Of Birds and Lobsters


by Elias Tezapsidis

Freedom: A Novel,
by Jonathan Franzen,
Picador, 608 pp.

Infinite Jest,
by David Foster Wallace,
Back Bay Books, 1104 pp.

The maternal figures of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom are antithetical characters. Avril Incandenza, the imperious OCD-ridden mother figure in Infinite Jest, raises insecure children despite her profound love for them. On the contrary, Patty Berglund, the conflicted mother in Freedom, eventually adopts the role of the child herself, but – possibly because of her many insecurities – allows her children to become more self-reliant individuals.

This observation elucidates how the pragmatic differences appearing between DFW and JF as individuals are intertwined with the connection each shares with the primary maternal figure of his novel. To accurately delineate their differences, the fictional roles that most closely resemble their creators will be considered: Hal Incandenza as Avril’s son for DFW and Walter Berglund as Patty’s spouse for JF. Ultimately, the maternal figures are quintessential catalysts in shaping the strengths and weaknesses of both writers.

I. The Domestic

In a 2001 BOMB interview, Franzen cites Jane Smiley’s theory of what comprises inspiration for novelists by identifying two distinct categories: first, the exploration of the adventurous outer world, as seen in novels such as Huckleberry Finn, and second, the return home resulting in the analysis of the domestic. “At a certain point, you get tired of it all [the boys-will-be-boys Huck Finn thing.] You come home,” he states.[1]

JF: Ability to Leave

Utterly valid for JF, whose ascetic writing process is no secret and knows no boundaries from the pursuit of hermitude, this “come home” moment is not one he shared with DFW. JF, who majored in German at Swarthmore, spent his junior year of college in Munich, partaking in study-abroad and immersing himself in a different culture. Conducting a Fulbright in Berlin further enriched his immersion. JF engaged in the actions that would familiarize him with the adventurous aspects of the outside world, thus eventually he grew tired of it and was ready for his ‘return to the domestic.’ JF considers his very stable home life – and his capacity to devote bountiful time to reading and writing – responsible for his ability to write The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion.

JF’s writing centers on domestic experiences woven into themes of larger social dimensions. The lives of the characters he creates become increasingly more convoluted by their own choices, not due to outside circumstances. JF’s prowess in creating realistic characters is the outcome of his ability to separate the domestic from the outer world. By accurately framing the limits and comfort zones of his fictional heroes, he can create believable storylines. His perceptiveness in writing characters is rooted in his analytical understanding of people, which he achieves by being able to distance himself from home.

Manifestation in Fiction

In Freedom, Patty Berglund’s unhappiness is concatenated to her confinement to her domestic purlieu. Patty’s misery is caused by her predicament to lead a more purposeful life, as she has ‘fulfilled’ her purpose as a mother and homemaker. Following a promising career as a student athlete at the University of Minnesota which was cut short by a knee-injury Patty turned to romance for validation.  She settled for Walter, after her initial love interest – Walter’s best friend, the rebellious and unpredictable musician Richard Katz – proved unattainable.

Patty is in a constant struggle with her life choices, but her feelings of inanition are maximized as her children grow older and become independent. Her fall to a deeper depression and her embrace of deprecating sarcasm arrive when her teenage son Joey rejects her as his homemaker by moving out to the neighbor’s house to live with his girlfriend, Connie. Patty and Joey’s relationship suggests that the son, with his ability to remove himself from the domestic, acquires his individual privacy as he shifts towards adulthood.

DFW: Inability to Leave

While DFW demonstrated a relentless curiosity for the unknown and attempts its meaningful exploration with his prose; he was restricted by his “domesticity.” It is possible that his battle with clinical depression functioned as a prohibitive paragon in his departure from “home” for an adequate time for him to truly crave his return to it.

In 2006, DFW’s participation in Le Conversazioni, an Italian literary conference, marked his first visit outside of a country where English was the primary spoken language. This is an astounding fact, considering DFW otherwise culturally-privileged upbringing. A short clip[2] from the conference indicates DFW was far from completing his exploration of this foreign adventure: he was cherishing how dramatically different activities, and even the most mundane tasks, appeared to him as radically new experiences.

