foster Wallace, by Marshall Boswell. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. 232 pp.