When people are chugging through their first, second, or (dare I say) third readings of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, it is not likely that they are experiencing any jest at all. Delving into issues of race, gender, addiction, disability, and beauty, the text covers such a breadth of subjects that readers and critics alike may feel overwhelmed. While many scholars have explored the themes, symbols, analogies, metaphors, and allusions within the book, few have examined the foundational elements of the text, most notably the unidentified, limited-omniscient speaker who tells the majority of the piece (Harris, Jacobs, Kelly). I contest, though, that knowledge of the narrator is an essential component to performing even the most elementary of analyses. Let us not block out Nobokov’s Lolita long enough to forget the utter role Humbert Humbert’s vocal presence plays in transforming a tragic love story into the disturbing, scarring piece that has repulsed many of its readers. Similarly, the primary narrator in Infinite Jest should not be considered unimportant but imperative to all readings of the text. After all, who speaks is just as important as what is spoken. A host of direct textual references, combined with the physical structure, layout, order, and design of the book, as well as the thematic relevance of Alcoholics Anonymous, suggest that David Wallace, himself, is the primary narrative voice throughout Infinite Jest. Moreover, a dual-focused narratological and biographical analysis of the book indicates Wallace’s presence serves to critique the conventional novel, championing an enlightened return to themes grounded in the human condition, urging a moderate reestablishment of human dignity – of meaningful reality – in literature.
To fully detail the depth of my argument, however, it is crucial that readers first understand the profound similarities other critics have already discovered between Wallace and his most notorious novel. While the trend of literary criticism over the past fifty years has stemmed away from biographical criticism, favoring a more indifferent, impersonal, and deconstructive approach, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge the presence of the writer in texts where it is relevant. And though, as H.J. Jackson discusses in “What’s Biography Got To Do With It?” biographical criticism can be used inappropriately to “[divert] public attention from the writings…so that the [author’s] life is in direct competition with the work” (357), Stanley Fish points out in Contesting the Subject that readers do and must continue to acknowledge the importance of it, writing, “we all believe in the biographical – not because we have the theoretical technology with which we can somehow ‘cure’ it, but, more poignantly, because we have faith in its ancient and yet still vital therapeutic powers” (6). Maria Stefanescu continues Fish’s argument in “Revisiting the Implied Author Yet Again: Why (Still) Bother?” suggesting, “the voice of the real author has been routinely dismissed, to the point that one wonders whether it may not be time to give it a fair (relaxed and guilt-free) hearing” (50). While biographical criticism may not be perfect, it nevertheless deserves a place in literary analysis. For, as Charles M. Blow addresses in “Reading Books Is Fundamental,” literature creates bonds between readers and writers, fostering a sense of shared experience, allowing audiences to live vicariously through texts and “get lost in another person’s mind.” Biographical criticism encourages such relationships and assists readers in placing the significance of an author’s presence in her texts (Lindfors viii). When conducted correctly this style of analysis does not exaggerate or misinterpret literature but merely reflects the “radical inseparability” between writers and their works (Fish 14).
