[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the play that gives Infinite Jest its title (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow / of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” [Act V, Scene 1]) and some of its structure, opens with the dead father’s ghost. In David Foster Wallace’s novel, however, the ex-king’s “wraith” waits over 800 pages before showing up (and when he finally does, the references to Hamlet pile up: “LAERTES [. . . ] POOR YORICK” ). Moreover, he appears not to his son but to the semi-conscious Don Gately, former burglar and current staff-member at Ennet House, who is confined to a hospital bed following a tremendous bust-up with three armed and angry Canadians (long story; literally). He features in one of Gately’s many (relatively non-medicated) dreams, as a “ghostish figure [. . .] of a very tall sunken-chested man in black-frame glasses and a sweatshirt with old stained chinos, leaning back sort of casually [. . .] resting its tailbone against the window sill’s ventilator’s whispering grille” (829). As so often in this novel, the reader has some work cut out to identify the figure, who isn’t explicitly named, but the allusions start coming thick and fast: “The wraith says that he, himself, the wraith, when animate, had dabbled in filmed entertainments, as in making them, cartridges” (835); “The wraith says [. . .] they’d thought all his agitation meant was that he had gone bats from Wild Turkey-intake and needed to try to get sober, again, one more time” (838). What other Wild Turkey-drinking entertainment-makers have we met?
So we prick up our ears when the ghost tells us that in life his aim was above all to communicate with a reclusive son whom he feared was “experimenting with Substances” (838). Is this then the key to the “Entertainment”? The desire “to contrive a medium via which he and the muted son could simply converse. [. . .] His last resort: entertainment. Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life” (838-39). There is, after all, an echo here of the diagnosis applied to Hal, currently in withdrawal from his marijuana addiction: a “hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia” (695). Yet Hal has apparently never seen the video, and is one of the few characters who still seem to be utterly unaware of its very existence. Indeed, if the wraith is even now, from the afterlife, trying to communicate with the boy, he’s making rather a mistake by appearing instead to Gately, who can make little sense of the vision: unlike the young Incandenza, who’s memorized half the OED, he barely understands half the vocabulary that crops up in his dream, which is described as a “lexical rape”: “terms and words Gately knows he doesn’t know from a divot in the sod now come crashing through his head with the same ghastly intrusive force” (832). And at this stage, he and Hal have yet to meet, or even to become aware of each other’s existence, as the boy’s one visit to Ennet House comes only after Don is already hospitalized. In other ways, however, the burly ex-burglar’s plight reminds us of Hal’s own situation in the novel’s opening scene: both find themselves strangely inarticulate, their attempts to speak mysteriously short-circuited as they can frustratingly utter only grunts or animal noises. In Gately’s case, the sounds that emerge resemble “a runover kitten” or at best a cow (823; 828): “something in his raped throat won’t let whatever’s supposed to vibrate to speak vibrate” (813). There are here layers upon layers of failures to communicate, that entangle even the misguided ghost.
Moreover, the film that the wraith claims to have made also surely misses its mark, and not merely because it remains unseen by its intended viewer. For the paradox is that the movie that Quebecois terrorists and US secret services alike are desperately trying to track down because of the deadly threat it is thought to pose to the US body politic, was (we are now told) devised as a cure for the country’s malaise. After all, “ennui and jaded irony” are presented as diseases afflicting an entire generation, sadly celebrated when they should be fought: “It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial USA treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. [. . .] Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human” (694-95). The “Entertainment” was contrived as a means to shake its viewers into life, to dispel all cynicism, as “a magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make its eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciously, to laugh” (839). And yet there is surely something ambivalent if not directly counter-productive about a would-be tonic that is also seen as the apotheosis of a mind-numbing popular culture that turns its viewers into inhuman zombies, pale shadows of their former selves.
Given that the cryptic cartridge and the novel in which it features both (it’s now confirmed by film scholar and Joelle van Dyne’s friend, Molly Notkin ) share the same title–Infinite Jest–we’re forced to consider the relation between the two works, the one fictive and the other solidly material, all 1079 pages of it. Does the ambivalence and counter-productivity of the one infect also the other? Should Foster Wallace’s novel be envisaged as a cure for the malaise that afflicts us (if indeed we agree with his diagnosis) or as more of the same, if not worse? For now, as we enter the book’s final hundred pages, I think that the jury’s still out. In some ways it surely is a deeply impassioned (and deeply moralistic) cri de couer against inauthenticity, cynicism, and the myriad forces of desubjectation that surround us. In some ways, in short, it is a strangely nostalgic, even modernist novel. But in other ways, it continues and even exaggerates characteristic tics of literary postmodernism–the footnotes, the allusive cleverness, the play and endless deferral–that make it part of the problem (again, if problem it is), perhaps in fact its most hysterical symptom.