It turns out you can never really go home to Infinite Jest
ok, let’s just stipulate that these still come out less frequently than they should. Many irons in the fire, and also a 92-pound furry hooligan running around trying to pull irons out of the fire with his mouth. Just know that I perpetually feel bad for not doing these more often! I’m reusing this stipulation because it’s still true!
So a few weeks back I got this weird itch to go back and reread Infinite Jest.
For the most part, I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with the book and have your own relationship with it. But it feels wrong not to touch briefly on it and its rep. So: Infinite Jest, published in 1996, is David Foster Wallace’s brick-sized experimental meditation on addiction and entertainment (which, he argues, have a whole lot of overlap). The book focuses on two characters and the world they inhabit: a teenaged tennis prodigy at a sports academy, and a recovering Demerol addict at a halfway house near the academy. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a fatally entertaining movie created by the tennis prodigy’s deceased father; but the plot never actually comes together within the book. It’s funny, it’s discursive, it’s absolutely lousy with footnotes, and it’s more or less emerged as one of the canonical American novels of the 90s, for good or for ill.
I’m not sure, but I think this was my fourth or fifth time reading it. I used to be quite a superfan! Not quite (I think) one of those guys who made loving Infinite Jest (not gonna italicize it the rest of the way, because I’m lazy) their whole personality, but there was probably a window maybe 20 years back when I had the potential to be one of those guys.
But there’s the thing: it’d been a lllllong time since I’d last read this book. At least a decade. And I thought it might be interesting to go back to it and read it as an adult (I’m weirdly conscious now of being older than Wallace ever got to be). And, if I’m being honest to read it without the youthful assumption that I used to have that if there was something in the book that I didn’t get, the fault was mine and not Wallace’s. So like not an intentionally hostile bias, but more like no longer defaulting towards giving the book the benefit of the doubt on every point.
It was a weird experience! Kind of great, kind of maddening. Probably enlightening, at least to some extent and on some level. I will probably never do it again.
Starting with the good: IJ really is an extremely funny book. Not all of the humor has aged well (we’ll be coming back to this), but enough of it has that most of the time the book’s plain fun enough to be worth, at least in the moment, the work you have to put in. The book’s many sections on addiction and recovery are often moving and all feel genuine and lived-in. If there’s wisdom in IJ, this is where it lies.
I used to think, even in my superfan days, that this was a difficult book. I really didn’t feel that this time. With a few exceptions (some of which I skipped, again for reasons we’ll get into), the prose is never really hard to follow. I guess juggling the cast of characters can be tough, but this was my fourth or fifth read, so by now I know who Kate Gompert is and why she matters. But more than anything: I think the perception of difficulty comes from the fact that the narrative in IJ doesn’t work the way you expect it to. Your brain read it and tries to string together a clear narrative and the inability to do that feels like difficulty. Whereas if you just know that there isn’t resolution, you can just kind of surf along any given section and take it as it comes, which isn’t difficult at all, especially if you have a second bookmark keeping track of where you need to go in the footnotes.
I guess it’s not entirely fair to say that IJ’s plot has no resolution. A broad outline, at least, can be worked out if you pore over things (or spend enough time online reading the work of other people who’ve pored over things). Nailing a lot of things down are flat impossible, because Wallace intentionally makes several details unknowable by making them ambiguous or self-contradictory in the book; things like whether Joelle Van Dyne was actually disfigured, or what specifically happened to Hal Incandenza to make him incommunicado. But the broad picture, that the AFR successfully gets the master copy of the Entertainment and forces the breakup of ONAN, and that something (with several possible somethings seeded in the text) happens to Hal to remove his ability to speak, is pretty easily sussed out. Although again, whether or not you want the basic plot of a book to be something you have to suss out is a matter of personal preference.
One thing that really struck me on this reread: Wallace is absolutely terrible on race. Like, cringingly, embarrassingly awful in it, in a way that it feels like most of white America was in the 90s. Chunks of the book are written in the first person in Wallace’s idea of Black vernacular and they’re pretty much unreadable, both in the sense of being incomprehensible and in being so badly-conceived that you feel like you’re going to die of cringe. He also parks the narrative twice to drop footnotes to tell us that characters Don Gately and Joelle Van Dyne use slurs; writing in the voice of Gately and some other characters, he deploys the N-word freely in the text. This kind of “I’m not afraid to use the forbidden words in the pursuit of artistic TRUUUUUUTH!!!” sentiment was pretty widespread in the 90s, but that doesn’t make it good, right, or easy to swallow now.
