Lade Inhalt...

The Reading of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" as Play

Bachelorarbeit 2010 47 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


I would like to start this paper with a quote by David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, who hanged himself on September 12th 2008.

“This is the way Barthian and Derridean post-structuralism’s helped me the most as a fiction writer: once I’m done with the thing, I’m basically dead, and probably the text’s dead; it becomes simply language, and language lives not just in but “through” the reader. The reader becomes God, for all textual purposes. I see your eyes glazing over, so I’ll hush.” (McCaffery, 1993)

I will let him maintain his silence for the rest of this paper, which will be dealing with the book that actually made his voice heard and celebrated in literary circles all around the world: Infinite Jest, published in 1996. What is tragic aspect about David Foster Wallace’s reference to Roland Barthes’ text The Death of the Author is that Wallace is now dead in fact. After decades of suffering from a clinical depression that he could only endure with the help of heavy medication, Wallace stopped taking these drugs because they made him even more ill than his mental illness. When his depression came back right after he was ‘clean’, he decided that he just could not handle life anymore. At least this seems to be a simple explanation. However, the true reasons for his morte de se will remain his own secret, which I will not try to reveal be finding arguments for Wallace’s suicide in his literary œuvre. Although his texts and especially Infinite Jest show some parallels to the life of the author, they still remain ‘language’. What this language may have meant to the author himself can only be experienced through the author himself. The reader is busy enough to deal with the text’s implications on her own person anyway. In this respect, Wallace’s literary death was not without a purpose. It puts the reader in a front row position, gives her all area access and makes her the mistress of the text. The text lives in and through the reader and makes it her very own; at least that is the theory. Nevertheless, the author is relieved from his responsibility for the text and is thus set free. It is a circle in which “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” (Barthes 1977: p.148)

The birth of the reader is also the precondition for the rebirth of the text itself. At this point I shall thus leave the author and focus my analysis on the idiosyncratic reading experience of Infinite Jest, which constitutes this process of textual reincarnation. But how does this actually work with a text as lengthy and complex as Infinite Jest ? My argument is that the reading experience is mainly influenced by the internal performances of play of infinity and jest. What I will try to find out in this paper is whether the reading experience itself can also be depicted as a performance of play with the reader performing as a player. Or would it be more appropriate to speak of a game, which relies on a finite set of rules and which involves the reader as soon as she starts reading without her even realizing it? In any case, the reader has to slip into the role of a player, who is endowed with God-like textual authority, and who has to play with the different dimensions of infinity and jest, which leaves her facing some serious problems. In this paper I would like to analyze these problems and implications, explain them, and try to find possible causes for them. Furthermore, I will investigate how the various performances of play of infinity and jest influence the reader and constitute her reading experience.

The first problem the reader faces arises before reading even starts. It is the decision to actually read a book that already appears daunting due to its sheer dimensions; a book that measures 30x15x5 cm and has a shipping weight of about 1.45 kg; a book that, considering the words per page ratio of 5/3 in comparison to other more customary books, contains about 1,800 pages of condensed literature including 388 footnotes. These features almost seem anachronistic in times of EBooks and the Amazon Kindle and according to Miriam Böttger are best not mentioned if one wishes for the book to be read by many readers. (cf. Böttger 2009) The reader has to be willing to start a sort of relationship with the book that would not leave anyone unaffected who makes it through the whole text. The physical dimension of the book is the first aspect of infinity the reader is confronted with and which leaves her somehow intimidated. It is the angst to be out of one’s depth with the book and the inability to deal with the text, which clashes with the reader’s desire to be entertained.

Fortunately, the enthusiastic reader will not be dispirited so easily. Nevertheless, the dimensional and haptic aspects interfere with the reading process. One very basic implication is the need to use two bookmarks. Due to the large number of footnotes that force the reader to jump between pages, this little tool becomes almost indispensable. Another implication caused by the book’s dimensions is that even the soft cover version is not apt to be read outside the house. It is not even a book that one might read in bed before going to sleep. It is a book that demands full attention and a certain amount of active reading time per day. The emphasis being on the word ‘active’ since Infinite Jest is not a recreational, passive read. Furthermore, it is quite likely that the reader will not read any other books while reading Infinite Jest. Depending on how fast she reads this means that the book really becomes a manifest part of her life for a couple weeks or even months (in my case almost two months). In this time the reader thinks constantly about the book and struggles with it, drawing inferences to her own life that then find their way back into the reading process. The complexity of the novel and the topics discussed in combined with the length of the book create a more intensive reader/text relationship than other books that demand lesser amounts of readingwork and energy. These implications on the reading process show that Infinite Jest is a book that does not just satisfy demands but also makes its own. Some of these demands might seem trivial but nevertheless they are a crucial part of the reading experience.

