Is Infinite Jest Nihilism in Sincerity’s Clothing?

I have just finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and hereby begin my first public foray into some light literary and cultural criticism. I expect that this is fairly commonplace – that anyone who has read the book is driven to process it in some shape or form. I want here to talk about Infinite Jest in a way that isn’t so much about the details of the plot since the contents make nearly zero sense to those who have not read the book (this is very intentional, as I will explain presently), and there are already many very good and interesting theories out there about the the plot and its ending. Michael Moats’ blog post is particularly good at collecting various websites that deal with the plot, and evaluating their theories. Do not read them if you have not read the book because it is really important that you do not rob your future reader-self of the experience of going through Infinite Jest for the first time.

I am here more interested in the larger question of what Wallace is attempting to do and whether or not he succeeds, particularly pertaining to the relation between content of the book and its form. This relates to larger questions about the role of literature in our present Western entertainment-culture. Part of what I hope this will do is make Wallace look intriguing enough so those who have not yet read him will want to.

Wallace (1962 – 2008) has explicitly articulated some ideas about what he believes fiction is supposed to be about. His essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction argues for a new kind of fiction that is not the sort of ironic self-parody influenced by television-culture, but

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval.

These ideas have spawned a movement called “New Sincerity,” which has had an impact on philosophy and the fine arts, arguably including in Wallace’s own book Infinite Jest. This manifests in details like the fact that a certain character is saved from his depression by a very un-romantic kind of love for his disabled wife. Arguably the only other character who is not addicted, depressed, or otherwise messed-up is a disabled, naive, but absolutely trusting boy, attentive to the people around him.

Despite all of this, however, I am left with the question of whether or not Wallace in fact succeeds on a larger scale. Arguably the main plotline of the book turns around a lethal “entertainment” called Infinite Jest that traps its viewers into never wanting to do anything else but watch it over and over again. The book Infinite Jest parodies the “entertainment” Infinite Jest in its form, namely by engrossing readers so deeply into its abstruse plotlines that they are pulled away from everyday reality. As soon as the reader has finished the book he or she is very strongly compelled to go back to the beginning in order to figure out the ending. What did the plot really mean? What are the details buried in the text that can help make sense of the ending? The following makes an interesting argument about the way in which the book manages to evoke this impulse to start again at the beginning:

It’s not because the book is so fun. It’s because of the explosive carnage of the final sections. The destruction of beloved characters forces a frantic search for textual clues that signal a rebirth in their future, or at least create some meaning amidst their fall. I didn’t want to reread IJ because I loved the book, but because I wanted a way out of what the book was telling me. And so I could flip back to page one and begin again. And when I didn’t find the answer, do it again. And again. What does this sound like?

This commenter goes on to point out that from what we know of the entertainment, the same logic applies. It’s not actually that Infinite Jest is so entertaining, but its implications are so horrific that viewers are compelled to search for information that would make it right again, information that was never provided. It’s more like being stuck inside a nightmare.

So, in the end, isn’t the book as a whole simply a depressing trap that makes readers stuck and lonely, cut off from real life? Is this actually nihilism? An addictive, eternal return of the same without any hope? I think the answer to that question lies largely in whether or not the passages and characters of hope are enough for the reader. The book poses the question of what it is that we require of life. Are the small glimmers of hope in certain passages of sincerity enough for us or will we continually seek some larger foundational meaning that will keep us spinning on the hamster wheel?

This raises the question of how much we want to see the structure of Infinite Jest as a representation of the shape of reality as a whole. In particular this raises the question of fracture. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace talks about the importance of fracture. This is the function of his use of footnotes. The author’s responsibility is to fracture the text is in the way that is most honest to the author’s experience of reality. Why does Wallace speak like this? Why is fracture important? It seems to me that this emphasis on fracture is itself a way of conceptualizing reality that is at least in part influenced by an entertainment-saturated society, particularly evident in media’s increased complicity with the internet. Television has always been fragmented by advertising, and episodes are by nature fragments of some larger world (it’s interesting that Wallace talks specifically about television, rather than film. However, the entertainment cartridges of Infinite Jest seem a lot more like films, which suggests to me that Wallace has not quite himself grasped the significance of fracture as an addictive component of entertainment). However, this has reached new heights with the internet in that we are now able to move rapidly between articles and short video clips and status updates and tweets etc. Two examples that have struck me recently are the phenomenon of “vines,” 7-second video clips, and the Youtube series H+ in which episodes are about 2-5 minutes in length. I am not saying anything new here, but what I think is interesting is that Wallace’s fractured narrative very much reflects this trend. And if this is the case, then his fiction is arguably still a self-conscious parody influenced by television-culture.

So what does this mean? Do we dismiss Infinite Jest as nihilist? As not really giving us anything new but a repetition of the same old patterns of darkness and stupidity? Again, I don’t think that this necessarily follows. What I hope my questions lead to in the end is a greater self-awareness on the part of the reader in interacting with Infinite Jest. In the end, the text does not represent reality by itself but reality as the way in which reader interacts with the text. The ball is put in our court – how are we going to respond to a sometimes absurd and heartbreaking reality? This is particularly evident in the above commentator’s assertion that what the reader is left with in the end is characters who fall apart and so he or she goes looking for the meaning of this, or some inkling that they will be okay again somewhere beyond the future of the book. But this is entirely a matter of interpretation. Several of the main characters that supposedly experience “destruction”  all end up trapped inside themselves and are unable to communicate with the outside world. That is a very lonely place to be. However, this is also the point at which these characters undergo something of perhaps a salvation, if that’s not too strong a word. One learns to become a real person, another learns how to deal with pain in a way that is real, healthy, non-escapist by learning to abide in the moment. There are even several references to this character asking for help from a higher power. Moreover, there are ways hinted at that these characters come together. So, there are several ways in which the absolute loneliness is actually not devoid of a kind of contact and a kind of communication. They are precisely united in their solitude (194).

Now, if I interpret this as destruction my response to the book is going to be very different than if I interpret this as salvation. As I mentioned at the beginning, the details of the plot are very idiosyncratic and difficult to talk about with those who haven’t read the book such that one becomes almost trapped inside it, which is no doubt why readers like me are then almost driven out into public to escape the kind of loneliness that this generates and seek some sort of conversation. However, this illustrates precisely the dual way of interpreting the form of Infinite Jest. The lonely, circular structure can be seen as trapping and threatening like the “entertainment,” but it can also be read as doing the necessary work of separating us from the frenzy around us such that we are able to find the kind of meaning and connection that comes from doing something difficult and lonely. If that’s what I want to get out if this then I am, arguably, currently undercutting that possibility by broadcasting these thoughts. But I’m a work in progress, so I  welcome conversation nonetheless.


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