"So yo then man what's your story?": Rereading, Empathy, and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

 •  Filed under longer thing, fiction, commentary

The 20th anniversary of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest just passed. This is the abridged version of what Infinite Jest has come to mean in my life through my trials and tribulations with the novel's first episode. There may be mild spoilers but I try not to reveal too much. I hope you enjoy. Find me on Twitter to share your thoughts.

Excerpts are from Back Bay Books' 2006 edition of Infinite Jest.

Finding the time

As if finding the time to read a thousand-page novel isn’t hard enough, doesn’t it just grate you when someone says a lengthy tome like Ulysses, Underworld, or Infinite Jest “rewards rereading,” that their real treasures come from repeated and close examination, that they only reveal their true value to readers whose commitment goes above and beyond “finding the time” to tackle an epic narrative?

Wouldn’t it be easier if you could close the book on these novels that already demand so much of our time?

Who has the time, anyway?

I think I speak for more than myself when I share my skepticism of anyone who praises a novel in any of the above ways. As a self-styled critic of ostentation and condescension, I can’t help but wonder if our hypothetical reader is making a sincere recommendation or if he is merely signalling something about himself. (And I say “he” because it’s almost always dudes, but swap in any gender and it’s just as irritating.)

The problem, of course, is that if there’s one way to prove our hypothetical reader wrong, it’s to actually take him up on his advice, which of course is the source of our frustration in the first place.

Even worse, what if he’s actually right? Even if the guy has barely skimmed the Long Thing and is signalling how “cultured” he is (perhaps he picked up a tidbit from some article that celebrates the “value” of such-and-such novel), there may be something to his dubious claim.

Here is where I reveal my hand: I’m about to talk about the first episode in one of the above novels, a weighty thing you’ve probably heard of called Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. And I’m going to tell you how multiple readings of that first episode have made my life better in countless ways. I’d even go so far as to say rereading it has changed how I think about the world and the people in it.

Without being That Guy, I’ll do my best to convince you that reading Infinite Jest rewards patience. Even if, by the novel’s end, you can’t recall the hundreds of characters and what roles they play in the many complicated narratives, and how those narratives intersect and what you think It Means, you can return to a few episodes and realize that they seem different, that you feel closer to the characters and their various traumas, that you can relate in ways that were impossible before reading the Long Thing.

You probably know that experience well. We even have a name for it. It goes by the word empathy, that pliable concept that’s easy to explain but notoriously difficult to practice.

If fiction, as Wallace and others have argued, enhances our ability to empathize, then you would hope that Infinite Jest turns that nebulous abstraction into something real and concrete that can be felt and experienced, not just given lip service.

As a self-styled ideological critic with a background in literary analysis, I’m skeptical about theorizing the emotional impact of art, as if we can generalize about “human experiences” like we used to generalize about “human nature” or the “human condition.”

But I’m going to throw all that out the window so I can tell you how my experience with one Hal Incandenza might provide insight to Wallace’s lofty aspirations in a novel that asks so much of its readers.

The empathic perspective

The first episode of Infinite Jest documents the last chronological event in a non-linear novel. It features a central character, Hal, a tennis and intellectual prodigy who’s addicted to pot and, as we’ll find out later, suffers psychological trauma beyond substance abuse. Hal is at a recruitment meeting to join the tennis team at the University of Arizona, but administrators are skeptical of his academic transcript; they suspect it’s been doctored to make him a more appealing applicant to the university.

There’s a lot we don’t know when we first meet Hal. I won’t reveal too much -- I can’t even recall the specifics in much detail. When we reread the novel’s first episode, however, we know what Hal’s been through, and we have a heightened sense of his profound emotional and intellectual struggles. The causes of those problems and what they mean are the subject of much debate in Wallace Studies, but for our purpose, we can agree that he has been profoundly affected by the events in his life.

The episode is one of many in the novel that’s written in first-person, which Wallace uses for its traditional literary purpose to “get into a character’s head.” But for Wallace, it’s never that simple: “getting into a character’s head” is almost literal, and Hal’s “perspective” is characteristically hyper-aware, not just self-aware but aware of that self-awareness.

Traditional use of first-person prose presents the world as the narrator sees it; we are “seeing the world” from the narrator’s perspective. Many interesting questions arise from this predicament, such as the narrator’s reliability, but I’m not particularly interested in Hal’s reliability because I think Wallace is experimenting with something different.

In fact, Hal’s narration does not just present how he sees the world. It’s also a self-conscious kind of seeing in which we get not only Hal’s impressions of the world but the process by which those impressions arise. We get descriptions of impressions and impressions of impressions. Wallace doesn’t just provide a lens to the world but opens the door to the inner-workings of how he and his characters perceive it.

This style is Wallace’s trademark in all of his writing, and since Hal’s self-consciousness can be traced to his creator, we have the same narrative style, the kind that reveals the powers of self-conscious observation, that Wallace harnessed so well as an author.

