September 21, YDAU: Gaudeamus Igitur

September 21st, 2009  |  Published in Art and Literature

It’s been a couple of weeks  since I finished Infinite Jest, a bit ahead of schedule. Now that the Infinite Summer is officially concluded, I feel like I ought to write out some reflections on the book, after I have a bit of distance from it but before it starts to fade from my memory.

So much has been said about this book over the years, and so much has been said again on all the blogs and forums associated with the Infinite Summer project, that it’s hard to figure out a way to add much additional value. But what strikes me now about this book is something that was really catalyzed by reading it as a part of this big, virtual book group. What I find most compelling about Infinite Jest, I think, is the way it reveals the personalities and commitments of the people who read it.

Any serious novel can do that, of course, if people invest themselves seriously in it. But IJ is particularly suited to this task, for a couple of reasons. The first is the way it attempts to convey an everyday life that is recognizably ours, even if set in a hyperbolic and vaguely plausible near future: the book is about us, now, in the culture of post-modern capitalism. And because it’s such a big baggy monster, that “us” can encompass a wide range of social worlds: privileged intellectual misfits, recovering opiate addicts, political terrorists, and so on.

But the book also tends to reveal people because it is so obviously shot through with Wallace’s own passionate feelings about the way our culture revels in self-abnegation (through substances or entertainment), as well as the insights he thinks he has about how we might live better, more meaningful, more fulfilling lives. The book isn’t a parable, of course, and there’s no unambiguous moral lesson to draw from it. Yet it’s hard to escape the sense that it’s author wanted it “to make us act, and to help us live”, as Durkheim once described the purpose of religion. It’s that aspect of the work, I think, that compels people to measure it against their own moral intuitions, and to measure themselves against the book.

In sum, the book is very much a representative document of late capitalism’s Age of the Memoir: confessional, therapeutic, a bit self-absorbed, and defined by a retreat from the political, or the social, and towards the personal and the introspective. But Wallace is smart enough to recognize this retreat for what it is, and by writing fiction he escapes the memoir culture’s small-minded obsession with consistency and factuality. The result is a work of art which does far more to plumb the soul of its reader than would the work of any real-life tennis prodigy, or addict,  or Quebecois terrorist. (And lest we forget, Wallace himself was at least two of these things.)

A few examples.

Which is your favorite plot thread?

It says a lot I think, which part of the Sierpinski gasket you prefer: Hal and ETA, or Don and Ennet House, or Marathe and Steeply. To judge from the forums, Hal is the character most readers identify with, which I suppose is unsurprising. Not only is he the most fully developed character in the early parts of the story, his background (privileged) and preoccupations (intellectual, neurotic) no doubt overlap heavily with those of the book’s audience–as indeed they do with mine. But maybe that’s why I never really identified (or Identified) with Hal. He came off to me as self-involved, whiny, and above all completely unable to put his own situation in its proper context. I sort of hated him for the same reason I hate the main character in The Catcher in the Rye. In both cases, part of my revulsion is rooted, I think, in recognizing in them some unpleasant elements of my own personality.

Then there’s Don Gately. In the second half of the book, he becomes the most sympathetic character. But he is also, to me, the most intellectually challenging to the reader. Hal’s way of coping is a familiar one to the kind of educated, literary person who reads IJ: self-absorption, over-thinking, and substances. Gately, on the other hand, is Wallace’s best effort at portraying an uneducated, unintellectual person who nevertheless at least approaches being a healthy and good person. It seems at times, as though he is good because he resists self-examination–avoiding unnecessary thought being, of course, one of the cliches of AA. For a reader who is like Hal, and unlike Don, there’s no real way to completely embrace Don’s way without being either disingenuous about one’s own personality and history, or else fetishizing Don as some kind of “noble savage”. Yet we’re left with the inescapable conclusion that, if there’s any way out of the psychological traps Wallace describes, Gately is more or less it.

Then there’s the real sleeper, Marathe and Steeply. I haven’t come across anyone who says this is their favorite part of the book, and honestly it isn’t mine either. On the other hand, I did consistently find it funny and interesting, more so than the ETA sections a lot of the time. Maybe it’s because I read a lot of non-fiction and social science, so I have a high tolerance for theoretical exposition disguised as dialogue. But I also think that the writing in those segments is as richly evocative and lyrical as anything in the book, even though it’s just two guys talking to each other for hours on end. I got a kick out of simultaneously trying to picture Hugh Steeply’s absurd drag, and hear Remy Marathe’s over-the-top (and utterly non-verisimilitudinous) accent.

