This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
Previously on “Words, Words, Words”:
Had Wallace “completed” the story, he would have distracted from what I think is the real meaning of Infinite Jest.
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I’ll tell you what that is.
Commence Part 2…
So, I may have misspoke. The truth is that isolating a single “real meaning of Infinite Jest” is next to impossible. On one hand, it can be said that the novel is about many things: fathers and sons; mothers and sons; addiction; communication; entertainment; politics; greatness, mediocrity and failure. It’s a coming of age story alongside a recovery story that is also possibly a love story, all wrapped in a cloak-and-dagger-ish mystery about international realignment and terrorism. Choose your favorite combination and go with it. The book is about a lot of things.
On the other hand, it’s tough to say the book is actually “about” anything at all. As we have noted, there is no clear resolution. We never see the characters learn lessons, come of age, fall in love or be at peace in any way that warrants a Happily Ever After type of closure. The book literally stops far away and chronologically ahead of the main events in the novel (sort of) and we don’t entirely know who lives or dies, or what the shape of the continental borders look like, or whether fathers connected with sons. I’m sure many of the most frustrated readers have tossed up their hands and decided that Infinite Jest is really about nothing at all, some kind of post-modern experiment in reader-annoyance-tolerance-levels where we’re supposed to be thinking about what it means to read stories when really all we wanted was to just plain old read a story.
Rather than walking away from IJ in one of these two unsatisfying directions, it is possible to follow a third and potentially satisfying way.
I believe there is a unified theory of Infinite Jest that explains the various particles and waves of the novel — or most of them, at least — and helps clarify why Wallace made some of the choices he made. Be warned, however, that this theory drops deeper into Wallace’s other writings and his biography, and may not relieve the ailments of readers hoping for clarification on plot points. There’s also a good chance you will simply find this theory boring. But also note that IJ is just as enjoyable, in my opinion, with or without the ideas below.
The theory is this: Infinite Jest is Wallace’s attempt to both manifest and dramatize a revolutionary fiction style that he called for in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” The style is one in which a new sincerity will overturn the ironic detachment that hollowed out contemporary fiction towards the end of the 20th century. Wallace was trying to write an antidote to the cynicism that had pervaded and saddened so much of American culture in his lifetime*. He was trying to create an entertainment that would get us talking again.
You are advised to go and read “E Unibus Pluram,” but a quick and dirty rundown goes like this: television watching specifically (even in the relatively speaking “innocent” days of just a few dozen channels) and entertainment generally have occupied a startling portion of our lives and thus become a major, undeniable influence on How We Are. Watching television for an average of six hours a day (Wallace’s figure) means that people are functioning as passive receptors of entertainment for much, if not most, of their waking lives. And when our lives are filled with passive entertainment rather than active engagement with other humans, we are lonely. Also, because we tend to envision ourselves as the central characters in our own life-dramas/comedies, we imagine ourselves as being watched in the times when we are around other people. Thus, the average viewer’s “exhausive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier.” Therefore, more loneliness.
Now, TV didn’t invent human loneliness. Eleanor Rigby was darning her socks well before we got all these channels. But TV watching seems to interest Wallace in particular because it meets the criteria for an addiction — it creates/exacerbates a condition of loneliness and separation in its watchers, and then offers the cure in programming that plugs us into human communities and active lives being lived, though strictly as a watcher. Watching TV in excess leads to isolation and loneliness, but is also something very lonely people can do to feel less alone.
The way television deals with this apparent contradiction is to become a purveyor of a sardonic, detached, irony, and a self-referential, chummy knowingness. To keep us from feeling so lonely as constant watchers, TV had to convince us that it was our only friend, and the only place where we could get away from the slack-jawed pack of other humans and enjoy (passively) the company of clever, good-looking and like-minded people. The ultimate result was that shared sentiment was out; individual smugness and disapproval were in. TV watchers were convinced, through commercials etc, that they are not lonely because they spend so much time alone, but because they are unique, special, rebellious, misunderstood snowflakes, and are repeatedly comforted that they have transcended the herd mentality of their sheepish peers while they spend six hours a day as part of the largest group behavior in human history. Let me note, as Wallace does often, that this wasn’t malicious or sinister, but more of an organic response to keep viewers watching more and more TV.