Wallace, a self-conscious author, is writing self-consciously about Hal, a self-conscious character, who self-consciously observes and reports the world around him.

It’s enough to exhaust anyone. However, if fiction is meant to help us empathize, then Wallace is introducing Hal with what I’ll call the empathic perspective, which goes beyond the normal boundaries of first-person narration.

You might think that as you read Infinite Jest for the first time, all of the above would be quite jarring, but it isn’t. It’s not until we know Hal that we can really grasp what he’s going through as he sits in administration at the University of Arizona. I can only theorize how this works because I’ve been with Hal for hundreds of pages, and only by coming back to the scene can I truly empathize with how torturous this experience is for him. I would even go so far as to say that each time I read this episode it’s a kind of masochism. Reading Hal describe his experience in the Dean’s office is painful.

In other words, Wallace’s empathic perspective works to create an experience that closely resembles empathy.

Hal’s episode is one of many but its power compels me to revisit it. For years since I read the novel, Hal’s words have been my refuge. Until Infinite Jest’s 20th anniversary, it had been some time since I felt the simultaneous comfort and unease that come with revisiting that first episode. Returning to it inspired this post, so it's fair to say that I'm still spellbound by Wallace’s fiction, and I think that says a lot about its influence.

For convenience’s sake, I’m going to quote extensively from the first few paragraphs to illustrate how Wallace creates some of the experiences I’ve already discussed:

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.



I am in here.



Three faces have resolved into place above summer-weight sportcoats and half-Windsors across a polished pine conference table shiny with the spidered light of an Arizona noon. These are three Deans – of Admissions, Academic Affairs, Athletic Affairs. I do not know which face belongs to whom. ....



I believe I appear neutral, maybe even pleasant, though I’ve been coached to err on the side of neutrality and not attempt what would feel to me like a pleasant expression or smile.



I have committed to crossing my legs I hope carefully, ankle on knee, hands together in the lap of my slacks. My fingers are mated into a mirrored series of what manifests, to me, as the letter X.

I could probably write pages of commentary on Wallace’s opening to this episode. For your sanity I won’t, but it’s worth commenting on a few things that are happening here.

When I read these paragraphs, two related things strike me about Hal’s prose: one, the absence of personality; two, the emotional detachment with which he speaks. When I first read Infinite Jest, the narration probably just passed me by. But as we get to know Hal, we realize he’s a remarkably intelligent, witty, and observant teenager, whose depth of imagination parallels that of Wallace’s. He’s the kind of character you’d like to get a drink with.

Knowing what I know about Hal, returning to these paragraphs is torture. Hearing him present the setting in this impersonal manner, like he’s squeezing the words out of a script, is heartbreaking. His description of his surroundings as “heads and bodies” and his posture as “consciously congruent to the shape of [his] hard chair” makes me feel like I’m being introduced to a machine, not a person.

And yet Wallace allows us to see Hal’s humanity clearly throughout the novel. He’s a psychologically complex character who’s been reduced to a shell of himself; all of that complexity is erased by the circumstances of this meeting, the last chronological event in the novel, which marks an end or turning point in his life. And the psychological trauma that prevents Hal from communicating helps us realize he's exemplary of the human attempt -- and failure -- to make ourselves understood through language.

We get a sense of this in the first episode because returning to it with knowledge of Hal allows the details emerge more vividly. His narration hints at something troubling, for example, when he says the following: “I believe I appear neutral, maybe even pleasant, though I’ve been coached to err on the side of neutrality and not attempt what would feel to me like a pleasant expression or smile.”

In other words, Hal’s emotional interiority, his subjective experience of the world, has been “coached” into something inhuman, leaving us with the kind of programmatic narration -- and, indeed, programmatic human being -- this episode introduces. He barely even believes he’s expressing “emotion” correctly, which he’s trying to control! He’s so conscious of how others perceive him, and whether he succeeds or fails at fulfilling an obligation to that perception, that it’s impossible to connect with and articulate his own emotions.

There may be other reasons for Hal’s impairment (and as we learn in the episode, it’s more than a psychological one), but this is the logical end of self-consciousness, and, as I will show, the logical end of our belief that we -- and, crucially, others -- can write or speak our way into being.

Without empathy, we, like Hal, cannot make ourselves understood.

Who is Hal Incandenza, really?

When the meeting with University of Arizona administration begins, a curious thing happens: Hal doesn’t speak on his own behalf until they force words out of him.

As the episode progresses, we learn that Hal has a disability, an impairment, that prevents him from communicating. More precisely, when Hal tries to make sounds that resemble words, something unrecognizable comes out … something that doesn’t resemble verbal articulation as we know it. The sounds Hal makes when he pronounces words produce this response from the Director of Composition: “Get a grip, son!”

Because we, as readers, can understand Hal’s dialogue in the narrative, this dynamic is disconcerting. Since Hal is narrating the events in the episode to us, his own dialogue can be understood in text quite clearly. But our experience is worlds apart from the characters in the episode. In fact, Hal’s transcribed dialogue makes him seem far more human to us than his narrative descriptions do.

