Promoting, supporting and encouraging the study of the United States since 1955

British Association for American Studies


Issue 18, Spring 2011: Article 2


Issue 18, Spring 2011: Article 2




© David Hering. All Rights Reserved.

Prevailing critical discussion of the works of the writer David Foster Wallace—particularly his most celebrated novel Infinite Jest—has focused around the manner in which Wallace uses the ironic dimension of postmodern literature against itself in order to attempt a ‘post-postmodern’ form of American fiction. In this article, however, I will address the as-yet critically neglected technique in Infinite Jest by which Wallace articulates and attempts to counter the problems of literary and cultural Postmodernism through geographical, spatial and temporal narrative strategies. In Infinite Jest, Wallace presents a future vision of the USA where the cultural conditions of Postmodernism have become embodied within the physical, natural characteristics of the American landscape. I will be theorising here how Wallace creates geographical and psychological spatio-temporal landscapes that represent both the characteristics and also the potential toxicity of a culture of Postmodernism. My argument will discuss two specific areas of Infinite Jest—firstly, Wallace’s delineation of dangerous postmodern geographic spaces and secondly, his psychological description of how time is experienced spatially within a postmodern culture of addiction. To support and illustrate my analysis I will also draw on the works of Mikhail Bakhtin (particularly his discussion of the elements of space and time in the narrative ‘chronotope’) and Frederic Jameson (for his ideas about how space and time operate in a postmodern culture), as well as including reference to additional geographical examples from Wallace’s other works of fiction to reinforce my illustration of Wallace’s new narrative approach to American physical and cultural geography.


To articulate the first part of my argument, I will take as my primary area of discussion the depiction in Infinite Jest of a geographical area of the future North America known as ‘The Great Concavity’, a gigantic governmental toxic waste dump that occupies most of what was once New England, the territory then subsequently assigned as a politically backhanded ‘gift’ to Canada. Due to a lethally effective fuel fusion process subsequently implanted in this waste dump by the government, time and space in the Concavity now operate in a different manner to the rest of the country (a process described in detail below).

The Great Concavity

Because of its toxic characteristics, the Concavity site is the ideal location for the employment of the energy-creating process of annular fusion, described most directly as ‘a type of fusion that can produce waste that’s fuel for a process whose waste is fuel for the fusion’.[1] This process, effective at first, ultimately spirals wildly out of control, and the government have to catapult waste materials into the Concavity to regulate the environment. During a comically exposition-heavy conversation between teenage tennis students Michael Pemulis and Idris Arslanian the processes of annular fusion and its associated problems become clearer. It is necessary to quote from the conversation at length:

‘The resultant fusion turns out so greedily efficient that it sucks every last toxin and poison out of the surrounding ecosystem, all inhibitors to organic growth for hundreds of radial clicks in every direction … You end up with a surrounding environment so fertilely lush it’s practically unlivable … and you find you need to keep steadily dumping in toxins to keep the uninhibited ecosystem from spreading and overrunning more ecologically stable areas, exhausting the atmosphere’s poisons so that everything hyperventilates … So this is why E.W.D.’s major catapulting is from the metro area due north … Which eradicates the overgrowth until the toxins are fused and utilized. The satellite scenario is that the eastern part of Grid 3 goes from overgrown to wasteland to overgrown several times a month. With the first week of the month being especially barren and the last week being like nothing on earth’.

‘As if time itself were vastly sped up. As if nature itself had desperately to visit the lavatory’.

‘Accelerated phenomena, which is actually equivalent to an incredible slowing down of time’. …

’Decelerated time, I have got you’.

‘And this is what the Boog’s saying is eating him alive the worst, conceptually. He says he’s toast if he can’t wrap his head around the concept of time in flux, conceptually … Granted, it’s abstract. But you should see him. One half of the face is like spasming around while the half with the mole just like hangs there staring like a bunny you’re about to run over’.[2]

Such is the ruinous psychological effect upon the individual of the temporal discrepancy engendered by annular fusion within the Concavity. As I will now explain, this ruinous condition is concurrent with the effect of space and time as experienced in a state of postmodernity.