Wardine and yrstruly

I thought these sections were really good, and everything like that. I didn’t even find them difficult to read–once I got the hang of the dialect Wallace was going for, I could hear it in my head and the sections flowed forward quite poetically and musically.

The objections to this section seem to be of two flavors. The first, and less interesting one, comes from people who expect something different from novels than I do. Rather than an interesting challenge, they find these passages to be an affront to the reader, from an author who is more interested in making his reader work than in creating an enjoyable story. Of course, one of the major themes of the book, in my view, is that life is about much more than enjoyment, and that enjoyment can often get in the way of really living life. But that’s just what makes this reaction to these sections interesting, since others obviously didn’t interpret the book the same way I did.

The second objection stems, it seems, from a kind of political correctness, from people who find the attempt to evoke some form of African-American Vernacular English to be patronizing or offensive, a kind of minstrelsy.  This strikes me as a misreading. For one thing, there’s no reason to believe that Wallace was aiming for an accurate reproduction of any existing dialect. But more importantly, I suspect that the people accusing Wallace of being patronizing are really projecting their own prejudices about language, which I discussed in a previous post: namely, that the speech of poor people, or uneducated people, or black people, is in some “wrong” relative to the speech of people like David Foster Wallace. I also think it has to do with liberal uneasiness about race. It’s telling to me that some people apparently would have preferred Wallace to simply ignore the existence of black people, rather than trying–and maybe failing!–to represent some black people as part of his broader tableau. I didn’t see the same kind of hand-wringing about Don Gately, after all, even though Wallace’s childhood was a pretty long way away from Bimmy’s.

The Incredible Randy Lenz

For my money, Randy Lenz is by far the most interesting of the minor characters. He is totally repulsive, of course. On that absolutely everyone seems to agree. But the way people react to him can be tremendously revealing: the Infinite Summer forum thread about Lenz is a captivating display of this.

One immediate divide concerns Lenz’s animal torture: some people find it unspeakably horrible, more so than just about anything else in the book, to the point that they find themselves driven away from the book by it. Others (like me) don’t see how Lenz’s works can be worse than some of the horrible things that happen to human beings in the novel; we worry about a tendency to privilege the lives of “innocent” animals over those of less pure-seeming humans. For me, Lenz’s total and utter debasement wasn’t really driven home until the last scene he appears in, where we find him cutting off Poor Tony’s fingers in the hope of appeasing the AFR and getting another look at the Entertainment.

The other interesting thing about Lenz is the way he brings out people’s Manichaean tendencies. Most of the other characters in the books seem to provoke some level of sympathy from readers. Indeed, the way a character like Gately is written seems calculated to make you care about and root for him, despite the fact that he was directly responsible for more than one man’s death and allowed another to die because of his cowardice and addiction. But Lenz is an exception: a lot of the discussion of him takes for granted that he is some kind of pure evil, in contrast to the complex and conflicted characters that populate the rest of the book.

This, to me, is not the point of Lenz’s character at all. I see him as a necessary complement to the Gately character, a man who has to be seen as occupying the same continuum of addiction as all the other Ennet House residents. If we only had Gately, the story would be too simplistically uplifting: it doesn’t matter that your mom was a drunk who got beaten everyday, or that you’re a serious Demerol addict with no real prospects–just Take It One Day At A Time and you’ll be OK! The point of Lenz, it seems to me, is that not everyone escapes from the various personal and social traumas that lead us to destroy ourselves. Not because they are weak or evil people, but because the self-destructive force of addiction and trauma are so great. In a different way, Poor Tony is an example of this too–and I don’t think it’s an accident that he and Lenz are together in their last scene. To put it another way, it seems to me that the only way to fully sympathize with, and Identify with, Don Gately, the only way to fully appreciate the difficulty of his struggle, is to recognize that any of us could, under a certain set of circumstances, be pulled as low as Randy Lenz.

Infinite Jest isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it is one that will stay with me. I was going to write that I found it more emotionally affecting than other things I’ve read lately, but that isn’t quite right. What it is, is emotionally challenging. That’s what really makes it a different kind of “big book” from, say, Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses, which are primarily intellectual challenges.  This is a book that really made it hard to maintain a pose of emotional detachment or ironic distance–which, in these times, is a real achievement.