Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Summary and Analysis of Chapters 23 - 24


It is a tradition of Enfield Academy's annual I-Day feast that everyone wears a dramatic hat of some sort. Among other Enfield I-Day traditions are that students are permitted to wildly stray from their typical, sugar-less diets, and that Mario's "first halfway-coherent film cartridge" (380) is screened before the entire school, while students uncharacteristically gorge themselves on decadent desserts. Mario's film is a sock-puppet rendition of his father's four-hour film, The ONANtiad, which itself is a political parody depicting the private sessions between President Gentle (a former Las Vegas crooner turned President of the United States) and the leaders of Mexico and Canada as O.N.A.N. (Organization of North American Nations) is formed.

In the course of introducing Mario's film, Wallace summarizes the rise of Johnny Gentle. Gentle emerged as a political figure when he became a leading public face of a united effort of Vegas entertainers to perform "Live Silence" on the orders of a disgruntled union boss. Gentle, who suffers from crippling germophobia and various related obsessive compulsions, runs on a platform of cleaning up America's streets, but not in the usual, figurative sense of "cleaning." Gentle creates a major third party in America's long-standing two-party system; his party is called the C.U.S.P. for Clean United States Party. One of his major campaign promises is to launch all of the U.S.'s trash into outer space.

Mario's puppet-rendition of The ONANtiad portrays the annexation of Mexico and Canada by the United States. Additionally, Gentle's campaign promise to launch trash into space has, since his election, proven ineffective. The space vessels designed to abscond with the trash have a tendency to explode during launch, thus not only failing to get rid of the original trash but creating many tons of additional earth-garbage. Gentle's administration creates the "Great Concavity," which essentially involves turning the entire New England region into a landfill. Mario's film depicts how Gentle and his administration then "gift" Canada the territory that has been turned into a horrible, malignant trash-heap. Despite Canada's weak protests, it ultimately absorbs the Great Concavity, and all the trash therein becomes a Canadian issue.

The conclusion of the puppet rendition of The ONANtiad explains why subsidized time is adopted by O.N.A.N. The cost of Territorial Reconfiguration is exorbitant, and Johnny Gentle refuses to raise taxes on his constituents. He's also resistant to cutting social programs. So, instead, he proposes (with a lot of input and counsel from the Chief of Unspecified Services, Rodney Tine, and leading Ad-man Tom Veals) to sell years to major corporations. This explains the advent of subsidized years like Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment or Year of Glad which have been used since the beginning of the novel to position the narrative.

While the I-Day feast proceeds, Lyle receives a steady stream of visitors in the weight room seeking his sage spiritual counsel in exchange for their perspiration. Lyle's lesson for the evening is to never underestimate the power of objects, because "the world, after all, which is radically old, is made up mostly of objects" (395). He speaks to Ortho Stice about his possible sleepwalking problem, ten-year-old Ken Blott about his anxieties around masturbation and how it clashes with his devout Christian morals, and Anton Doucette about an increasingly imposing mole under his nostril, perched right on top of his upper lip. Many of the issues brought to Lyle are personal and non-tennis-related; however, a lot of the most personal issues brought to Lyle are tennis-related and relate to the gnawing ambition of kids who want to make it to the Show.

Wallace segues from an in-joke in Mario's film to the legendary story of a youth tennis player named Eric Clipperton. Clipperton is an unaffiliated player who rises through the ranks of the U.S.T.A. by threatening to kill himself with his famed Glock 17 if he ever loses a match. This psychological pressure causes all of his opponents to let him win, but the U.S.T.A. fails to acknowledge Clipperton's rank because they are aware of the way he forces his opponents to yield. Then, after the development of O.N.A.N. when the U.S.T.A. merges with Canada and Mexico's leagues, Clipperton, through some bureaucratic oversight, is ranked #1 in the entire O.N.A.N. league. Everyone in the youth tennis world wonders how Clipperton will respond, whether he will play fair or continue to threaten his own life against a possible loss, which, now that he is actually ranked #1, seems far more likely than before. Clipperton shows up at E.T.A. to seek the counsel of J.O.I. (who he has heard of through Mario Incandenza, his only friend on the U.S.T.A. tour). In a private room upstairs, over subdorm C., Eric Clipperton shoots himself in the head in front of J.O.I. and Mario while Mario's head-mounted film camera is rolling.

