The Limits of the Infinite:
The Use of Alcoholics Anonymous in
Infinite Jest as a Narrative Solution
Senior Honors Paper
April 25, 2001
David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest seems at first to be an unproblematic example of postmodern literary fiction. Its language is self-conscious, ironic, and playful. Its narrative is unconventional: the book is an ensemble of many narrative threads that are interrelated but never come together satisfactorily. In fact, there is no resolution to the book at all. It frustrates readers expectations with its exploded maximalist bulk of 1079 pages. And it draws attention to itself as a text with 388 footnotes that disrupt the already choppy narrative flow. Reviews of the book make frequent reference to Pynchon, Gaddis, Delillo, Coover, Bartheleme, and Barthes, all figureheads of postmodern literary fiction. In some interviews Wallace has tried to distinguish his work from other postmodernist fiction, but it is hard to understand the difference in the face of so much similarity. It seems almost superfluous that there is a dissertation devoted to detailing characteristics of Infinite Jest that are postmodern. The author of the dissertation, Toon Theuwis, is aware that Wallace does not fully agree with the classification of Infinite Jest as postmodern, but he dismisses Wallace’s attempt at differentiation:
I do not doubt that Wallace’s notion of postmodernism differs from the generation of writers before him, but he is still so strongly influenced by that previous generation that digressions into shades of differences would merely foreground a generational gap in postmodernist literature that I think is ultimately irrelevant. (6)
I disagree with Theuwis on this issue. There are important distinctions between Wallace and earlier postmodernists, and this paper is intended to explain why an aesthetic and philosophical generation gap between Wallace and the early postmodernists is a useful concept for understanding Infinite Jest.
In an interview with Larry McCaffery for the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wallace stated his reservations about the postmodern genre:
For me, 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, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs... and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house... 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... we’re wishing the revel would end. (McCaffery)
In Wallace’s metaphor, postmodernism is a disorder that was once fun, like a party, but has become too much and is now less fun. The disorder is an expression of postmodern experimentation and subversion of conventional narratives, which was innovative but is now tiresome. Wallace wants to find a way to move past the disorder.
We’ve seen that you can break any or all of the rules... but we’ve also seen the toxicity that anarchy for its own sake can yield. It’s often useful to dispense with standard formulas, of course, but it’s just as valuable and brave to see what can be done within a set of rules... There’s something about free play within an ordered and disciplined structure that resonates for readers. And there’s something about complete caprice and flux that’s deadening. (McCaffery)
In this quotation Wallace asserts that experimentation has its place, but it is a mistake to continue breaking conventions forever. There must be some form for meaning to be coherent, and that form must be to some degree shared, or conventional, for meaning to be communicated. A metaphor from mathematics, which Wallace studied as an undergraduate, is useful here. There are different kinds of infinities. There is the boundless one that continues forever, and then there is the kind of infinity within a boundary or set of limits. For example, there are an infinite number of points within a square. Instead of defying narrative conventions (attempting to create a boundless infinity), Wallace is intent on discovering a good conventional narrative system (finding bounded infinities) that he can work within. And this is what differentiates Wallace from first-generation postmodernists.
Chris Hager, in his essay “On Speculation: Infinite Jest and American Fiction After Postmodernism,” agrees with my understanding of Wallace as a second-generation postmodernist. Hager rephrases the predicament of Wallace’s generation of writers in this way: “to assimilate the work of highly experimental postmodern precedents into more straightforward narratives” (2). In the case of Infinite Jest, Hager concludes that within the book there is hidden a subtle parabolic plot. He supports his theory by a very detailed inspection of page numbers, double entendres, and other minutia. His attractive theory does give a form to Infinite Jest, even though it is not exactly the straightforward narrative he set out to find. But when Hager asserts the complex structure he makes Wallace the kind of writer he abhors: someone who treats “mere formal ingenuity as an end in itself. [Also known as] cleveritis -- you know, the dreaded grad-school syndrome of like ‘Watch me use seventeen different points of view in this scene of a guy eating a Saltine.’ The real point of this shit is ‘Like me because I’m clever’” (McCaffery). Experimentalism, no matter how sophisticated, is always just messing with form, and for Wallace form must have some purpose beyond itself.
Wallace borrows from the narrative form of Alcoholics Anonymous to create a set of limits or rules that structure meaning in Infinite Jest. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is woven throughout Infinite Jest, and AA aesthetics become dominant in the text. In AA, narrative form is functional; it is always used as a tool for a purpose. Both postmodern and AA narratives are responses to disordered and fragmented subjects of the kind that Wallace describes in his party metaphor. But where postmodern texts respond with fragmented narratives, AA life stories are master narratives that make fragmented subjects coherent. AA members all learn to tell their life stories in a new way that restructures their identity. They provide a shared set of narrative conventions that allow members to understand themselves as alcoholics and as members of the AA group. These shared narrative conventions also eliminate conceptual and stylistic differences between members that might block communication. Formally innovative postmodern texts do the opposite. They invent new conceptual and stylistic blocks that make communication more challenging.
AA is one of many narrative systems that exist simultaneously in Infinite Jest. In the text, no character can stand alone; each is affiliated with a group that limits and orders the structure of his or her life. In the text, a character remarks, “we are all dying to give ourselves away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately -- the object seemed incidental to the will to give oneself away, utterly” (900). The two main characters, Hal Incandenza and Don Gately, are each fully ensconced in a group that organizes their lives, gives meaning to their lives, and is their lives. Hal is a teenage tennis phenom who rarely gets off the grounds of the Enfield Tennis Academy. His friends are all students there, and his family actually runs the academy. Hal eats, sleeps, and lives tennis; in the same way Gately is completely within the culture of AA. He not only attends meetings daily, he has also stayed on to work as a resident in the recovery house that he recently stayed in as a new AA member. Tennis and AA are the two main groups in Infinite Jest. There are many other more minor characters that belong to groups such as terrorism, television, and therapy.
