DFW and the Grotesque

David Foster Wallace’s fascination in Infinite Jest with the grotesque is hard not to notice. To be fair, it might or might not be DFW’s own personal fascination, but it is certainly fascinating to many of the novel’s narrators. (I’m still a little perplexed about how many narrators there are in this novel, as the third-person narrator seems to speak in many voices. And I suspect I’ll have to finish the novel before I can make any real conclusions about that feature.)

“The Grotesque” is a term I heard kicked around in grad school (especially in the phrase “the Southern grotesque”), but, other than being able to pick out more more obvious examples in Faulkner’s and O’Connor’s work–which is especially easy in O’Connor, as almost every character qualifies–it wasn’t something that I ever learned much about.

So, why not let’s go fishing? I’m no expert, but I am lucky enough to have access to JSTOR. The first stop on our journey is Geoffrey Harpham’s “The Grotesque: First Principles,” where he maintains that “The grotesque is the slipperiest of aesthetic categories” (461). After a brief overview of the history of the term, originating in the study of art before being applied to literature, he judges it one particularly susceptible to change over time and from one writer to another:

All of this implies that, in approaching a definition of the grotesque, we should not always take etymological consistency for conceptual accuracy; the definition of the concept, almost as fluid as that of beauty, is good for one era–even one man–at a time. (461)

Some of DFW’s uses of the concept are fairly traditional: characters are estranged from us and, in some cases, from the rest of the world through some physical deformity or exaggeration, often described in animalistic terms. Mario immediately comes to mind. Some writers use outward deformity–rather heartlessly–as a sign of a similarly twisted inner nature. Others turn that idea on its head and use it, as DFW does with Mario, as a maker of inner beauty. DFW extends the concept a bit further in his characterization of Joelle dan Dyne, a woman so beautiful she must wear a mask and disguise her perfect form in order to make social interactions with other people possible. She, too, is a grotesque, as far from the norm in one direction as Mario is in the other, and, to the uninitiated, producing as estranging an effect.

But what’s the function? I’m still thinking that one over. Harpham mentions, among other things, the grotesque as a way of marking estrangement from a more-or-less realistic world. If Infinite Jest were purely absurd, entirely divorced from our day-to-day experience, the grotesque wouldn’t be felt, as it requires a distance from some norm. But Infinite Jest is not absurd. It has absurdist elements, to be sure, and DFW plays these for laughs, but they’re only funny because of their distance from the mundane events that are commonplace in the novel.

Grotesque features need not be physical; they can be psychological, ethical, perhaps spiritual. Think of the characters in David Lynch’s movies. (DFW was a fan of Lynch and wrote an essay on one of his films.) The settings and the characters often have a surface of normalcy, almost mundaneness, that masks deeply weird inner lives and behind-closed-door proclivities. Lynch likes to dramatize the luridness lurking beneath, perhaps, in part, produced by, the calm, rational surface.

Perhaps something similar is at work in Infinite Jest. Wallace’s characters, considered by clique, are not unusual. They’re mostly addicts and athletes, often both. But each of the major characters has his or her own deeply personal and, often, deeply alienating inner life. Not only is the landscape populated with grotesques, it is peopled with characters who experience themselves as grotesques, driven by deep obsessions and compulsions, idiosyncratic to a fault, alienated from real connection with others.

The few times that anyone has asked me what the novel I’ve been lugging around for nearly six weeks is about, I’m always tempted to say “it’s about 1,100 pages long,” or, “it’s about tennis,” or “it’s about addiction.” But I think the true answer is this: it’s about loneliness. And I think DFW’s use of the grotesque one more tool in his box for bringing that point home.

Works Cited

Harpham, Geoffrey.  “The Grotesque: First Principles.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp. 461-468.

8 thoughts on “DFW and the Grotesque

  1. dioramaorama August 13, 2009 / 4:11 pm

    The first thing I thought about when I read this post was this quote:

    “It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”

    Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

  2. steven August 13, 2009 / 5:49 pm

    Here’s a photo of DFW and his wife with Jeffrey Eugenides in the background wearing a blue shirt.

    David Foster Wallace and Karen Green

    You can not seriously claim that her beauty is a deformity. Jeffrey Eugenides, as great a writer as he is, wouldn’t have a chance with a woman that beautiful.

  3. steven August 16, 2009 / 12:19 am

    I thought the past week’s reading, mostly p.537-611, is defined by the amount of wordplay.


    The characters are often named after historical figures. Obviously John “No Relation” Wayne, but also prorector Randy Weaver, who, like his namesake, is “somebody that can really shoot” [609].

    Hester Thrale [542] was an 18th century British diarist to whom literary historians owe much of their knowledge about Samuel Johnson. The name Randy Lenz, according to Wikipedia, “may be a reference to the novella ‘Lenz’ by Georg Büchner, the subject of which is 18th-century German writer Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, a schizophrenic whose ruminations while taking a long walk make up much of the novella.”

    Tina Echt and Jim Troeltsch are described as having “repulsive last names” [524]. Ernst Troeltsch was a German theologian of the late-19th, early 20th centuries. Echt is a German adjective/adverb meaning genuine or genuinely, as in the famous line from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

    “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch” (I am no Russian woman, I come from Lithuania, real German). On p.574 there’s a mention of the “barren Eliotical wastes of the western Concavity.”

    The “Defarge-like picnickers” outside the Ohio prison “as the clock ticked down to [lethal] Injection” for Bruce Green’s father, is probably a reference to Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities.

    James O. Incandenza’s death by sticking his head in a microwave oven might be a reference to Sylvia Plath’s suicide by sticking her head in a gas oven. On p.592 Gately observes “Kate G. reading something called Sylvia Plate [sic].”