From the I-Day festivities, Wallace shuttles the narrative across time and space, arriving at the evening of April 30th to depict the ongoing conversation between Marathe and Steeply on the Arizona mountainside. It is now firmly nighttime, and neither man has betrayed any plan to move down the mountain. Both are armed, and both conceal their weapons from the other. They continue to discuss the concepts of freedom and the American insistence upon individuality and self-servitude as they both try to fight off drowsiness.

In addition to Gately's responsibility with AA and the Ennet House, he also works as a janitor cleaning up a few Boston-area halfway houses at ungodly hours of the morning. Gately's boss during his janitorial hours is a former AA named Stavros Lobokulas, whose dream is to eventually open a women's shoe store. Gately took the job when he first became a resident at Ennet House; it was his "humility job" that he has since kept, because the state of the halfway houses they clean is a constant reminder to Gately of the fate that awaits him if he fails to stay clean.

Don Gately goes on a commitment with a few of the veteran AA members in his White Flag AA group. They're visiting an AA group called the Tough Shit But You Still Can't Drink Group, which is composed primarily of leather-clad bikers. Don gets up and shares with the group about his enduring struggle with conceptualizing his personal Higher Power, even after ten months of sober time. His share is enthusiastically applauded by the group, but he feels a bit embarrassed and vulnerable, because he's saying things he would normally be a bit afraid to say to his sponsor, a "crocodile" veteran of the White Flag group, face-to-face. On his way out of the meeting, a young biker stops Gately and thanks him for sharing. He then relates to Gately a little proverb about an old wise fish swimming up to a group of younger fish, and the old fish says "Morning, boys, how's the waters?" and swims away, and one of the younger fish says, "What the fuck is water?" (445). The comment sends Gately into a bit of an introspective hole on the car ride back to Ennet House.

Though Gately has only known Pat Montesian, the head of the Ennet House, for ten months, Pat trusts him with her priceless sports car (despite the fact that Gately still doesn't have a valid driver's license). The story of Pat M.'s sobriety is that in her twenties, she was a Boston socialite by marriage, and then her husband divorced her because he couldn't put up with her alcoholism any longer. After the divorce, Pat sinks deeper into her drinking habit, and eventually she has a severe seizure. She loses mobility and speech for most of a year and slowly recovers in the Ennet House. Once she's recovered, she marries back into the Boston socialite scene, this time with a South Shore multi-millionaire. Though Gately is referred to Ennet House with serious charges, Pat agrees to take him in because he's honest about his status re: sobriety (and he unflinchingly pets her skin-diseased dogs during his intake interview).

In a brief ten months, Gately's progress has earned him a spot as a live-in staff member of the Ennet House and as the House chef. Gately's cooking is atrocious, however nobody has the heart or the courage to say anything about it to his face. Two new members of Ennet House, on boiled hot dog night, refuse to eat the hot dogs. One of the members is Joelle van Dyne, in whom Pat Montesian seems to have taken a special interest. Joelle is a vegetarian, so Pat asks Gately to drive out and pick up some eggs and vegetables for the two new, vegetarian members (but Gately can tell it's really for Joelle, alone). He drives out to a specialty market, and here the perspective shuttles to Antitoi Entertainment, where the Antitoi brothers seem to have unwittingly procured a copy of the lethal Infinite Jest video cartridge. As they standing around in their store, the Wheelchair Assassins pull up and murder both the Antitoi brothers as they turn over the store in search of the cartridge.


Like many novels with science fictional elements that have entered the canon, Infinite Jest has an important relationship with the near future it depicts, a future which we have, by now, surpassed in the "real world." This relationship is given further import by the fact that Infinite Jest could be considered, at its core, a speculative fiction. Bissell, in the foreword to the twentieth-anniversary edition, says that "David Foster Wallace understood the paradox of attempting to write fiction that spoke to posterity and a contemporary audience simultaneously, with equal force," and continues, "his great gift is that the world remains as Wallaceian as ever—Donald Trump, meet President Johnny Gentle—and now we’re all reading his unwritten books in our heads" (2). Assessing both the accuracies and miscalculations of DFW's vision of the future may help us better understand the post-modern and Internet Age anxieties that propel the novel.

