The structure of Infinite Jest is curious: It doesn’t make the book difficult to read (as long as you catch the places like page 391, where the printing is off and the space before the first section on the page is missable), but it does make it challenging to understand. To a certain extent, reading IJ is like channel-surfing, and to that same extent, it’s a basically familiar exercise. Some sections cut off apparently arbitrarily, as if the reader were no longer being entertained and had therefore switched the channel, while other sections, like Molly Notkin’s party, go on longer, interrupted now and then by little foreign bits in the same way that commercials punctuate a TV broadcast. The trick is connecting the fragmented sections of text to each other across great expanses of other stuff in ways that create meaning—for instance, it appears from p. 254 that Hal Incandenza himself narrates the section that begins on p. 61, and then we have explicit confirmation in note 123 that Hal is at least occasionally the narrator. (And now I find I could have saved myself some trouble by rereading this Larry McCaffery interview with DFW. At least I know I’m on the right track.)
But the jigsaw-puzzle aspect of the structure isn’t what I’m primarily interested in writing about; instead, I want to talk about the necessary corollary of a fragmented structure: the space between fragments. For the most part, these spaces function just as scene changes. They’re like a literary equivalent of a jump cut, making an obvious and visible break in continuity to establish that something different is happening. But every so often, I think DFW thematizes the spaces so that they’re more just a formal device. I’ll give an example first, then make the argument. This is the end of the “Erdedy waits for his pot” section (long sentence, but I’m quoting in full because the length adds to the effect):
He thought very broadly of desires and ideas being watched but not acted upon, he thought of impulses being starved of expression and drying out and floating dryly away, and felt on some level that this had something to do with him and his circumstances and what, if this grueling final debauch he’d committed himself to didn’t somehow resolve the problem, would surely have to be called his problem, but he could not even begin to try to see how the image of desiccated impulses floating dryly related to either him or the insect, which had retreated back into its hole in the angled girder, because at this precise time his telephone and his intercom to the front door’s buzzer both sounded at the same time, both loud and tortured and so abrupt they sounded yanked through a very small hole into the great balloon of colored silence he sat in, waiting, and he moved first toward the telephone console, then over toward his intercom module, then convulsively back toward the sounding phone, and then tried somehow to move toward both at once, finally, so that he stood splay-legged, arms wildly out as it something’s been flung, splayed, entombed between the two sounds, without a thought in his head.
Then we get a space. An important one, actually, because it’s marked with that open dot (which I haven’t figured out the significance of yet).
So here’s my argument: Here, and in a number of other places throughout the book, the space between sections of text represents not just a shift in focus, but the actual interpersonal gulf that makes other human beings’ interior states ultimately unknowable. I’m fairly certain this is an old problem in philosophy—how can we know anything about the thoughts and emotions of another human being? (I don’t really know from philosophy, so I may be off base here.) We basically only have two ways of knowing what’s going on inside another person: They can tell us, or we can infer from cues we observe. The trouble is that these are both unreliable methods. Depending on a person to tell us how they feel leaves us powerless in the absence of that communication, and requires that the person be trustworthy and forthcoming on the subject. (It also forecloses any possibility of independent verification.) And inferring is, of course, susceptible of all the failures of interpretation and reading that always bedevil that kind of activity.
But, you point out triumphantly, look at that sentence about Erdedy. It’s full of direct description of his interior state! It draws the very picture of his thoughts! There is no uncertainty! And we’ve have nine and a half pages of that! Yes, that’s true. That’s the great authorial privilege of free indirect discourse: immediate access to your characters’ minds cloaked in the illusion of impersonality. And DFW exercises that privilege freely throughout IJ, so freely in fact that we cannot definitively say who is (and even who is not) the narrator in most parts of the book. But I think as a writer (and—based on readings I’ve been to and interviews I’ve heard and read—as a person) he recognizes that this is rigged. Much of this book’s focus is on communication and understanding, and how vulnerable the interactions between people are to being misconstrued; combine that focus with DFW’s postironic wariness of irony and it becomes clear that he cannot uncritically reproduce the total knowledge of characters’ interior states that is generally a hallmark of third-person narration.
What I’m saying is, DFW doubles back and undercuts this authorial privilege. In that sentence about Erdedy, I see a turn from unreflective authorial mind-reading to exterior observation right after that delightful description of how the noises sound to Erdedy; after that point, the sentence describes him from the viewpoint of an observer. It’s almost clinical, suddenly, objective and cold, practically likening Erdedy to a bug pinned in a display case. Even the last clause—“without a thought in his head”—can’t be free indirect discourse, because you can’t genuinely formulate the thought, “I don’t have a thought in my head.” What’s remarkable to me about this turn is how fast it is. At the end of the sentence, I feel suddenly lonely and sad, and totally cut off from Erdedy. It’s as if the camera that was trained on him and showed his thoughts has quick-zoomed out to very great heights, pulling the keening of a cold wind into the great distance between the reader and the character. It’s like the first half of Ray and Charles Eames’s Powers of Ten in fast-forward.
This isn’t the only place in the book where I see this withdrawal from a character’s consciousness. There’s some of it in the Marathe/Steeply conversation (pp. 92 and 109), which seems appropriate, given how much of that conversation involves trying to read hidden currents of loyalty and intention. Oddly, I think Orin’s viewing of Joelle’s recordings of him in action (pp. 298–9) have a similar feeling, even though they seem to zoom in the opposite direction. My guess is that that feeling comes from the reduction of Orin to a highly scrutinized image, even though he’s the one doing the scrutinizing; if anything, it makes him seem isolated from himself. The Eschaton ends with a sky-oriented pictorialization of the scene of broken and bleeding children that establishes a similar distance. And p. 626, the kidnapping of the WYYY student engineer, does the same kind of thing.
What these retreats from omniscience do is re-create the actual lived human condition of not being able to know another person conclusively. There is a gap between you (any you) and everyone else that you cannot bridge on your own. In these parts of the book, after forcibly reminding you of that gap through the narration, DFW then symbolically illustrates the gap with white space. And I know that sounds a little pat, when really it just amounts to making this move primarily at the ends of sections rather than within them—but that’s the way the book is structured. The effect of always having a white space after these moments is to visually underscore the impact of what has just happened.
(Lucien Antitoi’s death is an amazing counterexample, where the white space seems instead to indicate all the world, but I want to post about that another time.)
IJ is highly skeptical of any person’s ability to understand another on their own. That is, one-sided communication (based in interpretation only) fails regularly in the book. Conclusively correct readings (of anything) are rare in IJ. The only scenarios that ever seem to work out are the ones where characters actively work together to understand each other, correcting misinterpretations when necessary and building connections to each other. My favorite example of this dynamic in the book is the relationship between Gately and Joelle. They start out literally unable to communicate (check Gately’s dumbfoundedness on pp. 366–7) and then progress through some very expressive not-necessarily-communication (pp. 531–538) to Joelle’s beautiful confirmation of her identity to Gately after he gets shot: “‘And Lo,’ she says softly,” knowing the right way to comfort and validate him. The only bridge over the space is communication.