David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is set, almost entirely, in Boston and, despite the pretense of overt farce, I could not help but read it as a chillingly accurate depiction of that forsaken city and its spiritual malaise. Wallace made no secret of his debt to David Lynch, and while I would not presume to rule on whether or not Infinite Jest should be categorized as Lynchian, the book shares Lynch’s almost preternatural affection for the mundane. Far more so than any of the explicitly creepy stuff that actually happens, it is Lynch’s attention to the mundane, and his mercilessly faithful representations of the mundane, that account for the quality of weirdness in his films. Lynch’s films strike us as alien, in other words, because they are composed of almost painfully realistic renderings of the everyday relations between people, places, and things. For all its jokey-ness, Infinite Jest has the same quality. There is deliberately weird stuff going on all the time, but the characters, their motivations, and their environment are so frankly observed that they begin to take on the hyperreal quality that emerges from such brutally faithful renderings. In Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire, Lynch has given us some of the most beautifully honest portraits of the density of affects that is Los Angeles, and in Infinite Jest, Wallace presents Boston in much the same way, as a structure of sensations barely guarding against the dark chasm of meaninglessness forever threatening to swallow us up.
It is something of a minor miracle that anyone reads Infinite Jest because the book was obviously crafted to frustrate its readers. The novel is a sprawling epic of minutiae, and like many of most seminal works of literary modernism and postmodernism, it fusses over its language, grafting portentous academic jargon onto a myriad of regional vernaculars, while—here and there—dropping in more artfully fashioned literary prose. Over the course of the novel, Wallace switches, seemingly without provocation, between the first and third person, and the story unfolds in a temporality that both entirely speculative, yet not wholly unlikely. One of the conceits of the book is that, in the “not distant future,” time itself is subsidized, with corporations bidding on the naming rights to different years. Besides commenting on the colonization of everyday life by corporate culture, setting the story in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment effectively dislodges the reader. We live our lives in and through a variety of narratives, and of these narratives, the calendar is perhaps the most compelling. By taking that away, Wallace makes us work that much harder to locate ourselves in his work. Things get more convoluted still when we make trips to the Before Subsidization (B.S.) past, or to the future Year of Glad, or to the Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken in the recent subsidized past.
This quality of disjointedness, of the narrative that never quite delivers, is another of the ways in which Wallace stays faithful to the affective topography of metro Boston. As a politically orchestrated physical landscape, Boston, quite simply, does not make any kind of sense, and this has a range of curious psychic consequences. After two days in Paris I was able to navigate without a map; I lived in Boston for a year and only in the last month was I able to tell east from west. The streets run together in an impossible tangle, the neighborhoods are indistinct, the suburbs seem exist in different time zones, and less said about the subway system the better. While Boston invites you to think of it as a walkable city, it is openly hostile to all but the most seasoned pedestrians and, as an effect, most of its residents simmer at a low rage. The city therefore lacks the vitality born of vernacular use. In both their geography and their character, urban spaces are shaped by acts of appropriation and resistance that constitute a sort of inchoate, everyday class struggle, and they become livable to the extent that they have been humanized by that struggle. In Boston, somehow, all the insurgencies have been contained, and all the flows are staunched. The city and its residents exist in vexed relation to a set of reified narratives—of Puritan heritage, revolutionary exuberance, or immigrant alienation—that stubbornly resist declension into the colloquial.
In Infinite Jest, the textual space of metro Boston is a metonym for the whole of America, and the narrative tropes through which that entity has organized itself. Perhaps the most important of these, for the purposes of the novel, is the cherished description of the United States as a “city on a hill.” As at least one reviewer has pointed out, Enfield Tennis Academy—the setting for much of the book—exists in rarefied isolation on a hill in metro Boston, one that has been shaved flat to accommodate the tennis courts, disturbing its neighbors in all directions, and prompting a series of unsettled lawsuits. Rendering the metaphor literal, Enfield Tennis Academy allows Wallace to evoke the distance between “the city on a hill” as it was first described by Puritan governor John Winthrop, and its obsequious remaking by that latter-day avatar of an exhausted world spirit, Ronald Reagan. Where Winthrop saw the city on a hill as one possible future for the Puritan colony—a future that was attainable only through mutual support and sacrifice—for Reagan, that city was a certainty, an assured part of the American landscape. Unlike Winthrop, Reagan did not use the trope to call Americans to a higher purpose, but to revel in their inherent greatness. While both shared a vision of the city on a hill as something that existed to be seen, a beacon to the world, for Winthrop, that city would be a model of the ideal Christian community, where all members sacrificed together and rejoiced together, in celebration of their higher ideals. For Reagan, however, it was a consumer spectacle, something to be watched, envied, and enjoyed. In the Enfield Tennis Academy, Wallace combines some measure of both. Its students sacrifice their youth, their energy, their time, and their individuality, but their higher impulses are bent toward baser purposes. Everything they do is in preparation for something they call the Show, in pursuit of careers as professional athlete entertainers. They live their lives in hopeful expectation of the Show, in some cases paralyzed by the fear that they may not realize their ambitions.
Wallace’s America is one that has been given over—entirely—to the pursuit of pleasure. The maximization of pleasure is, accordingly, the only purpose to which his characters are willing to devote themselves, the only pursuit for which they are willing to sacrifice. There are many unsubtle jabs in the book, and perhaps the most glaring is the hypothetical political formation Wallace calls the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. This masturbatory future America is ruled over by a former lounge singer named Johnny Gentle, an entertainer turned politician pressed from the Reaganite mold. Like Reagan, Gentle is little more than a conduit for the expression of more insidious commercial interests, and when he appears in the story, his dialogue is rendered in the form of stage directions. At one point he is portrayed, in an experimental docudrama, as a google-y eyed sock puppet. The story, insofar as there is one, plays out against the backdrop of Gentle’s Office of Unspecified Services (an eerie premonition of the Department of Homeland Security) and their search for something they call “The Entertainment,” a film cartridge so addictive that, once seen, its viewers only desire is to watch it, again and again. Faced with a group of radical Quebec separatists who plan to distribute the film as part of a vague plot to realize their independence, Gentle’s government attempts to track down all copies of the film, including its elusive master copy and a rumored “antidote.” This brings them into contact with the members of the Incandenza family, whose patriarch, James, committed suicide—by sticking his head in a microwave oven—shortly after the film was completed.
