Wallace // Infinite Jest
I have attempted reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest several times over the years, always putting it down after getting through 100-300 pages.
I recently finished getting through pretty much all of his short stories and essays, and was just in a mood where I wanted “more DFW,” so I gave it another try.
This time I powered through the beginning (which I still found difficult to care about), but by the time I got to the midpoint was loving this book.
Probably most interesting to me is how conflicted the book is about a key dilemma of modernity – there’s this expression we use to talk about widespread problems in “developed” or industrialized nations – “the diseases of civilization” – diabetes, heart disease, cancer – and I think there’s an argument that they are all the result of a sort of over indulgence – to be clear, I think the power structures and design of modern industrial society promote this indulgence, so it is imho more of a structural problem than a failure of willpower.
Odysseus’ passage of the Sirens comes to mind – he anticipates the environment will be one where his future self does not have sufficient willpower to resist temptation (and death), so he fills the ears of his men with wax and binds himself to the mast, using technology as a bolster for insufficient willpower.
This is a model for how the individual might overcome such a situation, and we see a candidate for a modern alternative in the deep exploration of AA in Infinite Jest, perhaps another in sports by Hal, another in artistic pursuit of film by Dr. James Incandenza.
The more difficult question is how do you solve the societal scale version of this problem – for the solutions in both the Odyssey and Infinite Jest all involve a sort of submission of the will through constraint, and it is tough to imagine institutional versions of this which are not totalitarian.
Even the non-state versions of this might be exploited – religion is an easy example to pick on, where a few well-positioned leaders in a hierarchical version of this can benefit materially from the submission of others.
And something as innocuous as AA – decentralized, not profit motivated – might still be exploited, perhaps in a similar way to the way the ruling class might exploit Buddhist precepts or “opiates of the masses.” Frameworks that allow the individual to cope with the immense suffering that is human life which do not promote some sort of striving towards some extrinsic or communal end or progress – because they promote non-striving – limit the field of competition for those that do want to strive to assert power and dominance over others.
It’s a real catch-22.
The other parallel I see in Infinite Jest with Buddhism is the idea that non-suffering is perhaps the only (or most ambitious) way to endure life. Anything more positive than non-suffering might devolve into a sort of hedonism – whether it is the pursuit of pleasure through drugs, or through entertainment, or through participation in society towards seemingly good ends – basically anything that feels at all good can be addictive. I had this thought reading the book that life itself is addictive. When you are a child it can feel like a blessing, a paradise, but as you draw closer and closer towards the end, any sort of enjoyment of life is a liability when you are conscious of its end and grasping for more of it.
Some of my favorite bits…
Orin now always gets the shower so hot it’s to where he can just barely stand it. The condo’s whole bathroom is done in this kind of minty yellow tile he didn’t choose, maybe chosen by the free safety who lived here before the Cardinals sent New Orleans the free safety, two reserve guards and cash for Orin Incandenza, punter.
And no matter how many times he has the Terminex people out, there are still the enormous roaches that come out of the bathroom drains. Sewer roaches, according to Terminex. Blattaria implacablus or something. Really huge roaches. Armored-vehicle-type bugs. Totally black, with Kevlar-type cases, the works. And fearless, raised in the Hobbesian sewers down there. Boston’s and New Orleans’s little brown roaches were bad enough, but you could at least come in and turn on a light and they’d run for their lives. These Southwest sewer roaches you turn on the light and they just look up at you from the tile like: ‘You got a problem?’ Orin stomped on one of them, only once, that had come hellishly up out of the drain in the shower when he was in there, showering, going out naked and putting shoes on and coming in and trying to conventionally squash it, and the result was explosive. There’s still material from that one time in the tile-grouting. It seems unremovable. Roach-innards. Sickening. Throwing the shoes away was preferable to looking at the sole to clean it. Now he keeps big glass tumblers in the bathroom and when he turns on the light and sees a roach he puts a glass down over it, trapping it. After a couple days the glass is all steamed up and the roach has asphyxiated messlessly and Orin discards both the roach and the tumbler in separate sealed Ziplocs in the dumpster complex by the golf course up the street.
