Small Thoughts on a Huge Book: David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”

Although he never won a National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, or a Pulitzer Prize—a good sign of how little such commendations mean—David Foster Wallace’s literary importance does not need much defending. (Besides, the MacArthur people did throw him one of those mega-grants.) Few serious American writers are better known. I would wager any amount of money that his reputation will hold up as long as English does, and at the core of this esteem will be Infinite Jest, his haunting, borderline-indescribable epic novel that I finished re-reading this week. It took nearly four months because, like all months, these were teeming with work and other distractions.

Wallace’s fame is relative, of course. Contemporary American society as a convulsive whole will never grant him anything like the profile of cool but lighter objects like Quentin Tarantino or the NBA; the moronic inferno (a phrase Saul Bellow lifted from Wyndham Lewis) has some good parts but rarely values works or entities that are intellectually, aesthetically, or emotionally complicated. There is nothing new about pointing out that mass culture isn’t much for thinking deeply while getting its heart broken and remade. Wallace knew this and seemed to realize that obsessing about it would not do anything besides paralyze a writer.

Let me dust off my academic hat and say something about one of Jest‘s big themes and how the book’s structure contests it. Form and Content, people. I’ll spread this over a few sections.

The modes of consumption available within contemporary markets (markets that have been developing since Shakespeare’s time, the onset of European empire) can do awful things to the societies that enable and contain them. Capitalism has always found it necessary to stoke or invent our impulses, especially the greedy ones, but twenty-first-century global capitalism, or whatever you might call it, is extraordinarily reliant upon consumers with a twitchy, impatient need for more new stimuli right fucking now. The historian David Courtwright refers to this as capitalism’s “limbic turn,” and even reasonably self-aware people have difficulty evading the hyperactive gestalt that results from it. I haven’t. I just scanned my iTunes library for some reason even though I was not listening to music, then worried about posting this on the blog’s Twitter feed for all six of our readers. And so forth.

Narcotics (a heading under which booze definitely falls) and visual entertainment are the most prominent forms of pleasure in the novel. Its two main characters—one in recovery, one approaching a ghastly breakdown—have drug problems. Much of the book takes place in a halfway house for addicts. But it depicts plenty of other addictions that are just as catastrophic: addictions to sex, to dissembling, to work, to food, to various instantiations of social prestige, to violence and cynicism. Each of these is what Don Gately, one of those two central characters, has learned in AA to call “the Substance.” You needn’t be able to physically handle something for it to be a Substance. Many are emphatically not things you can smoke, drink, snort, or shoot. Americans tend to be discomfited by this.

In phenomenological terms what distinguishes all Substances is their ability to establish a nasty feedback loop between themselves and our worst Western tendency, which is to retreat into the self. You see this when people like Mitt Romney and the Koch brothers, whose accountants help them stash Olympian wealth in various spiderholes, behave as though they are one tax increase away from a box on Skid Row. You’ve experienced this if you have ever been around a serious opiates addict, and seen how they disappear into nods. At one point near the novel’s beginning its nameless omniscient narrator, who splits time with the characters, remarks that “American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels. Some just prefer to do it in secret.”

Infinite Jest takes place in a near future, as American society undergoes an accelerating collapse into obsessive, lonely pleasures. One of the book’s running jokes is that the USA now rules an entity called the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. Tendencies that will always bedevil any society which prizes wealth and democratic “independence” have hypertrophied and are keeping sales brisk. The cultural prognosis is grim. As Wallace liked to say, this is a sad book.

A world like this, like ours (published in 1996, IJ is probably set in what would have been the 2010s, although in the novel’s present the years don’t have numbers anymore, just names sponsored by corporations), has a rough time with long texts. If one finds it hard to watch an episode of Breaking Bad in one go, then a thousand-page novel will be appalling. And so what arises throughout the culture is a suspicion that if a book is long, then it must be too long. I have met several otherwise intelligent people who deploy some version of the theory that while DFW was brilliant, he “needed an editor.”

Which he did have! Said editor was apparently OK with the book’s girth, and probably cut plenty before it was published.

It isn’t that people consciously want Infinite Jest to be Ethan Frome. But when attention spans wither a long novel is going to spook most readers into finding external reasons for not trying at all. It’s so big—no wonder people don’t finish it.

I don’t think the final form of Jest needs to be reduced. As published, it is not a mess of narrative appendages or dead ends, like many sprawling novels unintentionally are. Nothing feels out of place or redundant. Every word in the book is perfect, and when someone tries the “editor” tack, even if they have actually read some of Wallace’s stories or essays, I can’t help filing them under Second-Rate Taste. (Kingsley Amis said you could do the same with anyone who denies that Shakespeare is the greatest poet in the language.) A writer, especially a brilliant one, can put whatever he or she pleases into a work, whether or not some prospective readers want an imaginary proofer to condense things. It might be that Infinite Jest pisses off a lot of people, because it is regarded as a Cool Thing to know about in many cosmopolitan circles but is not easy to consume.

