Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16 - 19


The sixteenth chapter opens up on the broadcast of an M.I.T. student radio show in the middle of the night. The narration follows the work-study sound engineer, a graduate student at the university, as he sets up and monitors Madame Psychosis's radio hour. (Madame Psychosis is a frequent actor in James O. Incandenza's films, as listed in the endnotes.) The work-study sound engineer has very little interaction with Madame Psychosis; he enters through the back of the building in order to avoid human contact as much as possible, checks her levels, and once she begins her show, he slips out the back of the studio and onto the roof to enjoy a can of soda. Madame Psychosis is something of a campus-wide phenomenon, and students all over Cambridge huddle around their radio sets to tune in.

One such fan is Mario Incandenza, who tunes in in the living room of the Headmaster's House (a.k.a. the HmH) while Hal wolfs down a late dinner with Avril and C.T. These late dinners are something of a ritual for Hal, Mario, and Avril. Twice a week (at most, because late dinners at the HmH excuse Hal from his A.M. drills) Hal and Mario walk over to the HmH and join their mother and C.T. for dinner. Avril has a strong aversion, bordering on phobia, of disembodied voices, so when Mario listens to the radio or watches the television, he sets the volume on extremely low and sits so close to the speakers that they are practically brushing his ears. Then, after dessert, which is always high-protein gelatin squares, Hal sets off to the dorm and suggests that Mario hang back with his mother (presumably so that Hal can secretly smoke his one-hitter).

Wallace then describes in detail the physical location of the "Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House" as it is surrounded by various units of the hospital system. Units 1 and 2 are, respectively, a veterans' affairs unit and a methadone clinic. Unit 3 is perpetually under construction. Unit 4 is a geriatric unit, and Unit 5 is referred to as "the shed," because it houses catatonic patients, many of whom cannot even move or respond to stimuli, thus giving the unit a reputation of being more of a storage facility than a place of residence. Wallace describes the residents of the Ennet House as having a somewhat darkly humorous, wry regard for the madness and suffering within the surrounding units.

Wallace then includes an entire subsequent section that outlines the various facts of life in a recovery facility that one may learn by hanging around Ennet House, including truisms like, "the people to be most frightened of are the people who are the most frightened" (204), "other people can often see things about you that you yourself cannot see, even if those people are stupid" (204), "you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do" (203). This section gradually transitions to a focus on Tiny Ewell, a new resident of Ennet House and a lawyer who is unlike many of the residents of Ennet House in that Ewell is highly educated and (at least was at some point) relatively well-off, financially. Ewell becomes obsessed with other people's tattoos, how they've come to have them, and whether or not they regret them. Ewell becomes a sort of ethnographer of tattoos in the Ennet House, collecting people's stories about how and why they got their tattoos.

Back at E.T.A., Michael Pemulis gathers his closest confidants, Hal and Axford, to share with them his discovery of the DMZ tabs. Pemulis purchases thirteen DMZ tabs from a couple of older Canadian separatists who, Pemulis surmises, have no idea the true worth of the DMZ they sell him. Pemulis shares some of his initial research with Hal and Axford, warning of the extreme potency and mind-losing potential of the drug. It has been used in the past in military experiments, but Pemulis guesses that the quantities, in those cases, were much higher than the quantities here. After a long discussion, they decide to err on the side of caution and allow Pemulis time to analyze a sample of the drug in the lab, thus figuring out how much of the drug is in one tab before they take it. Pemulis also suggests that a single tab could be worth a lot of money to the right buyer, since the drug has been "lost" for so long, some synthesizer could run it through a mass-spec and mass-produce it. So in this way, Pemulis holds the "recipe" for DMZ.

On November 7, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, Joelle Van Dyne, also known as Madame Psychosis, plans to commit suicide by overdosing on crack cocaine in her best friend, Molly Notkin's, bathroom. Wallace follows Van Dyne through the streets of Boston as she gathers the makeshift supplies she needs to freebase cocaine. These include a plastic bottle of soda, which she promptly empties onto the road after purchasing, and a small plastic tube that once held a cigar. She eventually finds her way back to Notkin's apartment, where Notkin hosts a grad-student party. Wallace provides for his reader snippets of the pretentious conversations between graduate students studying primarily film-related topics. Van Dyne was, herself, a film-studies graduate student, and intimately involved in J.O.I.'s career as a sort of muse.

