On finally finishing Infinite Jest

A lot has taken place in the approximately 230 days that it has taken me to finish reading the nearly 1100 pages of Infinite Jest:

  • LeBron James finally won an NBA championship.
  • Barack Obama won a second term as President.
  • A tragedy of unimaginable proportions occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
  • Kanye West and Kim Kardashian announced that they are expecting a child together.
  • The world did not come to an end on December 21.

Not only has it been an eventful seven-and-a-half months in the world of sports, entertainment, and politics, but an eventful time in my own little corner of the world. While reading David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, I also:

  • Travelled to Louisville, Kentucky to participate in the AP English Language Exam Reading.
  • Set new personal bests in my AP Exam pass rates.
  • Began my thirteenth year as a high school English teacher.
  • Endured two weeks of pure hell as I weaned myself off of a prescribed medication.
  • Congratulated my oldest daughter for earning Gold Honor Roll.

Infinite Jest is the longest novel I’ve ever read and the most difficult novel I’ve ever read. As such, it took me longer to get through than any other book I’ve read. When I reached that final line on page 981 and closed the back cover, I felt a sense of relief and of accomplishment. I had done it. I had actually finished it.

And yet, despite my feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment, I was left with a number of questions. I’ve read enough of Wallace’s stories to know not to expect closure or to expect a story to be wrapped up with a big pretty bow. But I feel compelled to ask my questions, even if they have no answers.

  • Did CT kill James Incandenza? It sorta makes sense, given the whole Hamlet motif. Is blowing up a guy’s head in a modified microwave the Subsidized Time’s equivalent of poison in the ear?
  • What’s with Don Gately’s dream of digging up JOI’s grave with Hal (presumably)? What prompts this dream? Is it an allusion to the grave-digging scene in Hamlet, which would kinda make sense given that JOI’s movie production company is called Poor Yorick Entertainment?
  • Who or what exactly is Lyle, the forehead licker in the ETA boys’ locker room?
  • Is the wraith that visits Don Gately the ghost of James Incandenza?
  • Do the Wheelchair Assassins get their hands on a master copy of “The Entertainment”?
  • I understand that the first chapter takes place after the end of the book, but how does Hal get to the state he is in in that opening chapter? At the end of the book, he is considering injuring himself to avoid playing tennis, but how does he go from that to the mute, convulsing young man who is wrestled to the ground and hauled away on a gurney?

I know there are probably answers to some of these questions can likely be found in a variety of commentaries, academic dissertations, and in the recent IJRR on Wallace-l. And I know some of these questions will go unanswered forever. But if you’d like to add your two cents, feel free.

The Pale King – Chapter 9: “Author Here”

Dear Dave,

I’m curious, why put the “Author’s Foreword” nine sections in?  Was this your decision; did you specify it in the notes and drafts you left behind?  Was it Michael Pietsch’s call?  I guess this question gives me a good excuse to make the pilgrimage to the Ransom Center to comb through the archives in search of an answer.[1]

Aside from why it’s in section 9, my other question is why include it in the first place?  Of all the narrative experimentation you’ve conducted in your short stories and novel-length fiction, why this?  You’ve trodden so much new literary territory, why go stomping through this stale ground?  Perhaps more reason to venture to Austin, Texas.

One possible theory I have is that it is a satirical jab at the postmodern meta-fiction cliché of the novel-that-says-it’s-really-a-true-story-but-the-author-makes-no-attempts-to-hide-the-fact-that-it’s-actually-a-work-of-fiction.[2]  If so, well done.

Another possibility, one I want to explore here, takes us back to Infinite Jest and then even further back to Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, Hamlet.  My undergrad Shakespeare professor – whose name escapes me now some fourteen years later – pointed out an interesting observation about the opening lines of Hamlet.  In that first scene, Francisco is keeping watch and Bernardo approaches from offstage to relieve Francisco of his post.  Yet it is Bernardo who first asks, “Who’s there?” Francisco replies – loosely paraphrased – “No buddy, you tell me who’s there!”  The standing guard ought to be the one asking, “Who’s there?” not the one approaching… that is unless there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark.”[3]  This disjointedness in the opening lines foreshadows the turmoil that fills the rest of the four-hour play.

Fast forward to 1996 and Infinite Jest.  Many scholars, writers, and readers of your works have pointed out the plethora of references and allusions to Hamlet throughout IJ, but what caught my attention was Matt Bucher’s mention in the “How to Read Infinite Jest” introduction to the Infinite Summer group read of how the first two words in IJ are “I am” spoken by Hal, almost as if in response to Bernardo’s opening question.  If the out-of-sync exchange between Bernardo and Francisco in the opening scene of Hamlet foreshadow trouble to come later in the play, perhaps so does Hal’s opening line in IJ.[4]  While I haven’t made it very far into Infinite Jest, there is the little matter of chapter 1 ending with Hal going bat-crap crazy in the Dean of Admissions’ office and having to be restrained and dragged out of the room.  And I am sure there is plenty of other turmoil that ensues as the story progresses.

