When I finally finished reading David Foster Wallace’s bizarre book Infinite Jest, it occurred to me to write a review. But before doing that it was necessary to google around for explanations as to what I had just read. I had been warned that the book doesn’t have a typical ending, and in fact in my opinion it doesn’t really have one at all. After over a thousand pages it simply stops. So I went back to the beginning to the first few pages and rediscovered what happens. I guess that’s what happens when it takes you a year to read a single book.
“Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there”
…as T.S. Eliot might have said once.
In looking for clues about the book I’d already read I found some glowing reviews, as well some absolutely brutal take-downs of the story. A common criticism is its “self-indulgent” character, and it’s true; a vast amount of the side-stories and details feel as unnecessary as they do entertaining (the working title was “A Failed Entertainment”). Rather than relaying the content of the story (other than saying it follows several characters (mainly two) who live in a dystopian near-future in which America has fully succumbed to Brave New World style pleasure-seeking), I wish instead to point out some passages that stand out in my memory. It’s a bit hard to quote, because the most insightful pieces don’t quite work unless you include the whole thing. So here are some long passages:
“‘Don, let me ask you, Don. In all earnest. Why shouldn’t every human being in the world be in AA?’
‘Now I’m not with you anymore again, Geoffrey.’
‘Don, why doesn’t every featherless biped on earth qualify for AA? By AA’s reasoning, why isn’t everyone everywhere an alcoholic?’
‘Well Geoffrey man it’s a totally private decision to admit the Disease, nobody can go tell another man he’s —’
‘But indulge me for a moment. By AA’s own professed logic, everyone ought to be in AA. If you have some sort of Substance-problem, then you belong in AA. But if you say you do not have a Substance-problem, in other words if you deny that you have a Substance-problem, why then you’re by definition in Denial, and thus you apparently need the Denial-busting Fellowship of AA even more than someone who can admit his problem.’
‘Don’t look at me like that. Show me the flaw in my reasoning. I beg you. Show me why not everyone should be in AA, given the way AA regards those who don’t believe they belong there.’
‘And now you don’t know what to say. There’s no cockle-warming cliche that applies.’
‘The slogan I’ve heard that might work here is the slogan Analysis-Paralysis’
‘Oh lovely. Oh very nice. By all means don’t think about the validity of what they’re claiming your life hinges on. Oh do not ask what is it. Do not ask not whether it’s not insane. Simply open wide for the spoon.’
‘For me, the slogan means there’s no set way to argue intellectual-type stuff about the Program. Surrender To Win, Give It Away To Keep It. God As You Understand Him. You can’t think about it like an intellectual thing. Trust me because I been there, man. You can analyze it til you’re breaking tables with your forehead and find a cause to walk away, back Out There, where the Disease is. Or you can stay and hang in and do the best you can.’
‘AA’s response to a question about its axioms, then, is to invoke an axiom about the inadvisability of all such questions.’
‘I ain’t AA Day man. No one like individual can respond for AA.’
‘Am I out of line in seeing something totalitarian about it? Something dare I say un-American? To interdict a fundamental doctrinal question by invoking a doctrine against questioning? Wasn’t this the very horror the Madisonians were horrified of in 1791? Amendments I and IX? My Grievance is disallowed because my Petition for Redress is a priori interdicted by the inadvisability of all Petitioning?’
‘I’m about to get fucking lapped here I’m so not-following. You honestly don’t see what’s a little whacked-out about what you’re saying about Denial?’
‘I’m thinking your failure to engage me on the question itself means either I’m right, and AA’s whole Belonging-versus-Denial matrix is constructed on logical sand, in which case horror, or else it means you’re stupefied with condescending pity for me for some reason I fail to grasp, doubtless because of Denial, in which case the look on your face right now is the same weary patience that makes me want to scream in meetings.’
‘So scream. They can’t kick you out.’
‘This is a thing I do know. They can’t kick you out.’”
(This dialogue occurs in end-note 90)
Possibly my favorite sub-plot in the story involves the conversation between Remy Marathe (a Quebecois wheelchair terrorist quadruple agent) and Hugh Steeply (a large American man who is disguised as a woman) which keeps getting interrupted by events in different times and places.
“‘Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.’ Steeply made motions of weary familiarity.
‘Herrrrrre we go.’ Marathe ignored this.
‘Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.’
‘How are your wife and kids doing, up there, by the way?’
‘You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.’
Steeply laid a hand between his misdirected breasts:
‘Ohh . . . Can-ada.. ..’ Marathe leaned again forward on his stumps.
‘Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice. You, M. Hugh Steeply: you would die without thinking for what?’
