30. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

30 Oct

Here are some things that were true when Infinite Jest was new in 1996, and I was 22 and in love with it: ‘television’ existed as a unity and could be described casually as ‘evil’; I was young enough that drugs were still cool; American civilization felt at-its-peak, dominant but also laughable and banal; I was searching for an academic theory of the world, and felt real angst over the shifty meaninglessness established by French critical theory. I was able to mistake ‘difficult’ for meaningful, and to muddlishly misunderstand misogyny when it came in a package I liked. The world was still physically wired. The Internet was young.

For that girl, at that time, Infinite Jest was one of the best books I’d ever read. I read it twice, in fact, straight through on an advanced proof, blissfully unaware of what a sad, ass-kissingly Hal Incandenza move that was.

On the strength of that feat, an online magazine agreed to send me to interview the author. Which, hilariously, now knowing how terrified David Foster Wallace was of interviews, probably worked well, because it would have been apparent even to him that I was more terrified.  After the tape was done, we ended up discussing Westward The Course of Empire Takes Its Way, the story of his that brought me to Jest. He liked what I said about Westward and gave me his address with the request that I write and tell him what I liked about IJ.

I never wrote to him. No more impossible task could have been constructed for a 22-year-old aspiring fiction writer, molten with admiration, than explaining what I’d loved about Infinite Jest to the writer himself.

I could do it now, having just re-read Infinite Jest again, 16 years later.

First, I could read this prose every day for the rest of my life. The voice, the word-play, the funny, the footnotes, the footnotes on footnotes. The larger sense of the book as abstract art. The feeling that the novel was a thick sheet of glass lifted up, dropped and broken from great height. I loved the furiously rantingly long paragraphs, the witty within-sentence corrections and word-choice speculations. I was a word dork, and this book was for me. I loved the stoner-hilarity of the non-ending after 1000 pages. That was a fucking story arc. A screaming comes across the sky and if you’re Slothrop you know where it’s going to land, the author doesn’t need to spell it out.  It’s the ultimate jest on a story arc, not an ending but an explosion of theory, allusion and reference. I cannot think of a moment of greater balls-out genius in all of literature.

Secondly, this was a book that concerned itself with faith, with wanting it and not having it, which was also very important to me back then. Infinite Jest had unseated The Brothers Karamazov as my favorite book, and I felt that David Foster Wallace was offering the modern version of Alyosha’s kiss for us, the unbelievers. In the scene in the Brothers K. just before the Grand Inquisitor shows up, Alyosha, the monk, is at a cafe with his brother Ivan, the doubter. Ivan says that there either can’t be a God, because the world is so evil, or if there is a God, God is evil, because look at the world. And Alyosha, who is a monk, listens and then says, “Ok, love you!” and kisses his brother and leaves. Point being that it is with love and faith that you must respond to theory.

I may be laying a bit too many of my own sophomore speculations on DFW, but in college I’d found the deconstructionists (in a hazy miasma of required reading that I never connected very well with and probably misunderstood) to have stripped meaning and essence from everything, even the word. Semiotics were another proof of the non-existence of God. And I wanted Alyosha, or David Foster Wallace, to come along, and not prove faith but somehow live faith. There was no God that he or I would have been able to agree upon with straight faces, but maybe ‘communication’ came close enough. DFW theorized about the importance of faith and its difficulties in the sections of the book on Don Gately’s embrace of AA’s higher power. I thought (then and now) that Jest’s frantic, self-referential ‘I’m writing, you’re reading, I’m entertaining, you’re entertained, you’re a whore, no I’m a whore….’ tailspin, made faith live in a very strange way. We don’t really have God, but we have the communion for writer and reader. We’re both definitely here, now, sharing something with each other. Even if it is a mountain of dilaudid and the freezing rain.

I don’t know why I needed 1,000 pages of prodigiously insecure Jest to make yearing for a soul in life and in literature feel ok. Or maybe I do. IJ wasn’t always very brave but it was braver than me, then, maybe.

That was then.

Now, I’m amazed at how my young self missed that this was a book about family and about the pain of being a prodigy, especially since I was a child prodigy, and a boarding-school substance abuser, and in so many ways had Hal Incandenza written all over me.

