Squeak

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In “The Limits of the Infinite: The Use of Alcoholics Anonymous in Infinite Jest as a Narrative Solution after Postmodernism,” Brooks Daverman argues that Wallace’s “narrative form is functional; it is always used as a tool for a purpose.” In Infinite Jest, Wallace uses the word "squeak" as a narrative tool to create and define what Marshall Boswell calls the novel’s “demanding and imposing” structure. Like the broom in The Broom of the System, the squeak is a tool whose meaning is determined by its use, and it functions to make the reader interact more actively with the text. Boswell contends that Wallace’s narrative conventions allow him “to propose an open system of communication… a communal approach to communication… one that operates… between two equal and interactive participants, a dynamic carried over onto the novel’s relationship with its own reader” (22). The novel’s “system of squeaks” (484) is exactly that open system. As Boswell contends, Wallace is able to create this interactive communication “via… allusions to the great Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein” (23). The squeak functions as this central allusion, as the various squeaks force the reader to acknowledge and try to grasp their separate meanings and functions and also how they function as a whole. Thus, the squeaks serve to grab the reader’s attention and make the reader an active participant in the system of the novel.

  • The first mention of “squeak” comes in a roundabout fashion. A relatively early footnote invites us to “see Note 304 sub” (fn39, 994), which leads us to an endnote from much later in the novel, where we learn that “’to hear the squeak…’” comes from the sound that the Quebecois extremist group A.F.R.’s wheelchairs make, and “is now an understood euphemistic locution among officials highly placed in Quebecois, Canadian and O.N.A.N.ite power structures for instant, terrifying, and violent death. And for the media as well” (fn304.1057). From the start, Wallace embeds the word squeak deep within narrative and linguistic conventions (in this case, endnotes and further references to other endnotes). The reader is made to actively work to even learn of the “squeak,” let alone understand its significance in the novel.
  • Antitoi Entertainent’s front door opens “with a loud hinge-squeak” (480), which serves as a doorbell, signaling the arrival of a customer, and this squeak serves a novelistic function of priming the reader to pay attention to both this scene and the novel’s elaborate “systems of squeaks” (484)
  • Ironically, the squeak’s banality is precisely the reason it carries out a deadly function, for what Lucien naïvely believes to be the benign door hinge is really the threat of the A.F.R.’s squeaking wheelchairs as they come to murder Lucien and his brother. Even though Lucien notices a “figure in the wheelchair” and then “a different figure in a different wheelchair” and “yet another figure in a wheelchair, coming this way” (484), he cannot “hear the squeak” because he is too simple. “Being out of the sociolinguistic loop” (fn206, 1034), “Lucien has been hearing squeaks for several minutes from what he naïvely like the babe assumed was the door’s upper hinge. This hinge does truly squeak” (484), but he cannot conceive anything other than a doorbell and misses death walk right through his front door.
  • When the wheelchair assassins finally confront Lucien, his “clean and transparent” mind finally grasps the significance of the squeaks, and he “now hears systems of squeaks, slow and soft but now stealthy squeaks” (484). Lucien must “hear the squeak” in an “instant, terrifying, and violent death” (fn304.1057), so that the reader can “hear the squeak” in a non-lethal, but just as significant way. Lucien’s death makes us aware of the “system of squeaks,” enabling us to become “equal and interactive participants” in Wallace’s Wittgensteinian language game.
  • After Lucien’s death, the word “squeak” reappears frequently, signifying different things in different contexts, but always irritating characters by reminding them of rats. These squeaks serve as reminders of discomfort and ultimately, death:
    • A chair’s “rapid rodential squeaking [gives] Hal Incandenza the howling fantods” (509) and “ma[kes] one half of Kittenplan’s face spasm” (514)
    • James Incandenza’s father talks about “’areas [of his mattress] that gibber and squeak… until we both feel as if we’re being eaten by rats… boiling hordes of gibbering squeaking ravenous rapacious rats,’ he said, almost trembling with irritation” (492)
    • While Randy Lenz hunts cats, he is disturbed by “serious rats” that make “godawful twittering squeaks” (540).
  • "Squeak" actually does what it signifies. Marshall Boswell argues that Infinite Jest is “a story that loves enough to be cruel” and is “cruel to its readers, but for the readers’ own good” and the squeaks are cruel to the reader, but for the reader’s own good. The squeaks give the reader the “howling fantods” (509) and symbolically eat at the reader, just like rats would. Each squeak is like Lenore Beadsman’s jarring, Wittgenstenian “aha,” and functions as a non-verbal, "bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world's well-known tongues" (488-9), serving as a constant reminder of our embeddedness in language.

External Sources

Daverman, Brooks. “The Limits of the Infinite: The Use of Alcoholics Anonymous in Infinite Jest as a Narrative Solution after Postmodernism,” April 25 2001.