Here finally is the first web publication of Chris Hager's undergraduate thesis. It is a fascinating read, I hope you all enjoy it.

If you wish to contact Chris, email him at: christopher dot a dot hager at gmail dot com (replace with dots and at with you know whats) Just remember this is Chris' work and is copyrighted under his name, please do not copy or use any of this thesis without contacting Chris first.

I have the honor of being the first of many people whose critical essays about Infinite Jest have appeared on Nick Maniatis’s fine website, The Howling Fantods. I also have the honor of being, actually, the first person to have written a critical essay on Infinite Jest. Being first doesn’t necessarily say anything for one’s intelligence or tenacity, and I’m sure it doesn’t in my case, but it often does attest--and very definitely in my case--to one’s good fortune.

In 1994, when I was a college junior, I had the good fortune to enroll in a course with Gilbert Sorrentino, who introduced me to a the work of a young writer named David Foster Wallace. When I proposed to write my senior thesis on some of the stories in Girl With Curious Hair, Sorrentino told me that Wallace was working on a big new book and encouraged me to write a letter and ask him about it. I then had the additional good fortune to receive a very gracious reply from Wallace (who wasn’t receiving much fan mail in those days and appeared to have ample time to correspond with starry-eyed college students--though it should be said that Wallace remained incredibly generous in replying to fan mail even after it began arriving at exponentially greater rates). With a self-deprecating air of coolness toward GWCH, Wallace said that he had indeed written something new, and he intimated that I could see it, if I thought I might rather write my thesis about that--and if I thought I was up to the task of reading and analyzing 1000+ pages that still weren’t through the final stages of editing. I mulled that over for as long as it took to exhale, then wrote him back and said yes.

Wallace said that in return I needed to enlist all my friends to buy copies of Infinite Jest when it came out--that I had, in fact, to personally “guarantee sales of the actual book in excess of 10 copies.” By the time he came through San Francisco on his book tour, it was clear he had worried needlessly about the book’s getting noticed, but my friends and I fulfilled the bargain anyway (several friends who had gingerly read my bound galley months before were eager to get copies of their own). I introduced myself to Wallace as the aspirant architect of IJ criticism whom he had abetted. I had by then read the book at least twice, had taken reams of notes, had almost lost my head to cognitive explosion on countless occasions, and still hadn’t written a word of my thesis. Wallace gave me some much-needed encouragement, and I went home and over the next month or two wrote a long essay that I ended up calling “On Speculation: Infinite Jest and American Fiction after Postmodernism.” When it was all over, I sent Wallace a copy, and he read it and wrote me a letter telling me what he thought about it.

I went on to become the sort of person who writes critical essays about literature professionally, and over the years, a lot of people, ranging from close friends to deans interviewing me for jobs, after they’ve learned that I was lucky enough to do this incredibly cool thing--to write an essay about Infinite Jest almost before it had finished rolling off the presses and discuss it with a not-yet-famous David Foster Wallace--have asked me why I never published what I wrote. I have to be frank: it was many years before I had the good sense to begin saying, I did publish it--on The Howling Fantods. For awhile in the late ‘90s, I received a lot of emails from strangers who read it there, and if I were to render them all as one composite message, it would go something like this:

Dear Chris,
I just finished reading Infinite Jest, and I didn’t know what to do with myself afterwards, had no way to express or even get straight in my own brain about what I had just witnessed, experienced, what had just happened to me. (The tide was way out? Like, what?). And so I went on the internet and I found this website and I read your thesis and, well, I guess I just wanted to talk to someone else who gets it, the rare and precious thing that is this novel. So, thanks for writing what you wrote, and by the way, you’ve got it all wrong on page 26.
Best, [Stranger]

I don’t think anyone imagined, even fifteen years ago, that the first thing turn-of-the-millenium readers would do after they put down a moving and mind-blowing book is walk to the nearest computer, do a Google search on the title, and try to read what other people have to say about it; but that’s no small blessing for readership and literary study.

In the first hours after news reports emerged on September 13, 2008, the far-flung community of Wallace’s readers tried to come to terms with his suicide. Websites and blogs flared. I began receiving emails from people I hadn’t spoken to in years. If you followed the kinds of things people said and wrote in those first weeks after Wallace’s death, you noticed a recurring theme: people said, I felt like I knew him. They described an ineffable sense that to read Infinite Jest is to feel a human presence. To be visited by some wraith. It may be only an accident of history that Infinite Jest is the first great novel of the internet age, or it may be that it took this novel to incite a virtually-connected readership--a novel that explores the ways those who lie trapped in their own heads find some way out.

What folks usually find most intriguing about my essay is not much to do with the essay itself but with something Wallace said in his letter to me about it. He said, “IJ’s supposed to have four little projects going on at one time, and you totally nailed one and part of a second.” I never asked him what the four projects are, nor even what the 1.5 of them are that I supposedly nailed. As I reread my essay, I find that in some places my writing fails to do justice to a really important point, while in others a gratuitous display of stylistic dazzle covers up the fact that my point may not be important at all; but, whether any of the postmodern theory that then so transfixed me really explains anything, whether this or that really forms a parabola, I think the one thing I most wanted to say remains reasonably clear: Infinite Jest may come as close as any work of literature has to representing human consciousness without doing it the dishonor of pretending to be wholly able to represent it. What Wallace liked best about the essay (and what I, undoubtedly for that reason, have come to like best myself) was its defense of Infinite Jest’s ending. The book’s “lack of resolution” was the subject of a disagreement with his editor--one of the only ones, Wallace recalled, upon which he held a hard line. “And it has indeed caused bitter gnashing of personal teeth,” Wallace wrote, “that so many reviews hated the end. So your essay -- which has a slightly different take on the function of silence and restraint than I did, but is very, very close (plus complimentary about it, which makes you I think the first person to be so in any kind of print), made me feel good, real good. I hope readers other than you can see what the end’s at least trying to do (whether it succeeds is, I’ve accepted, not for me to judge).” I hope other readers see it too.


Depression, when it’s clinical, is not a metaphor. It runs in families, and it’s known to respond to medication and to counseling. However truly you believe there’s a sickness to existence that can never be cured, if you’re depressed you will sooner or later surrender and say: I just don’t want to feel bad anymore. The shift from depressive realism to tragic realism, from being immobilized by darkness to being sustained by it, thus strangely seems to require believing in the possibility of a cure….

—Jonathan Franzen

In eras when leeches were medicine and various disorders of the psyche were all ‘madness,’ metaphors of sickness & cure might have been richly fascinating. An essential mysticism behind physicality & mortality flourished in the service of spiritual means of ordering the world; but after, say, the germ theory of disease (as after the Copernican revolution), the human body (as the human race) could be understood as a thing more mundane than priests and poets might have wished. Diagnoses & remedies, made & prescribed with increasing certainty of achieving a ‘cure,’ as medical technology advanced, flattered the Enlightenment’s prevailing demand for logic and the subsequent industrial world’s faith in its own machinery. Into the American 1980s, a vogue for psychotherapy clung to the dull delusion that remedy and cure were a predictable team of cause and effect, even in the case of the most enigmatic and immaterial afflictions.

The same decade, though, saw the rise of AIDS challenge medicine’s hubris and restore a fundamental fragility to our conception of our corporal selves. The condition’s mystery, which will persist as long as medicine can’t claim to cure it, clears space in science’s certitude for new metaphors, new figurations to speculate on the unknown. Curiously, though, contemporary American vernacular has imagined neither AIDS nor its epidemic proportions in novel metaphors of a post- or extra-scientific world1; rather, as Susan Sontag points out in AIDS and Its Metaphors, the prevailing metaphoric conception of AIDS revives a label for disease dating to the middle ages: AIDS as a ‘plague.’ That regression inheres perhaps in a base fear of the unknown, and a baser retreat into conservatism that follows fear: Sontag identifies a ‘military metaphor’ for AIDS (the virus’s ‘invasion’ of the body) and calls it “the language of political paranoia, with its characteristic distrust of a pluralistic world” (18).

Sontag’s defense of a ‘pluralistic world’ is typically postmodern, in the sense of Lyotard’s conceptions of postmodernity’s multiplicity: “…consensus does violence to the heterogeneity of language games” (xxv). Both are works of a period largely acknowledged as postmodern, though; ironically, and suggestive of the dawning of some new period, 1996 would find Ms. Sontag delivering a lecture entitled Rethinking the Novel at Stanford University, in which she aligned not at all with Lyotard’s fifteen-year-old report and implied, with touches of technological distrust & paranoia (and distrust of American metafiction), that the novel is, metaphorically speaking, sick.

Sontag’s lecture, in which she called for a redeemed and redeeming novel to restore “completeness” to human existence in a technological media age which “trivializes” it, joins a small rash of nostalgic allegations of contemporary literature’s sickness. Many lamentations of literature’s and culture’s apparent demise have come in varied but unsurprising guises -- scores of newspaper articles & op-ed pieces, books like Sven Birkerts’ 1994 The Gutenberg Elegies, the Unabomber’s whole project -- and have founded arguments on assessments of technology ranging from the skeptical to the Luddite, of political correctness ranging from the wary to the fascist, of the academy ranging from condemnation to terrorism. As sensational and apocalyptic as many of these warnings may be, perhaps more intriguing are the worries of ‘serious,’ ‘innovative’ writers like young novelists Jonathan Franzen, William T. Vollmann, and the subject of this paper, David Foster Wallace, whose statements & work make the allegation that literature, though not terminal, must be ‘cured,’ and that the proper cure may appear near as reactionary as any homophobe’s paranoiac conception of AIDS -- and why not worry about such an appearance, when they’re all of them white heterosexual men.

We aren’t the first to mention that the world today seems to be going crazy.

—the Unabomber

Here is Lyotard in 1982: “One listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and ‘retro’ clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games” (76). Here is David Foster Wallace in 1993 (shortly after publishing a story set on a TV game show): “…we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a Soviet-satellite newscast of the Berlin Wall’s fall” (“E Unibus Pluram,” 172). Global Village is the name of a company that makes fax modems, and mass interdependence is news to no one. The only question left is whether old and linear notions of history & progress have any place here: will the world grow more interdependent, will there be more technology, more media? The Unabomber (to take one extreme on the issue) answers strongly in the affirmative (“…technological progress marches in only one direction; it can never be reversed”) and calls for social upheaval to destroy technology’s unalterable progress (¶ 129). Even his nemeses in the scientific community wouldn’t essentially disagree: scientists as early as Isaac Newton conceived of their occupation as a matter of “standing on the shoulders” of their predecessors & their predecessors’ discoveries, an ever-mounting climb towards more and better knowledge.

The infinite crescendo of science, though, is a dynamic foreign to the arts & humanities: the very notion of ‘classics’ resists it. Both poles of the flagship debate on postmodernity, Habermas & Lyotard, understand literature as non-linear, making no ‘progress’: Habermas as a series of re-definitions vis-à-vis the classical (“the term ‘modern’ appeared and reappeared exactly during those periods in Europe when the consciousness of a new epoch formed itself through a renewed relationship to the ancients” [4]), and Lyotard as an autonomous form, detached (at best) from the caterwauling capitalist world that does progress in a linear fashion (“…so-called realistic representations can no longer evoke reality except as nostalgia or mockery…” [74]). The real point of contention between these two thinkers concerns not the world as they find it, but whether they would like to find it otherwise. (Habermas laments the loss of “a fixed historical reference” in “the relation between ‘modern’ and ‘classical’” [4]; Lyotard laments “lamenting the ‘loss of meaning’ in postmodernity” [26].)

