A Reader's Companion to Infinite Jest
One reviewer of Infinite Jest gave up on the very first page.
The book is too big to read in bed, she complained. You can't skim it. You look at the first page and you have no idea what it's going to be about. So she wrote a review that wasn't a review: a list of all the reasons why she hadn't been able to read the novel.
We're here to tell you not to give up on the first page, or even after the opening episode. You have to say "episode" because, as you'll soon learn, Infinite Jest doesn't have chapters. The book occasionally gives you a heading saying when the following episode or episodes took place--for instance, the opening episode bears a mysterious notation to the effect that it took place in the "Year of Glad," whatever that's supposed to mean--but then it jumps around: from location to location, from year to year and decade to decade, from narrative voice to narrative voice.
All this is part of its meaning. Infinite Jest is a story about the fragmented, alienated, lonely quality of life in the modern age: a world where it's possible to see everyone as an isolated consciousness locked away within the cage of the skull, communicating only with great difficulty with others. A world where a false sense of community--all we have left by way of meaningful relations with other people--is created by advertising slogans and brand names and "media reality," which are not a basis of any real or authentic co-existence with others. Infinite Jest is, as one of its characters says later on in the story, a world where almost everyone's life is "a hell for one."
In this situation, you'll see, the mind is likely to jump around a bit. So are stories about people whose lives are isolated from other people's lives. So is the reality of characters who seek desperate refuge from their solitude in drugs or alcohol or impersonal sex, which includes almost everyone in Infinite Jest.
That's why you shouldn't despair, as the reviewer did, at the impenetrability of the first page of the story. As thousands of readers have found, Infinite Jest rewards those who stick with its densely-imagined world, a world with real human beings living in a society that mirrors our own, going through real and heart-wrenching experiences. It spans the social spectrum from the gutter life of drug addicts like Poor Tony Krause and Don Gately to the upscale world of middle-class specimens like Geoffrey Day and Ken Erdedy.
Robert H. Bell is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English at Williams College. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1967, and received his Ph.D from Harvard in 1972. He has won several national awards for outstanding teaching, including the Robert Foster Cherry Award in 1998 and the Carnegie Foundation College Professor of the Year award in 2004.
In a strange way, Infinite Jest stands in the same relation to our world that the great Victorian novels--Dickens' Bleak House, George Eliot's Middlemarch, Trollope's The Way We Live Now--stood to theirs. It simply mirrors a radically fragmented social reality. If it's "difficult," that's only because modern life has become difficult, at least for anyone who aspires to genuine humanity in a world being drained of the human by the impersonal forces of an advertising-and-marketing system that saturates everyone's consciousness.
Infinite Jest is, in short, a little bit the like the children's rhyme about Humpty Dumpty. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves lying on the ground, broken into fragments, isolated and alienated and hearing our own voices echoing back to us from the void. But there's one difference. In the children's rhyme, all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Infinite Jest does want to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, and, if the response of thousands of passionately loyal readers is anything to go by, it succeeds in doing so for those who are willing to enter entirely into its world.
Our Reader's Companion is meant to ease your entry into the teeming, complex, and sometimes confusing world of Infinite Jest. There are a lot of questions it won't try to answer--figuring out how Infinite Jest "works" is one of the great rewards of reading the book--but it will give you what might be called a road map through Wallace's intricate landscape of modern alienation, desperation, and, finally, hope and redemption. The sections immediately following this preface will help get you started, and then, as you read Infinite Jest, you can use our compendium of characters and dictionary of acronyms and idioms to clear up things that have left you scratching your head. Our goal is to bring out the other side of Wallace's vast narrative with a sense of having kept your bearings all the way through.
Above all, we want to keep you from being one of those people who gives up on the first page, or who, having found Infinite Jest too "difficult" for their taste, wrongly imagine that the problem is with the novel rather than with themselves.
The opening episode of Infinite Jest is confusing not because it thrusts you right into the middle of a scene you've never encountered before--every novel does that--but because it gives you a world as seen by a narrator (Hal Incandenza) who's in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Or, since "nervous breakdown" seems to imply a pathology of some sort--the world is okay, it's the patient going through a psychotic episode who's the problem--we might say that the book opens with a narrator who's looking straight into the eyes of the terrifying possibility that it's the world that's psychotic.
