Michael Maiello's picture

    Infinite Winter: Hamlet as Baseline

    One of David Foster Wallace’s goals (he said, sometimes) as a fiction writer was to help people combat loneliness.  Writing fiction allows the writer to reach out to an audience of strangers.  Reading it allows the audience to reach out to an author they will likely never meet.  Reading texts in common, like with Infinite Winter, gives us a chance to have a shared experience. I think a shared intellectual experience is why a lot of us have nostalgia for school (both high school and college).

    Shared experiences are growing harder to come by in an age of personalized experiences.  It may well be a golden age of television, but with so many choices, we’re not all watching the same thing.  A writer friend of mine said once, after watching a documentary about J.D. Salinger how amazing it was that people used to read a Salinger story in The New Yorker and then call all of their friends to either talk about it or urge them to read it.

    We can choose our news from a source that tells us what we want to hear.  One paradox of choice is that we have so many that we become indecisive or impossible to please. Another paradox of choice is that our choices can be rendered meaningless if we cannot share them with other people.  If we always choose such exotic ice cream flavors but our choices never, ever overlap, we’ll have a hard time discussing ice cream.  We might drop the subject all together.

    Recently, reading Infinite Jest became a kismetally shared experience.  First, I had lunch with the proprietor of Dagblog, and we spent a lot of time talking about story structure, helping each other plot some tales we’d like to tell.  As I’ve also been trying to understand the structure of Infinite Jest, I had recently turned to the graduate thesis James Jason Walsh Jr., who received a Master’s Degree in English literature from Cleveland State University in 2010.  Walsh Jr. wrote a wonderful piece about how Infinite Jest makes use of Hamlet as a template for its plot.  Walsh Jr. received his degree.  His thesis advisor?  Doc Cleveland, resident scholar of Dagblog.

    The relationship between Infinite Jest and Hamlet is in the title of Wallace’s novel. When Hamlet digs up the skull of Yorick, the deceased court jester, he describes him as a man of “infinite jest.”  At the heart of the novel is a movie made by Hal Incandenza’s father that is so entertaining that it saps the will to live from anyone who dares watch it. The film production company behind this deadly masterpiece is “Alas, Poor Yorick Productions.”

    Walsh Jr. neatly summarizes the thematic parallels between the novel and Hamlet:

    “In one sense, it portrays an entire generation of “Hamlets” who are addicted to thinking, saturated with fear, and overwhelmed, like Hamlet with revenge, by the burden of an isolated an unequivocal pursuit (i.e. drug addiction, recovery, tennis, politics, film theory, espionage, and many more).”

    Now, I remember Hamlet as one of my “young man” texts, alongside Catcher in the Rye. It’s about action and inaction and being young but confronted with monumental decisions.  I’m not sure how choosing a college major seemed to me as monumental as committing regicide, but it did.  One thing Hamlet is not, in my opinion, is narratively complex.  It’s a pretty simple story.  It is not the kind of thing you would adapt into an 1,100 page novel. Says Walsh Jr.:

    “Hamlet is the loose guideline for Wallace’s narratological improvisation...”

    I love this because another big part of Infinite Jest is tennis, a game played within narrow baselines but where near limitless action can occur. Wallace has not transposed the plot of Hamlet into the future, he has used the plot to create a court wherein his world can sprawl.  For all its vaunted length, Infinite Jest is carefully bounded.

    There is, even, discussion of this among the young and gifted tennis players at the Enfield Tennis Academy, where much action of the book takes place.  In the early rounds of tournaments, we learn, there are few people watching and there are no courtside judges to call faults and out of bounds. The high stakes games are played on the honor system. In many ways, the art of creative writing, particularly the novel, is the art of letting yourself be bound by your own rules, even when nobody is watching.

    This also reminds me that Hamlet is like tennis -- it is compact and it has limits, but has so much going on within.  Wallace has teased out so much more of the Hamlet story by getting beyond the coming of age elements, the revenge elements and the ghost elements (though that’s all there) and he’s really gotten us to the crux of the matter -- thinking ourselves to death.  Maybe Hamlet isn’t such a young person’s story after all.  I think I’ll have to revisit it.  