For David Foster Wallace (b. 1962), anything but postmodern mass interdependence & non-linearity is understandably inconceivable. Any judgment thereupon is irrelevant; there is only: what to do now? While literature does not get ‘better and better,’ or even worse and worse, it can get, and has of late gotten, Wallace would maintain, more and more difficult to write. Lyotard’s argument against realistic fiction (realistic representations of the postmodern world as either and only “nostalgia or mockery”) makes sense to Wallace, but he finds it, as a standard for young writers who’ve grown up on literary postmodernism, unfeasible. From an interview:

…the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party…. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown…. but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 a.m. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we’re uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back…. Is there something about authorities and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually realizing that parents in fact aren’t ever coming back — which means we’re going to have to be the parents. (150)

T.S. Eliot (who, even in 1920, found that the word ‘traditional’ seldom appeared “except in a phrase of censure” [3]) located the task of advancing novelistic form in the artist’s need to “develop or procure the consciousness of the past” (6). Typically modernist (fulfilling Habermas’s dictum that the modern redefine a relationship to the ancient), Eliot’s theory seems to suggest a rationale, or solace, for contemporary writers of roughly traditional narratives: that the novel can progress while retaining the past. It suggests also, though, a paralyzing paradox for writers of this generation (versus those of Eliot’s -- “Tradition and the Individual Talent” reads as though tailor-made for Ulysses): how to assimilate the work of highly experimental postmodern precedents into more straightforward narratives? Or in other words, how to assimilate formal analogs of a fragmented, information-glutted postmodern society whose rapid technological progress into further fragmentation & information gluts is outstripping the capacity of literature to create formal analogs of it?

The year 1990 saw the publication of 99: The New Meaning by Walter Abish (b. 1931) and The Colorist by Susan Daitch (b. 1954). The title piece in 99 consists entirely of excerpts from the ninety-ninth pages of no fewer than ninety-nine books of Walter Abish’s choosing: perhaps the ultimately postmodern book -- the ultimate pastiche, by the ultimately dead author -- the book after which, What can be done? In spite of -- in fact, paradoxically, because of -- postmodernity’s non-linear paradigm and the willed non-linearity of postmodern prose fiction, a strain of postmodern literature constructed itself as a strictly linear metanarrative, made up of formal experiments of steadily increasing daring. The Colorist, meanwhile, is the story of Julie, a comic-strip colorist, who finds herself, struggling, at intersections of meaning real & manufactured, presented & represented; who goes to work most days and has a love affair. Nothing is so experimental, by late twentieth-century standards, about The Colorist as the fact that it’s not at all experimental by late twentieth-century standards.

It’s anybody’s guess, though, what ‘late twentieth-century standards’ are when Kathy Acker’s still turning out virtuosic & archetypally-postmodern novels, and university writing programs and commercial publishing houses are turning out a single new-realist archetype in bulk. Everyone’s laying claim to the ‘cutting edge’ or ‘next generation’ of American fiction, more so as they all realize that literary postmodernism’s over. Somewhere between the extremely progressive tack Larry McCaffery’s termed ‘Avant-Pop’ (“Avant-Pop has invented a whole range of innovative formal strategies and narrative approaches modeled on… kinetic, dynamic, nonliterary forms of art [e.g. computers, hypertext, television, rap music]” [xxii]) and the extremely regressive new realism (“brush aside the intellectual scarcity of current postmodernist writing fads, the substitution of tortuous craft for substance” one anthology editor encourages writers; “deliver imaginative perspectives which both move and delight us” [Kaufman, xiv]), stand the likes of Daitch and Wallace, who are only half-skeptical of each; for whom restorations of conventional prose narrative constitute neither adamant regression nor some convoluted, dialectical progression (transgressing against transgressors); for whom, rather, fiction-writing is tentative, a formal speculation on the possibility of narrative’s persistence.


As for speculation on the recent literary phenomenon of Infinite Jest: it is perhaps because David Foster Wallace’s writerly image appeals to quite a few modes of thinking about a post-postmodernism, that notice has been taken of this novel. His earlier work (critically rendered ‘promising’) has made no secret of its reliance on precedent literature; his story “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” is “written in the margins of” (read: an argumentative response to) John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” (Girl, copyright page) and “Order and Flux in Northampton” rewrites certain parts (primarily the third and tenth chapters) of Ulysses2. Nor has his work refrained from investigating forms à propos of its very contemporary subjects; regarding the flash-cut, non-linear form of “Little Expressionless Animals” -- a story of two young lesbian lovers and their involvement with the TV game show JEOPARDY! -- Wallace says the form aims not at “mimicking TV’s own pace and phosphenic flutter” (though it’s a position easily argued), but at “prohibit[ing] the reader from forgetting that she’s receiving heavily mediated data” (“Interview,” 138). Reviewers of Wallace’s recent novel (those who haven’t used words like ‘experimental’ and ‘postmodern’ as stand-ins for more substantive insight on the book’s curious lack of plot resolution) have nevertheless found at least a little realism: David Gates says Infinite Jest isn’t “that postmodern” (80); Jay McInerney says, “Mr. Wallace plays it straight — that is, almost realistically” (8). And impressive sales figures -- a total of 45,000 copies in print fewer than two months after its release (Maryles, 20) -- evince in part successful marketing, but also perhaps a widespread perception of the book as ‘accessible.’

The prevailing early critical take on this novel -- ‘This book is very long, frequently brilliant and frequently confusing, and it totally lacks closure’ -- suggests unsurprisingly that, while its traditional qualities are evident to everyone (including qualities of a postmodern, experimental tradition), whatever is original about it is nothing if not mysterious. Sven Birkerts, the lone diagnostician of Infinite Jest’s relevance to American literature, claims the novel takes the ‘next step’ in fiction because it has “internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst” (108), and several subsequent writers have in turn quoted his conclusion. Birkerts in fact is wrong, but he is on to a little something -- Infinite Jest’s structure does internalize something of late twentieth-century technological energy, but something remarkably ‘centering.’ The text inscribes a parabolic curve (diving into an engaging world & plot, then turning and pulling out of that world and lumbering towards a close as gradual as any novel’s beginning), oriented symmetrically about a vertex (a crucial point, though different from a climax) located at the novel’s precise mathematical center. And, as with most parabolic curves nowadays, Infinite Jest’s text functions rather like a satellite dish: the resolution that reviewers complain the novel lacks isn’t in the text, but sits chronologically & spatially in front of the novel proper, which, as a satellite dish, serves to focus myriad rays of light, or voices, or information, on that central resolution without actually touching it.

Birkerts’ assessment is meanwhile woefully incomplete: he fails to ask (and answer) the question, Why write a formal analog of late twentieth-century communication -- something which, by its very nature, needs no elucidation (the state of communication in the late twentieth century is: everybody has a terminal hook-up to everything and to endless information)? The answer is that the text’s structural ambition is a necessarily speculative organizing trope for a narrative of speculation -- speculation on the notions of ‘author’ and ‘character,’ on the nature of fiction after postmodernism, on the limits of language and on the novel’s own boundaries.

A big fresh-cement-colored church, liberal with glass, denomination not recalled… a parabolic poured-concrete shape billowed and peaked like a cresting wave. A suggestion in it of some paranormal wind somewhere that could make concrete billow and pop like a tucking sail.

Infinite Jest

Whatever kind of ‘paranormal wind’ can ‘make concrete billow and pop like a tucking sail’ is perhaps precisely the near-impossible ‘next step’ left Wallace & Co. to take, in the nineties. It blows, however, against, through, or paranormally within, literary concerns as old & everyday as a church; and like any wind, it blows in no discernible, exclusive, linear direction -- neither progressive nor regressive -- only around and about, unchartable by the geographic & historical models postmodernity has rendered irrelevant (‘next step’ has lost its metonymic use). This wind hearkens all the way back to (despite being eminently unlike) Percy Shelley’s wind -- the object of typically-romantic valorization in his “Ode to the West Wind.” The comparison depends on Wordsworth’s poetics, immediate for Shelley and still relevant for Wallace.

The essence of the poet’s creative process Wordsworth locates in the venerable poet’s “ability of conjuring up in himself passions” -- a mystical-sounding faculty that even Wordsworth admits has its shortcomings: the passions the poet conjures “are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events,” and furthermore, “the language which [the poet’s faculty] will suggest to him, must often, in liveliness and truth, fall short of that which is uttered by men in real life, under the actual pressures of those passions” (256). Wordsworth hints here at the projects of modernism & postmodernism: he illuminates the inadequacy & corruptibility of language, the inability of the artist to represent, realistically, non-linguistic stuff -- for Wordsworth, passions & powerful feelings, indescribable things which defy the poet to write anything more than a great circle to stand in for them: the O that Shelley uses three times in the “Ode”’s first section and which had its heyday in Romantic poetry; the relic of the poet’s ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,’ betrayal of the poet’s failure to translate, of the fact that the poem is artifact.

The O is a literal absence, and (like the degree of writing for which it stands) signifies anything only because it’s “pregnant with all past and future specifications” (Barthes, Writing, 48); only because readers understand its artifactual specification. On this collaborative nature of literary transfer, Sartre writes:

...from the very beginning, the meaning is no longer contained in the words, since it is [the reader] who allows the signification of each of them to be understood; and the literary object, though realized through language, is never given in language. On the contrary, it is by nature a silence and an opponent of the word.... [The author’s] silence is subjective and anterior to language. It is the absence of words, the undifferentiated and lived silence of inspiration… (43-44)

Which is to say, it is the task of the writer to create ‘silence,’ nothingness (empty Os), to write the inexpressible. “The absence of words, the undifferentiated and lived silence of inspiration”: this phrase, in its ethereal notion of unspeakable inspiration, resembles Wordsworth’s ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ and Wallace’s ‘paranormal wind.’ All of these aim at naming something unnameable, something that can only be represented by an O. The religiosity of Sartre’s obsession with the “undifferentiated” locates the modernism in postmodernism: the same negativity, absence & silence from which Sartre believes literature draws, as from a common bank, are also the roots of poststructuralist language theory. Roland Barthes finds an emptiness engulfing everything anterior to the language of the text: écriture is a “neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost” (“Death,” 142). And into that void the zero-degree word, “like a monolith,… plunges into a totality of meanings,” as into the common essence of Sartre’s silence (Writing, 48). From that chaotic yet all-meaningful void comes all literary creation.

Then stayed the fervid wheels, and in his hand
He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God’s eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe, and all created things:
One foot he centered, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure,
And said, ‘Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds,
This be thy just circumference, O world.’

Paradise Lost (VII.224-31)

“It is language which speaks, not the author,” writes Barthes, and his elaboration hearkens to both Wordsworth’s notion of expression-as-translation and Sartre’s of silences within silences: “Did he [the author] wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely” (“Death,” 146). Barthes summarizes a substantial portion of Derridean theory (the infinite precession of the empty signifier) in his dictionary metaphor; and as a descendant of Wordsworth’s admission of the poet’s inability to ‘translate’ his emotions into language, Barthes’ essay closes hundreds of years of critical theory that have inscribed the conviction that language is severely limited in its representational, imitative, descriptive function; that it cannot be used to write passions, meanings; that the writer is therefore doomed to failure insofar as his writing is doomed not to be his artistic vision but rather the artifact of the foiled attempt to put that vision on paper3.

