Well, duh

Dale Peck

  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
    Little, Brown, 1079 pp, £17.99, July 1996, ISBN 0 316 92004 5

The US literary world can be divided into two camps: those who think Thomas Pynchon is a very clever guy, and those who also think he’s a great writer. As it happens, I’m of the former camp. While I admit that Pynchon’s writing is packed with all sorts of ideas, ultimately the novels strike me as more crudités than smorgasbord: the appetisers keep coming (and coming, and coming), but the main course never arrives. Pynchon’s hallmarks are his tentacular – I might almost say his amorphous – prose, which can and does snare just about any philosophical concept or pop cultural phenomenon in its grasp; and his sense of satire, which can be awfully funny if your taste runs to broad humour. Neither of these traits is necessarily ruinous, but it’s Pynchon’s particular conflation of them that can limit his appeal. Given a choice between pathos and bathos, Pynchon errs on the side of farcical melodrama again and again (and again), and while I admire him for his efforts to undermine traditional narrative tyranny with humour rather than resorting to a Barth-style hatchet job, all four of his novels offer the same one-dimensional commentary on contemporary US society, and, in the end, a thirty-year writing career hasn’t produced a single memorable or even recognisably human character.

Pynchon does have his admirers, and he also has his followers, or people who are labelled his followers, and they do keep cropping up. I think there’s more than a little Pynchon floating around John Kennedy Toole, whose A Confederacy of Dunces is a book nearly as bloated as its protagonist; Don DeLillo’s social, um, satires owe more than a little to Pynchon’s work; and in a recent essay in Harper’s magazine the young novelist Jonathan Franzen declares Pynchon a personal hero. David Foster Wallace moves beyond admiration to adulation – if not, to put it more plainly, outright imitation. It is, in fact, a virtuoso performance that has eclipsed its progenitor: Wallace out-Pynchons Pynchon, and his third book, Infinite Jest, may well be the first novel to out-Gravity’s Rainbow Gravity’s Rainbow.

If nothing else, the success of Infinite Jest is proof that the Great American Hype Machine can still work wonders, in terms of sales. The novel has moved some 60,000 copies and racked up a stack of glowing reviews as thick as it is. What makes the book’s success even more noteworthy is that it is, in a word, terrible. Other words I might use include bloated, boring, gratuitous, and – perhaps especially – uncontrolled. I would, in fact, go so far as to say that Infinite Jest is one of the very few novels for which the phrase ‘not worth the paper it’s written on’ has real meaning in at least an ecological sense; but to resort to such hyperbole would be to fall into the rut that characterises many reviews of this novel.

As the preceding paragraph should make clear, I found Infinite Jest immensely unsatisfactory. I resent the five weeks of my life I gave over to it; I resent every endlessly over-elaborated gag in the book, like the ten-page riff on why video telephones are unviable, or the dozen pages on the teenager who won all his tennis games by playing with a pistol held to his head, or the thousands and thousands and thousands of words devoted to pharmaceutical trivia on all sorts of mind-altering drugs; and I resent especially the 96 pages of tinily typed and deliberately pointless endnotes and ‘errata’, 388 in total, which make the novel a two-bookmark experience. In a hoped-for effort at balance, I also slogged my way through Wallace’s freshman effort, a novel called The Broom of the System, which, at 450 pages, is a relative lightweight next to Infinite Jest; nevertheless, what the novel saves in brevity is more than made up for in banality. The only thing even remotely interesting about Wallace’s first novel is that it reads like a study for his second. Both novels are set in an imagined United States; both revolve around an emotionally disturbed family full of geniuses, cripples and money; both feature a manmade wasteland which becomes central to the national imagination (in The Broom of the System it’s called the Great Ohio Desert, which is why the book is set in Ohio of all places; in Infinite Jest it’s called the Great Concavity); both, most importantly, work up an elaborate – and elaborately digressive – plot which deliberately ends as unsatisfactorily as possible.

About the only thing that distinguishes Wallace’s second novel from his first is that there’s more of it. The Broom of the System has one narrative; Infinite Jest, on the other hand, has three, each centred on a single character. There is first of all Hal Incandenza, a teenage tennis prodigy and marijuana addict who during the course of the book plays tennis and gets high a lot, and then tries to stop getting high – that’s his plot. Then there’s Don Gately, a former housebreaker and narcotics addict who goes straight before the book even opens and merely attempts to stay that way throughout the course of the novel – that’s his plot. And then there is Rémy Marathe, the leader of a group of Québecois secessionist, wheelchair-bound terrorists, who spends the first two-thirds of the novel having a conversation with another spy – that’s a 700-page conversation, folks – and then kills a couple of people.

That’s the plot of the entire novel.

