Maybe Infinite Jest is About Addiction

And so but I’ve been re-reading Infinite Jest in this strange, almost purely subconscious way, where I take on just a few pages (seriously, like 2-3 pages) every night right before sleeping. I’ve done the calculations, and so you don’t have to tell me it will literally take years to finish it this way.

I’m in no rush. I’ve read it before.

If you’ve never read it, you really must. It’s terrifying how prescient it is. How could someone in the mid 90’s have seen the coming technology that would be so entertaining it would totally consume our lives? I’m thinking Twitter and Facebook and our phones and the games on them. But DFW actually has a Netflix-like system where people can watch any TV they want at any time. That was unthinkable back then.

It also predicts that we’d come to live in an opioid epidemic.

And all of the below, etc.

Anyway, I digress.

This weird thought occurred to me around page 300 (yes, I’ve been doing this for 100+ days already):

Maybe Infinite Jest is about addiction.

Hear me out. This is one of those things that’s so obvious it requires justification.

I know, Don Gately is in a halfway house for Demerol addiction, and the opening scene is of Hal’s (supposed) reaction to taking DMZ destroying his life, and the kids at the Tennis Academy do pot and alcohol and amphetamines and have tricks to pass urine tests.

I know, the title refers to entertainment so infinitely addicting you pee and poop yourself and then die rather than pull yourself away, and that one character, whose name I can’t remember, holed up in the bathroom stall of a library and drank cough syrup every day to avoid withdrawal but had to go out at some point and ends up having a massive DT withdrawal on a train and probably dies.

I know DFW, himself, had addiction problems and was in AA.

Etc, etc.

But hear me out. It’s not as obvious as it seems. Addiction is everywhere in the novel, but what is the novel about?

What if someone said to you: Breaking Bad is about addiction.

You’d say: Whoa! Hang on. Addiction is everywhere in that series, sure, but that’s not at all what the show is about. Not. Even. Close.

DFW is famous for complaining about the reviews (even (especially) the positive ones!!) when it came out, because no one could possibly have read it in the two-week window (or whatever it was) and actually understood what it was about.

I owed it to him to understand what the book was about if he would rather have crappy reviews than positive reviews by people too intimidated by it to admit they were clueless as to what the book was even about.

I took his comments to heart.

Infinite Jest wasn’t about addiction. That was too obvious. Everyone would immediately understand the book if that’s what it was about.

DFW was also obsessed with literary theorists and philosophy and Wittgenstein and psychiatry and math and semiotics and postmodernism and irony, etc. I looked to these for answers, and I found a treasure trove of ideas.

I won’t try to go into depth on what I came up with. You can see early thoughts in some other posts I’ve done: Westward and Preparation for Infinite Jest among others.

Basically, one can read Infinite Jest as a critique of the psychological theories of Jacques Lacan. The “Entertainment,” at least as much as we can see in the novel, is an on-the-nose manifestation of his ideas.

Language is central to our subconscious, and Saussure’s signifier/signified distinction live on different layers. Wallace thought these poststructuralists were brilliant but flawed. Infinite Jest wants to use postmodernism to show why they were flawed.

Now we’re on to what the novel might actually be about!

Many scenes support this reading, mostly having to do with the various recovery methods. Wallace wants to say: how do we break free of our addictions? Well, it’s obviously not what these theorists were saying! Look what that would look like.

DFW presents a parody as refutation.

This view is also supported by all the circumstances under which characters literally lose their ability to speak. Sure, drugs are the proximate cause, but think through the other circumstances of their lives at that time. Think about Hal’s encounter with the therapist after finding his father having committed suicide.

Why was Wallace upset at people calling the novel funny?

Maybe it’s that things that were supposed to be deep references to Lacan were seen as surface-level jokes.

Corporations subsidize years in the future. Most of Infinite Jest takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (YDAU). We laugh, thinking about what it would be like to have to sign checks with the year being the name of an incontinence product.

No!

