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Alone at the Centre of All Creation: An Overview of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

Alone at the Centre of All Creation: An Overview of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest   

August, 2021

Contents:

Note: this text is littered with footnotes (not endnotes, like in Infinite Jest itself - this is not some crude gimmicky thing), which are indicated by in-text numbers e.g. (1), (2), and so on. The corresponding notes, for lack of any other possible placement in the pageless form in which the text appears here, can be found at the bottom of the paragraph that the indicating number resides. 

 

‘And Lo, for the Earth was empty of form, and void. 

‘And Darkness was all over the Face of the Deep. 

And We said: 

‘Look at that fucker dance.’ (184)

 

 

I first came across Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s Magnum Opus, at the age of 19, in my first year of University in Vancouver, BC. I had absolutely no knowledge of what exactly the book that I had just purchased was other than that it was very long, difficult and supposedly important. The conjunction of these three datums unnerved me - an at the time fairly casual reader - so much so that after a brief stint with the book (approaching probably something like maybe 40 pages) I shut it, put it back on my shelf, and decided that I was not yet prepared to take on a work of this scale and magnitude. Two full years passed, and every now and again I’d become aware of the massive, ominous tome staring me down from the bookshelf, and every now and again I’d pick it up and flit through the pages, every time thinking not yet (If this sounds hyperbolic and dramatic to a comedic degree, that is because it absolutely is, both of those things, though at the time the novel really did give off an aura of immense weight, it seemed to me, based off of its reputation - more on this later). Approaching the end of my third year of University, now 21, I began to notice that my own personal experience resonated deeply with my understanding of Wallace’s in that (and perhaps this is (or at least the awareness of it is) something inherently attributed to those within the arts). I felt intensely sad, and everybody around me was either also intensely sad or seemed to be trying very hard to mask the fact that they were intensely sad; all of us miserable despite our significant privilege, relative intelligence, education. As Wallace puts it in an interview with Christopher Lydon:

 

“Never before in history has a country been so blessed materially and intellectually (...) and yet we’re miserable. (...) I think somehow the culture has taught us - or we’ve allowed the culture to teach us - that really the point of living is to get as much as you can and experience enough pleasure as you can and that the implicit promise is that that will make you happy. I know that sounds almost offensively simplistic (but) the effects of it aren’t simplistic at all”.  

Although Wallace is very much concerned with America (“this country”) here and in Infinite Jest, and there is undeniably a distinctly American ethos about it all, really at its core there is a universality that can be applied to consumerist-driven society as a whole: life as we have come to know it is centred around the complete and utter worship of the self above all else. We have become “lethally selfish” (Wallace). At the apex of 2021’s spring semester, crit week was practically splitting open at the seams with projects pivoting on extreme, unbearable mental anguish, disconnection, loneliness - undoubtedly all emotions not unrelated or to some extent unattributable to the ongoing pandemic. But I would suggest, and it is not all that radical a suggestion in my mind, that feelings of extreme isolation, disconnection, and loneliness are not entirely a function of the physical barriers and disconnections that have been enforced as a result of the pandemic, but rather that the physical barriers and disconnections have in a way served to render corporeal what previously lay just beneath the surface of our era’s spiralling neurosis: that the substrata of our very being is culturally manufactured to be shoddy and weak, and prone to break, expected to carry a weight greater than one can sustain. Not that I had come to these conclusions at the time, of course (perhaps I am getting ahead of myself), but in retrospect, I couldn’t have chosen a better time - not sooner nor later - to immerse myself in this novel. Over twenty years after its original publication, Infinite Jest poses philosophical questions just as urgent and charged now as they were then in coming to terms with what’s at stake in waging “life’s endless war against the self (one) cannot live without'' (128).

 

1: A Brief Overview 

 

Having completed the novel, I can report that yes, it is indeed very long. Difficult? Not necessarily. Important? Absolutely. Make no mistake, reading this novel is no walk in the park, and it should not be underestimated, but it is far from impenetrable. It only asks that you give it your time and your full attention, and so far as you are willing to do this, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from reading it. In fact, you will likely find the experience engaging and enjoyable. 

