Thursday, February 11, 2016

Infinite Jest and the path of least resistance.

By ElDangerrible. Very cool.

I began reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest sometime in September. Last Wednesday I finally, finally, finally finished it, and just in time for the flurry of INFINITE JEST TWENTY YEARS LATER news feed items commemorating the anniversary of its publication in February 1996.

Before you run away screaming, this is not a review of Infinite Jest. That fucking book. No, it's too titanic, too involute, too revelatory for a few paragraphs of a blurb of a blog post. It's the kind of book that other books are (and should be) written about. But I do aver that yes, it does live up to the hype, even though some of the obloquy directed at it isn't without reason; you won't see me exerting myself to refute epithets like "self-indulgent," "in desperate need of an editor," "mashup of instructional manuals for cheap electronics and obtuse postmodern academic criticism," etc., etc. But for all the frustrations and difficulties that accompany a trip through Infinite Jest, it is indisputably a raiser of the bar, a pusher of the envelope, and an argument for the enduring relevance and extant potential of the novel. (I would even make the totally unqualified claim that it's the best American novel since Moby-Dick, which was also a big hot glorious wet self-indulgent heap of a book.)

The sixty seconds that elapsed immediately after I read Infinite Jest's final sentence ("...and the tide was way out.") were eerily reminiscent of how I remember reacting to the end of Chrono Cross when I was seventeen, i.e., WHAT? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? WHAT IN HELL JUST HAPPENED? WHAT? WHAT. WHAT?

If nobody has made the joke that Infinite Jest is like the American novel meets Dark Souls, please allow me to be the first. This is a book that does not make it easy on the reader. To call the narrative "nonlinear" is like saying a Kandinsky painting is "colorful." Most chapters are datestamped, but since the book takes place in a North America where calendar years are "subsidized" by consumer brands, you'll spend a good 200 pages trying to figure out whether "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" comes before or after "Year of the Whopper." There are enough characters swinging around in an n-body orbital knot to make War and Peace seem rather sparsely populated. The book ends on a flashback, and, on an initial appraisal, with none, none of the major plot threads terminally resolved. There are 1079 pages of text in all, strewn from the very beginning with clues to the story's mysteries, and to the first-time reader they are very well camouflaged.

Here's the thing: the story does not come together. Not on its own. Not unless the reader makes the effort to put it together for him or herself.

(Minor spoilers ahead. You ready?)

A ghost haunts the pages of Infinite Jest. (A book taking its title from Hamlet is practically obligated to have a ghost.) The ghost, before he died and returned as a ghost, he made something. Let's call it an inheritance to his son. The thing has a purpose:
The wraith feels along his long jaw and says he spent the whole sober last ninety days of his animate life working tirelessly to contrive a medium via which he and the muted son could simply converse. To concoct something the gifted boy couldn't simply master and move on from to a new plateau. Something the boy would love enough to induce him to open his mouth and come out——even if it was only to ask for more. Games hadn't done it, professionals hadn't done it, impersonation of professionals hadn't done it. His last resort: entertainment. Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self's fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life. A magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still alive in the boy, to make its eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciously, to laugh. To bring him 'out of himself,' as they say.
As it happens, the thing is too successful, and is thereby a disastrous failure. But that is beside the point here.

We might take this passage as diffracted statement of authorial intent. If Wallace had wanted to write a novel for air travel or a beach chair, something that could be swallowed as easily and insensately as a can of Natural Light or a TV dinner, he would have written one. Instead he made an Escheresque labyrinth of a book that costs the reader a considerable effort to get through. Above we see Wallace hinting at why he chose to do this.

(Aside: I'm suddenly reminded of John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse," with its characterization of author qua architect/secret operator.)

Infinite Jest is as much a novel as it is a funhouse or a puzzle box in text form. Fiction is a medium that demands the viewer's participation: after all, the text is merely the blueprints to the structure that the reader erects and inhabits thorough the act of following them. Television and video games do not require the viewer/player to do anything but receive: everything comes ready-made, like a piece of Ikea furniture that requires only few bolts screwed in by the proper sequence. (If you want me to state, for the record, that yes I like Gravity Falls and Locomalito games and I sleep in an Ikea bed, well, there you go.) Infinite Jest not only requires the reader to construct the story in his or her understanding, but then to go a step further and solve it. (A passing description by way of comment might be a between-the-lines challenge to the reader: " most incredibly passive people, the girl had a terrible time separating details from what was really important to a story...")

Infinite Jest is too thematically turgid a text to designate any one of its narrative lines or ideas as What The Book Is About, but the following passage illustrates a prevailing current rather succinctly. Here we have an except from a paper written for a seventh-grade "Introduction to Entertainment Studies" class by protagonist Hal Incandenza, examining the progression of the archetypical hero of television cop shows from Hawaii Five-0's classical man of action to Hill Street Blues' postmodern procedural bureaucrat. Hal concludes his analysis with a conjecture as to the character of the twenty-first century crime drama hero:
But what comes next? What North American hero can hope to succeed the placid Frank? We await, I predict, the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines.
Here we have a novel profuse with opiate stupors, rapacious consumerism, benders, cannaboid languor, and the sustained dopamine drip of the sedentary viewing of televisual entertainment; passivity, self-absorption, instant gratification, the habitual default to the shortest path from point A(ppetite) to point B(inge).