As we'll see, this is one of the central organizing principles of Infinite Jest. The notion of a "nervous breakdown" is in a way reassuring. If modern society is stable and coherent, and if someone we know starts living in a hallucinatory reality that is, as we say, "out of touch" with its norms, then we've got what amounts to a medical problem on our hands. Consultation with a psychiatrist, maybe a regular dose of Prozac or Zoloft, in extreme cases perhaps electroshock therapy, will bring the person back into touch with reality, and everything can go on from there.
William C. Dowling is University Distinguished Professor of English and American Literature at Rutgers University. He was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, and received his Ph.D from Harvard University.
But there's an alternative possibility, and it's the one with which Infinite Jest opens. It's the possibility that we live inside a social reality--the world of SUV's and TV sitcoms and satellite pornography and endless bombardment by brand-name advertising--that is itself psychotic, in which case getting "out of touch" with one's reality wouldn't be insane at all.
The narrator in the opening episode of Infinite Jest is, as we've said, one Hal Incandenza. As the story progresses, we're going to find out a great deal about Hal--he's one of the three central characters in the novel--but at this point all we understand is a few particulars about his personality and background. He's a top-ranked junior tennis player applying for admission to the University of Arizona on a tennis scholarship. He is intellectually brilliant--as a teenager he was writing essays on "Montague Grammar and the Semantics of Physical Modality"--but for some reason he has gotten such low scores on the SAT that the University of Arizona has serious questions about his academic ability.
The three Deans in the room keep hammering away at a single point: since a lot of talented athletes come to college with grades they didn't really earn, on the basis of papers written for them by other people and tests on which they cheated, how is the University of Arizona supposed to know that Hal's so-called "brilliance" isn't something rigged up by his sponsors at the Enfield Tennis Academy, the combination private-school-plus-tennis-camp from which he will receive his degree? What if he gets to college and, as his extremely low SAT scores seem to indicate, can't handle the work at the University of Arizona?
So far, this is a scene that we might encounter in any novel: a young man being challenged about the authenticity of his academic record by a Dean of Admissions, a Dean of Academic Affairs, a Dean of Athletics. But as everyone who picks up Infinite Jest and opens it to the first page finds out, there is something weird going on here.
The first weirdness is this: Hal doesn't talk. He can't talk. At the beginning of the scene, all the talking is done for him by one Charles Tavis, whom we later to find out to be his uncle and the head of the Enfield Tennis Academy where Hal got his training in both tennis and academic subjects. Also present in the room is Aubrey DeLint, an E.T.A. tennis coach who will later emerge as one of the feared disciplinarians of the institution. He says a few words, but it is CT who does most of the talking, hilariously trying to cover up with manic chatter the fact that the three Deans are facing an 18-year-old boy frozen into silence by some fearful and as-yet-unrevealed mental condition.
David Foster Wallace
Let's pause a second to notice something in the preceding paragraph. Did you note that "Enfield Tennis Academy" became "ETA" as we were recounting what goes on in the room where Hal is being interviewed by the three Deans? Or that "Charles Tavis" somehow became "CT" as we continued?
This is something that goes on almost constantly in Infinite Jest, and it's one of the reasons that superficial readers find the novel "confusing." But in fact anyone who reads the story with anything like real attention soon realizes that the practice of reducing the names of person, institutions, and organizations to acronyms is a kind of survival tactic in a world where saying everything at full length every time would drive everyone crazy. But note that Infinite Jest isn't being intentionally confusing or obscurantist here. In ordinary life, we begin referring to organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous as "AA" because it's a useful shorthand, one that saves us repeating the longer term every time we want to mention it. We say NASA because saying "National Aeronautics and Space Administration" would soon drive us and our friends crazy. We talk about "MIT" rather than "the Massachusetts Institute of Technology" because the full name is too much of a mouthful to keep repeating. We refer to public figures as "FDR" or "JFK" because they've become so well known that using their full names at every mention would be unnecessary and cumbersome.
This is what is going on in the opening episode of Infinite Jest, and will continue to go on as the story develops along a multitude of different narrative lines. There is, as they say, bad news and good news about the effect thus obtained. The bad news is this: Infinite Jest takes place in a world-of-the-near-future in which there are vast geopolitical changes on the North American continent, with a multitude of governmental organizations, secret terrorist groups, and social service departments corresponding to nothing in the world of contemporary American readers. So an acronym like O.N.A.N.C.A.A.--to choose just one from the opening episode--will mean nothing at all to you when you begin the story. Such acronyms are confusing, one of the reasons why readers easily frightened by "difficulty" in literary works give up on Infinite Jest in the first few pages.
