"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"


Harvard Advocate

Fall 96

It's Showtime! At the Apocalypse:
The Media and the Culture of Addiction
in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

by Daley Haggar


People ran their VCRs into meltdown, got homicidally tired of 'Happy Days'
and then began to find themselves with vast maddening blocks of utterly
choiceless and unentertaining time; and domestic-crime rates, as well as out
and out suicides, topped out at figures that cast a serious pall over the
penultimate years of the millennium.

Not so many months ago, David Foster Wallace' mammoth Infinite Jest was the
literary analog of the high colonic: everyone seemed to have heard about it,
but few seemed quite ready to try it. There were, after all, considerable
logistic concerns involved; Infinite Jest weighed in at over 1,000 pages,
including more than 100 pages of comically discursive and only occasionally
necessary footnotes. Still, despite this obstacle, or perhaps because of it,
the novel got an almost unprecedented amount of publicity. Wallace, posing
Kurt Cobain-like in his publicity shots, as though to say, "Curse you,
Generation X publicity machine that made me, curse you," became something of
a celebrity. There was effusive praise from Jeffrey Eugenides and William
Vollmann. There was a book tour. Rumor had it that, unfortunately, and
somehow obviously, the author was dating Harvard graduate and Prozac nymphet
Elizabeth Wurtzel, though it later turned out that the two barely knew one
another. The words "genius," "Pynchonesque" (and whatever adjectives could
be made from William Gaddis' last name) and, inevitably, "unsubstantiated
hype," were thrown around with a promiscuity seldom seen outside of Sunset
Boulevard.

Now that the media has backed off, it is possible to take a more careful
look at the work itself. The author's brilliant amalgamation of high and low
culture makes Infinite Jest a great read and a literary feat but a
frustrating critical problem. As has been often noted, the main problem with
the term "postmodern" is that most authors instinctively recoil from it, and
Wallace in particular seems to have preemptively booby-trapped the novel to
undermine the pretensions of literary criticism. It is hard, after all, to
seriously discuss space-time compression, Lacanian signifiers or the
postmodern dominant in reference to a story set (for the most part) in a
vaguely familiar future dystopia known as The Year of the Depend Adult
Undergarment. But so many of the author's aesthetic concerns and
philosophical obsessions, the fragmentation of the self, the failure of
communication, the omnipresence of a consumer culture concerned only with
perpetuating itself, fit in with the discourse of postmodernity that it is
difficult to ignore its presence.

The first order of business is a plot summary, albeit an abbreviated one. It
is now The Year of Glad, (not the emotion, the handle-tie trash bag.). The
country formerly known as America lies buried, like Pompeii, beneath he
metaphorical sediment of late capitalism. Its citizens sit in front of their
television sets waiting to watch the Next Big Event. And most of them are
smiling. There's a lot to watch; there's always a "spec-op," (spectation
opportunity). Rush Limbaugh has been assassinated. Wheelchair-bound
ultra-violent Canadian separatists plot an ultra-violent coup,
ultra-violently. Drug use continues, predictably, to skyrocket out of
control. And prevailing over this world, like God's guest-host, is the
InterLace Telentertainment Corporation, which controls all television
programming and other media outlets. (Incidentally, IntertLace is also
responsible for the spontaneous dissemination of the noisy, possibly
postmodern, and almost assuredly nefarious children's program "Mr.
Bouncety-Bounce.")

In the meantime, around the same time the aesthetically indulgent,
hopelessly avant-garde filmmaker James Incandenza has committed suicide by
putting his head in a microwave and is discovered by his son Hal, the first
thing to come to whose notice, much to his own horror, is that "something
smelled delicious!" Incandenza is the man responsible for, among other
things, The Film Adaptation of Peter Weiss's "The Persecution and
Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates at the Asylum at
Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, The American Century
as Seen Through a Brick, (released in The Year of the Whopper,) and Fun With
Teeth. Incandenza is alleged to have spent his last years completing his
masterwork, the unreleased Infinite Jest, a film said to be so entertaining
that people die watching it and which is reputed to be floating around the
country in the form of pirate copies.

Then things get ugly.

A geometrically-expanding cast of characters, including the masterminds
behind the Quebecois junta, government operatives, politicians, spies, and
their friends, lovers and bed-mates, set out in search of the tape. The
characters who aren't looking for the tape are in search of something
equally thrilling, even if they haven't quite figured out what that
something is. Its star, one Joelle Van Dyne, (a.k.a the P.G.O.A.T, or
Prettiest Girl of All Time) has recently checked herself into the Ennet
House Drug and Alcohol Recovery Center, a halfway house for addicts of all
stripes. ("Four year White Flagger Glenn K.'s personally chosen higher power
is Satan for fuck's sake.") Thus Wallace involves the unknowing residents of
Ennet House in the political struggle surrounding Infinite Jest and
consequently involves the reader in Ennet House, which we become familiar
with fairly early in the novel through the transcripts of the counselor Pat
Motesian's "resident-interface drop-in office hours ":

<< I'm not in denial so to speak about anything empirical and
objective. Am I having pancreas problems? Yes. Do I have trouble
remembering certain intervals during the Kemp and Limbaugh
administrations? No contest...

