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
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 is the Director of the Center for
Effective Teaching at Williams, and 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. He publishes regularly in Commonweal
and is host of The Book Show on Northeast Public Radio.
Jocoserious Joyce, his study of the thematic and structural
role of folly in Joyce's Ulysses, was published by Cornell
University Press in 1991; a paperback edition appeared in 1996.
In a 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
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
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.
He is a past fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at
the University of Edinburgh and the National Humanities Center,
and has held Guggenheim, NEH, and Howard Foundation fellowships.
His previous publications include The Epistolary Moment: A
Poetics of the Eighteenth-Century Verse Epistle, Poetry and Ideology
in Revolutionary Connecticut, Literary Federalism in the Age
of Jefferson, Jameson/Althusser/Marx, The Senses of the
Text: Intensional Semantics and Literary Theory, Oliver Wendell
Holmes in Paris: Medicine, Theology, and the Autocrat of the
Breakfast Table, and Confessions of a Spoilsport: My Life
and Hard Times Fighting Sports Corruption at an Old Eastern 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
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.
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.)
Skull," by Kjell Sanved: orchid photograph taken in Anguola,
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