Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Compression and Annularity: the Short Story Qualities of "Infinite Jest"

In his speech for the PEN American Center in New York entitled "Metamorphosis: A New Kafka," Wallace says, "It's not for nothing that Kafka spoke of literature as 'a hatchet with which we chop at the frozen seas inside us.' Nor is it an accident that the technical achievement of great short stories is often called 'compression'—for both the pressure and the release are already inside the reader." With Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to practice the very opposite of compression, a constant expansion and digression that still, ultimately, folds in on itself; however, when one reaches the end of Jest, one realizes that a great deal has been omitted, many of the major consequences of the building tension left to a lost year, occurring sometime between the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and the Year of Glad, that is totally undepicted in the text. In a profile of short story writer David Means for The Guardian, novelist and culture critic Hermione Hoby writes that "an excellent short story is a thing that refuses to be faced head on. It folds into itself, circles you back to its beginning and replays endlessly, while some part – the maddening, mesmerising part – remains impenetrable." Somehow, in a novel known for its seeming inability to omit, to compress, to leave any thought unwritten or thread unexplored, Wallace still wrangles the annularity of a short story into his notoriously long book, the annular quality of which James O. Incandenza would no doubt approve. But how does Wallace achieve these qualities of compression and enfolding? The answer lies both in the novel's structure and content.

The structure of Infinite Jest all but demands that the reader, upon finishing the last page, immediately rereads the first chapter of the novel, which takes place at a later chronological point than any other scene in the novel by over a year. The first scene of the novel, taking place during the Year of Glad, depicts an admissions and recruitment interview at the University of Arizona in which Hal is not allowed to speak for himself because, we learn later in the scene, he's mysteriously rendered unable to verbally communicate, perhaps a side-effect of Pemulis's wonder drug, DMZ (of which the reader isn't made aware until much later in the novel). In this opening scene, narrated from the rare first-person perspective of Hal, Hal refers to names and events for which the uninitiated reader, with 1,100 pages stretched out before them, totally lacks context. For example, Hal says, "I think of John N. R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father’s head. There’s very little doubt that Wayne would have won" (16-17).

These two sentences, meaning virtually nothing to a new reader of Infinite Jest, mean absolutely everything to that same reader after finishing the book in the sense that they provide a seam by which to close the loop of the narrative. Don Gately and Hal Incandenza do cross paths. Something mysterious and perhaps deadly happens that prevents John Wayne from competing in the Whataburger Invitational. A fighter jet "too high overhead to hear slices the sky from south to north" (16). We know from a footnote that the Glad corporation is the "sponsor of the very last year of O.N.A.N.ite Subsidized Time" (1022), clues that gesture towards finally an all-out war between O.N.A.N. and the feared Quebecois separatists. But before the whole picture emerges, the reader has to assemble all the pieces. Wallace's patchwork, nonlinear narrative structure quite pointedly places the furthest, most circumstantially explanatory scene at the very beginning to send us back there, to the beginning, at at least begin to replay the book in our minds and recontextualize the "beginning" with what know from the "end." The fact that these words, "beginning" and "end," start to lose their meanings with regard to Infinite Jest is a testament to its circular structure.

And of course, this notion of narrative "replaying" and "rewinding" figures centrally into the content of the novel with the lethal piece of media so entertaining that it forces its viewer to replay it endlessly, forgoing nourishment and hygiene, until they either die of dehydration or enter a vegetative state. But even this content—the film cartridge called Infinite Jest—which is literally "maddening [and] mesmerising," remains, as critic Hermione Hoby argues about the crucial component of a successful short story, "impenetrable," because nobody in the book is able to give a full description of the film's contents (anyone who has seen it is rendered totally incommunicado).

Infinite Jest has been called many things, but it's never been accused of being short. Its remarkable length lends further remarkability to the mesmerizing qualities it shares with the fine, well-crafted and compressed short stories of which Wallace was a devoted student.