Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest

by

David Foster Wallace

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Infinite Jest can help.

Infinite Jest: Chapter 37 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
5 November — Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Orin calls Hal and Hal tells him that he’s picked an “interesting” time to call, as Hal is clipping his toenails, a sound Orin hates. Hal describes the nail clippings flying straight into the wastepaper bin, which he and Orin compare to the feeling of having a particularly successful streak while playing their respective sports. They then discuss superstitions. Orin admits that he thinks he’s being followed “by handicapped people,” although he also dismisses it as likely a product of his imagination. He mentions that he is being profiled in Moment magazine, and that the journalist keeps asking about Orin’s family. He’s now realized that the story seems to mostly be about James.
Orin dismisses his own concerns about being followed by disabled people as nonsense. However, as readers we know that his fears could actually be well-founded, as it is possible that he is being followed by the A.F.R. This would make even more sense considering he is also being profiled by the magazine that Hugh/Helen Steeply works for. In light of the meeting between Steeply and Rémy Marathe, Orin probably is being followed by the A.F.R.
Themes
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Orin says the journalist is unusually large, but “weirdly sexy.” Orin says he’s reluctant to discuss family matters with the journalist, and reviews the details of James’s suicide with Hal. Hal notes that no one except Mario really talks about James or his suicide these days. Orin asks who found James’s body, and Hal replies that he did, at the age of 13. Orin mentions that the journalist’s name is Helen. Orin asks about the P.G.O.A.T.Joelle—and Hal explains that she hasn’t been around E.T.A. since she and Orin broke up.
It is somewhat shocking that until this moment, Orin didn’t know that Hal was the person who discovered James’s body. This highlights that even though the brothers talk often, there is still a communicative impasse between them, as they cannot talk about the most painful and difficult subjects in both their lives.
Themes
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Hal explains that James had sawed a head-shaped hole in the microwave door, and that there was a bottle of Wild Turkey whisky next to him on the counter when he died. Orin grows more and more horrified by the details of the suicide, and Hal tells him not to feel bad, while casually mentioning the fact that Orin didn’t come to the memorial service. Orin comments on how traumatized Hal must have been, and Hal recalls the grief counseling Avril made him attend. He describes the grief counselor as insatiable, and says it was “the most brutal six weeks of full-bore professional conversation anybody could imagine.”
Again, we see that Hal has a distanced, detached relationship to his own emotions. Rather than experiencing them in an organic, authentic way, he thinks about his grief counselor’s insatiable appetite to hear him speak about grief. As in the beginning of the novel, Hal is more concerned with how people around him will react to his emotions than he is to his emotional experiences themselves.
Themes
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
At the time, Hal voraciously consumed books and other material about grief in order to give a convincing account of his feelings, with little success. The fact that Hal couldn’t manage to tell the counselor, “a top-rank authority figure,” what he wanted to hear was deeply disturbing. Hal was suffering enormously: he lost weight, couldn’t sleep, was losing matches, and getting B grades. He was petrified that he was going to “flunk grief-therapy.” In despair, Hal paid a visit to Lyle, who told him that instead of being a “student of grief,” he should start reading books for grief professionals in order to gain insight into the counsellor’s perspective.
Hal sees everything in life as a test and dreads failing. This is clearly the result of growing up in both a family of precocious high-achievers and in the educational institution that they founded. Again, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to just speak honestly with the grief counselor and reveal whatever he was feeling about James’s death. Instead, he is desperate to please the counselor because he is a figure of authority, showing how much he has been shaped by hierarchical institutions.
Themes
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Get the entire Infinite Jest LitChart as a printable PDF.
Infinite Jest PDF
Orin is incredulous about this twist in the story, but Hal insists that from then on, everything changed for the better. He misbehaved in exactly the way the books for grief professionals suggested he would, dramatically confessing that the first thought he had on entering the room with James’s body was “that something smelled delicious!” He then acted out the process of grief he’d learned from the books, and left the counsellor in a euphoric state. Hal explains that he was always disturbed by the fact that the counsellor would keep his hands hidden under his desk, but during their final session he realized it was because his hands were deformed. This made him laugh hysterically, forcing him to flee the room.
Just as every character in the novel seems to have some kind of addiction, so too does every character seem to be damaged or deformed in some way. Hal felt that he had to give a “perfect” performance of grief in order to satisfy the counselor, but it turns out that—like Hal himself—the counselor also had a secret of which he was ashamed. Hal’s uncontrollable laughter shows that in addition to being damaged, everyone is also capable of cruelty.
Themes
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame Theme Icon
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Theme Icon
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Theme Icon