The text investigates and inhabits these groups and many more, switching back and forth, looking for new possibilities in the narrative form of each one. At the beginning of the book, the constant switching between the different groups makes the text fragmented in a way that is reminiscent of other postmodern texts. By the end of the book, even though the different groups have not been connected into a coherent whole, the narratives of all of the groups are found wanting. Either they do not provide a coherent structured narrative, or they are organized but arbitrary and meaningless, or they do not allow for communication between peers. Only AA fulfills the requirements of Infinite Jest. By the end of the book AA is the master narrative of Infinite Jest.
The constant switching between so many different groups at the beginning of Infinite Jest creates the kind of fragmented disorganized text that is associated with postmodernism. AA does not get introduced for a long time, and trying to keep up with all of the characters and groups in the first part of the book is a difficult task. What does connect the fragments of the story is a certain sensibility applied to the description of all the different groups. The text is always attending to the way the formal narrative conventions of the group work to structure member’s lives. There is a delicate balance to be struck between having enough formal constraints to provide a meaningful structure and having too many constraints so the individual has no freedom at all. The self has to be bounded enough so that the individual is not lost to solipsism, but not so bounded that the self becomes insignificant, just an identityless cog in the narrative system. There must be a goal for the group that is meaningful, not arbitrary. It can’t be a merely self-serving goal, but it can’t be completely unconnected to the self either. Most importantly, the group must provide a structure for communication between equal members. It is apparent from early in the text that communication is very difficult for characters in Infinite Jest. Many characters are inventive and skilled speakers, but they can’t break out of themselves enough to gain intersubjectivity. I will analyze the groups of tennis, terrorism, and television because, just as in the text, the way that other narrative groups are described sets up the sensibilities that will later be applied to AA.
The rules of tennis, including the boundary lines of the court, are limits on the possibilities of the game. However, just like the square with an infinite amount of points inside it, the limits of tennis allow for an unlimited amount of possibilities within the boundaries. Jim Incandenza, Hal’s father, is a tennis and math prodigy who realizes the infinite possibilities of tennis. He thinks that:
beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern... It was a matter not of reduction at all, but -- perversely -- of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metatastic growth -- each well shot ball admitting of n possible response, 2n possible response to those responses, and so on into what Incandenza would articulate to anyone who shared both his backgrounds as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skill and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of self. (82)
It is common to think of tennis as a chaotic game that can be ordered into statistical facts. There are a certain percentage of successful first serves, unforced errors per set, and so on. Jim, however, conceives of tennis as beginning with an ordered system of rules that creates focused but inconceivably complex play that becomes infinite. It may be counterintuitive, but tennis boundaries create possibilities rather than limit them. If the net and lines were not there, no game could take place. Schitt, a tennis coach who works with Jim, says “without [the boundary lines of the court] there is something bigger. Nothing to contain and give the meaning. Verstiegenheit” (83). The boundaries of tennis are like the form of fiction; they create possibilities by limiting.
Form is not enough by itself, however. Tennis is structured well, but the goal that anchors tennis, winning, is arbitrary. Hal Incandenza is very motivated to earn approval by succeeding, but tennis is not enough to give meaning to his life. Hal has recurring nightmares where he has to play upon an infinitely complex court. This nightmare vision is the flipside to his father’s understanding of tennis. “There are lines going every which way, and they run oblique or meet and form relationships and boxes and rivers and tributaries and systems inside systems” (67). Where Jim sees beauty in the infinite possibilities of tennis, Hal sees only meaningless complexity.
Another very controlled and organized narrative system in Infinite Jest is terrorism, but terrorist groups work by diminishing each individual self too much. The two main terrorists are Marathe, an agent of the Canadian insurgents Les Assassins des Fauteuiles Rollents, and Steeply, an agent of the U.S.O.U.S. Both agencies are equally grotesque. Les Assassins has an initiation rite in which members have their legs severed by the wheels of a rushing train, and the U.S.O.U.S. always puts its agents through undercover operations that involve complete humiliation as well as physical mutilation. These physical privations illustrate how the self is always sacrificed for even the smallest needs of the group. The self is limited and given meaning by the group, but it is so excessive that the self becomes completely unimportant. And like winning in tennis, the goals of terrorism -- the political border wars carried out through violence -- never seem like a worthwhile cause in Infinite Jest.
One function of the terrorists in Infinite Jest is that they are so authoritarian in their domination of the individual self that the importance of the group in AA is mild by comparison. The exaggerated terrorists are a kind of upper bound of highly structured narrative. And even though Marathe is a member of an over-authoritarian organization, his critique of other American groups is astute. Marathe describes an American crisis of faith. It is a succinct explanation of what is being faced by all the characters in the book: they have too much unstructured freedom.
Someone sometime let you forget how to choose, and what. Someone let your peoples forget it was the only thing of importance, choosing... Someone taught you that temples are for fanatics only and took away the temples and promised there was no need for temples. And now there is no shelter. And no map for finding the shelter of the temple. And you all stumble in the dark, this confusion of permissions. The without-end pursuit of a happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible. (319-320)
In this description, Americans have nothing to believe in, have nothing to organize their lives, because they are living in a society without limits. In the confusion of permissions Americans belong to groups that are either meaningless, or do not have well-defined and useful limits, or do not allow communication. This is the lower bound of completely unstructured narrative, and it is a description of postmodernism. These two bounds call for an intermediate narrative system, like AA, where the self is neither completely bound nor completely unbound.
Television is a good example of the confusion of permissions that Marathe describes. In Infinite Jest television limitlessly provides spectators with choices. Just as cable television moved beyond the limited choices of broadcast television, InterLace TelEntertainment replaces cable. The InterLace ad campaign is based on providing more choices.