And of course but these advantages were nothing other than the once-lost and now-appreciated advantages of good old Bell-era blind aural-only telephoning, with its 6 and (62) pinholes. The only difference was that now these expensive silly unreal stylized Tableaux were being transmitted between TPs on high-priced video-fiber lines. How much time, after this realization sank in and spread among consumers (mostly via phone, interestingly), would any micro-econometrist expect to need to pass before high-tech visual videophony was mostly abandoned, then, a return to good old telephoning not only dictated by common consumer sense but actually after a while culturally approved as a kind of chic integrity, not Ludditism but a kind of retrograde transcendence of sci-fi-ish high-tech for its own sake, a transcendence of the vanity and the slavery to high-tech fashion that people view as so unattractive in one another. In other words a return to aural-only telephony became, at the closed curve’s end, a kind of status-symbol of anti-vanity, such that only callers utterly lacking in self-awareness continued to use videophony and Tableaux, to say nothing of masks, and these tacky facsimile-using people became ironic cultural symbols of tacky vain slavery to corporate PR and high-tech novelty, became the Subsidized Era’s tacky equivalents of people with leisure suits, black velvet paintings, sweater-vests for their poodles, electric zirconium jewelry, NoCoat Lin-guaScrapers, and c. Most communications consumers put their Tableaux-dioramas at the back of a knick-knack shelf and covered their cameras with standard black lens-caps and now used their phone consoles’ little mask-hooks to hang these new little plasticene address-and-phone diaries specially made with a little receptacle at the top of the binding for convenient hanging from former mask-hooks. Even then, of course, the bulk of U.S. consumers remained verifiably reluctant to leave home and teleputer and to interface personally, though this phenomenon’s endurance can’t be attributed to the videophony-fad per se, and anyway the new panagoraphobia served to open huge new entrepreneurial teleputerized markets for home-shopping and -delivery, and didn’t cause much industry concern.
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 when somebody calls his room’s phone, even on video, and 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?’ and the customer has to insist, right over the phone, and say he’ll pay Michael Pemulis money to commit a crime, or like that he’ll harm Michael Pemulis in some way if he refuses to commit a crime, and Michael Pemulis will in a clear and I.D.able voice make an appointment to see the caller in person to ‘plead for my honor and personal safety,’ so that if anybody eats cheese later or the phone’s frequency is covertly accessed, somehow, Pemulis will have been entrapped.
— then vocational ultimatums, unemployability, financial ruin, pancreatitis, overwhelming guilt, bloody vomiting, cirrhotic neuralgia, incontinence, neuropathy, nephritis, black depressions, searing pain, with the Substance affording increasingly brief periods of relief; then, finally, no relief available anywhere at all; finally it’s impossible to get high enough to freeze what you feel like, being this way; and now you hate the Substance, bate it, but you stiJl find yourself unable to stop doing it, the Substance, you find you finally want to stop more than anything on earth and it’s no fun doing it anymore and you can’t believe you ever liked doing it and but you still can’t stop, it’s like you’re totally fucking bats, it’s like there’s two yous; and when you’d sell your own dear Mum to stop and still, you find, can’t stop, then the last layer of jolly friendly mask comes off your old friend the Substance, it’s midnight now and all masks come off, and you all of a sudden see the Substance as it really is, for the first time you see the Disease as it really is, really has been all this time, you look in the mirror at midnight and see what owns you, what’s become what you are —
‘A fuckin livin death, I tell you it’s not being near alive, by the end I was undead, not alive, and I tell you the idea of dyin was nothing compared to the idea of livin like that for another five or ten years and only then dyin,’ with audience heads nodding in rows like a wind-swept meadow; boy can they ever Identify.
