Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11 - 15


Marathe, a member of the anti-O.N.A.N. resistance group, the Wheelchair Assassins, meets with a handler named M. Hugh Steeply, an operative for an agency called "Unspecified Services." Steeply and Marathe discuss the video cartridge that sent the Saudi prince's medical staff and several local Boston police officers, building workings, and various members of the Saudi legation into a dangerous stupor. Steeply suggests that perhaps Marathe and his terrorist cell have something to do with the shipment of the tape, which they refer to as "the Entertainment," to the Saudi prince's medical staff as a way to further their agenda. Marathe assures Steeply that he and the A.F.R. have bigger fish to fry than making an example of a digestion specialist. Steeply suggests that the vendetta may have been personally motivated by the suspicion that the victim (the medical attaché) formerly had a sexual relationship with the director of the Entertainment's wife. Subtle details provided by Steeply suggest that the Entertainment is one of the late James Incandenza's films and that "the wife" in question is Avril Incandenza. Again, Marathe denies any involvement.

Wallace inserts a brief interlude in Marathe and Steeply's conversation to portray an enormous herd of feral hamsters roiling through a region in New England referred to as "The Great Concavity," a rotten, festering region of corporate waste gifted to Canada from the U.S.A. during the formation of O.N.A.N. Wallace writes of the origin of the hamster herd that "the herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. The boy now attends college in Champaign IL and has forgotten that his hamsters were named Ward and June" (93). Returning to Marathe and Steeply's conversation, Steeply accuses Marathe of being a triple agent, thus reporting their meetings to his allies in the Wheelchair Assassins and not actually working for the U.S. agency. Marathe, a perspiring hand on his machine pistol concealed by a blanket in his lap, keeps it cool, and lets Steeply's comments roll off of him.

The narrative shuttles from the desert rendezvous of Marathe and Steeply back to Enfield, where Hal and a group of other senior boys languish in the locker room after a particularly brutal set of evening drills. There, they discuss how they wish they could have just one day of rest and relaxation. For each of them, unanimously tired beyond describing, there is an ideal version of relaxation. Some wish for sex, others for drugs, and many of them long to recline in front of a television screen and watch a marathon of action films, "something with chase scenes and lots of stuff blowing up all over the place" (102).

The scene then jumps to the post-evening-drills "Big Buddy" sessions, where the older students at E.T.A. hold small meetings with groups of four or five younger students, or "Little Buddies." Wallace writes that the Buddy system serves, for the Academy, as a positive bullet point for the parents of prospective students so they "can feel their kid’s not getting lost in the institutional shuffle" (98). The older students all run their sessions differently. Wallace cycles rapidly through concurrent Buddy meetings, giving the reader a glimpse into what the Bigs attempt to impart in their Littles.

Hal's meeting with his Littles focuses on the importance of community. A few of his Littles are becoming complacent and wondering why they would stick with E.T.A. when it seems to be a constant hell of drills and academic rigor, and looking ahead for the next seven to eight years of their young lives, they wonder whether it's worth it to stay for the slim chance that perhaps they will play professional tennis after they graduate, a future which they refer to as "the Show." Hal explains that all of the grinding and torment from the athletic director and the coaches and teachers is by design. They are fighting a war of attrition, and the institution provides for them a common enemy around which to rally and form communal bonds. Another upperclassman by the name of John Wayne takes his Littles through the three different types of people who don't, in the long term, last at Enfield. These are different "types" of people who cannot tolerate the increasingly broad plateaus on the way to mastering a skill, in this case, the game of tennis. There are Despairing Types, Obsessing Types, and Complacent Types. Struck's Littles ask him in deadly serious earnest what to do if you're on the court and "suddenly you have to fart" and "it feels like one of those real hot nasty pressurized ones" (119), which upperclassmen Struck ponders with the utmost seriousness. Hold it in at all costs, he decides.

Meanwhile, in the desert, Marathe and Steeply continue their tense conversation, Steeply still trying to suss out whether Marathe is a double agent working for his agency, or a triple-agent only pretending to be a double-agent. They wander onto the topic of radicalization, and Marathe makes the argument that all people are radicals for something or other. Marathe says, "Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. 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. ... Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you" (107). It is suggested, by the end of their conversation, that Marathe remains loyal to his rebel cause.

In the midst of these scenes, Wallace includes a scene titled, "MARIO INCANDENZA’S FIRST AND ONLY EVEN REMOTELY ROMANTIC EXPERIENCE, THUS FAR" (121). The scene follows Mario on the grounds on Enfield's campus as he takes an after-dinner stroll with his brother Hal. As they're walking, Mario is intercepted by a girl named Millicent (also called U.S.S. Millicent in reference to her size) who is a top athlete in her age group, but confides in him that she really prefers interpretive dance. Millicent leads Mario away from Hal under the guise of showing him a tripod that she found standing randomly in a thicket. Mario follows her off the path, and they chat.

