[Crossposted to to Infinite Test.]
Infinite Jest was published in 1996, but is set in what was then the near future and is now the recent past. The chronology is complicated by the fact that in the novel years are no longer referred to by numerals (1996, 1997, or whatever) but by product names as time itself is now “subsidized” by corporations that presumably pay good money for the privilege. Hence we have the “Year of the Whopper,” the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and so on. This shift to a new mode of reckoning time (or at least, naming it) accentuates a general sense of uncanniness that, I think, pervades Wallace’s text. There is much here that is recognizable, familiar; but there is also the impression that everything is just slightly out of joint and that something, possibly something traumatic, must have happened to make it so.
It is not just time that is out of joint; it is space, too. Again, something has happened: some kind of new international organization, the Organization of North American Nations (happily abbreviated to ONAN), has emerged, and at the same time national borders seem to have been renegotiated: territory (Maine? Vermont? Parts of New York State?) has been given to Canada; and yet in some way Canada has also been assimilated to the USA. Hence the various more or less violent organizations, mostly but not entirely from Québec, “whose opposition to interdependence/reconfiguration is designated by RCMP and USOUS as terrorist/extortionist in character” (144). Here, the RCMP is presumably still the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; but the USOUS is an unfamiliar acronym, part of this new, uncanny world that is so like and unlike our own.
The third element in the novel that is slightly (but significantly) misaligned is technology. In the world of the novel it seems that telephones have been replaced by consoles of some sort (there is a chapter devoted to the rise and fall of video telephony [144-151]), and that broadcast television has disappeared altogether. In place of TV, audiovisual entertainment is provided via a system of cartridges dominated by a small number of suppliers: “InterLace, Tatsuoka, Yushituyu, SyberVision” (110), but above all InterLace. The Internet exists–we even get a copy of an email detailing a somewhat bizarre insurance claim–but this is not exactly a wired, or even wireless, world. A long chapter is devoted to the decidedly old-school pleasures of late-night shows on a local (indeed, hyper-local) college radio station.
Of course, there is always something slightly uncanny about any novel, any work of art, which is inevitably both like and unlike, both part of and distant from our own everyday lives. But here there is also a touch of science fiction, even a touch of post-apocalyptic narrative. But only a touch: it wasn’t quite an apocalypse; life continues in many ways much the same. And the answer to the question as to what exactly happened may not be so very important. Something was bound to happen anyhow. In “actual fact” what happened was the world wide web and 9/11, whose effects are perhaps not all that different from the aftermath of whatever the trauma is that haunts Infinite Jest: a vague sense of paranoia, surveillance, and underlying violence; the rampant commodification of everyday life.
In the midst of all this, we are presented with a paper about the modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern hero, written by the character who is probably the closest thing this book has to a hero of its own: Hal Incandenza, tennis player and lexical prodigy. Written “in the year of the Perdue WonderChicken” and “four years after the demise of broadcast television” (140), the essay puts forward Chief Steve McGarrett of “Hawaii Five-0” and Captain Frank Furillo of “Hill Street Blues” as epitomes of modern and postmodern heroism respectively. McGarrett presents us with ”the hero in action” as we watch him “stalk and strut, homing in on the truth. Homing in is the essence of what the classic hero of modern action does” (141). By contrast, Frank Furillo is “a hero of reaction [. . .] his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields.” Furillo is “a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration” (141). But Incandenza then suggests that we are now waiting for a new kind of (post-postmodern) hero, “the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines” (142).
Is Hal himself a “hero of non-action”? It is not yet clear: he and the other boys in the tennis academy seem to be striving, perfecting their game for a place in the “Show.” And yet all that effort is less about action itself than about perfecting the habits of the forehand and backhand, ensuring that playing tennis becomes almost robotic, to produce a kind of catatonia in motion: “over and over, each forehand melting into the next, a loop, it’s hypnotizing, it’s supposed to be” (110). As Pierre Bourdieu used to say, when watching good tennis players it’s not always clear whether they control the ball or the ball controls them: through constant practice and repetition, habits of play and performance are instilled to become almost instinctual. This is the aim of the Enfield Tennis Academy that Hal’s father founded and his mother and uncle run. And perhaps for a good tennis player, as for the post-postmodern hero, the question of “what happened?” becomes unimportant or irrelevant. Something happened–it always does–but true heroism consists in insulating oneself from such events, which are mere distraction.