In Infinite Jest, addiction, mental illness, and suicide are not unusual or abnormal pathologies that affect only a select number of people. Instead, they are ubiquitous: every significant character in the novel seems to suffer from addiction or mental illness of some kind. Furthermore, while some of the characters are addicted to substances that readers traditionally think of as causing addiction (such as drugs and alcohol), others are addicted to more abstract things like sex, entertainment, or even privacy and secrecy. This widened scope therefore increases the extent to which addiction (and the related issues of mental illness and suicide) is pervasive in the novel. Infinite Jest provides insight into a future world where addiction is less of a particular problem that needs remedying and more a way of being.
Drug and alcohol addiction is an important focal point of Infinite Jest; the world of the novel is one that encourages substance abuse to the point that it can seem as if the characters are doomed to develop addictions. Hal Incandenza, who in a way functions as the novel’s main character, has a serious marijuana addiction. Yet this doesn’t set him apart from the other prodigious tennis players at Enfield Tennis Academy: “But so some E.T.A.s—not just Hal Incandenza by any means—are involved with recreational substances,” Wallace writes. “Like who isn’t, at some life-stage, in the U.S.A. and Interdependent regions, in these troubled times, for the most part.” Here drug and alcohol use is framed as a normal and ubiquitous part of life, as well as being something particular to the novel’s geopolitical context. North American culture, and particularly the “chemically troubled times” in which the story takes place, directly causes, encourages, and perpetuates recreational drug use.
If North American culture creates a situation wherein people have little choice over whether or not they use drugs, this lack of agency is intensified by addiction itself. Not only are the addicted characters compelled to use substances, but this substance use evolves into their whole reason for being. As the narrator states, “A little-mentioned paradox of Substance addiction is: that once you are sufficiently enslaved by a Substance to need to quit the Substance in order to save your life, the enslaving Substance has become so deeply important to you that you will all but lose your mind when it is taken away from you.” This passage puts a twist on the idea of reaching “rock bottom” in order to begin recovery. Once a person is at their absolute lowest point, they will find it harder to stop using substances because their agency has eroded so much that substance has become the sole purpose of their lives.
At the same time, the notion that the characters don’t have much choice in their use of recreational drugs conflicts significantly with the recovery regimes—and particularly the ideology of Alcoholics Anonymous—explored in the novel. One of the main settings of the novel is Ennet House, a drug and alcohol recovery center. Ennet House demands a level of commitment to recovery that borders on comically absurd; in previous years its founder would make new residents eat rocks in order to test their commitment to sobriety. Of course, this kind of demand is premised on the idea that people do have agency when it comes to substance use, and that extreme tests of this agency are necessary in order to successfully recover from addiction.
The novel explores how addiction, mental illness, and suicide are intertwined, with a causal relationship to one another. In many cases, characters’ mental illness causes them to develop an addiction, which in turn worsens their mental health and sometimes leads to suicide. Yet the causal relationship can work the other way, too, for example when Hal starts smoking weed in order to cope with the trauma of discovering his father James’s grisly suicide. Again, the fact that addiction, mental illness, and suicide are so ubiquitous in the novel means that the characters find themselves surrounded by causal cycles of these issues, which come to affect everyone rather than just a section of the population.
Although the issues of addiction, mental illness, and suicide are often dealt with in a darkly comic way, the novel’s outlook is ultimately pessimistic and melancholic. As the narrator explains, comedy, irony, and sarcasm can be misleading in this respect: “Sarcasm and jokes were often the bottle in which clinical depressives sent out their most plangent screams for someone to care and help them.” The fact that the novel ends with Don Gately on the brink of a possible relapse confirms this melancholic, pessimistic disposition. Addiction, mental illness, and suicide appear impossible to resist or escape.
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide ThemeTracker
Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Quotes in Infinite Jest
I believe I appear neutral, maybe even pleasant, though I've been coached to err on the side of neutrality and not attempt what would feel to me like a pleasant expression or smile.
“I'm not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you'd let me, talk and talk. Let's talk about anything. I believe the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated. I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist. I believe Hobbes is just Rousseau in a dark mirror. I believe, with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption. I could interface you guys right under the table,” I say.
“I'm ten for Pete's sake. I think maybe your appointment calendar's squares got juggled. I'm the potentially gifted ten-year-old tennis and lexical prodigy whose mom's a continental mover and shaker in the prescriptive grammar academic world and whose dad's a towering figure in optical and avant-garde film circles and single-handedly founded the Enfield Tennis Academy but drinks Wild Turkey at like 5:00 a.m. and pitches over sideways during dawn drills, on the courts, some days, and some days presents with delusions about people's mouths moving but nothing coming out. I'm not even up to J yet, in the condensed O.E.D., much less Québec or malevolent Lurias.
A more than averagely devout follower of the North American sufism promulgated in his childhood by Pir Valayat, the medical attaché partakes of neither kif nor distilled spirits, and must unwind without chemical aid… The medical attaché sits and watches and eats and watches, unwinding by visible degrees, until the angles of his body in the chair and his head on his neck indicate that he has passed into sleep, at which point his special electronic recliner can be made automatically to recline to full horizontal, and luxuriant silk-analog bedding emerges flowingly from long slots in the appliance's sides.
Hal likes to get high in secret, but a bigger secret is that he's as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high.
Recreational drugs are more or less traditional at any U.S. secondary school, maybe because of the unprecedented tensions: post-latency and puberty and angst and impending adulthood, etc. To help manage the intrapsychic storms, etc… But so some E.T.A.s - not just Hal Incandenza by any means - are involved with recreational substances, is the point. Like who isn't, at some life-stage, in the U.S.A. and Interdependent regions, in these troubled times, for the most part.
So what is this? You're ordering me to pray? Because I allegedly have a disease? I dismantle my life and career and enter nine months of low-income treatment for a disease, and I'm prescribed prayer?
That a little-mentioned paradox of Substance addiction is: that once you are sufficiently enslaved by a Substance to need to quit the Substance in order to save your life, the enslaving Substance has become so deeply important to you that you will all but lose your mind when it is taken away from you. Or that sometime after your Substance of choice has just been taken away from you in order to save your life, as you hunker down for required a.m. and p.m. prayers, you will find yourself beginning to pray to be allowed literally to lose your mind, to be able to wrap your mind in an old newspaper or something and leave it in an alley to shift for itself, without you.
Time is passing. Ennet House reeks of passing time. It is the humidity of early sobriety, hanging and palpable. You can hear ticking in clockless rooms here.
Sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can't pay the loan back, but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works, spreading this message to the next new guy who's tottered in to a meeting and is sitting in the back row unable to hold his cup of coffee. The only way to hang onto sobriety is to give it away, and even just 24 hours of sobriety is worth doing anything for, a sober day being nothing short of a daily miracle if you've got the Disease…
It’s all optional; do it or die.
I couldn't even stand to be in the same room, see him like that. Begging for just even a few seconds - a trailer, a snatch of soundtrack, anything. His eyes wobbling around like some drug-addicted newborn.
After so long not caring, and then now the caring crashes back in and turns so easily into obsessive worry, in sobriety. A few days before the debacle in which Don Gately got hurt, Joelle had begun to worry obsessively about her teeth. Smoking 'base cocaine eats teeth, corrodes teeth, attacks the enamel directly.