    P.492 describes the ATHSCME fans being shut off for daily “de-linting,” a pun on the name of E.T.A. prorector Aubrey de Lint. On p.561 Lenz describes “Bing” addicts pounding on his door at 3 a.m. “sporting lint,” or, in other words, broke .

    Charlotte Treat: A “charlotte” is a dessert, Charlotte Russe being one kind.


    On p.558 when Lenz describes breaking a “man’s nose with one blow and then driv(ing) the bone’s shards and fragments up into the vendor’s brain,” it’s an obvious allusion to Mike Tyson, who, after a 1986 TKO of Jesse Ferguson said matter-of-factly, “I tried to punch him and drive the bone of his nose back into his brain.”

    The anecdote that Lenz tells Bruce Green on p.553, “I get real calm see and said I said Pepito I said Pepito man,” sounds like it may be based on Foghorn J. Leghorn’s often-stated “Boy, I say boy.”

    MALAPROPISMS, apparent neologisms, nouns-into-verbs and other parts of speech, puns, misspellings, and general corruption of words from spoken to written language:

    543. Eurochaic — European and archaic. The “Eurochaic sirens of ambulances.”

    543. bonerfied — a “bonerfied miracle.”

    545. un-unwinder — a stimulant. uncut Bing is an un-unwinder.

    546. windbagathon — long-winded and marathon in duration, as in “windbagathon stories.”

    548. twidgel — possibly a variation of twiddle (to turn about or play with lightly or idly, esp. with the fingers; twirl). “Twidgelling the brim of his hat.”

    556. anileated — annihilated. The evidence was anileated.

    558 recurving — recurring, as in a “recurving dream.”

    569. insurmagulate — possibly a combination of insurmountable and magulation, a pharmacological term. An “insurmagulate conceptual block.”

    573. sterebolic anoids — anabolic steroids, as in “a rainforest on sterebolic anoids.”

    576. recesstacle — a receptacle situated in a recessed area, as in a bus lavatory. “forcefully ensconced into the recesstacle.”

    576. excrecate — to extricate someone from a recesstacle or bus lavatory.

    577. blaze-trailing — trailblazing

    1041. antidote — anecdote. “I’ll relate one antidote.”

    540. the “downscale night.” Night in a poor neighborhood.

    541. in the “verminal dark.” Downscale night when there are rats around.

    543. Concavityward — in the direction of the Great Concavity

    544. a Texas Cathy — apparently an onanistic sex aid.

    551. greeble — to greeble is to add random detail to a surface. “Boogerish little greebles of dirty gum all around the soles’ perimeter” (of gum-soled Clark’s Wallabies shoes).

    556. can-miners. People who collect and redeem soda cans.

    569. “After we converse you will conduct me to micturate, please.” A foreigner requesting someone to accompany them to the lavoratory.

    577. self-fend. To fend for one’s self.

    579. to career-change. Change one’s career.

    1039. to career. Avril “careers through the day”

    580. Macademia-labelled. the “Macademia-labelled can.”

    583. War of the Welles. Orson Welles’s adaptation of War of the World by H.G. Wells.

    590. Dial C for Concupiscence. Mario’s film, the title of which is a pun on Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Frederick Knott’s “Dial ‘M’ for Murder.”

    and finally,

    538. “I am so beautiful I am deformed…I am deformed with beauty.” Joelle’s Orwellian proposition that resembles the campaign slogans in 1984: “War is Peace. Slavery is Freedom. Ignorance is Strength.” Aphorisms for a world gone mad.

  4. steven August 16, 2009 / 1:26 am

    Correction: The Weaver Stance is a shooting technique developed Deputy Sheriff Jack Weaver and has nothing to do with Randy Weaver. Forget that.

    What I meant to say was that the character Tex Watson is the namesake of murderer Charles “Tex” Watson of the Manson Family.

    Sorry about that.

  5. Chris Forster August 16, 2009 / 10:38 pm

    I completely agree that the grotesque is a fascinating lens (Lenz?) through which to consider Infinite Jest. Thanks for this post.

    You focus here on the grotesque and character; I wonder if there isn’t something to say about the way the grotesque evokes a certain response in the reader.

    I’m not sure if it qualifies, but to your list I would simply add, as an especially potent example, the Raquel Welch-mask anecdote, related during the Nov. 8 AA meeting (igitur gaudemus). This instance is at once horrifying and, in a very macabre way, sort of humorous.

    Or consider the long description of Hal discovering his father’s body (and smelling “something delicious”).

    Humor and horror seem mixed in uncomfortable proportions in these moments in the novel. These seem to be provocations of a certain sort; the novel seems to dare us to laugh, but I’m not sure whether we should.

  6. James Martin August 17, 2009 / 1:53 am

    Thanks, Chris. It was that “Raquel Welch” scene, and the one after it (about the still born infant) that sparked this post. I’d noticed the grotesque elements, but those two scenes, both AA revelations, were what got me writing.

    Thanks for reminding me of Hal’s discovery of Himself. That fits in very nicely.

    I also notice him doing it even with the more “normal” characters. Consider Orin’s leg, or most every tennis player, who is described as having one arm considerably larger than the other–which is both natural, given the demands of the sport, and a bit grotesque, at least in the way that DFW draws attention to it.

    I’m not quite sure what to make of all of it just yet, but it does seem to suggest itself as a useful way into the text.

  7. Justin August 12, 2014 / 2:46 pm

    Just for clarification. Tennis players, pro players I am referring to, do not have one very large arm and one smaller arm, this is made up by DFW, made up because it’s hilarious. Pro athletes work out symmetrically. There is no debating this.

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