The cable kabal’s promise of ‘empowerment,’ the campaign argued, was still just the invitation to choose which of the 504 visual spoon feedings you’d sit and open wide for...And so but what if, their campaigns appeal basically ran, instead of choosing the least of 504 infantile evils... what if a viewer could more or less 100% choose what's on at any given time? (416)
Interlace allows the viewer to download or buy each entertainment separately, so that anything that has ever been filmed is available at all times. The ad campaign is based on “appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom” (1031). The freedom offered by television is apparent rather than actual because even though the offerings of InterLace are unlimited, the only possibility that television really offers the viewer is spectatorship. Television has no formal narrative boundaries except the immediate wishes of a viewer. And in Infinite Jest, without boundaries there is no way to create meaningful possibilities.
In addition to being a limitless (and therefore uncontained and meaningless) medium, television does not allow for people to communicate. Virtual reality is available but not popular as a form of entertainment, in part because it has a tendency to make viewer’s eyes bleed, but also because virtual reality involves an interactive relationship that is less attractive than spectatorship. Television is a one-way medium that allows people to watch without worrying about being watched. One character sums up her attraction to television as “entertainment is blind” (237). Television viewers are soothed by the fact that the television, and the actors on the television, can’t stare back.
Not only does television replace interaction, the experience of being a part of a larger group, even if the group is doing nothing but watching, has become a rarity. The technology of television has come so far in the world of Infinite Jest that people stay home instead of going to movie theaters or live events. The resulting isolation makes people wish to be part of a crowd, “Hence the new millennium’s passion for standing live witness to things. A whole sub-rosa schedule of public spectation opportunities, ‘spect-ops,’ the priceless chance to be part of a live crowd, watching. (620)” Instances of crowds gathering are infrequent, however. For the most part, entertainment has managed to separate people, make them into passive, individual spectators with no chance for interpersonal communication.
Although every group discussed so far is in itself a highly ordered system, the inclusion of all of them (and others too) in Infinite Jest creates chaos, especially with the way that the text cuts back and forth among them. The chaos of the first part of Infinite Jest is somewhat like the present state of literature: the great critical theories have all been debunked and everything is permitted. The idea that there could be a single set of criteria for judging fiction has fallen apart and instead a plurality of non-unified theoretical systems exist simultaneously. Chaos is also the way that AA members conceive of active alcoholism.
The text of Infinite Jest starts out incoherent, characters appear without introduction, and the different groups all exist simultaneously, with no single narrative system in control of the text. Even though AA is not introduced until page 137, by the end of the book it has grown to control more of the narrative than all of the other groups combined. For one thing, AA characters and AA scenes, though not the focus of the early sections of the book, become more and more prevalent, and AA aesthetics come to dominate the in-text interpretation of the narratives.
The same thing occurs on the character level. Many characters not associated with AA, such as Hal Incandenza, Joelle van Dyne, and Jim Incandenza, characters who begin as skillful narrators, lose coherence as they reach crises that their narrative abilities can not cope with, and they can no longer synthesize meaning. Don Gately balances their fall by rising with AA. Gately gains enough proficiency to tell his story authoritatively through AA, and takes over the narrative of Infinite Jest.
Hal Incandenza is a verbal standout in a book where high-speed wit and large vocabulary is the norm, but his skill with words seems to be at least in part a compensation for his stunted emotional ability. In the first chapter, he thinks of his recently acquired inability to communicate as mainly a word problem: “There are, by the OED IV’s count, nineteen nonarchaic synonyms for unresponsive, of which nine are Latinate and four Saxonic” (17). While it is true that Hal’s incoherence is found at the beginning of the text, it is chronologically the end. His incoherence, therefore, is at the end of his development as a character. Hal is a potent example of a narrative system that becomes unable to perform its function of making coherent meaning. Hal has the most language skill of any character in the book. He reads and memorizes the Oxford English Dictionary, he often corrects his friend’s grammar, and he outwits the Professional Grief Therapist, among other examples. But he does not have a narrative system that allows him to truly communicate. By the end of Infinite Jest his attempts at communication are misinterpreted as “’Undescribable.’ ’Like an animal.’ ’Subanimalistic noises and sounds’” (14).
As Hal disintegrates, Don Gately gains control. Gately has been off drugs long enough for the initial physical dependence to have subsided. He is now in the process of the more powerful, narrative conversion of AA. His values, language, and understanding of his own life are all being reorganized by AA narrative. So his fear of becoming an active alcoholic is actually incorporated into a new and more abstract fear that the system of AA might break down on him, leaving him lost and meaningless. When Gately gets over his fears and gains faith in AA, he becomes self-assured as a narrator.
At the start of Infinite Jest, Gately is still unsure of the narrative and language abilities that AA has given him. Gately panics when the AA narrative is questioned by Joelle van Dyne, a new AA member. It is actually a very small detail that she raises, a grammatical concern about an AA cliche.
Her trouble is that ‘But For the Grace of God’ is a subjunctive, a counterfactual, she says, and can make sense only when introducing a conditional clause, like e.g. ‘But For the Grace of God I would have died on Molly Notkin’s bathroom floor,’ so that an indicative transposition like ‘I’m here but But For the Grace of God’ is she says, literally senseless, and regardless of whether she hears it or not it’s meaningless, and that the foamy enthusiasm with which these folks can say what in fact means nothing at all makes her want to put her head in the Radarange at the thought that Substances have brought her to the sort of pass where this is the sort of language she has to have Blind Faith in. (366)
But for the Grace of God is a meaningful often-repeated phrase in AA regardless of whether it makes grammatical sense. Grammar is an interest of other narrative groups that Joelle has been associated with, such as graduate level film criticism. So the grammatical query is a kind of skirmish between to warring narratives, and it affects Gately deeply: “and his own heart grips him like an infant rattling the bars of its playpen, and he feels a greasy wave of an old and almost unfamiliar panic, and for a second it seems inevitable that at some point he’s going to go back out and get high again” (366). A baby in a playpen is an image that recurs with Gately in his dreams, in a more complete form of a childhood memory of not being able to get his mother’s attention. That he associates this image with a fear of the breakdown of AA’s narrative system is apt because a loss of AA for Gately would be a loss of the ability to communicate. Without AA, the limits that organize his story would disappear, and he would be like a baby whose uncontrolled cries are not heard.