It’s more than that. The year wasn’t chosen purely for humor. It’s saying that when our society progresses to this point, adults will have regressed back to babies. All we think of is: want, want, want. We rage at the TV like a baby when Netflix goes out for, heaven forbid, 30 seconds.

In Wallace’s version of the future, terrorists use this entertainment as a tool of both terror and placation. In our reality, we entertain ourselves to death with Facebook while our adversaries use it to elect our presidents for us.

And so but then we don’t care. We want reality stars to be our leaders. It keeps us entertained.

What in the world was this post even about anymore? How did I start talking about real life when this is supposed to be about a book published over 20 years ago?

Focus.

I thought Infinite Jest was about this brilliant refutation of heady philosophers. It cleverly uses addiction to get these points across in multiple ways. It invents its own language to poke at the signifier/signified hypothesis.

Then I woke up in the middle of the night with cold sweats, heart pounding, disoriented (probably withdrawal), and I thought to myself:

Maybe Infinite Jest is about addiction.

Then I realized it doesn’t matter.

Your phone notified you of 10 more interesting things since you started reading this. You haven’t made it this far, and we can’t progress. Our eyes are stuck to the screen. We won’t be able to pull ourselves away. We will poop and pee ourselves and wish we had put on our Depends until it doesn’t matter, because we’ll all be dead.

The thought brought me comfort, and I went back to sleep.

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Examining Pro’s Prose, Part 9

First off, Happy 8 Year Blogging Anniversary!

Although David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers of all time, I’ve put off examining his prose until this late in the series. I did this on purpose, because the writers we have looked at “follow the rules.” They use clean, minimalist prose. It’s easy to see and articulate why it is good. It’s what we should all learn to do before developing our own styles.

I know this is a bit of controversial advice. Many people say to develop your own style from the start and not waste time trying to emulate famous writers. It’s not so much that I think one should be able to emulate it, but that one should understand what makes simple prose effective before layering in complexity.

I’ve read about how DFW taught writing and believe he took this same approach. You can’t build a house without a foundation. I think that if anyone tries to write in the way of DFW without first understanding the basics, it will come off as a complete mess. So consider yourself warned, but do whatever you want.

To borrow a term from Greg Carlisle, DFW’s prose has an elegant complexity to it. The point of this post is to try to get at what this could mean (though Carlisle was referring to the overall structure of Infinite Jest with that term). His prose still has the elegance of the previous writers from this series but with a layered complexity built on top of it.

Here is a sentence we get early on in Infinite Jest:

The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me.

Most people should be able to read this and understand it on the first time through. This should strike you as strange. It begins with the placement of a person, followed by an 18-word descriptive appositive (containing further qualification after the relative pronoun), continues the first part, and ends with a 21-word, nonessential comma clause descriptor.

Normally, a creative writing instructor would mark this as too long and confusing structurally to be read easily. So why does it work here? That question is hard to answer, because we don’t have earlier, unedited versions to compare it to. The best way to get a sense of its workings is to try to think of some changes and see how it makes things worse.

One thing we could do is eliminate this business about the smile. The passage as a whole would read more easily. But the phrase “impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material” is too good. This sentence is on the first page of the novel, and that phrase, in particular, sets the tone of the novel perfectly.

Think about that phrase for a second. There’s something very dark about it. It implies the person is forced to smile constantly (“fixed”), but who does not smile often (the stamp of the smile reverts to the original shape because of the “uncooperative material” aka his face). At the same time, the description is so unique and striking, it almost comes off as comical. And this perfectly describes the tone of the novel. It’s dark, yet almost comical.

So we can’t eliminate that part. We could always break it off into its own sentence, but again, it just doesn’t seem important enough to do that. The subordinate flow we get by sticking it into an appositive fits its importance.

In the next part, could we eliminate “lately” without losing anything? I’d say yes. This fits with the rule: eliminate adverbs. On the other hand, we’ve basically gone all-in on the wordiness, so it might be better to ask: does it sufficiently detract from the meaning to remove it? I’d say no.