 

But and so, OK, what’s this thing actually about, then? What's the big fuss? An attempt to grossly simplify the complex interwoven net that is this novel may sound something like this: Infinite Jest is an intricately imbricated ellipse of what same consider a “post-postmodern novel” (1) that is set in a near future (as it was interpreted from the mid-90s) so commercialized that time itself is a commodity offered up to the highest bidder (e.g. welcome to Year of the Trial Size Dove Bar!). It is crushingly sad and uncompromising in its exploration of the nature of personal pleasure and self-absorption - a kind of retreat into the self - focusing on no one central character but a tangle of characters geographically situated in Enfield, Boston, MA; most prominently the Incandenza  Family at the Enfield Tennis Academy and a group of recovering Addicts at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. However, a geographical orientation, one comes to learn in reading the book, at a certain point disintegrates and becomes a lot more complex and a lot more abstract than physical proximity: the novel’s nucleus is a film so damn entertaining that whoever watches it wants to do nothing but watch it endlessly on repeat (to the extent that it is fatal): Infinite Jest. The film was made by one James O. Incandenza (“Jim,” “The Mad Stork,”), Anticonfluential filmmaker, Optical Physics extraordinaire, founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy and father of Hal, Mario and Orin Incandenza; a man who ended his life shortly after completing work on I.J. by shoving his head in a microwave oven. Taking on this film as its centre to which everything orbits, the novel is far from linear - one could go so far as to say that it is even anti-linear (anticonfluential). Hell, the first chapter in the book occurs one year after the events leading up to the book’s end - perhaps in and of itself not an unusual narrative mechanism - but the entire space of this year is a narrative black-out, a void that is never filled. It leaves the reader with dozens of major questions utterly unresolved and this is entirely by design. 

(1) Clarification of this claim: many considered Wallace to be following in the footsteps of the postmodernists (Pynchon, Gaddis, and so on); this was something that Wallace actively rejected, believing that post-modernism in literature had effectively run its course. There are certainly parallels (there is, for example, an abundance of black humour to be found within the novel) but it ultimately appears sound to consider Infinite Jest to be in a context of its own. “Post-post modern” is a little vague but is relatively sufficient in that it allows us to place the novel in conversation with postmodernism (to which Wallace was clearly influenced by and responding to). Some have considered “meta-modernism” to be a more fitting descriptor. 

 

2:  The Narrative Avant-Garde: David Lynch and his Influence on Wallace 

 

Let’s be clear here: non/anti-linear does not mean incoherent, nor does a narrative that refuses to deliver to the reader answers on a silver platter mean that it is poorly executed or incomplete. Consider the work of director David Lynch, whom, one might recall, Wallace wrote about in his essay David Lynch Keeps his Head (from the collection of short stories A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again), and whom Wallace cites as an influence of not insignificant measure in an interview with Charlie Rose: 

 

“Lynch very much snapped me out of a kind of adolescent delusion that I was in about sort of what avant garde art could be - and It’s very odd because film and books are very different media - but I remember going with two poets and one other student fiction writer to go see this” - Blue Velvet - “and then all of us going to the coffee shop after and you know, just slapping ourselves in the forehead, it was this truly epiphanic experience.” 

 

That Lynch had a significant impact on Wallace is not surprising in the slightest, and if one puts the two in conversation with each other things start to actually make a lot of sense. Just as Wallace relays that Lynch had his debts (namely, Hitchcock, Cassavetes, and Bresson), Wallace had his (Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, Joyce - and most importantly here, obviously, Lynch). As Wallace is very much interested in entertainment within visual media and avant-garde filmmaking - I find it appropriate to explore here this oft overlooked (this perhaps resulting from the interdisciplinary leap required to make this comparison) facet in understanding Wallace. As there are multiple allusions in the novel to Lynch’s Twin Peaks, let’s prod there. 


For those unaware, the narrative of Twin Peaks revolves around FBI Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation of the murder of 17-year-old Laura Palmer in the town of Twin Peaks, Washington. The show sports a large cast of characters, and though Cooper traditionally would be regarded as the “protagonist,” screen-time is so divided that it is pretty much equally shared by the entire cast, each character coming in and out of focus, many scenes disjointed and narratively obscure. Laura’s murderer is revealed to be her father, Leland Palmer, (possessed by the inexplicable spirit Bob), thus the narrative ends up, satisfyingly, irresistibly, serving up our answers on a silver platter. But the decision to reveal the killer was famously a result of network interference that pissed Lynch off so much that he left the show entirely (this echoes the studio interference that rendered Lynch’s Dune completely incoherent). Think about that for a minute: a murder mystery in which the murder was never meant to be solved. There are answers for this, conceptually, if you look, but a proper explanation would literally take hours to relay (see: Twin Peaks ACTUALLY EXPLAINED (No, Really)) - and that is not our focus here. No, what’s really interesting is the fact of the matter itself: the intentional lack of explanation, absolute narrative void. Though Lynch was absent for much of the show’s second season, he did come back to write and direct the final episode, which posed infinitely more questions than it did answers, ending the show at essentially the narrative’s apex: the same spirit that had possessed Leland Palmer now inhabited Agent Dale Cooper. The end. That’s it. When, twenty years after the show's final episode aired, it was announced that Lynch would be returning to direct a third season, people were ecstatic: finally we would be getting the answers we so desperately wanted. Nope. Just eighteen more episodes of layer after layer of questions, excruciatingly frustrating to anybody looking for narrative release. But to look for resolution is to miss the point entirely; Lynch knew this, as did Wallace: As soon as the viewer / reader has all the answers, the work is dead. As long as there are questions - as long as there’s room for discourse, conversation, interpretation, it lives. 

