Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Back Bay Books. 1104 pp. $17.99.
The careers of great artists seem preternaturally suited to give rise to great ironies. This is probably to do with the fact that personal demons tend to be sublimated into art, as well as that the greatest artists are visionaries, leaving the culture to stumble as it catches up with them.
Certain of these ironies can be seen in the reviews since the publication of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous notes toward a novel, now known as The Pale King. The irony here is that, though Wallace devoted no small part of his fiction to dissecting the dangers of addiction, fame, and celebrity in an American society that has fostered it to a more extreme degree than almost all others, a large chunk of the American critical establishment reacted to the publication of his final fictional blast as addicts to celebrity culture. Apparently, the withdrawal has even gotten so bad that at least one commentator even declared The Pale King Wallace’s greatest “novel.”
The hyperventilation and hyperinflation surrounding The Pale King is directly attributable to two things: the reputation Wallace developed as the author of Infinite Jest and the reputation Infinite Jest itself developed. Almost immediately upon publishing his masterpiece, Wallace was rocketed to the very front ranks of American writers. In the culture’s estimation, he became not only a gifted wordsmith and a philosophical intellect worthy of wrestling with the great ideas that animated millennial America; he also developed his own cultish legend, that of damaged genius who had almost been felled by his own immense powers, then had gloriously triumphed over them and bent them to the production of an almost unimaginably large and complex novel. After Infinite Jest, so the story went, he was on the loose, looming at large with shotgun cocked and ready. This explains the interminable wait for a follow-up novel, as well as the sadistic pressure Wallace felt in attempting to write it and, of course, critics’ froth-mouthed eagerness to read anything resembling it.
This outsized legend that grew up around Wallace rests in no small part on Infinite Jest, and so, at some point Infinite Jest became an unreadable work of an unimaginable genius, a book bristling with greatness but fundamentally a victim of its creator’s own towering intellect. Finally, as the proper conclusion to this legend, with Wallace safely dead and ready for the hagiographers, the literary establishment is prepared to write the final chapter: The Pale King, the book that would have redeemed the precocious mess that is Infinite Jest, truncated by its author’s own suicide.
Thus Esquire, beneath a stained-glass icon of Wallace posing Christ-like (or is it Moses?) with a copy of The Pale King in his arm, declares it “one of the saddest and most lovely books I’ve ever read.” Thus GQ, in a widely lauded essay tells us, “But The Pale King is not really reminiscent of Infinite Jest, doesn’t put you in mind of it, that is. To read it is in part to feel how much Wallace had changed as a writer, compressed and deepened himself.” Thus John Powers on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, first sainting Wallace, “One who seemed to know life’s secret was David Foster Wallace, whose suicide, oddly enough, only enhanced his stature as a sage,” then going to Wallace the Unreadable, “Now, Wallace’s fiction isn’t always enjoyable. It reminds me of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, which can bore you comatose one minute and then, moments later, wow you with an epiphany that forever changes your way of thinking.” Thus Lev Grossman in Time magazine, going all out: “Despite its shattered state and its unpromising subject matter, or possibly because of them, The Pale King represents Wallace’s finest work as a novelist.”
Let us start again: Infinite Jest is clearly and without any doubt David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece. More than that: it is the book—fiction, nonfiction, or otherwise—that will be looked back to when future generations want to understand millennial America. Like all books that reach this stature, it has gotten here through a mixture of skill and luck. Quite certainly Wallace captured the contradictions that were most fundamental to the America that he came of age in—the question of community versus individual; the battle between material profit and humanity; the nature of greed; the elusiveness of satisfaction; the full-bodied war for happiness. Yet with fifteen years hindsight we can see that Infinite Jest also anticipated so many of the faultlines that no writer could have known about in 1996, things that will define our world for the rest of our lives: the comglomeration of big media at the birth of the world’s new medium of exchange; transnational terrorism; the triumph of willful political ignorance and American plutocracy.
The possibility that Barrett Hathcock raises in his essay—that Infinite Jest will be more talked-about than read—would be both unfortunate and unnecessary, a triumph for those earnest nobodies who like to scare off readers from great literature. Infinite Jest is many things, but it is not a hard book to read. It is in fact one of the plottiest, most addictive and well-told books that I have ever read. Were its colloquial, chatty narrative voice not engaging enough, the book’s three edge-of-your-seat plotlines would be more than enough to keep any reader entertained. Even as it braids together modernist literary techniques and postmodernist concerns, it harkens back to the Dickensian heyday of the novel, when books, aware of their status as the novel new technology, still really believed they could thrill. As such, it is probably a book that Wallace never could have written again. Admittedly, so long as Wallace wrote there would always be something pleasingly madcap about his writing; but, as The Pale King and his later stories attest, at the time of his suicide the exuberant and fundamentally playful ethos of Wallace’s youthful writing had long since given way to a much more sober and mature brand of fiction. Or to put it all another way: Infinite Jest is about something so entertaining that it kills you; The Pale King is about escape from the most boring world Wallace could conceive of.