Here's the good news. Just as the familiar acronyms of our own world--think of FDR, JFK, NASA, NCAA, IRS, FBI--make it easier for us to converse and think without a lot of needless repetition, the acronyms of Infinite Jest's world very soon become familiar and easy, a source not of confusion but of time-saving ease of reference. There's more. Just as "JFK" and "FBI" give those who know what they mean a comfortable sense of inhabiting a shared social reality--imagine trying to explain to someone from Outer Mongolia what "NASA" stands for!--the acronyms of Infinite Jest soon begin to lend a depth and solidity to the world of the narrative that draws us in and makes us citizens of its imagined reality. The acronyms are one of the ways Infinite Jest takes us out of our own world and into the world of Hal Incandenza and Don Gately and the others, where we soon learn to operate as comfortably as we do in our own world of JFK and FBI and NASA.
Now. There's something else confusing about the opening scene of Infinite Jest. The big problem for the reader is that Hal is talking to us--he's obviously an articulate young man, someone who's read a lot, has a huge vocabulary, who notices his surroundings in great and sometimes almost hallucinatory detail--and it takes a while to figure out that, for the three Deans sitting at the table, he is an absolutely silent figure sitting there with a neutral, even "dead," expression on his face. (He's been coached by his uncle Charles Tavis and Aubrey DeLint, who are aware that he's walking on a knife edge. He's very close to a complete nervous breakdown, and any tiny stimulus might set off a scene in which Hal's face breaks into an expression of pure torture and he begins making animal noises instead of speaking in language.) So part of the trick of reading the opening episode is to gradually let dawn on you not what you are hearing from Hal--we're inside his head, so to speak, where he remains perfectly articulate--but what the three University of Arizona Deans sitting across the table from him are seeing: a totally silent young man with a strained expression on his face, who seems incapable of answering their questions.
Here we have the main point of the opening episode. Infinite Jest is a world where scores of characters exist "inside their heads," living out a private reality that has no point of contact with the world outside themselves. Again and again we'll be asked to imagine the world as it looks from inside the mind of a character who is slipping into psychosis, or drug-induced hallucinations, or terror brought on by a paralyzing anxiety, and then to imagine this same character as he would look to you or me if we just saw him as we were walking down the street. (Another point of Infinite Jest is that you and I, walking down the street in what we take to be an entirely "normal" reality, are in fact inhabiting a pretty phantasmagoric world ourselves. It's just that we haven't seen its weirdness yet. But we will by the time we finish the story.)
Hamlet's Skull," by Kjell Sanved: orchid photograph taken in Anguola, Columbia
The opening episode of Infinite Jest is a short scene. What happens, briefly, is this. Hal's uncle, Charles Tavis, tries for as long as he can to cover up for Hal's pathological silence--his inability to answer even the simplest question or make the most ordinary remark without entering into a psychotic state where he falls to the floor, writhing, and makes animal sounds and screams. So long as he can just sit there and concentrate on keeping his facial expression "normal," he'll be all right. But this is the plan that falls apart when the three Deans, realizing that they're being kept from seeing something about Hal that they feel they need to know before he's admitted to the University of Arizona, ask CT and Aubrey DeLint to leave the room.
That's when Hal has his crackup, and it's with that crackup that the opening episode ends: Hal on the floor of a men's room, being physically restrained by the administrators who were freaked out by the contorted facial expressions and animal noises he began to make as soon as he tried to answer their questions. In Hal's head, there now occurs the memory of a similar episode that happened to him almost exactly a year ago, when he had to be carried off to the Emergency Room under physical restraint. Remembering that episode, his mind shifts to the hospital worker who came and looked down at him curiously and, having a moment to spare, asked him not what was wrong, but what his "story" was ("So yo then man what's your story?").
With the hospital worker's question, Infinite Jest as a narrative properly begins. The essential thing for you to realize as you now begin to read is that everything that happens in this vast sprawling novel--you have almost a thousand pages to go when the hospital worker asks Hal for his story--is in effect a single gigantic flashback. This is a principle familiar to you both from literature and film: a chance association carries the story back to some earlier episode that supplies background or explanation of what we've been seeing so far. The difference is that Infinite Jest is, so to speak, all flashback, until the final pages when, in a different setting and in the mind of a different character, the story comes full circle and we end where we began.
By the time that happens, though, every character in this teeming story will have undergone important changes, and we ourselves will have learned to see our own society in radically different terms. In that transformation lies Infinite Jest's hope of redemption in a world in which we, like Hal in the opening episode, have been locked away within the private world of our isolated consciousness with no awareness that our isolation is tragic.