Hal Incandenza’s Confused Identity

This response may be a bit scatterbrained and refer back to a passage from previous week’s readings but last week’s conversation spurred me to write this post. As a couple people may have mentioned, last week’s conversation regarding Infinite Jest understandably left out a fair amount of information considering the huge amount it covered. Previously we’ve discussed and witnessed the intersection of fiction/non-fiction in Wallace’s writings and this theme seems to keep popping up throughout Infinite Jest in the lives of Wallace’s characters. So I’d like to discuss the back-story of Hal Incandeza’s life in which this intersection seems apparent.

Around page 250 we are told of Mr. Incandenza’s horrific suicide and the manner in which Hal found his father dead at the age of “thirteen going on really old” (248). And so, we become aware of Hal’s tragic and potentially scarring past. This in combination with the family’s unique dynamic sets up Hal Incandenza as an intriguingly fictional character. To combat the tragedy of Mr. Incandenza’s suicide we learn that Hal’s mom begins sending him to a grief-counselor, the real reason being “so she wouldn’t have to feel guilty about practically sawing the hole in the microwave door herself” (252). As Hal begins seeing this grief counselor he describes him as “unsatisfiable and scary”(252). This counseling period is described as “brutal” and “nightmarish” because the entire time Hal finds himself face to face with a professional examining and probing at inner emotions that seem like Hal hasn’t even had time to understand (252). Hal appears to approach this with the same air of mischief that seems to be bred in kids at the Enfield Tennis Academy. He immediately tries to research and educate himself on how to seem depressed, angry, in denial, and depressed, without actually having the emotions to back it up. At first the grief therapist buys none of it. Later on Hal learns from Lyle how to put forward the allusion of despair without actually having it. He acquaints himself more with the “cutting-edge professional grief- and trauma-therapy section” at the library and educates himself so well that he succeeds to put on a show of virtuoso talent. He manages to “griev[e] to everybody’s satisfaction”, by “subtly inserting certain loaded professional-grief-therapy terms like validate, process, as a transitive verb, and toxic guilt. There were library derived” (255). All of this concentrated energy and drive is exploded upon the pleasantly surprised counselor and Hal leaves barely able to make it to the men’s room, he’s so full of laughter.

Hal’s experience with the grief-counselor has a huge amount of psychological complexities to it, but one thing seems clear to me- the relationship of fiction and non-fiction has a definitive role in his identification. Hal is forced into a situation in which a professional person is firing answers hoping that Hal will be able to construct an identity through his confused emotions, emotions that don’t really seem to really exist. On a more fundamental level, we are told that Hal is meeting with this counselor because of his mother’s underlying guilt. In this way, The Moms is forcing Hal into a false process of identification that seems to facilitate Hal’s confusion as manifested in his mischievous production of emotional outcry. Additionally, Hal becomes able to put on this production by depending on books written by authors that are either attempting to come to terms with their identity, or enable other’s to come to terms with their identity in a format whose very purpose is to achieve a solid sense of emotional and personal identity. Hal takes from these writings knowledge and is able to put up the façade of one who is extremely troubled in order to fulfill another’s expectations of identity. Hal’s explicit use of the word ‘fiction’ when describing his performance in front of the counselor also makes it seem like in some way Hal’s identity is defined by his demeanor and selfness as it is defined by the expectations that other’s push on him (252). So, in one way it seems like Hal creates an identity for himself, while on the other hand it seems as if the expectations overshadow his true identity and force him to make his reactions his identity.

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