Which is all the more reason that Infinite Jest should stand as a singular achievement worthy of any serious reader’s attention. Let us first knock over, once and for all, this myth of the book’s unreadability or stark difficulty. That is certainly not what Wallace intended it to be. In a 1996 interview with Salon’s Laura Miller, he testifies quite forcefully to his distaste for fiction that condescends to readers and/or pushes them away with fatuous erudition. The crux of the matter gets down to this:
It’s a weird book. It doesn’t move the way normal books do. It’s got a whole bunch of characters. I think it makes at least an in-good-faith attempt to be fun and riveting enough on a page-by-page level so I don’t feel like I’m hitting the reader with a mallet, you know, “Hey, here’s this really hard impossibly smart thing. Fuck you. See if you can read it.” I know books like that and they piss me off.
That is Wallace’s own estimation of his achievement. For a less biased view, let us turn to Sven Birkerts reviewing the book in The Atlantic Monthly:
Indeed, not only does he share with both a mordantly black view of modern and late-modern experience, but he also has a penchant for weaving long braids from enticingly antiphonal plots, each of which is differently absorbing, if not for its characterizations or imaginative brio then for the sharp snap of its thought, the obsessiveness of its informational reference (hence the notes), or — and — the incandescence of the writing. . . .
Each of the narrative sections has its own compelling dynamic, often against the odds. Why read countless pages detailing the Byzantine logistics of daily tennis drills? Because, for one thing, Wallace’s writing is edgy, accurate, and darkly witty.
Absorbing plots? Incandescent writing? Compelling, edgy, accurate, witty? These are not the stuff of dull, painfully difficult writing. But there is the rejoinder: Birkerts is a smart critic who likes avant-garde fiction. Surely you can’t take his opinion as representative. Well then how about Newsweek:
Certainly the book has a unifying theme: whether by drugs, sports, entertainment or consumerism, our culture is (to paraphrase Neil Postman) amusing itself to death. But such analysis doesn’t get across what weird fun “Infinite Jest” is to read. Just for starters, it’s set in postmillennial “Subsidized Time,” when corporations pay to have years bear their names; most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. A thousand-plus pages of such funning can grind you down; as Wallace writes of one character’s addiction to freebase cocaine, “The Fun has long since dropped off the Too Much.” But, like Wallace’s hapless basehead, you may not want to stop when you want to stop.
And finally, we can go all the way and quote that apostle of the middlebrow herself, Michiko Kakutani:
As for Infinite Jest the novel, it, too, is the work of an experimental artist, and it, too, is often compulsively entertaining, though hardly in any lethal sense. It won’t kill you, though its sheer length and readability might give you eyestrain and a stiff neck.
It also shows off the 33-year-old Wallace as one of the big talents of his generation, a writer of virtuosic skills who can seemingly do anything, someone who can write funny, write sad, write serious, write satiric, a writer who’s equally adept at the Pynchonesque epic and the Nicolson Bakeresque minute, a pushing-the-envelope postmodernist who’s also able to create flesh-and-blood characters and genuinely moving scenes. . . .
There are some frighteningly vivid accounts of what it feels like to be a drug addict, what it feels like to detox and what it feels like to suffer a panic attack. There are demented little riffs on everything from tongue scrapers to men’s rooms to the use of Lemon Pledge as sunscreen; hilarious satires of men’s movement meetings and psychiatric consultations; much-too-long anatomies of tennis as war and Alcoholics Anonymous as religion; dazzling asides about videophonic stress, clinical depression and jailhouse tattoos; and a bravura set piece about the attempts of a former addict—who’s in the hospital with horrible injuries—to tough it out without any pain medication.
Let us rid ourselves once and for all of this erroneous meme that Infinite Jest is somehow a difficult, frequently boring read. The verdict of those who read it first and without any baggage is clear—a fun, entertaining book, challenging only in its length and breadth and the conclusions is asks us to consider. Anyone who reads it now will find it such.