In the clip, DFW endearingly states that the Italian language sounds like music to his ears, and that his lack of understanding makes him feel “reduced to the status of a baby.” This is a fitting commentary from the writer, because one of his strongest writing attributes was his ability to put into words thoughts so basic and unremarkable that most of us do not think to express them, yet reading them elevated by DFW’s impeccable use of grammar and syntax resulted in refreshing prose.

Manifestation in Fiction

In Infinite Jest, Avril Incandenza actively endeavors to at all times be included in her sons’ lives, inserting herself to the Enfield Tennis Academy in the roles of Dean of Academic Affairs and Dean of Females. While Avril does not recede to a literal constraint to be at home, she essentially enlarges the terrain of her territory by making ETA ‘the domestic.’ In the voice of Hal, DFW hints at the character’s lack of respect for others’ privacy: “The absence of a door to the Moms’s office means you might as well be in there, in terms of being able to hear what’s going on. She has little sense of spatial privacy or boundary, having been so much alone so much when a child.[3]”

Contrary to JF’s Patty, Avril feels purposeful at all times. Unfortunately, her purpose is a product of her children’s actions. Avril expects Hal to continuously prove himself as a lexical prodigy and a tennis genius. The overbearing involvement of Avril in his life deters Hal from being genuinely happy. Avril and Hal’s relationship portrays that the mother, with her ability to extend ‘the domestic’ to encompass ETA, prevents the son from becoming a self-reliant and independent individual. Her lack of respect towards Hal’s individual privacy as he transitions to adulthood further perpetuates an unhealthily symbiotic codependence.

II. Contextual Forces

The way the two writers attained – or merely tried to attain – distance from their mothers influenced each author’s perception of himself and his self-confidence. 

JF: Freedom to be a Novelist

JF’s mother was evidently not too overzealous in crafting her son’s future, but she was vocally not keen of his pursuit of a writing career. Since his early teenage years, and continuing on for approximately 20 years, JF intentionally alienated himself from his mother for this reason: “I concealed everything about myself from her. Sometimes I could hardly stand in the same room with her.”

In 1982, shortly after graduating from college, JF got married to Valerie Cornell, a young woman with identical interests and similar literary aspirations. Together they had created an ideal working environment, reading and writing, and attempting the publication of their first novels. Unfortunately, the marriage was hindered by an antagonistic climate that occurred as JF’s first book became a financial success in the 90s, while Cornell could not publish her first novel. Eventually the tensions took over and the marriage ended, because JF felt that the only way to save his marriage would be to deny himself of his writer identity, a sacrifice he was not willing to make. The literary focus that initially was a connecting point between the couple morphed to a barrier for their harmonious partnership. JF needed to once again distance himself to commit to his purpose as a writer.

JF purposely isolated himself from his mother but he also conceded that his first marriage functioned as an “antidote to the overwhelming family universes[4]” for the young couple, providing them with a shield of protection from invasive and overbearing queries. For the duration of the marriage, JF was in the position to just escape questions on personal subjects – the writer used the distance he was entitled to as a result of his marital status to focus on writing.

Manifestation in Fiction

JF has never denied that he drew heavily from his own experiences –and specifically the story of his parents and his own failed marriage – to construct the detailed complexities of the characters of Freedom. Walter shares with his creator: liberal politics, a feminist viewpoint, a passion for bird-watching and a failed marriage that might have been the product of a decision to marry at a very young age.

Above all, they share the fervor of promoting the ideas and beliefs they feel strongly about; they are sure of their beliefs and they are willing to stand by them in any setting, regardless of the anticipated reaction of the people with whom they converse. Environmental conservation, and especially battling overpopulation, have strong roots in the conscience of Walter, and provoke discussions stated in the vigorous tone JF uses to express his support of a luddite-esque lifestyle or his skepticism in regards to the impact the “Oprah Book Club” sticker would have on his readership demographics by alienating potential male readers.

The failure of the Berglund marriage falls heavily on Patty’s side. Her infinite self-pity and self-loathing make the reader wonder how Walter does not fall short of his devotion to maintain a family with her at an earlier point. Patty is unable to identify ideas she feels passionate about because of the negativity of her approach. Due to her personal inability to decide what matters to her and how she can attain it, she becomes a negative force to her surrounding milieu.