Gately’s second big narrative showdown is against a wraith who is the spirit of the late Jim Incandenza, a much more formidable opponent. The wraith of Jim appears in a hospital room where Gately is recovering from gunshot wounds. Gately is handicapped by a tube that is down his throat, making him physically mute. The wraith communicates with Gately by putting thoughts into Gately’s head. The wraith explicitly has the power of an author because of this ability. The power to tell a story clearly rests with the wraith of Jim, which is underscored by the description of the process as “not only creepy but somehow violating, a sort of lexical rape” (832).
The wraith tries to elicit pity from Gately by telling Gately his life story, but here Gately begins to gain authority back using the AA narrative system. Gately rejects the wraith’s non-AA life story.
Gately’s not too agonized and feverish not to recognize gross self-pity when he hears it, wraith or no. As in the slogan ‘Poor Me, Poor Me, Pour Me a Drink.’ With all due respect, pretty hard to believe this wraith could stay sober, if he needed to get sober, with the combination of abstraction and tragically-misunderstood-me attitude he’s betraying. (839)
Gately has grown to become an arbiter of narrative, which reverses the dynamic Gately experienced previously with Joelle, who is associated with Jim and his intellectual narrative groups. After a few more protestations in favor of his story, the Jim wraith seemlessly disappears from the scene without even an exit line as the focus shifts completely to Gately's memories of his own life story. It is a key victory for Gately that is built upon in the frequent chapters chronicling his story that occur in the last hundred plus pages.
Anyone only slightly aware of AA -- say, familiar with the phrase “Hi, my name is Blank, and I’m an alcoholic” and nothing more -- may associate AA with a more culturallly visible recovery narrative system: therapy. But Infinite Jest emphasizes an essential strangeness of AA to the rest of American culture by demonstrating the differences between AA and therapy. Although AA is based on the sharing of a life narrative, the AA narrative is very different from the therapy narrative. Therapy is an exploration of the self to figure out problems and then fix them. Therapy’s focus on the self is at the same level of intensity as television. They may be different in kind -- television tries to fulfill the self while therapy tries to understand it -- but they both serve to inflate the importance of the self. While not going all the way to the self-mutilation of terrorist groups, AA does not inflate the self like television and therapy do. In the AA narrative, all long-term decisions are no longer under the jurisdiction of the self. They are handed over to another entity: a higher power, a personally defined god figure. In addition, alcoholism is not an attribute of the self, like indecisiveness or insanity. Instead it is a disease outside of the auspices of the self. The recovering alcoholic does not, however, shrug all responsibility. He or she just shifts all responsibility to very small units of decision-making. One AA member explains this to Gately when Gately is new in the program.
He told Gately to just imagine he’s holding a box of Betty Crocker Cake Mix, which represents Boston AA. The box had directions on the side any eight-year-old could read... It didn’t matter one fuckola whether Gately like believed a cake would result, or whether he understood the like fucking baking-chemistry of how a cake would result: if you just followed the motherfucking directions... a cake would result. (469)
Unlike in therapy, in AA belief and understanding are not required. The recovering alcoholic does very short-term physical tasks, like not drinking alcohol at the specific moment, praying (which is at first just kneeling if actual prayer can’t be achieved), and attending meetings. This reverses the system of an active alcoholic, where the larger issues are seen to be the domain of the self, but the smaller details are blamed on outside entities or forces. There are multiple differences between the narrative of AA and therapy that result from the groups’ different attitudes towards the self.
The first therapist to appear in the text is the Professional Grief Therapist who treats Hal after Hal’s father commits suicide. The therapist isn’t helpful to Hal at all because the narrative system of therapy is built on a success-or-failure dichotomy that Hal is already adept at handling. At first Hal is distraught because he can’t figure out what is required for success in therapy’s narrative system. Hal complains that the Grief Therapist “was my worst nightmare. Talk about self-consciousness and fear. Here was a top-ranked authority figure and I was failing to supply what he wanted. He made it manifestly clear I wasn’t delivering the goods. I’d never failed to deliver the goods before” (253). In this quotation Hal shows he is unhealthily attached to succeeding, but therapy doesn’t help him because the Grief Therapist is equally attached to success. Instead, Hal eventually succeeds in outwitting the therapist’s narrative system. Hal figures out that instead of researching books on how to grieve, he has to “chew through... the section for grief-professionals themselves... How could I know what a professional wanted unless I knew what he was professionally required to want” (254-255). Hal goes into his next meeting cursing the therapist and working himself into a frenzy while “subtly inserting certain loaded professional-grief-therapy-terms like validate, process as a transitive verb, and toxic guilt. These were library derived” (255). This is exactly the type of epiphany that the therapist wants, and Hal fakes it correctly. His “traumatic grief was professionally pronounced uncovered and countenanced and processed” (257). Tellingly, the therapist is just as exuberant as Hal. Hal achieves success in therapy just like he does in tennis and academics, but he only plays a narrative game. He does not actually use the therapy’s narrative system to restructure himself in a way that would help him grieve his father’s loss.