Postmodernism’s unique spin on this, as Lyotard made clear with his scorn of those “lamenting the ‘loss of meaning,’” is to find language’s failure a generative constraint (the credo of the Oulipo). But what Shelley was on to with his O, and what Wallace attempts on greater scale, is not to exploit language’s failure but to approximate the impossible experience of avoiding it, the failure, in a paradoxical linguistic silence. Shelley’s O, for example, is more graphic than linguistic; unlike X’s pinpoint which will inevitably fall on the wrong point, it fences meaning broadly in; like God’s compass, it circumscribes an ‘obscure, void profundity,’ within which, it is hoped, the thing a perfect language would signify somewhere lurks.

If the comparison of the author to God seems archaic (Barthes writes: “a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning” [“Death,” 146]), notice also that Milton’s conception of God acknowledges a ‘profundity obscure’ that always already existed, a kind of ‘undifferentiated silence’ (Sartre) into which language (an author’s compass) ‘plunges’ to find ‘a totality of meanings’ (Barthes). Literary creation, like Milton’s version of Creation, taps the chaos & enigma that exist outside of language. And that literary creation which is most faithful to its extra-linguistic design might be that text whose structure approaches an O; which circumscribes the artistic vision, or inspiration, based in that profound void; which does not try to represent it lest the language touch and deform it.

Infinite Jest’s particular profound void is a great chronological gap, and its untouched and untouchable focus (the absence which has raised reviewers’ ire) is a seminal crisis that occurred in the gap. It concerns Harold Incandenza and Donald Gately, the two major characters. Hal Incandenza narrates the novel’s first seventeen pages, which comprise a kind of prefatory epilogue to the novel proper: most of the subsequent thousand pages take place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, one year before the novel’s beginning (Year of Glad), and never catch up4. The first seventeen pages reveal that some crisis has occurred, but it occurred some time after the novel’s next thousand pages.

Our proof that something noteworthy has happened is that, in those first seventeen pages, Hal Incandenza -- during an interview at the University of Arizona for admission & a lucrative tennis scholarship -- has a mysterious seizure, and looks to all present to be only borderline homo-sapiens. Mysterious, because Hal is narrating the novel at this point -- his mental faculties appear, to readers, intact -- and because throughout the subsequent (chronologically anterior) novel, Hal will be not just functional but absolutely brilliant. His account of this fateful interview at Arizona coincides with his later (in the novel) / earlier (in his life) quirky, precocious intelligence: his observations of his surroundings are meticulous, his awareness of his own being, extraordinary, and extraordinarily peculiar. “62.5% of the room’s faces are directed my way, pleasantly expectant,” as he looks around. “My chest bumps like a dryer with shoes in it. I compose what I project will be seen as a smile” (5). For the first ten pages, though, he says nothing aloud, his coaches & teachers from the Enfield Tennis Academy his champions. “I’d tell you all you want and more,” Hal says to readers, as university officials grill him about a low SAT score, “if the sounds I made could be what you hear” (9) -- and can anyone hear sounds precisely as they were made? one must wonder. When finally he must speak aloud, we readers hear Hal say the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated, say the kinds of things only a prodigious eighteen-year-old mind could say. Those present hear only “subanimalistic noises and sounds” (14).

The calm of Hal’s narrative wavers not a bit during the eloquent statement that is to all the world a seizure, not even when university officials take him to the emergency room -- a routine to which Hal seems accustomed: “There are, by the O.E.D. VI’s count, nineteen nonarchaic synonyms for unresponsive, of which nine are Latinate and four Saxonic” (17). Hal’s heard them all, apparently, from all manner of ER physicians, none of whom presumably thought Hal could understand any of them. “I am in here,” Hal says on a few occasions during this section, a mute defense that he lives within his tennis-prodigy’s body, even if his prodigious mind is trapped by a tragically literal inability to communicate with those around & unlike him, “who use whomsoever as a subject” (9). Within pages, a year-younger Hal will be demonstrating incomparable intelligence, formidable tennis, and full communicative function; as for what brought about the change, Hal ‘says,’ “Call it something I ate” (9). At least a few of the novel’s many threads of plot suggest what Hal ‘ate,’ but Wallace never depicts the eating. The plot lines that best promise cataclysm concern the novel’s two life-threatening material entities.


‘If it keeps you awake, it’s art; if it puts you to sleep, it’s a drug.’

— unknown

The year in which David Foster Wallace turned eleven saw the parabola as guiding metaphor enter literature, with Gravity’s Rainbow, and also the publication of Don DeLillo’s third novel, Great Jones Street. DeLillo’s novel centers on rock-star-cum-recluse Bucky Wunderlick’s withdrawal from fame into an East Village apartment, and his inadvertent (though in the year of Gravity’s Rainbow, what could that word possibly mean, anymore?) involvement in some radical commune’s drug operations. The sparse decor of the apartment into which Bucky’s retreated features at no point in the novel much more than Bucky and one of two boxes wrapped in plain brown paper. One box contains ‘the Mountain tapes,’ recordings Bucky made and never released; the release of which, we’re led to believe, given both the rock-virtuoso Bucky’s emotional investment in them and the media stir over his recent withdrawal from everything, would have no small effect on no small amount of people. The other box contains the Drug: an illicit substance stolen, from an illicit U.S. government operation, that has ended up in the radical commune’s possession. If readers aren’t wont to trust that the drug’s ‘release’ would be just as momentous, it finally comes out near the novel’s end that this substance does nothing less than attack the verbal hemisphere of the brain (a secret federal initiative to brainwash enemies, suppress dissent, &c. through chemistry). And when Bucky Wunderlick (who’s looking more and more like Tyrone Slothrop as the novel goes on) is forced to ingest the substance, he loses all verbal capacity. We know he ultimately regains his verbal faculties only because he’s narrated the whole book, right down through his ingestion, sojourn into utter silence, and recovery.

Early in Infinite Jest, Michael Pemulis, Enfield Tennis Academy student and friend of Hal, has lately obtained DMZ, a rare hallucinogen. DMZ, Pemulis tells confidantes & fellow recreational drug-users Hal & Axford, is something like LSD multiplied by something exponential. It was “used in certain shady CIA-era military experiments” (in Infinite Jest’s 21st century, the CIA has long-since given way to the Office of Unspecified Services) to the end of “getting the enemy to think that their guns are hydrangea, the enemy is a blood-relative, that sort of thing” (28). Whether these facts come out because Pemulis has done genuine research or just read Great Jones Street is a little hard to say, given that Pemulis is an eccentric among eccentrics, with a poster of someone called ‘the Paranoid King’ over his bed and a “habit of looking first to one side and then over to the other before he says anything. It’s impossible to tell whether this is unaffected or whether Pemulis is emulating some film-noir-type character” (211). Pemulis, Hal and Axford plan a foray into this drug’s recesses of potential for a few weeks hence.

Shortly before his death in the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, Hal’s father, James O. Incandenza, completed work on a film, Infinite Jest -- an entertainment so hideously perfect it prompted Jim’s grisly suicide involving a microwave oven5. The movie more or less died with J.O., who left behind instructions that it be buried with/in (or perhaps in place of, given the details of his death) his head. It comes to our attention, and to the attention of 21st-century America, only because a copy of it shows up in a conspicuously unmarked package at the home of an important Arab-Canadian in Boston, who watches it… and watches it… and doesn’t stop watching it. The curious and the would-be rescuers who come to his home each in their turn become catatonic before the transfixing movie they encounter in his living room.

With these two hazards lying in wait, it’s no wonder something happens to Hal. It’s the novel’s ambiguity regarding which one is responsible for Hal’s transformation that has inspired complaints of lack of resolution. (One reviewer writes, “It takes a special kind of nerve to write a book with roughly the mass of a medicine ball and then end it so abruptly and unsatisfactorily that the poor reader perversely finds himself wishing it longer” [Kipen, 1].) The ‘poor reader’ indeed is left speculating: maybe when Hal was trying to kick his marijuana habit and Mike Pemulis was telling him that his body would always need a Substance, some substance, just maybe a less metabolism-discombobulating substance than marijuana, Hal turned to the incredibly potent DMZ, one dose of which left him un-addicted & physically able but spastic & uncommunicative; maybe a copy of his dad’s movie finally made its way to its rightful audience (James Incandenza began work on Infinite Jest to combat what he saw as his son’s retreat into solipsism) and Hal, somehow transcending the entertainment-hungry people dropping like flies in Back-Bay apartments watching the thing, managed to watch it without dying, eking out a private existence but unable ever again to communicate; maybe a Quebecois terrorist group organized a mass distribution of the movie and all America’s seen it and, after the initial widespread death, managed to turn a catatonic, entertainment-hungry existence into a semblance of a functional life and now see Hal, the one person who resisted the temptation to watch it or who could transcend its effects, the one remaining real human being, as some kind of freak; maybe Hal can communicate in some mystical way, maybe just with readers or with the ghost of his father, who has visited him and spoken with him and taught him to communicate in a language-transcendent supernatural way that only works with ghosts or readers; for that matter, maybe Hal’s been called on by a ghost to avenge his father’s death, and his inability to communicate is the result not of entertainment-hungry catatonia but of paralysis and guilt and a maladjusted relationship with his adulterous mother.

The reason the novel doesn’t tell you is that it doesn’t matter what ‘happened’ to Hal, because the novel conveys the unspeakable relevance of what did happen -- the ‘literary object,’ in Sartre’s terms -- far less ambiguously, and can do so only thanks to the ambiguity of discrete events. With the parabola as structural trope, that curve’s mathematical properties can indicate the significance of what happened to Hal (not the real event that is the cause). It is the ethereal focus of the text’s parabolic curve, the thing that happened to Hal, and whatever did happen lies at the intersection of every character’s and event’s narrative vectors -- vectors the novel notes but doesn’t follow through all the way to intersection -- vectors which, if they do not move towards a center by chance, are drawn there by their author: not Dave Wallace but James O. Incandenza, the optical wizard whose inventions and cinematic work with special lenses surely at least once employed a reflective parabolic curve.

As though plotting the cross-section of a three-dimensional dish, plot picks up speed as it descends the slope of the novel’s first half, and slowly ascends the second half towards an end. The entrances and re-entrances of characters mark the vectors that mark the symmetry of these two slopes. “Poor Tony Krause had a seizure on the T,” begins the first of two sections in the novel told from ‘Poor’ Tony’s point of view. Tony Krause is a transvestite cocaine addict undergoing poverty-induced withdrawal, and this passage depicts his chilling week holed up in the Armenian Foundation Library men’s room with a bottle of codeine. Finally emerging with hopes of narcotic charity from the Antitoi brothers (Quebecois insurgents operating out of a cheap novelty store), Tony heads for Boston mass transit, where he finds that “he’d gone in three weeks time from being a colorful and comely albeit freakishly comely person to being one of those loathsome urban specimens that respectable persons on T-trains slide and drift quietly away from…” (304). Compounding his public-repellence significantly, Tony then has a seizure; and the narration continues, as much hallucination as seizure, following Tony’s increasingly delirious thoughts & misunderstandings of his situation (“He felt a piece of nourishing and possibly even intoxicating meat in the back of his throat but elected not to swallow it but swallowed it anyway, and was immediately sorry he did” [305]). As the narration departs from Tony’s consciousness and the passage closes, Tony sees his own legs “struggl[ing] against the widening stirrups of light…, and he heard someone yelling for someone to Give In, Err, with a hand on his lace belly as he bore down to PUSH and he saw the legs in the stirrups they held would keep spreading until they cracked him open…” (306). The significance of the surreal birthing imagery here doesn’t become clear until much later in the novel; but we won’t see Tony Krause again, either, until much later.

