I am coming to believe that there is not one normal character in this book.77 We see characters with physical deformities (the wheelchair assassins, Mario); mental problems (Himself, Kate Gompert, others); substance addictions (the Ennet house gang, a vast number of students at E.T.A); sociopathic tendencies (Lenz, Lenz, Lenz); obsessive compulsions (Avril Incandenza, Lateral Alice Moore); and gender dysphoria (Hugh Steeply, Poor Tony). But no one ‘normal’.
This has been distracting to me in the past. The world of Infinite Jest already requires such a suspension of disbelief — what with the concavity, and the subsidization, and the idea that people are scared by a group of assassins that could be thwarted by a set of stairs78 that adding in a cast of characters all so uniquely deviant stretches that disbelief just a mite too far. Of course, this can be a problem with fiction in general, and is preferable to a set of perfect players. After all, “perfect characters are boring, and sometimes even annoying … character flaws = sources of conflict.”
But these flaws are such an integral part of IJ that I’m beginning to think that David Foster Wallace is trying to achieve some goal other than making sure no character is too idealized to be interesting. Because it’s one thing to make a character too arrogant to achieve their own goals, or blinded by greed, or any other of a number of common tropes. But Infinite Jest takes things to extremes, with Orin engaging in ritualistic seductions to fulfill some Oedipal desire, with Joelle feeling the need to cover her face due to severe deformity79 and with Lenz killing small animals at night.
These are all extremely negative deviancies. That’s what I keep getting caught up on. No one seems to be particularly happy with how different they are, except Mario. And we really can’t trust his opinion on such matters, because he has “a neurological deficit whereby he can’t feel physical pain very well” (p. 589). Mario’s experiences with feeling — at a very base level — are so wildly different to every other human that he cannot be counted on for a reliable comparison of relative happiness.
I feel like this theme of difference is meant to be a lesson — stray too far from the norm, and you will be deeply, deeply unhappy. Do drugs, and you will be unhappy (like the majority of the Ennet House residents). Be too much of a winner, and you will be unhappy (as demonstrated by Clipperton). Be too smart, and you might well erase your own map (perhaps with Himself’s microwave method).
This unhappiness will be permanent, too. No one in the book so far has managed to deviate from a societal norm and come back from the other side unscathed. The addicts are eternal addicts, doomed to become the old men of Boston AA — forever believing that they must Keep Coming Back, lest they fall back into addiction. And even doing that may not be able to save them from true, visceral hideousness; Lenz is hitting meetings like a champ, but they’re not stopping him from killing small creatures on the way home.
The tennis players are incessantly protected from hype, lest they come to see themselves as exceptional — as beyond the average, the normal — and lose their on-court edge. The novel’s many geniuses fall victim to punishments for their difference, too. If we’re not watching Himself kill himself, we’re seeing the hyper-smart and closed-off Avril having sex with under-age boys (p. 553 if you don’t believe me), or listening to Hal assure us the he is “in there”, as the world around him sees nothing but a seizing, “sub-animalistic” boy.
Which brings me to my real concern in all this: Hal. I’ve mentioned before that I’m curious as to how Hal comes by the disability that serves as this book’s very first ‘shocker’. I’ve been hoping that it will be something temporary — perhaps a drug dose that I can hope he one day recovers from, or a stray tennis ball to the head that may cause brain damage that science or time may one day fix. But you see, Hal is committing a number of ‘crimes of difference’ throughout this novel. He’s exceptionally smart. He’s a superb athlete. And he’s using drugs.
Going by the established pattern, that’s a trifecta of deviancy that Infinite Jest can only punish. And I’m worrying that — like Himself’s death, Marathe’s disability, and Don Gately’s addiction — it will be a very permanent punishment indeed.