Warning: Composed entirely of spoilers for Infinite Jest.
I was talking to my roommate about Infinite Jest, and he asked me how it compared to Illuminatus. In an instant of sudden clarity I realized he was right, that they were basically the same book – the same fractally complex narrative of broken meandering plots about an endlessly-awaited but never arriving apocalypse; the same weird nightmare funhouse mirror held up to the world; the same thousand-odd pages followed by hundreds of complicated footnotes; the same ambiguously-successful attempt to draw a spark of honest feeling out of the detached amusement that is post-modernism.
…and then it turned out that my roommate had just gotten confused and thought Robert Anton Wilson and David Foster Wallace were the same person, because they both had three names. An understandable mistake, I guess. But I stick to my assessment.
The biggest difference between the two is that where Illuminatus revels in the weird – talking supercomputers, giant sea monsters, telepaths, immortal sages – Infinite Jest manages to do the same thing with the almost normal. Almost as much a pastiche of short stories as a coherent narrative (actually, it’s almost as much a three-toed sloth as it is a coherent narrative) each episode could be a particularly creepy or poignant urban legend – not the ghost or alien kind but the kind where something happens so perfectly symbolically that it forms an image that sticks with you forever. The “woman microwaves her dog to dry it off” kind, or the “man leaves his entire fortune to the first person to pray at his grave” kind.
Which is not to say that Infinite Jest is anything close to “glurge”. The book is incredibly heavy (literally and figuratively) and has so many cycles within cycles that some of the most important events in the book, let alone the themes, are totally opaque to a first reading. But after going through it and reading some of the various analyses on the Internet, I am prepared to take a stab at saying what it is about.
Infinite Jest is about wireheading. More specifically, it’s about not wireheading. It’s about the difference between masturbation and sex. It’s about the dangers of self-reference and the need to connect to something outside yourself.
So how’s this for symbolism: the book is set in a future USA-Canada-Mexico merger called the Organization of North American Nations. I originally thought O.N.A.N. was just a cheap gag, in the same way Robert Anton Wilson called his supercomputer F.U.C.K.U.P. But David Foster Wallace does not do cheap gags. The book was taking place in a society literally named for masturbation, and its entire structure was based on pleasure without purpose.
O.N.A.N.ite society is dominated by the InterLace cartridges, which as of the book’s publication in 1996 must have seemed like a dystopian future technology, but which to modern readers sounds pretty much like an unimpressive clone of Netflix with fewer features. InterLace allows everyone to watch whatever they want whenever they want, destroying the one redeeming feature of network television – that at least people watched the same things as their friends and could talk about them. Instead, a host of niche shows have sprung up; some saccharinely corporate, others bizarrely post-modern.
James Incandenza made this latter type of film cartridge. He is probably the best candidate for a “main character”, even though he died five years before the book began, in the Year of the Trial-Sized Dove Bar (the government has decided to raise money by selling corporate sponsorship of year names, giving time a sort of dreamy, non-ordinal quality). Footnote 24 of the book gives an eight page filmography of Incandenza’s productions along with plot summaries (did I mention this book is ridiculously detailed?), including such bizarre numbers as Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell, At Least Three Cheers For Cause And Effect, It Was A Great Marvel That He Was In The Father Without Knowing Him, and the book’s namesake, Infinite Jest.
This last film, never released, has the unusual property that anyone who sees it will continue watching it forever in a state of bliss, unwilling and unable to do anything else ever again. When rumors of its existence reach a group of Quebecois separatist terrorists, they attempt to distribute it freely, believing that Americans are so entertainment-obsessed that they will voluntarily choose to watch it. The Office of Unspecified Services, a government bogeyman organization, tries to thwart the terrorists and keep the film under wraps, leading to a really fascinating discussion on the value of whether people should have free choice in a world where it is so easy for one’s choices to enslave oneself.
[I feel a need to mention these terrorists' other modus operandi here. They go to deserted mountain roads late at night and install huge portable mirrors. When a truck drives down the road, it sees the headlights of another truck coming right towards it. When it swerves right, the other truck swerves right; when it swerves left, the other truck swerves left. Finally, desperate to avoid the inevitable collision, the truck will swerve straight off the road and be destroyed on the cliffs below; the terrorists will then remove the mirror and head off, leaving the authorities to assume an ordinary car accident. They are caught only when a suicidal truck driver decides to take the opportunity to let the other truck finish him off, and instead crashes straight through the mirror, saving his own life and revealing the deception. Are you starting to see what I mean about the AMAZING CREEPY NIGHTMARE SYMBOLISM?]
So the film is clearly a symbol for wireheading, and in fact some of the characters discussing it specifically mention the wireheading experiments that have been done on both rats and humans. But the other half of the book, which centers around the lives of drug addicts in a Boston Alcoholics Anonymous program, is equally wirehead-related, and the dull boring everyday struggles of the addicts form an interesting counterpoint to the wacky sci-fi struggles to control Incandenza’s deadly film cartridge.