As a fiction writer, Wallace was deeply concerned that fiction was unequipped to respond effectively to these trends. One reason he gives is that traditional forms of realism hadn’t kept up with a televisual world, and weren’t reflecting the reality of a new generation of readers. Another reason is that fiction could no longer parody the TV situation through irony. Irony, once a powerful and meaningful technique used by postmodern fiction (Barthes, Pynchon, DeLillo) to respond to and expose bad situations, had been co-opted by all the undercutting of real feelings and meaningless talk of “revolution” to advertise products on television. Fiction writers were trying to make us feel something — what Wallace famously described as “what it is to be a fucking human being” — in a setting where exposed feelings were regarded with, at best, skepticism and, at worst, scorn. So they fell back on old forms, or said next to nothing, and stuck to a cool and distant irony. But, as Wallace notes quoting Lewis Hyde, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.”
Wallace wanted a fiction that acted as something more than a wry commentary on the emptiness of contemporary culture. As he wrote in “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” in 1988: “the state of general affairs that explains a nihilistic artistic outlook makes it imperative that art not be nihilistic.” The remedy for this unhappy detachment is what he called for two years later at the end of “E Unibus Pluram”:
The next literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.
One of the most pervasive and frustrating misconceptions about David Foster Wallace is that he is the voice of Generation X, we true geniuses of irony. I have more than once heard Infinite Jest described as an “ironic” book, if not the ironic book. People seem to think that Wallace wrote one thousand pages of careening sentences and fragmented narratives and endnotes with no true conclusion as some kind of ironic prank on readers, to make an epic novel that would punish you for reading. My impression is that Wallace made IJ difficult not only because he likes experimental, difficult fiction, but also because he wanted to force readers to engage. To do something that was harder and more active than just watching. If you sweep away all the bullshit expectations from IJ and just read the thing, it’s easy to see Wallace trying to fill the role of the new anti-rebel, with his single-entendre principles and plain old untrendy human troubles. Clichés hide brutally difficult truths about life. Addiction is bad; sobriety is good. Perfection is a myth. Brothers should be nice to each other. Entertainment can be addicting, lethally so, in this case. Unhappy parents make unhappy kids who become unhappy parents and so on.
For all the technical challenges, the stories in IJ follow these principles and are intended to act as the new kind of emotionally straightforward fiction Wallace desired. This is especially true regarding the Ennet House and Don Gately sections, which would have made a deeply moving recovery novel if taken alone without the rest of IJ.
But there is something else at work as well. The overall arc, or circle, of the novel also dramatizes the struggle of finding this new voice, one that can communicate in a way that is new and fresh, and yet still bring forward more “traditional” values.
Central to the dramatization is Hal Incandenza, who opens the novel by unnerving a panel of college administrators when he speaks to them. Hal, in his mangled voice, tries to tell the admissions panel things like
I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I’m complex…
I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions…
Please don’t think I don’t care.
This is quite a contrast from what Hal feels later in the book/earlier in the events about being basically empty of feeling:
Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being — but in fact he’s far more robotic…inside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows.
The admissions panel members respond to Hal’s admissions of feeling, by freaking out. They don’t understand Hal’s voice; they are, in fact, terrified by it.
It is no accident that this scene takes place at the University of Arizona, where Wallace met strong resistance when trying to write experimental stories that didn’t square with the institutional notions of good fiction practice. (Wallace points to this institutional generation gap in talking about a professor in the EUP essay, but there is a better, longer riff on the issue in MFA writing programs in “Fictional Futures.”)
Hal’s new voice is so mangled and unsettling that he ends up being hospitalized. It is when he is eventually asked “So yo then, man, what’s your story?” that the novel begins in earnest. By the last page of the narrative, when readers are compelled to head back to the first page (annular fusion), it’s clear that Hal has undergone a process that transformed him from an unfeeling and successful automaton or cipher** into a person with strong emotions, but who’s new voice makes it nearly impossible to communicate. Wallace doesn’t try to proscribe what that voice would exactly be like, only that it would be unsettling and challenging.
