Exploring Infinite Jest’s Environment and its Effects

Disclaimer: this essay contained a few examples from parts of the book the class hasn’t read yet, so I avoided examining those parts too closely for the sake of not spoiling myself.

Heather Houser’s critical essay “Infinite Jest’s Environmental Case for Disgust” explores the discussion of waste, environment, and the human body that takes place within infinite jest. Though these three topics may not seem related, Houser demonstrates the greater meaning that is made when these concepts are isolated from the rest of the novel and placed in relation to each other. She points out that Infinite Jest contains central images of waste being laid to the environment and to human bodies, referencing the Great Concavity/Convexity and the loquacious description of Marathe’s wife’s many physical ailments. She demonstrates the narrative connection between the waste of the environment and the waste of human bodies by pointing out Wallace’s descriptions of parts of Boston as a human body with the MIT Student Union as a brain and ETA as a circulatory system.

Houser argues that the descriptions of the broken environment in the book as well as human bodies that are deformed as a result of the problems in the environment are meant to trigger a reader’s sense of disgust. Sections such as the one describing Marathe’s wife’s host of ailments are intended to both disgust the reader and keep them engaged through the use of hyperbole. According to Houser, the problems faced by the environment and people such as Marathe’s wife in Infinite Jest are meant to remind the reader of reality but not be so familiar as to alienate him or her. Thus, the reader’s sense of disgust is able to draw a connection between reality and the universe of the novel while keeping him or her engaged in the book through the use of hyperbole. The overall achievement of this focus on the environment, human bodies, and waste is that it subtly likens the possibility of an ethical standard for treatment of the environment with the ethical standard of caring for fellow humans.

I was surprised not to see much representation of drugs or addiction in the essay. Drugs are mentioned once in the essay as an example of the ways that the characters’ disgust with the world is manifested in the novel, but I see them as an integral part of any conversation that involves human bodies in Infinite Jest. I believe that they are particularly applicable to this discussion because of the frequent connections between drugs, addicts, and the physical environments that connect them. Hal’s favorite place to smoke is explicitly described, as is the bathroom stall where Poor Tony detoxes and the house where Joelle does cocaine. Each of these locations is lonely and isolated from the rest of the environment, but the terrible effects of drugs (including the Entertainment) on human bodies as well as the self-disgust that Wallace frequently correlates with addiction (I.e. the first Ken Erdedy scene) are comparable to the subjects Houser tackles in her criticism.

I’m also curious about the environmental narrative in that scenes that do not take place at the Great Concavity contain few if any markers of an environmental apocalypse. The contraptions that carry waste to the Great Concavity are ever-present, but otherwise, the environment appears the same as it presumably did in 1994. The disastrous environmental impact of human existence is essentially hidden from the characters in the novel. This concept isn’t mentioned in the essay, but I believe that the lack of connection between the environments that the majority of the novel takes place in and the Great Concavity creates a sense of urgency and timelessness related to the horrifying impact that human life has on the environment in the novel.

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4 Responses to Exploring Infinite Jest’s Environment and its Effects

  1. argyle8 says:

    Your post made me consider the link between caring for the environment and caring for human bodies. You explained that DFW subtly promotes caring for the environment, lest pollution cause all kinds of human deformities (such as in Marathe’s wife). DFW considers these deformities to be a negative side effect, and he describes deformed characters with disgusting details. Perhaps his descriptions were too disgusting – there were certain points of the novel when I thought that his descriptions sounded mean and mocking, especially during the horrifying AA speech about a dad assaulting his handicapped daughter (373). I know that these characters are fictional, but the narrator’s tone still implies that deformed people are repulsive. Do you think that DFW’s descriptions of people with deformities went too far and became insulting to handicapped people?


    • epiratequeen says:

      That’s something that I hadn’t previously considered, but it certainly merits a lot of analysis. Without spending a lot of time consulting the book (and identifying as able-bodied), I think that Infinite Jest has some positive representation of disability while being fairly flippant about the disabled community in general. Mario and Steeply are both characterized beyond their disabilities, but it’s easy to see how sections of the novel that include disability (physically impossible disability, but still) as a way to trigger reader disgust is very rude to disabled people.


  2. 1ady1azarus says:

    We both seem to feel like something was lacking in Houser’s engagement with “disgust.” You point to her lack of attention to drug use, which is certainly a form of “somatic poisoning” (120) that she neglects. I was more disappointed with her less than stellar explanation of the function of human waste in this novel. When I read the title of this article, the word “disgust” suggested to me that the article would deal heavily with all of the bodily waste that permeates IJ. I mean, most of the action takes place in a year dedicated to an adult diaper – clearly, Wallace is doing something with human excrement that we need to talk about. I was surprised that Houser really only got to this aspect near the end, and even at that point she was more concerned with bodily sicknesses and deformities – Marathe’s wife, the skull cranial-challenged infants, etc. – and how those arose from O.N.A.N.’s ecological sickness. Which like, fine, yeah, granted, but what about all the other (literal) shit?

    And then what about the moments where this novel disgusts its reader, not on a somatic level, but on a moral level? The stripper’s story of her foster-sister, or Lenz’s nightly adventures that were, quite frankly, difficult for me to get through without turning the pages really, really quickly and only skimming the text. Do those instances of disgust work the same way, somehow making the reader pay more attention and therefore breaking down the detachment Wallace was so troubled by in our culture? I don’t know if they do, honestly.


    • mjp99 says:

      read “The Illusion of Autonomy and the Fact of Recursivity: Virtual Ecologies, Entertainment, and “Infinite Jest” ” – it will speak to some of the larger questions about waste in IJ and how they relate to environments and addiction, and how the paradox of an autonomous and liberal self existing in a coproductive environment – and the dangers of this modality – is depicted in IJ through recursion among other things (to boil the piece down Considerably). There’s some spoilers though if you don’t already have some suspicions about the ending.

      It may illuminate some of the moral side of IJ’s environment too, only not precisely in those terms.

      The Lenz brutality though… yeah not exactly sure what to do with that other than brand it as serious moments of excess. Although surprisingly less painful to read (perhaps just from a presentation standpoint – in that there is some distance to Wallace’s prose) than Pynchon’s nosejob scene from V.

      Liked by 1 person

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