For the most part, these plot points are all development, no delivery. They allow Wallace to explore his characters, and their concerns, but he offers little in the way of resolution. The book is bracketed by the withdrawal of James Incandenza’s youngest son, Hal, into an existential void so empty, so bleak, that he becomes locked within himself. In the first chapter, narrated from Hal’s perspective, we learn that Hal is both a tennis prodigy and something of a savant, his interests encompassing subjects as varied as etymology and the history of Byzantine erotica. Very quickly, however, we realize that something is wrong, that although Hal is capable of thinking incredibly complex thoughts, he is completely unable to interact or communicate. Indeed, members of the university admissions committee attempting to interview him describe his sounds and gestures by which he tries make himself known as inhuman. Within the temporality of the book, this scene is set in the future, and we spend much of the rest of the story waiting to find out just how Hal—precocious, neurotic, pampered Hal—becomes this fragile shell of himself. Wallace delivers an answer, but not in the form of an external, organic cause. (There is, of course, a large online community devoted to the search for one.) Instead, Hal withdraws into himself as the obsessive rituals that have lent his life a semblance of meaning are stripped away. The most glaringly obvious of these are the trips Hal makes to his school’s subterranean A/C system, where he gets “secretly high,” before applying Visine and popping a Clorets. Hal is self-aware enough to understand that it is not the high that he is addicted to, but the byzantine conventions surrounding his drug use, including its highly prized secrecy.
The question of addiction runs through the novel, and through it, Wallace comments on a range of compulsive behaviors. Drugs, however, are never very important in themselves. For the characters in Infinite Jest, drugs are little more than MacGuffins, allowing them to get on with a whole lot of business that, while not necessarily important, gives structure and meaning to their lives. This is true, as well, of the various recovery programs in which different characters eventually end up, with the daily AA meeting replacing the ritual score down on the corner, or nightly trip out to the bar. In his real life, Wallace was in some sort of recovery, although he never revealed—publicly, at least—just why or for what, and in the AA scenes, his writerly ambivalence at the course of treatment is palpable. His terror at being made to recite, much less embrace, the most hoary clichés is reflected in many of the characters, and in long passages where he reflects on the seeming improbability of AA. As a system of meaning, AA fares far better, however, than either drug use or consumer culture and its entertainments, although Wallace does seem to worry over its absent center—the higher power that isn’t there, the absolute concern to which it tends, but does not name.
It is tempting to think of Infinite Jest as a critique of the post-industrial culture of credit-fueled consumption inaugurated by the Reagan presidency, but this reading comes just short of the mark. Wallace’s real target is the long, slow erosion of American public life, occasioned by the consecration of personal pleasure as our highest ideal. No doubt Wallace had Reagan and his acolytes in mind when writing the book—the most chilling moment in the book is a throwaway reference to the Limbaugh-Gingrich administration—but the culture of consumption is no recent innovation, nor is the use of consumerism as a mode of social control. Over the past century, Americans have come to understand the ephemeral pleasure that one derives from consumption as the most perfect manifestation of human happiness. The “pursuit of happiness” that now orients our republic is, as a consequence, the pursuit of ever more stuff. The upshot of this consumer culture is the creation of an enormous amount of waste—both literally and figuratively—and in Infinite Jest, Johnny Gentle is a raging obsessive compulsive clean-freak who wins the presidency on an ultra-green platform of “city streets so clean you can eat off them.” In the political history of the novel, this campaign promise blossoms into the creation of the Great Concavity, a radioactive no-man’s land to which all communities in the US export their garbage via enormous catapults.
One might argue that Infinite Jest is about the myriad ways in which we have come to compensate for the death of God; that is to say, all the ways in which we have allowed ourselves to not confront the death of God, just as Hal never really confronts the death of his father. With the death of God we lose the Messianic promise of return and redemption. We find ourselves alone in a world that will not end, with nothing but time, and ourselves. How do we fill the days? How do we behave toward one another? And what does it matter, anyway? Wallace does not answer these questions, but he suggests that some options might be better than others. In Infinite Jest, the romance of novelty and the pursuit of sensation—the Janus faces of ideology in our very late capitalism—are presented as traps. If we follow our bliss we risk chasing Narcissus, ever deeper into the sea. The passive consumption of entertainment allows us to live unconsciously. It does not maximize pleasure so much as diminish work; the work of thinking, evaluating, choosing and, in general, deciding how to make a life, and how to make it meaningful.
This is not easy, and Wallace never claimed that it was. In an interview given shortly before he killed himself, he pointed out that there are many important, simple things that we must do that are nonetheless hard, that make tedious claims upon our time; despite this, Wallace argued, we must do them, we cannot forsake our obligations to ourselves, and each other. Reading Infinite Jest may be one of these obligations. “Is it our duty to read Infinite Jest?” a student once asked Dave Eggers. When I first heard that question, I thought it pretentious and eggheaded, the sort of portentous nonsense a first-year graduate student might spin—or that much of my thinking on the book might suggest. After reading the book, though, I think I understand what he meant, and I am glad that I was able to fulfill my responsibility. It took me nearly fifteen years, and innumerable false starts, but I am very much richer for having done it.