It is worth stating here that Catherine Nichols has critically established a connection between the Great Concavity and the postmodern in her 2001 article ‘Dialogizing Postmodern Carnival’ during her discussion about Wallace’s employment of the postmodern carnivalesque ‘chronotope’ against itself. Nichols also discusses the problem of postmodern narratives as analogous to the ‘circularity’ of the process of annular fusion in the Concavity. However, I feel that this model needs critical development for three specific reasons. Firstly, Nichols seems to attribute the terms ‘The Great Concavity’ and ‘The Great Convexity’ to, respectively, the Western and Eastern zones of the area in question. This, I would argue, is incorrect, as the terminology ‘Concavity’ and ‘Convexity’ is described in Infinite Jest as being used relative to the perspective of the geographical/political position of the speaker (to Canadians it is a Convexity, to US citizens it is a Concavity). This is dramatised most decisively in an overheard argument that takes place at a party early in the novel:




Concavity damn your eyes!’.[3]

Secondly, I feel that the distinction between the geographical areas of the Concavity needs further discussion and more detailed information in terms of how they represent different problems of narrative and, crucially, the spatial and the temporal problems of Postmodernism. Thirdly, I wish to suggest that in fact the attribution of ‘stasis’ to the Concavity by Nichols, while certainly not inaccurate, ultimately underestimates the ferocity of Wallace’s entropic depiction of the postmodern. I will now offer a spatio-temporal account of the Concavity which will also address these problems.

It is important to locate the problem of postmodern space and time in relation to the geography of the Concavity. The Concavity is described by a number of characters as having two distinct geographical areas: the ‘barren Eliotical wastes’[4] of the Western Concavity and the Eastern Concavity described in the extended extract above, ‘so fertilely lush it’s practically unlivable’.[5] Recall that Mikhail Bakhtin’s teleological schema for the novelistic ‘chronotope’ is characterised by a slow spatial and temporal separation between individual and environment, and I would argue that the schema outlined here graphically represents the chronotopic characteristics of both Modernism and Postmodernism and the subsequent problems engendered by the effectiveness of the postmodern chronotope. By the era of high literary Modernism, the individual subjective account takes precedence over historical time within the written narrative. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ represents the fracture between individual and environment (a fracture that Bakhtin is also beginning to map) as an arid plain. That the Western Concavity is explicitly referred to as ‘Eliotical’ in Infinite Jest inevitably begins to encourage the reader to mentally associate the Western Concavity with the Modernist narrative (I will discuss this in more detail below). The Western Concavity’s neighbour, the lush and ‘greedily efficient’ Eastern Concavity, is clearly something quite different, and I want to argue now that the representation of the Eastern Concavity is inherently bound up with the problems of Postmodernism as a narrative form and as a spatio-temporal strategy.

Why then should we associate the lush Eastern Concavity with the postmodern narrative? Well, it contains characteristics strongly associated with postmodern narratives, particularly those of Wallace’s predecessors. Firstly, the trajectory of literary Postmodernism—metafictional writing, the alliance with poststructuralism, the foregrounding of textual self-consciousness—is analogous to the annular fusion system than runs in a continuous cycle and perpetuates itself by continuously taking its own material as fuel. However, it is important when discussing the Eastern Concavity to remember that the annular fusion system is not the same thing as the lush and dangerous wilderness. Rather, it precedes and engenders that wilderness. Therefore, the wilderness itself is the result of Postmodernism, the ‘greedily efficient’ by-product of the original idea. The second postmodern characteristic is the description of the Eastern Concavity as a thermodynamically entropic system. The invocation of entropy alerts the postmodern reader immediately to thoughts of the entropic focus of one of Wallace’s postmodern forefathers, Thomas Pynchon. Indeed Pynchon’s story ‘Entropy’ describes, in a schema not unlike the Concavity, two adjacent zones (two adjoining apartments) that Malcolm Bradbury delineates as ‘the world of hermetic containment’ and ‘the world of undifferentiation’.[6] In addition to the entropic postmodern characteristic, the description of the Eastern Concavity as ‘greedily efficient’ and ‘so fertilely lush it’s practically unlivable’ chimes thematically with a number of statements Wallace has made about the problem of postmodernist narrative in literature. Essentially, the postmodern literary form, as a new system to supplant the structures of Modernism, is running entropically amok.