“Poor Tony Krause awoke in the ambulance… feeling right as rain,” begins a section clear at the other side of the novel’s curve: Tony’s seizure occurred right around page 300, and his post-seizure reappearance, here, is on page 689, approximately 300 pages before the end of the main text6. Tony will make his way to the Antitois’ store, but he won’t find the Antitois; he’ll become tragically involved with the Quebecois terrorists who just might have a whole lot to do with Hal’s transformation.

And at the curve’s outer edges -- just after the beginning and shortly before the end -- another pair of mirror passages offers the greatest hint readers get as to Hal’s (and Don Gately’s) fate. En route to the emergency room during his seizure, Hal remembers a scene that takes place in the chronological gap between the novel’s end & beginning: “I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father’s head” (16-17). More than nine hundred pages later, Don Gately (who never meets Hal, during the novel) “dreams he’s with a very sad kid and they’re digging some dead guy’s head up and it’s really important” (934). If Gately dreams forward to the same moment Hal remembers, that moment seems a likely candidate for Intersection of Vectors, Focus, &c.; but as tantalizing as the revelation of that moment is, it’s still pretty ambiguous. We don’t know how Don Gately & Hal Incandenza ever teamed up, and we don’t know whether they find Infinite Jest in Hal’s dad’s head or whether Quebecois terrorists have already seized it in their apocalyptic plot to undermine the United States. In Gately’s dream, the movie’s not there, in the head -- but it’s only a dream. From Hal we learn that fellow tennis-player John (‘No Relation’) Wayne would have won their upcoming tennis tournament, but something went wrong -- certainly something did for Hal, too -- and, of finding the film and not finding it, we can only speculate which is the worse fate. We don’t know whether Hal & Wayne & Gately end up watching the lethal film.

And we didn’t know, when we read Hal’s account of that episode on page 17, who Don Gately is, who Hal’s father is, or why anyone might want to dig up his head; when Gately dreams the same scene, it’s as significant as Hal’s description was gibberish, to readers. That accrual of information can suggest to the reader a simply linear narrative, but the novel’s ending’s much-touted ‘lack of resolution’ is a relentless reminder that this narrative is no mounting line of plot & progress of data, and that all those ambiguities are vitally important. Near the novel’s end, passages revealing new information concerning the novel’s intricate plot of Quebecois terrorist conspiracy become fewer and farther between, and the closing passage doesn’t even take place in the book’s present tense, but years before, in Don Gately’s memory. In the last sentence, a drugged Don Gately (who’s long recovered from his Demerol addiction, we’ve learned in the novel) comes to, “flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out” (981).

The effect of this ending (evidenced in part by reviewers’ near-unanimous disgruntled dwelling on it) is to leave the reader as beached as Don Gately, the narrative tide run out and taken all it might yet have held for readers with it. As in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, the tidal imagery here at the end of Infinite Jest reminds readers (and ought to have reminded reviewers) that the repeatable never resolves, nor certainly does it end, except to regenerate or reincarnate. Infinite Jest maps the ceaseless tidal crescendo & decrescendo with the parabola, the descendant of gravity’s rainbow (the map of rocket flight), and it is not,

as we might imagine, bounded below by the line of the Earth it “rises from” and the Earth it “strikes” No But Then You Never Really Thought It Was Did You Of Course It Begins Infinitely Below The Earth And Goes On Infinitely Back Into The Earth it’s only the peak that we’re allowed to see, the break up through the surface, out of the other silent world, violently… (Pynchon, 726)

The great and infinite ellipse breaks not only the earth’s surface, but another illusory boundary: as Pynchon envisions the parabola coming from a “silent world” into what is visible, the parabolic text of Infinite Jest breaks from the ‘undifferentiated silence of inspiration’ (Sartre) into visible language, cut off to readers at its breaking & re-entry points. Calling for ‘resolution’ here is tantamount to calling for a novel utterly disconnected from its inspiration, its substrata; for a novel that ruins the speculative richness of its ambiguity with the stultifying precision of data.

Even the parabola of Infinite Jest itself transcends another surface; its tidal crescendo reaches just past another breaking point. The parabola’s vertex -- the text’s arithmetical mid-point -- comes at page 4897. The section that ends here features the Antitoi brothers, whom Tony Krause has plans to meet. Lucien and Bertraund Antitoi are fringe Quebecois insurgents, unaffiliated with Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (The Wheelchair Assassins), whose terrorist plot occupies much of the novel. The A.F.R. -- young Quebecois men who all are in wheelchairs because they all are members of the same cult involving life-and-limb-threatening activity -- seek to acquire, duplicate, and disseminate James Incandenza’s lethal film, Infinite Jest. They expect that the subsequent widespread death in the United States will effect -- through circuitous political exigencies in place thanks to the turn-of-the-century merger of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico into a single Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.) -- the liberation of Quebec from Canada. The A.F.R. has reason to believe it can find a master copy of Infinite Jest in ‘Antitoi Entertainent (sic),’ the brothers’ novelty & greeting-card store which fronts their largely insignificant insurgency.

Lucien Antitoi “is one of the few natives of Notre Rai Pays ever who cannot understand French, just never caught on” (480), and attends mutely, meticulously, and with childlike innocence to the general cleanliness of the store, using a broom he made as a boy, carved out of a tree branch. When not cleaning, Lucien spends much time looking out the store window -- “He has that rare spinal appreciation for beauty in the ordinary that nature seems to bestow on those who have no native words for what they see” (482) -- and speaking to his broom the three words he knows, “in tones surprisingly gentle and kind for such a large terrorist” (483). It is while Lucien stands mutely gazing outside that Wallace expends four pages making him probably the most sympathetic character in the book but one or two, and that the A.F.R. infiltrates Antitoi Entertainent. Suddenly surrounded by the most feared troupe of legless terrorists anywhere, Lucien quivers in absolute terror, clutching his broom; which it falls to a secretly begrudging A.F.R. to shove gruesomely down Lucien’s throat when he fails to reveal to the wheelchaired terrorists the location of what they seek: “Words that are not and never can be words are sought by Lucien here through what he guesses to be the maxillofacial movements of speech” (487). That clause begins a sentence of 519 words (in all likelihood, the longest in the book) in which the terrorist drives Lucien’s broom’s handle down Lucien’s throat and through his body and finally impales him; in which mute and now dying Lucien recalls glittering scenes of winters in Quebec during his childhood; and in which Lucien finally dies. The end of the sentence reads:

as he finally sheds his body’s suit, Lucien finds his gut and throat again and newly whole, clean and unimpeded, and is free, catapulted home… at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues. (488-9)

Lucien is the only character to die in the novel’s present tense (November, Y.D.A.U.), and his dying flight here at the vertex of the textual arc marks a momentary crossing, as of Pynchon’s rocket through the earth’s surface, into death. Wittgenstein’s remark on death (“Death is not an event of life: we do not live to experience death” [72]), taken with his postulate that the limits of language are the limits of the world, makes death unspeakable, nothing that has a place within language; the essence of death, then, is the upper reach of Wallace’s arc, at which the gravity which is language asserts its ultimate limitation8. All that Wallace can presume are a few speculative words at the end of a huge sentence, a flickering glimpse of a world not of ‘lived silence’ (Sartre), not anterior to language, but of unlived silence, of what is beyond language -- where “all the world’s well-known tongues” become available to mute Lucien Antitoi.

The two silences bound the possibilities for language, as infrared and ultraviolet the spectrum of visible light. If Infinite Jest employs language and novelistic structure to reflect the ‘invisible’ radiation that emanates from beyond language’s bounds, it has indeed ‘internalized’ some electronic energies. And implicit in that technological metaphor is an increased, or at least changed, mediation between transmission & reception: the parabola must bend and distort the rays it seeks to focus and make visible. The vertex, though, of a reflective parabolic curve does not distort that which it reflects: it lies directly beneath the focus, and a theoretically-isolated single beam of radiation that strikes it passes through the focus and is reflected precisely back into the focus. Likewise, Lucien Antitoi’s dying passage from muteness into speech offers the purest reflection on Hal’s unspoken transformation. Lucien instantly traverses the entire spectrum of verbal capacity, and Hal makes the same passage in the opposite direction. Or at least, he appears to move in the opposite direction. Wallace’s circumscription ultimately elucidates the essence of Hal’s transformation more clearly than a literal description of that transformation could have, and than the view we get of Hal in the beginning of the novel really makes clear: that Lucien’s drastic increase of communicative function comes at the vertex of the novel begs a reconsideration of Hal’s ambiguous fate -- as a renewed ability to communicate, if at the cost of conventional appearances of communication.

Such an ability to communicate would truly be ‘paranormal,’ as the wind in Wallace’s parabolic church; such an ability to communicate informs the whole novel’s narration, though, and it is that narration for which Sven Birkerts makes no account in his assessment of Infinite Jest’s ‘internalized decentering energies.’ For the truth of the matter is, a novel so single-minded as to exist wholly in the service of illuminating this optical/technological ‘focus,’ as I’ve called it -- the transformation of Hal Incandenza’s verbal capacity -- would, for one thing, not need to be a thousand pages long; Wallace would have accomplished approximately what a character of his novel did, “shooting a suction-cup arrow at the side of a For Lease building and then going up and drawing a miniature chalk circle on the brick around the arrow, and then another circle around that circle, and etc.” (718). Although the target drawn round the arrow initially appears either dishonest, superfluous, or downright strange, it nonetheless symbolizes the difference between precise representation and speculative circumscription, as modes of literary creation. Whereas Barthes sees language ‘plunging’ into a ‘totality of meanings,’ (as an arrow into a target albeit more nebulous than that perhaps conceived by those new-critical types who believe in a singular authorial intent), Wallace dares not plunge his language into anything, nor shoot his authorial arrow into any target; that is, dares not bring language’s immanent and imminent corruptions & shortcomings to bear on the fundament of silence on which Hal’s transformation is based.

It is such restraint from violation that is incumbent upon writers in a post-death-of-the-author, post-feminist milieu; to keep the author’s pen, which Sandra Gilbert knows to be a penis, out of the space (Shelley’s O) which Luce Irigaray knows to be woman9. Molly Bloom complains in her long monologue, the “Penelope” chapter of Ulysses, “whats the idea making us like that with a big hole in the middle of us,” and it sounds as though she’s complaining to God (18.151). “O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh,” Molly later says, during her menstruation, betraying that it might be James Joyce, the “Author-God” (in Barthes’ words) to whom she appeals (18.1128). It might be precisely because Joyce doesn’t intervene to ‘let her up out’ of the chapter’s -- her own -- ventures into feminine sexuality, because he leaves her monologue (ridden with more than fifty Os) to fill itself with only what is uniquely feminine and to lead to a climax of jouissance which only ambiguously involves a man at all, that Hélène Cixous, for one, has identified “Penelope” as an example of écriture feminine:

We don’t fawn around the supreme hole. We have no womanly reason to pledge allegiance to the negative. The feminine (as the poets suspected) affirms: “...And yes,” says Molly, carrying Ulysses off beyond any book and toward the new writing; “I said yes, I will Yes.” (314)

Cixous rejects Freudian interpretations of the feminine as ‘castration’s lack’ because she understands a crucial paradox: that the O is not a lack, not empty, as long as no one tries to fill it; that it is not the target for men’s, and author’s, arrows, but is, rather, always already filled -- with the “the absence of words, the undifferentiated and lived silence of inspiration”; rather, the silent space anterior to language is anterior because its relationship to language is maternal: the womb from which language grows and to which it can have no success in returning.