One cannot be a passive reader of Infinite Jest—at least, one couldn't, not at the time of its composition and publication.

I remember something that too-cool-for-school luna moth Andrea Grassi touched on in her Town Crier piece last October: the digital revolution's displacement (or death-ing) of the author as the source and arbiter of his own text. Situated between the author/text and the reader/user is The Wave, the turbulent multimedia information flux. Many of the results are indirect: the reader of a Kindle book can see which passages other users tend to highlight, adding an (author-) unintended tint to the text. Conversations about the book can supersede the book itself. The book can be the topic of a Wikipedia page, where the biases, interpretations, and selective emphases of the anonymous editor(s) can layer and append the text as the author may not have wished. The relative legitimacy between (authorial) canon and headcanon might be seesawing (depending who you ask).

For all the acuity of its insights into late-twentieth-century America (because all futurist fiction is really about the present and the author's perceptions of it), Infinite Jest is only somewhat more prescient of the digital revolution's character than the Marvel 2099 line. (After all, here we have a book about the first decade or so of the twenty-first century, where we see students consulting pulp-and-print books for research papers, and where most home entertainment is delivered via mail-order.) Do you suppose Wallace had an inkling that, one day, a reader could put down his magnum opus, type the words "what happens in infinite jest" into a pocket-computer application and be skimming a public domain bullet list within seconds?

That's precisely what I did when I put the book down. And I regret it. The thing is, it would have been fairly easy to put together, had I just made an effort—had I gone through the funhouse in good faith. In a novel so dense with recursion/relapse motifs, it was pretty obvious where I was supposed to go after reaching the end. And from there it would have taken only a little effort to notice and understand the full significance of details like the Phoenix postmark on the medical attache's package.

The degree to which this possibility (likelihood, really) this twenty-first-century habit of ours undermines Infinite Jest is obvious, if not understated. It's similar, but not equivalent to looking up a solution to an adventure game on GameFAQs: problems in games have obvious solutions (rather, the game informs you when you've arrived at the solution), and you were going to ferret it out eventually, anyway, provided you're determined to finish the game. And it's not quite the same as looking up spoilers to a film or TV serial plot; if you were just going to watch the thing from beginning to end anyway, all you're doing is saving yourself some time, though not much effort. Again, televisual entertainment affords viewers a degree of passivity which text does not allow: to deform one of Wallace's own metaphors (via E.T.A.'s Lyle), televisual content pulls you up, while the substance of a novel is something you must pull towards yourself.

But here we have a puzzle of a book, and the puzzle has no solution; the image that finally resolves abounds with ambiguity (albeit clearly disclosed ambiguity). I don't doubt that Wallace intended his book to be an object of contemplation and dialectic, neither of which is very easy or passive.

Google is both easy and passive. What should been the culminating moment of the novel—"dear reader, you hold the pieces in your hand; you know what to do now!"—is reduced from an invitation to activity to a routine of passivity. And let's none of us kid ourselves: we're as conditioned to turn to Google as our first resort when confronted with a question or problem as we are to reach for a light switch when a room grows dim. No experimentation, no exploration, no human interactivity is required. The information just passes through the feeding tube.

I mean for none of this taken as the grumblings of a Luddite; it's not like I'm taking typewritten pages to a copy shop out of principle here. But it's still worth remarking that a novel its author hoped would be an antidote/inverse operation to the solitary passivity fostered by television has been, to some degree, attenuated by television's pullulating and all-pervading successor. (It is also interesting that one of the first Google search results for "what happens in infinite jest" is a plot summary/speculation written by the late Aaron Swartz.)


  1. I've never read Infinite Jest, as I tend to be behind on every book published after 1930 or so. It sounds interesting, though.

    1. You know I tend to prefer stuff written before 1950, but I did feel somewhat obligated to read what I've heard called the best novel written in decades. Again, it is definitely deserving of the devotion it commands. Well worth reading, but go into it prepared. It is not a low-maintenance book.

    2. Okay, over two years later, I finished Infinite Jest. I think I started it around December last year but eventually got through it. At times, it amazed me, but I'd definitely agree with some criticisms of its self-indulgence. It ended up being more work than I care for from side-reading. I wouldn't say it's the best American novel since Moby Dick (I much preferred others like Catch-22 and Blood Meridian), but it feels like one of the most ambitious since it, which is something.

      I looked at the Wikipedia page for it, afterward. I found the page for it to be lacking, generally, although it helped me make some sense about the wheelchair assassins' objective (I missed why they wanted the tape). Google helps simplify matters, but I don't think it can really ruins this book, since it can only bring you to other people's answers for the book's puzzles, and many of them aren't really solvable.

      Anyway, I'll likely never read the book again (it can join Ulysses on that shelf), which is why I can't call it the best American book in decades, but I'll be thinking about it for a long time.