Although one senses that the intermingling of the three plotlines is meant to create, in Modernist jargon, a ‘fragmented’ narrative, one reviewer characterised it more accurately as a ‘rudimentary three-stroke engine’. Of course, these disparate plots occur within a larger and supposedly unifying context – or maybe it’s not supposed to be unifying, which would answer more than a few of my questions. Infinite Jest is set in a US of the near future, possibly a quarter-century hence; it’s impossible to pin down when exactly, because at an unspecified point between our now and the book’s then the traditional method of numbering years has been replaced by ‘revenue-enhancing subsidised time’, an advertising ploy in which each new year is christened ‘Year of the Whopper’, ‘Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad’, ‘Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster’ etc. (In an act of literary sadism, this list isn’t provided until page 223 of the novel, whereupon the reader discovers that four of the nine years of subsidised time are sponsored by foods, two by appliances and two by butt products, which more or less typifies the level of humour in the book.) There have been a few other changes too: the United States has used its clout to coerce Mexico and Canada into forming an alliance called the Organisation of North American Nations for, apparently, no other reason than the chance to use the acronym Onan. In addition, a large part of New England – basically everything above Boston – has been ceded to, or forced on, Canada, and renamed the Great Concavity; it now serves as a dumping ground for all sorts of toxic waste produced by the United States. Hence Rémy Marathe’s terrorist organisation: the Great Concavity borders Quebec, and pollutants leeching from within it are wreaking havoc on the region.

But this is just the context; what is actually meant to unify the book (or, as I suggested earlier, not unify it) is an experimental film called Infinite Jest directed by ‘après-garde’ inventor-turned-film maker James O. Incandenza. As the name suggests, James is the father of Hal; once upon a time James too was a tennis prodigy (as was his father before him), and he used the fortune he earned from his inventions to found the Enfield Tennis Academy – or Eta, to proffer yet another loaded acronym – where Hal is a student, and then to finance his experiments in film. Enfield is located in Boston, right next to Ennett House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (if you flip forward 900 pages to note 49, you will find the words ‘Redundancy sic’), where Don Gately works as a caretaker, and where, late in the novel, a master copy of the movie Infinite Jest is believed to have surfaced, thus leading Rémy Marathe to pose as a recovering drug addict so he can search for the tape. Now, here’s the deal with Infinite Jest, the film: this ‘entertainment’, as Rémy Marathe calls it, is said to be so compulsively ‘entertaining’ that everyone who catches even a glimpse of it will become completely and permanently transfixed and thereafter capable of doing nothing but watch the movie. They won’t eat or get up to use the toilet; they will even, according to experiments conducted by Marathe’s organisation, cut off their own fingers – without anaesthesia – in exchange for the privilege of watching a few seconds of the film. And herein is Infinite Jest’s (the book’s) major theme: the United States has become a culture addicted to entertainment, and like all addicts we pursue that entertainment to our detriment.

On the one hand, Wallace’s thesis seems self-evident now that the United States’s economy has striated into white-collar and service-oriented jobs, and its major growth sector is the merged ‘industries’ of entertainment and communications technology; on the other hand, it’s more than a little problematic. What’s meant to distinguish Infinite Jest (the book) from various artefacts that precede it is the conflation of entertainment with drug addiction, and this notion is, I think, fundamentally flawed. The really insidious thing about the US entertainment fetish is not that it’s forced on us, but that we choose to give over so much of our lives to this crap: we turn on Baywatch, we buy tickets to Eraser, we christen Michael Jackson the King of Pop and indulge him in his public psychosis (except for Jarvis Cocker, bless his heart). If our actions were involuntary – if, say, Home Improvement was forced on us in the same way that the two-minute hate was forced on the characters of 1984 – then we would be living in a totalitarian society. For Wallace to suggest that free will is involved in the culture of entertainment would essentially eradicate his novel’s raison d’être. The closest he comes is the unstated implication that, like people who become drug addicts, people who become addicted to entertainment do so because their lives are sad, kind of, and empty, or they had bad childhoods.

Well, duh.

As we say in the East Village, that and $2.50 (not including tip) will buy you a skinny mochachino.

Lots of great books are built around flawed or at any rate contestable social theories, like A la recherche du temps perdu or Mishima’s novels, and let’s not forget Faulkner. In fact – and this may merely be a product of my education in deconstruction and identity politics – I take it as a given that the social theories which inform works of fiction should be contested by the reader, precisely because they are made up; ultimately a novel’s true merit (or lack thereof) rests on aesthetic considerations. Which is another way of saying that I don’t just dislike Infinite Jest because I think its premise is simplistic. I think in fact that there’s a pretty good novel lurking there, but it’s lost inside about 800 pages of junk.

For about the first hundred pages I was simply lost, but when enough puzzle pieces had fallen into place – when, eventually, the relatively simple plot of the book took shape and I learned to bracket off Wallace’s intentionally unbalancing digressions – I settled in and began to enjoy the book, which, unlike most of Pynchon’s writing, is actually engaging on a page-by-page basis. Much has been made of Wallace’s prose, and sentence by sentence, David Foster Wallace is a very good writer indeed. If Pynchon’s prose is tentacular, Wallace’s could be called carnivorous. (I was going to say omnivorous, but Wallace strikes me as a boy who didn’t eat his vegetables.) As a style, it’s more than a little infatuated with the jargon of various groups, like homosexuals or drug addicts or teenage white boys or inner-city black people or science nerds.

