Seeking Order

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?

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7 thoughts on “Seeking Order”

  1. From Elegant Complexity (apologies for messy formatting):
    Partial Chronology: November Y.D.A.U.

    by 3 November Steeply begins interviewing Orin (n. 145)
    A.F.R. temporarily stops surveillance of Orin (p. 574)
    3, 5 November Orin calls Hal (Chs. 13.1, 18.2)
    7 November Steeply “en route” to E.T.A. (p. 1012)
    1412h., Orin leaves message w/ locker-room sounds (p. 1005)
    1600h.; Orin calls Hal, preps answers for Steeply (n. 110.4)
    8 November Orin with Arizona Cardinals; Steeply at Eschaton, then back to Orin
    A.F.R. at Antitois, search for cartridge begins
    10 November Fortier leaves in the search’s middle to interview Orin (p. 723)
    Orin takes Steeply to airport, gives Steeply M. Bain’s address
    Steeply begins correspondence with M. Bain
    Luria meets Orin (Ch. 26.9)
    Hours after Steeply leaves (p. 574), Fortier interviews Orin
    11 November Steeply at E.T.A., Luria with Orin again (p. 655)
    A.F.R. finds cartridge
    12 November Engineer nabbed, Fortier is able to return
    13 November A.F.R. begins searching halfway houses for Joelle
    14 November Luria with Orin again (n. 307)

    Partial Chronology: November Y.D.A.U.
    14 November
    before 2200 Poor Tony’s seizure (Ch. 20.2)
    until 2200 Joelle in St. E’s meeting (Ch. 27.20)
    before 2215 Joelle takes “the quick walk” (p. 934) from St. E’s to Ennet
    Lenz (Ch. 27. 23, p. 718)
    after 2215 Gompert and van Cleve (Ch. 27.14, p. 700)
    Poor Tony walks by Matty (Chs. 27.11, 27.9)
    before 2230 van Cleve after Poor Tony, Selwyn with Gompert (Ch. 27.22)
    Poor Tony (Ch. 27.25)
    Lenz (Ch. 27.30, p. 728)
    before 2300 Joelle in her room at Ennet (Chs. 27.28, 27.32, 27.34)
    Selwyn and Marathe at Ennet (Chs. 27.31, 27.33, 27.35)
    after 2300 “People from the public can’t be” at Ennet (p. 591)
    Marathe with Gompert (Ch. 27.38)
    after 2330 Gompert missing from Ennet House (p. 824)

    17 November Hal at Ennet, then to K. Bain
    by 19 November M. Bain answers get to Steeply
    19 November A.F.R. shifts focus of operation after no sign of Joelle (p. 845)
    19 November Fortier leaves for 2nd interview, A.F.R. hijack tennis teams
    20 November Joelle interviewed by Steeply, A.F.R. at Ennet
    Fortier and Luria interview Orin

  2. Excellent insights, and more fitted to my personal missing pieces for this section than the beautiful double parabola that Rob linked to. I’m hoping that somewhere a timeline exists with this level of detail with respect to character-linked contemporaneous events.

  3. Great post, thank you! It seems to me to be moderately/mostly clear that Hal is dosed with what is probably the DMZ just before he finds Ortho Stice fenestrated. (…It hit me as…etc.). Could the wraith have somehow gotten the DMZ and dosed Hal in a desperate effort to make him communicate? Yet somehow the DMZ almost instantly (shown during the Kenkel and Brandt scene) and perhaps permanently (pages 3 – 17 in the Admissions office) affects Hal’s affect — he can think that he is expressing one thing, while everyone else interprets his expression as vastly different.

    Question: If Hal’s second ambulance ride is a year after his first, what has happened during that year? Other than, possibly or possibly not, the gravedigger dream/scene (and speaking of another such scene, K and B are obviously Hamlet’s gravedigger’s no?)…

  4. Thank you so much for this! This is the kind of first-order level of explication which I think most readers and analyses miss while they’re trying to unravel the complexity Wallace winds up burying his ideas in.

  5. Excellent post, thanks for the insights. Hal and Don definitely seem like literary twins to me. Sometimes I think they’re the same person. One thing I noticed is that Joelle brings Don brownies when he’s in the hospital. In real life Mary Karr brought Wallace brownies when he was in the hospital. There’s a Salon article where Karr mentions the visit.

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