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.