Though the posthumous veneration of Wallace has unfortunately saddled us with burdens such as Wallace the Unreadable, it has also offered us some useful insight. Those canny skeptics who have checked their egos at the door and given us an honest, intelligent assessment of The Pale King have pointed us back to an important element in Wallace’s writing: the fact that he is a moralizer. This is perhaps the defining quality of Wallace’s work. It is possible to break down authors into two camps: those who see their literature fundamentally as communication and those who see it fundamentally as expression. The latter would see their lineage come down from Proust through Kafka and Beckett to a writer like Cesar Aira today. These are writers all-too aware of the fundamental isolation that is the lot of each and every one of us, and rather than attempt to transcend the isolation with their fiction, they simply try to embody it in language. They write books as a painter paints—that is, they obsessively follow an idea for the simple reason that they are fascinated by it and want to know what they think about it; any sort of informational content—a “lesson,” as it were—that might be taken from the book is solely the province of the reader.
Wallace, it is now clear, falls into the former group, for whom fiction is something much more pedantic. The great writers in this genre would fall somewhere along the lines of Dostoevsky through Thomas Mann, Thomas Pynchon, and, today, Norman Rush. For all the art they put into their fiction, their work starts from clearly defined ideas that these writers want to impart to readers, and insofar as their work becomes true art it reveals to us the fundamental impossibility of giving an expression in so many words of what they seek to communicate. The flurry of interest around Wallace’s death and The Pale King has made it clear that Wallace was of this ilk: with Pale King he wanted to “say something” about boredom, a reminder that Infinite Jest’s purpose was to tell us things about media conglomeration, addiction, loneliness, and politics. It also serves as a reminder that in whatever Wallace wrote, he was always fighting against this urge of pedanticism; from his early, precocious-but-flawed stories like “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” and “Little Expressionless Animals,” up through the masterful essays “E Unibus Pluram” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” through Brief Interviews, the Oblivion masterpieces “Good Old Neon” and “The Suffering Channel,” right up to the last great essays, “Host” and “Authority and American Usage,” and finally to The Pale King, Wallace’s insistence on imparting a moral is the most constant of constants. His ability to stretch these morals into Möbius-like thought-tapes that support the weight of numerous readings and provide endless conduits for protracted brooding is what makes him worth reading today and what, ultimately, makes Infinite Jest the representative novel of millennial America. That is, at his best Wallace turned his pedantic impulse into art; Infinite Jest is his best.
At the length of fifteen years it has become clear that the feature of this book that is most responsible for its lastingness as art is that one feature that seems to bother dull and unimaginative readers to no end: the book’s ending, or, rather, lack of one. Before proceeding to defend Wallace’s artistic choice, I feel it correct to point out how disappointing it is that at this point in history such a defense even needs to be made. As though critics had not fallen all over themselves to venerate a film like Syriana precisely because it fails to come together. As though immensely popular TV series like Lost and The Sopranos had not long since jettisoned any idea of narrative closure. As though literature had ever been required to give readers a satisfying ending.
And still, people who style themselves serious readers and literary critics complain that Infinite Jest’s plotlines never reach the point of intersection they are clearly trending toward. Is it not enough to see that they will join? Must Wallace walk us through, like children, every last narrative bit?
Wallace is on perfectly firm ground in choosing to end his book as he pleased—but moreover: how could it be otherwise? The story of millennial America is, inevitably, a story about America’s future, and how could any author purport to tell us just what that will be? With hindsight it has become clear what a transitional time the 1990s were for the United States and the world it dominated. The post-Depression big government liberalism that had determined global politics in one way or another for nearly a century was giving way to a new, corporatized, market-oriented ethos that was redefining political parties—and even the very concept of government and nationhood—worldwide. At the same time, new faultlines were being laid by the rise of the global drug trade, the spiderwebbing of the worldwide Internet, the rise of China’s state-run capitalism, and the development of transnational terrorism. The miracle of Infinite Jest is that Wallace fit these trends into a single narrative founded on the challenge of communication in an age of chaos and decadence. The lack of an ending is the only true ending that such a book could have—Infinite Jest tells us what it is to live in a young country that is making the difficult, painful, and slow transition into adulthood; this transition will inevitably be characterized most strongly by a repellant lack of closure. Any firmer ending than what Infinite Jest has would be a lie; it would imply that the America whose story it tells understands where it is headed and what it is becoming. Yet we know that only a tiny bit better in 2011 than we did in 1996, and it remains the case that the only novel that adequately sums up our times is one that reconciles with the fundamental uncertainty of what our collective future will be—or even the horror that such a future might not exist.
