Upon Further Review: Sports in American Literature

By Michael Cocchiarale; Scott D. Emmert | Go to book overview

‘The Machine-Language of the
Muscles”: Reading, Sport,
and the Self in Infinite Jest

Stephen J. Burn

With one of its multiple narrative lines set in a Boston tennis academy that models its academic curriculum on the Oxbridge Trivium and Quadrivium, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) intertwines sport with questions of learning and memory that ultimately shade into a larger meditation on contemporary identity. But while Wallace observes that the dynamics of “competitive tennis [are] largely mental” (269), the foundations of the novel’s synthesis of sport and study only partly derive from cerebral elements intrinsic to the game. Instead, Wallace uses tennis as a focal point around which larger arguments about the self are generated by the precision of the novel’s structure, by its network of allusions to earlier works, and by the position of its miniessays on tennis amid a spectrum of other intellectual concerns.

The techniques and themes Wallace uses to articulate these arguments are presented in miniature in the novel’s opening scene, and one of the most immediately striking is the broad intellectual territory in which Wallace locates his discussions of tennis. Infinite Jest opens in 2010,1 with a set piece that is carefully orchestrated to provide an unusually eclectic intellectual context for the novel’s treatment of sport. In this initial narrative strand, which is really one of three unifying threads, the reader is introduced to eighteen-year-old Hal Incandenza as he faces an admissions panel at the University of Arizona. Hal is a continentally ranked junior tennis player and prodigious reader, but in the opening scene he has been accused by the panel of plagiarising application essays to mask the limited academic skills that they suspect accompany his undoubted athletic abilities. As part of his first monologue in the novel, Hal defends himself against this jock stereotype with an account of his extensive reading: “UI read,’ I say. ‘I study and read. … I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives…. But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. … I believe Hobbes is just Rousseau in a dark mirror’” (12). Hal’s

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