It’s that time of year again. The “I WILL read ______ this year.” For some, it’s Moby Dick. Others, War and Peace, or Ulysses.
For many late-Boomers and Gen-Xers, the generation’s most talked-about literary wonder was–and remains–David Foster Wallace’s epic novel, Infinite Jest. I read it back in 2016. Then I read it again in 2016. I am going to read it again because I miss it.
Here is my review of this seminal piece of literature that has the earmarks of great fiction: …”to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” as the author was once quoted as saying.
The Jest’s On You (and Me, and Him, and Everyone)
“It’s on my ‘to do’ list.”
“It’s my New Year’s Resolution–for next year.”
“It’s one of my top-thirty goals this year.”
“I’m going to tackle that as soon as…”
I have heard them all. And these excuses sound like people describing a dental procedure they know they need, but since it’s not an emergency, they put-off making an appointment. But they aren’t talking about a dental procedure. Interestingly, I’ve heard all these statements from people when I told them I was reading Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. I will set this disclaimer again that any book review is subjective, so there is no “right” or “wrong” in them, unless you totally miss the point, and I think a lot of people do. It’s right in the title: Jest.
As if I’m supposed to think better of them because it’s on their “to read” list, even though it seems that’s where it’s destined to stay. They treat it like it’s this task they must complete, along with training for a half-marathon put on by the local medical clinic every spring. It isn’t. It isn’t a huge mountain to climb, it isn’t a root canal, and it isn’t tackling a disorganized garage on a blistering Saturday afternoon. Not if you love Wallace and his writing.
So why do so many people treat reading Jest like a chore?
My theory is that it’s some sort of prestigious literary “hoop” within certain circles, and to jump through said hoop is a sign that they are in the literary “know” while at the same time retaining this “hip” quality of being a DFW fan without actually doing anything active to actually be a DFW fan. Cynical? Maybe.
That, and you can’t have a rudimentary understanding of the English language and read anything by Wallace because his vocabulary, and what he does with the written word, is nothing short of astonishing.
So, if you have a sprawling vocabulary in your noggin and you’re able to read his work without too many visits to the online dictionary, that must grant a certain level of intellectual “cred” and kindred “nod” of approval in this exclusive circle that’s been created. A circle surrounding DFW as a cult-figure, nothing more. The direct opposite are the haters, who poke fun at Wallace, his writing, AND at people who love Wallace. Lumping us all in the same pretentious steaming pile of literati-hot air.
Well, I’m not in it for the “smart-points.” I genuinely love his fiction, the way his mind works. I’m not as big a fan of his non-fiction writing, so there ya go.
That said, I go to great lengths to avoid books that attempt to emulate the pretentious garbage that sometimes poses as modern literature: inaccessible, disjointed, and decidedly void of human emotion. These books are the polar-opposite of Infinite Jest. The book feels like Home. I read it twice in 2016. It’s time to revel in it again.
Onto my review, I’ll just say this outright: if you think of IJ as a task to better yourself, improve your social standing, or as a cool way to get laid or winnow-out the “smart, bookish” sorts of people, just stop right there. Don’t do it. It’s not worth it, really. I mean…the book is absolutely worth reading, in my opinion, but don’t read it if it’s a chore, or you think of it as such. David would’ve hated that so much. He would have. It’s just a book, and reading it is like reading three or four books back-to-back, so it’s not like it’s any different than that. If something isn’t fun to read or doesn’t grab you by the throat and refuses to let go, why waste one precious moment of your life on a “have-to” that isn’t.
As always, and as I’ve said before, time and again: reviews are subjective. Infinite Jest is “entertainment.” Just like any other piece of writing. Yes, it crosses the entertainment-blood-brain-literary barrier with ease if–IF–you find it easy to read. Which I did. Doesn’t make me intelligent. I just didn’t have all the hefty expectations about the implications of reading it dogging me when I started it. Let those go and have fun. Get past the first 200 pages. Please, don’t stop there and say, “Ohhhh-kay, maybe I’m not ready to tackle…” No, No, No. Please. This book…has something incredibly important to say. Wallace had so many important things to say.
But you can take any superhero movie from Hollywood and deconstruct it down to the deep, universal themes that are the bases for every piece of entertainment, story, or art. I can take Deadpool and deconstruct it to sound like Citizen Kane, so don’t get all hoity-toity on me about “literature.” Please.