— and then you’re in serious trouble, very serious trouble, and you know it, finally, deadly serious trouble, because this Substance you thought was your one true friend, that you gave up all for, gladly, that for so long gave you relief from the pain of the Losses your love of that relief caused, your mother and lover and god and compadre, has finally removed its smily-face mask to reveal centerless eyes and a ravening maw, and canines down to here, it’s the Face In The Floor, the grinning root-white face of your worst nightmares, and the face is your own face in the mirror, now, it’s you, the Substance has devoured or replaced and become you, and the puke-, drool-and Substance-crusted T-shirt you’ve both worn for weeks now gets torn off and you stand there looking and in the root-white chest where your heart (given away to It) should be beating, in its exposed chest’s center and center-less eyes is just a lightless hole, more teeth, and a beckoning taloned hand dangling something irresistible, and now you see you’ve been had, screwed royal, stripped and fucked and tossed to the side like some stuffed toy to lie for all time in the posture you land in. You see now that It’s your enemy and your worst personal nightmare and the trouble It’s gotten you into is undeniable and you still can’t stop. Doing the Substance now is like attending Black Mass but you still can’t stop, even though the Substance no longer gets you high. You are, as they say, Finished. You cannot get drunk and you cannot get sober; you cannot get high and you cannot get straight. You are behind bars; you are in a cage and can see only bars in every direction. You are in the kind of a hell of a mess that either ends lives or turns them around. You are at a fork in the road that Boston AA calls your Bottom, though the term is misleading, because everybody here agrees it’s more like someplace very high and unsupported: you’re on the edge of something tall and leaning way out forward…
“a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay the loan back, but you can pay it forward” - also, LIFE
The White Flag Group of Enfield MA, in metropolitan Boston, meets Sundays in the cafeteria of the Provident Nursing Home on Hanneman Street, off Commonwealth Avenue a couple blocks west of Enfield Tennis Academy’s flat-topped hill. Tonight the White Flag Group is hosting a Commitment from the Advanced Basics Group of Concord, a suburb of Boston. The Advanced Basics people have driven almost an hour to get here, plus there’s always the problem of signless urban streets and directions given over the phone. On this coming Friday night, a small horde of White Flag-gers will drive out to Concord to put on a reciprocal Commitment for the Advanced Basics Group. Travelling long distances on signless streets trying to parse directions like ‘Take the second left off the rotary by the driveway to the chiropractor’s’ and getting lost and shooting your whole evening after a long day just to speak for like six minutes at a plywood podium is called ‘Getting Active With Your Group’; the speaking itself is known as ‘12th-Step Work’ or ‘Giving It Away.’ Giving It Away is a cardinal Boston AA principle. The term’s derived from an epigrammatic description of recovery in Boston AA: ‘You give it up to get it back to give it away.’ Sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay the loan back, but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works, spreading this message to the next new guy who’s tottered in to a meeting and is sitting in the back row unable to hold his cup of coffee. The only way to hang onto sobriety is to give it away, and even just 24 hours of sobriety is worth doing anything for, a sober day being nothing short of a daily miracle if you’ve got the Disease like he’s got the Disease, says the Advanced Basics member who’s chairing this evening’s Commitment, saying just a couple public words to the hall before he opens the meeting and retires to a stool next to the podium and calls his Group’s speakers by random lot. The chairperson says he didn’t used to be able to go 24 lousy minutes without a nip, before he Came In. ‘Coming In’ means admitting that your personal ass is kicked and tottering into Boston AA, ready to go to any lengths to stop the shit-storm. The Advanced Basics chairperson looks like a perfect cross between pictures of Dick Cavett and Truman Capote except this guy’s also like totally, almost flamboyantly bald, and to top it off he’s wearing a bright-black country-western shirt with baroque curlicues of white Nodie-piping across the chest and shoulders, and a string tie, plus sharp-toed boots of some sort of weirdly imbricate reptile skin, and overall he’s riveting to look at, grotesque in that riveting way that flaunts its grotesquerie. There are more cheap metal ashtrays and Styrofoam cups in this broad hall than you’ll see anywhere else ever on earth. Gately’s sitting right up front in the first row, so close to the podium he can see the tailor’s notch in the chairperson’s outsized incisors, but he enjoys twisting around and watching everybody come in and mill around shaking water off their outerwear, trying to find empty seats. Even on the night of the I.