While on the subject of satisfying demands, it might be worth taking a closer look at the reader’s expectations from the book. Whoever hopes to find a prototypical post-modern novel by one of the most celebrated writers of the whole U.S. will be let down by the very same writer who said that his texts are ‘simply language’ that lives through the reader alone. Thus the reader turns away from laudatory critics and everything that was written about the book in newspapers and literary journals, and just focuses on the text itself. If she turns the book over she can see from the blurb that the book is “[s]et in an addict’s halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring one of the most endearingly screwed up families in contemporary fiction.” (Wallace 1996) The blurb also tells her that the book is about entertainment and the pursuit of happiness in America, and it makes her aware that she has spent her money on “one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.” (Wallace 1996) This does not fully explain to the reader what type of book this is going to be (a family drama, a junky story, a sports novel, a satire on the American entertainment society, etc.) but at least she is aware that the book seems different from other books since it “bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing its own entertainment value.” (Wallace 1996) The various and more specific meanings of this ‘entertainment value’ definitely reach farther than what might usually be called ‘fun to read’. I will elaborate on this later. For now it is sufficient to say that this information calms the reader’s original fear of the book’s size since it promises some sort of entertainment and thus establishes the setup for the play of infinity and jest.

In this configuration, with the reader acting as a player, the book itself becomes the essential play-ground for the reading process. By following the structuralist approach of Huizinga and Caillois, Mark Bresnan describes this play-ground as “the langue within which the possibilities for play are limitless – as long as the boundaries themselves are not violated.” (Bresnan 2008: p. 52) Conversely, in the post-structuralist view of Jacques Derrida on the contrary, it is not the totalization of a limited set of boundaries but rather the non-totalization that determine the concept of play. (cf. Derrida 1966: p.161) So the autonomy of the player or in our case the reader “is produced by the disruption of a system rather than by adherence to its rules and boundaries.” (Bresnan 2008: p.53) An interesting question related to Infinite Jest is to what extent the reader is able to establish and defend her own rules and boundaries that are challenged by her discourse with the book. This opens up a new dimension of play which has an immediate impact on the autonomy of the reader. The haptic features of the book for example are a performance of play in which infinity challenges jest in terms of complexity versus the value of entertainment for the reader. The reader herself is again engaged in this performance as she is forced to adapt her reading habits to the structure of the book.

Besides the noteable physical dimension, the next thing that strikes the reader after she has started reading is the structural idiosyncrasy of the book. It starts with the fact that there is hardly any way to successfully summarize this book. Yes, there is the Enfield Tennis Academy, the Ennet Halfway-House, the future of American ‘experialism’, of Subsidized Time and of anti-American terror cells, and there is of course the movie Infinite Jest, which is lethally addictive, perfect entertainment. And yet there is always one more piece of the puzzle that is missing, one more undetected or rather unexpected level, one more mind-twisting challenge for the reader that she can or cannot accept. In order to make this complicated plot actually tellable, the story has to be narrated by various different narrators, some of which are more trustworthy than others. The first chapter is narrated from the 1st person view of Hal Incandenza, a young tennis prodigy and one of the book’s protagonists, describing a weird application interview with a university headmaster. Hal confronts the reader with a lot of information that makes her aware of his slightly shifted point of view that somehow constantly prevents her from getting a full picture of the situation. All of his observations are concerned with superficial things like “[t]he yellow Dean’s eyebrows [that] go circumflex,” or “[t]he two halves of his moustache that never quite match.” (p.4) On page 6 Hal evaluates everything that is said to him in terms of linguistic correctness rather than in terms of its actual contextual meaning, namely his application for the tennis academy. Despite some uncertainty that the reader experiences, she might still condone this situation since it is only the first chapter and there are more than a thousand pages to go. But this feeling of textual wobbliness will remain a central part of the reading experience throughout the text. Either the narrators conceal important information from the reader or they hide it in a heap of seemingly unimportant information which makes it even harder to figure out what is going on and advance to the centre. One could even argue that it is in fact impossible to ever reach the centre since this would mean the end of play and the existential end of the text itself. That is because the centre “closes off the play which it opens up and makes possible. As centre, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible.” (Derrida 1966:p.150) The only centre that the text offers is the lethally addictive entertainment; the movie Infinite Jest . This movie, which was made by Hal’s father, James O. Incandenza, is so entertaining that anyone it captivates can do nothing but watch it over and over again till they finally die on their sofa. In this singularity the play of infinity and jest finds its perfection and its end. But for the reader this is only a concept just like the concept of death itself. It can only be described from an outsider’s point of view since no one who has ever seen that movie is actually able to talk about it. There is not even anything like near-infinite-jest experiences. This strange situation coincides with Derrida’s definition of the term “centre [which] is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it.” (Derrida 1966:p.150) The play of infinity is performed here by recursion, a never-ending, self-referential process that is marked by stasis since once this centre is reached, nothing essential will happen anymore. The ultimate realization of the play between infinity and jest would be equal to the end of the reader and of play itself. Therefore, the reader only gets hints as to what the centre, namely the movie, might look like. This constant state of uncertainty is why the reader never loses the notion of textual anxiety, which “is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game” (Derrida 1966: p.151)