I'm awful sorry to bother. I can come back. I was wondering if
maybe there was any special Program prayer for when you want to
hang yourself.

Alls I know is I put a Hunt's Pudding Cup in the resident fridge
like I'm supposed to at 1300 and da-da-da and at 1430 I come back
down all primed for pudding that I paid for myself and it's not
there and McDade comes on all concerned and offers to help me look
for it and da-da except if you look I look and here's the son of a
whore got this big thing of pudding on his chin.

It's about somebody else's farting, why I'm here.

I'll gladly identify myself if you'll first simply explain what it
is I'm identifying myself as. This is my position. You're
requiring me to attest to facts I do not possess. The term for
this is "duress." >>

For Wallace's characters, the desire for intoxication is not even
hedonistic, but nihilistic. In one scene, the author describes a character,
Tony Krause, about to have a seizure of the subway:

<< He watched his limbs become airy white dirigibles and felt them
deny his authority and detach from him and float sluggishly up
snout first into the steel-mill sparks the ceiling rained. He
suddenly felt nothing, or rather Nothing, a pre-tornadic stillness
of zero sensation, as if he were the very space he occupied. >>

It is the need to create an escape route, or to at least imagine the
possibility of an escape route to some kind of alternate reality, which
fuels the multifarious addictions of Wallace's characters and which sustains
the ridiculous and possibly futile quest for the elusive Infinite Jest. In
this sense, Wallace's characters' search for the chemical solution brings to
mind Jack Gladney, the narrator of Don Dellilo's White Noise, who spends
half the book in search of the mythical drug Dylar, which supposedly
eliminates the human fear of death.

Brian McHale writes in Postmodernist Fiction of the existence, "well below
the threshold of conceptualization," of both "the shared reality of everyday
life...and the private or peripheral" reality of the imagination. For the
postmodern novelist, escaping into the realm of imagination is more than
just a re-representation of reality, it is something with which to supplant
reality. The novel, writes McHale, imitates the "pluralistic and anarchistic
ontological landscape of advanced industrial cultures," but this
co-existence, at least for Wallace, is not a comforting one. Instead, each
of these alternate realities, whether they are drug-induced or generated in
some other way, threatens to annihilate the very idea of selfhood, by
forcing either identification with everything or with nothing. Early in the
book, Wallace gives us a portrait of poor Erdedy trying and failing to get
clean. The character isn't even given the dignity of a socially fashionable
drug addiction: Erdedy is a hard-core pothead. He admits to being "creepy
when it comes to dope, and ...afraid that others would see that he was
creepy about it as well." The pathology of Erdedy's addiction is such that
Wallace doesn't even allow him to relish, in the style of the typically
alienated hero, his mental breakdown. The romantic promises of the
1960's have turned out to be empty ones.

Just as every youthful generation thinks it will get to be the one to wreck
the country, every new generation of writers finds a way to ruin the fun for
the next : Melville killed off the idea of a cute and cuddly nature;
existentialism killed off God; and Philip Larkin killed off sex. The newest
generation is finding new ways in which to demythologize drug use. What was
once a means of social rebellion (and, perhaps, a pathway to a transcendent
reality) is suddenly emptied of its original significance. In Infinite Jest,
addiction isn't just a problem for the residents of Ennet House. Not only
are prep school kids sneaking around and doing drugs, but they're getting a
lot more pleasure out of the sneaking around than they are out of the drugs.
Their motives are comically Puritan ones. Wallace gives a memorable
description of The Enfield Tennis Academy's resident dealer and paranoid,
Michael Pemulis:
 
<< So Michael Pemulis is nobody's fool, and he fears the dealer's
Brutus, the potential eater of cheese, the rat, the wiretap, the
pubescent looking Finest sent to make him look foolish. So
whenever someone wants to buy some sort of substance, they have to
right off the bat utter the words "Please commit a crime," and
Michael Pemulis will reply, "Gracious me and mine, a crime you
say?" >>

One is even tempted to say that there is a touching sort of Protestant work
ethic to addiction as seen through Wallace's characters. They are the
ultimate capitalists, replacing the ethos of youthful rebellion with the
logic of corporate America. Hal Incandenza describes the joy of smoking
marijuana from a one-hitter thusly: "Total utilization of available
resources=lack of publicly detectable waste." The footnote for the former
addict Don Gately's erstwhile favorites, Demerol and Talwin, includes a
wink-and-nudge thank-you to Sanofi-Winthrop Pharm.Labs Inc."

