A worldwide reread of the greatest novel ever written, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, is currently underway, celebrating twenty years since its first publication. “Infinite Winter” began January 31; readers consume about 75 pages per week until May 2. As I noted a year-plus ago, although we tend to think first of the mosaic plot and verbal inventiveness of IJ, the novel also contains significant science-fiction elements. As in other great novels such as 1984 and Slaughterhouse-Five, the sci-fi touches prove essential to the plot and to the overall satiric commentary.
Which brings us to the giant feral hamsters and infants. As with the concept of “Subsidized Time”—selling the name of the year to the highest corporate bidder, and replacing 2016, 2017, and so forth with “Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken, “Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster,” and the like—Wallace shows us the facts a small piece at a time.
There’s no single moment of full, direct exposition; rather, we get one small fragment or hint at a time, eventually gleaning enough to put together the picture for ourselves. I suspect this is part of why readers who don’t like IJ don’t like it. Wallace’s insanely broad vocabulary and complicated, nonsequential plot already have readers working pretty hard; adding the effort of grasping the details of his (sci-fi) worldbuilding on top of that proves a deal-breaker to many.
In IJ’s future, which is to say right about now, there exist in “the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine” terrifying, deadly, ultra-voracious hordes of giant feral hamsters. Wallace has just introduced two characters who, it gradually emerges, articulate (in a night-long conversation in the hills above Phoenix, AZ) two competing versions of what constitutes happiness. Hugh “Helen” Steeply, a large male American spy posing extremely unconvincingly as a female journalist, argues with Remy Marathe, a Quebecois triple- or quadruple-agent risking his life for his beloved ill wife. (More on her illness below.) We follow the Marathe-Steeply debate for a few pages, barely enough for us to get accustomed to their existence and role, when suddenly, without so much transition as a blank line, Wallace skips to this bizarre scene:
It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont… The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. . . .
The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacyyable—it’s that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant ragged outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine.
All these territories are now property of Canada.
With respect to a herd of this size, please exercise the sort of common sense that come to think of it would keep your thinking man out of the southwest Concavity anyway. Feral hamsters are not pets. They mean business. Wide berth advised. Carry nothing even remotely vegetablish if in the path of a feral herd.
Then, abruptly, Wallace shunts us back to Marathe and Steeply in Arizona again. What the hell was that about giant feral hamsters?
Let me explicate some of the key fragmentary revelations from this passage—things that make little sense now, in themselves, but make more later after more pages.
1) “The Great Concavity,” then “the southwest Concavity”: the USA has developed a complicated process, “annular fusion” (see also “annularly fertilized forests” in the quoted passage), for making virtually unlimited energy. The central requirement and result of this process is previously unimagined amounts of waste which is also unbelievably toxic. The USA ships and/or catapults (literally) this waste into its northeast corner, then forcibly gives this nightmarish property to Canada: hence,
2) “All these territories are now property of Canada.” Giving very-much-unwanted land to Canada = “Experialism”; hence the “Experialist migration” mentioned here. No normal being can live in this land, so it was completely evacuated.
3) “pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded”: the toxic Concavity (a/k/a the “Convexity” from Canada’s point of view) goes through weekly cycles of unbelievable fecundity to unbelievable desolation; at the moment described, it’s in the latter stage. (More on annular fusion in an upcoming article.)
4) Wallace’s overall implication is that both the herd and the individual hamsters are mind-bogglingly huge. He describes them a few hundred pages after this as being “of Volkswagen size.”
The giant feral (human) infants are perhaps even more troubling. (There’s just something inescapably funny about a huge-and-therefore-dangerous hamster, and/or a “thundering herd” of them.) The first reference to the infants is even more oblique and partial, coming 200+ pages into the book. Michael Pemulis, emphasizing how extremely potent a certain hallucinogen is, calls it the “Great White Shark of organo-synthesized hallucinogens. The gargantuan feral infant of—“ at which point Hal Incandenza cuts him off: “We get the picture.” The phenomenon is so well known that Hal hasn’t the patience to hear about it.
The first halfway-detailed reference to the infants doesn’t come along until page 400. A deadpan description of Mario’s puppet-show retelling of the Concavity’s and Experialism’s history relates “a couple indoor-lit snapshots of a multi-eyed infant crawling backwards, its ear to the carpet, dragging its shapeless head like a sack of spuds. The last display’s a real heartstringplucker.” A dramatic spinning headline appearing later in Mario’s film reads: “CRANIALLY CHALLENGED, ACROMEGALIC INFANTS LOST IN EXPERIALIST SHUFFLE?” And Marathe’s wife, it emerges, is one of these infants now grown up. She has no skull, just an egg-soft head forever vulnerable to any slight trauma.
Like the hamsters, the infants are “allegedly reputed to inhabit the periodically overinhabitable forested sections of the eastern Reconfiguration.” One of James Incandenza’s films tells the story of a character who dies rescuing someone “from the attack of an oversized feral infant.” Like the hamsters, the infants are said to be “the size of Volkswagens.” As one cultural critic (in Wallace’s imagined future) observes, the infants are “formed by toxicity and sustained by annulation,” but they are “essentially passive icons of the Experialist gestalt.” In other words, they’re not really a danger, just a grotesque spectacle—victims. In a famous case, one infant is “alleged to have crushed, gummed, or picked up and dropped over a dozen residents of Lowell [MA]”—but there was no real harm done, ultimately. The worst they do is “deposit titanically outsized scat.”
The giant feral hamsters and infants serve two important functions in Infinite Jest.
1) They act as vivid symbols of Nature that has been royally screwed with. Rodents in general (rabbits, rats, hamsters) are the go-to cross-cultural example of rapid reproduction: any fast-growing population is said to “breeds like rats.” Hamsters and their ilk are nature. What happens when, in the technologically-driven, environmentally disastrous, politically aggressive pursuit of energy, a nation pushes Nature too far? It creates monsters out of what was inherently cute and cuddly. A hamster is adorable; an infant is cute and helpless. Radically larger, rapacious herds of them are horrifying. “Waste”—the product of annulation—is abstract; “giant feral infants” are specific and monstrous.
2) They are darkly funny, like the book as a whole. They contribute to a very specific tone. I challenge anyone to read aloud the feral-hamster passage quoted above—especially the sentence “The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable—it’s that implacable-herd expression”—without breaking into a smile. The book is full of details that match horribleness and humor in exactly equal portions: the “she [literally] stole my heart” story; the existence of the Entertainment, the film so entertaining that it ruins viewers for every other experience in life; the Wyle E. Coyote-ish multi-stage disaster described in a workman’s-compensation form.
Stay tuned here for further articles on Infinite Jest’s sci-fi elements.