With this framework in mind, other connections between the essay and the novel come to light, with correlations that range from strong to weak to strange.
- The world of Infinite Jest: With its subsidized years, entertainer president and teleputers, this near-future is something Wallace had more or less predicted and discussed in EUP, saying, in short, that advances in TV technology are only going to enhance our dependence (i.e. addiction) to the isolated fantasies that technology provides. Wallace spins this out into a few fantastical but logical conclusions, like having our years up for advertising grabs, or the creation of an entertainment that is so addictive and narcotizing it kills its viewers.
- Mario Incandenza: Two years after the publication of Infinite Jest, Wallace wrote, “The best metaphor I know of for being a fiction writer is in Don DeLillo’s Mao II, where he describes a book-in-progress as a kind of hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebrospinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and burbles and cries our to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it will get: the writer’s complete attention.” Mao II was published in 1991, and the description it provides parallels the physical abnormalities and challenges of Mario Incandenza. Mario, if he is meant to model “the novel in progress” is also the most unjaded, childlike and shamelessly loving and friendly character in the book, i.e. an earnestly feeling human boy. Hal loves Mario, takes care of him, and is fiercely defensive of him. (There is also the story of Remy Marathe, whose wife bears a close resemblance to the description above and has become his reason for living.)
- The Anxiety of Influence: By the time he was writing Infinite Jest, Wallace had made a name as part of a generation of young fiction writers. He complains loudly, though optimistically, in the “Fictional Futures” essay about the station of his particular generation, one weighed down by marketing and high expectations, by MFA-program-manufactured standards of “good fiction,” and by the need to distinguish and establish their own voices and styles separate from their forefathers and -mothers. The novel he eventually wrote in response to this is fraught with generational tension, primarily those in which the young are torn between emulating and resisting the influence of their predecessors. The Hamlet references peeking through call attention to the good old Oedipal issues of both detesting and wanting to be your parent. It also allows Wallace to perform the concept he is writing about. James Incandenza’s alcoholic father — who has failed in the eyes of his own father — bullies JOI into playing tennis. JOI turns around and, himself an alcoholic, starts a tennis academy for his own son and others. Hal excels at tennis the same way his predecessors had, but once he starts speaking in own voice in the first-person chapters toward the end of the book, he debates whether he wants to play. JOI’s brilliance and experimental arts appears to represent a prior generation of experimental writers, the influences with whom the next generation must find a way to both converse with and surpass. Orin Incandenza stands as a failure to escape the shadow of his elders. Once a tennis player, he becomes a punter, a guy whose whole only job is to hand the ball over to the other team. It’s essentially a passive, uncreative role, and one that he excels at. A similar thing happens for Orin in the bedroom, where he is focused on pleasing his “subjects” but not himself, i.e. on being entertaining. Orin is so obsessed with his father that he eventually becomes little more than an imitator, the keeper of the Master Copy. By the end he is made to cheesily re-enact a scene from 1984, voicing nothing original at all. Finally, there is The Entertainment. James Incandenza created The Entertainment to try and draw Hal out of his isolation, to make sure he didn’t become a silenced figurant in his own life. He felt that Hal was going mute, and wanted to give him back a voice. But it didn’t work, and instead he made a movie so entertaining that it sapped the voice of anyone who watched it. This is, of course, the extreme version of what Wallace fears in EUP. It also fits into the ‘what you love in this life kills you’ half of JOI’s cosmology and the novel’s addiction narratives. The second part, about ‘what kills you mothers you in the next life,’ fits with the artistic development process in which a writer will emulate his or her influences and then, with effort and pain, abandon them to create a new voice. Something like that.