    Another observation, in the vein of Hamlet: when we meet Hal Incandenza, he is a young man (Hamlet-aged) who has been deprived of the ability to speak or express himself, even while his thoughts whir a sophisticated cadence. Why can’t Hal speak is part of the mystery of the book (and the subject of a future post).  In this opening scene, Hal desperately wishes that the people he cannot speak to could see him for his humanity, and not as a tennis playing machine, not much later on, we meet Hal’s father James, as a child, being coached in tennis by his alcoholic father.  James is told a horrible truth about human existence -- that he is a machine and that the thoughts in his head are nothing but physical processes, like the revving of an engine.

    Hamlet is famously psychological and interior but one of the more famous revisions of the story, by the German playwright Heiner Müller in 1977 is known as Hamletmachine. It mechanizes the theatricality of Hamlet.  Did Wallace know about Müller?  Probably.  He seems to have known quite a bit. Hamlet was pretty smart as well...


    Thanks for giving the shout-out to James's thesis. I've been reluctant to jump in on your DFW/Infinite Jest threads exactly because I advised that thesis; I think that process took up all the thinking about IJ that I have in me for a while.

    But nothing makes me happier than seeing one of my students getting recognition.



    It was a very good paper and perfect for my purposes as it helps me understand the book in my own way.

    I was pleased to see your name attached.

    Infinite Jest wasn't your cup, I guess? I'm not surprised.  Our interactions about Shakespeare seem to suggest that we appreciate different aspects of the bard.  I've always thought I'd be a decent student in a Doc Cleveland class.



    No, it's not that I dislike IJ. It's exactly my kind of thing. I just don't have anything interesting left to say about it that James didn't squeeze out of my head in an office meeting.


    I bet!

    Yeah, we live in new times.

    In the olden days the best a citizen could hope for was that some letter to the editor might

    be published!

    The radio talked to us, the TV presented shows to us. We really could never respond. Even today,

    we might wait ten hours to get our phone call answered by some radio maniac, although we surely might

    publish out responses on some blog site.

    Nowadays we can 'stream' any damn show we wish to view for eight bucks a month.

    As far as Hamlet; as an old man the question is:

    To pee or not to pee.....

    Richard, I'm glad you brought this up because I am in a moral predicament. After a week of managing guys out driving trucks for environmental services, trying to maintain a social life, and spending the best part of the week designing and building an awesome hanging light fixture for my barn loft project, I was just too damned tired to pick up a really good book and give it a go so I watched a German language detective series with a damaged, failed, brooding (they always have a dead ex-wife and a gender fluid daughter ) protagonist. But damn, the cathedrals, the darkness, the music, the ambivalence, the heavy sighing beyond human endurance---well, it just made me sleep well and be ready for whatever comes down the road next week. I wish I could isolate myself and read a book.

    Nothing this explorative should go without comment even from someone who has no portfolio to do so. And it goes without saying, being you, it is well written.  I have not read Infinite Jest and won't until I finish my thesis on Campbell's "Skeleton Key", a first edition of which has adorned my desk for nearly two decades. (One reason for collecting pristine works is to have a half assed excuse for not reading them)

    I don't know about your analogy between Hamlet and tennis (did I miss the reverse spin?), it seems to me that Hamlet as a "Poem Unlimited" is a first serve that's extremely hard to return.

    For some reason I thought of your post last night when I heard the quote from Miles Davis, "the important notes are not the ones you play, but the ones you don't play". In the same way, ego driven writing which by intent averts the possibility of leaving something out is different from writing which attempts to convey something important but with the knowledge that exact conveyance to another human being is not possible. The poetry of writing---maybe that is what Infinite Jest is all about, I just don't know.

    Wallace and Hamlet (wow, that hurts) may be baseline for leaving nothing out but in definitions of the concept that are as far apart as a suburban tennis court is from a medieval theater.

    And you are right. I recall my English seminar trooping to the Big Apple to watch a performance of "Six Actors" and then spending the next two months talking about it. What in mundane life can compete with that?



    I thank you, Oxy.

    i love six characters but have never seen it!

    So far, I am enjoying it quite a bit.

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