Millicent tells Mario about how she came to attend Enfield. Her mother left when she was young, and one day, after practice, she arrived home to see her father (an enormous man) squeezed into her favorite purple leotard and dancing in front of a double-wide mirror. Millicent knew in that moment that she had to capitalize on her prodigious tennis talent and use it to get into a boarding school and away from her dysfunctional home life. She then tells Mario that she's always been very attracted to him and tries reaching down his pants; the problem is that Mario is extremely ticklish, and so Hal quickly finds him and Millicent hidden behind the brush. The three of them walk back to campus together, and on the way, they encounter the aforementioned tripod, still standing in a thicket.

At the beginning of the twelfth chapter, Wallace introduces a guru named Lyle who dwells in the Enfield Tennis Academy weight room and lives off of the perspiration of others, literally. He trades truisms for the right to lick the sweat off of students working out. He's gained the favor of the older students, but still thoroughly creeps out the younger ones. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to a first-person narrative of a heroin addict describing a day when one of their crew injects a hotshot of Draino and dies in front of a public library. The addict refers to themselves as "yrstruly" and recounts the whole day, a day around Christmas, when their crew buys bags of drugs from a store owner in Chinatown by the name of Wo. Wo has a grudge against one of their crew and thus supplies them with hotshots, and the crewmember against whom he has the grudge knows ahead of time that the drugs are poisoned and still allows their friend, "C," to inject the killing dose. The narrator of this section, yrstruly, alludes by the end of the section that they're seeking rehab treatment.

Wallace introduces, in the thirteenth chapter, the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, a set of old medical-student dorms that the public hospital now keeps free to provide shelter for twenty-two sobriety-seeking addicts. The House is founded by a now-deceased drug addict who pedaled a tough-love method of sobriety mentorship to the greater Boston area and was so committed to the anonymous element of Alcoholics Anonymous that no one in the community knows his first name. Also at the beginning of the thirteenth chapter, Hal answers a call from his brother Orin, who tells Hal that he may have met a "possibly very special somebody" (137). He also asks Hal about Canadian Separatism before the scene ends.

The rest of the chapter exposits events in the subsidized years, both minor and far-reachingly broad. For example, Wallace includes a forwarded email between a workman's comp claimant and a State Farm insurance agent to the rest of his team wherein the claimant describes an almost absurd accident that occurs on the job, where he attempted to lower 900 kg of bricks off of a roof with a pulley system only to be rocketed off the ground and then quickly plummeted back to earth, fracturing his skull and breaking several limbs. Wallace also includes a short essay written by Hal in the seventh grade in which he explicates the difference between the protagonists of a post-modern TV show, Hawaii Five-0, and a post-post-modern one, "Hill Street Blues." Finally, Wallace recounts the rise and fall of video-phone technology.

The next chapter provides background on the character of Michael Pemulis, a close friend of Hal and Mario Incandenza's. Pemulis is one of the few scholarship kids at E.T.A., a recipient of the coveted James O. Incandenza Geometrical Optics Scholarship, and he also happens to procure and purvey most of the drugs that pass through the Academy. The fourteenth chapter opens on the scene of urine tests, which the top 64 ranked youth players are subject to on a quarterly basis. Pemulis spends the year collecting the clean urine of the ten-and-under students and storing it in cleaned Visine bottles. He then sells the bottles of clean urine out of an old rolling hot dog cart on urine testing days. Wallace also takes this time to inform the reader that Hal Incandenza is now "judged ex cathedra the fourth-best tennis player under age eighteen in the United States of America, and the sixth-best on the continent, by those athletic-organizing bodies duly charged with the task of ranking" (155). This is in addition to being a "lexical prodigy."

Wallace then shuttles his readers back to 1960 and the narrative launches into a first-person monologue by James O. Incandenza's (J.O.I.'s) father delivered to a ten-year-old James inside the communal garage of the trailer park where they live. James's father wants to teach him how to play tennis and forces James to take a break from his true love, reading about optical physics, to learn to play what his father considers the ultimate sport. James's father is a drunk who, at James's age, had dreams of becoming a great tennis player. His father didn't approve of his playing and never really believed in him. James's father's story culminates in the one time his father actually came to one of his matches and at the height of the game, James's father's father proclaims to his client (whose son was J.O.I.'s father's opponent) that J.O.I.'s father will "Never Be Great" (166). At this point in the match, young J.O.I.'s father rushes to recover a point, slips on what he suspects was a Black Widow spider, and wrecks his knees on the court, never to fully recover. J.O.I.'s father also takes this moment to tell his son that they are moving to California in the near future.

The remainder of the chapter remains in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Michael Pemulis manages to get his hands on a rare drug called DMZ and samples some for himself before calling Hal to tell him the good news. The drug, according to the online drug forums Pemulis browses, alters the user's sense of their relationship with time and the passage of time. One forum poster pulls a quote from an Italian artist who compares being on DMZ to being "a piece of like Futurist sculpture, plowing at high knottage through time itself, kinetic even in stasis, plowing temporally ahead, with time coming off him like water in sprays and wakes" (996).