Specific to Wallace’s Infinite Jest, all three of the primary storylines seem to reflect various components of the author’s own biography and perspective on the human condition. Most obviously, main character Hal’s two main occupations – drugs and tennis – were both pivotal realities in Wallace’s life that greatly influenced his later work. In “That Distinct Singular Stamp of Himself,” Charles Harris, Wallace’s colleague at Illinois State University, writes that Wallace “[excelled] in citywide football,” but that he was also “[a] self-described ‘near great’ junior tennis player [who] enjoyed a regional ranking of seventeenth at the age of fourteen” (170). Like Orin and Hal’s athletic success appears in the novel, Wallace apparently experienced similar (though perhaps not quite so elaborate) success as an adolescent. Jonathan Derbyshire’s “An American Suicide” notes that Wallace once commented on his history with tennis in an article for Harper’s magazine, recalling his travels across the country for various tennis meets and tournaments (28). Wallace’s focus on sports quickly declined, though, as he began to focus more seriously on schoolwork and experiment with alcohol and drugs for the first time (Harris 170). Surely not coincidentally, Hal, one of the lead characters in Infinite Jest, begins to reflect on his own and others’ substance abuse at around the same age:
Some of the more marginal players start in as early as maybe twelve, I’m sorry to say, particularly ‘drines before matches and then enkephaline after, which can generate a whole vicious circle of individual neurochemistry; but I myself, having taken certain vows early on concerning fathers and differences, didn’t even get downwind of my first bit of Bob Hope until fifteen, more like nearly sixteen […] (67)
Furthermore, similar to a number of other characters in the novel, particularly Kate Gompart, Wallace first encountered depression shortly before finishing high school. Though he managed to function until he graduated, he was forced to leave Amherst College during his second year to begin what Harris refers to as “his first of several stays in mental hospitals, halfway houses, and rehab facilities” that would continue for the next ten years of his life. Don Gately and the various figures that reside or at least attempt to live in Ennet House are a clear reflection of Wallace’s own struggles with drug and alcohol addiction in a society saturated with temptation. Wallace succeeded, nevertheless, in finding a medication that properly addressed his depressive symptoms and continued its use until 2007 when he stopped using it due to “debilitating side effects.” Shortly thereafter, Wallace was hospitalized, treated with a range of ineffective techniques, and, in 2008, committed suicide (170).
While it may be a bit of a stretch to compare James Incandenza’s microwaveable self-murder to Wallace’s own death, just as it would be to manipulate the broad resemblances Orin, Hal, Kate, and Gately have to their creator, there is one plot-related aspect of the novel that clearly reveals Wallace’s narrative presence. Alcoholics Anonymous becomes one of the most primary strategies Wallace uses to express his own voice. Petrus van Ewijk writes in “‘I’ and the ‘Other’” that AA’s steps to recovery revolve almost solely on the idea of and relationship between community and isolation (134). Throughout the novel, readers are given access to numerous AA meetings, where addicts introduce themselves, confess their abuse of a particular substance or set of substances, and relate how their addictions have affected their lives or the lives of others. From these admissions of weakness, failure, and loss, the speakers seem to experience feelings of catharsis – of purification – and at the same time enter into the fellowship of others who have admitted their weaknesses, failures, and losses. Wallace suggests that, at least for Gately, this notion of “I.D.ing without effort […] helps force [him] to remember all over again what a tragic adventure this is, that none of them signed up for” (379). It is this very idea of speaking and listening in a constant, unending rotation that begins to hint at a narrative presence beyond simple omnipresence. Wallace’s personal history with AA, including the likelihood of his participation in similar meetings as those detailed in the book, undoubtedly affirms his understanding of the “community” van Ewijk describes. Thus, the frequency, intensity, and thoroughness with which the reader becomes familiar with the process of AA leads to the conclusion that Wallace, or at least the speaker of the novel, is attempting to build a community between himself and the reader. Andrew Warren proposes that Wallace’s ability to and interest in forming such a relationship is what helps to, on a surface level, engage the reader. Passages from the novel that shift the narrator’s position significantly alter the reader’s involvement. Take, for instance: “ . . . keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone . . . Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young” (694). The effortless transitions between third-person and first-person blend the definitive line between a mundane reading experience and an immersive, reflective experience. Far more than a simple motif of random AA scenes, such passages invite the reader into a relationship with Wallace, as a sort of confidante, where he guarantees “[t]here’s no judgement” (379). One could even argue Wallace is attempting to replicate the relationships formed in AA between himself and readers. The relative anonymity of the reading community, paired with the therapeutic effect of reading numerous grotesque, scarring vignettes, creates an atmosphere of ease and acceptance. Whatever personal guilt readers may carry, they are sure to feel somehow better than many of the characters in story. While one reader may have an addiction to drugs, one is unlikely to have experienced the specific withdrawal symptoms Poor Tony suffered in the Boston Library’s bathroom (302). Likewise, there are sure to be readers whose children have died, yet it is doubtful that their children were born “tiny and dry and all withered and the color of strong tea, and dead, and also [without a] face . . .” (376) as was the case with the unnamed, cocaine-addicted mother from the book. The extremity with which Wallace portrays the stories told in the AA scenes minimizes the guilt felt by readers. Like attendees of actual AA meetings, who rely on each other’s stories to find commonalities, Wallace encourages readers to bond with the characters in the novel. He is creating, in essence, a circle of judgment in which no one feels judged because everyone is judged equally.