This process mirrors Wallace’s concerns in his manifesto-like essay ‘E Unibus Pluram’ that the tools of literary Postmodernism have been co-opted as a voraciously effective and insidious way of advertising. The original objective of literary Postmodernism has spawned a monster that feeds off the nutrients that nourish the original form but uses them for its own corporate ends. Therefore, in what I believe is an important distinction, the continuous barrage of toxic waste sent into the Concavity to control the forests is as representative of the frantic attempts to contain the corporate horror engendered by Postmodernism as it is representative of the stasis of literary form which writers like Wallace find that Postmodernism has engendered. Postmodernism, essentially, has become toxic and dangerous as well as simply static. It is also worth recalling here that the system for containing the hazardous contents of the Concavity is far from perfect. Reported occasions of spillage and leaking toxicity pervade the novel, while additional damage is caused by mis-catapulted waste receptacles that fall short of their target and cause death and injury in civilian areas adjacent to the Concavity. These spillages suggest that the current system of keeping the Concavity under control is not efficiently dealing with the problem. The apparent ‘stasis’ of postmodernity is, in fact, more dangerous and insidious than has been predicted. The problem of the postmodern Concavity cries out for a new solution before it engulfs everything around itself.

East and West

It is worth pointing out here that the Great Concavity is an explicit development of the postmodern Illinois geography outlined in Wallace’s preceding novella, ‘Westward The Course Of Empire Takes Its Way’, from the collection Girl With Curious Hair. The novella, a very direct response to John Barth’s postmodern collection Lost In The Funhouse, points towards Wallace’s narrative strategies in Infinite Jest. Connie Luther astutely points out in her essay on ‘Westward…’ that the endless fields of corn can be described as analogous to the postmodern landscape:

Postmodern cultural expansion is reflected, not only in the huge but worthless yields of corn in Wallace’s Funhouse, but also in its geographical features. It is not enclosed and restricted, like Ambrose’s original carnival Funhouse, but a terrifyingly wide-open place … an image of immense cultural expansion, and that it is not only worthless but disorienting.[7]

I would also argue that the description of the fields in ‘Westward…’ itself as ‘disorienting, wind-blown, verdant, tall, total, menacingly fertile’ display an attribute that could also easily be applied to the ever-expanding forests of the Eastern Concavity.[8] ‘Westward…’ has been described as a ‘programmatic declaration of intent’ and this is perhaps never more so than in the development of these menacing, lush postmodern spaces.[9] It is also worth considering the question of an East-West trajectory in relation to both ‘Westward…’ and Infinite Jest. When one considers the West as what Luther identifies as a ‘ubiquitous symbol of hope and progress throughout American literary history’, one would then surely expect the Eliotical Modernist dryness to occupy the Eastern Concavity, and the lush horrors of Postmodernism to occupy the Western Concavity, the historical trajectory moving characteristically Westward.[10] As it is, the area west of the lush jungles of the Eastern Concavity is a dry wasteland.

I would offer here a potential explanation for this spatial conundrum. The geography of the dry Western Concavity can represent both Modernist past and postmodern future. Its barren wasteland alludes graphically to the horrors of Modernist subjectivity, against which the Eastern Concavity can define itself as characteristically postmodern, but it also invokes the suggestion—through its Western positioning—that the trajectory of Postmodernism is heading towards just such a barren, ahistorical world. Luther, invoking Frederic Jameson, speaks in her discussion of ‘Westward…’ of the postmodern landscape as ‘a flat, featureless and frightening place, stripped in postmodernity of its historical content’,[11] and in his seminal study Postmodernism, or The Cultural Concept of Late Capitalism Frederic Jameson defines the postmodern culturescape as suffering from a kind of atemporal Lacanian ‘schizophrenia’, ‘a series of pure and unrelated presents in time’.[12] In the eternal postmodern present, past and future are both stripped of historical feature and their teleological connection to the present. Therefore the barren Western Concavity can occupy a dual temporal position, as past and future simultaneously. Finally, consider the fact that, as I have stated, the geography of the Concavity is underpinned by a cyclical process—one can see how the wasteland of the past is occupied, evacuated, then returned to once more.