One counterpoint to wireheading is competition. A worse author would have taken sides, saying that seeking pleasure alone is a great evil, competition – the desire to be the best at something, even when it hurts and isn’t pleasant at all – is a great good. Instead, all of Wallace’s depictions of competition are sort of horrific. Enfield Tennis Academy, a school founded by James Incandenza during his “tennis phase” (as distinct from his “film director” phase and his “invent working fusion power” phase) is full of hypercompetitive children who devote their entire lives to mastering tennis. Some become boring and robotic inside, losing the depth for any thoughts beside their position on a ranking chart. Others turn to drugs – of which, by the way, David Foster Wallace has an encyclopaedic knowledge that boggles even my professional-psychiatrist mind. Still others become nervous wrecks.
[There is a brief story about Eric Clipperton, a boy who would show up at junior tennis tournaments with a loaded gun, which he would hold to his head throughout his games, threatening at each moment to kill himself if he lost. Each tournament his opponents would throw their games and Clipperton would take first place, then immediately running off and disappearing before he could get arrested. Eventually Clipperton became the number one ranked junior tennis player in O.N.A.N., at which point he had nothing left to live for and promptly shot himself. Did I mention the AMAZING CREEPY NIGHTMARE SYMBOLISM?]
Among my favorite sentences was a part about LaMont Chu, one of the Enfield Tennis students, who is desperate to one day have his picture in a glossy sports magazine. The Tennis Academy’s on-site guru (of course the tennis academy has a guru!) tells him that “After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines.”
LaMont and Clipperton seem to represent the hedonic treadmill, the fact that getting what you want doesn’t make you any happier, it just makes that your new set point and you want something else. Ironically, this is no different than the drug addicts, who find that as much as they enjoy their drugs, after a while they adjust to that dose and need a higher dose. Or to parallelify it to the guru’s quote, they do not enjoy their drugs so much as they fear that they will cease to get their drugs.
So if wireheading is sterile, and competition is useless, is there anything worthwhile? Wallace’s answer is…probably too complicated for a blog post, but it seems to be about anything other than yourself.
Sometimes this means Helping Other People, and this is one of the few heavy-handed parts of the book. M. Remy, a Wheelchair Assassin (there, uh, might be an entire cell of wheelchair-bound terrorists in this universe) becomes suicidal after his disabling accident but regains the will to live after rescuing a deformed woman from a truck – actually, a suspicious number of the decent, likeable characters in this book are deformed, so much so that a Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed is an organizational bit player in several scenes.
But there seems to be this more vague sense in which it’s about interpersonal communication. Better people than I have tried to explain the subplot centering around Hal Incandenza, and I should probably just quote:
Central to the dramatization is Hal Incandenza, who opens the novel by unnerving a panel of college administrators when he speaks to them. Hal [whose speech inexplicably comes out as horrible nightmarish shrieks] tries to tell the admissions panel things like:
“I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I’m complex…
I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I believe the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated. I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist. I believe Hobbes is just Rousseau in a dark mirror. I believe, with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption.
Please don’t think I don’t care.”
This is quite a contrast from what Hal feels later in the book/earlier in the events about being basically empty of feeling:
Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being — but in fact he’s far more robotic…inside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows.
The admissions panel members respond to Hal’s admissions of feeling, by freaking out. They don’t understand Hal’s voice; they are, in fact, terrified by it.
Much of the book is devoted, in its meandering way, to the story of how Hal, a child prodigy, was emotionally dead inside but managed to fool everyone except his father James. In the climax of the book, James admits that he made the fatally-entertaining Infinite Jest as an attempt to create something so emotionally overwhelming that it would break his son out of his shell. Although the crucial scene is left out, we transition from Hal being emotionally dead but extraordinarily successful and beloved to Hal being a real person with real feelings but unable to communicate, his voice replaced by horrible screams.
Some reviewers have said that the whole book is meant as a critique of postmodern society. I’ve previously cited Wallace’s critique of irony and I find this passage, cited on the same site linked to above, especially enlightening:
The next literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.
Under this theory, younger-Hal starts off as postmodern, totally unengaged with the world except mechanically; during this phase of his life, he is considered witty, lovable, and successful. Then, after some mysterious intervention by his father (whose initials are, significantly, J.O.I.) he becomes a whole human being again, but his attempts to communicate honest feelings are met with revulsion and horror. Under this theory, ONAN and wireheading are the inexorable results of turning further and further inward and denying that engagement with an objective reality is anything particularly desirable.
I like this theory, but it has one problem, which is that Infinite Jest is an obviously, unabashedly postmodern book. It is the most postmodern book. Maybe this is the joke, that it’s turning postmodernism’s critical methods onto a critique of postmodernism itself. But that seems like kind of an easy gag. Is there something a little deeper going on?