- The Tennis Styles: In “Fictional Futures,” Wallace wrote at length about the styles of fiction that had occupied the labors of his generation and the institutionalization via MFA programs of what made for “good” or “successful” fiction. John “No Relation” Wayne’s tennis abilities are reminiscent of the technically proficient writers who succeed in their own mechanical way, and his stark efficiency may even reflect Wallace’s objection to the cult of minimalism, or “Bad Carver” as he put it, in his generation’s writing. Mike Pemulis has a deadly and accurate lob, but has not developed his game beyond that one trick. Lamont Chu’s obsession with being a famous tennis player is preventing him from playing his best game. Troelstch is obsessed with giving commentary on other people’s matches. Schacht has resigned himself to not playing pro and wants to be a dentist. Substitute “writing” for “tennis game” and you have a list of common anxieties and behaviors in any American creative writing program. As for Hal, his tennis style is essentially no style. Being smart, seeing vulnerabilities and drawing his opponents into errors. Like Orin, he plays passively. Hal also worries that, after a rapid ascent, he has plateaued in his game. He must feel similar to, say, a young writer who published a celebrated novel he wrote as an undergraduate, and is stuck wondering if he will ever develop beyond his current level.
- Mark Leyner/Mike Pemulis: In EUP Wallace focuses his attention on image fiction author Mark Leyner and his book My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, citing the jacket copy that calls the book “a fiction analogue of the best drug you ever took.” Leyner reacts to TV by fully absorbing and recreating it in fiction. Wallace’s analysis of the book is respectful of Leyner’s abilities and intelligence, but ultimately dismayed that it is does nothing. His discussion is also full of drug references: “methedrine compound of pop pastiche;” “bad acid trip;” “amphetaminic eagerness.” In a 1992 interview, Wallace referred to Leyner as “a kind of antichrist,” saying, “If the purpose of art is to show people how to live, then it’s not clear how he does this.” Michael Pemulis, Hal’s closest friend, is an extraordinarily capable and brilliant kid. He’s a smart-assed, prank playing math whiz who is the master of a game that simulates the end of the world. He is also the novel’s main source of drug knowledge and substance. As noted, his tennis technique he has one good trick, the high lob. Pemulis urges Hal to try more drugs in order to fix his unhappiness, which is roughly Lerner’s approach: Make fiction look more like television in order to get off the TV fix. In a 2003 interview, Wallace would refer to Pemulis as “one of the book’s Antichrists.”
If it seems strange to you that a person would write 1,000 pages of fiction to make a commentary on the state of fiction, it’s probably because you are a perfectly healthy and rational human being. But David Foster Wallace was not. Fiction was his vocation, his great love and his highest duty. Infinite Jest was also not the first time he wrote a long story about the development of his craft. The novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” was about paying tribute to and dismantling meta- and avant-garde fiction. And before he came to dislike it, it was one of Wallace’s most prized accomplishments. Wallace was obsessed and engaged with fiction writing in the way that a professional athlete is obsessed and engaged with his or her own abilities. His obsession led to the kind of deep study and focus that led to Infinite Jest. But it also appears to have led to his ultimate unhappiness. Reading D.T. Max’s recent biography, it can be tedious to read how often Wallace writes to his friends about the status of his own output. It is difficult and, frankly, frustrating to watch his outward happiness track so closely to his happiness with his own fiction. This is a man who, according to many of the theories, took his own life because he believed he was unable to write powerful fiction any longer. The man who looked at the existing pages of The Pale King and determined they were not good enough to sustain him. Fiction was his great love, so he gave it the best thing he could think of: a story about itself, that is made up of the best fiction he could create, and helps sustain the enterprise for a new generation.
* Before going any further, let me say that — as with most things on this liveblog — I’m not the first or last to come up with the ideas I’m posting here. Samuel Cohen presents the idea of IJ as a “literary history” in his essay “To Wish to Try to Sing to the Next Generation: Infinite Jest‘s History,” which is collected in this year’s The Legacy of David Foster Wallace. D.T. Max, in his biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story pegs the major writing efforts of Infinite Jest as beginning once Wallace articulated his ideas about what a new fiction should look like. And these are just the places where I’ve noticed people mentioning the connection. No reason to believe there aren’t plenty more. My plan here is to dive into this idea a little deeper and see what we come up with.
** Meaning “One having no influence or value; a nonentity.” But also appropriate as “the key to cryptographic system.”
- Michael Moats