Time in Flux

Before concluding my discussion of the spatio-temporal characteristics of the Great Concavity, I wish to analyse the problems of the previously mentioned ‘decelerated time’ as a potential further problem of a postmodern chronotope. Annular fusion—as explicated by Michael Pemulis above—results in a massive temporal disjuncture between spaces within the Concavity and between Concavity and non-Concavity space, a disjuncture that can be interpreted, dependent on perspective, as a slowing down or speeding up of time, something referred to by Pemulis in the earlier extract as ‘time in flux’. This temporal and spatial schism reminds the Bakhtinian reader of the discussion within his essay ‘Forms Of Time And Chronotope In The Novel’ of the strong association between natural environment and collective public life outlined in the folkloric chronotope, a chronotope associated with an extremely early stage of narrative development:

The agricultural life of men and the life of nature (of the earth) are measured by one and the same scale, by the same events; they have the same intervals, inseparable from each other, present as one (indivisible) act of labor and consciousness.[13]

Now consider Bakhtin’s analysis of the developmental trajectory of this narrative chronotope:

Such a time is unified in an unmediated way. However, this imminent unity becomes apparent only in the light of later perceptions of time in literature (and in ideology in general), when the time of personal, everyday family occasions had already been individualized and separated out from the time of the collective historical life of the social whole, at a time when there emerged one scale for measuring the events of a personal life and another for measuring the events of history.[14]

Bakhtin is talking from a standpoint contemporaneous with Modernism, but his theory of chronotopic development lends itself appositely to discussion of Wallace’s postmodern spatio-temporal problem of annular time. This severe dissociation between the temporal unity of directly adjacent natural spaces represents a new postmodern narrative of wild chronotopic flux which supersedes the steady separation between the individual and nature seen by Bakhtin as a characteristic of narrative—in Wallace, natural time and space themselves have become not only violently unyoked from the individual but also from one another. However, this disjuncture in time and space between Concavity and non-Concavity space does not simply concern itself with representing a geographical actualisation of a postmodern chronotope of multiple Lyotardian ‘intensities’. As I have already suggested, the toxic and entropic nature of the Concavity space not only represents a chronotope that is characteristically postmodern but also interrogates it. This toxic ‘pure and unrelated present’, rather than operating distinctly as a self-enclosed system, breaks its borders and begins to poison and contaminate adjacent ‘presents’. To paraphrase concisely, in Infinite Jest postmodern spatio-temporal ‘play’ is not harmless, or even static and stagnating. It is actively toxic and threatens nullification of the overall environment within which it operates.

Moreover, Pemulis’ description of ‘time in flux’ (for which read the postmodern focus on the atemporal and ahistorical) is described as being not only physically toxic but psychologically ruinous. It is appropriate to now repeat Pemulis’ physical description of the individual unable to psychologically process this concept: ‘One half of the face is like spasming around while the half with the mole just like hangs there staring’. The psychological confusion caused by the concept of annular time causes the human face to actually physically reflect the temporal discrepancy between the two different geographical areas, with one half of the face in perpetual change and the other half static in comparison, the psychological and geographical problems of the postmodern combine in one concise, comically horrible image.


How then does Wallace offer or infer a route by which the individual can escape from this postmodern spatio-temporal flux? Using his descriptions in Infinite Jest of how time is experienced spatially I will now argue that Wallace suggests a specific spatio-temporal method by which the individual is capable of recovering a unitary sense of time and space from the flux of the postmodern.