Well, my hands-down favorite part of the book was the description of “Eschaton”, a game played by drawing a map of the world on a tennis court, setting up various tennis players as Great Powers, and then simulating a nuclear war through a combination of extremely complicated math equations and tennis balls as nuclear missiles. The game goes well enough until it starts snowing, and the players get into an argument about whether they need to adjust for the snow when calculating the damage done by their nukes. I can’t resist quoting an abbreviated chunk:
“It’s snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory, you dick!” Pemulis yells at Penn, whose lower lip is out and quivering. Pemulis’s face is the face of a man who will someday need blood-pressure medication, a constitution the Tenuate doesn’t help one bit. Troeltsch is sitting up straight and speaking very intensely and quietly into his headset.
“Except isn’t the territory the real world, quote unquote, though?” Axford calls across to Pemulis, who’s pacing like the fence is between him and some sort of prey. Axford knows quite well Pemulis can be fucked with when he’s like this: when he’s hot he always cools down and becomes contrite.
“The real world’s what the map here stands for!” Lord lifts his head from the Yushityuand cries over at Axhandle, trying to please Pemulis.
“Kind of looks like real-world-type snow from here, M.P.,” Axford calls out. Struck finally falls out of his chair with a clunk but his legs are stil somehow entangled in the legs of the chair. It starts to snow harder, and dark stars of melt begin to multiply and then merge all over the courts. Otis Lord is trying to type and wipe his nose on his sleeve at the same time. J. Gopnik and K. McKenna are running around well outside their assigned quadrants with their tongues outstretched. “Real-world snow isn’t a factor if it’s falling on the fucking map!”
And then it gets worse. The Iranian player decides that instead of launching his nukes at America’s cities or military bases, he will assassinate the American president directly by hitting the American player with a tennis ball:
Just outside the theater’s fence, Pemulis is bug-eyed with fury – not impossibly ‘drine-aggravated – and is literally jumping up and down in one spot so hard that his yachting cap jumps slightly off his head with each impact, which Troeltsch and Axford confer and agree they have previously seen occur only in animated cartoons. Pemulis howls that Lord is in his vacillation appeasing Ingersoll in Ingersoll’s effort to fatally fuck with the very breath and bread of Eschaton. Players themselves can’t be valid targets. Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory. They’re part of the map, not the cluster-fucking territory. You can only launch against the territory. Not against the map. It’s like the one ground-rule boundary that keeps Eschaton from degenerating into chaos. Eschaton gentlemen is about logic and axiom and mathematical probity and discipline and verity and order. You do not get points for hitting anybody real. Only the gear that maps what’s real. Pemulis keeps looking back over his shoulder to the pavilion and screaming.
This scene has been justly described as “a history of literary postmodernism under the guise of geeks throwing tennis balls at each other”. Postmodernism is an attempt to blur the boundaries between a text and the world.
But what Wallace seems to dislike is the postmodernist claim that therefore the world has no privileged status and that it’s all just text – this seems akin to the O.N.A.N.ism of the book or the original deadened version of Hal. If I had to take a guess as to why Infinite Jest is postmodernist, I would say that it is to blur the boundaries between the world and the text in favor of reality.
It seems relatively clear that James Orin Incandenza, the haunted but brilliant postmodernist director who produced the film Infinite Jest, is a standin for David Foster Wallace, the haunted but brilliant postmodernist author who produced the book Infinite Jest (after all, as my roommate would point out, both of them have three names). It also seems that the two Infinite Jests are supposed to be the same – and several readers have noted that, like the viewers of the fatal video, they started rereading Infinite Jest as soon as they finished it.
So, as one reviewer I read put it, perhaps just as the film was James’ attempt to produce something that could communicate with the true core of Hal and bring him back to the real world, so the book is Foster Wallace’s attempt to communicate with the true core beneath postmodernist society and reach in and drag it back to reality.
There are other, weirder referential loops. James Incandenza commits suicide by sticking his head in a microwave (possibly meant as a quick-consumerist-culture equivalent of Sylvia Plath sticking her head in an oven) after trying to give up alcohol. David Foster Wallace ended up committing suicide after trying to give up antidepressants.
And, okay, for this part to make sense I need to mention that the ending of Infinite Jest is really mysterious. I spent a little while searching the Internet trying to find a good explanation, and I found exactly one – one person who was able to put all the clues together and actually come up with a narrative that made sense to me. That was this blog post by Aaron Swartz. The only good online explanation of a book about a depressed Boston technical genius who commits suicide, a book about an attempt to spread banned information and the government’s attempt to crack down on it – was written by Aaron Swartz. This is so Infinite Jest-ish that it is impossible for me not to think of it as an appendix to the book.
When I reviewed Illuminatus, I said it was a good as a book, but genius as a carefully designed machine to alter thought-processes. I will say the same about Infinite Jest, although having only read it once I am not confident that I have absorbed anything like a full dose of its medication.
But essentially, I think it’s a book about people seeking meaningless entertainment in a way that doesn’t truly involve interpersonal communication, in the form of a book that seems like meaningless entertainment but which is so complicated and so hard to understand that the attempt eventually produces true interpersonal communication with the author about this idea, completing a complicated but only partially self-referential loop.
Infinite Jest on Amazon.
(I apologize for the length of this blog post. It was aimed at people who have read or are considering reading Infinite Jest, which should be a group unusually tolerant of verbosity.)