The role of Lalitha – Walter’s beautiful young assistant at the Cerulean Mountain Trust, the environmentalist organization they work for –underlines JF’s view that people who hold similar ideologies are more likely to develop an intimate relationship that will be long-lasting.   Indeed, Walter and Lalitha eventually had a romantic relationship, made possible due to Patty’s unbearable cynicism and harshness towards Walter. Were Walter to express the desire to be a novelist, Lalitha would have been a partner who would support his wish, while Patty would relentlessly question it.

DFW: Freedom to be Average

One may consider the academically-dense, intellectually-driven family in which DFW was raised as a factor that made him grow up too fast. In his rapid premature adulthood, it is possible that he did not go through some experiences typical for other children of a young age. While intellectually that may not have been an issue, it was likely linked to DFW’s abstract emotional maturity, as manifested in his obsessive behavior and social anxiety.

In her article for The Awl [5], Maria Bustillos presents DFW’s notes in which he had identified a duality in the course of his own actions as a child: he either acted as a meticulous, precocious student, or he engaged in malevolent actions against his sister, Amy, such as using pejorative language to make fun of her excess weight. Why would an otherwise mature child, such as the young DFW, derive pleasure from being mean?

Bustillos gives a thorough analysis of DFW’s notes on self-help books to demonstrate what DFW perceived to be the root of his duality of actions: the high achievement reward structure his mother used. Bustillos also provides the rationale behind his discomfort with being considered a genius: he believed being viewed as a “genius” was the primary cause of his depression, because he did not believe it to be astute and never ceased doubting himself.

Specifically, DFW’s notes indicate that Sally Foster Wallace gave ‘conditional love’ to her son for his successful completion of high-achievements. Hence, the child interpreted the love he received as a direct result of his skills, in turn concluding in consistently performing in an attempt to receive parental love. Conditional love also birthed a ‘fear of abandonment’ in children facing the prospect of not performing adequately to earn the admiration of their parents. Such fear may trigger signs of depression or other coping mechanisms, such as drug abuse. SFW left the family home when DFW was a sophomore in college, surprising her son to the shocking extent of him not visiting her. DFW was “seeking a caregiver to replace his mother,” Max writes to describe DFW’s relationship with Susie Perkins, one of the writer’s earliest partners.

Rather than having partners to create distance from his mother, like JF, DFW tried to garner and emulate from his romantic relationships whatever emotions he would otherwise attain from his mother.

Manifestation in Fiction

Avril Incandenza bears undeniable similarities to SFW: a “militant grammarian” and daunting figure whose conditional love is exceeding Hal’s needs. The Moms seems to deem Hal’s high achievements of vital essence by dosing his cereal with ‘esoteric mnemonic steroids.[6]’

There are numerous points in Infinite Jest in which Hal indirectly asserts that his mother wanted him to identify as an outlier due to his mastership of the English vernacular and his tennis skills.

“Hal Incandenza for a long time identified himself as a lexical prodigy who – though Avril had taken pains to let all three of her children know that her nonjudgmental love and pride depended in no way on achievement or performance or potential talent ­– had made his mother proud, plus a really good tennis player. Hal Incandenza is now being encouraged to identify himself as a late-blooming prodigy and possible genius who is on the verge of making every authority-figure in his world and beyond very proud indeed.[7]”

The seriocomic deadpan tone of the text clarifies that – still, at 17 years old – Hal had not been given the necessary space by Avril to construct an individual identity. Instead, he was performing the identity that he was expected to, an action which provides a logical explanation for DFW’s self-loathing and self-doubt: he does not truly know himself.

Avril even serves as comic relief due to the monstrosity of her manipulative approach to parenting: her son Orin describes her as “a kind of contortionist with other people’s bodies[8]” This is a profoundly disturbing metaphor for the suffocating impact her actions had regardless of her intentions.

III. Purpose

Each writer’s aptitude, or lack thereof, in forging some distance from   his mother is indicative of the intentions with which this writer approaches his mission as a writer, as well as the intentions with which this writer approaches his audience.