The AA narrative has no success-or-failure finale. AA members are called recovering -- instead of recovered -- alcoholics, which emphasizes the continual process of AA. If Hal entered the AA he would find himself in an unfamiliar narrative system. There are none of the objective exterior measures of success Hal is accustomed to achieving. Part of the narrative system of AA is that it has no ending. This is a narrative strategy that keeps AA members from thinking about the future and the cumulative sum of all of the temptations and situations that the future holds. Instead, the AA narrative system stops at the eternal present of Recovering. The AA cliche for this is One Day At A Time, but the description of Gately in withdrawl vividly describes it as:
Feeling the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time. Drawing the time in around him real tight. Withdrawing. Any one second: he remembered: the thought of feeling like he’d be feeling this second for 60 more of these seconds -- he couldn’t deal. He could not fucking deal. He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down into like one second... An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. Living in the Present between pulses. (859-860)
This formulation is more extreme than the AA cliche; the second has replaced the day. It strengthens the AA strategy of staying in the moment, but it does something else too. Gately feels more alive than ever before. His focus is on the present instant. By the end of Infinite Jest, Hal has stopped being motivated to succeed, and is paralyzed by the future now that he has given up on an organizing narrative system. “The familiarity of the Academy took on a crushing cumulative aspect” (896). Among other images of this accumulation, Hal imagines a pile of all the food he will eat in his lifetime. He is like the addicts discussed elsewhere in the book who leave AA not because of the present moment, but because they imagine their whole future. Hal needs the eternal present aspect of AA narrative when success-or-failure fails him.
The success-or-failure aspect of therapy necessitates an authority figure to legislate success. In the story of the Grief Therapist, there are two separate sections of scholarship on therapy: one for patients to read, and one for therapists themselves. There is a hierarchy of the two roles, which is a theme continued in detail in the chapter on the psych ward M.D. and clinically depressed Kate Gompert. In the M.D.’s interaction with Kate, the M.D. masks his emotions: “The doctor’s interior state was somewhere between trepidation and excitement, which manifested outwardly as a sort of blandly deep puzzled concern” (70). The therapist does not express himself because only Kate is supposed to talk about herself. The M.D. instead makes institutionally approved minimal responses: “The doctor’s small nods were designed to appear not as responses but as invitations to continue, what Dretske called Momentumizers” (72). The limits of therapy strictly govern the M.D.’s words and actions. As a result, the M.D. is overwhelmingly concerned with superficial appearances. He is “hale and pink-cheeked and poreless, and... almost always smells unusually clean and good” (68). He takes handwritten notes because he believes laptops give “a cold impression” (73). But the M.D.’s detailed awareness of his appearance does not allow for communication. “Katherine Anne Gompert probably felt that here was another M.D. with zero sense of humor. This was probably because she did not understand the strict methodological limits that dictated how literal he, a doctor, had to be with admits on the psych ward” (71). The therapist’s interior state is so hidden by the form of therapy that Kate doesn’t think it exists. The interaction is, like television, one-way; only the patient is up for discussion; the therapist is the spectator: “Patients on other floors during other rotations had sometimes complained that they sometimes felt like something in a jar he was studying intently through all that glass” (72). Unfortunately, Kate already suffers from feeling alone, and her interaction with the M.D. can only encourage the feeling since there is no way Kate can break through the glass of the formal hierarchical situation of therapy.
AA is, by contrast to therapy, based on a non-hierarchal reciprocal relationship. It is the only major narrative system in Infinite Jest without hierarchal relationships. Tennis in Infinite Jest is so highly competitive that the athletes are always aware of their ranking. Terrorism is completely autocratic. Television is a one-way interaction, and even peer groups watching television together don’t occur very often in Infinite Jest. AA is refreshingly democratic and peer-based. In AA groups, no individual has power over another individual. There is an almost complete lack of organizational hierarchy. Even the formal conventions of AA are called Suggestions. The Suggestions are never enforced by the actual apparatus of AA: “they can’t kick you out. You’re In if you say you’re In. Nobody can get kicked out for any reason” (352).
The AA narrative system does have power behind it, but the power comes from the outside situation. The suggestions carry a lot of weight because recovering alcoholics are scared that they will succumb to their addiction. One AA member explains the situation: “compare the totally optional basic suggestion in Boston AA to, say for instance if you’re going to jump out of an airplane, they ‘suggest’ you wear a parachute” (357). The power of AA is “born not of zealotry or even belief but just of a chilled conviction that you have no faith whatsoever left in yourself” (351). AA narrative has significant power over its members because it is enforced by the members’ fear of their own alcoholism.
Without any authority figure, and with only the power of the recovering alcoholic’s fear of their own addiction, the system of AA is imposed almost completely through the repetition of narratives. AA meetings are a forum for members to meet and tell their story. Slowly, a newcomer learns to reorganize his or her autobiography by internalizing the AA narrative pattern so that it is in line with the examples the newcomer hears. There are also other non-storytelling types of meetings in the real-world AA, but Infinite Jest only includes the storytelling kind, which emphasizes how important the narrative aspect of AA is to Infinite Jest.
The AA narrative system is homogenized, repetitive, and not innovative. In Infinite Jest, however, the opposite of these traits can be even worse. Dr. Rusk, the staff therapist at the tennis academy, is a personification of therapy at its most intellectual. Her narrative system is not simple or repetitive, it is complex and requires intelligence. Still, it is completely unhelpful. Dr. Rusk is “regarded by the kids as whatever’s just slightly worse than useless” (437). The reason the kids don't like her is that she retreats into analytical and intellectual scholarship when real people and their emotions are at stake. The one time Dr. Rusk talks to a student in the text, she engages in total psychobabble filled with esoteric therapy terms:
On the level of objects and a protective infantile omnipotence where you experience magical thinking and your thoughts and the behavior of objects’ relation to your narcissistic wishes, the counterphobia presents as the delusion of some special agency or control to compensate for some repressed wounded inner trauma having to do with absence of control. (550)
The student is so lost in this that he thinks counterphobia means fear of linoleum, but Dr. Rusk is stuck in her nonsensical narrative system and unable to explain herself better.
I have already shown through the examples of tennis, terrorism, and television the kind of criticisms that Infinite Jest makes of the narrative systems it includes. Therapy is too much like these other systems because it is based on success-failure dichotomy, it has hierarchal relationships, and it is full of over-intellectualized meaningless terms. Therapy is represented negatively because Infinite Jest is an attempt to use narrative systems to talk about very specific problems in the narratives of American culture. Therapy shares too many attributes of its narrative system with other American narratives, so it is not a good narrative form for Infinite Jest to appropriate.
