We resume our explorations today with a brief stay at the Back Bay Hilton. This real hotel makes a very early appearance, fewer than 50 pages into Infinite Jest; here we encounter one character known only as the “Near Eastern medical attaché” and learn of his employer, a Saudi prince and government official. Although we do not spend a great deal of time with them, they do help introduce some key themes to the reader:
Wednesday is the U.S.A. weekday on which fresh Töblerone hits Boston, Massachusetts U.S.A.’s Newbury Street’s import-confectioners’ shelves, and the Saudi Minister of Home Entertainment’s inability to control his appetites for Wednesday Töblerone often requires the medical attache to remain in personal attendance all evening on the bulk-rented fourteenth floor of the Back Bay Hilton … rehabilitating the mucous membranes of the dyspeptic and distressed and often (but not always) penitent and appreciative Saudi Prince Q—.
The Saudi minister is one of several characters whose passion for something fairly ordinary becomes debilitating, and all but indistinguishable from chemical dependency—think of Steeply’s father and his obsession with M*A*S*H, or President Gentle’s Howard Hughes-esque fear of germs. Nowhere is this theme writ larger than the central plot point of the novel, with which even non-readers may be familiar. That of course is the existence of a film—and here I quote from the first edition’s book jacket—“said to be so entertaining that anyone who watches it loses all desire to do anything but watch it.”
The world of Infinite Jest is literally one where we are “amusing ourselves to death,” and in fact the late Neil Postman was invoked by more than one reviewer upon the novel’s release. As Wallace told one of them, his inspiration was derived in some part from “watching too much TV.”
It’s interesting that society’s relationship to television has changed so much in the barely-more-than fifteen years since the novel was published. Where once the medium was derided as a “vast wasteland,” in the famous words of FCC commissioner Newton Minow, now the critical consensus is that television offers higher-quality entertainment than the local multiplex. What has changed since publication—at least, what has changed most significantly—is the rapid expansion of the Internet into American households (and now American pockets). And is it so surprising that, in the late 1990s, we started hearing about Internet addiction?
As for the Back Bay Hilton, it’s apparent upon first glance that Prince Q—’s “bulk-rented fourteenth floor” is not quite so impressive as the description might suggest. The floor is only just halfway up the tower, and its footprint is relatively small, as hotels go. Oh sure, nobody without considerable wealth will be bulk-renting it anytime soon, but for a Saudi prince with a job so overwhelmingly important as being the Minister of Home Entertainment, it didn’t necessarily strike me as excessive.