 

Of course, nothing in Infinite Jest gets quite as abstract as anything in Twin Peaks (other than maybe one scene in which a certain “garden variety wraith” appears to a feverish Don Gately), but one can’t help but notice a methodological throughline here: both deploy a wide cast of characters; share an unapologetic lack of explanation, and both forefronted new vanguards in setting the precedent for the experimental and avant-garde works that would follow. The notion of chaotic stasis - a term used by Greg Carslile in Elegant Complexity to describe Wallace’s tendency to end scenes at their apex rather than remotely anything like resolution -  is actualized in both of Twin Peaks’ finales, as it is at the end of Infinite Jest. The result: complete narrative void, which, put in the context of the whole, forces viewers / readers to construct meaning - as Carlisle picks up on - “as much though what’s missing as what’s there” (Wallace, 681).

 

3: The Novel as Monofractal

 

Re: Infinite Jest’s narrative structure. One of the more frequently discussed aspects of the 

book’s unusual layout (to which the narrative gaps can be attributed) is Wallace’s transposition of a kind of monofractal known as a “Sierpinski Gasket”' into its narrative equivalent. It should be noted, in making this assessment, that it was specifically the first draft that was modelled after a Gasket (a draft that sported an additional 600 pages) and that, as a result of serious editing, the final novel was rendered “lop-sided” through the lens of its intended structure (a.k.a. the final thing is not technically a true gasket, though it is still enlightening to consider how a gasket works). Okay. So. What the fuck is Sierpinski Gasket? In Wallace’s own words, a visual representation looks “basically like a pyramid on acid” (Wallace). What he refers to here is  a specific model (there are a number of others) that

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig. 1. Illustration of a Sierpinski Triangle.

 

 

resembles an equilateral triangle that is subdivided into a number of smaller equilateral triangles - a pattern that can be, in theory, repeated infinitely, but in its most basic form, for demonstrative purposes, could be thought of as consisting of three triangles with a triangular gap in the middle. Essentially what you have is a narrative that consists of these subdivided parts that are connected to each other by nature of their a) adjacent positioning and b) their cumulative contribution to the overall form. As a result of the gasket’s multiplicity, as it grows, you end up with a shape fraught with gaps.(2)

(2) Incredibly fascinating datum, re: narrative fractals: Though Wallace is to my knowledge the only writer to intentionally deploy a fractal in structuring a narrative, there are a number of works of literature that, upon analysis, reveal themselves to in fact be “governed by the dynamics of a cascade” (Drozdz, et al.), and therefore are considered to be fractal. Tolstoy, Joyce, Woolf, Dostoevsky - all wrote in what can be visibly perceived as fractal (though multifractal as opposed to monofractal) - made visible by examining the pattern created by projecting sentence length and sentence number on a graph.

This is all getting a little abstract and theoretical so let’s get a little more concrete. The encasing message of the book (the overall shape) is that of personal pleasure and choice - contained within this casing are:

(as previously mentioned) 

1: The Incandenzas at the Enfield Tennis Academy (also referred to, in short, as E.T.A.)

2: The Addicts - namely a parodically enormous mulletted man named Don Gately and the veiled Joelle Van Dyne - at the Ennet House Alcohol and Drug Recovery House.

But also, a third fragment:

3: The growing political tension between the U.S. and Canada - of which the central characters are: the Quebecois Seperatist, Remy Marathe, and U.S.O.U.S. (United States Office of Unspecified Services) Field Operative, Agent Hugh Steeply. 