It is revealed in the course of this evening that Van Dyne and Orin were, for a couple of years, a romantic couple. Avril suspects that Van Dyne and James have an affair in the final years of his life, while making movies together, but this turns out to be quite impossible given the state of J.O.I.'s health in his final years. Orin leaves Joelle eventually, but she stays in the Boston area and recieves, by request of J.O.I.'s will, a generous monthly stipend (which keeps her in high supply of crack). Joelle sifts through Notkin's party to the bathroom, where she locks the door, rigs up her makeshift crack pipe with matches, aluminum foil, and her soda bottle, and takes a few massive inhales of the crack she's synthesized in the cigar tube from cocaine, baking soda, and water. One of the party-goers is banging on the door, needing urgently to use the bathroom, as Joelle begins to throw up and react to the overdose of crack she's smoked.

On November 5, Y.D.A.U., two days prior to Joelle's attempted suicide, Hal clips his toenails in his dorm room. His toenail clipping takes on a form of individual competitive sport wherein the clipped shards of toenail fly off his toe and land directly in the waste bin several meters away. While Hal does this, his brother Orin calls him on his bedroom line. Hal picks up, while continuing to clip his toenails, and tells Orin about the strange, magical streak he's having re: his toenail clippings. Orin, however, has more pressing subjects to explore. For one, Orin thinks he's being followed by a group of men in wheelchairs. This Hal completely disregards as paranoia. Hal also urges Orin not to ask him any more questions about Canadian separatism.

Orin then launches into the true purpose of his call, which is that a journalist from Moment magazine is writing a human interest piece on him, which she's calling a "soft profile." Orin is quite uncomfortable with this type of probing into his personal life, but he consents because the N.F.L. team for which he plays claims to need the publicity. Orin is concerned that this journalist, who he describes to Hal as "physically imposing ... large but not unerotic" (246), will pry into the Incandenza family's sordid recent past. Hal assures Orin that Moment magazine is in fact a grocery-store-checkout-line tabloid magazine that would certainly be interested in sordid details.

Orin, suspecting this, wants to make sure that he knows the correct details surrounding his father's death so that he knows exactly what it is he's not telling to this journalist. Hal suggests that perhaps if Orin had bothered to come to his father's funeral, he would know the sordid details. Hal reluctantly answers Orin's series of questions which reveal that Hal was the one to discover his father's dead body, post-suicide. As he tells it, Hal was rushing to the Headmaster's House (at the time, J.O.I.'s place of residence) to do a load of laundry after a particularly strenuous set of P.M. drills when he found his father's body on the kitchen floor, his head exploded all over the kitchen walls. Orin still, after nearly five years, doesn't know how J.O.I. ended his own life, so Hal tells him. J.O.I., cut a head-sized hole in the microwave window, stuffed the space around his neck with aluminum foil, and microwaved his head. Hal then tells Orin about his time with the professional grief counselor, which causes him more stress than his actual grief. Eventually, Hal is able to convince the grief counselor, by consulting several grief counseling professional texts, that he is, in fact, grieving.

November 6, Y.D.A.U., marks the annual competition between Enfield Tennis Academy and Port Washington Tennis Academy in Long Island, NY. The schools share a fierce rivalry and each house has some of O.N.A.N.'s (and the world's) top junior tennis prospects. Hal and John Wayne are the main events, both ranking in the top five, continentally, in their age group. Meanwhile, as Hal and Wayne's singles matches are underway, Pemulis and Schacht prepare for their first doubles match. Pemulis has a tendency to vomit before major matches, despite (and, Schacht thinks, perhaps because of) the fact that he abstains from any form of intoxicant the day before and hours leading up to a match. Schacht thinks this may be a symptom of withdrawal, evidence that Pemulis may be physically addicted to benzadrines, but he holds his tongue and simply tries to talk Pemulis through his pre-match nausea. Enfield handily defeats P.W. overall. Hal and John Wayne dominate; Pemulis wins by default because his opponent falls mysteriously, psychedelically ill (it is strongly suggested that Pemulis slips drugs into his opponent's water bottle); and Schacht loses, his bad knee seeming to get the best of him.

Meanwhile, at Ennet House, Don Gately does his best to counsel newcomers on the ways of the Program, Alcoholics Anonymous. A particularly challenging new admit, an academic and former professor at a nearby junior college named Geoffrey Day, challenges the tenets of the program and tries to impose his academic language and sense of superiority on the group. Gately, who is now working three jobs including his position on the Ennet House staff, is barely sleeping these days. He tries to think of Day as a challenge for himself, a test of his patience, which is a virtue for all sponsors and supporters of those seeking to attain and maintain sobriety.