The movie ‘Infinite Jest’ is not the only realization of the concept of recursion in the book. The whole book is actually structured in this manner. “ Infinite Jest creates cycles within cycles within cycles. Imagine a huge novel that has been run through […] recursive feedback loops […] and then strung out along the page.” (Hayles 1999:p.684) This becomes apparent through changes of the narrative situation, irregular time shifts, a large number of characters, and an extreme linguistic diversity. This confronts the reader with a massive amount of information that she has to process while she is working herself through this system of cycles. For the German critic Wieland Freund, Wallace’s book is the first big novel of the Wissensgesellschaft. “In Infinite Jest all regulators are to boost, all data tracks are active; you get a bonus-track to the bonus-track and a making-of of the making-of plus extra material and endnotes.” (Freund 2009) The first reference to the almost 100 pages of “NOTES AND ERRATA”, which leads the reader to page 983, appears on page 23. It tells the reader that “Methamphetamine hydrochloride [is also known as] crystal meth.” (p.983) Some of the information that the reader extracts from the endnotes are not really necessary in order to understand the text. Sometimes they even have the opposite effect and supply the reader with information that is so complex that she becomes over-saturated. Endnote 12 for example describes Demerol and Talwin as “Meperedine hydrochloride and pentazocine hydrochloride, Schedule C-II and C-IVa narcotic analgesics, respectively, both from the good old folks over at Sanofi Winthrop Pharm-Labs, Inc.” (p.984) The little a behind C-IV actually refers to a footnote belonging to that endnote, which gives further information about the Continental Controlled Substance Act. Anyone without a degree in organic chemistry or a serious drug habit would have no idea what this piece of information is about. Still, the reader is not totally deterred by the endnote since the expression ‘good old folks’ builds up a colloquial antipode to those scientific expressions and thus defangs the whole paragraph. This is a linguistic twist that transfers meanings rather implicitly so that the reader gets a general idea what is going on but is basically left in the vague, tangled mass of over-information.

This becomes apparent no later than when the reader reaches endnote 24, which is a complete filmography of James O. Incandenza, Hal’s late father. This detailed summary of J.O.I.’s œuvre extends over 8 densely filled pages. Now the reader realizes that the endnotes have to be seen as more than just a supplement to the text. Their entity almost represents an entirely different book, not just including comments and explanations of special terms but sometimes whole chapters that continue the plot of the novel. Endnote number 110 is a whole 12 page long chapter about Hal talking to his brother Orin on the telephone. Orin no longer lives with his family and has rejected all his mother’s attempts to get in touch with him. The text shows this with “A MOVING EXAMPLE OF THE SORTS OF PHYSICAL POST MAIL MRS. INCANDENZA HAS SENT TO HER ELDEST CHILD ORIN […]” (p.1006), which is answered by “AN EXAMPLE OF THE INVARIANT RESPONSE THESE PIECES OF MAIL ELICIT”. (p.1007) This response is presented in the text in the form of a typewritten telegram to underline Orin’s strong rejection and unresponsiveness. After this, the conversation between Orin and Hal continues. The whole endnote is structured like an evidence record collecting arguments and information from different sources in order to prove something to the reader. In other cases the endnotes have the opposite function and disprove what was mentioned in the text. Endnote 49 for example refers to the text passage where information about the “Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House” (p.137) is given and calls this expression wrong for its “Redundancy sic ”. (p. 995) On page 787, there even appears an endnote (324) which has no textual reference at all, but just stands between two paragraphs making it look almost like a headline. Thus, the endnotes gain autonomy from the actual text.