Now, if you strip out the Canadian-politics nonsense, it’s clear that the psychological center of the book is the drama of being an exceptionally talented child, and the paralysis, numbness, performing monkey-ness, complicity, actual valuelessness, & etc that that engenders. This is well-known psychology, but it wasn’t when I was a child genius reading 100 books a summer, or when Wallace was reading the OED and standing on his back flippers for his adoring mom.

The fact that I managed to read Infinite Jest—twice!—without a ripple of recognition is brilliantly frozen and disconnected and Hal-like.

But but but. In terms of much of the rest of it, as an adult, I’m critical. Was there really moral and spiritual greatness in DFW’s attempts to be there, exposed, sincere, communicating, loving and loved, present and meta-present, or was he just obsessed with fame and approval?

The following deeply creepy and disturbing passage from somewhere in the 290s (& quoted at length because, why not, this is Infinite Jest we’re talking!) has everything:

“…and Orin gradually found himself almost meeting her eye as he shared that he believed it wasn’t all athletic, punting’s pull for him, that a lot of it seemed emotional and/or even, if there was such a thing anymore, spiritual: a denial of silence: here were upwards of 30,000 voices, souls, voicing approval as One Soul. He invoked the raw numbers. The frenzy. He was thinking out loud here. Audience exhortations and approvals so total they ceased to be numerically distinct and melded into a sort of single coital moan, one big vowel, the sound of the womb, the roar gathering, tidal, amniotic, the voice of what might as well be God. None of tennis’s prim applause cut short by an umpire’s patrician shush. He said he was just speculating here, ad-libbing; he was meeting her eye and not drowning, his dread now transformed into whatever it had been dread of. He said the sound of all those souls as One Sound, too loud to bear, building, waiting for his foot to release it: Orin said the thing he thought he liked was he literally could not hear himself think out there, maybe a cliche, but out there transformed, his own self transcended as he’d never escaped himself on the court, a sense of presence in the sky, the crowd-sound congregational, the stadium-shaking climax as the ball climbed and inscribed a cathedrean arch, seeming to take forever to fall…. It never even occurred to him to ask her what sort of demeanor she preferred.”

Mommy’s approval was once a deafening roar, godlike, and will now be yearned for forever. It would take an endless-stadium-climax of approval to fill the holes of need that the prodigy-child is left with. There are also hints in Infinite Jest that Orin had a sexual relationship with his all-consuming mother, speaking of holes. One of the strands of fear in the book is that what we’re doing when we’re trying to seduce, perform, entertain, succeed, fuck, come, have someone fall in love with us, is to recreate a pleasure that’s deafening and malign.

But I’m left with the feeling that eh, he’s… kinda blowing it out of proportion. Though, my God, the prose is good: did you see those two colons in a row? Wanting approval, even fame, wanting to please and entertain, seducing women for the wrong reasons, none of those things feel like a crime that calls for the punishment the narrator finally metes out on Orin Incandenza (bell jar, giant spiders).

The greater picture is that America has changed and evil has changed since Infinite Jest was written. Our problems are so much bigger than watching too much television or being addicted, or too into pleasure, or too willing to be entertained. These feel like venal sins or small comforts in today’s frightening world. Craving approval is, probably, a deep human ill, but I’m not sure I’d read a 1,000 page book about it when we have to worry about corporate citizens, vast internal gulags and that atoll of plastic bags in the Pacific Ocean.

There are many, many other aspects of this imperfect book that I’d now take issue with. The sexual prudishness, the sketchy and blank female characters, the clunky and misprised special-needs children and adults with disabilities,  the transvestites used for a laugh or an ick (though, beautiful malapropism: ‘transvestals’), and mainly, largely, the boredom. I am not convinced that boring the pants off the reader in order to make the book ‘not entertaining’ and thus somehow ‘more serious’ actually does make the book ‘more serious.’