Wallace’s restraint from textual intervention on the level of structure informs also his narrative on a small scale -- something for which Ulysses is a source as well: the Uncle Charles principle is at work, too, in Wallace’s voices. Joyce’s words, says Hugh Kenner, “like the components of a sensitive piece of apparatus, …detect the gravitational field of the nearest person” (16). Likewise, Wallace’s narrative, though in the third person through nearly the whole novel, always sticks closely to the consciousness of one, nearby character; various segments of text are told ‘in’ the point of view (despite not being in the literal voice) of Hal Incandenza, Don Gately, Mario Incandenza, Tony Krause, Lucien Antitoi, Joelle van Dyne, Randy Lenz, Bruce Green, Kate Gompert, Mike Pemulis, Orin Incandenza, Hugh Steeply, and Remy Marathe. Calling close attention to the heterogeneity of these para-narrators, sometimes they’ll each cover the same material: on page 276, we hear that one of Randy Lenz’s

forearm’s hair has a little hairless patch, which Gately knows well spells knife-owner, and if there’s one thing Gately’s never been quite able to stomach it’s a knife-owner, little swaggery guys that always queer a square beef and come up off the ground with a knife where you have to get cut to take it away from them.

Hugh Kenner would take note of slang & errors in usage (‘…hair has a little hairless patch,’ ‘queer a square beef’), as he is given to do under the guiding principle that “the man of genius makes no mistakes” (24). More interesting, though, is the passage later in the novel, when the allegedly-same third-person narration ‘gravitates’ around Randy Lenz instead of Don Gately, and we get the following:

The Browning X444 has a 25-cm. overall length, with a burl-walnut handle with a brass butt-cap and a point Lenz’d sharpened the clip out of when he got it and a single-edge Bowie-style blade with .1-mm. serrations that Lenz owns a hone for and tests by dry-shaving a little patch of his tan forearm, which he loves. (545)

Here Kenner would note the ambiguous ‘which’; but in seeing the characters’ ‘narrative idiom,’ he would miss seeing their idiomatic expressions of personal concerns (Gately’s fought before & can normally take advantage of his uncommon bulk; Lenz is a small & paranoid man comforted by the statistically impressive). The great shortcoming of Kenner’s otherwise brilliant argument in “The Uncle Charles Principle” is an inability to escape his Joyce-idolatry, pondering the number of Harvard students it would take to write Joyce’s sentences; Kenner defends the titanic authorial power of which Barthes wrote to dispose. The potential of narrative & the Uncle Charles principle is not to test a brilliant writer’s ability to write “about someone much as that someone would choose to be written about” (21), but to cede that power, which Barthes knew to be totalitarian, to the character (as opposed to refraining merely from exercising it, as Joyce does in “Penelope”).

Joyce approaches such an abnegation, devoting much of Ulysses to Leopold Bloom’s interior monologue; Bloom even fancies himself an author on a few occasions in the novel, imagining newspaper columns & books he might write: he’s landed in an agon of authorship, an aspiring writer at the mercy of him who’s written him into existence. In “Ithaca,” for instance, Bloom, sitting alone in his kitchen and chronicling the now-past day, mentions “a blank period of time including a cardrive, a visit to a house of mourning, a leavetaking” (17.2051-52); blank indeed, for that ‘leavetaking’ is neither depicted in the novel nor indicated on the Linati schema of Joyce’s design (which leaves a gap between 5 & 8 p.m.). Bloom’s interior assertion of a sequence the text doesn’t reflect levels a finger at the author, who, despite his permission of Bloom’s ‘narrative idiom,’ still apparently has the last word, making the big decisions on the novel’s structure; in fact, shortly after Bloom mentions this ‘blank period,’ even his influence on narrative idiom is banished, and his wife is permitted to speak, in blatant first-person, for the remainder of the book. Imagine an oil painting, a portrait, the subject of which is painted as though touching the ‘inside’ of the canvas and smearing the paint; likewise, Joyce’s ultimate authority is immanent even in the attempt to create the illusions of autonomous characters, through the Uncle Charles principle.

Wallace, however, hides his inevitable authority behind enough ambiguity of voice to ensure that his own personal brushstrokes can never be identified (imagine, perhaps, abstract-expressionist splatters managing somehow to look realistic). First of all, the characters Wallace creates are strung together in a narrative whose narrator is constructed largely as an absence. Comparative points of view, as with Gately and Lenz, above, play only a part in establishing a kind of Uncle-Charles-type narration in Infinite Jest. Very occasional acknowledgments that the narration has slipped into something other than a character’s narrative idiom seem to presume that the characters’ language reigns at all other times. There are only about a dozen such overt acknowledgments in the novel, frequently in the form of footnotes: note 137 reads, “None of these are Don Gately’s terms” (1026), referring to an assessment of elder AA-goers as “stone-faced chieftains who rule by some unspoken shamanistic fiat” (354). A few of these caveats do much to define the narrative sound of, say, Don Gately’s voice. They don’t merely signify an erudite writer writing about people less erudite than he: the caveats themselves demand caveats, at times. A speaker at an AA meeting “doesn’t actually use the terms thereon, most assuredly, or operant limbic system, though she really had, before, said chordate phylum” (1026); of LaMont Chu, a well-to-do but early-teen-age student at E.T.A., the narrator says: “He’s ashamed of his secret hunger for hype in an academy that regards hype and the seduction of hype as the great Mephistophelan pitfall and hazard of talent. A lot of these are his own terms” (388).

Whether the characters talk like the narrator or the narrator like the characters is impossible to tell, in a text ridden both with slang and with arcane polysyllables: no discrete narrative voice can be identified as first. An illusion again, yes, but one in which the Author tries not so much to ‘refine himself out of existence’ as to submerge himself in the language of others (characters), among whom he is an insignificant one. This kind of ambiguity -- this scattering of data & authority amidst the thousand pages of the novel -- characterizes much of the nature of exposition in Infinite Jest: Hal’s transformation, of course; also the Gregorian date for the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (textual clues point to 2009, 2014, and a few dates in between); even the book’s setting: the fictional Enfield, MA, according to geographical details in the novel, lies between two real & perfectly adjacent Boston-area municipalities.10 Ineluctably ambiguous data fills Wallace’s earlier work, too; his story “Lyndon,” for example, stars David Boyd, an invented aide to a very real-looking Lyndon Johnson. Epigraphs scattered through the text, attributed to dated speeches by Johnson, or comments from fellow politicians, appear all the more real for being set aside from the story as epigraphs; later in the story, though, equally-plausible-sounding epigraphs make mention of the fictional aide, so that the veracity of all the epigraphs becomes ambiguous. In “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” Wallace writes:

Not well known is the fact that anyone who has ever appeared in a McDonald’s commercial receives a never-expiring coupon entitling them to unlimited free hamburgers at any McDonald’s franchise, anywhere, anytime. It is a fringe benefit bestowed on commercial alumni by J.D. Steelritter Advertising in a stroke of sheer marketing genius. It allows McDonald’s to proclaim, beneath each set of golden arches, exactly how many billions and billions and billions of hamburgers have been “served” so far. Of course the franchise is under no FCC or FTC obligation to mention that a decent percentage of these served burgers are in fact not paid for. The higher numbers breed higher numbers. Consumers are impressed, naturally, by the inflated number of items consumed, and consume even more. (Girl, 252)

The data supplied in this passage mix common knowledge (what a McDonald’s sign looks like) with less common knowledge (those in McDonald’s commercials do, indeed, get free hamburgers) with what is probably invention (J.D. Steelritter Advertising); these different kinds of data are the “heteroglot voices” among which Bakhtin believed the prose writer’s “own voice must also sound” (278). But locating an authorial voice amid the mix of reliable & unreliable data is near impossible, unless we take the task of the fiction writer to be merely the production of more, new (albeit ‘false’) data. If, however, the essence of fiction lies in the relationships it sketches, or at least speculates might exist, among data, then Wallace’s voice shares its influence over the McDonald’s passage with certain accepted ideas of marketing & economics (linking specious reports of sales to subsequent increases in sales), Nader-ite conceptions of consumerism (no FTC regulation translating into pseudo-fraudulent advertising), and perhaps a real motivational link on McDonald’s part between free hamburgers and billions-served signs.

In other words, the author’s manipulation & synthesis of data can’t be distinguished from the tendency of data, the more of it there is, to bring with it its own interconnected relationships, genetic determinants of its relevance (media-propagated accusations of faceless mid-eastern forces for a bombing in Oklahoma are immanent in the fact of the bombing). Wallace’s decision to set his novel in the future (something he did in The Broom of the System, too) -- to make realism inherently speculative -- signifies perhaps the only feasible evasion of technology’s capacity of information-retrieval, on its own terms (only of a work of fiction set in the future can it truly be said that any resemblance of the characters therein to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental). Joyce might have seen fit to excavate Dublin’s 16 June 1904, but such research is redundant, now, for the fiction writer, when information is autonomous, available, and legal tender. Information, a Pynchon character tells Slothrop, has “come to be the only real medium of exchange” (258). Slothrop responds that he “thought it was cigarettes,” and there reveals himself as a product of Joyce’s era, before data-transfer’s inherent capitalist tendencies elevated data’s owners to authority, replacing data’s manipulators. ‘The Death of the Author’ makes no sense if authorship is complicit with data, which equals authority. The many ambiguities of Wallace’s work can be understood as attempts to divorce the artist from information-dissemination’s authoritarian complications in favor of anti-authoritarian speculation.

“Like most North Americans of his generation,” Infinite Jest tells us, “Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency” (54). Hal has memorized the O.E.D., and one of Infinite Jest’s least subtle themes is borne on his data-mastery’s failure to protect him from depression. Hal “finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarefied equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being…. [I]nside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows” (694). The narrative employs a computer-based slang only when discussing Hal & his fellow E.T.A. students, members of a yet-unborn generation debased (or emptied out, as Hal is described above) by technology; kids who refer to their daily drills as the process of “wiring [tennis skill] into the motherboard” (118) and for whom thinking is “CPUs humming through Decision Trees” (629). Even before his death, Hal’s father James Incandenza began to see Hal as ‘emptied out’ by his robotic recall & recapitulation of knowledge: he made clear to everyone his conviction that Hal was mute -- that he moved his mouth but no words came (as with Lucien Antitoi in his final moments) -- and in turn appeared to everyone (to whom it’s clear that Hal can talk) as crazy as Hal appears to university administrators in the beginning of the novel. It is this emptiness & muteness that James Incandenza seeks to reform with his film, Infinite Jest -- something he dreamed would be entertaining enough to draw Hal ‘out of himself.’