Kickstarting the events of the novel, a copy of Infinite Jest, conspicuously referred to as simply “the Entertainment” - arrives at the door of a certain Canadian Medical Attache - the “DeBakey of maxillofacial yeast,” consultant to the personal physician of the Saudi Minister of Home Entertainment - on the 1st of April, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. The copy is unlabelled save for a yellow smiley-face and the written message ‘Happy Anniversary!’ (it is most certainly not the Attache’s anniversary). Oblivious to the fact of the matter, the Attache decides to give the cartridge a go. Leaning back in his recliner, he becomes enraptured by the film, getting up only once when the film ends to set the T.P to a recursive loop. It is here, leaning back in his recliner in a kind of soupy, catatonic stasis, drenched in his own urine, that his wife finds him upon arriving home hours later - this, only to also glance at the T.P and become enraptured herself. And then over the course of the following two days the personal physician’s personal assistant (who’d been sent over to see why the attache was MIA), the personal physician himself (who’d come to see why his assistant hadn't come back); two embassy security guards, The Saudi Minister of Home Entertainment, and multiple policemen all find themselves in the attache’s living room, staring dead-eyed at the looping Entertainment. And then copies start appearing in Berkley, Arizona - all over the country, despite the fact that the only master copy (required to make duplicates) had supposedly been buried with James, the auteur, in what is now a toxic wasteland known as “the Great Concavity” - a swath of land consisting of Maine, the majority of Vermont and Northern New York that was forcibly “gifted” to Canada by the U.S., to which the U.S., under the presidency of the mysophobic Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner, now vaults (with enormous, thrumming catapults) all of their waste. 

 

This redistribution of land ownership is a point of major political tension as, understandably, Canada wants absolutely nothing to do with taking over what is essentially a virulent landfill, and only accept the offer under the threat of applied force. Arguably the most complicated narrative fragment follows the plottings of the A.F.R (Assassins de Feutil Rollents) - A faction of radical Quebecois terrorists, all without legs, all wheelchair-ed, (yes, this book unironically features Quebecois Wheelchair Assassins), who, not pleased at all about the absorbing of the concavity, and are hell-bent on doing as significant an amount of damage to the U.S. as to force Canada to separate from Quebec lest they be susceptible to full-blown retaliation for deeds they were not responsible for committing. The plan of attack: simply, to locate a master copy of Infinite Jest, make duplicates, and disseminate those copies to the U.S. masses, who will be unable to resist the film's allure.

In Autumn, Year of the Dairy Products from the American Heartland (one year before Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, during which the main events of the book occur) Professional Burglar and Oral Narcotics Addict Donald Gately and an accomplice known as “Quo Vadis” (Trent Kite) break into the home of one Mr. Guillaume DuPlessis. Unbeknownst to them, DuPlessis is in fact still in the house, and taken aback by this unpleasant surprise, Gately clumsily binds and gags the man, who pleads in french (which, unfortunately, Gately cannot speak) specifically not to gag him as he is severely ill and can breathe only through his mouth. DuPlessis, a separatist and significant player in the anti-O.N.A.N movement (3), suffocates, and the death is viewed, by the A.F.R, ironically, as an obvious assassination. Among the burglarized items, unbeknownst to the duo: a copy of Infinite Jest, which Trent Kite pawns off to the Antitoi brothers (members of a much less threatening Quebecois separatist group) - brothers who own a kind of antiques / pawn shop in Boston and whom, in Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,  sell an extremely potent variety of DMZ known as Madame Psychosis to one Michael Pemulis, a student at E.T.A. who returns to the Academy to discuss the ingestion of the DMZ with one Trevor Axford and none other than one Hal Incandenza. Just down the hill from the Academy, Don Gately, now one year sober, works as a Counselor in Residence at the Recovery House, of which the newest resident is the veiled Joelle Van Dyne - known to most as Madame Psychosis - former lover of Orin Incandenza, and the key figure featured in James Incandenza’s Infinite Jest. Starting to get the picture? All of the narrative threads, seemingly, at first, completely unrelated and disjunctive, are in fact, intricately interconnected. Glancing at an illustrated character map is, frankly, dizzying.

(3) O.N.A.N = Organization of North American Nations. In Infinite Jest's imagining of the future, Canada, the United States and Mexico have formed a "super nation." It is this super nation that Quebec wants out of.

 

4: Door or Cage: The Philosophy of Infinite Jest 

 

“The wind was moderate and constant and about the temperature of a U.S.A. clothes dryer set on low. It made the shrill whistling sounds. Also sounds of the blowing grit. Weeds-of-tumbling like enormous hairballs rolled often across the Interstate Highway of I-10 far below. Their spectacular perspective, the reddening light on cast tan stone and the oncoming certainty of dusk, the further elongation of their monstrous agnate shadows: all was almost mesmerizing” (91). So sets the stage for a mountaintop debate between Remy Marathe and Hugh Steeply that will come in and out of focus throughout the novel, and will relay rather bluntly the major themes and questions that the novel presents: 

 

“Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple. (...) Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to what we invest with faith,” asserts Marathe, who embodies a philosophy that “maximally limits self-indulgent choices” (Carlisle, ). “All of our you say free choices follow from this: what is our temple” (107).