The 388 endnotes form another recursive and self-referential cycle within the text, in which the reader constantly moves around and sometimes even gets lost. The most significant feature of this cycle is its functional duality. On the one hand it represents a constitutional part of the text itself; on the other hand it creates some sort of meta-fiction that challenges the text and thus performs a play of meaning. This play is constituted by the seemingly infinite amount of different and sometimes even contradicting information that the reader has to deal with. This flood of information is the reader’s personal ‘Too Much’ which connects her to almost any other character in the book, each of which is suffering from their personal ‘Too Much’ as well. J.O.I.’s “Too Much [for example] was neat bourbon, and he lived life to the fullest, and then gone in for detoxification again and again.” (p.235) The reader’s recursive cycling through the text and the inability to surface from the mass of information presented to her is analogous to the constant, ineffective struggle of the book’s characters to overcome their personal Too Much, mostly represented by their addiction to a certain substance.

The reader of Infinite Jest can be classified into the same category as those characters since her own reading experience features symptoms of an increasing addiction as well.

“Infinite Jest not only describes the contemporary culture of addiction in the USA but produces, through its exhilaratingly tortuous narrative, a reading experience that resembles addiction. The book, in other words, is like a drug.” (Aubry 2008: p.208)

The structural complexity that intimidated the reader in the beginning is actually keeps her hanging on now. The way this literary drug works is in fact the same as with chemical substances. The consumer enters a short but very pleasant state of mental well-being and shows serious withdrawal symptoms when this stimulus is taken away. The novel does this by interrupting the line of action whenever the reader might have started to feel comfortable or a scene has almost reached its dramatic climax. On page 601 for example the reader gets a very detailed inside view into a typical night shift of Don Gately, Ennet-House in-house staffer, recovering drug addict, and the novel’s second main character. Every night, Gately has the wearisome job of making every house resident move their car to another parking lot since the city of Boston has made “this hellish municipal deal where only one side of any street is illegal for parking, and the legal side switches abruptly at 0000h.” (p.602) This episode is narrated in the present tense and stretches over 8 pages, which gives the reader quite a good idea of the tediousness of this task. The reading itself becomes wearisome and the reader craves for narrative action. Then suddenly, on page 608, the scene actually turns into the most exciting episode of the whole book when a group of young Canadians try to kill one of Gately’s residents who had killed their dog previously. The narrative action works here like a drug that awakens the reader as well as Gately, who “gets very cool and clear and his headache recedes and his breathing slows. It is not so much that things slow as break into frames.” (p.608) The over-detailed and lengthy passage thus turns into a thrilling fighting scene at the end of which Gately is wounded by a shotgun. On page 618 the scene is suddenly interrupted by technical information about entertainment technology and without clearing up what happens to Gately, leaving an excited reader who will have to wait another 130 pages till this line of action continues. It is the play of stasis and entertainment in the broadest sense, the fact that “everything always speeds up and slows down both” (p.612), which makes the reading so addictive.

With regards to its content and structural complexity, Infinite Jest builds up “parallels between consuming drugs and consuming information.“ (Aubrey 2008: p.208) In terms of chemical substances, there is always the risk of losing control over the habit and dying of an over-dosage of the particular substance. Similarly, the text with its high density of information being the substance of addiction, the reader is also in the constant danger of injecting more information than she can actually handle. No later than at this point should it become clear that the performance of play in Infinite Jest is also a play of power relations between the text and the reader. At the point where the reader risks losing control, the performance of play actually turns into a game in which the text challenges its consumer in terms of authority.