The part of the novel in which James Incandenza explains his plans for Hal is also the novel’s explanation of its own narrative dynamics. More than five years dead, Jim’s ghost appears to a near-delirious Don Gately, in the hospital recovering from a gunshot. The phantom J.O. explains his means of communication to Don Gately this way:

The wraith said Even a garden-variety wraith could move at the speed of quanta and be anywhere anytime and hear in symphonic toto the thoughts of animate men, but it couldn’t ordinarily affect anybody or anything solid, and it could never speak right to anybody, a wraith had no out-loud voice of its own, and had to use somebody’s like internal brain-voice if it wanted to try to communicate something, which was why thoughts and insights that were coming from some wraith always just sound like your own thoughts. (831)

A demonstration in support of his explanation follows: James Incandenza “starts doing what Gately would know were pirouettes if he’d ever once been exposed to ballet” (832). When, over six hundred pages ago (clear on the other side of the textual curve), the narrative describes “50 or 60 people all managing to form a line on a narrow walkway… and yet still managing to appear alone and stand-offish,” as they (recovering drug addicts) wait for admittance into a methadone clinic, the comment thereupon seemed unremarkable: “if Don Gately had ever once seen a ballet he would… have seen the movements and postures necessary to maintain this isolation-in-union as balletic” (194); and if not totally unremarkable, then as the mark of a determinedly present author, commenting. Consider, then, that as James Incandenza pirouettes before a Don Gately who never finished high school and knows no more about ballet than he did six hundred pages ago,

into Gately’s personal mind, in Gately’s own brain-voice but with roaring and unwilled force, comes the term PIROUETTE, in caps, which term Gately knows for a fact he doesn’t have any idea what it means and no reason to be thinking it with roaring force, so the sensation is not only creepy but somehow violating, a sort of lexical rape. (832)

The revelation that something in the text has mystical control over the sound of textual voices raises the spectral possibility of something wholly un-chaotic behind the novel’s various ambiguities; and that while an Author created the specter of James Incandenza, the supernatural quality of his (Jim’s) linguistic influence unleashes an overarching ambiguity of authority: while characters’ voices may have influenced Joyce’s prose, the characters’ voices that influence Wallace’s prose are themselves under the influence of a character, who is, of course, heavily ‘influenced’ (created) by Wallace. This circular dynamic of voices confounds priority: the novel’s narrator infiltrates (by creating) the mind of James Incandenza, who infiltrates the mind of Don Gately, who, like nearly all the novel’s characters, infiltrates the mind of the narrator. To the extent that Wallace is distinct from his narrator, or that the entire cycle hinges on his creation of characters, he retains some prior authority; but it is impossible to determine whether any piece of narrative signifies an exercise of creative authority, or of deference to the authority of creations.

King: How fares our cousin Hamlet?

Hamlet: Excellent, i’ faith; of the chameleon’s dish: I eat the air, promise-crammed: you cannot feed capons so.

King: I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet; these words are not mine.

Hamlet: No, nor mine now. (III, 2)

The wraith goes on to fill Don Gately’s head with a stream of polysyllabic words (most of which, we know from what we’ve read so far, have some significance to James Incandenza) and continues responding to Gately’s unspoken thoughts. From now on, Gately has no guarantee that anything he thinks James has not planted in his mind; he even worries, pondering what it must be like to be a wraith, that he might hear a wraith’s attempts to communicate as his own thoughts -- steal thoughts from the wraith (833). He wonders, “Are they words if they’re only in your head?” and answers his own question when he begins, as a courtesy to the wraith, “correcting his thoughts like he was talking” (837): they were never words before, but now that they’re communicable, they are. Gately’s & James’s communications dissolve the linguistic propriety Hamlet could shed only if he spoke aloud; their thoughts’ information is no medium of exchange, a capitalism-transcendent mute language that encompassed for Lucien Antitoi ‘all the world’s well-known tongues.’

It is worth noting, though, that Lucien speaks in no universal language, but in all languages at once. Virginia Woolf’s formulation of a universal human consciousness in The Waves unites six typical characters in a nearly uniform narrative style; that modernist conception of a human universal, mediated by a postmodern belief in ‘the heterogeneity of language games’ (Lyotard), becomes, in Infinite Jest, of necessity supernatural, an enigmatic conflation of the mass and the individual in a network (the model is postmodern) of unspoken communication, language’s substrate. Infinite Jest’s characters are authors of this realm of the novel; Wallace, or his narrator, only of the translation of those authors’ work into language: a doomed activity, the reason Infinite Jest -- the one that bears Wallace’s name -- is ‘a failed entertainment.’ During the scene in which Don Gately receives his gunshot, two men (whom readers already know to be Quebecois separatists) have hunted down Randy Lenz (a resident of the halfway house at which Don Gately is a staff member) and are preparing to exact well-deserved revenge from the less-than-sympathetic Lenz. Gately is the narration’s prime mover, as he steps into the street and assesses the situation with acute perception, and with his own idiomatic style: “It’s obvious to appraisal the foreignish guys aren’t real bright because of they’re chasing Lenz in tandem instead of heading around the car in opposite directions to trap him like a pincer” (609). Gately appraises absolutely everything, right down to the details of the Quebecois’ modified guns, and does so quickly. Our Narrator, however, confesses to an inability perfectly to translate Gately’s brain-voice: “All this appraisal’s taking only seconds; it only takes time to list it” (609).

A few pages later, when Don Gately’s stepped in to beat the crap out of the Quebecois, in just a glimpse of narrative-idiomatic incongruity, Don Gately “pirouettes around” twisting & breaking arms. If Gately’s conscientious beating left him the mental energy to notice, he might have felt his own arm lexically twisted; but as he’ll know a few hundred pages later, you can take a wraith’s thoughts for your own, without even knowing you’re taking them. James Incandenza’s ghost, in the hospital, tells Gately that “Gately’s best thoughts were really communiqués from the patient and Abiding dead” (923) (which appeals quite a bit to Don Gately, probably because throughout the novel his brain-voice has demonstrated exceptional -- if syntactically imperfect -- thoughts to readers, but Gately consistently refuses to think of himself as anything but stupid). Whether everyone, or just Don Gately, receives communiqués from the dead, the possibility suggests an answer to the question that was begging to be asked on page 489: does anyone hear Lucien Antitoi’s bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms?

Probably James Incandenza heard it, at least, and relayed it to Gately, if Gately didn’t; no one gets called to arms during the novel, but the grave-digging scene that Hal remembers & Gately dreams seems something they were surely called to do. When Gately has his dream, he’s been aware for a hundred pages that he’s receiving thoughts from the wraith. He finds himself using the word ‘EMBRASURE’ in his thoughts’ context and pages later realizing it “had been surely another invasive-wraith ghostword” (922). He has a dream in which Joelle van Dyne is “promising him a P.M. of near-terminal pleasures” (847) -- the same phrase usually associated in this novel with Jim Incandenza’s Infinite Jest (of which Gately had no knowledge, when he entered the hospital). Even when he’s not visible to Gately, James Incandenza has been sticking close by him, planting thoughts in Gately’s mind with great strategy.

In the grave-digging dream, it is J.O.’s representation of Hal that Gately sees: “the kid moves his mouth but nothing comes out” (934). This is where Jim Incandenza came into the novel, in a flashback to Hal’s childhood, acting on his conviction that Hal was mute (whether literal conviction or metaphor for the solipsism Jim believed to afflict his son, we can’t know for sure); James Incandenza embarked on strange and varied plans to cure Hal’s muteness, of which Infinite Jest was the culmination. Gately’s dream is surely J.O.’s fabrication; and couched in terms of a “Continental Emergency” which Gately’s digging serves to evade, the dream seems also a call-to-arms. If Gately’s dream is not just a mystical precursor to the moment Hal remembers but the inception of, or motivation for, that moment, then James Incandenza has authored more than a film: he has authored the events that led to Hal’s transformation. He has, perhaps, found in death the ability to ‘draw Hal out’ of his mute, solipsistic self, an ability he apparently lacked in life and in language, given the failure of Infinite Jest to accomplish the same goal-- a paradoxical failure inherent in its hideously extreme success.

As an author who works in the paranormal language of brain-voices, J.O. creates things that don’t translate into conventional, lived language. He authors his son’s transformation, we know, but we cannot tell precisely how; he authors a single episode that permits speculation on the circumstances of Hal’s transformation, but from which we can draw no objective conclusions. It’s entirely possible he ‘authored’ other events in the text as part of his crusade to draw Hal out of himself; in the second half of the novel, as Hal tries to give up marijuana, the robotic, data-processing machine of his external self (the machine that hollowed a void out of his internal self) begins to fracture. One of the pivotal moments in that fracturing process is a tennis match Hal almost loses to fellow E.T.A. student Ortho (‘The Darkness’) Stice -- a lower-ranked player whose near-victory stirs up E.T.A. quite a bit. After the match (and after readers have learned of J.O.’s ghost’s exchanges with Don Gately), Ortho Stice asks Hal if he believes in “ghosts” and “parabnormal shit” (870), and later confesses to another student that

‘he thinks he’s been somehow selected or chosen to get haunted or possessed by some kind of beneficiary or guardian ghost that resides in and/or manifests in ordinary physical objects, that wants to teach The Darkness how to not underestimate ordinary objects and raise his game to like a supernatural level, to help his game’ (943).

‘Do not underestimate ordinary objects’ is exactly the advice James Incandenza heard from his own father, teaching him to play tennis, in 1960 (157-69), and also the message evident in the recent unsolved, apparently supernatural movements of inanimate objects around E.T.A. (including Ortho Stice’s levitating bed). If James Incandenza wanted to break down his son’s mechanical & confining external shell, in short, infiltrating Ortho Stice’s brain, as a means of jarring Hal out of his tennis-playing groove, wouldn’t be a bad way of doing it.

And it seems to be working, J.O.’s labor of love for Hal; as everything around him is increasing strange (especially Ortho Stice’s visitation), Hal begins thinking in the rhetoric of his father’s pleas that he ‘get out of himself,’ care for something, anything, outside of himself, producing a paragraph that unifies all the novel’s characters’ addictive pursuits -- drugs, tennis, entertainment, and the writing and reading of novels. Here near the end of the novel, Hal has begun narrating again:

It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately -- the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly…. Stice asked whether I believed in ghosts. (900)

Hal might not himself believe in ghosts just yet, but everything is pointing towards a time when he will -- when, perhaps, he will understand the extent & nature of his communication with them (one, in particular) and turn wholly out of himself, to connect with them, to the detriment of his outward appearance’s conformity with social protocol.

If Infinite Jest the novel (not the text but the relevant literary objects the text leaves unstated) is, like its cinematic counterpart, the brainchild of Jim Incandenza, Jim could be understood as analogous to Wallace, and the novel as a totalitarian creation of a Barthes-ian ‘Author-God’ (or two of them). The circular dynamic of authorship in the novel, though, means that J.O. is not just the creation of Wallace, but also the creator of the turns of other characters’ events, characters who in turn create the narrative & the narrator. In other words, though J.O. could perhaps be an unmediated self-representation of the author, self-representation doesn’t stop there but continues through a layer of heavy mediation -- the idiom of other (& living) characters -- back to the novel’s third-person narrator, another authorial self-conception. J.O.’s creation is, literally, “by nature a silence and an opponent of the word” (Sartre) -- unwritten, and largely unavailable to the reader -- but not entirely unavailable. Wallace, as any author, does not create that silence but takes it as his inspiration; and, as everyone from Wordsworth on down will say, the inspiration has nothing to do with the finished product. If Wallace, however, wanted to make the inspiring silence of Jim Incandenza’s master plan somehow available to the reader, and yet not ruin it by writing it, he would need some help; and he gets it from his own creations, characters who maybe can translate.


