Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Infinite Jest is noted for its length and experimentation in form. Discuss the materiality of the reading experience and how it relates to some of the major themes of the novel.

    Wallace interrogates the social cost of the mass proliferation of passive entertainments and media, mainly television and screen-based media for which the audience need not engage in the labor of interpretation as they must with print media, particularly literature. In describing the medical attaché's unwinding ritual, Wallace emphasizes the attaché's passivity:

    ...the evening’s entertainment cartridges already selected and arranged and lined up in dock ready for remote insertion into the viewer’s drive. He reclines before the viewer in his special electronic recliner, and his black-veiled, ethnically Arab wife wordlessly attends him, loosening any constrictive clothing, adjusting the room’s lighting, fitting the complexly molded dinner tray over his head so that his shoulders support the tray and allow it to project into space just below his chin, that he may enjoy his hot dinner without having to remove his eyes from whatever entertainment is up and playing. (34)

    Reading any novel the length of Infinite Jest requires patience and commitment to stay with the same material for days, weeks, and sometimes months. It requires interpretive labor. The structure of Infinite Jest and particularly Wallace's use of endnotes require the reader to engage more with the materiality of the text, the book-object of Infinite Jest, than most books. Wallace will include a footnote in the middle of a sentence that may, itself, be the length of a standard chapter or two, and the reader must flip back and forth between the endnotes and the primary text of the novel, in a way imitating the volley of a tennis point.

  2. 2

    Wallace speculates on the future of communications technology and its influence on society. How does Wallace's description of the rise and fall of "videophoning" technology align with the rollout and use of technologies like FaceTime and Zoom?

    Wallace may have overestimated the level of insecurity of the average person, considering the fall of videophoning technology and the "annularity" of its life-cycle relies entirely on the notion that most consumers are uncomfortable with how they look on the screen. To explain the rise and fall of videophoning "in a kind of trivalent nutshell" Wallace cites "(1) emotional stress, (2) physical vanity, (3) a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech" (145). Wallace also imagines, in his speculative future, a prolonged reliance on analog technologies. For example, with videophoning, he anticipates that there will be technologies to address people's desires to alter their appearances on screen, but these technologies take the form of masks and life-sized tableaux. The "filters" of contemporary video chatting technology are all contained within the code of the software, and these software programs don't appear to be going anywhere any time soon. If anything, the world is becoming more reliant on them.

  3. 3

    Wallace speculates on what a collapse in the two-party system of the U.S.A. would look like in an executive race. What are some ways that Wallace's conception of C.U.S.P. and Johnny Gentle aligns/misaligns with the political developments of the 2010s and 2020s?

    On the twentieth anniversary of the novel, Tom Bissell writes about the enduring relevance of Infinite Jest as it pertains to contemporary politics. "Donald Trump, meet President Johnny Gentle" (2) he writes. Donald Trump and Johnny Gentle do share some similarities that play into Wallace's anxieties about television infecting culture. Donald Trump became famous via a reality television program that emulates entrepreneurship and glorifies capitalism in which every episode ends with him firing someone. Wallace describes Johnny Gentle as "the first U.S. President ever to swing his microphone around by the cord during his Inauguration speech" (382). Both figures, Trump and Gentle, represent a departure from the typical presidential decorum.

    Wallace seems to predict, perhaps optimistically, that a third-party candidate like Gentle could usurp the two-party system dominated by Democrats and Republicans, parties Wallace calls "doubles partners" in their capacity of dictating U.S. policy. But Donald Trump's election suggests that even the most populist of candidates in the U.S. must gain the backing of one of the major parties in order to stand a chance at winning the executive office.

  4. 4

    Wallace has said that the ending of Infinite Jest converges outside of the margins of the novel. How does the novel's structure contribute to this notion?

    Wallace structures the novel so that the first scene takes place at the furthest point in chronological time within the purview of the novel. Hal has his admissions interview with the University of Arizona in the Year of Glad, more than a year after the E.T.A. gala where we leave Hal in the final chapter of the book. Much of what Hal casually mentions in that first scene of the book cannot mean anything for a first-time reader of Infinite Jest, but for someone who has read to the end, Hal's references trace a possible convergence of storylines. For example, Hal narrates, "The bad ankle hasn’t ached once this whole year. 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). At this point, the reader doesn't know who Hal's father is or the significance of his death, doesn't know who John Wayne is, doesn't know who Don Gately is, and has no idea what the Whataburger Invitation is. By the end of the novel, we know that J.O.I. is buried in the Great Concavity, he is thought to be buried with the master copy of Infinite Jest, and John Wayne may have been working for a Quebecois separatist group. At some point, Gately and Hal, who never meet inside the margins of the novel, come together to try and find Infinite Jest before it falls into the wrong hands.