There is, I think, an important aesthetic at work in Wallace’s prose, and that is the freedom to be bad. As with Pynchon, Wallace’s metaphors for certain ideas (say, the human condition) are often other ideas (like quantum mechanics). There is a faux sloppiness about his prose that enables him to discuss with varying degrees of fluency all sorts of subjects – Wittgenstein, Descartes, calculus, physics, 12-step programes, tennis – without resorting to academese. This doesn’t mean that Wallace’s discursive passages aren’t often boring, but it does mean that they’re a lot less boring than they could be and that whenever his hold on his material is a little shaky, he can hide behind the stutter of an ellipsis or a burst of expletives. As an aesthetic, Wallace’s ‘bad writing’ has more to do with punk than Pynchon, which is why I like his prose. I don’t think it’s merely a way of cheating: it can actually allow Wallace to tell his readers things he doesn’t know.

But, though I’d like to think Wallace is embracing a sort of epistemological anarchy, it could just be that he’s a coward – which is what we might conclude from his essay on Dostoevsky in the Voice Literary Supplement:

So, for me anyway, what makes Dostoevsky invaluable is that he possessed a passion, conviction and engagement with deep moral issues that we, here, today, cannot or do not allow ourselves [my italics]. And on finishing [his biography], I think any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes so many of the novelists of our own time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so impoverished in comparison to Gogol, Dostoevsky, even lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev. To inquire of ourselves why we – under our own nihilist spell – seem to require of our writers an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of profound issues or else try somehow to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking them inside asterisks as part of some surreal, defamiliarisation-of-the reading-experience flourish.

Forced ironic distance? Surreal flourishes? Nihilist spells? I haven’t seen a novelist project his own anxieties to such self-detriment since Hemingway discussed homosexuals with Gertrude Stein in A Moveable Feast. While I agree – to an extent – with Wallace’s assertion that a ‘requirement of textual self-consciousness’ is ‘imposed by Post-Modernism’ I don’t buy Wallace’s follow-up proposition, namely, that writers from some golden age before ours were ‘free from certain cultural expectations that constrain our own novelists’ freedom to be “serious”’. It seems to me beside the point to list contemporary writers who are engaging with serious moral themes in their fiction if for no other reason than that there are just so many of them; what strikes me as more useful is a brief investigation into Wallace’s belief that writers today aren’t ‘allowed’ – the choice of words is, I think, revelatory – ‘passion, conviction and engagement’ with deep moral issues.

And so we return to that essay by Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s magazine. Its ostensible subject is his ‘despair about the American novel’, but what it quickly reveals itself to be about is his contempt for what another of his idols, Don DeLillo, has called ‘around-the-house-and-in-the-yard’ fiction, and what that is, in case you’re wondering, is fiction that seems to be about people as opposed to ideas. The opposition is ludicrous; but what’s more pertinent here is Franzen’s projections of these ‘people’ – and their creators – as being almost universally not white, not straight and not male – in other words, not like him. To make his point, Franzen uses a letter from his friend, David Foster Wallace:

A contemporary culture of mass-marketed image and atomised self-interest is going to be one without any real sort of felt community. Just about everybody with any sensitivity feels like there’s a party going on that they haven’t been invited to – we’re all alienated. I think the guys who write directly about and at the present culture tend to be writers who find their artistic invalidation especially painful. I mean it’s not just something to bitch about at wine-and-cheese parties: it really hurts them. It makes them angry. And it’s not an accident that so many of the writers ‘in the shadows’ are straight white males. Tribal writers can feel the loneliness and anger and identify themselves with their subculture and can write to and for their subculture about how the mainstream culture’s alienated them. White males are the mainstream culture.

This silly diatribe is rife with contradictions, but the chief one is this: on the one hand ‘we’re all alienated’; on the other, there seems to be a bunch of ‘tribal writers’ excluded from Wallace’s notion of ‘we’ who seem to be living it up with our ‘subcultures’ at wine-and-cheese parties that he’s not invited to. This is nothing more than a (sadly) fashionably anti-pc complaint about the loss of straight white-male privilege. Gore Vidal, who’s had his dick sucked more than a few times and been taken to task for it, has written far more persuasively that the novel as an art-form has become a cultural irrelevance, but you don’t hear him whingeing about ‘artistic invalidation’.

If I cared about such things – and, in general, I do not – I could accuse Wallace of cultural colonialism in the peppering of his almost exclusively white-male text with exoticised African-Americans, women and homosexuals. I believe, too, that the narrative technique Wallace has derived from Pynchon is nothing more than a watered-down, de-(homo)eroticised style, a manner described in Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp: ‘Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp – what is merely decorative, safe, in a word, chic. On the barren edge of Camp lie a number of attractive things: the sleek fantasies of Dalí, the haute couture preciosity of Albicocco’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes’, and to that list I would add the writing of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. All of which, I suppose, is just a polite way of saying that if the author of Infinite Jest shut off his word-processor and actually went to a wine-and-cheese party he might find out what the word ‘reading’ really means: as in, ‘Miss Thing, didn’t you wear that dress out last week.’ ‘Miss Thing, you just been read.’ David Foster Wallace, you can now sleep easy, because you too have just been read.