The Recovery of Space and Time for the Individual

In order to discuss the manner in which Wallace achieves this it is first necessary to further outline the models described by Bakhtin and Jameson that will underpin my subsequent analysis. Bakhtin, throughout his delineation of the novelistic chronotope, employs a schematic of horizontal and vertical axes when discussing temporal events. Historical time and temporal continuity are aligned with the horizontal axis. In his specific discussion of the metamorphic narrative of Apuleius Bakhtin notes that, in respect to the way in which the individual life is represented in specific events along the temporal axis:

Time breaks down into isolated, self-sufficient temporal segments that mechanically arrange themselves into no more than single sequences … the novel provides us with two or three different images of the same individual, images that have been disjointed and rejoined through his crisis and rebirths.[15]

Later in the essay, in an important definition, Bakhtin invokes the vertical axis:

There is a greater readiness to build a superstructure for reality (the present) along a vertical axis of upper and lower than to move forward along the horizontal axis of time. Should these vertical structurings turn out as well to be other-worldly, idealistic, eternal, outside time, then this extratemporal and eternal quality is perceived as something simultaneous with a given moment in the present; it is something contemporaneous, and that which already exists is perceived as better than the future (which does not yet exist and which never did exist).[16]

I am fully aware that Bakhtin does not refer here to characteristics of the postmodern narrative, having of course written the essay many years before the advent of literary postmodernism. However, I do believe that Bakhtin’s vertical and horizontal spatio-temporal stratagems as laid out above provide a very useful model for delineating the manner in which Wallace suggests the individual can ‘recover’ a unitary sense of space and time from the postmodern while still incorporating the very sense of eternal ‘present’ that is a characteristic of postmodernism. This leads naturally into the second theoretical argument that underpins this discussion, Jameson’s delineation (invoking Lacan) of postmodern temporality as ‘schizophrenic’ and ahistorical. The following quote is extremely important to subsequent discussion, so therefore it is necessary to reproduce it in full. Jameson begins the quote by referring to Lacan’s theory of linguistic schizophrenia:

The connection between this kind of linguistic malfunction and the psyche of the schizophrenic may then be grasped by way of a twofold proposition: first, that personal identity is itself the effect of a certain temporal unification of past and future with one’s present; and second, that such active temporal unification is itself a function of language, or better still of the sentence, as it moves along its hermeneutic circle through time. If we are unable to unify the past, present, and future of the sentence, then we are similarly unable to unify the past, present, and future of our own biographical experience or psychic life. With the breakdown of the signifying chain, therefore, the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.[17]

Let us consider how this breakdown of the signifying chain might look as represented by Bakhtin’s vertical and horizontal axes. If, as Jameson indicates, the postmodern is a series of pure and unrelated presents, where ‘the subject has lost its capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organise its past and future into coherent experience’, then this postmodern representation of space and time would be represented as a consistent vertical axis composed of a series of eternal un-historicised presents, one that does not, to repeat Bakhtin, move forward along the horizontal axis of time.[18] Wallace’s oft-stated interest that fiction should not be merely diagnostic of a condition of postmodernity but also seek to move beyond it includes a suggestion that the ‘cage’ of postmodernist fiction is equated to the condition of solipsism—that is, that the atemporal vertical axis I have delineated as being concurrent with postmodern narrative represents also the trap of the postmodern de-historicised individual, living purely in the solipsistic present.

How then can Wallace point towards a fictional solution for the individuals in Infinite Jest that can align their solipsistic ‘vertical’ postmodern narratives with a re-engagement with the horizontal axis of time? I would argue that this solution comes in the relation of time and space to the process of recovery and rehabilitation in the overarching structures of Alcoholics Anonymous. I am aware that the critical discussion of Alcoholics Anonymous in Infinite Jest as a precursor to escape from solipsism has been thoroughly critically established and is a received part of the discussion of Wallace’s fictional manifesto. However, I do not yet feel that the spatio-temporal manner in which Wallace constructs said recovery process has been analysed in sufficient detail, and I believe that by reading Bakhtin and Jameson alongside Wallace, a new and illuminating account of the strategy in Infinite Jest for the recovery of the individual emerges at a level that is not only spatio-temporal but also linguistic, as Jameson’s invocation of Lacan’s ‘sentence’ proves to be a valuable asset in understanding Wallace’s strategy of escape.