But the idea of conspicuous consumption doesn't just apply to drugs. Wallace
extends the idea to every possible pleasure-generating industry. His
characters are consuming the idea of entertainment itself. There is
something more complicated and sinister at work in Infinite Jest. It's
characters are all media junkies. Wallace ruthlessly parodies the
advertising industry and its effect on the consumer with a hilarious
description of the advertisement that put the once-obscure Fond du Lac's
NoCoat Inc. on the Fortune 500:

<< Stylistically reminiscent of those murderous mouthwash, deodorant
and dandruff-shampoo scenarios that had an antihero's chance
encounter with a gorgeous desire-object ending in repulsion and
shame because of an easily detectable hygiene deficiency, the
NoCoat's spots' chilling emotional force could be located in the
exaggerated hideousness of the near-geologic layer of gray-white
material coating the tongue of the otherwise handsome pedestrian
who accepts a gorgeous meter maid's invitation to lick the
ice-cream cone she's bought from an avuncular street-vendor. >>

Of course, the thematic concerns of an encroaching media culture are hardly
new ones but Wallace makes them fresh by meshing the notion of
media-generated entertainment with the idea of addiction and the postmodern
concept of individual identity which fuels this The theorist Frederic
Jameson has famously contrasted the modernist notion of the hero with the
postmodern, describing the essential condition of the former as alienation
and the essential condition of the latter as schizophrenia. While the
modernist hero might feel alienated from society or from the notion of
selfhood, the postmodern hero has no core sense of self from which to feel
alienated. Hal Incandenza expresses the desire throughout the novel to be
able to convince himself (with the same certainty with which he is able to
convince everyone else) that he is, in fact "in here." Suddenly, the people
Tom Wolfe designated as the Me Generation have become the Who? generation.
In Infinite Jest, this uniquely postmodern pathology threatens to make the
self into an empty vessel, a conduit through which the influences of an
ever-expanding media culture flow.

One of the more disturbing explorations of this phenomenon came a few years
ago with Martin Amis' London Fields, with its depiction of the thuggish,
media-obsessed rapist and petty thief Keith Talent. Talent's is a reptile
brain, saturated by alcohol, pornography and, (maybe worst of all) televised
professional darts:

<< So he thought TV was real...Of course, some of it was real. Riots
in Kazakhstan were real, stuff about antiques was real...mass
suicides in Sun City were real, darts was real. But so, to Keith,
was Syndicate and Edwin Drood: The Musical and Bow Bells and The
Dorm That Dripped Blood. Not an active reality, like, say, darts,
on which the camera obligingly spied and eavesdropped. No, an
exemplary reality, all beautifully and gracefully interconnected,
where nothing hurt much and nobody got old. It was a high trapeze,
the artists all sequin and tutu (look at that bird!) enacted far
above the sawdust, the peanut shell and poodle droppings, up
there, beyond a taut and twanging safety net called money. >>

If one follows the Jamesonian trajectory of the development of the
postmodern hero as seen by Amis he might imagine its ultimate logical end to
be sociopathy. Wallace, however, seems less cynical. He criticizes the
culture from within, recognizing our capacity for cruelty but only hinting
at our capacity to prevent it. This recognition only receives its full force
at the very end of Infinite Jest, in which the novel's default hero, Don
Gately, flashes back to his own passive and unavoidable participation in
what essentially amounts to a live snuff film, the lines between
entertainment and reality having been hopelessly blurred by addiction. It is
no longer a matter, for Wallace's characters, of the world being a terrible
place. Rather, the world is an unidentifiable place.

Umberto Eco writes, in Lector in Fabula-Pragmatic Strategy in a
Metanarrative Text that every text is "a machine for producing possible
worlds." But what if the world itself seems to have become a machine,
generating multiple competing realities (the reality of drugs, of the media,
of entertainment as opposed to life) at a seemingly exponential rate? For
the characters in Infinite Jest, this phenomenon makes life as it is being
lived (after all, we can only really live one life) both true and untrue.
Eco is cynical about the ability of what McHale calls "impossible worlds,"
whose existence I think Wallace hints at, to sustain themselves in fiction.
"The proper effect of such narrative constructions," he writes, "is just
that of producing a sense of logical uneasiness and of narrative
discomfort...they undermine the world of our encyclopedia rather than build
up another self-sustaining world." Or, as Thomas Pynchon says of Oedipa Maas
in The Crying of Lot 49, "she had heard all about excluded middles, they
were bad shit."

Oedipa Maas' solution, if it can be called a solution, is to fully immerse
herself, an "alien," in a ludicrous paranoid conspiracy. No one in Infinite
Jest seems capable of such a decision. They are left, like the people who
supposedly died watching the movie Infinite Jest, "empty of intent." One
gets the sense that if the Apocalypse were to happen tomorrow, Wallace's
characters would be too lazy to get out of bed. Fueled by this kind of human
element, Wallace's becomes a novel with a self-destructing plot. Like
Pynchon's Lady V., the object of obsession and speculation, the object
around which the plot of Infinite Jest ostensibly revolves, may not even
exist. What does exist is the culture that created "it," or the desire to be
addicted to it, and the people made prisoners of that desire.

The problem is that we are no longer able to say with any certainty which
world gave rise to the others.