In Chapters 11 - 16, Wallace begins to define for his readers the edges of some of the broader conflicts of his near-future, capitalist dystopian universe. O.N.A.N., or the Organization of North American Nations, is a conglomerate of the United States, Canada, and Mexico formed sometime in the 1990s. Along with this new arrangement of space is a new arrangement of time: the subsidized calendar, which replaces the B.C./A.D. system to which we are accustomed. Wallace will refer to time outside of subsidized time as B.S. or "Before Subsidization." Both of these new structures, O.N.A.N. and the subsidized calendar, point to a trend toward deindividuation and rampant capitalism, where time itself begins to be defined by consumerism. The majority of the book, at this juncture, takes place within the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment which is, of course, an adult diaper. The notion of incontinence thus pervades the narrative and a sense of a figurative "societal" incontinence emerges. In Wallace's Infinite Jest universe, human beings, faced with increasingly advanced forms of passive entertainment, are losing the ability or desire to perform intellectual labor. This notion of incontinence is emphasized by the fact that as the medical attaché and the numerous people who attempt to save him from the mysterious, looping video cartridge (later revealed to by Infinite Jest, a film by James O. Incandenza) watch the video, they literally soil themselves.

Both O.N.A.N. and the time before subsidization, B.S. are acronyms that also constitute literary references. Onan is an Old Testament biblical figure who God smites for withdrawing during sex at the moment of orgasm and "spill[ing] his seed on the ground" (Genesis 38:8-10). Onanism has since become a euphemism for masturbation or "unproductive" sexual pleasure. B.S., a far more recognizable euphemistic acronym, generally stands for "bullshit," and is used to refer to or describe ideas or statements one regards as untrue or nonsensical. So everything prior to subsidized time is referred to, in this universe, as B.S. and thus takes on a double meaning as this pre-late-capitalistic era as being nonsensical or somehow valued less than the present subsidized era. The biblical referent of O.N.A.N. plays on the notion that this capitalist dystopia Wallace describes centers on hedonism and consumer comforts at the expense of intellectual production and spiritual health.

The character of Marathe and the Canadian separatists in general are regarded by the U.S. agencies, like that for which Steeply works, as "radicals," but during his conversation with Steeply, Marathe takes issue with the way "radical" and "fanatical" are used as derogatory or pejorative terms in the U.S.A. He says to Steeply, who at this point is baiting him, "Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, 'fanatic,' do they teach you it comes from the Latin for 'temple'? It is meaning, literally, 'worshipper at the temple'" (106-107). Marathe continues, "Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. 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). Here, Marathe mirrors the sentiments of Gerhardt Schtitt in his theory of tennis and mastery. Major themes of Infinite Jest include mastery, attrition, obsession, and the competitive athletic impulse to "be the best."

In a 2008 essay published in Esquire magazine, David Foster Wallace lays bare his love of tennis. He writes, "I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is and also the most demanding. It requires body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness, flat-out speed, endurance, and that weird mix of caution and abandon we call courage. It also requires smarts. Just one single shot in one exchange in one point of a high-level match is a nightmare of mechanical variables." Tennis, he claims, is not only an art, but a science, and subject to a number of variables verging on chaotic. Infinite Jest explores, through tennis, a virtually religious supplication for greatness. In B.S. 1960, J.O.I.'s father says to a ten-year-old J.O.I., "You want to be great, near-great, you give every ball everything. And then some. You concede nothing. Even against loxes. You play right up to your limit and then pass your limit and look back at your former limit and wave a hankie at it, embarking" (166). Forty years later in viewing rooms in Enfield Tennis Academy, the conversation remains the same. Big Buds talk to their Little Buds about the uphill battle to greatness, the vast plateaus toward mastery that few have the resolve to overcome. When J.O.I.'s father falls, a tragic moment that coincides with his own father's courtside proclamation that he'll "never be great," J.O.I.'s father's body contorts in a way that, he says, brutally imitates prayer. He describes himself as "down on my knees with all my weight and inertia on that scabrous hot sandpaper surface forced into what was an exact parody of an imitation of contemplative prayer, sliding forward" (168).

Though this notion of overcoming applies overwhelmingly, in Infinite Jest, to tennis, it is more broadly an analogy for the labor of living. Wallace applies it elsewhere, besides the tennis court. Wallace applies the wisdom of the weight-room-dwelling guru Lyle that "everyone should get at least one good look at the eyes of a man who finds himself rising toward what he wants to pull down to himself" (128) both literally and figuratively throughout the novel. For example, in the email exchange between a State Farm agent and a workman's comp insurance claimant, the claimant describes an on-the-job injury where he tried to lower 900 kg of bricks off of a building with a pulley. "You will note in block #11 of the accident reporting form," writes the claimant, "that I weigh 75 kg" (139). The differential results, of course, in a cartoonish ascent and subsequent descent of the claimant. This idea of attrition and labor also applies to the work towards sobriety that Wallace introduces with the Ennet House rehab center and the stories of drug addiction and resultant hardships.