Steeply’s face had assumed the openly twisted sneering expression which he knew well Quebecers found repellent in Americans. “But you assume it’s always choice, conscious decision. This isn’t just a little naive, Remy? You sit down with your little accountant ledger and soberly decide what to love? Always? What if sometimes there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed? What if you just love? Without deciding?”

Marathe’s sniff held disdain. “In such an instance you are a fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self’s sentiments; a citizen of nothing. You become a citizen of nothing. You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself. (..) You become a slave who believes he is free. The most pathetic of bondage. Not tragic. No songs. You believe you would die twice for another but in truth would only die for your alone self, its sentiment” (108).

 

Marathe’s ideas surrounding choice (and the lack-of) in regard to what one worships certainly

have a theological tang to them. Indeed, worship is of course often thought of as an act to be carried out in a religious context, but it is inherently something we are all, regardless of religious affiliation, engaged in on a daily basis. The fact of the matter is, as just about anything can be abused, can eclipse us, overwrite us - we can become worshippers at the temple of substances, or entertainments; “gambiling can be an abusable escape too, and work, shopping, and shoplifting, and sex, and abstention, and masturbation, and food, and exercise, and meditation/prayer” (Wallace, 202). The question, then, the real philosophical adventure that Wallace prompts us to engage with, becomes: why are we so quick to give ourselves away, without so much as questioning the fact of the matter - and if we are both quick to give ourselves away and unable to control what we give ourselves away to, is there even a remote possibility of attaining anything like freedom, really? Are we, any of us, really free, when we find ourselves possessed by desires and compulsions and are simultaneously unaware of what desires, compulsions or ideas shape our minds and compel us to act? The answer hinges on the question of personal pleasure, discipline, faith and of course, as Marathe promotes: choice (in this regard, Wallace espouses a Nietzschean stance as opposed to that of a Schopenhauerian one (4)). We may consider the recovering addicts demonstrative. In the case of Don Gately, we have a man who submits to Demerol, chiefly, lets it eclipse him; and then shortly after accidentally killing Guillame Duplessis, reaching what he considers to be his “bottom,” (5) transfers the control of his personal being over to the “almost classically authoritarian, maybe even proto-Facist” Boston A.A (374). Therefore, in both states of being, Gately is in an active process of giving up control, giving himself away. And but the critical point of divergence between the two: in giving oneself entirely to entertainment, substance, or any other form of easy pleasure, one submits to a state of passivity, stasis and self indulgence; one becomes infantile (furthermore, at a certain point choice is removed from the equation altogether). In choosing to submit to Boston A.A., on the other hand, Gately becomes active, dislodged, and though this is at times excruciating, the suffering is directed, it has meaning, and any amount of suffering that is perceived to have meaning can in theory be endured so long as it is governed by personal choice. Austrian Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, quoting a passage from Nietzsche’s Maxims and Arrows, famously said  “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” (6) Pointless, directionless suffering, in short, is bad news indeed. That’s pretty obvious. But alleviating suffering isn’t the absolute endgame. Suffering is inevitable, and therefore to imagine that it is avoidable entirely, or to even want that to begin with is absurd, naive, and gravely misses the point altogether. What is most meaningful and worthwhile often comes at a great personal cost; it’s how we choose to act when faced with the horrible terror of life’s inevitable suffering that really defines us. “It’s about how to reach down into the parts of yourself you didn’t know were there and get down in there and live inside these parts. And the only way to get to them: Sacrifice. Suffer. (...) What are you willing to give” (Wallace, 119). This choosing is partly why so many of the kids at the tennis academy are so damn miserable: they are unattuned to the fact that there even is a choice to be made. They are unaware, disillusioned, afraid, anxious, depressed, unconscious. Their autonomy had been nullified from the moment they were enrolled in the Academy, their selves overwritten, their ability to choose obscured. They believe that “going to the show”  is the way out of suffering; that their relentless training will get them to someplace better. It’s a very binary perspective, and one that is ill-informed and enormously dangerous: the goal is fixed and unchangeable. Be one of the very select few to reach and sustain it, success, and you have won the game. That, or you’re a failure. There is no middle ground. As Lyle, the enigmatic sweat-licking guru who lives in E.T.A.’s weight room, gently explains to a depressed Lamont Chu, “fame is not the exit from any cage. (...) You might consider how escape from a cage must surely require, foremost awareness of the fact of the cage. And I believe I see a drop on your temple… right… there...” (Wallace, 389). 