Marathe said, ‘This, is it not the choice of the most supreme importance? Who teaches your U.S.A. children how to choose their temple? What to love enough not to think two times?’
‘This from a man who —’ Marathe was willing that his voice not rise.
‘For this choice determines all else. No? All other of our you say free choices follow from this: what is our temple. What is the temple, thus, for U.S.A.’s? What is it, when you fear that you must protect them from themselves, if wicked Québecers conspire to bring the Entertainment into their warm homes?’ Steeply’s face had assumed the openly twisted sneering expression which he knew well Québecers found repellent on Americans.
‘But you assume it’s always choice, conscious, decision. This isn’t just a little naïve, Rémy? You sit down with your little accountant’s ledger and soberly decide what to love? Always?’
‘The alternatives are —’
‘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? You just do: you see her and in that instant are lost to sober account-keeping and cannot choose but to love?’ Marathe’s sniff held disdain.
‘Then in such a case your temple is self and sentiment. Then 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.’”
Here’s Lyle, an odd wisdom character:
“This guru lives off the sweat of others. Literally. The fluids and salts and fatty acids. He’s like a beloved nut. He’s an E.T.A. institution. You do like maybe some sets of benches, some leg-curls, inclined abs, crunches, work up a good hot shellac of sweat; then, if you let him lick your arms and forehead, he’ll pass on to you some little nugget of fitness-guru wisdom. His big one for a long time was: ‘And the Lord said: Let not the weight thou wouldst pull to thyself exceed thine own weight.’ His advice on conditioning and injury-prevention tends to be pretty solid, is the consensus. His tongue is little and rough but feels good, like a kitty’s. It isn’t like a faggy or sexual thing. Some of the girls let him, too. He’s harmless as they come. He supposedly went way back with Dr. Incandenza, the Academy’s founder, in the past.
Some of the newer kids think he’s a creep and want him out of there. What kind of guru wears Spandex and lives off others’ perspiration? they complain. God only knows what he does in there when the weight room’s closed at night, they say.
Sometimes the newer kids who won’t even let him near them come in and set the resistance on the shoulder-pull at a weight greater than their own weight. The guru on the towel dispenser just sits there and smiles and doesn’t say anything. They hunker, then, and grimace, and try to pull the bar down, but, like, lo: the overweighted shoulder-pull becomes a chin-up. Up they go, their own bodies, toward the bar they’re trying to pull down. Everyone should get at least one good look at the eyes of a man who finds himself rising toward what he wants to pull down to himself. And I like how the guru on the towel dispenser doesn’t laugh at them, or even shake his head sagely on its big brown neck. He just smiles, hiding his tongue. He’s like a baby. Everything he sees hits him and sinks without bubbles. He just sits there. I want to be like that. Able to just sit all quiet and pull life toward me, one forehead at a time. His name is supposedly Lyle.”
Here’s a part that stands out to me for the weirdly frightening affect it had on me when I read it. Don Gately, one of the protagonists (see above), is experiencing dreams/visions while in the hospital:
His fever is way worse, and his little snatches of dreams have a dismantled cubist aspect he associates in memory with childhood flu. He dreams he looks in a mirror and sees nothing and keeps trying to clean the mirror with his sleeve. One dream consists only of the color blue, too vivid, like the blue of a pool. An unpleasant smell keeps coming up his throat. He’s both in a bag and holding a bag. Visitors flit in and out, but never Ferocious Francis or Joelle van D. He dreams there’s people in his room but he’s not one of them. He dreams he’s with a very sad kid and they’re in a graveyard digging some dead guy’s head up and it’s really important, like Continental-Emergency important, and Gately’s the best digger but he’s wicked hungry, like irresistibly hungry, and he’s eating with both hands out of huge economy-size bags of corporate snacks so he can’t really dig, while it gets later and later and the sad kid is trying to scream at Gately that the important thing was buried in the guy’s head and to divert the Continental Emergency to start digging the guy’s head up before it’s too late, but the kid moves his mouth but nothing comes out, and Joelle van D. appears with wings and no underwear and asks if they knew him, the dead guy with the head, and Gately starts talking about knowing him even though deep down he feels panic because he’s got no idea who they’re talking about, while the sad kid holds something terrible up by the hair and makes the face of somebody shouting in panic: Too Late.