The other thing that the non-ending speaks to is the long crisis of authority from which the Western world continues to seek deliverance. Infinite Jest is a deep meditation on how to reconstruct a personal authority that will give some measure of safety, satisfaction, and meaning to a life while maintaining space for the still-revolutionary ideas of freedom, equality, and fraternity. Infinite Jest dramatizes this crisis as viscerally and effectively as any novel I have read, and it offers no clear answers, though many possibilities. Yet it is precisely a clear answer to this crisis—in the form of the quasi-spirituality that can be seen in much of Wallace’s work post–Infinite Jest—that was the next great theme Wallace strove to take on as a mature writer who had grown beyond his obsessions with addiction and consumerism. The roots of Wallace’s nascent spirituality are clear as far back as “E Unibus Pluram,” wherein he strains for a version of sincerity that can replace the irony that he feels is the one unifying factor for his generation. Infinite Jest was a final renunciation of that irony, Brief Interviews its bitter wake, and the writings after an attempt to find a workable new sincerity. The transcendent boredom at the center of what exists of The Pale King is clearly a further attempt to fashion some form of ethical foundation of life in a post-irony age, but as Wallace never lived to complete The Pale King, nor to work out his ideas of these ethics to an extent that satisfied him, I prefer not to comment on these ideas or their relative success or failure.
I will go just a little bit farther and claim that the non-ending is what permits Infinite Jest to be great. Wallace’s greatest liability as a writer was his extreme pedagogy, his frequent inability to resist the temptation to overdetermine his stories’ morals and his characters’ personalities, his barrages of information. His greatest work comes when he resists the temptation to sermonize, instead simply letting the work breathe with its own life. The moral of Infinite Jest is quite clear: American capitalism is an inherently infantilizing system, it seeks to make us all addicts, in the process turning us from autonomous humans straining toward authentic goodness into mere automatons serving the dictates of the market. This moral is neither novel nor interesting. What makes Infinite Jest stand are the trials of Wallace’s characters as they seek to come to terms with these facts. I fear to think what would have become of Hal and Gately had Wallace written their meeting at the foot of James Orin Incandenza’s grave. I think they would have ceased to surge with the life that they have, now and forever. Likewise, I fear to think what would have happened to the beautiful image in my mind of the short film “Infinite Jest” if I’d ever gotten a precise description of it, or if I ever found out what the Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents did or did not do with it. The fact that I both do want to know these things and that I am so utterly satisfied with not ever knowing them is how Infinite Jest overcomes Wallace’s pedagogy to reach the state of art. It is a book that fears we are overgrown infants but asks us to be adults. In that tension is beauty and wonder. It lives, and it will live.
A world with David Foster Wallace was a world with a great capacity to know itself and understand itself. It was a better world than the one in which we now live, and yet there is a certain propriety to the fact that Wallace’s great work can now only be Infinite Jest. His personal writings make clear that his era was that of television, creeping corporatism, addiction, and the decline of the welfare state—in other words, an era that ended sometime around when Infinite Jest began. Infinite Jest is the great novel of that moment, it is the one Wallace could write as a native surveying his native land in his native tongue. Anything else he wrote would have either been an elegy for those times or an investigation made by an outsider looking in on the lives of the next generations. That is not to say that great work would not have been in Wallace’s future; it is only to say that any future great work would have been of a qualitative difference from the work he did from within his own era. A similar sort of effect can be seen in the work of Wallace’s great idol, Don DeLillo, a writer who shares with Wallace the rare distinction of living into a world that he helped invent. One imagines that, like DeLillo’s post-9/11 writing, Wallace’s post-Infinite Jest works would have been of considerable merit, but without a certain vitality that characterized the works that helped create the world in which he lives.
With the flood of personal information that has come out after Wallace’s suicide, it has become ever clearer exactly what a conjunction of personal circumstance, inspirational calling, and pure luck went into the creation of Infinite Jest. It was a rare, perhaps even miraculous moment for American letters. The fact of Wallace’s untimely demise will forever color our approaches to his career, the what-ifs will never completely cease to draw shadows over the books. But none of that does a thing to change the fact that we cannot know how fortunate we are to have gotten from Wallace what we did. As the great works at the turn of the 20th century defined the pathologies that our modern culture has yet to solve, so has Infinite Jest diagnosed something important and unsettlable about the postmodern age. It should and will be read.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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