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