Ulysses and Infinite Jest

This blog contains Spoilers for the books Ulysses and Infinite Jest

Preface: I ordered copy of a library book of Ulysses by James Joyce, but the print was too small to read. If I read small print, I will get a headache. The Kindle Edition costs is 99 cents, but it’s also free online at Project Gutenberg. Finnegans Wake is a mere $1.99 on the Kindle system. Finnegans Wake is still under copyright. I wondered why the price was so low? I started to read Finnegans Wake and I found out, that as I had heard, it can’t be understood because there are words that are not English, but they are not really Irish words either. They are an insane language. More about this later on in the essay.

Can James Joyce’s writing be compared to David Foster Wallace’s?

Inspired by the supposition that Molly Notkin the character from Infinite Jest is based on Molly Bloom, I decided to look at Ulysses by James Joyce to see if there are similarities to Infinite Jest. I could not find very much to suggest that the character Molly Notkin is similar to Molly Bloom. However, I could find in Ulysses some ideas that are seen in Infinite Jest. I read about David Foster Wallace and his mother Sally. When DFW was a boy, (I am not sure how old,) he and his mother would read Ulysses together. As I continued to read, I decided the topic could be expanded to comparing James Joyce with David Foster Wallace.

First of all we need to note that Ulysses by James Joyce is based on the Odyssey, but Infinite Jest is based on Hamlet. Both books are somewhat loosely based on these classical works.

The names Molly and Kate

One of the main characters in Infinite Jest is a depressed woman named Kate Gompert. Her name was taken from a girl Wallace knew when he was completing on the Tennis Circuit.  The real Kate Gompert sued David Foster Wallace because she felt the character of Kate was damaging to the clean image she wanted to maintain as a tennis player. The judge did not agree, and she lost her claim for damages. I wonder why DFW wanted to use her name. I assume there is some bad history between them, but we will never really know why he did. I doubt if the real Kate Gompert knows why. Maybe he just liked the name or maybe he wanted to get her attention? The character Kate Gompert does not play tennis, and is not similar to the real Kate Gompert. Most of the characters in Ulysses are based on real people. James Joyce changed the names, but keys to whom the names correspond with can be found online.

There is a character named Katey in Ulysses, and this reminded me of the name Gately. Gately is the second protagonist in Infinite Jest. He became more of the a main character as Hal’s role in the book began to recede.

The mental illness connection

James Joyce had a daughter named Lucia Joyce. Lucia had been a promising  dancer who went insane and was confined to an institution. This brings to mind Zelda Fitzgerald. After Zelda gave up dancing she went insane in part, because she lacked purpose.  Lucia is reported to be Joyce’s Muse for the book Finnegans Wake. Finnegans Wake has a sort of made up language. Using words that other people can not understand is said to be a sign of Schizophrenia. When Hal sees the Deans of the College, he has a lot of things he wishes to tell them, but he is unable to make them understand him. Hal may of had a break from reality or did his Uncle merely set him up for failure at the interview? Later on in the book we see some scenes from Hal’s life which happen prior to the first chapter. The song “I Want To Tell You” by the Beatles is mentioned. Hal communicates by phone with his older brother Orin and with his younger brother Mario. But, it seems as if other people can’t understand Hal. His father is unable to communicate with him, and maybe after his breakdown no one can communicate any longer with Hal. Perhaps Hal has retreated to the inner workings of his mind?

