Full disclaimer: I can be an incredibly linear thinker, and so I enjoy reading Infinite Jest for the fabulous connect-the-dots plot rather than as an exercise in exploring the larger meaning of its thematics. Because themes, well you just feel them, you know? The waves of emotion that wash over you (or drill into the core of your being) almost lose their teeth, their power when we try to explain them. So I was excited by the challenge of taking another tour of IJ through a sacred lens. This to me means we should seek out the novel’s humanness – what it offers us as a path, a way to explore ourselves, our connection to those around us, and ultimately – to me the essence of all sacred texts – to provide a guide on How.To.Be.
So self-awareness is a wonderful place to start, and the beginning of this book is a wonderful place to explore the idea of self-awareness. The second read of IJ astounded me when I realized how much is set in motion in these first 60-odd pages. It is dense in character introductions, drops a volume of details about the setting, and contains foreshadowing out the wazoo. But it also sets the tone for our journey alongside Hal Incandenza. Who is Hal, at his core? What motivates him? Is he a trusted narrator?
Identity, self-awareness, and how we are perceived by others are strong threads of this work, and as such we begin in media res, dropped into the innermost core of Hal. We are trapped with him inside his head. “There is nothing wrong. I am in here,” says Hal (p. 13). He is aware of how monstrous he will present if he attempts to speak, but also seems remarkably chill about it… This young man is trapped, intellectually intact yet unable to express himself, being hauled around and propped up by C.T. and DeLint, and yet we really don’t get to understand exactly how this feels for Hal. He asks of the recruiters “Please don’t think I don’t care” (p. 12), but he spends more time reflecting on the esthetic qualities of the bathroom floor than expressing the horror we can only believe he must feel because of his situation. Is Hal in a place of such self-awareness that he has hit upon some sort of godhead? There’s a tranquility to his demeanor that suggests this.
It is this complacency that I want to pick away at and underline 1000x as we move through the novel..
The other Hal-centric pieces in this section, including his painstaking efforts to get high in private and his loving yet still distant conversations with his brother Mario give us little understanding of Hal’s inner sense of self, but context a-plenty to better understand his family dynamic and how he is situated within that space. He moves through these scenes like an actor playing a role. There is a considerable lack of agency.
In the first of the flashbacks, Hal is just a child, whose consumption of this fuzzy piece of mold has accidentally set something incredible into motion (to be believed if we read p. 12’s “Call it something I ate” at face value). It is a pure action, bereft of intent, and really only affects Avril. In fact it is not even Hal’s own memory, but told to him by older brother Orin.
So let’s have a ‘conversation.’ This segment is so beautiful in its absurdist reveal, and asks for a serious suspension of disbelief, destabilizing the narrative. Who do we trust? Here 10-year old Hal watches and reflects as his father’s absurd attempt at disguising himself as a “professional conversationalist” unravels before his eyes. The theme of talking and not being heard eerily echoes the previous section. It is interesting to note that Hal and James seem to be able to communicate as long as James is in the persona, but as the mask slips, James seems to lose the ability to understand Hal. Again in this segment, Hal reads as emotionally distant, immersed in a ridiculous situation, yet remarkably capable of handling it. This may infer that he has lived in this sort of chaos for a long time, and can brush it off easily.
The character study of Erdedy is fantastic piece – a short story really – that paints a remarkable picture of the addict’s twisted sense of self-awareness. Ken’s strategy that he employs each time he decides that it is the last time (burning all of his bridges and throwing away all of his paraphernalia) has time and time again proven to be an absolute failure, yet it is a process that he holds steadfast to. He is able to be at once outside of himself and understanding that this is a pattern, but he is also powerless to change. The final frame of this story – with Erdedy paralyzed between answering the phone and answering the door, is a perfect illustration of “analysis paralysis” and how Erdedy’s addiction has eroded his sense of self.
If we think of self-awareness as how closely we match the identity that is reflected back on us from others (can we think if it that way?), many of the characters in this section aren’t who they say they are, or they act outside of their stated code: Hal as a secret dope smoker; Don Gately as a murderer instead of a burglar; JOI as a conversationalist; Erdedy as a “casual” dope smoker; even Bruce Green who changes for his love Mildred Bonk. And we are also privy to two sections with a hidden narrator, from both the story of Wardine and the face in the floor.
We are also introduced to the visual theme of heads (read into that what you will)
- From the very first sentence, Hal is first surrounded by “heads and bodies”, before they resolve into the Deans of the U of Arizona.
- The stand-out sentence that seems completely out of place on page 16- 17 “I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Don Gately and I dig up my father’s head”.
- Himself stating that a cartridge of identical material to tennis rackets has been implanted in his head. (p. 31)
- The phone conversation with Orin on page 32 when Orin says “My head is filled with things to say”, as well as the first mention of Mario’s oversized skull.
- Orin’s dream on page 46 of “the Moms’s disconnected head attached face-to-face to his own fine head” and the description of the paranoid schizophrenic’s treatment on the CBC program (pg 48).
- Don Gately’s “massive and almost perfectly square head“
- DuPlessis’s death from suffocation due to the gag and his terrible head cold.
- The terrifying “face in the floor” on page 62.
So what’s the sacred take-away from this segment of the novel? For me it may be that self-awareness is incredibly difficult to develop. We are skilled at self-sabotage, we bury our emotions, we allow others to manipulate our own intentions for their gain. In the arc of this narrative, it makes sense that we begin here, and as we follow Hal, and Don, and the rest, we hope to glean something from their journey towards their true selves.