DOES INFINITE JEST SEE DISABILITY AS GROTESQUE?
The late David Foster Wallace’s sprawling, ambitious 1996 novel Infinite Jest is considered one of the defining works of postmodern literature. It takes place in a dystopian future in which North America has unified into one mega-country with the sexually suggestive acronym ONAN. Although some of its futuristic technology already seems outdated, it’s eerily prescient in satirizing capitalism and political corruption. In this world, years literally have corporate sponsors. The narrative frequently flashes back and forth between the Year of the Depend Undergarment and the earlier Year of the Trial-sized Dove Bar. These puns and innuendos signal the playful, irreverent attitude of postmodern literature.
Another overarching theme is addiction in its many forms, ranging from hard drugs to TV and the Internet. The characters experience the paradox of choice: the more entertainment options that they have, the more they feel dissatisfied, bored, and unable to choose. The title Infinite Jest is a reference to Hamlet. In the novel, it’s also the name of a film that’s supposedly so addictive that anyone who sees it feels compelled to waste the rest of his or her life re-watching it. Thus, the novel equates entertainment with wasting one’s life—ultimately boring or amusing oneself to death. By seeing entertainment as an insatiable addiction in itself, the novel predicts the apparent endlessness of modern Internet phenomena like Netflix, YouTube, or social media.
Infinite Jest defies summarization or categorization. However, brothers and Hal and Orin Incandenza and their troubled family dynamic illustrate clinical depression in an unflinchingly honest way: "One of the least pleasant things about being psychotically depressed on a ward full of psychotically depressed patients is coming to see that none of them is really psychotic, that their screams are entirely appropriate to certain circumstances part of whose special charm is that they are undetectable by any outside party. Thus the loneliness: it's a closed circuit: the current is both applied and received from within." Ironically, it’s Wallace’s characters’ high intelligence and resultant alienation that make them relatable.
In a novel that deals so empathetically with mental illness, its dehumanization of characters with disabilities seems jarring in contrast. The disabled characters are not well-developed, but as in many books, they are a recurring motif and almost function as objects. Orin becomes paranoid about a group of Quebecois, wheelchair-using assassins, almost developing an aversion to physically disabled people. This reverses the stereotype that disabled people are weak and dependent, but as ruthless terrorists, they’re still a dangerous, mysterious Other.
In addition to a major subplot about Alcoholics Anonymous itself, there’s an AA-like support group for people with unusual deformities, called UHID (Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed). And unusual deformities abound in this brave new world, where Chernobyl-caliber nuclear waste has produced mutants with enormous skulls and extra eyes. The members of UHID keep themselves veiled, a self-contradictory way to show their supposed self-acceptance and hide themselves from scrutiny. They describe being misunderstood by society at large and the complexity of feeling "ashamed of being ashamed." One member, Joelle, is ostensibly so beautiful that she considers her looks and the lust they engender to be a severe handicap. Or perhaps she’s lying about her own disability or disfigurement. The ambiguity raises the question of why disability and attractiveness are often considered mutually exclusive.
More disturbing vignettes use disability as a symbol of disorder and suffering. A crack addict gives birth to a stillborn, extremely deformed baby with misshapen limbs and no eyes. In her deep grief and denial, she carries the decaying corpse around with her for weeks. Another addict reveals that her adoptive parents had a biological daughter who was severely mentally and physically disabled. The young woman relates with disgust that her parents made her take the sister everywhere with her—or as she says, "drag it along." She’s appalled that her adoptive mother loves her other daughter and treats her as fully human. The father rapes the disabled daughter, who obviously cannot fight back, run away, or tell anyone. The adopted daughter never tells the mother because she fears that she will be molested instead. This is understandable but cowardly and extremely unnerving. She shows a total disregard and lack of sympathy for her sister as a human being.
In this novel, disability is never depicted as a minority group or a natural human variation but as an aberration. It’s often the direct result of something negative: either a parent’s life-threatening addiction or the pollution and nuclear waste in the world at large. Even the existence of a support group like UHID is ambiguous. Readers can interpret this as predicting the emergence of disability in identity politics or satirizing that very idea as extreme or absurd.
While I don’t want to suggest that the novel or Wallace himself endorsed this degree of ableism, the book doesn’t dispel it, either. As a movement, Postmodernism relies on irony, satire, intertextuality, ambiguity, and other techniques that can alienate the reader. Therefore, I’d hesitate to take the apparent usage of disability as symbolizing destruction at face value. However, not everything in the novel can be dismissed as insincere, either. Its frank exploration of mental illness provides a fascinating contrast with the apparent dehumanization of disabled characters. Its mixture of emotional rawness and insincerity made me wonder why ideas of disability as grotesque seem ingrained in our culture. For me, the ambiguity made the depiction of disability more complex, but no less disturbing. Perhaps the fact that it seems unnerving today is a testament to the progress that disability rights and culture have made in the past twenty years.