It fits the wordy flow to leave it in, and we have to imagine there were other ones that were cut, considering it is the only adverb in the entire passage. Think about the alternative and more wordy “something stamped hesitantly into uncooperative material.” The adverb there really does add a few too many unnecessary words to make the image appear in your head. It gets a touch too confusing.

The last clause begins by reiterating “the type.” This acts to reground the reader. It reiterates the subject of the clause, and we could imagine many ways to phrase it that doesn’t make it this clear.

In conclusion, the structure of the sentence may be complex, and the word count makes it look excessively wordy, but DFW keeps the excess to a minimum like we’ve talked about before. He also keeps each segment fully self-contained so that there is no confusion about the subject at each point. The basics of clear writing are still there underneath the added complexity.

Homework: Try the same type of analysis with this sentence from a later section (hint: it might have lots of places it could be cleaned up, but has the voice changed? is the tone intentionally different? does context matter?).

If it’s odd that Mario Incandenza’s first halfway-coherent film cartridge — a 48-minute job shot three summers back in the carefully decorated janitor-closet of Subdorm B with his head-mount Bolex H64 and foot-treadle — if it’s odd that Mario’s first finished entertainment consists of a film of a puppet show — like a kids’ puppet show — then it probably seems even odder that the film’s proven to be way more popular with E.T.A.’s adults and adolescents than it is with the woefully historically underinformed children it had first been made for.

Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way

This is mostly meant to be a direct continuation of the last post, but there is so much to say about the importance of this short story for understanding Infinite Jest that I needed a full post to do it. I will try to stick to this thesis, but I get so excited about unraveling all the complexities and parallels in this story that I may wander off at times. This story may, in fact, be more complicated and difficult to read than Infinite Jest, so be warned.

Let’s start with the basics. The main character is a writer that wants to write a new type of fiction. He claims that it will use the old metafictional devices, but also move past it and stab the reader in the heart. We already saw this idea in the last post, but this story is a way for DFW to tell us how he intends to do it, i.e. it serves as a reader’s guide to Infinite Jest. That’s why this story is so important for prep material (if you choose to do such a thing).

What is going on takes a moment to digest. Here goes. The work is a criticism of the shortcomings of metafiction. But it is a metafictional story using those very devices to do the criticism. The main critique is of Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” To do this, Barth is literally a character in the story as Professor Ambrose who wrote the aforementioned story (LitF from now on, because that is getting annoying to type), but this time it is an autobiographical nonfiction work instead of Barth’s fiction (recall that the main character of LitF is Ambrose). Summary: Prof Ambrose wrote LitF in DFW’s story and is leading a writing workshop.

Ambrose (despite being a “real” character already) from LitF is fictionalized as Mark, the main character in “Westward …” through a retelling of LitF. LitF is a story about Ambrose travelling to Ocean City and getting lost in a funhouse at the amusement park. DFW uses wordplay in the retelling and has Mark travelling to a McDonald’s commercial actors reunion where there will (of course!) be a Ronald McDonald “funhouse.”

I said I wouldn’t do this, so I’m going to cut myself off there. I trust that if you’ve read LitF, and you take some time to meditate on the above two paragraphs until it stops being so confusing, then you can continue to unravel this ridiculously convoluted metaphor and story within a story that is a retelling of that story (which is already in the story …). Stop. I must stop. But it is just so much fun to unravel (for example, the funhouse in LitF is being franchised which is an insult that post-modernism has become commercial).

So what is DFW trying to tell us? Well, Barth uses his story to tell us how he sees metafiction. His metaphor is the funhouse of mirrors. In LitF he writes, “In a funhouse mirror-room you can’t see yourself go on forever, because no matter how you stand your head gets in the way.” This is the exact type of critical theory conundrum that DFW faces. He wants to affect the reader. But words and texts and people’s thoughts (i.e. “heads”) are always in the way. You can’t ever truly get to the person.