Orin does not tell Hal that he mailed a copy of the Failed Entertainment Cartridge to the Medical Attaché. The Medical Attaché condition starts the whole plot of the novel. A group of Canadian Separatists (Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants (A.F.R.), known in English as the Wheelchair Assassins) learns that the Cartridge causes anyone who views it to go into an irreversible coma, and then die from lack of eating and drinking. The French Canadian Separatists wish to obtain the Master Cartridge , because copies of the master cartridge do not have the same power. There may be another Master Copy buried in James Incandenza’s Grave.  In the hospital, Gately dreams that he is digging up Hal’s fathers head to try get a copy of what could be the antidote for the coma caused by viewing the Failed Entertainment Cartridge. The heroes need to find the antidote to bring the people who have viewed the Cartridge back to life. But, all of this is based on my reading other people theories of how Hamlet is supposed to be like Infinite Jest. I do not see what other people see when I read the end of Infinite Jest. It is reported that James Incandenza’s Ghost comes speaks to Gately to tell him to die up his body to find something that they need. It could be the Master Copy or it could be the antidote. I did recall that Orin has been captured by the Canadian Separatists and they are in the process of torturing him with insects because that is his greatest fear. They want to know where “The Master is buried.” I assume this means the Master Cartridge that was sent to the Medical Attaché. Orin is in real trouble, as he does not have the Master Cartridge any longer. It is unclear what happened to the Master Cartridge after the Medical Attaché, his wife and a number of other people who came looking for the Medical Attaché viewed the Failed Entertainment and all went into comas. This is in no way similar the plot of Ulysses. The head digging scene does not happen in the novel, as it is only a dream that Gately has while in the hospital. Gately is in a world in between life and death in which he may be more able to communicate with Hal’s dead father.  In the book Gately is digging up something “important” with a sad kid, whom most people assume is Hal.  I am not sure the words sad kid are synonymous with Hal, but it does not make sense for the sad kid to be anyone else. I assume the Wheelchair Assassins believe they can use the Failed Entertainment Master Cartridge to hold the North American Alliance hostage and demand Quebec be allowed to succeed from the Union. All of the Northern Hemisphere has become a single country in Infinite Jest, but some sources report that Mexico is part of the Alliance, but Central and South America are excluded.  The book’s action takes place in between the years 2004 and 2012, expect for the one flashback scene to James Incandenza’s past.  Infinite Jest was published in 1996. People have analysed the book and come up with the time line dates. But, the book itself does not give any real dates for the actions, because commercial sponsors have bought the rights to each year. Instead of a date in time, each year has a name which corresponds to product such as the Year of the Trail Sized Dove Bar. It is not clear if Wallace means Dove the Soap or Dove the Ice Cream bar. Wallace used the names of real products for the  years, but non of the companies mentioned were upset enough to try to sue him over these names, as it would bad publicity for the company, and show them to be petty.  By not using real dates, the book is open to the reader’s personal interpretations. Now that these future years have passed fans like to analyze, how much of the future predicted in infinite Jest became a reality.

Ulysses is a story told in an unconventional way, at the time. However, many other writers have copies Joyce’s ideas. whole literary style called Post Modernism has been developed. James Joyce’s style is no longer a novel style, but is not widely accepted and copied. Still some critics believe Finnegans Wake to be a joke or a hoax played upon the reader by James Joyce, due to the inaccessibility of the writing.

The book Ulysses begins with conversation with a character named Buck Mulligan telling the main character Stephen Dedalus that he should have prayed when his mother asked him to do so on her death-bed. This really happened to James Joyce. Dedalus wishes to wipe out the bad memories of his mother, by removing himself from Buck Mulligan’s company.

Leopold Bloom is a character in Ulysses based on Joyce’s friend, who also wrote a book called The Confessions of Zeno, Aron Ettore Schmitz Italo Svevo. The Confessions of Zeno would have likely been lost to history if not that James Joyce supported the book. I would also like to read The Confessions of Zeno, if I ever have time. The link in between James Joyce’s friend and Infinite Jest is that Italo Svevo is described in Wikipedia as being a conversationalist. ( See page 27 of Infinite Jest known as “Dad Professional Conversationalist.”)

When I started to read Infinite Jest, I did not want to commit to the book, so I got it first from the library for free. I started to read it at the beginning. The first scene failed to capture my attention. So, I flipped through the novel and found the most interesting part of the whole book. The story of Poor Tony and the ants in the dumpster. I started to read at that point. I was really into it. I read it more several times. I searched the book for the word “Tony” using the Kindle Edition.  I picked and choose what parts I wanted to read. Eventually, I got around to the beginning part of the story, which is interesting, but not if you don’t know the history of the character Hal. The first scene takes places at the latest time in the novel. One simply needs to find the chart of the timeline and place all the pieces of the novel together in order. Hal is committed to an insane asylum, but he is convinced he will be let out in order to play in a tennis match the next day. His father is dead having killed himself by placing his head in a microwave. His Uncle is the one who takes him to the meeting with the Deans of the College. According to what could be the Uncle’s plan, Hal is imprisoned. This is the end of the novel, but it comes in the beginning of the novel.