Perhaps the chief trademarks of David Foster Wallace’s style are its erudition & colloquial humor, and in Infinite Jest, both belong as much to characters as to Wallace -- his words are not his. Polysyllables come from the Incandenzas, in Infinite Jest’s narration, and all the slang comes from just about everyone else. These indexical stylistic marks cannot with specificity be attributed to the author, given the ambiguity embedded in the novel’s narrative -- the ambiguity of verbal propriety. What translations we do get of the unwritten text of Jim Incandenza’s workings, we get in the idiomatic voices of Ortho Stice or Hal or -- the most important character-author in the novel -- Don Gately.

Among the most vivid memories of Donald Gately’s childhood, for us and for Don Gately, is the leg of the Gately household’s dining room table, on which “Gately had scratched Donad and Donold in each leg with a pin, low down. Higher up on the legs, the scratches became correctly spelled” (446). Occupied with football, though, Gately ended up failing high school English (bearing much resentment towards ‘the crushingly dull Ethan From’ or ‘that blasted cocksucking Ethan From,’ depending on the narrative’s proximity to Don Gately); now that he was ineligible for football, Gately’s substance-use escalated rapidly, and it’s entirely likely that he never put pen to paper until he got sober. At which time, as a staff member of the Ennet House Drug & Alcohol Recovery House, Gately’s duties included keeping a daily log of the house’s goings-on; and one of the novel’s most romantic glimpses of Don Gately comes through the eyes of the unassailably innocent Mario Incandenza, as Gately writes in the Ennet House log, visible in

the big protruding window of Ennet’s House’s Headmistress’s office… a wide square-headed boy bent over something he’s writing at the Headmistress’s black desk, licking a pencil-end and hunched all uncomfortably with one arm curled out around what he’s writing in, like a slow boy over a class theme at Rindge and Latin Special. (592-3)

Of course, Don Gately has become no prolific writer in his year of sobriety, and it’s therefore no surprise that he spends fifty pages lying in his hospital bed, muted by his throat’s tubes, before it occurs to him to communicate in writing (perhaps it’s even less surprising since he’s had no trouble communicating with one certain person). “This is his idea,” says some narrator, as Gately “mimes holding an implement and writing on the air” to Joelle van Dyne, and that solemn, short sentence, “This is his idea,” seems to invest with overwhelming importance Gately’s realization that he can write (862). Somehow, nobody ever brings Gately the paper & pencil for which he pantomimed a request; but his Idea nevertheless inaugurates a period in the novel in which Gately comes into his own as a writer both global and local -- both translator of the all-over language of the dead and author of his own personal history.

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

Of the nightmares that haunt Stephen Dedalus, history is the most famous, but there is one more provocative: at the end of the third chapter of Ulysses, “He turned his face over a shoulder, rere regardant. Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship” (U. 3.503-5). As Don Gately and every one of his fellows at Ennet House and in Alcoholics Anonymous know, the recovering drug addict’s history is indeed nightmarish, and he wakes into sobriety only slowly. Nearly all of his fellows, too, are haunted by the kind of sea-borne, sails-billowing, enigmatically threatening force that lurks over Stephen’s shoulder -- a force that may be history and may be something darker, or darkly sustaining.

Kate Gompert has a recurring, horrible, suicidal Feeling which she “knows simply as It” (695); Bruce Green has occasional encounters with a large, dark, billowing shape he refers to as Evil, and with which Kate Gompert sympathizes a great deal (649-50); Don Gately, ever since he was a kid, has from time to time found the ceiling of whatever room he’s in billowing, breathing, bulging & receding like a ‘vacuole’ (809). Kate Gompert pieces everyone’s vague, ominous manifestations together, finally referring to them collectively as “the billowing shaped black sailing wing” (777). Hal’s long-dormant childhood memory of the parabolic, concrete church ‘billowing like a sail’ (that was Hal speaking, by the way) places the same imagery in a different context -- or perhaps not a different one, but simply a context, something of the specificity ‘the billowing shaped black sailing wing’ lacks. That context saps the thing of most of its dark, ominous qualities and raises liturgical ghostwords, the most important of which, for all those haunted by the Billowing, is penance. For perhaps the singular difference between the recovering drug addict and the heartily well-adjusted (if a little eccentric) Stephen Dedalus, Infinite Jest suggests, is that the drug addict must at all costs not think of history as a nightmare from which to awake (a demon not to confront), but must rather awake to history, and pay one’s debt to it.

“There is something queerly poignant about a deeply faded tattoo, a poignancy something along the lines of coming upon the tiny and poignantly unfashionable clothes of a child long-since grown up in an attic trunk somewhere (the clothes, not the grown child, Ewell confirmed for G. Day)” (209). ‘Tiny’ Ewell’s not speaking, mind you, but nevertheless somehow is (we can safely assume he likes the word poignant); the slightly awkward metaphor with which he delves into the essence of his fellow recoverers’ tattoos comprises a deferral of his own requisite awakening to history -- a devout interest in the history of others to conceal the fact that he has no history. Don Gately, despite characteristic insecurity (“Gately usually can’t follow what Ewell’s saying and is unsure whether this is because he’s not smart or educated enough to understand Ewell or because Ewell is simply out of his fucking mind” [211]), demonstrates the more awakely sober & mature attitude,

with most of the stoicism and acceptance of his tatt-regret sincere, if only because these irrevocable emblems of jail are minor Rung Bells compared to some of the fucked-up and really irrevocable impulsive mistakes Gately’d made as an active drug addict and burglar, not to mention their consequences, the mistakes’, which Gately’s trying to accept he’ll be paying off for a real long time. (211)

If Gately realizes he has to ‘accept he’ll be paying off’ his history’s debts, he’s not had too much success in doing so, this early in the novel; he’s still dealing with quite a few personal uncertainties regarding Alcoholics Anonymous. By the end of the novel, though, as Gately comes increasingly to look like a writer, he’ll find himself able to author a personal history, and therefore to awake to it.

As he begins his hospital stay, Gately learns what it is to be a reader (he never did finish Ethan Frome), to receive a narrative of which you can ask no questions. He’s at first perplexed and later irritated that Ennet House residents who visit him dispense long narratives in which they come to terms with their regrettable & long-forgotten pasts. Tiny Ewell, Calvin Thrust, and Geoffrey Day all visit, and Gately recalls that “He normally couldn’t ever get Ewell or Day to sit down for any kind of real or honest mutual sharing, and now that he’s totally mute and inert and passive all of a sudden everybody seems to view him as a sympathetic ear…. Don G. as huge empty confessional booth” (831). The cause for Don’s irritation is likely that he’s playing the catalyst for other people’s penance and has yet to make his own; in fact, the image of Gately ‘as huge empty confessional booth’ sounds a lot like T.S. Eliot’s concept of the artist’s mind -- a vacuous space (‘extinction of personality’) in which a catalytic reaction takes place, the artist’s unique, personal, contemporary experience modifying and regenerating the past. But unlike Eliot’s artist, Don Gately, muted by the tubes in his throat, can’t express the yield of that reaction; he can, at this point, only house the reaction for others, be the reader that enables their expression.

The appearance of the wraith, though, makes such expression suddenly and immensely possible for Gately (if only to one, ghostly reader -- but also, of course, to all readers of the novel), and the novel’s last two hundred pages feature far more exposition of his history than the first eight hundred did. Having heard the penance-narratives of Ewell, Day, et al., he’s been exposed to a kind of literary tradition, which he can emulate or to which he can respond, mediating it through his own history. The only thread of narrative that seems to wax during the novel’s last hundred pages (central plot lines like Quebecois conspiracy are fading fast) consists of Gately’s memory of the period of his life shortly before he ‘Came In’ to AA, and got sober; and it’s this narrative that ends the novel, with Gately coming out of a horrific interval of drug use, his waking on the beach signifying that Gately has also awakened to history, confronted and begun to serve time for his history; and that this is another reason the novel ends without ‘resolution’ -- it ends precisely when Gately finishes, when the telling of it is no longer part of his penance. Infinite Jest has an unmistakable introduction: en route to the ER, Hal Incandenza predicts that “It will be someone blue-collar and unlicensed, though, inevitably -- a nurse’s aide with quick-bit nails, a hospital security guy, a tired Cuban orderly who addresses me as jou -- who will, looking down in the middle of some kind of bustled task, catch what he sees as my eye and ask So yo then man what’s your story?” (17). Infinite Jest does begin as Hal’s story, but it makes no promises of remaining so; it’s Gately’s story by the end, and just as Hal opened the book explaining What Has Happened to him, Gately will close it once he’s made the same explanation about, and for, himself.

Willing to Wait

—Melissa Ferrick, song title

Nor does Gately stop ‘writing’ for purely selfish reasons: his forbearance is typical of his persistent humility, and it’s both creation of and model for Wallace’s writing. Lest it seem nonsensical to characterize a thousand-page novel as the writing of forbearance (as surely it would to Michiko Kakutani, for one11), look at Kate Gompert enduring one of her first AA meetings: “totally by herself at a nonsmoking table over by a window, ignoring her pale reflection and making little cardboard tents out of her raffle tickets and moving them around” (363). This is the only mention of Kate Gompert in a two-page-long paragraph, in which Don Gately assuages cynical drug addicts’ fears about AA, and which mentions twenty other characters. It is these phrases’ own isolation in such a long narrative that has little to do with them, their reserve, that makes them the aptest image of Kate Gompert’s melancholy isolation, her absorption in the mundane & microscopic fibers of her own deeply troubled life. In some ways more minimal that Minimalism, what some would call Wallace’s verbosity constitutes a kind of forbearance, granting a little privacy to those human essences in whose service literature is made, some place where no writer dares take her stultifying words. In a thousand-page novel’s crowd of words, scarcely noticeable and eminently sanctified is Kate Gompert’s suicidal face reflected in darkened glass. Or Don Gately’s “faultlessly baked and heavily frosted one-candle cake” that his AA group gave him on the first anniversary of his sobriety, and Gately crying “in front of nonrelatives for the first time in his life. He now denies that he actually did cry, saying something about candle-fumes in his eye. But he did” (468). And immediately, then, without time for scrutiny, the narrative moves on to describe Gately’s work as Ennet House chef, his “dense damp meat loaf with little pieces of American cheese and half a box of cornflakes on top, for texture” (469). House residents wouldn’t think of complaining about Don’s scrupulously-prepared meatloaf, and the text too registers such respect: when Gately “checked the fridge and again saw evidence that his special meatloaf had a secret admirer, it looked like, another big rectangle cut out of the leftovers” (595), the text lets his secret chef’s pride stand, no indication within dozens of pages that his meatloaf’s ‘admirer’ is the unsavory Randy Lenz, who’s using it as bait for backyard dogs he slays with that knife whose blade he tests on his forearm, as some perverse means of coping with habit-kicking’s challenges.

Gately’s penance, and the writerly forbearance of Gately & Wallace both, have as their penultimate model the unwritten text that lurks throughout Infinite Jest: Infinite Jest. As a nod to realism, readers can’t ‘see’ (nor can narrators have ever seen) the film so perfect it kills everyone who watches it. Readers’ piecemeal knowledge of the film’s content comes primarily from Joelle van Dyne, actress in Infinite Jest’s leading role: the first provocative detail is relegated to a footnote, and indicates Joelle’s role as having to do with “the weird wobble-lensed maternal ‘I’m-so-terribly-sorry’ monologue-scene” (999). Joelle’s never seen the finished film (of course), and when the Office of Unspecified Services questions her near the end of the novel in their quest to squelch the Quebecois conspiracy, she can only repeat what she knows about her own role: her lines consisted of “twenty minutes of permutations of ‘I’m sorry,’” and the shot was filmed by a “crib’s-eye view” camera fitted with a wobbling lens apparently designed to approximate an infant’s vision (939).