Before delving further into the thematic and figurative content of Infinite Jest, it is worth noting that the central concepts of attrition and labor not only apply to the labor of living, sport, and sobriety, but also apply to the materiality of Wallace's text. The book is famous for its prodigious length and extensive use of endotes ("Notes and Errata"). Infinite Jest is, among many other things, an indictment of the on-average six-hour-per-day television habit about which he writes in his critical essay "E. Unibus Pluram." The problem with watching television for six hours a day, as opposed to reading for six hours a day, is that watching television is a passive form of engagement. It is a "special treat," like candy, and too much of it can rot one's brain like candy rots teeth, Wallace suggests. Reading, on the other hand, requires intellectual labor. It is a workout for the brain, as opposed to an activity that supposedly contributes to its atrophy. In "E. Unibus Pluram," Wallace also suggests that some of his contemporaries, like Mark Leyner with his novel My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, resort to the same entertainment tactics as television like irony and disconnected sensory bombardment in order to critique commercial culture; they fail, Wallace argues, because television has already co-opted these tactics like irony and denigrating self-reference.

Wallace, on the other hand, challenges his reader to literally toil through his text. At just under 600,000 words, its length isn't even the most unique, material element of the novel that make the process of reading it so notorious—it is rather his "Notes and Errata" section, the endnotes, that earn it its toilsome reputation. Wallace invites his readers to physically engage with the text, flipping back and forth, interrupting the flow of his own main narrative and thus forcing his reader to juggle plotlines and information and, most likely, for the sake of diligence, do a fair amount of re-reading just to keep all of the action and ideas in order. Wallace resists the passive engagement of media like television by creating a novel whose very structure activates the reading experience. The pinging and ponging back and forth between the main text and the endnotes resembles, by no accident, the volleying of a tennis ball back and forth over the net.

It is at this point in the novel that minor details and characters—some from subtle corners of previous endnotes—return and figure into the narrative in a direct and major way. A prime example of this is Madame Psychosis, whose name first appears in endnote number twenty-four, "JAMES O. INCANDENZA: A FILMOGRAPHY" (985), where she is listed as a cast member in several of J.O.I.'s films. Madame Psychosis's student radio program is the focus of the sixteenth chapter, but she is still, at this point, shrouded in mystery due to the fact that she sits in the studio behind an opaque screen during broadcasts. Her mystery is part of her appeal to members of the student body, who at this late hour gather around their radios, Wallace writes, "a little creepily, like plants toward light they can't even see" (184). Mario Incandenza is an avid listener of Madame Psychosis's program, which allows Wallace to swing with ease from a scene at M.I.T. in the broadcasting suites to a scene in the Enfield Headmaster's House, where Mario lies on his stomach in the living room, head held right up to the speaker listening to Madame Psychosis's program.

In a 1996 interview with Michael Silverblatt on NPR's Bookworm, Wallace confirms that Infinite Jest is structured like a type of fractal called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a theoretically infinite figure of equilateral triangles inscribed in larger equilateral triangles where the points of the smaller triangles lie on the midpoints of the edges of the triangle one order larger than them. In the interview, Wallace says he chose the Sierpinski Gasket because "its chaos is more on the surface; sort of its bones are its beauty." The fractal structure is, he suggests, not a novelty, but a way to organize the book for himself, while writing, so that he doesn't get lost in the hundreds of shards of scenes and experiences. Silverblatt quite astutely points out the fractal structure at the beginning of the interview, and explains that he notices a pattern in which "a subject [is] announced in a small form, then there seems to be a fan of subject matter ... and then it comes back in other form, containing the other subjects in small, and then comes back again." Wallace seems to take a subject matter—for example, a head cold—and refract it through several different scenic lenses one after the other. In Chapter 7, Don Gately's life changes overnight when he gags the Canadian separatist in a burglary-turned-robbery, and the separatist, due to a severe head cold, suffocates to death. The very next section delves into Jim Troeltsch's head cold and its effect on his training schedule.

In the case of Madame Psychosis, Wallace magnifies her significantly from her first instance on the cast list of J.O.I.'s filmography. First, she is portrayed as a radio host. Then, we follow her for an entire evening as she prepares to commit suicide by intentional overdose. Here we learn that her name is Joelle Van Dyne, and that she once had a romantic relationship with Orin Incandenza. The details of this relationship are further complicated and explained during a phone call between Hal and Orin, when Orin asks about Joelle. Coincidentally, the wonder drug DMZ that Michael Pemulis gets his hands on is known, on the street, as "Madame Psychosis." Joelle's suicide attempt occurs in the geography of Wallace's Sierpinsky Triangle in a region devoted to addicts' cold-turkey efforts to get clean that include throwing away all of their drugs and gear and then, shortly after, scrambling to reassemble the resources to get high once again, for that "one last time." The difference between Joelle's "one last time" and Erdedy's is that Joelle hopes to end her life with this high. Wallace continually refers to her efforts to overdose as having "Too Much Fun" (222, 231, 235) which expands on the theme of excess and goes back to his point in E. Unibus Pluram about how when "special treats" become frequent habits or, worse, the most important part of a person's life, they are undoubtedly destructive.