(4) Elaboration on this claim for those who are unfamiliar with the work of Nietzsche or Schopenhauer: According to Nietschze, it is through suffering that we attain true experiential meaning in life, and thus pain is not only necessary but desirable: “You have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief… or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy. (86)” Conversely, Shoppenhauer, a predecessor of Nietzche, argues in The World as Will and Representation that happiness is basically a freedom from pain, and freedom from pain is the best that the most of us can really ever hope for. “Whatever fate befalls you, do not give way to great rejoicings or lamentations; partly because all things are full of change, and your fortune may turn at any moment” (90). Don’t aim for aything more; you’d be better off not to - aim for happiness, freedom from pain. This can be an incredibly dangerous concept if one actually were to see it through (a complete freedom from pain, that is) as Wallace goes to lengths to show us throughout the novel. It is useful to consider an experiment conducted on rats by psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner, in the 1950s, of which the purpose was to better understand the neuroscience of pleasure (this experiment is discussed by Marathe and Steeply at one point in the novel). In short, electrodes were implanted into the brains of the rats, and they were given the option to press a lever which would stimulate the pleasure centre of the brain. The result: each rat would just sit there and press the lever, over and over again, hundreds of times per hour. The rats would neglect food and water. Males would ignore females in heat and females would ignore nursing pups, all to keep pressing the lever; “Pressing hat lever became their entire world” (Linden). Jordan B. Peterson on the subject: “Now the question might be, would you allow yourself to be wired up like that? (...) Why not just do that all the time? That’s the question that Aldous Huxley asks in Brave New World. You’ve got everything you want, take a drug to keep you calm and happy and poof! Perfect. Well, is that what you want? And if the answer is no, then you might ask yourself, what the hell do you want?” This is exactly the question that so tormented Wallace in regard to the collective misery of his seemingly jaded and directionless generation.

(5) Though the addicts collectively agree that the feeling is better described as being “on the edge of something tall and leaning way out forward” (347)

(6) The passage, directly from Maxims and Arrows (- from the 1979 Penguin Classics translation, which I have accessed through the 2004 edition of Nietzsche’s Why I Am So Wise), reads as follows: “If we possess our why of life we can put up with almost any how” (74).  

The cage, unsurprisingly, is a very prevalent recurring motif throughout the novel. When faced with extreme mental anguish, one feels as if they are entrapped in a cage. It is human limitation in its most constricted, claustrophobic, shrinking form. In the case of Hal, he is locked somewhere deep inside himself. The great irony and perhaps what is actually simultaneously most hopeful, is that the parameters of play in terms of the game that is staying alive, in waging life’s endless war against the self, are determined in no small part by the individual and therefore the parameters of the cage, too, are in most cases just as internally determined as they are externally determined. Thus, we have a sort of superimposition of perception, and this plurality, this unfathomably, incalculably complex overlap, even as it is rife with entrapments and mental snags, ultimately maintains the hope for autonomy. If you’ve read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, the sentiment here is not dissimilar: if you cannot determine how to reverse-thrust the regression into oneself (and this slippage is inevitable in one’s life at some point) - cannot determine or locate a door, or are unattuned to the fact of there being a cage or a door, like Murakami’s nihilistic Kafka Tamura - you are lost, will wither and die on the inside (enter a paralyzed stasis, as is the case with that novel's Miss Saeki) or more directly in the exterior sense (in the form of suicide). 

How does one do this? How does one reverse this process? The crux - what is either fatal or invigorating, what determines if we will live, truly live, or die at least in some fundamental way -  is what we determine the door of the cage we find ourselves in to be - or, as Marathe would put it, what we determine our Temple to be, what we worship; and, again, make no mistake about this: we all worship, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. There are no true atheists. The significance of this fact cannot be understated. What you most certainly do not want it to be, the object of your worship, at least according to Wallace, is maximal, eclipsing, flat-lined, and indeed, the most enticing doors, the easiest to find and slip into (most of the times unknowingly), the most alluring, espouse maximalism: maximum pleasure in the fastest and easiest attainable manner - and really turn out to not be doors at all but cages disguised as doors. As to what you do want it to be, the door - well, that is a fundamental question that has existed throughout essentially the history of philosophy and inherently cannot be answered with certainty by any individual, and I certainly will not even pretend to know anything remotely like some kind of answer, though I suspect life’s inevitable suffering could be justified by the pursuit of what is meaningful (though what constitutes meaning is tricky - a whole other can of worms, and one I do not have the time to dissect and analyze here). What we can do, and really it’s the only thing we can do, is make the choice - and it is a choice that must constantly be renegotiated and renewed, day after day - to be present, aware, active, disciplined, and responsible for our own actions. The process of waging war against the self is such that to continue playing the game, one must utterly obliterate the self and emerge anew, triumphantly, over and over again. Constant renewal is the key to not only survival but one’s flourishing. Stagnation is a death sentence. “The insidious thing(s about these forms of) worship is not that they’re evil, or sinful. It’s that they’re unconscious,” Wallace relays in This is Water. “They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings. Because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along on the fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom - the freedom all to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. (But) the really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to truly care about people and to sacrifice for them over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.” 