JF: Inspire Change

JF is a writer who accepts the praise he receives because he trusts that he has earned it; the praise is a result of diligent works he performed to craft his fiction. As aforementioned, JF has never doubted he was intended to be a novelist: that is his primary identity and defining profession. JF feels the urgency to memorialize the experience of his parents – which marks a significant historical moment, because they were born closer to the beginning of the century and died towards the end – his Midwestern upbringing and values, and has a vision for what he wants his work to cause on the grander scheme of things. Franzen thrives on the responsibility of having an impact on the public discourse, yielding change in pragmatic and substantial ways. JF wants his work to yield change; he wants it to be didactic.

In an insightful article for Slate [9], Judith Shulevitz defines JF’s purpose as a writer as it pertains to his mission to be relevant and tackle the big issues of our time. This mission is facilitated by JF’s astute identification of the most recognizable “voice” of our time as the viral rant. The ‘fascinatingly distasteful brew of sneering and sniping and witticisms is the voice of the Internet, of bloggers, of YouTubers,’ states Shulevitz.

Manifestation in Fiction

In Freedom, the mother does not have control over her son. Patty, who struggles to be the perfect mother finds herself betrayed by her favored child Joey, who decides to move out to live with his girlfriend Connie and her mother. This rejection becomes a catalyst for Patty’s self-deprecation and depression. Joey’s ability to choose a lifestyle that differs so strongly from his family’s, is reminiscent of JF’s persistence to become a writer despite the adversity he initially encountered from his working-class family.

Walter’s bathos and perseverance in his beliefs is augured by his removal from the post-modern self-deprecating mentality his wife Patty adopts. Walter, like JF, tries to find a purpose – ie. combatting overpopulation – he considers meaningful and devotes his time and energy to fulfilling it.

DFW: Eliminate Loneliness

DFW’s obsessive behavior is apparent in his writing, and is particularly clear in his hyperconscious use of notes and footnotes, which he employed to maximize the effect of reality in his writing. DFW’s genius came to him naturally – not easily, but by his own nature as an individual – and he was for that reason forever doubting the legitimacy of the dithyrambic reactions of people to his work. Further than not accepting the term ‘genius’, DFW did not consider himself superior to anyone, in his attempt to engage with his readership. This was integral for DFW due to his ideal of what good fiction serves: making us feel less alone.

When writing, DFW did not feel alone: his self-conscious prose indicates that he was writing for his readers. His experience as an immense consumer of television during his childhood led to his preoccupation with how his work is perceived by his audience. The combination of seeing and being seen became a vital quality of how DFW interacted with his audience; he let his readers in on the joke, and transcended post-modern irony to incorporate honesty about irony.

DFW’s ability to write for his audience became problematic when he placed his foremost emphasis on his readers. His writing was stronger when he remembered he did it for himself too, less motivated by his self-conscious.

Manifestation in Fiction

In Infinite Jest, the mother undoubtedly holds the power over her son: Hal wants to deserve Avril’s love and lives in fear of the possibility of losing it. Hal is haunted by the fear of no longer deserving it due to his potential lesser achievement. Similarly, DFW was an extremely self-conscious writer, an eternal worrier of how his readership will interpret his work. He needed to acquire validation from his audience, and felt the need to see and be seen as a writer. He depends on his relationship with his reader, but, in a fashion similar to the pattern of behavior DFW observed in the notes Bustillos presented, his preoccupation with making his audience happy affected his performance/ work. In turn, he would never have been content with his success because he would always view it as connected to his performance of a high achievement.

The ending of IJ clarifies that Hal was the person in control of the narrative. The final scene places Hal in a state of euphoric passivity, finally free of the anxieties Avril imposed on him and the martyrdom of being expected to be an overachieving genius. By watching the cartridge, Hal begins acting like an imbecile, but for the first time expresses that he feels human. Through ‘Samizdat’ or ‘The Entertainment’ Hal has been exposed to a new female figure that will consume his being entirely: Madame Psychosis.

Comparing JF-DFW: Bird-Watching Vs. Tennis

A juxtaposition of the preferred hobbies of the fictional roles that most intensely draw from the writers’ own experiences clarifies their contrasting relationship to their readers.

Walter’s favorite recreational activity is bird-watching, a solitary activity that calls for the individual to disengage from his surroundings to observe in an outside setting, leaving the “domestic.” Those who enjoy birding are often those who are passionate about their attempt to save rare species, even if they are unlikely to survive. This resembles JF’s desire to trigger a change in his audience towards his ideas.