Look. The difference is, Wallace knew that most people would miss it/them. The themes he addresses go unnoticed by so many readers, critics, MFAs, classes, and even experts on literature, and I think that’s why he wrote the book the way he did. He broke walls 4, 5, 6, with metafiction that wasn’t metafiction at all. WE are the ones breaking the fourth wall as we read the book. We are the spectacle and the spectators. We are a part of the “jest,” and so is he. He wrote the book to, in short, entertain; thus, I believe Wallace wrote IJ to be a literal part of the system the author successfully examines in the work.
The one thing that came across loud and clear: Infinite Jest is fun. It was tear-inducing hilarious. Then, there were parts that took my breath away; stunned me with the beauty of his intricate scrutiny of ordinary, mundane things. Things, people, events that came across as sacred moments.
And, of course, extremely UN-ordinary things, like a character being murdered with a broomstick. I found my eyes filled with tears. Not of sadness due to the over-the-top and albeit shockingly violent fictional-murder, but the beauty Wallace reveals as a character—one we not only don’t know much about, nor care about very much—dies on the page. The way in which Wallace tackles this gives us a glimpse of the shuddering, emotive landscape of the human condition—all congealed into this grossly exaggerated, yet poignant scene.
IJ is a clown, a gag, a self-indulgent romp through a sea of words that is so self-aware of its decadence, that, too, becomes a parody. Not only was it fun to read, it was probably a total riot to write (between the bleeding, of course). The irony of this book: while some portion of the reading population treats it like a chore they have to complete before they are allowed to brag at their book club, they are missing the real reason they aren’t reading it, and it’s this: most people don’t want to WORK that hard for their entertainment. And if you read IJ, the irony of that will crack you up.
Of course, the deepest themes are breathtaking. The brilliance of this writer is a brilliance that dwarfs any writer I’ve read before or since, especially in this book. But the brilliance isn’t about the language, or even the themes, but the way this author’s mind worked, and I can’t say here the deep loss I feel personally, as well as for the world, I feel at his absence from this existence. I’ve never mourned someone I never met until now.
To say Infinite Jest is one of the most important books of our time is, of course, subjective. But I think it is and I think I’m right. And it isn’t difficult to understand these themes if we simply let go and immerse ourselves in the speculative fictional world he creates: a world that is no longer speculative, but on par with what’s happening now, today, in front of our very eyes.
Wallace pummels us with these themes between and within the hyperbolic hilarity. He never lets us forget what he’s trying to accomplish. You really don’t need to work that hard for the message if you accept that the medium is the message within the medium’s message.
Themes of addiction are in your face, but look past the “substances,” the “drugs-of-choice,” and find the universal substance. He doesn’t use this book as a platform, or a didactic warning against addiction, despite what conclusions other people have drawn. In the book, Wallace shows us that addiction is in our natures, in our psyches, and in fact, I posit that the message of IJ, “in toto,” would be that we crave the process of becoming addicts. We seek it out. We are dying to “give ourselves over to something completely.”
We view serious drug addicts as “other,” when we, ourselves, are all addicts. The difference? Our addictions are socially and societally-sanctioned. Or, our socio-economic status affords us the ability to be functional addicts, with our DoCs at our beck, call, and within our price-range, always. If you can afford your drug? No one cares.
Addiction aside, this book explores fear, loneliness, and what we do to stave off the silence and keep the darkness of solitude at bay. We consume, consume, consume, and we never stop to think that the plethora of choices available to us is causing a social cancer that’s eating away at the souls of our individual psyches. Dramatic? Maybe. Maybe not. Look at social media. Wallace predicted everything, and it has come to fruition in various forms, but the prescience is, in a word, eerie.
If you think about it, our physical and psychological makeup is not much different than the human habilis who existed a couple million years ago.
If we could go back in time and bring a Chuck-A-Rama with us and we escorted these ancestors to a line-up of foods available to them, what would they do? Think about it. At that time, their choices of food varied according to season, area, and availability. What if they suddenly didn’t need to move, no more nomadic life for them, and they could choose from chicken, beef, vegan, gluten, or dairy-free? What if they didn’t need to physically work for their basic human needs, ever again?