Which brings us to § 9 of The Pale King.  The “Author’s Foreword” with its opening of “Author here.”  Do these opening words – while not at the actual beginning of the novel – also foreshadow future turmoil and unrest?  If so, what is that turmoil and unrest, and where is it found within this piecemeal, nonlinear, unfinished novel?  I posed the question on Wallace-l about a possible Hamlet connection in this section and received some very insightful responses.[5]

I went back and reread the section to see if I could find more answers to my questions.  Here is what I found:

The Pale King is, in other words, a kind of vocational memoir.  It is also supposed to function as a portrait of a bureaucracy – arguably the most important federal bureaucracy in American Life – at a time of enormous internal struggle and soul-searching, the birth pains of what’s come to be known among tax professionals as the New IRS (p. 70).

1985 was a critical year for American taxation and for the Internal Revenue Service’s enforcement of the US tax code.  In brief, that year saw not only fundamental changes in the Service’s operational mandate, but also the climax of an involved intra-Service battle between advocates and opponents of an increasingly automated computerized tax system.  For complex administrative reasons, the Midwest Regional Examination Center became one of the venues in which the battle’s crucial phase played out (p. 82).

The real reason why US citizens were / are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes in that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull.  Massively, spectacularly dull (p. 83).

To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves such a powerful impediment to attention.  Why we recoil from dull.  Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from.  But there might be more to it.  Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.  Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly… but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats.  Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head.  This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do.  I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information.  Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down (p. 85).

The turmoil: the upheaval and systemic changes taking place in the mid-80s in the IRS, and the fact that these changes went virtually unnoticed by the American public because they were so dull and boring that no one cared.

But, based on the final quote above, it goes deeper than that.  The battle is not just the bureaucratic changes happening at the Internal Revenue Service that are hidden and masked in dullness and boredom.  The battle is one against dullness and boredom itself.  What a formidable foe indeed.

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I’d like to posit this might be part of the reason for the “Author here” beginning of § 9.  But I think I’ll need a trip to the Archives to check if I’m right.

[1] A recent email exchange with Greg Carlisle lent a good literary reason, one that works within the whole of the novel, but I will elaborate on that later.

[2] I first came across this narrative style in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, in which the “Author’s Note,” in which the narrator / “author” tells of his journey to India in search of a great story, is actually the start of the story itself (I have to tell my AP students this several times when we begin reading the book).  Martel used a similar narrative approach in his follow-up novel, Beatrice and Virgil, but – in my opinion – it didn’t work quite so well.  Then it reared its ugly head about three-quarters of the way through a book I just recently finished, Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist.  Hely pulled the someone-suggested-I-write-my-story-and-here-it-is one out of his hat, which, I have to admit, ruined the book ever so slightly for me.*  I really enjoyed it up until that point, although I suppose I should have seen it coming.

*In case I’m being too subtle or too nice (because I did enjoy the three books mentioned above; in fact Life of Pi is one of my all-time favorites): I don’t like the whole pomo ploy of author-writing-as-narrator-saying-he’s-really-the-author.

[3] Of course, we all know there have been ghost sightings during the night watch at Elsinore and everyone is on edge.

[4] To be honest, this assertion on my part is purely speculative.  I have had – or perhaps have listened in on would be a better way to put it – many a conversation about Hal and the rest of the cast of Infinite Jest.  I have twice attempted to begin reading the thousand-page magnum opus, only to make it to about page 50.  While I’d like to blame it on bad timing or unforeseen circumstances that prevented me from finishing, I’ll have to admit that my not having made it more than 10% of the way through the book is probably due to my – as one commenter on the Infinite Summer website put it – lack of testicular solidity.

But I have decided to attempt to tackle the beast one more time this coming summer.  I’m going to finish Infinite Jest or die trying.

… ok, maybe that last line was a bit melodramatic.  But I really want to finish the book, dammit.

[5] Greg Carlisle, author of Elegant Complexity (a study of Infinite Jest) had this to say:

Hamlet doesn’t speak until several minutes into the play, well into Act I, scene ii. His first words are not to a character, but an aside to the audience: “a little more than kin, and less than kind.” That aside is the equivalent of saying “character here.” Hamlet will continue to make asides, including seven really long ones (the soliloquies). These asides can get obsessed and digressive, but it’s a play, so they can’t go on forever.

The character in The Pale King who says “author here” well into the book is a little more than kin to the author of The Pale King, and his assessments of some of the other characters could be said to be less than kind. He continues to speak to us in long asides as well as being a character in the book. His asides can be more obsessed and digressive than those in a play, but they can’t go on forever either.

Before Hamlet kills Polonius he is treated like a prince. Before Dave Wallace is discovered not to be who they think he is, he is treated like a prince.

Then Hamlet is banished to England. Wallace is threatened with some kind of punishment (isn’t he?) and then banished to a regular office instead of the throne-like office he would have received.