Judgment, however, is precisely the indicator that first drew my attention to Wallace’s presence. Even when not directly speaking, the speaker’s voice is often quite overt, using diction and tonal choices to direct the readers’ perception of a situation. Subtle hints of perspective sneak through in the following passages:
Plus it was also creepy that, when the face’s effulgence becomes the boiled white of the Trauma Win ceiling as he comes up with a start up for air, the apparently real nondream Joelle van D. is leaning over the bed’s crib-railing. (854)
It was still right there, breathing. Its strutter-step around two cardboard tiers of Cape cranberries was discouragingly deft. This Thing had all too clearly chased persons before. (721)
In each case, particular words and phrases stretch beyond the objective purposes of an omniscient narrator and begin to creep into a more subjective point of view. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan calls this inclusion of perspective “focalization” or, more specifically, the “narrator-focalizer,” moments when the tone of a piece suggests the narrator’s presence is less-than-objective. In the passages above, words like “creepy,” “apparently,” “discouragingly,” and “clearly” emulate a description tainted with personal opinion. None of these words are definable in their own right but rely on interpretation. What is “creepy” to one person may be quite normal for someone else. “Clearly” suggests a universal understanding, but the reader is forced to trust the speaker’s judgment. Perhaps “[t]his Thing” had not “clearly chased persons before.” If the descriptors used were not so absolute—so supposedly straightforward—then the reader would not be inclined to question the authority of the narrator. At times it seems as though the novel is being presented in a rather honest, impartial way; however, other moments are obviously subjective. Take, for instance, this example of a completely “narrator-focalized” tone:
(This is why, maybe, one Subject is never enough, why hand after hand must descend to pull him back from the endless fall. For were there for him just one, now, special and only, the One would be not he or she but what was between them, the obliterating trinity of You and I into We. Orin felt that once and has never recovered, and will never again.) (567)
When pulled out of context, perhaps a quick glance at the paragraph is enough to sense a distinctly human presence, a personality beyond the voice. The syntactical structure is not formal, as in conventional omniscient narrations, but is more closely aligned with colloquial speech. The ellipses appear especially unorthodox as they practically map out the narrator’s thinking process. No objective, entirely reliable narrator would retract a statement with “maybe” as used above. The word stands out, screams perspective, then vanishes. However, when thrown into an ocean of eleven-hundred other pages that all seep the same persona, the excerpt’s embedded subjectivity slips away undetected, making it more difficult to notice.
In fact, James Wood discusses this subtlety in How Fiction Works, a guide that unmasks many misconceptions about the genre. In a section titled “The ‘Impersonal’ Author,” Wood notes that “omniscient narration is rarely as omniscient as it seems . . . Authorial style tends to draw our attention toward the writer, toward the artifice of the author’s construction, and so toward the writer’s own impress” (6). We can infer, then, that the strangeness of the above passage – the use of “maybe” – is not something to be ignored. The partiality of narration is not created in a vacuum, an opinion independent from a source, but is a direct effect of Wallace’s own understanding of the piece. Wood later terms this type of narration “free indirect style” or “authorial irony” in which the narrator, the character, and the author are all somehow together, but also apart (9, 22). It may be helpful to think about the form as a reflection of the Christian trinity, that is, the relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though they are all distinctly separate in their responsibilities and constructs separate and distinct, they are simultaneously part of the same God. Likewise, in a text that uses free indirect style the character, narrator, and author are all obviously different entities, yet they are also inseparable. Wood goes on to suggest, in a contemporary revision of deconstruction, that “[readers] inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge – which is free indirect style itself – between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws our attention to its distance” (11). This dichotomy can be seen in practically every narrated page of Infinite Jest. Nearly every sentence, though never openly Wallace, drowns in the writer’s own opinions, thoughts, and feelings. What is typically the backbone of reliability becomes merely another tool for reader persuasion.