I believe that this strategy of escape and recovery is inherently connected to how the process of time in Infinite Jest is experienced by the individual recovering from addiction to drink or drugs. Wallace devotes a significant amount of the novel to the manner in which the recovering individual experiences time (Ennet House ‘reeks of passing time’), and I first wish to give several examples to illustrate this point fully.[19] The most persuasive examples of how recovering addicts experience time, and how time can be experienced differently according to individual psychological condition, concern the characters of Randy Lenz, Poor Tony Krause and Don Gately. I will now discuss how these three characters experience time during recovery to illustrate my general argument about how time can be ‘recovered’ on Bakhtin’s horizontal axis.

Lenz, Krause and Gately

Randy Lenz, as well as a compulsion to be North of things, has ‘a tendency to constantly take his own pulse, a fear of all forms of timepieces, and a need to always know the time with great precision’.[20] A compulsion to always know the exact time coupled with the phobia of actually being able to look at the time oneself not only illustrates the psychology of an individual struggling with the passing of time as allied to the process of recovery, but also invokes Jameson’s theory of postmodernity as a series of continuous, unrelated ‘presents’. Lenz’s constant need to take his own pulse conflates the continuous sense of dissociated presents with establishing whether one is still alive. That is, that the individual trusts himself only to be alive in that exact present temporal moment, a temporal moment which one has to keep checking still exists, and fears any future moments on that basis. Considering that Lenz is an example of the unreconstructed addict—he continues to surreptitiously abuse substances with eventual disastrous consequences—this method of experiencing time as dissociated instants is evidently flawed and also inherently associated with the postmodern series of similarly dissociated presents outlined by Jameson. Lenz’s pathological obsession with the present is, at base, an inherently postmodern one and can be illustrated on Bakhtin’s axes as a continuous vertical, a series of stagnated instants or presents with no ultimate progression.

Poor Tony Krause has a nightmarish encounter with time during his hellish detoxification process. Krause locks himself alone in a bathroom stall in an attempt to defeat his addiction by going ‘cold turkey’, and suffers a terrifying and hallucinatory physical and psychological ordeal. One of the most notable details of this sequence is the moment where the passage of time actually becomes malevolently personified in Krause’s hallucination:

Time began to take on new aspects for him, now, as Withdrawal progressed. Time began to pass with sharp edges … By the second week in the stall time itself seemed the corridor, lightless at either end. After more time time then ceased to move or be moved or be move‐throughable and assumed a shape above and apart, a huge, musty‐feathered, orange‐eyed wingless fowl hunched incontinent atop the stall, with a kind of watchful but deeply uncaring personality that didn’t seem keen on Poor Tony Krause as a person at all … Nothing in even Poor Tony’s grim life‐experience prepared him for the experience of time with a shape and an odor.[21]

Throughout the sequence—complemented by the agonisingly small space of the bathroom stall—time becomes ever more spatial, more concrete and inescapable, becoming less abstract and more physically rendered. It is notable that time here is described as ‘lightless at either end’ and ceases ‘to move or be moved or be move-throughable’. That the recovering addict is here unable to move through time is a remarkable spatial actualisation of both Jameson’s diagnosis of the postmodern condition and Bakhtin’s vertical axis. All temporal continuity and processes are suspended during this process of recovery—in fact, time itself becomes a confined space, steadily more difficult to move through. Tony eventually ‘escapes’ time by having a withdrawal seizure, although his subsequent failure to escape the traits of his addictive behaviour lead him—like Lenz—to disaster and death.

We have seen how the addict (pervasively conflated with the postmodern subject by Wallace) suffers at the hands of an atemporal postmodern sense of time. How, then, to recover from this process? How can the recovering addict transfigure the postmodern sense of the eternal present to aid his recovery and move beyond his addiction, avoiding the spatial trap that time has become? The answer provided by Wallace in Infinite Jest is best exemplified by the behaviour of recovering addict Don Gately. As has been critically noted (Mary K Holland makes a persuasive argument), Gately is essentially the heroic, Herculean figure in Infinite Jest, a postmodern subject trying his best to escape the clutches of his addiction and make a new life for himself. However, the manner of Gately’s interactions with the process of space and time has not yet been articulated with the thoroughness warranted by its depiction in and centrality to the novel. Gately’s relationship with time via Alcoholics Anonymous is notably different from those recovering addicts mentioned above, and I wish now to discuss how this temporal relationship underpins Wallace’s strategy of recovery from the series of unrelated presents and movement towards a re-association with progressive movement through time as represented by Bakhtin’s horizontal axis.