The narrative of AA is well suited to Infinite Jest’s situation. I have shown how AA is different from any of the other narrative strategies of Infinite Jest, and how AA comes to dominate the text in Infinite Jest. Now I will discuss how Infinite Jest draws from the form of AA narratives as a way to invent a new literary aesthetic. AA style becomes a new set of criteria for fiction, a counter against the deadening complete caprice and flux that Wallace ascribes to postmodernism. Infinite Jest inculcates its AA-influenced aesthetic by repetition of the AA narrative form, just like actual AA meetings do. There are seven complete AA narratives quoted at length in Infinite Jest, and a few more rendered indirectly. Each AA narrative works as an example of the AA way to tell stories and hear stories. By extension, this becomes the Infinite Jest method of writing and reading literature.
The non-AA characters in Infinite Jest are truly terrible listeners. Each is solipsistically alone, unable to make interpersonal connections. In Infinite Jest’s world phones “allowed you to presume that the other person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything close to complete attention to her” (146). A new technology, videophony, is unpopular in part because “callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listeners’ expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges” (146). The word compose hear is key, implying that nobody makes those expressions out of actual sincere communication of interest in another person. The motif of pretending to pay attention reoccurs throughout the book.
Within AA meetings listening is a skill that is consciously worked on. Gately learns in AA that “it’s hard to really hear” (365). meaning that although he could listen to the words being said at the meeting, it was difficult for him to acknowledge an actual interpersonal connection between himself and other recovering alcoholics. Then Gately learns the key AA concept of Identifying. Identifying is to realize the basic human similarity between the listener’s story and a speaker’s story. The opposite of Identifying is Comparing. Comparing is the way listening to stories works outside of the AA narrative system. The listener checks the story the listener hears against the listener’s own story for similar events or attitudes as a way to decide if there is a similarity. If the events and attitudes do not match up, the person who Compares rejects the story as different. Gately says of his progress in AA: “I remember for like the first fifty days or so I couldn’t hear shit. I didn’t hear nothing. I’d just sit there and Compare, I’d go to myself, like, ‘I never rolled a car,’ ‘I never bled from the rectum’” (365). The AA narrative overcomes the propensity to Compare because both the speaker and the listener organize their story along the lines of AA narratives, so their stories follow the same narrative arc: “Identifying, unless you’ve got a stake in Comparing, isn’t very hard to do, here [in AA]. Because if you sit up front and listen hard, all the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own” (345). Recovering alcoholics can Identify with each other’s stories because each story is organized the same way, so that people with different experiences and personalities can all share the same narrative.
Once Infinite Jest has sufficiently initiated the reader into AA, it challenges the reader to Identify instead of Compare. The first AA story to appear in Infinite Jest is by John L. The story is very generic in its details, and outlines the basic AA form of decline, conversion, and recovering. After John L.’s story there are a few others that impress various points about AA narrative, and habituate the reader to the form of AA narrative. Some of these speakers are negative examples in which the speaker diverges from the AA narrative, and some are positive examples of an orthodox AA narrative that works well. Then, there is the “meeting’s last and maybe best... speaker” (376). Her story is repugnant. She was a prostitute and freebase addict who smoked cocaine through her pregnancy, even through labor. Her baby is stillborn, but she still keeps the little corpse with her for months until the smell of the corpse (now actually physically stuck to her chest) keeps her from prostituting anymore, and finally the authorities catch up with her and send her to an asylum. This whole story is told with very few references to her interior state and no invocations of pity from the audience. It is mainly a chronicle of events ordered by the AA form. The audience pays this speaker “the ultimate Boston AA compliment: they have to consciously remember even to blink as they watch her, listening. I.D.ing without effort” (379). The best stories in AA are the ones that make people lose their own identity and mix with the speaker into a single group identity. The details of the story shouldn’t matter as long as the form works. Even though her listeners have never experienced what she has, they feel linked to it. If Infinite Jest has succeeded in recreating AA aesthetics, then the reader will also Identify with the speaker’s story, along with the AA audience.
It should be apparent by now that AA narrative form is not irony. At an AA meeting, the audience is embarrassed for a speaker who tries to use irony.
[The speaker] is dreadfully, transparently unfunny; painfully new put pretending to be at ease, to be an old hand, desperate to amuse and impress them. The guy’s got the sort of professional background where he’s used to trying to impress gatherings of persons. He’s dying to be liked up there. He’s performing. The White Flag crowd can see all this. Even the true morons among them see right through the guy. This is not a regular audience. A Boston AA is very sensitive to the presence of ego. When the new guy introduces himself and makes an ironic gesture and says ‘I’m told I’ve been given the Gift of Desperation. I’m looking for the exchange window,’ it’s so clearly unspontaneous, rehearsed... that just a few polite titters resound, and people shift in their seats with a slight but signal discomfort... Speakers who are accustomed to figuring out what an audience wants to hear and then supplying it find out quickly that this particular audience does not want to be supplied with what someone else thinks it wants. (367)
Irony here is professional not personal, rehearsed not spontaneous, and definitely not sincere. This does not mean that there are no jokes in AA. The ironic speaker’s joke doesn’t fit because it has only one purpose, to make him look good. But the speaker is painfully new, his life is a wreck. He is not good. So the kind of irony he affects is in a way dishonest, and it is not part of AA narrative form.
There is a lot of irony Infinite Jest. Irony is the environment of the book, and the habitual form that most of the characters use. Wallace‘s style can become, like the ironic speaker above, merely about how it making the author look good. Clair Messud remarked in her review for the Times that “reading Infinite Jest is not unlike spending a prolonged holiday with a precocious but exasperating adolescent boy.” Messud is reacting to the overwelmingly impressive style of the book, which she calls adolescent because the style seems like an effusive overcompensation for insecurity. Just as the speaker’s joke is primarily about how it is a good joke, Wallace’s fiction can be read as being about how it is good fiction, but that does not account for the many passages full of earnest sincerity in Infinite Jest. Nor does it account for Infinite Jest’s negative portrayal of the ironic speaker.
