“This is the most deliberate she’s been able to be in at least a year. She turns the sink’s C knob and lets the water get really cold, then cranks the volume back to a trickle and fills the rest of the tube to the top with water. She holds the tube up straight and gently taps on its side with a blunt unpainted nail, watching the water slowly darken the powders beneath it. She produces a double rose of flame in the mirror that illuminates the right side of her face as she holds the tube over the matches’ flame and waits for the stuff to begin to bubble. She uses two matches, twice.” –David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest pg. 236
This passage is an excerpt from the scene where Joelle is attempting to kill herself by overdosing on cocaine at Molly Notkin’s party. Most noticeable about this scene is the attention to small details that Wallace supplies through the narrator. The reader is given a step by step account of Joelle’s actions. It’s as though the reader is in the mind of Joelle herself, focusing so desperately on what she is trying to do, and caring just as intently to make sure the process itself is carried out properly. There are no interruptions to this train of thought, in contrast to scenes such as the eschaton debacle where the reader is brought back jarringly to the spectators’ preoccupations (such as Hal trying to gather enough saliva in his mouth to spit).
More than just focus, the short and efficient prose also relays the importance to herself of what Joelle is doing. The reader effortlessly progresses through the sentences. Wallace even avoids using footnotes to interrupt the scene.The lack of extravagant language or complex syntax allows for such a smooth read. Despite the attention to detail, there is no struggle to follow what is happening plot-wise. Although the vocabulary is advanced at many points in the novel, this section is basic and uses words that are simple yet still effective. The reader doesn’t feel as though Joelle is uneducated, just that she is experiencing fundamental, human emotion that can be described on an easy-to-follow level. No attention is lost in deciphering the prose; rather, attention is held by making it surprisingly accessible.
Wallace also, by omitting to describe Joelle’s emotions, creates an emotional scene that the reader is forced to put together him or herself. Nowhere in the text does it explicitly say what Joelle is feeling. Rather, it forces the reader into Joelle’s position. The attention to detail she is experiencing is unnatural and, in a sense, maddening. The reader knows the cause of her focus but must go a step further than that and actual feel the focus she feels. The ease with which the prose can be read allows for any reader to slip into her shoes for a moment and experience everything from the careful lighting of the match to the auditory stimulus of the toilet. The awareness of these stimuli to Joelle and the reader are what makes the emotions come alive-they never have to be explicitly mentioned. In fact, it is far more natural because they are not.
Joelle’s deliberation in her actions is seen commonly in many substance users throughout Infinite Jest. Erdedy’s every thought known to the reader when he is waiting for his weed to be delivered is his attempt to make the best out of his situation and use the resources of the room he is in to his advantage. When the reader learns of what Hal is willing to do to get high in secret, it is an analytical description of the precautions he takes. Gately as a burglar is abnormally aware of the structure of the typical Boston house all so he can gain access to his pills of choice. Wallace shows the reader through focus what addicts are willing to do to obtain their drugs of choice.