-Day holiday, the Provident’s cafeteria is packed by 2OOOh. AA does not take holidays any more than the Disease does. This is the big established Sunday P.M. meeting for AAs in Enfield and Allston and Brighton. Regulars come every week from Watertown and East Newton, too, often, unless they’re out on Commitments with their own Groups. The Provident cafeteria walls, painted an indecisive green, are tonight bedecked with portable felt banners emblazoned with AA slogans in Cub-Scoutish blue and gold. The slogans on them appear way too insipid even to mention what they are. E.g. ‘ONE DAY AT A TIME,’ for one. The effete western-dressed guy concludes his opening exhortation, leads the opening Moment of Silence, reads the AA Preamble, pulls a random name out of the Crested Beaut cowboy hat he’s holding, makes a squinty show of reading it, says he’d like to call Advanced Basics’ first random speaker of the evening, and asks if his fellow Group-member John L. is in the house, here, tonight, John L. gets up to the podium and says, ‘That is a question I did not used to be able to answer.’ This gets a laugh, and everybody’s posture gets subtly more relaxed, because it’s clear that John L. has some sober time in and isn’t going to be one of those AA speakers who’s so wracked with self-conscious nerves he makes the empathetic audience nervous too. Everybody in the audience is aiming for total empathy with the speaker; that way they’ll be able to receive the AA message he’s here to carry. Empathy, in Boston AA, is called Identification.
The Joke - life is kind of like this film:
Sitting here preacher-hatted, with a mouth full of multilayered baklava, Hal knows perfectly well that Mario gets his fetish for cartridges about puppets and entr’actes and audiences from their late father. Himself, during his anticonfluential middle period, went through this subphase of being obsessed with the idea of audiences’ relationships with various sorts of shows. Hal doesn’t even want to think about the grim one about the carnival of eyeballs. But this one other short high-tech one was called ‘The Medusa v. The Odalisque’ and was a film of a fake stage-production at Ford’s Theater in the nation’s capital of Wash. DC that, like all his audience-obsessed pieces, had cost Incandenza a real bundle in terms of human extras. The extras in this one are a well-dressed audience of guys in muttonchops and ladies with paper fans who fill the place from first row to the rear of the balcony’s boxes, and they’re watching an incredibly violent little involuted playlet called ‘The Medusa v. The Odalisque,’ the relatively plotless plot of which is just that the mythic Medusa, snake-haired and armed with a sword and well-polished shield, is fighting to the death or petrification against L’Odalisque de Ste. Thérèse, a character out of old Québecois mythology who was supposedly so inhumanly gorgeous that anyone who looked at her turned instantly into a human-sized precious gem, from admiration. A pretty natural foil for the Medusa, obviously, the Odalisque has only a nail-file instead of a sword, but also has a well-wielded hand-held makeup mirror, and she and the Medusa are basically rumbling for like twenty minutes, leaping around the ornate stage trying to de-map each other with blades and/or de-animate each other with their respective reflectors, which each leaps around trying to position just right so that the other gets a glimpse of its own full-frontal reflection and gets instantly petrified or gemified or whatever. In the cartridge it’s pretty clear from their milky-pixeled translu-cence and insubstantiality that they’re holograms, but it’s not clear what they’re supposed to be on the level of the playlet, whether the audience is supposed to see/(not)see them as ghosts or wraiths or ‘real’ mythic entities or what. But it’s a ballsy fight-scene up there on the stage — having been intricately choreographed by an Oriental guy Himself rented from some commercial studio and put up in the HmH, who ate like a bird and smiled very politely all the time and didn’t have even a word to say to anybody, it seemed, except Avril, to whom the Oriental choreographer had cottoned right off — balletic and full of compelling little cornerings and near-misses and reversals, and the theater’s audience is rapt and clearly entertained to the gills, because they keep spontaneously applauding, as much maybe for the film’s play’s choreography as anything else — which would make it more like spontaneously meta-applauding, Hal supposes — because the whole fight-scene has to be ingeniously choreographed so that both combatants have their respectively scaly and cream-complected backs to the audience, for obvious reasons … except as the shield and little mirror get whipped