Piotr Siemion discusses Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace's second but surely not definitive novel, just out in a bulging paperback after its last year's loud and clear hardback thump, looks very much like a whale. It is immense, awe-inspiring, plus it contains tons of undigested matter. Because few serious novels get written these days, it also looks suspiciously like an elephant, of the white variety. It instantly brings to mind all those mammoth playful novels of the American sixties and seventies. For those of us who were only very tentatively around during the first Woodstock, the "encyclopedic" novels of that time were as thick as Tom Clancy's current chivalry romances but on the average one billion times more dense than Clancy, and like neutron stars, not much of a company for readers who were not rocket scientists during their business hours. But at least you would hear about those novels and those authors before the movie version was out (it was never out anyway), unlike today. But hey: even these days, you do hear about Wallace. Given the hype last year in Time and Newsweek, therefore, Infinite Jest looks also a lot like a dinosaur, lumbering, captive, and shown as a rara avis to visitors ambling around some literary Jurassic Park: a creature from the lost era, way too big to make a pet but very curious indeed. But don't get me wrong. Polysemic or just garrulous, craftily multistranded or just going many ways at once, artful or awkward (but never plain awkward), Infinite Jest is much better than pretty much anything else that got written in the way of American Novel over the last four or five years. And, in retrospect at any rate, it really holds up as a story.
Make it three stories, brisk but convoluted enough to make three separate novels. Wallace was somehow able to twist together three yarns linked by little more that the shared time and place (Boston, Massachusetts, the second decade of twenty-first century) and the common themes of drug-induced stupor and empty love. There's a story of a sensitive if dopey teenager at a suburban tennis academy run like a very efficient school cafeteria; another one of a recovering addict in a nearby halfway house for ex-junkies and junkies; and the saga of a Quebec terrorist gang of paraplegics in wheelchairs, Les Assassins de les Foutelles Roulent. The setting is a post-apocalyptic New Millennium, with a Reagan look-alike as the U.S. president. Three stories, three books. Yes, exactly: there's a J.D. Salinger for those who like J.D. Salinger. There's William Burroughs for those hardy souls who like some kick in their prose. And there's a dash of Kurt Vonnegut too. All three voices, though, are amplified in Infinite Jest beyond mere distortion and then projected onto Wallace's peculiar own three-ring circus. Plus, who can blame Wallace for all this at the time when every fresh-faced junior account manager with the ink still wet on his M.B.A. will extol to you ad nauseam about the need to diversify your portfolio? If you want a return, you diversify. If you don't diversify, you're a gambler or, worse, an East Village novelist, a nut pursuing a singular and very private vision intended for select small presses.
Wallace diversifies, but that's okay because the world at large, not only the Village, is already teeming with people all blessed with singular visions and very focused ambitions. These days, when ranks of accomplished novelists are breathing down each other's necks, authors have become a desperate tribe of ancient mariners, forever trying to buttonhole you, lure you among the aisles of Barnes and Noble, and tell you a uniquely compelling, singular story, preferably about incest in middle America. Their own story, with luck soon to be made into a movie. Which is why Wallace's narrative plenitude makes obvious sense. Wallace is less compelled than the rest. His seriatim jests in perfectly accomplished, neat, funny prose, and his marginal characters (a child, a bum, a pod of Canucks), his science-fiction staging and his easy lack of consideration for readers who want quality merchandise for their Barnes and Noble buck and not two hundred pages of nonsensical footnotes, all seem to be saying in effect: "Relax. This is where we are. Never mind how we got here, we've gotta wake up. It may hurt." In the end, nothing much is supposed to happen here, and very little will in Infinite Jest. But in a good way. No hero will emerge, but some almost will. No V-2 rockets will explode, and the Canada-bound missiles above come from garbage-disposal launchers. There will be no instant gratification for lazy readers. There will be no delayed intellectualized gratification for those other lazy readers. You can safely leave your consumer expectations outside. Wallace acts as if he's not out to entertain you. He has something else in store for you: a very long and very good novel about sad things.
So here's the story. Wallace's junkies, meaning pretty much everybody, lock themselves up to get high and stay high, hide in the basement to do a line or take a drag, switch the TV on to drown any outside sound and stay that way. The families here run the gamut from the dysfunctional to the indifferent and yes, even child molesting is here, in one not-so-central scene. A sad world, altogether, and very intent on navel gazing. And then, surprise: not only does Wallace say all that but then comes up with some answers and some very unmiraculous cures for the junk malady. He tries to sort out the atomized crappy existence by postulating a new kind of community, idiotic but necessary nonetheless. Like an AA meeting. Sure, an AA meeting creates not much of a community, in fact it's a very suspect kind of the town hall meeting but it is viable, unlike everything else. When you're a cripple (of the non-terrorist kind) you don't complain about how ungainly your crutches are, you just go ahead and use them. It's a start, says Wallace, and it's the best we can do to wake up.
In an early snippet from a much longer and not terribly pertinent story line, Wallace has a guy stock up his Boston kitchen with a big bag of pot, gallons of soda, Oreo cookies, sandwich meat, mayonnaise, ice cream, four cans of frozen chocolate frosting (to be eaten with a large spoon), porn videos, antacids, a new bong, and other necessities the guy needs for his two-day nonstop binge. The guy is clearly going to call in sick and in every other wise suspend his outdoor existence to amuse himself in many assorted ways. In the state of nature, any such episode would be deadly, with any number of predators coming over to turn the spaced-out mental traveler into lunch. Nature calls for vigilance: you pay attention, to the other people and to your surroundings, or else. Unfortunately, we're no longer in the state of nature. We're in the lab.