  5. 5

    In a speech for PEN America, Wallace discusses Kafka's nuanced rendering of bureaucrats. He says, "Kafka's authority figures are never just hollow buffoons to be ridiculed, but are always absurd and scary and sad all at once, like 'In the Penal Colony''s Lieutenant." Discuss how Wallace's rendering of Charles Tavis aligns with his description of Kafka's treatment of authority figure characters.

    Charles Tavis is certainly the target of a lot of ridicule. Several E.T.A. students have honed accurate impressions of him, notably Ortho Stice. Wallace describes Tavis as "possibly the openest man of all time," and Orin and Marlon Bain described Tavis as "less like a person than like a sort of cross-section of a person" (517). Tavis makes himself extremely vulnerable by airing all of his insecurities as they occur to him. If he feels uncomfortable or awkward in a social setting, he'll apologetically admit aloud his discomfort and awkwardness and detail exactly how and why the situation makes him uncomfortable. But, whether it's intentional or not, Tavis's openness ultimately disarms people, and Wallace explains that this quality makes him an expertly efficient bureaucrat. Wallace writes, "Like many gifted bureaucrats, Hal’s mother’s adoptive brother Charles Tavis is physically small in a way that seems less endocrine than perspectival. His smallness resembles the smallness of something that’s farther away from you than it wants to be, plus is receding" (519). Wallace makes sure his reader knows C.T. is not a "hollow buffoon" by showing his reader a cross-section of C.T., making C.T.'s extreme openness one of his key characteristics.

  6. 6

    Infinite Jest is full of allegories and metaphors for addiction and recovery. Discuss two examples from the text.

    A few of James Incandenza's films are actually metaphors for his own battle with addiction and his few attempts at sobriety. Hal and a handful of E.T.A. students watch J.O.I.'s film Blood Sister which is about an ex-biker nun who tries to save a young, drug-addicted punk biker. The young woman eventually becomes a nun herself, but she's then murdered by the Mother Superior who, years ago, saved the murdered woman's mentor. Blood Sister is an allegory for the sponsor system in AA and satirizes the seemingly contradictory nature of some AA members' pasts with their overnight conversion to clean living and sincerity. Another example is when Hal discovers Ortho frozen to the window in the subdorm hallway, Ortho's reasoning for why he didn't call out for help resonates with the pattern of denial that addicts can fall into before confronting their addiction. Ortho says, "Well shit I was embarrassed. And it never got quite bad enough to yell out. I kept thinking if it gets a little worse I’ll go on and yell out. And then along about 03 I quit feeling the forehead altogether" (869). Stice didn't want to admit that the problem was bad enough to call for help, but his hesitation only made the problem worse.

    Other examples could include the insect in Erdedy's shelves, Joelle's metaphor for cold-turkey sobriety as Evel Knievel jumping cars, the idea of pulling a weight heavier than oneself, and Fackelmann's logic when he takes advantage of the miscommunication between Whitey Sorkin and one of his clients and buys ~40,000 tablets of Dilaudid.

  7. 7

    Discuss three examples of Wallace engaging with the concept of everyday fanaticism and the notion of "giving oneself away" to an activity, relationship, or ideal.

    On the Arizona mountainside, Marathe says to Steeply:

    Are we not all of us fanatics? ... Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you. (107)

    Schtitt's, and by extension E.T.A.'s, all-encompassing approach to training provides students with the subject of their fanaticism. They worship at the altar of tennis and give themselves away to each of their individual attempts to master the game. The same concept applies to AA. Devotees of the Program are sobriety fanatics. They have to build their lives around sobriety and staying sober. Their community is made up of people who also worship at the altar of sobriety. It is not a coincidence that J.O.I.'s allegory for AA, Blood Sister, revolves around a lineage of ex-addict nuns.

    Towards the end of the novel, Hal reevaluates his commitment to "give himself away" to tennis:

    It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately—the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. (900)

    Here, Hal interrogates a major premise of the novel and challenges Marathe's original statement. The question remains as to whether giving one's life away to something is a matter of will or choice, or whether it happens regardless of one's intentions, as Marathe suggests. If one resists attachments, then one is a devotee to one's resistance to devotion.