One of the first dreams Don Gately has after he’s visited by Jim Incandenza’s ghost features Joelle van Dyne as the figure of Death, and looks like this:

Death is explaining that Death happens over and over, you have many lives, and at the end of each one (meaning life) is a woman who kills you and releases you into the next life…. Death says that this certain woman that kills you is always your next life’s mother. This is how it works: didn’t he know? …This is why Moms are so obsessively loving… they’re trying to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember, except maybe in dreams. As Death’s explanation goes on…, the more unfocused and wobbly becomes his vision of the Death’s Joelle…, until near the end it’s as if he’s seeing her through a kind of cloud of light, a milky filter that’s the same as the wobbly blur through which a baby sees a parental face bending over its crib, and he begins to cry in a way that hurts his chest, and asks Death to set him free and be his mother, and Joelle either shakes or nods her lovely unfocused head and says: Wait. (850-51)

Assuming Don Gately can’t actually remember ‘the wobbly blur’ through which he looked up out of his crib, his dream has a direct hook-up with Jim Incandenza, here. So while Gately’s pretty clearly seeing some variant, at least, of Infinite Jest, he might well be seeing some non-lethal version, the unimpaired artistic vision from which J.O. began, his mind’s intent, as he meant Hal to see it; for probably the most interesting thing we learn about the film from Don Gately’s dream’s report of it is Death’s one-word closing proclamation: Wait. Which, ironically, is precisely what viewers of the actual film refuse to do, lending the film its awesome power -- they insist on watching again, immediately, at all costs. Their essentially solipsistic desire for continued gratification is the impulse J.O. sought to combat in his son, sought to replace with a willingness to wait, to forbear addictions and endure the ineluctable pain of sobriety, isolation, of years before Death will set you free and be your mother, years spent committed to things outside the self, concealing that the only persistent, and ultimately selfish, desire is for Death’s liberty -- concealing an innate self-loathing, a guilt-ridden fear that you’re ever only the sum of your lusts (‘However truly you believe there’s a sickness to existence that can never be cured, if you’re depressed you will sooner or later surrender and say: I just don’t want to feel bad anymore’), for which you must always do penance.

Hal Incandenza’s and Don Gately’s penance might consist in saving the Continent from disaster, and if Infinite Jest failed to reach Hal, it at least reached Don Gately; and if Don Gately (spurred on by his dreams from J.O.) enlisted Hal’s help in a last-ditch effort to save the Continent, he perhaps accomplished what Jim had envisioned: to engage Hal in the ‘black miracle’ of caring about something. If Hal, a chronic analyst who could give Hamlet a run for his money, refuses to hear his father’s ghost (“It’s always seemed a little preposterous,” he muses, “that Hamlet, for all his paralyzing doubt, never once doubts the reality of the ghost [900]”), then it’s left to Don Gately as grave-digger to unearth some gravely significant head; and if he can only get Hal to begin, ‘Alas, poor Yorick,’ then Infinite Jest and all that Wallace has given the phrase to mean will also have to exit his mouth, never again mute. Ultimately, it’s unclear whether J.O. or Gately is the real author of Hal’s transformation, and ultimately, it makes no difference.

David Foster Wallace’s penance, and he does make one, is his acceptance -- even, here, his creation -- of limits to authority; his refusal to author Hal’s transformation with a representation, with anything more than the scant clues of a structure carefully built to give rein to a heterogeneous narration. His deference to the authority of creations, together with his creation of their authority, forms an addictive kind of cycle -- exercising power only to give it up, like an increasingly absorbing quest for drugs that will render you unable or unwilling to absorb yourself in anything else (or like killing something only to give birth to it in a next life). It’s a variant on Beckett’s conundrum of Nothing left to express together with the undying need to express; Wallace’s unresolvable move, to give authority away to things he needs authority to create, raises the further maddening question: not only is writing impossible, but so is not-writing (this is postmodern theory’s own aporia: Baudrillard might have to admit that talk of the death of the author conceals the fact that there’s absolutely nothing that can be done to get rid of the author).

The debasement of language, with which Wordsworth and then modernism and then everybody else struggled, has been renewed by mass media’s exponential multiplication of it (the language), which in turn multiplies the debasement disproportionately: not only is there more language to be corrupted, the corruption moves more quickly and into more language than it ever could have before (‘family’ and ‘values’ fell apart almost as soon as they were put together -- a falling apart deliciously analogous to the falling-apart the rhetoric seeks to conceal that it does not address). Information is everywhere, and this is why Foucault’s famous phrase can become almost trite in twenty years, because information is power, and never innocent (those wishing to horde it can propagate it in its most vapid forms until there are no options for anyone else save vapidity).

And if it is as imperative now not to write as it was imperative that Beckett write, it is not more possible; but the strategies must be different. Wallace must qualify everything, as though ineluctably guilty (“If you quote that,” a Times interviewer quotes, “I’d really like you to quote that I acknowledge it sounds banal and clichéd” [Bruni, 41]), constantly to remind himself and his readers that all must only be speculation: What if it were the 21st century? What if I could show you what happened to Hal? What if I could write, and innocently? Awake in a historical moment in which he can’t forget his complicity in that moment -- a white-male-guilt-informed moment whose history is richly to be repented -- he also can’t let those speculations take root in data; the remaining option is a non-option, a formal forbearance, restraint from representing (which quickly becomes distorting) any Other, restraint from plunging some univocal language into a totality of meanings that owes its existence to its diversity. Lyotard’s acknowledgment of the heterogeneity of language games is postmodern theory’s greatest contribution to its home culture; notions of authority do violence to it, and so do authors, and this is why Barthes calls for their death. That discrete language games can even be talked about belies the intransigence of each one: Hal’s inability to communicate, in the first seventeen pages of the novel, with these people who are eminently unlike him signals the immobility of language across difference’s geographical boundaries.

Wallace, by refusing to cross those boundaries in his work, offers an explanation for where old notions of geography have ended up, late in postmodernity: imperialism is linguistic (the mass export of American popular culture is an example); and if Wallace’s writerly isolationism reads as fearful of the other, it reads as easily as respectful. Postmodernity has taken the geography out of ideology as well, and the difference between fear & respect is scarcely navigable: when radical environmental conservation cannot be called conservative, times are strange indeed, and if you think of yourself as inherently an environmental hazard (at least, a drain on resources), forbearance on the most fundamental levels becomes the order of the day; this and linguistic forbearance are the responses to postmodernity’s shifting geographies, to a condition in which the communication of data is imperial: an economic exchange mediated by language -- the translation of whatever might have been intended, might have been real and felt and human, into the homogeneous currency of the information age. If Wallace’s work has only saved from that stultifying exchange a little something about ways people still might communicate -- about the ways Hal, and Jim Incandenza, and Don Gately, after great effort and not without great pain, manage a private transcendence of that exchange -- it is something precious.

Harbingers of the death of literature who blame Theory are exactly correct in whatever ethical system blames the disease on those who diagnose it. Once any remarkable number of people has realized that global interdependence, insubordinacy of races & genders, diversity of media -- the heterogeneity of language games, all -- are not just inevitable but ethically unassailable, the death of a univocal, expressive literature cannot come as too much of a surprise, nor come because any theorist alleges it; Bakhtin, if he were alive, would smugly find the novel predominating over poetry, and could rightfully neither take credit for himself nor blame from anyone else. If the eminently careful, eminently humble form of Wallace’s work indeed can resist the violence of consensus, it may even inaugurate an American novel prepared to assume renewed social relevance; what will remain is for the society to admit of the relevance of the form.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

—L. Wittgenstein

And how should I presume?

—T.S. Eliot


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Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill & Wang, 1977. 142-48.

———. Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology. Trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967.

Birkerts, Sven. “The Alchemist’s Retort.” Review of Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. Atlantic Monthly February 1996: 106-08.

Bruni, Frank. “The Grunge American Novel.” The New York Times Magazine 24 March 1996: 38-41.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen & Paula Cohen. Critical Theory since 1965. Ed. Hazard Adams & Leroy Searle. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1992. 309-320.

Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950. 3-11.

Franzen, Jonathan. “Perchance to Dream.” Harper's Magazine April 1996: 35-54.

Gates, David. “Levity's Rainbow.” Review of Infinite Jest. Newsweek 12 February 1996: 80-81.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity — An Incomplete Project.” Trans. Seyla Ben-Habib. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay Press, 1983. 3-15.

Irigaray, Luce. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Trans. Carolyn Burke & Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.

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Kakutani, Michiko. “A Country Dying of Laugher. In 1,079 Pages.” Review of Infinite Jest. The New York Times 13 February 1996: B2.

Kaufman, Alan. Preface. The New Generation: Fiction for Our Time from America’s Writing Programs. Ed. Kaufman. New York: Doubleday, 1987. xi-xiv.

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McInerney, Jay. “The Year of the Whopper.” Review of Infinite Jest. The New York Times Book Review 3 March 1996: 8.

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The Unabomber Manifesto. []

Wallace, David Foster. The Broom of the System. New York: Penguin, 1987.

———. “E Unibus Pluram.” Review of Contemporary Fiction. Vol. 13, no. 2. Summer 1993: 151-94.

———. Girl with Curious Hair. New York: Norton, 1989.

———. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.

———. “An Interview with David Foster Wallace.” Review of Contemporary Fiction: 127-50.

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1: The apocalyptic images of artist David Wojnarowicz, though, do consider AIDS as unprecedented, uncontrollable, eschatological.
2: Order and Flux appears in Love is Strange: Stories of Postmodern Romance, ed. Joel Rose & Catherine Texier (New York: Norton, 1993) 29-61.
3: In a promotional pamphlet from his publisher, Wallace paraphrases Don DeLillo to describe the process of writing fiction: the book-in-progress [is] a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer. The fiction always comes out so horrifically defective, so hideous a betrayal of all your hopes for it -- a cruel and repellent caricature of the perfection of its conception.
4: Revenue-enhancing subsidized time is the Feds response to grave budgetary times, early in the twenty-first century. The non-Gregorian calendar for recent history in Infinite Jest (corresponding to roughly the first decade of the 21s t century) is:
(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 (sic)
(7) Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland
(8) Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment
(9) Year of Glad (223)

5: Infinite Jest, the novel, originally carried the subtitle a failed entertainment, ultimately nixed by the publisher (Wallace, letter).
6: Infinite Jest is 1,079 pages long, including footnotes. The main, annotated text ends on page 981
7: The main text (not including footnotes) begins on page 3 and ends on page 981. Thus: 978 pages of text, halved, equals 489.
8: Wallace is no slouch when it comes to philosophy, and Wittgensteins a favorite: his first novel, The Broom of the System is largely based on the Philosophical Investigations, and a James-Incandenza-like central character studied cla ssics and philosophy under a mad crackpot genius named Wittgenstein, who believed that everything was words (73).
9: see Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979); Irigaray: ...the maternal-feminine also serves as an envelope, a container, the starting point from which man limits his things (10).
10: There actually is, or was, a real Enfield, MA, but its just as tough to place: it now lies, along with three other ex-towns, at the bottom of the Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies eastern Massachusetts with water.
11: arbitrary and self-indulgent, she writes of Infinite Jests length. (B2)