August 21, 2012
I knew him well (Infinite Jest and the necessary self-abnegation of the postmodern condition)

Infinite Jest is more often read than understood; by virtue of being a behemoth, it is conclusively desirable; a conspicuously modern phenomenon analogous in literature to Veblen goods in economics. Its value is compounded by the effect of this phenomenon on others, rendering it also a positional good for having read it. By treating it in this way, much of the book’s purpose is missed, for Infinite Jest, far from being a token gesture of prolixity and literary profligacy, forms a key point in the history of literature and self-understanding.

It is clear to the reader that Infinite Jest was written in the ebb of postmodernism. However, there remains no doubt that it clearly inheres within the realm of postmodern literature; the art/drug catatonic dichotomy paying overt homage to that of Great Jones Street à la Pierre Menard, the poioumenonic hermeneutics pastiching that of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, with nonpareil adherence to Pynchonian maximalism, the densely referential prose hearkening to patently Borgesian erudition. Though there are many other ways in which this work stands on the shoulders of its forebears, the main way in which Infinite Jest is beholden to postmodernism forms the purpose of this essay.

Infinite Jest aims to encompass, and not to accrete to, postmodern literature and literary theory - hence the myriad ways in which it prognosticates its own analysis as a work of this canon; for one, it preempts Derridean analysis. The idea that there is nothing outside the text cannot be said of Infinite Jest, for whom what is made out to be the cynosure is not included in the actual text, being anterior to the introductory epilogue, and posterior to the remainder of the book. What has been called Infinite Jest’s ‘profound void’ by critics is the nonexistent centre of the book.

The plot of Infinite Jest follows a necessary parabola; the first half of the novel is spent accelerating, followed by a slow deceleration which takes place during the second moiety - this necessarily loses the book fans among those who demand a conclusion, or a climax, as opposed to the duple structure. The parabola is marked repeatedly with its vectors in order to fortify and clarify itself; Hal Incandenza and Donald Gately refer to exhuming James Incandenza’s head (with regard to the Hamlet scene which begat the title of Infinite Jest) at points in the novel reflected along the center and equidistant respectively from the start and end of the book; the same can be said of the two parts of Tony Krause’s inclusion.

The parabolic vertex, the perfect omphalos of the whole book, rests upon the death of Lucien Antitoi at the hands of the Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, during the longest sentence of the entire prolix work. At this moment, which recalls Borges’ El Milagro Secreto especially in its final reference to the world’s tongues, Lucien reflects upon his life and his mortality. The neatly mathematical nature of this point, in direct contrast to the generative ambiguity of the novel, marks it as the postmodern terminus. Postmodernism by nature tends towards its own end. Furthermore, in accordance with Hegelian dialectic, it must achieve consummation through annihilation, completing itself by reaching the limiting parabolic heights; true postmodernism is self-destructive.


Postmodernism is a movement striving to understand itself, to understand the nature of existential heterodoxy, of self-referentiality and the repudiation of ideological allegiances - as such, it finds itself counter to its aims, while aiming to further them. It is corporeal and autonomous in its definitive attempt to understand itself, and as such, Infinite Jest is foreshadowed heavily by previous literature, as in Jack Gladney’s pertinent fear of death in White Noise - in its meta-existence, as in the coetaneous future of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five Tralfamadorians, the postmodern condition can anticipate itself. Infinite Jest is simultaneously the peak and fall of postmodernism, the very old man with enormous wings which was self-definitively unexpected. In achieving full comprehension, it is unexpected; in being unexpected, it abnegates postmodernism; in abnegating postmodernism, it consummates postmodernism.