“Son, you’re ten, and this is hard news for somebody ten, even if you’re almost five-eleven, a possible pituitary freak. Son, you’re a body, son. That quick little scientific-prodigy’s mind she’s so proud of and won’t quit twittering about: son, it’s just neural spasms, those thoughts in your mind are just the sound of your head revving, and the head is still just body, Jim. Head is body. Jim, brace yourself against my shoulders here for this hard news, at ten: you’re a machine a body an object, Jim, no less than this rutilant Montclair, this coil of hose here or that rake there for the front yard’s gravel or sweet Jesus this nasty fat spider flexing in its web over there up next to the rake-handle, see it? See it? Latrodectus mactans, Jim. Widow. Grab this racquet and move gracefully and feelingly over there and kill that widow for me, young sir Jim. Go on. Make it say ‘K.’ Take no names. There’s a lad. Here’s to a spiderless section of communal garage. Ah. Bodies bodies everywhere. A tennis ball is the ultimate body, kid. We’re coming to the crux of what I have to try to impart to you before we get out there and start actuating this fearsome potential of yours. Jim, a tennis ball is the ultimate body, kid. We’re coming to the crux of what I have to try to impart to you before we get out there and start actuating this fearsome potential of yours. Jim, a tennis ball is the ultimate body. Perfectly round. Even distribution of mass. But empty inside, utterly, vacuum. Susceptible to whim, spin, to force – used well or poorly. It will reflect your own character. Characterless itself. Pure potential.” (Infinite Jest, pg 159-160)
In this scene, James Orin Incandenza Jr.’s (J.O.I.J) father, James Orin Incandenza Sr. (J.O.I.S.), is lecturing him on life and tennis. The entire chapter is a monologue. The first significant aspect of the passage is the reference to bodies. In this case, J.O.I.S. seems to objectify J.O.I.J. by calling him a body and relating him to an empty tennis ball. J.O.I.S. is purposefully undermining J.O.I.J.’s intelligence at the same time as hallowing out his character. He treats his son like a puppet, telling him to kill the spider and repeating how he has nothing more than potential. J.O.I.J. only has potential for what his father wants him to do. There is some interesting play here with the way Wallace constantly adds in “Jim” or “kid” or any other direct reference to James. There seems to be acknowledgement of J.O.I.J. as an individual consistently contrasting with statements that strip him as an independent agent capable of holding an identity. The fact that we understand what J.O.I.J. does or says in this chapter through only his father’s remarks further reflects J.O.I.S.’s tendency and desire to control his son, for J.O.I.S. literally controls all knowledge the reader has access to about J.O.I.J. in the scene, including his actions and responses to questioning. The ball is also a tool that is to be controlled, which accurately parallels what J.O.I.S. wants to do to his son. Children are also susceptible to whim and force. Wallace’s prose cleverly depicts an overbearing relationship through the prose as well as the form.
Most of the paragraphs in this passage are very long. J.O.I.S. seems to ramble and repeat himself frequently, alluding to how deeply-rooted his intentions must be, specifically his intention to basically make his son live up to his own childhood dream of becoming a great tennis player by giving J.O.I.J. an excessive amount of attention, which the reader can imply is the result of J.O.I.S.’s father’s detachment from him in his childhood. J.O.I.S. makes a lot of references to bodies beyond just descriptions of J.O.I.J. This could be conveying thoughts on people just being empty agents of action. However, J.O.I.S. specifically says that this is hard news, namely the news that J.O.I.J. is a machine and similar analogies. Almost as if this is some kind of painful truth that everyone must accept by hallowing themselves, and even numbing themselves to it: as if each person is just a piece, without choice or control, in a complex network of events as many of the themes in the novel suggest. J.O.I.S. has not seem to come to terms with this idea that he preaches evidenced by a subtle hint at alcoholism later in the chapter. The use of the word characterless is also intriguing. Wallace is making a direct analogy between the tennis ball and J.O.I.J., which means that J.O.I.S. can be extrapolated as, metaphorically, being the forces affecting the ball. At the end of the passage, the tennis ball reflects the character of the person applying force, which seems to be J.O.I.S. Furthermore, the user is also described as characterless in the next sentence. Wallace is giving the reader a look into the mind of J.O.I.S., who perceives himself as characterless, continuing this theme of people being bodies without substance. He clearly demonstrates through his ranting that he has opinions, desires, dreams, and a complex history. These conflicting statements that are inconspicuously self-referential are telling of Wallace’s intention. Through prose and form, he is giving us many ways to think about the idea of people having substance versus being empty throughout the novel, this chapter, and especially this passage.