The first thing that many people do after finishing Infinite Jest is hunt down (aka, do a Google search for) a chronological timeline of the events as they happened in the book. It’s natural to crave some order after 1000+ pages of bouncing back and forth between characters and years, and after an ending which provided more questions than answers. There are some good timelines out there — this one by Drew Cordes (PDF) is my favorite and the one that I deem most complete.
One difficulty I have with these timelines is that they present everything linearly, intermixing characters and scenes. What I’d like to see is more of a grid, where the timeline is tracked on the Y-axis, with the novel’s key characters or settings mapped out across the X-axis. I think this format has a lot of potential to better show what’s happening around the same time frame in each location.
I tried this in a limited scope, focusing on what happens to Hal and Gately on November 6, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and beyond. Viewed this way, we start to see some interesting parallels.
|YDAU November 6||Hal participates in the Port Washington tournament. We hear he “has made a kind of quantumish competitive plateaux-hop” and is at the top of his competitive tennis game.||Gately remains at the top of his sobriety game, having been off substances for 421 days.|
|YDAU November 11 – early hours November 12||Hal plays a showdown-style exhibition match against Ortho ‘The Darkness’ Stice with everyone watching the match. Hal, nearly beaten, emerges the victor from the match, but walks away spiritually (existentially?) injured. We learn, through his conversations with Mario, that he is facing an arduous recovery – not just from the exhibition match, but from the Bob Hope, as he has 30 days to produce clean urine.||Gately enters a showdown with the Canadians outside of Ennet House, with all of the residents watching on. He emerges a victor (in that he was not killed), but walks away from the encounter physically injured. We learn that he is facing an arduous recovery of his own, as he attempts to recover from his physical wounds without the aid of narcotics and painkillers. He, like Hal, has a lot of ‘feeling’ to get through.|
|YDAU November 12-20||The wraith (James O. Incandenza) visits Enfield Tennis Academy – Pemulis finds his DMZ missing, and Ortho Stice’s bed becomes attached to the ceiling.||The wraith visits Gately, and talks about his horror in seeing his youngest son (“the one most like him”) slowly disappear and be unable to express himself. The wraith talks about his desire to create “The Entertainment” as a way of drawing Hal back out.|
|YDAU November 12-20||Hal inadvertently attends an “Inner Infant” meeting on November 17.||Gately in the hospital becomes like an infant, unable to communicate his needs and forced to have others take care of him. He has a dream from the perspective of an infant, with Joelle (as Death) leaning over him.|
|YDAU November 20||Hal brushes his teeth (possibly getting dosed with the DMZ), and we see his slow descent into emotional affect and a panic attack – a series of events that we know will later end up with him being wheeled into the emergency room.||I have to believe this is right around the same time that we see Gately going through the worst of his physical recovery and descending mentally through the worst days of his drug addiction. Both he and Hal are going through their respective bottoms.|
|Late YDAU / Early Year of Glad (?)||Hal and Gately, who we can presume met in the hospital, are together with John Wayne in Quebec as they dig up the skull of James O. Incandenza.|
I knew that Hal and Gately are our two protagonists in the book, but laying out these events side by side in this grid made me realize how similar their journeys and struggles are and how there is — underlying the book’s chaotic surface — an order and a purpose.
What parallels or similarities were you excited to find in your reading of the book?