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  • Representing Entertainment(s) in Infinite Jest
  • Philip Sayers (bio)

The title of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest refers, amongst other things, to several films of the same title directed by one of the novel’s characters, James O. Incandenza (also known as Himself and the Mad Stork), the last of which provides what Wallace refers to (using, not untypically, a term taken from the realm of cinema) as the novel’s “MacGuffin” (Lipsky 157). Incandenza’s final Infinite Jest, referred to throughout the novel and henceforth in this paper simply as “the Entertainment” (Infinite Jest 90) is, however, “not just a MacGuffin” (Lipsky 157). It is a film apparently so compelling, so entertaining, that anyone who catches as much as a glimpse of it becomes utterly entranced, unable to engage in any activity other than watching the film, over and over, until death. As such, it is also “kind of a metaphorical device” (Lipsky 157), through which Wallace explores the role of film and television in contemporary US culture.

Wallace uses the term “entertainment” throughout the novel, and elsewhere in his writing (e.g., Supposedly Fun Thing 148), as a synonym for movies and television shows. This paper, then, explores first Wallace’s representation of entertainment in general, and second his representations of specific “entertainments.”

In his short 1975 essay “Upon Leaving the Movie Theater,” Roland Barthes writes about the cinema in a manner strikingly reminiscent of the Entertainment in Infinite Jest. He compares the movie-going experience to hypnosis, and he describes the spectator as glued by the nose to the screen, “riveted to the representation” (3). Essay and novel are both concerned with the question of how to “loosen the glue’s grip” (3), and both present film as conducive [End Page 346] of sleep: Barthes writes of “spectators slip[ping] into their seat as they slip into a bed, coat and feet on the seat in front of them” (2). This description is echoed in the way Wallace describes the viewing habits of the Canadian/ Saudi medical attaché who becomes the Entertainment’s first victim. For him, watching a selection of entertainment cartridges is a method of relaxation after a long and stressful day of dealing with the maxillofacial yeast of the Saudi Minister of Home Entertainment: “at the day’s end, he needs unwinding in the very worst way” (Infinite Jest 34). “Worst,” here, presumably means most effective, but the choice of word implies that the attaché’s methods of relaxation are bad for him. Indeed they are. After Wallace explicitly compares entertainment with drugs and alcohol (“the medical attaché partakes of neither kif nor distilled spirits” [34]), the soon-to-be-victim settles down to watch the lethal Entertainment. His usual routine is to eat dinner “before the viewer in his special electronic recliner,” which, when his entertainments have had their soporific effect, tilts backwards so that he “is permitted to ease effortlessly from unwound spectation into a fully relaxed night’s sleep, still right there in the recumbent recliner” (34).

The torpor-inducing effect of the Entertainment is far more potent than that of the attaché’s usual selection of cartridges, but, for Barthes and for Wallace, even normal entertainment (as opposed to the Entertainment) brings about sleep. Entertainment, for Wallace, lies on one side of a “continuum,” at the other side of which is art (Lipsky 80): whereas entertainment’s “chief job is to make you so riveted by it that you can’t tear your eyes away, so the advertisers can advertise” (Lipsky 79) and it “gives you a certain kind of pleasure that I would argue is fairly passive” (80), art “requires you to work” (174). Wallace portrays entertainment in terms that recall Barthes’s descriptions of his visits to the cinema, and Wallace’s own essay on David Lynch: “a commercial movie doesn’t try to wake people up but rather to make their sleep so comfortable and their dreams so pleasant that they will fork over money to experience it” (Supposedly Fun Thing 170).

He also frequently compares it to candy—“Real pleasurable, but it dudn’t [sic] have any calories in it” (Lipsky 79)—in...


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pp. 346-363
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