Tag Archives: characters

Sensitivity in Infinite Jest

A few of you have already written blog posts on Wallace’s style in Infinite Jest; nonetheless, the singularity of his style deserves yet another post. I just finished re-reading jtlax45’s post on the maximalist style of Wallace’s prose. I had not heard of the term maximalism in a literary context before (and I failed to find anything relevant when I googled the term), but if we take jtlax45’s definition of maximalism-“a deep and sometimes frivolous-feeling exploration of the minute details”-then that sounds about right in characterizing Wallace’s style in Infinite Jest (as well as his other works). In this post, I would like to expand on Wallace’s detail-driven style with special attention to the sensitivity and control Wallace exerts in his writing, focusing on this week’s segment of Infinite Jest.

One instance of the sensitivity ingrained Wallace’s writing occurs when the three White Flaggers visit Gately:   “The three all pause, and then Jack J. puts the back of his hand to his brow and flutters his lashes martyrishly at the drop-ceiling. They all three of them laugh. They have no clue that if Gately actually laughs he’ll tear his shoulder’s sutures” (844). The writing is sensitive because Wallace does not only depict what happens but also what does not happen-the non-events, the silence, the omissions, the what-might-have-happened-but-does-not-actually-happen-moments. In other words, the writing is sensitive in that it is aware of so much more than the plot that it describes; the writing notices even the elements that the plot excludes. In fact, the writing almost emphasizes the elements that the plot excludes by eliciting an awareness of these elements.

For example, by including the pause of the three visitors, the text draws attention to a moment of silence, which is in a way a moment of non-occurrence, non-plot. By informing the reader that “they have no clue that if Gately actually laughs he’ll tear his shoulder’s sutures,” the text gives the reader access to information apart from and outside of the plot. The text reveals its awareness of everything-the events that occur and those that do not. By including those details and elements of non-plot, Infinite Jest exudes a rare level of sensitivity-one often absent from other works of fiction.

Not only is the text itself sensitive to its milieu, almost every single character in the text displays an uncommon level of sensitivity. Earlier in the novel, we witness that even the despicable Randy Lenz is more sensitive than the average human being when he conducts an internal debate over how to tell Green to stop following him and “still have Green know he thinks he’s OK?” Lenz worries about every detail, from “where the fuck is he supposed to look when he says it” to the “voltage or energy there, hanging between you” (554-555). In this segment of the reading, we see Gately’s sensitivity, as an eight or nine year-old child. When Mrs. Waite brings a birthday cake, the narrator tells us, “Mrs. Waite had spared Gately the humiliation of putting just his name on the cake as if the cake was especially for him. But it was. Mrs. Waite had saved up for a long time to afford to make the cake, Gately knew” (848-849). These passages and many others imbue an unparalleled quality of sensitivity in the characters.

The passage about the M.P.’s fly-whacking style reminds me precisely of Wallace’s own style-not that Wallace’s style is as cruel as the fly-whacking style, but that Wallace’s style seems just as controlled and meticulous as the M.P.’s style. Wallace’s description of the manner in which the M.P. whacks flies creates an almost perfect mirror image of his own style. He expounds that the M.P. hits flies-

in a controlled way. Not hard enough to kill them. He was very controlled and intent about it. He’d whack them just hard enough to disable them. Then he’d pick them up real precisely and remove either a wing or like a leg, something important to the fly. He’d take the wing or leg over to the beige kitchen wastebasket and very deliberately hike the lid with the foot-pedal and deposit the tiny wing or leg in the wastebasket, bending at the waist. (842)

Like the way in which the M.P. smacks flies, Wallace’s writing peels apart each character carefully to his or her bare personality and inner sensitivity (in his non-fiction, Wallace’s writing peels apart issues such as the morality of cooking lobsters and the wars over usage in an equally exceptional and meticulous way). Every word and sentence and phrase in the text seems as deliberate and controlled and carefully selected and architected as this nasty, yet subtly similar scene of fly-parsing.