After I read this part, I put down my phone (I read most of the book on my smartphone, which didn’t exactly facilitate the task), and reread it. The second time through it managed to summon in me that kind of fear that I remember having as a kid in which I imagined demonic figures coming for me in the dark. But those were imaginary. “The Perfect Entertainment” so-called in Infinite Jest, a film so compelling that viewers continue watching until they die, is so real that in my case it served to rend the veil between fiction and my view of own habits. The ways I’m kneeling only to myself. In denial. Worshipping at the temple of entertainment.
Wallace said in an interview with Charlie Rose that even though it has been received as a funny book, he’d written it while in a mindset that was deeply sad. Describing suicidally-depressed people:
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing spec-ulatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flame yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
My view is that Infinite Jest attempts to be descriptive without being prescriptive. The predictions and satire throughout the story are spot-on, and yet I got the sense while reading that even though the story deals effectively with themes of addiction and a consumerist humans=numbers style society, it builds its wisdom around what it warns us about. In short, it knows what it’s against without truly knowing what it’s for, other than the God of one’s own making. Wallace expressed as much in a 1991 interview: “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”
Jest strives for the capital-T truth of course, but what is that? Michael Pemulis, one of the antagonists (if the book has antagonists at all aside from the despotism of man) provides us with his view in end-note 314:
“‘Take a breather, Keith. Todd, trust math. As in Matics, Math E. First-order predicate logic. Never fail you. Quantities and their relation. Rates of change. The vital statistics of God or equivalent. When all else fails. When the boulder’s slid all the way back to the bottom. When the headless are blaming. When you do not know your way about. You can fall back and regroup around math. Whose truth is deductive truth. Independent of sense or emotionality. The syllogism. The identity. Modus Tollens. Transitivity. Heaven’s theme song. The nightlight on life’s dark wall, late at night. Heaven’s recipe book. The hydrogen spiral. The methane, ammonia, H2O. Nucleic acids. A and G, T and C. The creeping inevibatility. Caius is mortal. Math is not mortal. What it is is: listen: it’s true.’
(Though if Pemulis had been to Ennet House, he’d know “that logical validity is not a guarantee of truth”).
What is true (mathematically anyhow) is that Infinite Jest consists of 1,104 pages, and 543,709 words, many of which I didn’t know. And still don’t. And that’s another essential feature of Wallace and this book; the academic-y nature that feels like it’s designed to wall you out if you’re easily dissuaded, and pull you in if you love the sound of your own voice inside your head. That’s why it’s so indulgent, without being too difficult to follow.
Like the characters in the story, contemporary people do not understand what it means to live and die for a noble cause. Bourgeois man is so pervasive that any example of devotion is extreme. What is the ‘loyalty’ of the traditional world compared to the brand-loyalty of the modern world? Why live a short life for something eternal instead of a long and comfortable one for the sake of pleasure? Why delay gratification when you can have it instantly? All the time?
Wallace doesn’t give us heroes and saints, ‘citizens-of-something’ who live for God, or tradition, or virtue, or something eternal. He makes us crave them. That’s what he achieves, in his chaotic and eccentric fashion.
“‘You feel these men with their photographs in magazines care deeply about having their photographs in magazines. Derive immense meaning.’
‘I do. They must. I would. Else why would I burn like this to feel as they feel?’
‘The meaning they feel, you mean. From the fame.’
‘Lyle, don’t they ?’ Lyle sucks his cheeks. It’s not like he’s condescending or stringing you along. He’s thinking as hard as you. It’s like he’s you in the top of a clean pond. It’s part of the attention. One side of his cheeks almost caves in, thinking.
‘LaMont, perhaps they did at first. The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for. After the first surge, they care only that their photographs seem awkward or unflattering, or untrue, or that their privacy, this thing you burn to escape, what they call their privacy is being violated. Something changes. After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are.’
‘Is this supposed to be good news? This is awful news.’
‘LaMont, are you willing to listen to a Remark about what is true?’
‘The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.’
‘Maybe I ought to be getting back.’
‘LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.’
‘You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.’
‘This is good news?’
‘It is the truth. To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with envy of fame.’
‘The burning doesn’t go away?’
‘What fire dies when you feed it? It is not fame itself they wish to deny you here. Trust them. There is much fear in fame. Terrible and heavy fear to be pulled and held, carried. Perhaps they want only to keep it off you until you weigh enough to pull it toward yourself.’
‘Would I sound ungrateful if I said this doesn’t make me feel very much better at all?’
‘La-Mont, the truth is that the world is incredibly, incredibly, unbelievably old. You suffer with the stunted desire caused by one of its oldest lies. Do not believe the photographs. Fame is not the exit from any cage.’
‘So I’m stuck in the cage from either side. Fame or tortured envy of fame. There’s no way out.’
‘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. .. .’ Etc.”