Despite the book’s dozens of characters, Wallace’s presence in Infinite Jest is quite pervasive, standing out from the cacophony of voices. Though complex, the existence of his voice is consistently present in the novel, a peculiarity that should force the reader to consider the purpose of the narrative style.
In fact, Wallace occasionally points himself out by inserting markers that signal his presence. For instance, he writes early on in the novel: “O. says he can only remember (sic) saying something caustic as he limboed a crick out of his back” (11). The placement of “(sic)” in the middle of the sentence not only highlights the author’s existence and investment in the piece, considering an omniscient writer would have no reason point out a squinting modifier, but also reflects Wallace’s personal obsession with grammar. Charles Harris notes that:
[Wallace] developed a lifelong fascination with grammar and usage, writing a controversial review of Brian A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage . . . , serving on the usage panel for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition, and keeping his mother’s widely adopted composition textbook, Practically Painless English . . . , close at hand in his office for ready reference. (170)
The tiny three-letter insertion captures the author and puts him on display for the reader, revealing the unrealistic nature of the story. It is almost as if he is inviting the reader to join in a conspiracy against his own novel—to assist him in showing the world that Infinite Jest is not, in fact, true in any way. Perhaps it is this colloquial sort of mood that Timothy Jacobs in The Brothers Incandenza notices when he writes that the narrator of Infinite Jest “is a peculiar hybrid of complex vocabulist and Shakespearean Dogberry; he tells a remarkable story, but frequently falters with malapropisms which seem to signify that the novel is intended to be taken as spoken and that the narrator gains and loses narrative momentum as he proceeds” (274). Jacobs recognizes that the formality and reliability that readers so often associate with narrators are completely missing from this text. Within the narration, there is never a safety net of truth or base for reality.
Instead, what appears is a sort of self-reflective narratological critique. As Gerald Prince describes in “Narratology, Narratological Criticism, and Gender,” narratology explores and questions the definition of the narrative structure:
…these investigations – in turn – test the validity of narratological categories, distinctions, and reasonings; they identify (more or less significant) elements that narratologists (may) have overlooked, underestimated, or misunderstood and they (can) lead to basic reformulations of models of narrative. (Parentheses are author’s) (163)
Narratology moves past the traditional scale of limited to omniscient narrators, recognizing that all voices in a text are characterized by and reflect a particular persona or consciousness. Even the most seemingly objective speaker is fraught with cultured, gendered, and otherwise embedded assumptions that create a particular worldview and guide the selection and presentation of details. Likewise, Wallace continuously begs readers to question the identity of Infinite Jest’s narrator. Even when individual characters seem to take over the narration, as Hal Incandenza does a few times, the reader can never be fully sure of who is speaking or what is actually occurring in the novel. Such confusion leads to an uneasy and awkward reading experience, leaving the reader engaged with the story but strained in her understanding of it. As D.T. Max writes about Wallace’s intentions with Infinite Jest, it seems the author was tackling the problem of “how to live meaningfully in the present” (215). Rather than allowing the reader to settle comfortably into the story, the novel’s lack of stability forces the reader to remain semi-conscious of the “reality” outside the text. The reader is never allowed a sense of peace, a moment to slip into the pages; she is constantly urged to tread carefully, dissecting each paragraph with intense scrutiny.