One Day At A Time

Gately’s progress is inherently tied to one of the central maxims of Alcoholics Anonymous: ‘One Day At A Time’. The slogan, along with many others employed by the organisation, is recognised variously as ‘trite’ and ‘cliché’ by various recovering addicts throughout the novel. However, it is Gately’s attempts to engage with the slogan beyond the simple dismissal of it as cliché that is key to his ongoing recovery. Importantly, Gately’s memory of his initial residency at Ennet House is identified almost identically with Krause’s detoxification. For Gately, ‘he’d felt the sharp edge of every second that went by’,[22] while for Krause ‘time began to pass with sharp edges’.[23] With their initial stages of detoxification established as identical, the diverging paths of Gately and Krause’s recovery can be established as residing in the psychological approach to the tenets of recovery. Gately chooses to abide by the regulations, even praying when he feels that the very act of prayer is redundant, and increasingly adopts a subservience to the methodological time- and process-based approach of recovery, paralleled comically in his approach to following a recipe:

If he just followed the motherfucking directions, and had sense enough to get help from slightly more experienced bakers to keep from fucking the directions up if he got confused somehow, but basically the point was if he just followed the childish directions, a cake would result. He’d have his cake.[24]

More directly, the instructions on how to perceive time in recovery (‘the primary need not to absorb a Substance today, just today, no matter what happens’)[25] are graphically articulated by Joelle Van Dyne, talking to Gately after he has been shot:

‘Pat in counselling keeps telling me just to build a wall around each individual 24‐hour period and not look over or back. And not to count days. Even when you get a chip for 14 days or 30 days, not to add them up’.[26]

This image of ‘walling up’ days separately is key to how the addict and postmodern subject can employ the series of unrelated, ahistorical ‘presents’ outlined by Jameson towards regaining an escape back into historical time, and away from the Bakhtinian vertical and towards the horizontal. In a postmodern condition where the ‘signifying chain’ between the past, present and future is broken, one might assume that to embrace the concept of living solely in isolated spatio-temporal units is an embracing of postmodernism, rather than an escape from it. However, the absolute commitment to approaching each day as a single, unconnected unit is revealed to ultimately assist the escape from that very approach. In a similar manner to the method of ‘treating cancer by giving the cancer cells themselves cancer’ outlined elsewhere in the novel, the isolated ‘present’ is embraced and isolated absolutely—just as the addict does not allow himself to think of the arduous, apparently endless path of rehabilitation ahead, the postmodern subject does not allow himself to think of the lost histories engendered by postmodernity, rather to build a new history out of the intense consideration of every single day in isolation.[27] The spatio-temporal present, in effect, is recaptured and recovered from its centrality to postmodernism and realigned along a historical axis.

Consider this approach along the vertical and horizontal axes established by Bakhtin. This process would, instead of finally constituting a prolonged and endless vertical axis, ultimately re-establish a series of isolated temporal units along the horizontal axis. The entry back into historical time is achieved indirectly. What might look at first like a series of vertical ‘presents’ will, at the end of the rehabilitation process, be revealed retrospectively to have actually been a teleological, historical horizontal process with a past, present and future (the future a new space free from the eternal present of substance abuse). The substance addict and the ahistorical postmodern subject have recovered their historical chronology and the Jamesonian/Lacanian ‘schizophrenia’ has been transgressed. Think also of how closely the actual formal structure of the novel mirrors this process: a series of isolated, achronological moments in time that must be considered alone before the reader can climactically order them into a historical sequence. Lenz’s botched method of recovery apparently involves the continuous awareness of units of time (the constant checking of watches) but is tragically flawed because his attention is drawn to how time is passing rather than actually passing the time. Lenz considers units of time only in how they relate to earlier and later units of time—a fundamental mistake in a spatio-temporal philosophy of recovery that prizes awareness of the isolation of the present moment. Much like his attempts to always be North of something, Lenz’s subjugation to the totality of a large, unfocused and unwieldy system is the root cause of his failure to escape addiction.

