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Home News by Category Infinite Jest Infinite Jest's Typographical Circles

Infinite Jest's Typographical Circles


Casey Henry's (@caseymhenry) just published article in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction Volume 56, Issue 5, 2015, “Sudden Awakening to the Fact That the Mischief Is Irretrievably Done”: Epiphanic Structure in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, is incredible.

Not only does he pose an interesting consideration of the role of epiphanies in Infinite Jest, but Henry draws from some fascinating correspondence between Wallace and his editor Michael Pietsch about the typographical circle (a symbol very close to my heart):

Wallace explains these typographical markers in a clarifying letter to Pietsch: “They’re just supposed to be circles. Decoration. Maybe suggesting tennis balls, heads,annular defloration cycles, etc. Maybe just me amusing myself” (Letter to Pietsch, emphasis added).Due to the circles’ lacking any identification marks as heads, or tennis balls, and given the evidence to follow, I believe the most accurate and charged interpretation is of “annular defloration cycles” and the implied process of annulation. Wallace was obsessive about the circles, modifying them when they appeared too bouncing and comic, restricting their number from several to one, and settling on the half-shaded, hangnail-moon–looking glyph that appears in the book (Infinite Jest Typescript, Copyedited). Wallace meticulously stipulated the final annular cycle that appears semieclipsed on the last page of the main narrative, yet to be fully analyzed by Wallace critics. The partially occluded circle, lying just beyond Gately’s final breakdown, is essential to understanding the forward motion and means of breaking the self-enclosed annular rings that we might understand the novel’s arrangement prompts. Wallace was fastidious about this terminating symbol; he corrects a typesetter at Little, Brown in late proofs on a circle incorrectly placed in the middle of the page— whited out and X’d with pen—and another mildly obscured on the middle-right margin, jutting more bulbously (Infinite Jest Typescript, Copyedited). On a near-final proof with the circle in the proper lower-right position, marking the circle’s full, arc-like passage, he instructs further: “No— you have only 1/3 of circle protruding from bottom right, as if rest of circle has been cut off by margin” (IJ Proof Set 6-22). Wallace includes with the note his own marking of his intended eclipsed circle, far more off-page, and of a more unique shape, than the typesetter’s mark (IJ Proof Set 6-22). 

Apart from reading Wallace's take first hand, I was taken by surprise by the part I emphasised above (in bold). The partially occluded circle exists in my first edition hardcover of Infinite Jest (see the photo above), but not in my Abacus paperback or the 10 year anniversary edition. What about your copy? Comment below.

The omission of the p. 981 circle in some editions seems to me to be a MAJOR oversight. I hope it's there in the Infinite Jest Deluxe 20th Anniversary edition due in Feb 2016. (Update: Yep, it's there on p. 981 of the U.S. 20th Anniversary edition - not quite the same though.)

If you have access, I encourage you to read Casey Henry's article. Either directly if you have a subscription, via Google Scholar if you have access, or through your university or library.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 06 July 2016 21:36  


#1 Peter Knox 2015-10-31 01:49
This is huge! Thanks so much for sharing this context. The symbol is meaningful to me, so much that I got it tattooed (I was looking for something unique and subtle related to DFW/IJ): so I love knowing everything I can about it. Sure hope they address that last circle omission right away.
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#2 Roscoe Maddalon 2015-10-31 07:41
Stunning piece Nick! And twenty years later! Little Brown must indeed correct this for the Anniversary Edition. Can you source comment from Michael Pietsch?
And classy effort Mr Knox ^
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#3 Nick Maniatis 2015-10-31 09:51
Peter, I've been thinking about getting the symbol as a tattoo for a while and this has pretty much finalised the decision for me.

Roscoe, the comment from Pietsch is from the Harry Ransom Archive materials:

Pietsch, Michael. Letter to David Foster Wallace. 21 Oct. 1994. TS box 3, files 2–3. Little, Brown and Company Collection
of David Foster Wallace. Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, Austin.
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#4 Sunny 2015-10-31 12:27
As expected all my pbs (Back Bay 10th Anniversary Edition, abacus UK Edition and Abacus 40th Anniversary Edition) don't have this.

What's unexpected is that my 1st Edition Little, Brown U.S. hardcover doesn't have this either! Though mine is the 11th or 12th printing of the 1st Edition. Very disappointed :(

Hope the 20th Anniversary edition will correct this. Am tempted to draw the circle myself on page 981 of my hardcover :)
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#5 db 2015-10-31 12:29
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