 

5: On the Novel’s reception.


To be frank, Infinite Jest has something of an image problem. Even outside of the world of literature, the name carries some weight; mention that you’re reading it to somebody and they’ll likely say “is that the book by that Wallace guy?” - that, or they already know damn well exactly what it is (at least through the lens of its reputation) and will either roll their eyes or cringe (or both). Why exactly is this? Firstly, as is the case with any novel that is widely considered to be exceptionally difficult, there is an inherently embedded aura of intellectual elitism attached to the work and those who read it - whether or not this elitism is actualized is ultimately dependent on the individual, but there are, it is true, unfortunately a number of people who read Infinite Jest and thereafter utilize the fact of their completion of the novel as a marker of their supposedly heightened intellectual status - they’ve read the book and they want everybody to know they’ve read the book, because what is implied is that they, who have managed to overcome this long and infamously challenging novel, are very, very smart indeed. It is in this fashion that Infinite Jest, more than any other difficult work of literature, is infamously flaunted. To any who think that the very fact of having read a book, or any number of books for that matter, regardless of what they may be (e.g. War and Peace, The Iliad or Gravity’s Rainbow) is proof of one’s intelligence, I implore you to reconsider how you gauge intellectual capability. Reading itself is a matter of sustained attention. Comprehension, abstraction, and practical application, on the other hand, are of another matter entirely, and are probably where actual intellectual engagement occurs. Thus, yes, the perceived air of pretentiousness that surrounds the novel is not entirely unwarranted, but I hope that I have accomplished at least some of what I have set out to do here in communicating that the brushing off of this novel as merely pretentious and not actually worth one’s time would effectively be a mistake, a misjudgement, and one should not have to feel abashed to have read it or to want to read the novel; for it is rife with thoughtful, complex, meaningful and deeply philosophical sentiments that, if one takes the time to understand, can widen one’s berth of perception in how one chooses to understand their own personal experience of life. 

 

Though it is my overall opinion that the novel is brilliantly invigorating, exciting and mesmerizing, it’s not perfect. One thing that I personally found particularly out of place and surprisingly juvenile - and this is something that I have rarely seen mentioned - are the unnecessary quantity of fart jokes and the excessive mention off farting. Yes, you heard me. I am not exaggerating - or making this up. Farting. What’s up with that? One of the themes of the book is waste (which is most obviously seen in the Great Concavity and with Johnny Gentle) but regardless, we most certainly could have done without fart jokes. Wallace also writes at times rather self-consciously (this is actually not all that surprising as he talks rather self-consciously, in interviews, as well). This can be endearing at times and awkward at others, and the length to which this will agitate or invoke empathy will depend on the reader. Admittedly, too, there is a certain irony in that the book, which goes to great lengths to detail a concern with an entire generation’s seeming inability to talk about what’s really real, does so in a way that is rather complex and abstract, and at least somewhat inaccessible to those of which it appears to want to speak. Ultimately, though, my issues with a relatively small number of Wallace's questionable decisions are far from substantial enough to delegitimize what is otherwise an exceptionally wonderful and unique novel, in my eyes. 