You can listen to all of Aphex Twin’s albums in a weekend. Same for Kubrick’s films. You might nibble on some Flannery O’Connor and talk later at the bar like you’ve got her covered. You cannot do that with an epic. You can try pretending that you’ve read it, but for anyone with a literary education and a decent radar for the kind of cultural-capital bullshit that some intellectuals try to sling at parties, bluffing is easy to spot. Plus, only that sort of nerd is going to care in the first place about how you read some long book.

Get off the fence. Don’t count your books—this is worth a pile of smaller ones. Besides, you are already spending time on a silly blog about books and Culture. Whatever you would otherwise be reading, you aren’t missing much even if Jest takes you six months to finish. Cf. Bleak House.

Wallace hung himself in 2008, as you may have heard. It embarrasses me to write it, but my first reaction to the news was resentment as much as sadness, as though he had stolen his talent back from the rest of us. God, the gods and goddesses, the Prime Mover, the watchmaker, the universe, whoever, whatever, takes a little extra time to wire you up as a someone who could make language do things that would stop an angel’s heart, and you pull your own plug at 46? Even when explicable—and it usually is—suicide is pure wastage, a cruel thing to lay on people who love you; and I only loved the writing, having (duh) never met the man. Near the end, his friends and family were frightened and watched him closely. He hung himself when his wife stepped out of the house. Jonathan Franzen, who was close to Wallace, got criticized for confessing that anger was part of the emotional blowback for everyone who loved Wallace. Lazy critics don’t reward honesty.

But Wallace lived most of his life with a strain of depression that many sufferers, however tough or gifted or well-medicated or lucky, don’t survive: the frantic walking nightmare of being “Buried above ground,” as William Cowper wrote in 1773, frequently leads to the pistol or the sealed garage. Outside of certain passages in Infinite Jest (Kate Gompert’s hospital intake, Hal’s monologues, Joelle’s preparation for her overdose), the only books I know of that come close to evoking this pain are William Styron’s memoir Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s astonishing “Atlas of Depression,” The Noonday Demon.

I plan to read Infinite Jest about once a decade. (Dan does this every year with Gatsby.) This was the first replay, and as you would expect, reading it at 32 was different from reading it at 23. Granted, the novel shocked me back then, when I felt what Wallace calls the “click” of writing that speaks at the blood level to someone.

But now, when like pretty much every other grown-up on the planet I have actually lost people whom I cared about as an adult to illness, suicide, addiction, geographical and psychic distance, infidelity and selfish anger, to a bouquet of the universe’s surprises, of which our own meanderings and fuck-ups are a huge part (and when I know to expect lots more), finishing wasn’t a moment when I sighed and inwardly congratulated myself for being sensitive, not to mention persistent—long book, you know.

Finishing was visceral this time and I suppose that is the point. It was something like being emptied then filled with grief for the species, not just my own piddling self. I cried in private (I admit it, stop laughing) the way I do in some situations with certain works that aren’t trivial like the stuff I consume when driving, exercising, cooking, cleaning, and doing most everything else in my life. Part of my weeping list might go: some of Philip Larkin’s late poems, a couple of Hamlet’s speeches, the “Ode to Joy” at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth, the nameless boy soldier on the cover of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, the first field recording of “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues,” certain Psalms (King James Version only, bruh), Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” the Gettysburg Address. Usually words or music are the trigger. I was not thinking much about my admirable sensitivity. Instead I was having to deal with the reality that, well-trained sensibility or none, everybody is going to disappear one day, and that it is easy to die having never really known anyone besides yourself. A shocking moment for someone who is usually a selfish dick! Of course I can only offer this as a subjective and perhaps mawkish reaction. If the first part is true, though, it is difficult to explain Wallace’s sales.

Ironically, in building a world racked by loneliness—really an entire world, the kind only big books can assemble—Infinite Jest demonstrates that it is possible to reject or at least postpone drinking the cup of poison that modernity waggles at us. One needn’t buy the fantasy of constant, easy, tailored diversions. The novel’s multi-voiced giant performance shows that under some conditions art can help ward off solipsism, by (for example) socializing the reader into the long haul of a text that doesn’t seek to flatter or distract one, a phrase I have the feeling I stole from Wallace, though I can’t track it down. Reading is a mode of empathy. One can’t help being drawn out and then drawn into the book’s crowded, grimy Boston.

You read the novel, which a person made. Some evil mothers will try to tell you that everything is just dirt, as Lou Reed has it, and, further, climate change can’t be fixed with literature. Nonetheless in Wallace’s fiction life does have a tenuous meaning. We save ourselves by being present in our own lives, which in turn makes it possible to love others, even if the nature of mortality is to eventually fail at both things, since you die at the end of the story. Wallace took his title from the graveyard scene in Hamlet, the play’s funniest and most terrifying passage, for a reason.


One thought on “Small Thoughts on a Huge Book: David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”

  1. Pingback: Weekend Verse: Auden’s Tables | The General Reader

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