Nevertheless, even if the reader were to know outright who is speaking, she should not necessarily experience any additional security. Any ease that the reader may have drawn from the information is stripped by Adam Kelly, who suggests in “Development Through Dialogue” that dialogue – even in the form of a narrator’s voice – should not be recognized as a separate entity away from Wallace, but merely an offshoot of his own persona. He argues that Wallace uses speech and characters to express Wallace’s own conflicting opinions on topics, not necessarily to prove any side of an issue is better or worse than another (269). In brief, despite the identity of the narrator, it seems every word of Infinite Jest is a reflection of its creator. In an instance of autobiographical writing taken to the most extreme fringe, each word, sentence, and chapter of the novel becomes a part of a grand series of mirrors, all blocks in the construction of a text that ultimately becomes Wallace himself.
I urge readers to push further, though, exploring not only the novel’s dialogue, as Kelly discusses, but also the book’s physicality. By moving beyond the semantic and syntactic arguments, readers should note how it feels to hold, carry, and flip the pages of the book. What I have found in doing so is that despite its physical weight (2.5 pounds to be exact), the structure of the novel is rather poetic. The continuity of chapters sets the reader in a sort of rhythm, a slow one to be sure, but a steady, uninterrupted flow of page after page after page. While the ninety-seven pages of endnotes that sit ominously at the end of the novel prove to be an unfortunate obstacle to the piece’s otherwise smooth progression, David Letzler in “Encyclopedic Novels and The Cruft of Fiction” suggests that they are critical to understanding the novel as a whole. He proposes that, first, Infinite Jest fits into a new genre of literature, specifically, that of “Encyclopedic” works, which he defines as “large, complex novels, particularly those that incorporate substantial specialized information from the sciences, the arts, and history” (304). From this supposition, he goes on to write that the endnotes themselves are Wallace’s way of mocking the conventional, non-literary encyclopedic format. Rather than using the notes to provide relevant, useful, or at all interesting material, Infinite Jest’s final hundred pages are largely irrelevant, useless, and often irrepressibly yawn-inducing. Letzler suggests that such parody of the genre creates a tension with the novel’s own place as an “encyclopedic” text (306). Yet, coinciding with Wallace’s other authorial quirks in this piece, I find the dichotomy to make perfect sense. If Wallace’s goal was to speak as directly to the reader as possible, as exemplified by the permeation of his own voice through most of the eleven-hundred pages, it is likely he considered the standard physical-nature of the “book” his final obstacle. By employing a pseudo-encyclopedic construction to Infinite Jest, Wallace manages to both use a genre dedicated to providing information and simultaneously satirize the reader for flipping through hundreds of pages to read endnotes that are hardly beneficial in any way.
His efforts are not merely for jest, however, as a deconstructionist analysis indicates that the distribution and access to information is precisely what Wallace is attempting to explore. As Brooke Allen points out in “Intellects and Addicts,” a reader can tell Infinite Jest is not a typical book simply by looking at it. Its behemoth size is rare for the late twentieth century, as opposed to other literary periods when texts more frequently exceeded six or seven-hundred pages. Allen specifically mentions The Decameron, Don Quixote, and The Pickwick Papers, all of which are longer than eight-hundred pages. Infinite Jest, though, is gargantuan – its endnotes alone are longer than Conrad’s entire Heart of Darkness. The question arises, then, why write a novel that, first, is longer than most readers want any single text to be; second, can be syntactically difficult to understand; and third, contains a hundred pages of seemingly unnecessary commentary? The answer lies in the very text itself. That is, against Wallace’s best efforts, the novel’s length and complexity show the inability and inevitable failure of language to communicate ideas effectively, to build meaning, to form relationships with readers.