The disputed position of irony in Infinite Jest is part of a larger question about form and communication. Infinite Jest is at the confluence of two narrative systems. Postmodernism is form-conscious and concerned with formal innovation and exploration. AA narrative form is not innovative. AA form attempts to be as unremarkable as possible, so that it does not detract from the listener’s attention to Identifying with the story. Infinite Jest is still very innovative in its form, but it retains the idea from AA that narrative should have a purpose beyond itself. AA members go to meetings daily to hear stories that all have roughly the same form. They do this because the stories are all structured for the purpose of allowing Identification. Identification is more than just communication. It is an experience in which the listener forgets him or herself and fuses identity with the speaker. Communication becomes the purpose of good narrative in Infinite Jest, and every formal innovation must have communication as its purpose.
Some traits of the book associated with postmodernism are actually expressions of AA aesthetics applied to the book. For example, Infinite Jest is a bulky aggregate of innumerable detail, which can be understood in the context of other postmodern magnum opuses. On the other hand, it may have something to do with the way Don Gately habitually takes a front-row seat at AA meetings. He sits “right up where he could see dentition and pores, with zero obstructions or heads between him and the podium, so the speaker fills his whole vision, which makes it easier to really hear” (369). The text of Infinite Jest gives the reader all the little teeth and pores that Gately seeks at AA meeting. The book fills the the reader’s vision with its level of detail and its interconnected universe of subplots. The reader gets sucked in, which is to say the reader Identifies.
Infinite Jest lacks resolution, which is another trait it shares with a lot of postmodern literature. But where other postmodern literature has no resolution as a way of subverting conventional narrative, Infinite Jest’s type of lack of resolution has more in common with AA’s narrative form. I have already explained how AA narratives have, instead of resolution, an eternal present of recovery, because an ending is future oriented, and AA narratives only admit of the most vague possible sense of future. Like Gately in withdrawl, taking it one moment at a time, in Infinite Jest the present moment is always endurable. “What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering” (860). Any reader overly intent on the future, on finishing the book, will be distraught to reach it and find that it does not really exist. But any reader of that sort would probably quit a long time before reaching the end. A New York Times book review said that “while there are many uninteresting pages in this novel, there are not many uninteresting sentences” (McInerny). Just like in AA, the reader of Infinite Jest has to be in the moment, otherwise the view of all those sentences, lined up and gleaming, will overwhelm.
In AA, every member gets to tell his or her story. It’s part of the unhierarchical nature of the program. Infinite Jest mimics this by including the back story of an astonishing number of characters. The text emphasizes its aesthetic by making it also a principle in the film work of Jim Incandenza. Anti-figurant is Incandenza’s term for his film style of multiple speaking parts. He talks about it as a response to the show Cheers! where bit-actors called figurants would fill the tables of the bar set and mime talking but not actually speak.
[In reaction Jim] goddamn made bloody well sure that either the whole entertainment was silent or else if it wasn’t silent that you could bloody well hear every single performer’s voice, no matter how far out on the cinematographic or narrative periphery they were; and it wasn't just the self-conscious overlapping dialogue of a poseur like Schwulst or Altman, i.e. it wasn’t just the crafted imitation of aural chaos: it was real life’s egalitarian babble of figurantless crowds. (835)
It is significant that the show in which many people are unable to tell their stories is set in a bar, the opposite social arena from AA. In Infinite Jest, like Jim’s films, an astonishing amount of characters get their biography inserted somewhere into the text, even if they are quite minor characters. In this way Infinite Jest is like an AA meeting, or a conglomeration of meetings. The fiction is a forum for every story to get told, for every person’s life to be organized and made communicable by narrative.
In AA, the purpose of narrative is to allow for Identification, which creates a way of ranking narratives based on how well they allow for identification. When Infinite Jest utilizes AA aesthetics, reinstates a division between good and bad art that contradicts postmodernism.
I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of this premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda and the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of a part of yourself that love can instead of the part that just wants to be loved. I know this doesn’t sound hip at all. I don’t know. But it seems like one of the things that the really great writers do... is ‘give’ the reader something...What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to carry out. Really good work probably comes from a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you really feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. And the effort to actually do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage that I don’t seem to have yet. (McCaffery, 150)
Wanting to be loved is wanting the reader to Compare. It is a hope that the reader will see how well something is written and conclude that the writer is really good. But a writer who writes with love writes to communicate, and wants the reader to Identify with the story. The most interesting part of the quotation is that Wallace says he does not have the courage to really do that yet, only talk about it. It is true that for all of the ways that Infinite Jest incorporates the meaningfulness of AA narratives, Infinite Jest itself is not an AA narrative. And even though Infinite Jest is full of insider information on AA, even though Infinite Jest is wholeheartedly enthusiastic about AA, Infinite Jest still locates its perspective outside AA. The book points out ways that people are not communicating, that systems are meaningless, and that people aren’t feeling. Its use of AA narrative is an elegant solution to the problems it raises. But Wallace points to the solution without letting AA solve the problem inside text. He does not write in a fully communicative, meaningful, and emotional way.
Charles Tavis is a self-reflexive key to Infinite Jest’s maximalism, its bulk of 1079 dense pages, which relates to Wallace’s self criticism of his own “courage.” Tavis, who runs the tennis academy after Jim Incandenza dies, is a maximalist speaker because of “the pathological openness of his manner, the way he thinks out loud about thinking out loud” (519). The most succinct example of Tavis’ speaking style is that as an adolescent he would hang around “and lurk creepily on the fringe, listening, but that he’d always say, loudly, in the lull in the group’s conversation something like ‘I’m afraid I’m far too self-conscious and awkward really to join in here, so I’m just going to lurk around creepily at the fringe and listen, if that’s all right, just so you know’” (517). Tavis’ self-reflexively questions his own motives and humbly denigrates himself so exhaustively that his words become numbing. Tavis acknowledges his own unintelligibility right along with everything else, of course. “He’d apologize profusely when you had no idea what that sentence meant and say maybe the obfuscation had been unconsciously deliberate, out of some kind of embarrassment [on his part]” (516).
