The Portrayal of Addiction Through Focus

“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.

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About Rachel

Hi! I'm 22 years old, a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor's degree in neuroscience. I joined the Peace Corps after graduating and have spent the past months preparing. Shortly, I'll be leaving for Lesotho to be a secondary education math teacher for two years. Hopefully, this blog will serve as both a way to keep in contact with my friends and family back home and a reference to others considering joining the Peace Corps. Thanks for reading!
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5 Responses to The Portrayal of Addiction Through Focus

  1. An interesting engagement w/ an important moment in the text, but I have two related comments. First, I would like to see you moving toward a more interpretive and analytic (rather than largely descriptive and synoptic) engagement w/ the text, which will allow you to articulate an argument that you are on the verge of formulating here. Second, I wonder how your prose (and reading) would change if you remove the relatively clunky phrase “the reader.”

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  2. tangledheadphones1057 says:

    Joelle’s suicide attempt is written almost like a theatrical event. A play is interpreted by its audience. You wouldn’t interrupt a play when the house is open; in parallel, Wallace finishes this section without adding endnotes. It’s also worth noting how Joelle’s suicide attempt is the opposite of Himself’s. Joelle places herself in a position to be found and rescued, unlike Himself, who was found dead by Hal. She is the “cry for help.”

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  3. leficorn93 says:

    Since you chose this scene, you might be interested to read the article that Bradley recommended in another post, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/03/09/the-unfinished. This article was published in The New Yorker 6 months after Wallace’s death. It touches on Wallace’s struggle with depression, leading to his suicide, as well as his life story, and his published collection of works. Probably the most intriguing aspect to me while reading this novel is the author behind the words. Pulling from this article, it is interesting to note that Wallace never wrote about his own struggle with depression. He did, however, publish a short story, called “The Depressed Person,” in which he describes “‘pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth.’” (The New Yorker) Your points about the simplicity of this scene, in order to let the reader seamlessly join Joelle, are interesting to note in relation to the fragility with which Wallace describes this scene. Knowledge of Wallace’s own struggles, which finally caused him to take his own life, puts scenes like this in a new light for me. Authors often use personal experience for what they write, and the knowledge of how they relate to their characters creates a relationship between the author and character that the reader can view, and gain enlightened perspective on the contents of the novel. It’s similar to breaking “the fourth wall” and adds more truth to the words on the page.

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  4. mdr50 says:

    I love how you pointed out that Wallace describes Joelle’s addiction in a way that “forces the reader into Joelle’s position.” It does seem that in this particular scene Wallace wants to do more than to delineate an addicts psyche and emotions; he gives us almost no choice but to feel Joelle’s emotions in a way that creates a special kind of poignancy. However, I am at a loss at trying to understand why Wallace is choosing Joelle. Why would he single out her addiction from say Gately’s or Edredy’s addiction? What is the significance of choosing this particular point in the novel to describe addiction in such a way? Any ideas?

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  5. mjp99 says:

    I have to agree that this paragraph is doing some serious procedural work to ensconce the reader in Joelle’s own cooking procedure – I think you are right to point out how his prose reflects the focused and deliberate actions she takes to achieve her goal. I disagree, however, that this is what allows us access to Joelle’s emotion. I feel his choppy, practically uncharacteristic sentences (relative to Wallace’s normal maximalism) serve solely to slow you down and focus you on what is actually happening, what Joelle is doing rather than elsewhere where his long clauses speak readily to the tangential nature of thoughts. 4/5 of the sentences you pointed to start with “She,” the writing habit usually first drilled out of people, to that we are suddenly extremely focused on the diegetic present, precisely what Joelle is doing, and not tangents of prose about perhaps Heidegger film conversations or that Hal might have the same shower curtain.

    Suddenly we have restricted sentences that are short and enforce pauses, slow the reading voice down (unlike the long-running marathon paragraphs of prose that have you out of breath by the time you’ve reached the period) and whose subjects are firmly planted in that bathroom with her.

    In effect I think this is striking not for its access to Joelle’s emotions – which Wallace does do later by referencing both Orin (in his inability to fulfill her need to be loved) and the AA discussion about the addict’s belief that her substance is her only true love, the only true satiation – but because of its tangible detail and the gravity of what that detail is describing.

    At other points in the novel (like the first section) the detail can seem superfluous, sometimes even pretentious or unnecessary, but here it has weight because he is describing (and in some ways delaying, drawing us in) her suicide (attempt – but we don’t know it is failed until she reappears at the Ennet House), and we, like Joelle, are focused to an obsessive degree to the dramatic (literally, as someone else has noted above, the theatrical occurring at party full of film-heads) circumstances of this prose style. And in my opinion Wallace is signalling something larger is at stake in the moment, saying, to be casual about it, “hold on, take a breath, this is life or death, someone choosing to kill themselves as a product of excessive addiction to how good something makes her feel, and do it through that pleasure. Stop, focus, pay attention.” not just imaginative access to her emotional state. We get Joelle’s emotion elsewhere, for example in her description of the dancer, but when she’s in the bathroom it’s business.

    Perhaps a better avenue into thinking about how we feel in this scene, or how Wallace uses the text and characters to reflect how we probably feel reading it, is the guy who comes knocking at the door. Slight concern, maybe even a bit of frustration – like why can’t Wallace just tell us sometimes – but ultimately we move on.

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