Infinite Jest Commonplace #2

“And are you hearing me talking, Dad?”

The answer is always, “No.”

In Chapter 3, we meet Hal’s father, James Incandenza, for the first time. Of course, we don’t know that it’s James. DFW gives us nothing but dialogue and sound effects, an exchange between Hal and a professional conversationalist who turns out to be Hal’s dad in disguise.

This chapter is a send up of the meeting Hamlet has with his ghostly father in Hamlet‘s first act. Yes, that conversation is about plot: “Son, I was murdered! Revenge me!” But it’s also establishing that Hamlet Sr. cares way more about Gertrude than he does his son. He never expresses affection, just a demand that Hamlet fulfill his filial responsibility. Hamlet worships his father, but he is merely an errand boy for his dad.

In this IF scene, father and son are talking past one another. There’s a passing knowledge of one another, but the conversation’s gist is that they can’t have a conversation. James has Hamlet Sr.’s same obsession with his wife’s sexual (in)fidelity, and the son is simply a means to the father’s end.

To top it all off: the imagery of a father’s face melting as he talks incomprehensibly past his auditor? A mirror image of Hal’s situation in Chapter 1.

Infinite Jest Commonplace #2

Infinite Jest Commonplace #1

I started rereading DFW’s Infinite Jest today with an eye towards formulating an argument about the book’s copious Hamlet allusions. I’ll be trying to keep a commonplace book with my thoughts on the topic as I read through the book over the next couple of months.

“I am not what you see and hear.”

Hal Incandenza, the first of the novel’s Hamlet analogues, says this during an admissions interview. It’s a nice analogue to Hamlet’s statement: “But I have that within which passeth show.”

In IF‘s first chapter, we see a young man whose thoughts and perception of what he’s doing are literally the exact opposite of how he’s actually acting. He tries to smile and ends up grimacing. He tries to speak and sounds sub-mammalian. In Hamlet, the tension is between what Hamlet is wearing (funereal garb) and what he’s feeling. He insists that his appearance is matched–even exceeded-by his feelings.

Meanwhile, DFW makes his Claudius-esque character, Hal’s uncle, into Hal’s spokesperson. We don’t (yet) perceive a tension between Hal and his Uncle Charles, and CT (as Hal dubs him) generally tries to protect Hal in this opening chapter.

Final thought: tennis as fencing?



Infinite Jest Commonplace #1