DFW’s metaphor is a bow and arrow, because Mark, the main character, is a pro archer. He has a beautiful description in “Westward …” of how an archer must take into account that the arrow doesn’t fly true. So to hit the bullseye, the archer actually makes adjustments ahead of time, aims off-center, and ends up hitting the center.

He’s saying that Barth can’t hit the reader, because he’s aiming at the wrong place: the head. Writers that strike at the reader’s heart also fall short, because they aim at it too directly. This new type of fiction will take this into account and aim in between. The result will be a piercing of the reader’s heart in a new and more serious way.

Mark’s girlfriend is post-modernist writer in Ambrose’s workshop. Without going too far into it, the thing to pay attention to with her is that she is the epitome of the type of metafiction that DFW wants to do away with. Remember, DFW wants to keep some metafiction and throw out other parts to invent a new type of fiction. This character is a guide to the parts he wants thrown out.

This is a long story, and so I can’t help you through every detail. Another general principle to keep in mind while interpreting this is that the arrow is meant to be a stand-in for the pen. So when the arrow “kills” things/people, you should figure out what those things/people are representing. For example, Mark writes a story about a person named Dave (oh no, Mark who is Ambrose is a stand-in for DFW writes a work of “new fiction” with Dave as its main character …).

Dave has a lover named L– (presumably meant to be “literature”). But L– commits suicide (as the post-modernists brought the death of literature) with the arrow. Dave is innocent, but feels guilty and hence admits that (after translation out of the metaphor) his writing helped bring about the death of literature. Of course, Mark makes an appearance in this story that he wrote causing yet another story within the story with a character as the person that wrote the story, but also a stand-in for someone else (which sets up a weird endless loop that DFW is Mark, Mark is Dave, and Dave is DFW …). I seem to be losing my way again, so I’ll end this line of thought.

Hopefully you have a bit of a feel for what “Westward …” is doing. I’ll end this post by going through my thoroughly well-worn copy of the story and pulling the quotes that I think are the most important to focus on for understanding how and why DFW wrote Infinite Jest.

“…they want to build a Funhouse for lovers out of a story that does not love. J.D. himself had said the story doesn’t love, no? Yes. However, Mark postulates that Steelritter is only half-right. The story does not love, but this is precisely because it is not cruel…. The way to make a story a Funhouse is to put the story itself in one. For a lover. Make the reader a lover, who wants to be inside.”

“Please don’t tell anybody, but Mark Nechtr desires, some distant hard-earned day, to write something that stabs you in the heart. That pierces you, makes you think you’re going to die…. The stuff would probably use metafiction as a bright smiling disguise, a harmless floppy-shoed costume, because metafiction is safe to read, familiar as syndication; and no victim is as delicious as the one who smiles in relief at your familiar approach.”

Barth’s LitF famously opens with, “For whom is the funhouse fun? Perhaps for lovers. For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion.”

DFW turns it around and beautifully sums up what he is doing with his closing lines:

“For whom?
You are loved.”

Minor Preparation to Get the Most out of Infinite Jest

I’ve been reading the biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max, and it reminded me that for years I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on some of the preparation you can do to have a much better experience reading Infinite Jest.

First, I’m not doing this out of some condescending “let the self-declared expert tell you how you must read this” type of thing. I actually get asked this question semi-frequently, and I want something I can direct people to. My first answer is usually, “Just do it.” You can get a lot of enjoyment out of the novel without delving into the philosophy of the meta-fictional devices.

On the other hand, if you are going to spend a few months of your life reading a 1000 page beast of a novel, then you should be willing to do some minor preparation. I estimate a dedicated person could easily do these reading assignments in less than a week. I picked these for both brevity and clarity after years of reading everything he’s ever written and watching/reading tons of interviews with him, and reading as many things as I can that he points out as influences.

This will take two posts. One on everything and why I chose it. The other on understanding his story Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. If you are really pressed for time, then my advice is to finish reading this post. Read that story. Then read my soon to come explanation of why that story is the most important thing he ever wrote in trying to decipher why he writes in the way he writes. That story is a Rosetta stone to understanding his later works.