This is certainly not the opinion of many others, including the late, famous literary critic and former Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, Harold Bloom, who has to say about the novel: “Infinite Jest (regarded by many as Wallace’s masterpiece) is just awful. (...) He can’t think, he can’t write. There’s no discernible talent.” Bloom even goes so far as to say, scathingly, that Stephen King is “Cervantes compared with (Wallace).” There are also many others who think the excessive endnotes (there are 388 - about 100 pages - in total) are gratuitous, the length unjustified, the avant-garde passages obnoxious, the vocabulary braggadocious. In short, the novel to many is one long, insufferable, excruciating wail on the part of Wallace: “Look at all of these things that I can do, aren’t I smart - aren’t I? Look, this is all very important!” So, an argument can absolutely be made in that his writing style is perhaps too excessive and exhibitive (again, this comes through in Wallace’s self-conscious writing-style; even he seemed to be preemptively aware of how he would come across to readers); though the trade off for such baroqueness is that we, the reader, get to experience, essentially, a brain operating at 100% capacity. Naturally, this means we’re getting a lot - a lot of Dave - and if you do not care for the way in which his brain is wired (it is meticulous and thorough) you will most certainly not care for the book. Objectively speaking, though, I would wholeheartedly disagree with Bloom in regard to Wallace’s complete inadequacy - it is abundantly clear the man can think (the previous detailing of the novel’s narrative structure alone is proof enough of that) and it is also abundantly clear that he can write (his prose is an absolute pleasure to read (7)); these denouncements seem to me to be predicated primarily on an unwillingness to diverge from an adherence to a specific set of aesthetic values that are deeply rooted in the traditions of the western canon (and this is not to downplay canonical works of literature (they are canonical for a reason, after all) - indeed, it seems plausible that Infinite Jest could enter the western canon in the future whether Bloom would have agreed or not). So, no, Wallace is no Cervantes, and he’s no Joyce - in the same way that Lynch is no Hitchcock, no Cassavetes - the two have debts to those who preceded them, but ultimately they are entirely distinguished in their uniquely profound interpretations and articulations of human experience and Being in such a manner that is the indicator of greatness. In other words, Dave Wallace is Dave Wallace, and just as we will never have another Don Quixote, we’ll never have another Infinite Jest; its humour and depth distinguished, its language expansive; but perhaps most important: it’s honest - truly honest, and not afraid to talk about what is really real and difficult and human in an era when it is the norm to shy away from such discussions (out of sight, out of mind) - and an era in which the literary novel has just about ceased to exist. And that’s something to be acknowledged. That’s not nothing. 

(7) On Wallace’s Prose; take this brilliant passage, that details Boston A.A, as proof of DFW’s linguistic vigour: “The newcomers who abandon common sense and resolve to Hang in and keep coming and then find their cages all of a sudden open, mysteriously, after a while, share this sense of a deep shock and possible trap; about newer Boston AAs with like six months clean you can see this look of glazed suspicion instead of beatific glee. (...) And so this unites them, nervously, this tentative assemblage of possible glimmers of something like hope, this grudging move towards maybe acknowledging that this unromantic, unhip, cliched A.A. thing - so unlikely and unpromising, so much the inverse of what they’d come too much to love - might really be able to keep the lover’s toothy maw at bay. (...) This goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever work except for the utterest morons… and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’d had and then lost, when you Came In” (350). 

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Works Cited

Carlisle, Greg. “Elegant Complexity: A study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.” Sideshow Media Group; Illustrated Edition, p. 20.

Frankl, Viktor. “Man’s Search For Meaning.” 1946. Beacon Press, 2006. p. 9. 

Koski, Lorna. “The Full Harold Bloom.” WWD, April 26, 2011.  https://wwd.com/eye/people/the-full-bloom-3592315/ 

Linden, David J. “The Neuroscience of Pleasure.”  Huffpost, September 6, 2011. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/compass-pleasure_b_890342 

Lydon, Christopher. Interview with David Foster Wallace. The Connection, 1996. 

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Gay Science.” 1882. Random House, 1974. p. 86

Peterson, Jordan. “Existentialism: Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard.” Personality, February 24, 2015, University of Toronto, 2015. Lecture.

Polish Academy of Sciences. “The World’s Greatest Literature Reveals Multifractals and Cascades of Consciousness.” Phys.org, 2016. https://phys.org/news/2016-01-world-greatest-literature-reveals-multifractals.html 

Rose, Charlie. Interview with David Foster Wallace. The Charlie Rose Show, March 7, 1997.  https://charlierose.com/videos/23311 

Schopenhauer, Arthur. “The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 2.” 1844. Dover Publications, 1996.  p. 90

Wallace, David. “This is Water.” Commencement address, May 21, 2005, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio.

Wallace, David. “Infinite Jest.” 1996. Back Bay Books, 2016. p. 91, 107, 108, 119, 128, 184, 202, 374, 389.

Works Referenced

“Blue Velvet.” Directed by David Lynch. De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 1986.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer.” 1888. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 1997. 

Murakami, Haruki. “Kafka on the Shore.” 2002. Vintage, 2005.

Stanislaw Drozdz, et al. “Quantifying origin and character of long-range correlations in narrative texts.” Information Sciences (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.ins.2015.10.023

“Twin Peaks.” Directed by David Lynch. ABC, Showtime, 1990-91, 2017.