The concept of game brings me back to Hal Incandenza who is a young, talented tennis prodigy at the Enfield Tennis Academy, an elite tennis high school for future professional players. According to Sven Birkerts, the E.T.A. is a world where “nothing much happens;” “a game world, a closed system, [from which] the idea of play has been pumped out of.” (Birkerts 1996) This does not sound very entertaining at first and casts doubt the dramaturgic value of this plot line. But the infinite jest can even be found in the dreary routine of a junior tennis academy. At this point it is worth consulting an etymological dictionary to find out a little more about this old fashioned word ‘jest’ and which strange meanings it actually adopts in the book. Origins Short Etymological Dictionary describes ‘jest’ as a derivative from the Latin stem ‘gerere’, which amongst others means ‘to perform’. ‘Jest’ is also related to the French word ‘geste’, which is a ‘tale of exploits’. This information gives some hints to the reader as to the type of narrative that she has to deal with; the narrative of everyday life. This narrative can be described as relatively “eventless, whereas the lives of the characters we follow in narrative fiction are eventful and highly charged.” (Berger 1997: p.162) The ‘jest’ or rather the ‘performance’ aspect in this type of narrative takes the form of repeat performances . In our every day life just as in E.T.A., these performances “spare us from having to exert energy and make decisions about relatively trivial matters every day.” (Berger 1997: p. 162) The recurring character of these performances thus depicts another form of play between infinity and jest. It is the play of everyday routine and life’s daily challenges that accompanies us until the end of our life. At E.T.A. those routines or rather repeat performances are highly structured and consist of “A.M. drills, shower, eat, class, class, eat, […], lab/class, conditioning run, P.M. drills, play challenge match, play challenge match, upper body circuits in weight room, sauna, shower, slump to locker-room floor w/ other players.” (p.95) This cycle of planned routine relates to further features of everyday life narratives. The first one is that there is no beginning, middle, or end. Everything is preceded and succeeded, everything is the middle. The implication for the reader is that it becomes difficult for her to focus on one particular issue in this construct. This especially includes potential conflicts that remain muted and only appear randomly, or the character’s aims concerning the resolution of these conflicts that remain rather vague. (cf. Berger 1997: p.162)

At E.T.A. everyone gets told which aims they should focus on. This is basically to make it to ‘The Show’ one day and become a successful tennis pro. The way to reach this goal is virtually entirely predefined and does not leave much room for variation or deviation. This becomes clear to the reader in one episode of the book, in which the narrator describes a short movie called “TENNIS AND THE FERAL PRODIGY.” (p.172) This movie is structured into little ‘Here is how to…’ scenes that describe meticulously how everything at E.T.A. has to be done in order to succeed. One of the most important things here is not to question any of those guidelines.

“Here is how to avoid thinking about any of this by practicing and playing until everything runs on autopilot and talent’s unconscious exercise becomes a way to escape yourself, a long walking dream of pure play.” (p.173)

This quote describes one of the secret aims of E.T.A. that is manifested in the hidden curriculum. It is the aim to turn self-determined, young individuals into some sort of maximum-efficiency tennis machines that just act rather than react. The play of infinity and jest, namely the continuous repetition of pre-determined performances, is used here to transform unique characters into stock characters whose literary performance is to act out what was indoctrinated into them. This is rather contradictory in terms of play since this transformation seems to limit the performance of play within the characters. But according to E.T.A. philosophy, this is the only way to become a successful tennis player. In order to solve this paradox, it is necessary to take a closer look at the different performances of play in professional competitive tennis in Infinite Jest .

The seemingly limitless character of play governed by a finite set of rules is a setup that does not work in Infinite Jest’s world of sports. “[T]he operative structures governing play go well beyond the ‘rules of the game’, encompassing […] many other forces.” (Bresnan 2008: p.53) The players at E.T.A. are less taught how to play the game but rather how to live the game. According to Bresnan, “sports and play are depicted throughout the novel as entirely discrete endeavors.” (Bresnan 2008: p.56) This becomes clear if one takes a look at Caillois’ definition of playful activities that should be separate from everyday life, voluntary, uncertain in outcome and unproductive (cf. Bresnan 2008:p.56) At E.T.A. play is inextricably connected with everyday life. This also makes it also far from being voluntary. If the players stop playing, they will get dismissed from the academy. Either the player is fully involved or not at all. There are no half-measures. This resembles the idiosyncratic reading experience of the reader. Reading an incredibly complex book like Infinite Jest also leaves the reader with two choices. Either she totally immerses herself in the complex narrative(s) or she refuses to. This can be compared to Lenz’s theory regarding police sirens. When Lenz, a relapsing drug addict, is on his way home from an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting he muses that police sirens always either sound “terribly achingly far away […] or they’re on your ass. No middle distance with sirens.” (p.543) So as soon as the book is “on the reader’s ass” it is not separate from her everyday life anymore. The combination of the narrative of everyday life with the relatively long reading time eliminates the middle distance between the book and the reader. Just like the players at E.T.A. she is not just playing the game, but living it. Considering the addictive qualities of the text, the reading even loses its voluntariness. Although the outcome is still unclear, she feels that she has to continue and make it through the text. Due to the loss of its liberating character, reading of the novel, just like play in general, actually becomes work.


ISBN (Buch)
587 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Technische Universität Dortmund – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest Unendlicher Spaß Postmoderne Narratologie 90er Play



Titel: The Reading of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" as Play