This last quotation, out of context, could also read as an apologia for the difficulty of Infinite Jest. Infinite Jest is just as remarkably long and difficult to understand as Tavis’ speech. The book provoked, after all, such reviews as “Infinite Jest billows and sags in ungainly proportion, at least a partial victim of its own ambition” (Messud) and “Somewhere in the mess, the reader suspects, are the outlines of a great novel... but it’s stuck there, half excavated, unable to break completely free” (Kakutani). This seems a lot like the “little razor-to-jugular and hangman’s-noose-over-imaginary-cross-beam motions” (287) that upperclassmen make at Tavis’ interminable convocation address.
Perversely, Tavis’ openness is completely unattractive. One character is prompted by the thought of Tavis to say “that pathological openness is about as seductive as Tourette’s syndrome” (1048). The way Tavis speaks is compared to “peeling his skull back and exposing his brain to you without any warning or invitation” (521). Tavis is a disgusting character who shows off the worst aspects of the book. He is a dark mirror where aspects of Infinite Jest’s style, such as obsessive self-consciousness and verbal density, are present only as a result of insecurity, but without any noble purpose.
Tavis is such a maximalist partially because he does not have a set of conventions, like AA narrative, to limit his speech in a structured but inventive way. Equally important is that despite the full verbal disclosure that Charles Tavis always achieves, he is not actually capable of opening up.
Tavis is terribly shy around people and tries to hide it by being very open and expansive and wordy and bluff... Tavis is very open and expansive and wordy, but so clearly uses these qualities as a kind of shield that it betrays a frightened vulnerability almost impossible not to feel for. (517)
He takes so long to be honest because every attempt to do so raises more attempts to hide that in turn have to be exposed. He has to tell a little girl “I’m doing my best to cast all this in terms the you you are right now can be comfortable with, Tina. Though I need to tell you I feel uncomfortable adjusting a presentation down or toward anyone in any way, since I’m terribly vain of my reputation for candor” (521). For Tavis, honesty is an empty form because he can not be honest with himself. He can only state all the possible things he might be feeling, because he doesn’t know himself.
He wasn’t in it for the Thank-You’s, that a person who did a service for somebody’s gratitude was more like a 2-D cut out image than a bona fide person, at least that’s what he thought, he said what did Hal and Avril and Mario think? was he a genuine 3-D person? Was he perhaps just rationalizing some legitimate hurt? (286)
A simpler character would either mind or not mind doing something without receiving a thank-you, or else mention it. Tavis wonders if he minds, wonders if he should mind, and wonders if his motives for the action that should have been thanked were honest in the first place.
Infinite Jest’s length also arises out of the difficulty of being honest about an inability to be honest. The text criticizes itself throughout in self-castigating meta-commentaries of which Tavis is only one example. The book’s title refers to a lethally entertaining film so engrossing that anyone who sees it never pays attention to anything else again. The film is a nightmare version of Identification with television in the place of a story-teller. The film raises the question of whether a big engrossing book like Infinite Jest is wrong for taking people away from their lives. One character becomes so obsessed with the television show M*A*S*H* that he spends the last years of his life withdrawn from his family, scribbling notes about the show that support a deranged theory of apocalyptic prophesies the supposedly encoded in the show. This is a rendering of the referential mania encouraged by Infinite Jest through the many hints of impending apocalypse that are present in the text. Finally, the very structure of the novel is a kind of self-criticism. It elevates a style of narrative (AA) that is not actually its own, which creates the same apologetic situation that Tavis is in. The force of honesty in a book that can not simply state itself honestly causes the text to balloon out of all proportion.
The first step in the twelve steps of AA is a useful tool for understanding how Infinite Jest invokes the narrative system of AA, makes new aesthetic goals by metaphorically applying AA’s system to literature, and then falls short of those very goals, but without being a failure. The first step is to admit that there is a problem. The first step does not require that anything be done about the problem, just that it is admitted. If Infinite Jest is the first step in a progression, then just to realize that the goals are being fallen short of is important. Over a thousand pages is not too long to work out that first step. The book is big enough to create a mark where one generation is pulling away from what has come before, stepping in a different direction from where the momentum of the older generation is headed. Postmodernism exposes rules and conventions, but the ironic exposing of rules and conventions, rather than the rules and conventions themselves, is the environment of literature currently, and to anyone who wants to do something with the structure of narrative besides expose it, the environment is stifling. AA is a set of rules and conventions that empower narrative to achieve some goals not present in postmodernism.
Where the progression that begins with this first step will really end up is uncertain. Wallace is a young enough writer that the possibilities of what he might do in the future are almost equally as interesting to talk about as what he has done already. His collection of short stories, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, is inconclusive. Many of the stories are about people who are completely self absorbed and cut off from the world, but narrative solutions like AA are not apparent. It may be that Wallace will get the courage to open his writing up completely to the possibility of honest communication through the formal constraints of his choice. It isn’t clear right now if that kind of writing would be as interesting as Infinite Jest. His sensibilities and strengths as a writer are well suited to his current predicament: stuck somewhere between the self-conscious, form-conscious writing that is obviously indebted to a postmodern tradition, and a narrative whose purpose is connection and communication.
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Kakutani, Michiko. “A Country Dying of Laughter. In 1,079 Pages.” Rev. of Infinite Jest.
New York Times 13 February 1996, late ed.
Messud, Claire. “Crushed by a Killing Joke.” Rev. of Infinite Jest. The Times 6 July
McCaffery, Larry. “An Interview with David Foster Wallace.” Review of Contemporary
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