Here’s my reading list:
Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth (a short story)
“The Balloon” by Donald Barthelme (a short story)
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker (a very short novella)
“Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” by David Foster Wallace (a short story/novella)

That may look like a lot, but each story can probably be read in one sitting, although I recommend going slowly through that last one. Let’s take them one at a time.

“The Balloon” is probably the least important of the list. This is a short story that DFW talked about in several interviews. It was a story that basically changed his life. He wasn’t a literature or creative writing major in college, but this story made him see writing in a different light. It made him want to be a writer.

Here’s how I understand this. All the fiction that DFW wrote was deeply philosophical. He majored in philosophy and as a grad student took lots of critical theory. He was obsessed with the theory behind the relationship between author, text, and reader. This wasn’t abstract for him. Because he wanted to develop a relationship with his readers through what he wrote, he needed to understand what the nature of that relationship was.

What Barthelme’s story does, which was so novel at the time, is put the theoretical considerations right in the story plainly for all to see. This is essentially a defining characteristic of the post-modernists of the time. The story as a whole has some macro-structure (“plot” if you want to use that term), but the individual sentences have a micro-structure which is informing you as you go how to interpret the macro-structure.

The story is very enigmatic. Just as you are thinking, “What in the world is going on?” you encounter characters who say things like, “We have learned not to insist on meanings.” This isn’t the type of place where DFW ended in his writing, but it makes a lot of sense why he started here. The story is difficult, but the reader who is willing to put in the effort to think about the individual sentences is rewarded by being helped by the author, i.e. a back-and-forth rewarding relationship is built. Both sides have to put in effort, which is a key idea that will keep coming up.

As linked above, I’ve written about “Lost in the Funhouse” before. You can read that for details. Some might go so far as to call it “the canonical” example of post-modernism. The main importance on this list is that “Westward …” is simultaneously a parody of it, a rewriting of it, and a tool to get some messages across. I dare say it is impossible to to read “Westward …” and have any idea what is going on without having read “Lost in the Funhouse” first. We’ll discuss it a bit more next time.

Last is The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. This book takes place over something like 10 seconds. The plot (and full main text!) of the novella is that a man walks into a mezzanine and takes an escalator up to the next floor. That’s it. What makes this so compelling is that there are about 130 pages of footnotes telling you what the guy is thinking through this whole process.

The book is a page turner. I’m not joking. It gives you a glimpse into the mind of another human in such a raw and unfiltered way. It, of course, is really funny at times, but the fact that it is funny is because you know your thoughts do the same exact types of things. You chain together all sorts of seemingly unrelated stupid things.

The reason for putting this on here is two-fold. First, DFW constantly talked about the importance of literature being that it makes you for a moment feel less alone. Here’s the quote, “We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can alow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.” This book comes as close as any that I can think of to achieving the idea of truly identifying with a character.

The second reason I chose this book is actually the key one. The way the book does it is not by any of the conventional means. It achieves this truly magnificent feat purely through the use of footnotes. DFW loved this book. Now ask yourself what is the most daunting part of Infinite Jest? Most people say it is the extensive use of endnotes.

We’ll get more to the endnotes next time, but I think The Mezzanine holds the key to one of the reasons DFW used them. They aren’t purely distraction. They aren’t meta-fictional wankery. They aren’t highfalutin philosophical nonsense. DFW read a book that achieved what he considered the goal of literature, and it was done using this device. If you can understand the use in The Mezzanine, then you will be well on your way to understanding the use of the endnotes in Infinite Jest.

We’re only halfway there, but if you’ve made it this far and you want some extra credit, then I also recommend finding a copy of Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace. It is a good resource if you want to delve deeper into the philosophy and critical theory of what he was trying to do. Also, DFW is trying to surpass his post-modern idols, so it helps to be familiar with post-modernism in general. If you aren’t, then The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon is a pretty short but classic book in that style as well.