martially around and brandished at various strategic angles, certain members of the playlet’s well-dressed audience eventually start catching disastrous glimpses of the combatants’ fatal full-frontal reflections, and instantly get transformed into like ruby statues in their front-row seats, or get petrified and fall like embolized bats from the balcony’s boxes, etc. The cartridge goes on like this until there’s nobody left in the Ford’s Theater seats animate enough to applaud the nested narrative of the fight-scene play, and it ends with the two aesthetic foils still rumbling like mad before an audience of varicolored stone. ‘The Medusa v. The Odalisque’ ‘s own audiences didn’t think too much of the thing, because the film audience never does get much of a decent full-frontal look at what it is about the combatants that supposedly has such a melodramatic effect on the rumble’s live audience, and so the film’s audience ends up feeling teased and vaguely cheated, and the thing had only a regional release, and the cartridge rented like yesterday’s newspapers, and it’s now next to impossible to find. But that wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination the James O. Incandenza film that audiences hated the most. The most hated Incandenza film, a variable-length one called The Joke, had only a very brief theatrical release, and then only at the widely scattered last remains of the pre-InterLace public art-film theaters in arty places like Cambridge MA and Berkeley CA. And InterLace never considered it for Pulse-Order rerelease, for obvious reasons. The art-film theaters’ marquees and posters and ads for the thing were all required to say something like ‘THE JOKE’: You Are Strongly Advised NOT To Shell Out Money to See This Film, which art-film habitues of course thought was a cleverly ironic anti-ad joke, and so they’d shell out for little paper theater tickets and file in in their sweater vests and tweeds and dirndls and tank up on espresso at the concession stand and find seats and sit down and make those little pre-movie leg and posture adjustments, and look around with that sort of vacant intensity, and they’d figure the tri-lensed Bolex H32 cameras — one held by a tall stooped old guy and one complexly mounted on the huge head of the oddly forward-listing boy with what looked like a steel spike coming out of his thorax — the big cameras down by the red-lit EXITS on either side of the screen, the patrons figured, were there for like an ad or an anti-ad or a behind-the-scenes metafilmic documentary or something. That is, until the lights went down and the film started up and what was on the wide public screen was just a wide-angled binoculated shot of this very art-film theater’s audience filing in with espressos and finding seats and sitting down and looking around and getting adjusted and saying knowledgeable little pre-movie things to their thick-lensed dates about what the Don’t-Pay-To-See-This ad and Bolex cameras probably signified, artistically, and settling in as the lights dimmed and facing the screen (i.e. now themselves, it turns out) with the coolly excited smiles of highbrow-entertainment expectation, smiles which the cameras and screen’s projection now revealed as just starting to drop from the faces of the audience as the audience saw row after row of itself staring back at it with less and less expectant and more and more blank and then puzzled and then eventually pissed-off facial expressions. The Joke’s total running time was just exactly as long as there was even one cross-legged patron left in the theater to watch his own huge projected image gazing back down at him with the special distaste of a disgusted and ripped-off-feeling art-film patron, which ended up being more than maybe twenty minutes only when there were critics or film-academics in the seats, who studied themselves studying themselves taking notes with endless fascination and finally left only when the espresso finally impelled them to the loo, at which point Himself and Mario would have to frantically pack up cameras and lens-cases and coaxials and run and totter like hell to catch the next cross-country flight from Cambridge to Berkeley or Berkeley to Cambridge, since they obviously had to be there all set up and Bolex’d for each showing at each venue. Mario said Lyle had said Incandenza had confessed that he’d loved the fact that The Joke was so publicly static and simple-minded and dumb, and that those rare critics who defended the film by arguing at convolved length that the simple-minded stasis was precisely the film’s aesthetic thesis were dead wrong, as usual. It’s still unclear whether it was the Eyeball-and-Sideshow thing or ‘The Medusa v…’ or The Joke that had metamorphosized into their late father’s later involvement with the hostilely anti-Real genre of ‘Found Drama,’ which was probably the historical zenith of self-consciously dumb stasis, but which audiences never actually even got to hate, for a-priori reasons.