Hal’s passion is tennis, an active and reactionary sport that calls for the individual to engage with his opponent to play to the best of his ability. The best of DFW’s ability included accounting for the geometric positioning of the game on the level that it resembles a mathematical function. While tennis fields aren’t often found within ‘domestic’ constraints, the need for a field and a particular set-up makes Hal’s hobby less nature-intensive.

Even within this framework, the maternal figure theory holds true:  Walter distances himself from Patty to birdwatch, while Avril follows Hal to ETA and the tennis court, preventing his removal from her control and supervision.

IV. Style

There is a strong link between the relationship the writers had with their audience and the writing style they exercised in Freedom and IJ. Each writer’s acquired – or not acquired – distance from his mother is demonstrative of the writer’s style: JF pursued realism, DFW could not escape avant-garde hyperrealism.

JF: Let’s Be Real

JF’s prose is straightforward, too-obviously brilliant and linear. He writes in single-entendres, and Freedom is a straightforward narrative that aims to frame the alienation of the modern individual and bring the reader’s attention to larger social issues, with particularly prominent environmental theme.

JF creates characters that draw from his personal life, but he ensures there are ample differences between the characters and the real people he utilized to form them. This layer of distance from the audience allows JF to write with more freedom, as it gives him a shield from the audience in regards to his creative production.

In an earlier examination of the traits Walter shared with JF, we identified their alignment in: political and social ideology, environmental conscience, interest in bird watching and persistence to ‘fix’ an unhappy marriage. Essential differences also exist: Walter is not in a creative profession, but instead follows the career path a corporate hierarchy dictates. JF makes a conscious choice to escape the problematic dynamic most contemporary writers have with their audience: he will narrate to his readers whatever he considers necessary without succumbing to the pressure for a meta-dialogue. As a result, JF is better equipped in the preservation of his privacy.

DFW: Can We Be Real?

Realizing that linear narratives do not construct an accurate depiction of modern life, DFW endeavored to invent an amalgam of various styles. He combined the single-entendre writing that defines realism–and which is reminiscent of the previous generation of writers, who JF primarily draws stylistic inspiration from–with the post-modern irony of our era that Mark Leyner took too far. This paradoxical combination resulted in a writer’s voice that can be interpreted as belonging to an irresistibly-endearing asshole. DFW managed to maximize his likability and dickiness with writing that was simultaneously trustworthy and critical.

All Doubt

DFW’s central struggle was a private one between being alone or being with others. DFW’s desire to be “average” construes his wish to eliminate his loneliness. Being in the position of connecting with people and empathizing genuinely with others instead of being a “genius” by oneself, which by definition implies being alone, or extra-human. Being at ‘home’ (inward facing, genius, alone) versus being in the world (tennis as engagement with an-other and exploring radically new experiences, such as traveling to Italy).

This internal conflict is the source of DFW’s truly unique hyper-real writing style: he is half-speaking to himself but also trying so very hard to speak to someone else as much as possible. Once a reader manages to listen, there is no easy return to the dry perfection of the realists’ approach: he begins to expect more.

In the September issue of Harper’s, Joshua Cohen reviewed the over discussed D.T. Max biography of DFW. Cohen concludes by summarizing the stylistic difference between the two authors in this tremendously painful to read series of sentences:

“Love more, feel more, be more – this is the perennial sermon of realism, which modernism responded to with cynicism, post-modernism with irony. Wallace had been too disabused of both to respond at all, save with a raffer, a lawn chair, a belt.”

The revolutionary style DFW invented presented one weakness: he became a character of his fictional universe. Trapped in the projection of himself he created through Hal, DFW failed in preserving his privacy and his past. What IJ reader does not know ‘The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House’ is merely a fictional name DFW invented to write on his experience at Granada House?

In his quest for validation, DFW thought he had performed for his audience in the same manner he thought he used to perform for his mother. Even though his readers loved him profoundly, DFW was one to doubt our love; he even doubted the Mom’s.




[3] IJ p 511



[6] IJ p 30

[7] IJ p 155

[8] IJ p 285


About the Author:

Elias grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece, prior to attending Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It was there that he discovered he was too neurotic and OCD for the Midwest and had a low-tolerance for the MN-nice. The move to NYC post-graduation seemed like the logical next step, and since then LES has been home.