The Redemptive Sentence

Timothy Aubry carries out a perceptive analysis of a lengthy sentence from Infinite Jest about the process of recovery, astutely noting that ‘the temporal experience of reading this page-long sentence mimics the arduous experience of recovering in AA’.[28] I will reproduce important component parts of the sentence (including the beginning and end) to illustrate my subsequent argument:

And so you Hang In and stay sober and straight, and out of sheer hand‐burned‐on‐hot‐stove terror you heed the improbable‐sounding warnings … you keep coming and coming, nightly … you Hang In and Hang In, meeting after meeting, warm day after cold day … older guys who seem to be less damaged—or at least less flummoxed by their damage—will tell you in terse simple imperative clauses exactly what to do, and where and when to do it (though never How or Why) … and now if the older guys say Jump you ask them to hold their hand at the desired height, and now they’ve got you, and you’re free.[29]

It is not my intention here to discuss the ironic interplay of this sentence (indeed Aubry discusses the paradox of ‘they’ve got you’ and ‘you’re free’ in his article), rather I am interested in expanding the analysis of the spatio-temporal constitution of the sentence and its ramifications for the Bakhtinian/Jamesonian/Lacanian models I have been employing.

The length of the sentence—as Aubry has indicated—encompasses the journey of the recovering addict from initial induction to final acceptance of and subservience to the overarching narrative the programme demands, and thus ‘freedom’. Therefore, the essence of this sentence’s narrative is also inherently temporal. Because the whole process is incorporated within a continuous sentence, there is an unbroken narrative unity drawn between the initial point of ‘Hanging In’ and final acceptance. I would argue that the spatio-temporal narrative of this sentence enacts an attempt to recover the entire unity of a historical narrative arc from the Jamesonian atemporality of the postmodern present, while also invoking for the reader Jameson’s employment of the linguistic Lacanian ‘schizophrenic’ sentence model as the basis for his historical diagnosis. In the same manner as the ‘one day at a time’ approach outlined above, the understanding of the historical (‘horizontal’) process of the journey taken by the subject is only fully actualised at the end of the sentence. The sealing of the sentence with a full stop creates the definitive end point of a space that now encompasses a teleological journey of recovery—one in which the recovering addict can retrospectively discern a definite spatio-historical process to their rehabilitation.




[1] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1996), p. 572.

[2] Ibid, p. 573.

[3] Ibid, p. 234.

[4] Ibid, p. 574.

[5] Ibid, p. 573.

[6] Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern American Novel, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 220.

[7] Connie Luther, ‘David Foster Wallace: Westward with Fredric Jameson’, in Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays, ed. by David Hering (Austin/Los Angeles: Sideshow Media, 2010), p. 52.

[8] David Foster Wallace, Girl With Curious Hair (London: Abacus, 1989), p. 275.

[9] Marshall Boswell, Understanding David Foster Wallace (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003), p. 102.

[10] Luther, p. 52.

[11] Ibid, p. 53.

[12] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1993), p. 27.

[13] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, ed. by Michael Holquist, trans. by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 208.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, p. 114-115.

[16] Ibid, p. 148.

[17] Jameson, p. 26-7.

[18] Ibid, p. 25.

[19] Infinite Jest, p. 279.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, p. 302.

[22] Ibid, p. 280.

[23] Ibid, p. 302.

[24] Ibid, p. 467.

[25] Ibid, p. 360.

[26] Ibid, p. 858.

[27] Wallace, Infinite Jest, p. 572.

[28] Timothy Aubry, ‘Selfless Cravings: Addiction and Recovery in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest’, American Fiction of the 1990s: Reflections of History and Culture, ed. by Jay Prosser (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 211.

[29] Infinite Jest, p. 350-1.