Not one of us can deny the powerful physical effects of this novel’s most disturbing moments. I have watched arms curl, jaws stiffen, hands rush to cover defenseless knees, heard breath entering lungs at staggering rates–all involuntarily–at the mere mention of certain events in Infinite Jest. The reactions are unavoidable, superseding the mollification of cognition. It’s the religion of the physical: Infinite Jest makes you cringe. It gets under your skin. And it can be hard to get out.
And lately I’ve noticed a trend in my most visceral reactions: they’re all provoked by descriptions of the mouth. Joelle’s nightmare, in which “all she can see in the little round mirror are endless red-stained rows of teeth back and away down a pitch-black pipe” (724). V&V’s tongue scraper ad, featuring a slow-motion close-up of a tongue with a “near-geologic layer of gray-white material” (413). Hal calls this an “eschatology of emotional appeals,” this image which “shook viewers to their existential cores” (414). And he’s right: there’s a sort of finality to the horror that these images evoke. This is the apogee of dread.
I cannot begin to faithfully describe my personal reactions to these scenes: violent cognitive convulsions; rejections in the way that I like to visualize my immune system responding to an unwelcome pathogen. And I can’t help but wonder: why on Earth is the mouth so vigorously provocative?
The novel is full of dental imagery: addicts’ ravished black stubs, Hal’s own problematic tooth “twinging electrically in the cold air” (surely a feeling with enough immediate-horror-recognition for an entire thousand-page novel), Steeply’s full dental extraction for undercover work, Hal’s nightmare of teeth “splintering” “like shale,” Tavis’ ground “dental fragments” from the anxiety of being around Mario for too long. (This is all I’ll include for now. There are literally like 100+ entries in Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature, and that’s just searching for “teeth”).
To me, the mouth seems to be acutely violable, the quickest access point to our fleshy vulnerable burgundy interiors. The physical manifestation of our greatest psycho-social fear: a window that lets others see right into us. This interpretation offers some easily-jumpable conclusions: characters fear unclean mouths because they seem to elicit a rotten-on-the-inside type impression. A dirty mouth is more than a dirty mouth. To quote Mad Men, “It’s not your tooth that’s rotten.”
But I also think that it’s less simplistic: the violability of the mouth, when one moves past the horror, is also a source of great tenderness. Joelle’s dream ends not a note of physicalist dental dread but with an overpowering reassurance: Gately looks impassively into her studded red maw “and says he assures her that these can be saved” (724). The tranquilizing effect of this line was similarly powerful: my goosebumps seemed to go all the way through my skin and attach to the bone.
It seems we could all use some existential dentistry. Our emotional teeth will never be cleaned if we don’t ever bare them.