In the state of nature, there's pain. In the lab, there's entertainment. Make it a capital E. Infinite Jest revolves, among its many gyrations, around the story of "the Entertainment", a film-like creation going by the title of Infinite Jest and created shortly before his suicidal death by the young tennis star's father. The Entertainment's copies are now being disseminated clandestinely all over Wallace's funny America. Problem is, of course, that the film is too good. Anybody who gets to watch it becomes hooked instantly and craves only to watch it again, and again, and again, until the audience drops dead of exhaustion and hunger. Why eat when you're entertained by such a good movie? Wallace's premise brings you back to that apocryphal lab experiment in which rats were treated to a similar choice. When the rat pushed one button, marked FOOD, it would get a food pellet. The other button, marked FUN, would fire up an electrode rigged right into the orgasm center somewhere in the rat's cortex. Needless to add, one rat after another would drop dead from hunger, still twitching luridly and trying to finesse one last push of the button. Same thing in Wallace's story, especially that even those characters who have not seen the Entertainment yet, keep on entertaining themselves by different means. There's a houseful of recovering junkies, as I said, as well as a streetful of junkies who have no intention to kick the habit. Tennis, too, is as bad as drugs to the would-be teen professionals. And the Quebec sedentary rapid reaction brigade had its origins in a game of chicken: they would lie down on the railway tracks and the last one to stay there in front of the oncoming train wins. The winner would of course have lost his legs but the game was so much fun all the same. Wallace's world is frantic with harmless, deadly addictions. Tired? Anxious? Push the FUN button.
The snippet about the pot-and-oreos-and-soda-and porn videos guy is all the more intriguing for its poignant parallel between the guy's solitary self-abusive self-amusement and your very own act of suspending your other activities for two days in order to read Infinite Jest from end to end. There's such a mass of real stuff in this book to massage your brain with, it takes a while to realize how much of Wallace's novel has to do with fiction and why have fiction anymore in the first place. Fiction, one would hope, is not Entertainment. Neither should it adopt as its own the trite mantras of an AA meeting because this is not what novels do best. The novel is its own place, to paraphrase Satan. And true enough, Wallace avoids formulas. His blockbuster is everything a "real" (because Hollywood-made or Hollywood-bound) blockbuster is not. Infinite Jest has no beginning, no obvious plot line, no conflict, no conflict resolution, and no definite ending. Its moral tenor is likewise shaky. Instead, there is in this book just the stuff people do, the stuff people say, the human stuff that, in keeping with our pedestrian realities, is not very sexy and way slower than a speeding bullet. Life goes on, and it may be your life too, if only you could stop playing with yourself, if only you could kick the habit, get real, get used to the recognition that the world is usually as ugly or nondescript as Wallace's suburbs, or that the most beautiful woman in the world has had her face erased with acid (and she lives with it too, she just never takes off her veil) and that you have to look beyond entertainment if you feel you need help. But it is a difficult and not very sexy world, and Wallace's is a difficult fiction (in what it tells you more than in how it reads) so maybe you'd really be better off in front of that TV. Just don't piss your pants as you watch the fun.
Another wanker kind of novel Infinite Jest is not. Just the contrary, Wallace seems to be shooting for a different state: post-wankery, post-addiction, quiet heroics. His questions are: what happens when you come clean? What do you actually do when you drop drugs, booze, candy bars, videos, self-adoration, competitive sports, computer simulations? You live on, in a monastic life full of repetitive but somehow nourishing platitudes. This post-entertainment life is honest and about as appealing as the winter dusk over Boston industrial suburbs. But this is all there really is, Wallace insists, relegating the rest to the dust heap of history, way north in Canada.
There have been other ways out. Facing a similar panorama of consumptive futility and fucked-up relationships, Wallace's contemporaries chose minimalism or other creative escape routes. William Vollman, for instance, chose tourism, a literary one, spatial and temporal. Wallace would be quick to point out that Vollman is pursuing merely another addiction, an easy post-natural nomadism with no real stake and no strings attached. If you choose to write about some whores you befriended in Bangkok, or about early Americans in Newfoundland, it is because you made an educated consumerist choice for that particular itinerary. Wallace pins it all down to one neighborhood and one resistible fate. His Boston intricacies are local, totally unlike Vollman's touristy vistas from the S.F.'s Tenderloin district. In Vollman's writing, the neighborhood is some kind of a low-life theme park, a hung over Anaheim on acid or crack. Wallace knows a lot about amusement parks and state fairs but he chooses not to live in one. He goes about the slow business of fixing what has been very definitely broken.
In some ways Infinite Jest is one very extended metaphor, then, for the cultural logic of the later-than-usual (for the year is 2018 or so) capitalism, but that is not Wallace's main point. His main point is radically unsophisticated, unlike his prose and his narrative momentum, and it goes something like this: we need to learn some simple things, for instance, how not to wank ourselves to death in a world full of steamy intoxicants, and how to become ordinary people instead. Mercifully, Wallace is no new age fundamentalist trying to reeducate his junkies. He's a terrific prose writer who is just trying to answer some pertinent, pressing questions. He does not quite reach his destination even after 1100 pages, but we can recognize his meanderings, his pain, his hopes, and his questions as disturbingly familiar. Good questions, those.