Another thing that should have been obvious from the jump, but that I feel bad about taking decades to spot, is how bad Wallace is on women, too. Like a lot of 20th century American men, he writes like women are a different, somewhat hostile species. There just straight-up aren’t a lot of women in this book; one of the most prominent of them, Avril Incandenza, is written as an absolute monster (and also, per widespread internet belief at least, is based on Wallace’s own mother, to which: YOUCH)
I once wrote that Tom Clancy wrote some of the whitest, malest books out there; but it’s wild to see that Wallace (who admired at least some aspects of Clancy’s writing!) isn’t much better.
Ultimately, it feels like this book is afraid of feelings. Which is weird, given how much discourse there is about IJ being an argument for sincerity in the face of irony. But the text is the text. Consider the absolutely savage mockery with which the book shows the emotional support group for men that Hall accidentally goes to. Or just consider the overwhelming absurdity of, well, everything. Even Jim Incandenza’s suicide if portrayed in an absurd manner that defangs its emotional punch. Gately’s Ennett House and Boston AA stuff feels like an irony-free counterbalance to the over the top Incandenza stuff, but it’s not. Some of the characters telling stories at AA meetings are describing absurd grotesqueries (the whole story about the disabled daughter and the Raquel Welch mask, for instance), and Ennett House’s residents include a character who has to scuttle around like a crab because he hurt himself doing the limbo.
When I was yapping about some of this on Twitter, a friend pointed out that postmodernists loved to mix sincerity and absurdity, and that’s absolutely true. But I guess that’s also kind of my point. One of the failings of high postmodernity in literature is that it can feel hollow and insincere, more concerned with cleverness than with actually examining human existence. And that’s what IJ often feels like; it winds up being a sort of ne plus ultra of 20th century postmodernism. Which is weird, given all the discourse about how the book was Wallace’s attempt to strike a blow in favor of sincerity and against irony.
If that was the goal, he failed. This book’s absolutely soaked in absurd irony. I’ve seen people on the internet trying to argue that this is an intentional thing, ironically turning irony against itself (and following the book’s theme of annular fusion, sort of), but to me that feels like special pleading. Because here’s the thing: if it was truly important to Wallace to strike a blow for sincerity, he could have just written a sincere book. The Gately/Ennett House stuff could have been written straight and served as an absolutely riveting book on its own.
But, you say: a sincere book wouldn’t have sold. And artistic intentions aside, Wallace also needed to make a living. Bullshit. On the not-selling part, I mean. I do not like Harry Potter, and I think J. K. Rowling has revealed herself to be an absolute piece of shit as a human being, but it’s worth pointing out that 1) the first Harry Potter book was published within a year of Infinite Jest; 2) that book and its sequels are completely free of irony; and 3) they sold copies by the container ship (again: I don’t like them and I don’t like her; but this is as good a proof as I can find that sincerity could sell in the 90s).
It hits me that this sincerity/absurdity front line that Wallace perceived himself as being on wasn’t a culture-wide thing, or even a literature-wide thing; it was a small but hot civil war among the world of MFA programs and books marketed as “literary fiction.”
There is, of course, another side to what Wallace claimed as the mission of Infinite Jest; it wasn’t just a blow against irony, it was (supposedly) specifically meant to fight back against the corrosive ironic influence of TV. Hence the whole plot device of the fatally entertaining video (and the disastrous, germaphobic TV star President, to which, well, good call there, Wallace). And beyond the Entertainment, the book’s loaded with items highlighting anxiety over TV: the time spent describing the lure of the InterLace system, the digression about High Steeply’s father going crazy from watching MASH, the constant conflation of Jim Incandenza’s abusive father with the character he played in TV commercials, and so on.
(and by the way, this morning I happened to come across a link to a U2 video production from the Zoo TV era and was absolutely struck by how much 90s TV angst is present there, too; so it wasn’t just Wallace).
But of course in the YouTube/TikTok era, the whole TV paradigm that he’s fighting against is absolutely dead and gone. Broadcast TV is just a place where old people go to watch cop procedurals. You can argue that it’s been replaced by something worse and more addictive, and I’m not going to argue against that; but it’s something different, presenting its threat in different ways. I’ve heard a lot of people freak out about TikTok (or, for that matter video games, and I propose that if you were writing Infinite Jest now, the best modern-era incarnation of the Entertainment would be a fatally entertaining game), but I’ve never heard a single person worry that it’s poisoning kids’ minds with irony. In the final analysis, this book is a fortress built for a war that ended a long time ago.
So in the end. Was it worth rereading? Sure, I guess. It’s a good book! It’s an achievement! But it gets stuff projected on it that isn’t really there, and it gets credit for wisdom and importance that it doesn’t really have, and its concerns are smaller and more time-bound than people acknowledge. If you want to read a male 20th century postmodernist, Pynchon’s funnier. But if you want to read a book that examines modern irony culture vs sincerity, Tricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This has a lot more to say, in a lot fewer pages.
Right on. Stay safe.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!