This time I re-read, x3, with great difficulty, all the excruciating bits about Canadian politics and Jim Incandenza as a young man, the indexes of independent film catalogs, the summary of ‘Blood Sister: One Tough Nun’.  As a young reader, I felt like I’d surmounted a challenge by reading those parts, and that I must be missing some deeper point to them. As an adult, I am skeptical.

But I at some future point x4 I’m sure I’ll read it again. And I hope I will be less judgmental of myself, and of him, and will be reading even the boring parts as a tribute to the intention of the artist. David Foster Wallace, you are loved.

7 Responses to “30. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace”

  1. Sean Arthur October 25, 2014 at 5:39 pm #

    Valeri Estivers? Valerie Stivers? from your twitter handle, the only place on this giant, beautiful blog that I find what might be your name. As a child prodigy, you now want to hide? We are pearls. Anyway, I am stuck on my own writing, can’t get a pivotal character’s name right. I hate it when I start to write the character and don’t have the name. Like to get that first. This girl is 7, close to 8 years old (and a prodigy, hah!) and needs a vivid, evocative DFW character name. Which brought me back to @###@**&^ Infinite Jest and getting angry that Wallace was so gifted and in my opinion, had failed so badly to grow up. (at least as one can infer from IJ and the choices DFW made). I mean, contrast Wallace with Robert Crumb. Both from the same culture. Both American Males. One is ashamed that he has been caught with an erection in hand, mortally embarrassed by his sexual drive and desires, and making up an excuse that amounts to the world’s biggest snow job in order to distract you from the truth of his nature, and the other DRAWS himself with his (unexaggeratedly huge) penis in hand, and puts on display his emotional angst and process of being himself and living through his travails. And case in point, after Wallace’s grotesques in IJ, after the duos of Himself and the Moms and Mario and Joelle, the story is very heavy on incomplete, immature males, (regardless of age) as if unable to apply that almost unlimited imagination to the female. The whole thing on second reading… it is a very adolescent, sophomoric (and as my son observed) sad novel. … A long long suicide note; an apology. Well, you met the guy, I didn’t, so perhaps this is too much of an Ad Hominem, a reach. Great review. Put your name somewhere on your blog. I still don’t have a name…

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova October 28, 2014 at 1:55 am #

      Hi! This is wonderful…. in the third year of my blog I receive my very first thoughtful and engaged comment. Thank you, my pearl. I had never thought of DFW and R.Crumb as having anything in common but I see what you mean. If you haven’t read the D.T. Max bio, run don’t walk.

      Now I want to help you with your character name. Though that always seems to me like the kind of thing you can do last. I have a problem with characters slipping around on me, so I’d really be wasting my time if I tried to get the names finely calibrated in the beginning. How do you follow-up “Hal Incandenza” though? The dim bulb.

      I don’t have my name on the blog at the moment because I live in New York and know everyone by 1-degree of separation and I’m providing myself a tissue-thin veil of protection from vengeful authors. Anyone determined could dig it out, since I cross-post frequently….and then there’s that Twitter handle. I think you’re reminding me to change it, right now. :)

      Keep reading. Stay. Recommend books!

  2. shadowoperator March 5, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

    Well, I have to say that I read “Infinite Jest” through last year, a little at a time, and did a post on it, but my post is not nearly as close to the book and as gifted as yours is. You “get” the book, and I guess by comparison I’m not the person to “get” the book in the same way. I mean, I’m still hung up on the fact that Don seems either to have dropped off the face of the earth or have gotten killed at the end, whereas I would’ve been happier if it had happened to Hal, or at least I would’ve been happier if the book had ended its plot with Hal, somehow. But in exchange, I have to say that a book that is to me I think what “Infinite Jest” is to you is Don DeLillo’s book “White Noise.” There’s a hilarious scene in which a father and son are arguing about how to prove that it’s raining that will remain with me forever. I’ve never written a post on it, because I suppose (uncharacteristically of me) I feel too modest to attempt it. But you might find it appealing, in a slightly different way from “Infinite Jest.” Anyway, thanks for your post; it makes the book make a little better sense to me.

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 8, 2015 at 3:08 am #

      Thank you so much! I loved White Noise too when I was a girl. It’s been years since I re-read it though.


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