When he tries to make himself understood vocally, however, it has the opposite effect on the people in the room. He appears less human, not more. The sounds he makes, for example, cause “[a] young Hispanic woman [to hold] her palm against her mouth” in horror.

Even without reading Infinite Jest, you can get a sense of Hal’s predicament from a few telling examples:

‘I read,’ I say. ‘I study and read. I bet I’ve read everything you’ve read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with due respect.



‘But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk. Let’s talk about anything. I believe the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated. I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist. I believe Hobbes is just Rousseau in a dark mirror. I believe, with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption. I could interface you guys right under the table,’ I say. ‘I’m not just a creatus, manufactured, conditioned, bred for a function.’



I open my eyes. ‘Please don’t think I don’t care.’

...

I cannot make myself understood. ‘I am not just a jock,’ I say slowly. Distinctly. ‘My transcript for the last year might have been dickied a bit, maybe, but that was to get me over a rough spot. The grades prior to that are de moi.’ My eyes are closed; the room is silent. ‘I cannot make myself understood, now.’ I am speaking slowly and distinctly. ‘Call it something I ate.’

...

‘My application’s not bought,’ I am telling them, calling into the darkness of the red cave that opens out before closed eyes. ‘I am not just a boy who plays tennis. I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I’m complex.’

And, of course, Hal’s final words in the scene, which are of major importance to not only this episode but the whole novel:

‘There is nothing wrong,’ I say slowly to the floor. ‘I’m in here.’



I’m raised by the crutches of my underarms, shaken toward what he must see as calm by a purple-faced Director: ‘Get a grip, son!’



DeLint at the big man’s arm: ‘Stop it!’



‘I am not what you see and hear.’



Distant sirens. A crude half nelson. Forms at the door. A young Hispanic woman holds her palm against her mouth, looking.



‘I’m not,’ I say.

Hal’s repetition of “I’m not what you see and hear” is his resistance to how others perceive and understand him, which can be described as no less than a radical defiance of how we understand basic communication between people.

Remember, when you first encounter this defiance, there’s much more to learn and know about Hal as a human being -- as someone who can “feel and believe,” who has an “intricate history” and “experiences and feelings,” who is “complex.”

Hal is “not what you see and here.” He is “in here.” Hal’s uniqueness is only visible to us because we are hearing a script from his head, the interior space he refers to as “in here.”

The issue that haunts the novel, however, is that we receive Hal’s story through telling -- in other words, we receive it through language, the very thing that “I am not what you see and hear” is uttered in defiance of.

Narrative fiction is the genre that makes our empathy for Hal possible. For Wallace, its power transcends our ordinary means of “getting to know” another human being, and nowhere is that more clear than our relationship with Hal.

We must insist on being understood while acknowledging the limitations of using language to make ourselves understood. To Wallace, that is both a blessing and curse.

"So yo then man what's your story?"

It is a lofty claim to say that certain novels “reward rereading.” Even loftier is my assertion that Infinite Jest cultivates empathy, which must exist both within and outside of language. Wallace’s point that narrative fiction can make us more empathic is demonstrated by my experience of Infinite Jest. The two ideas collide in our relationship with Hal, who transforms in the reader’s imagination from an inarticulate tennis prospect to a tragically misunderstood character who has been psychologically traumatized by the world.

In other words, it takes the rest of the novel for us to get back to this point, an elegantly circular narrative structure that rewards rereading. It’s easy to overlook, but returning to the episode reveals the single most meaningful thing Hal is asked. After being interrogated by the three Deans, Hal shares the “Call it something I ate” memory of his trip to the Emergency Room, where one small question makes the narrative possible:

It will be someone blue-collar and unlicensed, though, inevitably – a nurse’s aide with quick-bit nails, a hospital security guy, a tired Cuban orderly who addresses me as jou – who will, looking down in the middle of some kind of bustled task, catch what he sees as my eye and ask So yo then man what’s your story?

The mystery of “what Hal ate” to cause his communicative disability is a red herring … it takes the answer to “yo then man what’s your story?” to understand the circumstances that cumulatively produce the character we’re introduced to in the first episode. We already know enough about the material cause -- “something he ate” -- to abandon the question and realize that Wallace is doing something else with Hal’s story. Hal’s disability, itself a manifestation of a deeper human impairment, is symptomatic of all the experiences, traumas, and addictions that precede the first episode. There’s more to Hal than “what he ate,” just as there’s more to everyone’s story.

The novel’s brilliance lies in how it turns this cliché into something meaningful and true, something that resonates profoundly in our own lives.

Infinite Jest is a daunting novel whose reputation precedes it: the length, the endnotes, the protracted sentences and paragraphs, and, sadly, its author’s tragic suicide. All of this stuff around the book distracts us from the qualities that make it one of the most hopeful and compassionate novels I’ve read.

That’s my story of how I welcomed the novel into my own life. What’s yours?