Infinite Jest is set in a near-future world where contemporary obsessions with competition, celebrity, and success are exaggerated to an at times surreal degree. The culture of the novel is completely fixated on talent, precociousness, and fame, and this is particularly true at the Enfield Tennis Academy—one of the novel’s main settings. The characters chase success and marvel at other people’s talents, yet, in keeping with the novel’s dark mood, talent, precociousness, and fame are shown to have more of a negative than positive effect. They do not lead to happiness and indeed regularly destroy the lives of those who possess them. However, the novel also suggests that it is not possible to eschew the desire for talent and fame entirely. This creates a trap in which talent, precociousness, and fame cause misery—but the lack of these things can cause misery as well.
Infinite Jest’s exploration of this theme centers around the Incandenza family, the Enfield Tennis Academy, and particularly the prodigious E.T.A. student Hal Incandenza. Hal’s precocious talent earns him admiration from others but leaves him feeling isolated and depressed. The novel opens with Hal’s admissions interview for the University of Arizona, a scene that introduces his extraordinary abilities and achievements. Not only is seventeen-year-old Hal ranked the fourth-best player under eighteen years old in the U.S., he is also a highly intelligent autodidact who memorized the dictionary as a child. The admissions interview demonstrates the rewards and opportunities such precocious talent yields; at the same time, Hal’s first-person narration of this episode shows that he feels completely detached from the situation he is in. Rather than feeling excited or nervous about his possible future at college, he obsessively focuses on minute, trivial observations of the people around him. Eventually he tells them: “I cannot make myself understood, now.”
Hal’s statement speaks both to the immediate context of the admissions interview and the broader phenomenon of precocious talent. Hal’s prodigiousness alienates him from others and, in a sense, from himself. He is forced to subscribe to other people’s expectations and desires for his life rather than charting his own course. This isolation leads Hal to abuse marijuana to the point of developing a severe addiction. In a sense, Hal resembles the archetype of a child prodigy gone wrong; burdened by the weight of his own talent, he is unable to find satisfaction and meaning in life.
Hal is not the only character who experiences this problem. The narrator mentions that it is a common phenomenon for prodigious tennis players to crumble under the weight of their own success. One particularly severe example involves a talented junior player who, after a spate of wins, kills himself by drinking cyanide. This triggers a chain of suicides, both accidental and intentional, in which the player’s whole family also dies. Again, this shows how talent and success can have a profoundly negative impact on a person’s life—so negative that they no longer consider life worth living at all. Furthermore, the fact that the player’s family members also kill themselves shows how a person’s family members can be problematically invested in their talent—as is also the case with Hal. This overinvolvement adds even more pressure, heightening the misery of giftedness and success.
The novel also explores the perils of talent, precociousness, and fame through the character of LaMont Chu. A student at E.T.A., LaMont shamefully admits to having “an increasingly crippling obsession with tennis fame.” The narrator notes that LaMont’s “obsession with future-tense-fame makes all else pale.” The use of the phrase “future-tense-fame” here indicates how an obsession with fame and success can severely limit one’s ability to enjoy the present. At the same time, as the weight-room “guru” Lyle points out, “There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with the envy of fame.” This leads LaMont to conclude that he is trapped: fame and the envy of fame both make people miserable. This pessimistic conclusion reflects the novel’s general orientation to talent, precociousness, and fame.
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame ThemeTracker
Talent, Precociousness, and Fame 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.
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.
It's no accident they say you Eat, Sleep, Breathe tennis here. These are autonomical. Accretive means accumulating, through sheer mindless repeated motions. The machine-language of the muscles. Until you can do it without thinking about it, play.
“To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with envy of fame”…
“So I'm stuck in the cage from either side. Fame or tortured envy of fame. There's no way out.”
Listen to any sort of sub-16 exchange you hear in the bathroom or food line: 'Hey there, how are you?'' Number eight this week, is how I am. They all still worship the carrot. With the possible exception of the tormented LaMont Chu, they all still subscribe to the delusive idea that the continent's second-ranked fourteen-year-old feels exactly twice as worthwhile as the continent's #4.
Was amateurish the right word? More like the work of a brilliant optician and technician who was an amateur at any kind of real communication. Technically gorgeous, the work, with lighting and angles planned out to the frame. But oddly hollow, empty, no sense of dramatic towardness - no narrative movement toward a real story; no emotional movement toward an audience.
LIFE IS LIKE TENNIS
THOSE WHO SERVE
BEST USUALLY WIN