Wallace’s Subtle Hints in the Beginning of Infinite Jest

“Avril Incandenza still sticks with the old L’Islet- region practice of taking just tea and nibbles at U.S. suppertime and waiting to eat seriously until right before bed. Cultured Canadians tend the think vertical digestion makes the mind unkeen. Some of Orin and Mario and Hal’s earliest memories are of nodding off at the dining-room table and being gently carried by a very tall man to bed. This was in a different house. Madam Psychossis’s cued musics stir very early memories of Mario’s father.” (Infinite Jest, 191)

This selection is from a much larger passage of the text, in which Hal and Mario are at the Headmaster’s House for dinner with their mother and uncle. Hal, Charles Tavis, and Avril Incandenza sit behind a wall of plants at the dining room table, while Mario listens quietly to Madame Psychosis’s WYYY broadcast.

I was especially drawn to this specific moment in the passage because of what the text words so strangely, particularly in regards to what at this point in the novel we would assume is JOI. So much is subtly hinted at that we will learn later in the book, but Wallace alludes to these facts so delicately that the reader only gets a general sense of confusion or malaise regarding the whole scene, neither flat out being told the truth or flat out lied to.

To begin with, this is the first moment in the text when we really get to see how tied Avril is to her Quebecois heritage. Though Avril has lived in the United States for at least 25 years by this point in the novel[1] and all of North America is now the Organization of North American Nations, the text specifically states that she chooses to identify as Canadian, and a “cultured Canadian” at that, refusing to even follow the normalized eating pattern of the culture her husband and sons were raised in. This is later explored in the text many times[2].

However, the portion of this section I find most interesting is the dancing around the subject of Mario’s father. At first, we are told that Hal, Mario, and Orin were carried to bed by “a very tall man”. It would supposedly seem that this man would be James Orin Incandenza Junior, seeing as he is described as being tall[3], and it would obviously make sense for the boys’ father to be carrying them to bed. But why does the text purposely not say “their father”, instead referring to him simply as “a man”? This would imply that the man who is carrying the children is not James Orin Incandenza[4], or that the man is James Orin Incandenza but for some reason it would not make sense to call JOI the father of all three boys mentioned, so therefore he is not called as such.

This suspicious notion is further implied when just two sentences later “Mario’s father” is mentioned. This is pretty strangely worded. Why not say “Madam Psychossis’s cued musics stirred in Mario very early memories of his father”? By wording the sentence this way, Wallace is not saying who is remembering early memories of Mario’s father. The text seems to be implying that Mario’s father is a wholly different person from the man who is interpreted as being the father of the Incandenza family. This is supported more and more over the course of the novel, but this is the first subtle hint we get that perhaps all is not as it seems regarding the lineage of Mario Incandenza.[5]

[1] Hal is 17, Orin is 8-9 years older than Hal.

[2] The moment I am thinking of that has most thoroughly explored Avril’s militant Quebecois nationalism at this point is endnote 101, particularly “I’m really the wrong blood-relative to ask about the intricacies of the Canadian radical mind, O. We have a blood-relative who’s got dual citizenship, if you recall. Who I’m sure’d be overjoyed to ponder Separatist ideological flux with you all you want and then some” (1013) and “The impression I get is that Quebec’s hatred of Anglophone Canada transcends anything they could work up against O.N.A.N. Just mention 1759 and the Mom’s lips disappear. Pemulis and Axford keep coming early and putting a big gothic 1759 on the blackboard before G&M just to watch the Mom’s lips disappear when she comes in and sees it” (1014).

[3] “James Incandenza… tall, bespectacled, domineering at the net” (63), “the tall A.E.C.-optics man (i.e. Incandenza)” (82), and “Son, you’re ten, and this is hard news for somebody ten, even if you’re almost five eleven, a possible pituitary freak” (159).

[4] Providing a different intrigue, because a man would have to be in the Incandenza household after 10pm by this logic.

[5] Moments of note including: “The first birth of the Incandenzas’ second son” (312), and the fact that Mario bares no real resemblance to JOI yet it is said he does look a good bit like his Uncle Charles Tavis, Mario described as having “khaki- colored skin, an odd gray-green” (314) and then later in the same paragraph CT having “a gleaming yarmulke of bare gray-green complected scalp” (314).

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1 Response to Wallace’s Subtle Hints in the Beginning of Infinite Jest

  1. You’ve noticed a lot here, but I don’t have a sense of your argument–i.e., this seems largely descriptive rather than interpretive. What’s at stake for you noticing these things?


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