‘But then of course eventually Christmas hove into view.’ Gately tries to stop Ewell and say ‘hove?’ and finds to his horror that he can’t make any sounds come out, ‘The meaty Catholic Eastside bad-element lads now wanted to tap their nonexistent Franklin W. Dixon account to buy support-hose and sleeveless Ts for their swarthy blue-collar families. I held them off as long as I could with pedantic blather on interest penalties and fiscal years. Irish Catholic Christmas is no laughing matter, though, and for the first time their swarthy eyes began to narrow at me. Things at school grew increasingly tense. One afternoon, the largest and swarthiest of them assumed control of the can in an ugly dugout coup. It was a blow from which my authority never recovered. I began to feel a gnawing fear: my denial broke: I realized I’d gradually embezzled far more than I could ever make good. At home, I began talking up the merits of private-school curricula at the dinner table. The can’s weekly take fell off sharply as holiday expenses drained homeowners of change and patience. This bear-market in giving was attributed by some of the club’s swarthier lads to my deficiencies. The whole club began muttering in the dugout. I began to learn that one could perspire heavily even in a bitterly cold open-air dugout. Then, on the first day of Advent, the lad now in charge of the can produced childish-looking figures and announced the whole club wanted their share of the accrued booty in the Dixon account. I bought time with vague allusions to co-signatures and a misplaced passbook. I arrived home with chattering teeth and bloodless lips and was forced by my mother to swallow fish-oil. I was consumed with puerile fear. I felt small and weak and evil and consumed by dread of my embezzlement’s exposure. Not to mention the brutal consequences. I claimed intestinal distress and stayed home from school. The telephone began ringing in the middle of the night. I could hear my father saying “Hello? Hello?” I did not sleep. My personality’s dark part had grown leathery wings and a beak and turned on me. There were still several days until Christmas vacation. I’d lie in bed panicked during school hours amid piles of ill-gotten Mad magazines and Creeple Peeple figures and listen to the lonely handheld bells of the Salvation Army Santas on the street below and think of synonyms for dread and doom. I began to know shame, and to know it as grandiosity’s aide-de-camp. My unspecific digestive illness wore on, and teachers sent cards and concerned notes. On some days the door-buzzer would buzz after school hours and my mother would come upstairs and say “How sweet, Eldred,” that there were swarthy and cuff-frayed but clearly good-hearted boys in gray skallycaps on the stoop asking after me and declaring that they were keenly awaiting my return to school. I began to gnaw on the bathroom’s soap in the morning to make a convincing case for staying home. My mother was alarmed at the masses of bubbles I vomited and threatened to consult a specialist. I felt myself moving closer and closer to some cliff-edge at which everything would come out. I longed to be able to lean into my mother’s arms and weep and confess all. I could not. For the shame. Three or four of the Money-Stealers’ Club’s harder cases took up afternoon positions by the nativity scene in the churchyard across from our house and stared stonily up at my bedroom window, pounding their fists in their palms. I began to understand what a Belfast Protestant must feel. But even more prospectively dreadful than pummell-ings from Irish Catholics was the prospect of my parents’ finding out my personality had a dark thing that had driven me to grandiose wickedness and left me there.’