I think they would have a certain period of violent adjustment, and then they would be…exactly like us. Eventually. The proof is, well, right here, in front of us. Wallace wrote about instant gratification before it ever became linked with today’s western civilization and technology.
And we are in crisis.
We are in physical, mental, emotional and spiritual crises.
We think more choices means more chances to feel, and be, happy. But Jest challenges us to consider the possibility that “to want” is more invigorating and purposeful than “to have.” And living with want, being and existing within “wanting” is why we strive, work, play, DO. When we have something, we no longer want it, do we? I observe so many miserable people who seem to have it all, yet they are only interested in getting what they want the moment the shine is off their latest object of desire. They want—always—no matter how much they have.
Choice is both a blessing and a curse.
And it’s not like we want our choices taken away. But we thoroughly enjoy taking our own choices away. It’s called “order.” And human beings thrive with order. We just want order on our own, specific terms. We want our escapism tailor-made, just for us. We want to choose our masters to whom we will be dutiful slaves.
We want the illusory control over our addictions, so we choose a different reality show, a different diet, a different weekly box-office hit, a different Bejeweled app, but we never stop. We don’t know how to stop. To stop would be to face our greatest fears. Fears such as contemplating the meaning of our existence, the purpose of our lives in the grand scheme, and why do we feel—with all the different ways to connect—so very alone?
A huge part of our addiction is the addiction to the Self and how we are perceived by others. So we strut and wave our CVs, our big houses and shiny cars; we Photoshop our images for social media and count our “Likes.” We place our value on extrinsic things without examining the intrinsic price we pay for them. We watch our sports teams, we attend our church meetings, we watch our shows and we attend to the minutiae of our daily lives, so focused on what’s in front of us, we don’t have to look down wind.
The solipsism of these last two decades, with the advent of huge technological advances, is almost absolute. Although the advent of “leisure” as a possibility and a concept has been around much longer. This solipsism is how we allow people in this country overflowing with food to starve to death. It’s how we allow people to suffer and die in a country rife with quality medical care, but no way for a certain portion of the population to access it.
Do you think, in a hunter-gatherer tribe 2.6 million years ago, a widow and her children would have been allowed to starve? Left to fend for themselves, abandoned? No. They cared for their tribes’ members. And I know this because anthropological research shows that tribes who displayed high levels of altruism were more successful and more proliferative than those tribes who displayed a tendency for selfishness and a disregard for community. The people who survived were those who took care of their own. It’s in our DNA to be altruistic; but things, they are a-changin’.
Our solipsism has become self-sustaining. We allow the weak and the downtrodden to fall away. Selfishness is being encoded into our DNA as we speak. If you question that, take a look at any thirteen-year-old and try to evoke empathy in them. It’s not there, and this should terrify us. We had shows in the 90’s like Seinfeld, where well-to-do malcontents created chaos out of nothingness and wallowed in self-obsession and self-involvement and that was our entertainment because we could all, on some level, relate.
As for our children, we have to actively teach empathy and compassion, or they will be swallowed up in themselves and the self-centeredness of the technological age. And that, friends, is an incredibly lonely place to be. There are only so many distractions before the emptiness takes hold. And what will our children do to fill that emptiness? Well, as we are seeing, there is no limit to what they can consume to stave off the inevitable. Meanwhile, we are all in crisis. All of us. If we don’t start paying attention, we could lose it all.
And so the somber, deadly serious themes of this book are there for the taking between each sardonic, hyperbolic line. The book is an entertainment, yes, but an entertainment to lure you into a big truth. It’s life-changing. And if it’s life-changing for you, you have the choice to act on that change. Or not. Interestingly, we still haven’t realized that the true paradox of altruism is that what is good for the “other,” is ultimately good for All.
So, read the book. Don’t read the book. It doesn’t matter. It won’t make you sexier or smarter or more fuckable.
It will, if you let it, change the way you see the world. What you do with that is up to you. Or just read it for fun. Let it entertain you.
I would be interested, however, to meet anyone who could read it for the sole purpose of a good laugh. I suppose, in a way, that would be the most infinite jest of them all. And I can’t help thinking that that was Wallace’s jest: knowing he was imparting this great truth, and yet there would be many who would “tackle” it with the lofty idea that they are somehow a part of his noble quest when in fact, they’re not just part of the jest. They’re the butt of it.