The seemingly persuasive voice and colloquial tone that Wallace uses throughout Infinite Jest are not random or casual writing techniques, but purposeful strategies used to convey a specific effect. Rather than writing in solely omniscient third person, Wallace chooses to appear far more closely aligned with the reader. He knows that ideas are more easily communicated and understood when there is a relationship established between the sending and receiving parties. Harris’ biography of the author notes that Wallace’s professional life testifies to this idea by the way he conducted his classroom at Illinois State University:
He began his graduate seminar in contemporary American fiction by admitting to the students that he had either not finished or, in some cases, even begun reading the assigned novels. ‘English 487 . . . is basically a contrived excuse/incentive to read several interesting, difficult U.S. novels,’ he explains on his syllabus. ‘Class meetings are intended to function basically as the proceedings of a large, sophisticated, energetic reading group.’” (171)
Even as an English professor, Wallace preferred to talk rather than write – to verbally articulate ideas. He recognized the limitations of writing to convey meaning as proficiently as spoken sentences, knowing that the non-verbal cues available in face-to-face communication add tremendous significance that cannot be accurately reproduced in text. Arguably, then, Wallace’s preference to speak directly to others appears in his desire to speak to the readers of his novel. While surely all writers want to communicate with their readers in some metaphoric or thematic sense, Wallace truly wanted to communicate with them on a verbal level. And, while perhaps an audiobook version (which now exists in a fifty-six hour oral recording) (Jauregui) could provide a verbalization of the text, it still does not allow for immediate feedback or response from the reader. Wallace wanted something he could never actually have, that is, a conversation with each and every reader.
Unlike the postmodern trend of capturing the artificiality of texts, Wallace strives to break the literary fourth wall; he works to give the reader authenticity. He pours himself into every crevice of Infinite Jest, not to point out the insufficiency of language, but to overcome its limitations. Diction, syntax, and structure are his tools, not his barriers; they motivate him as obstacles to overcome, forgoing Deconstructionism altogether. Wallace fights with this text and stands up to J. Hillis Miller, who writes that “[a text’s] apparently solid ground is no rock but thin air” (341). Instead, Wallace says I can write with meaning; I will communicate; I will build rock where you think there can only be air.
Yet, this declaration, this attempt, this impossible, intangible goal is precisely why Infinite Jest is a “jest.” That is, the one thousand, seventy-six paged textual monolith is a one-way discussion, an internal panel of voices substituting for the voices Wallace truly wanted to speak with. The characters and narrators in the novel, as saturated with Wallace’s presence as they are, culminate in a resounding emptiness. The absence of me, of you, and of every reader who chugs his or her way through the book is felt over and over and over again. The relationship Wallace desperately wants – the one his colloquialisms beg for – is ultimately nonexistent. As readers, we are separated from the text and restricted to playing third-party observers to the narrative. And that role, our role, though seemingly inconsequential, is key to the tragic beauty in Infinite Jest. Wallace’s own diffusion into each word of the piece serves as nothing but a reminding placeholder for the spot he wanted us, as readers, to fill. The four hundred, eighty-three thousand, nine hundred and ninety-four words were not just written on pages but spoken to our absence, our ghosts.
Allen, Brooke. “Intellects and Addicts.” New Criterion May 1996: 63-67. Print.
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(AUDIO).” Huffington Post [New York] 20 Apr. 2012: n. pag. The Huffington Post. Web. 3 Apr.
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Miller, J. Hillis. “Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure.” Georgia Review 30 (1976): 330-48. Print.
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Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. 1983. London: Taylor and Francis, 2005. Print.
Stefanescu, Maria. “Revisiting the Implied Author Yet Again: Why (Still) Bother?” Style 45.1 (2011): 48-66. Print.
van Ewijk, Petrus. “‘I’ and the ‘Other.’” English Text Construction 2.1 (2009): 132-45. Print.
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. New York: Back Bay Books, 2006. Print.
Warren, Andrew. “Narrative Modeling and Community Organizing in ‘The Pale King’ and ‘Infinite Jest.’” Studies in the Novel 44.4 (2012): 389-408. Print.
Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.
John Smilges is an undergraduate student at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, majoring in Integrated Language Arts. He is scheduled to graduate this December and intends to pursue rhetorical and composition studies in graduate school.