Bissell links O.N.A.N. President Johnny Gentle to U.S. President Donald Trump, and the two figures do admittedly have similar trajectories to politics. They were both entertainers and celebrity personalities before entering the realm of politics, and they both, upon entering the highest office in the U.S., introduced an unprecedented level of showmanship to their public appearances that some deem unbecoming or undignified of the office, i.e. "Johnny Gentle, the first U.S. President ever to swing his microphone around by the cord during his Inauguration speech" (382) and, for example, President Trump's penchant for assigning epithets to his political opponents. But the two presidents' paths to the presidency diverge in important ways that demonstrate, perhaps, D.F.W.'s faith in the electoral process or optimism that, even in such absurd circumstances, a third-party candidate could win the presidency on a third-party ticket. He describes the C.U.S.P., or Clean U.S. Party, as "the strange-seeming but politically prescient annular agnation of ultra-right jingoist hunt-deer-with-automatic-weapons types and far-left macrobiotic Save-the-Ozone, -Rain-Forests, -Whales, -Spotted-Owl-and-High-pH-Waterways ponytailed granola-crunchers, a surreal union of both Rush L.– and Hillary R.C.–disillusioned fringes that drew mainstream-media guffaws at their first Convention" (385).

Wallace, in more colorful language, predicts the rise of nationalist, populist politics that reach across the aisle on certain social and environmental issues. President Donald Trump, as a reality-television personality, regular on shock-jock programs, and occasional guest star in W.W.E. wrestling matches, certainly represents a social divergence from the typical G.O.P. "family values" candidate. The difference between Trump and Gentle is that Gentle is able to bypass the two-party system. Wallace writes, "the C.U.S.P. suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reactionary voter-spasm that made the U.W.S.A. and LaRouchers and Libertarians chew their hands in envy as the Dems and G.O.P.s stood on either side watching dumbly, like doubles partners who each think the other’s surely got it, the two established mainstream parties split open along tired philosophical lines" (382). Here, Wallace seems to optimistically underestimate the power and efficiency of the two-party system in the United States, and underestimate the notion that any form of resistance to this system, however deleterious and absurd, must happen within the two parties in order to gain any traction. Contemporary U.S. politics have shown, on both sides of the two-party system, that "outsider" candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who identifies as a Democratic Socialist, must seek the backing of one of the major two parties in order to have a shot at the presidency. Third parties in U.S. politics have been relegated, contemporarily, to vote sinks for whichever of the two parties depends more on undecided voters for a win, e.g. Ross Perot's role in preventing George H.W. Bush from winning a second term.

Wallace's technological predictions also prove to be both prescient and slightly off-center in their accuracy in important, telling ways. Earlier in the novel, he seems to predict the rise and fall of video-phoning technology, and at this juncture, he predicts the possible economic/political consequences of media streaming. When Wallace predicts the rise of video-phoning technology, what today manifests as FaceTime or any type of webcam communication, he a) predicts that the biggest issue will be users' own self-consciousnesses and that thus users will have to find a way to alter their facial appearances in order to comfortably use the technology and b) he predicts an analog solution to the self-consciousness issue. Wallace writes about Hollywood/F.B.I.-grade custom ballistics masks that users can have made of their faces (but more attractive), and when the masks lose their appeal, users can buy "attractively stylized static Tableaux" (150) to position in front of the camera, which eventually just look absolutely nothing like them, but instead look like an "ideal" form, a Hollywood star-like figure. Of course, in contemporary "video-phoning" technology, users do have face-altering tools at their disposal, but these tools are "filters" like Snapchat and Instagram filters, and they are integrated into the code of the application. There is no analog alteration of the user's form—nothing tangible, like a mask or a convincing cardboard-cutout.

Wallace's prediction of the proliferation of video entertainment falls into a similar pattern of being highly prescient, but also unable to shed the analog aspects of the technology. The very notion of a video cartridge seems, and has seemed for years, antiquated. Wallace writes of the advancing InterLace digital media company:

What if—according to InterLace—what if a viewer could more or less 100% choose what’s on at any given time? Choose and rent, over PC and modem and fiber-optic line, from tens of thousands of second-run films, documentaries, the occasional sport, old beloved non–‘Happy Days’ programs, wholly new programs, cultural stuff, and c., all prepared by the time-tested, newly lean Big Four’s mammoth vaults and production facilities and packaged and disseminated by InterLace TelEnt. in convenient fiber-optic pulses that fit directly on the new palm-sized 4.8-mb PC-diskettes InterLace was marketing as ‘cartridges’? (416)

This concept of choosing what's on is at the very heart of content streaming and the phenomenon of "binge-watching," a term which directly engages in the language of addiction and a term which Wallace would doubtless have found extremely validating of his "television is a dangerous drug" hypothesis of the late eighties and early nineties. The rate at which technology has become "cloud-based" or almost totally devoid of a consumer-side analog component has been exponential, and if anything, the uncanny near-misses of D.F.W.'s speculations demonstrate how quickly technology has, literally, gotten out of our hands.