Chris Forster


Infinite Jest

It's always dangerous to comment about a book before you've finished it. But in the spirit of Infinite Summer, let's give it a try anyway. (NOTE: In what follows I basically respect the Infinite Summer no-spoilers rule. I do quote a few words [about 75 of 'em, not even a full sentence] from page 382, and mention the names of some Marxian philosophers of culture who occur on page 450, but there are no real spoilers in what follows).

There are at least two areas where I think reading about the near-future setting of Infinite Jest seems especially jarring--where David Foster Wallace's future seems most clearly and emphatically not our own time (whatever year the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment may be)--moments where, in an outburst of crassness, you might exclaim, "Boy was DFW wrong about that!" in the same spirit that you might say, looking back at the work of M.C. Hammer, "Boy, was he wrong about parachute pants!" Needless to say, that was never the point; Infinite Jest is a novel, not a prediction; and "parachute pants" are just biding their time, waiting for their moment.

I point out these two areas in the hope of better understanding what Wallace, in interviews (thanks to the #infsum folks on twitter for that link), described as the sadness at the center of the novel. Reading the novel, sadness is certainly not one's most immediate experience. While, less than halfway through, Infinite Jest has remarkable emotional range, it is more often funny than anything else.

Understanding this "sadness," I think, requires recognizing that such sadness is not the opposite of humor. Instead, sadness is something that is often communicated through humor. Just consider the ongoing Maranthe/Steeply dialogue. Their conversations, about the value of pleasure (w/r/t "The Entertainment") and the importance of "choice," form something like a philosophical backbone for the novel (a little Socratic dialogue amidst everything else). But Wallace never lets us forget the hilarious situation of these two speakers. Even as they engage in serious discussion, Wallace keeps reminding us of the comic scene in which this serious discussion takes place; the pretensions of both figures are comically undermined by Maranthe's butchered English, or by Steeply's adjustments to his bra straps. This makes the novel funny; but it doesn't mean that everything Maranthe and Steeply say is vacuous.

Part of the sadness in which Wallace seems to be interested is produced by a lack of meaning or purpose, which subtends even the novel's funniest moments. But what are these "two areas" I keep obscurely referencing, where the novel's future seems somehow unconvincing, and how are they related?

Both of these points, really, are about "politics" in the broad sense of collective life. And in both cases Wallace's imagined future seems a place especially inhospitable to collective meaning.

In noting these two points, of course, I don't mean to be saying "Boy, Wallace was really wrong about the future." Rather, I think, these discrepancies help us to understand how Wallace imagined the world and what aspects of it were most relevant for the purposes of the novel. Octopus Grigori, commenting at the Infinite Summer blog, wondered whether the Science Fiction aspect of the novel was even necessary. I think it is; but primarily as a means to get at the real questions in which Wallace is interested: the question of meaning and purpose.

George Orwell (to use the most obvious instance) uses science fiction in 1984 (just as he uses animal fable in Animal Farm) to explore fundamentally political questions, questions about social organization and the place of the individual in society. Wallace uses Science Fiction to investigate the experience of personal meaning--whether that "meaning" comes from tennis, drugs, or twelve steps. I'd wager that Orwell would think Infinite Jest is a novel located soundly "inside the whale" (to use Orwell's formulation for the turn away from political fiction after the 30s).

One avenue that seems closed to the characters of Infinite Jest (at least so far) is collective meaning or experience--that is, political experience. Technology affords only "entertainment" and politics is a joke.

(I think; I'm on page 475 right now...)

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