Infinite Jest: Giving a Voice to Figurants

On page 834 of Infinite Jest, JOI’s wraith begins to elaborate on “the myriad thespian extras”  present in sitcoms. These thespian extras are “nameless patrons always at tables,” and are described as being “completely trapped and encaged…” Ironically, it is the very existence of these figurants, these “concessions to realism” (835) that give meaning to the protagonists of sitcoms like Cheers. Without them and their dialogues absent of sound, sitcoms like Cheers would be very implausible and therefore not viable as a sitcom. Yet despite their necessity to create the illusion of realism, the figurants are mute and therefore un-real in the sense that no conversation in real life is carried on mutely. I think this is a problem David Foster Wallace would have had with Realism. I also think this is a problem postmodern fiction/criticism would have immediately jumped at, given that here is an ideal situation in which language/fiction/author/etc finds itself unable to re-present reality. As such, postmodernists would have been quick to point out the superficiality of the scene, such as Ambrose in lost in the funhouse. To this David Foster Wallace would respond, “To whom is the funhouse a house?” (Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way), bringing to attention the inhabitability of the funhouse as a House, literary or not. I think the scene of the Wraith can be interpreted as another metafictional reference, as James Orin Incandenza fails at liberating figurants as he claims to do (from what we have read). His filmography abounds in solipsistic self-reflexivity, such as the film Cage, which is described as a parody using “four convex mirrors, two planar mirrors, and one actress,” to the end that the film creates only an image of the actress and essentially “worship[ping] the narrative consciousness, mak[ing] it the subject of the text.” (Interview, 144)

In short, JOI is going about it the wrong way–the freeing of the figurants. On  the other hand, we do have a text before us that is freeing figurants as we progress to the end.  Infinite Jest, whose characters’ lives could be given books of their own. Characters like LaMont Chu and The Darkness and Pemulis (among many, estimated to be around 250) are given voices, thereby contributing to the realism of Infinite Jest’s anhedonic society, shunning the narrative consciousness, and giving the reader imaginative access to other selves.  Unfortunately, outside of metafiction, I find it hard to understand the role of figurants in real life. I speculate that everyone outside of the I is a figurant (meaning that we see ourselves as the Hero, the protagonist), something about which David Foster Wallace spoke/wrote substantially. We can also be figurants with regard to our inability to communicate the “Real,” echoing The Broom of the System line that emphasizes language as the root of all problems.

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