Close Reading 1: James Sr. Lecturing James Jr. in 1960 – 1/27/15

“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.

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4 Responses to Close Reading 1: James Sr. Lecturing James Jr. in 1960 – 1/27/15

  1. 1ady1azarus says:

    Like you said, the most striking feature of this passage is its treatment of bodies, but heads as well, with the insistence that “Head is body” by James’s father. This is a line of reasoning that I’m pretty sure is going to pervade the entire text, so I think it’s important to look at this moment with J.O.I.S. and maybe even keep returning to it. I mean, the first sentence of this gargantuan novel is “I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies” (head =/= body for Hal, at least). And I remember catching another sight of the head/body idea when one of Orin’s Subjects is watching an educational cartridge called “SCHIZOPHRENIA: MIND OR BODY?… but the old CBC documentary’s thesis was turning out pretty clearly to be SCHIZOPHRENIA: BODY” (47). I’m sure there’s a ton more. This thread has got to go somewhere. I have some theories on the dissociation of mind and body, mostly related to the effects of drug use and addiction, but I’m not quite sure what to do with J.O.I.S’s refusal to dissociate the two here in your passage, especially since he is an addict himself.
    I do agree that J.O.I.S. objectifies his son by reducing him down to “a machine a body an object,” but it’s really interesting that at the same time, he personifies objects, granting them a sense of agency he denied his son (for instance, on the same page he says that the Montclair “will respond. If given its due. With artful care”).

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  2. An interesting reading of a fascinating passage. I would, however, like to hear more about what is important about this passage w/r/t/t novel. Expanding considerably on the last sentence here would certainly be one way of exploring the stakes of your reading.

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  3. drseuss1 says:

    I do see J.O.I.S’s objectification of J.O.I.J as indeed cold and scientific. J.O.I.S. tries to probe the thermodynamics of the boy in regard to his promise as a tennis player, using descriptive phrases of ‘even distribution of mass’, ‘ultimate body’, ‘force’, and ‘pure potential’. J.O.I.S. uses that last phrase with what I can imagine a hopeful and yearning inflection in his tone. J.O.I.J as of this point in his life is a rock at rest. But is the rock in a valley or on top of a mountain? When pushed, will it return to its place or cascade down with great release of energy? J.O.I.S. needs to know if J.O.I.J’s state of rest has potential energy. Will he remain static and motionless in his progress to become a great tennis player or rather, is there a talent, a potential energy which, pushed and tested, will produce tenfold the skill?
    There is a profound sense of irony that despite J.O.I.S.’s value for only the physical potential of his son, using overtly physical terminology, J.O.I.J.’s potential energy lies on the other side of the hill, if you will: of academia in no other subject than physics. I think Wallace may be using the physics of tennis to ironize J.O.I.J’s choice of career path despite the efforts of his father.

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  4. mer95 says:

    I think an important parallel can be drawn between this scene and the opening scene of the novel. What JOIS seems to be trying to (convolutedly) convey to his son is that while your body may be empty, you are still inside it, and in order to be successful the mind needs to be in absolute control of the body.
    Take for example this passage, shortly before the passage quoted in the post:

    “You will be poetry in motion, Jim, size and posture and all. Don’t let the posture-problem fool you about your true potential out there. Take it from me, for a change. The trick will be transcending that overlarge head, son. Learning to move just the way you already sit still. Living in your body” (158).
    Now compare this to the very first paragraph of the novel:
    “I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November hear, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncles Charles, Mr. deLint, and I were lately received. I am in here” (3).
    Hal, as opposed to “living in his body” is instead a prisoner locked within it, having absolutely no control of his external actions. This is the most extreme example of a major problem that occurs for characters throughout the novel, of the mind clashing with the body. Time and time again, this motif occurs, be it (just to name a few big ones) addiction, tennis ability, or physical handicap.
    JOIS seems to be giving advice not only to his son, but to all the characters at the novel at large.

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