When Poor Tony is first introduced in Infinite Jest, it is in a chapter written in first person by an unnamed narrator. This is a short stand alone chapter in the book. The narrator is never revealed and never appears again. This is similar to Part 12 of Ulysses.

A little bit of extra information about the unnamed narrator character is required. Unnamed (yrstruly), Tony, and another man, called C want to get high. They get high by boosting things, which means stealing them. Once they have boosted some items they decided to go to Chinatown to trade them with Mr. Woo. I thought this could be a reference to the song by Steely Dan Dr. Wu, but I am not sure. Dr. Woo is a man who has opium that they want, but yrstruly is worried by sarcastic Mr. Woo’s attitude.  One very funny line is on page 132 to 133. Mr. Woo says something like the boosting business must be turning an excellent profit. Mr. Woo does want to kill them, because he gives them shots that have poison instead of opium. Yrstruly does not want to try the shot first, and neither does Tony, so they get C to try the shot.  Tony is so upset, he swears he will quit crime and drugs, and yrstruly has to go through withdrawal lying in the hallway of his mother’s apartment, because she won’t let him in the house. It is not stated as to why, but clearly his mother is angry with him due to his drugs and crimes. When I explain the situation, it is does not sound nearly as poetic as how David Foster Wallace told it, but it was a compelling chapter, and I read it several times.

Tony later steals a pursue from a woman, which contains an artificial heart. This is what causes Tony to end up living in a dumpster, as the woman dies after her heart is stolen. Tony is hiding out wanted for murder by the cops, and going through withdrawal. He has a seizure, and goes to the hospital. When he wakes he checks himself out and he decides to steal more purses to get high. He steals Kate Gompert’s pursue and another women’s pursue who lives in the halfway house. Kate is too weak to give chase, but the other woman does pursue him, and almost catches him. Unfortunately the place he is planning to go to score is a magic shop, that has been taken over by the villains. We assume that Tony meets his demise at the Magic Shop. Tony is always referred to as Poor Tony, but I read online his original name was Queer Tony, but David Foster Wallace changed it to Poor because using the word Queer was insensitive, and especially considering that Tony is an unsavory character, a name change was in order. You can find this online also if you look for it. If only the woman had stopped Poor Tony from proceeding to the magic shop, he may have been spared.

Part 15 of Ulysses contains hallucinations. The end of Infinite Jest finds Gately in a hospital bed after being shot, having hallucinations. Poor Tony also has hallucinations on the subway. It is not clear if the characters in Ulysses are drinking Absinthe, which would cause them to have hallucinations. Modern Absinthe is not made the same way that it was, as that would be illegal now.

There is a scripted play inside of Ulysses. There are plot outlines of the movies created by Hal’s father who is an independent film maker. The last movie he makes is the called the Failed Entertainment. However, a fictional filmography for Hal’s father James Incandenza is created. There is a lot of information on one of the movies about a Nun inside Infinite Jest. The Movie was called Blood Sister, One Tough Nun.

I looked up Molly Bloom and find she is based on Nora Barnacle, James Joyce’s wife. Molly Bloom may be more similar to Avril Incandenza then to Molly Notkin.  James Incandenza is unhappy because his wife is unfaithful, and because he can’t communicate with his son. James Incandenza’s father was an actor who played the man from Glad. In a flashback scene to James Incandenza’s childhood, Hal’s grandfather comes home from work in his Man from Glad outfit. The Man from Glad is an advertising character who solves your trash bag needs. Ironically, everyone in the Incandenza is extremely unhappy.  When the grandfather passes out drunk face down in dust from under the bed, that Hal’s grandmother had failed to vacuum under, James Incandenza about mathematics to distract himself.

Parts of Ulysses are written in stream of consciousness. I can’t think of any part of Infinite Jest that is written in stream of consciousness of one of the characters such as in Ulysses. There may be some stream of consciousness in Infinite Jest, but it does not jump out at me, the way does in Ulysses. In reading Ulysses one become aware that Joyce goes into stream of  consciousness inside one of the characters minds without any warning.   In conclusion, I will say, that the two books are not very similar at all to each other. Just because one likes one of the books does not mean one will like the other book. They are very different.

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