Narrative as Performance in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is itself a performance: its narrative comprises so many story lines that it reinvents the idea of narrative, and the story lines intersect in such unexpected, often adventitious ways that even “hypertext” fails to describe the work. Perhaps the best label would be “encyclopedic heaping.”… By upending the notion of a traditional story line and by parodying both traditional and postmodernist conventions, Wallace takes the chance that his readers will abandon (in confusion, frustration, despair, disgust) his 1,079-page opus. But its details, language, its local pleasures, its wildly metastasizing inventiveness capture the imagination—captured mine, anyway—enough so that the confusion about genre, tone, structure, about the basic arc of events, let’s say, can be put in abeyance. I did not abandon it, though I confess I was tempted to. As I read on, I realized that this novel was having a curious impact on me, was penetrating my consciousness in a way that struck me as unusual.

                                                                                        ~ Frank Louis Cioffi (161-62)

Frank Louis Cioffi’s “’An Anguish Become Thing’: Narrative as Performance in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest” discusses, in quite a systematic fashion, the physical and emotional effects of reading Infinite Jest. The plot revolves around performance: the proceedings at the Enfield Tennis Academy show the compulsive practice that precedes it, the terrorism subplot shows the perversion that surrounds it, and the happenings at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic] shows the entrapment that it causes. 

Cioffi uses the term “disturbing text” to refer to the relationship of the reader with the performance of the text. He mentions that something about the book causes some sort of mental distress (163). These texts impact the reader on an emotional level—they provoke a response. I agree that reading Infinite Jest is like experiencing the emotions of the addicts in the novel. I needed to know what happened next, but the story is non-linear, so I had to read to get to where I wanted to be. I’m not a drug addict nor am I a competitive athlete, but I understand the desperation that comes from trying to attain a higher goal.

Wallace’s prose is a performance all in itself. It’s one facet of the novel that takes some time to get acclimated with. Each sentence, whether it’s a short standalone paragraph or a four-page thought, conveys a sense of poetry. It’s three novels intertwined into one, with characters crossing over into each other’s lives, imitating life. Isn’t that what a performance is—an imitation of life?

This highlights what Cioffi calls the reader’s role as a performer (169). The sheer volume of the book (I’m referring to both the physical weight of the novel and the obscene word count that results from a 1,000 page adventure like this one) causes the reader to break out of his or her comfort zone. Flipping back and forth between the text and the endnotes took me out of the linear process of reading; the absolute mass of the book made me move out of discomfort (the book landed on my face a couple time—it was unpleasant). 

Cioffi believes that the reader’s performance—the act of reading Infinite Jest—resembles addiction. For one, certain sections read in a continuous stream of thought, allowing us to experience the minds of the characters, such as Ken Erdedy when he’s waiting for the marijuana (Wallace 20). Wallace forces us, as readers, to become the addict that we read about. After reading a third of the book, there’s a compulsion to keep going, to win the game and the one after that. Cioffi compares reading the book to watching the InterLace cartridges. The people in Wallace’s futuristic world spend hours in front of their television screens, just like we’ve spent hunched over this book.

Cioffi states that the addictive quality of Infinite Jest is something that exists in all good literature. We feel an attachment to its world, its characters, its premise. The emotional response we have mirrors the context of the text. The characters mirror the addiction and obsessiveness we experience. We are no longer the audience; we are the performers. We accept these emotions, however false they may be, because our imaginations allow us to do so, just as they would with a movie or a play.

I skipped a section before the conclusion because Cioffi discusses the end and I’m not quite there yet, but I agree with his conclusion—reading Infinite Jest requires a divided consciousness (177). We are both the audience and the performer. We are both addicted and repulsed by the text.

I think Cioffi says it best, “Ultimately, Wallace’s novel almost ensorcells readers, entangling them in a web created of apparently mutually exclusive roles which they are constantly struggling to reconcile” (178).

Cioffi, Frank Louis. “An Anguish Become Thing”: Narrative as Performance in David Foster Wallace’s” Infinite Jest.” Narrative (2000): 161-181. 

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. Print.

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