A meditation upon ‘Infinite Jest’

This is a guest post by my son, Tom Gilbert, a college sophomore majoring in philosophy.

David Foster Wallace expressed dissatisfaction with the reviews for his ambitious  Infinite Jest. The 1,104-page book is so expansive that any attempt at a plot synopsis is useless; any sweeping thematic summation seems to feel reductive.  However, the novel’s polyphonic structure and character voices are illuminating in its discussion.

The novel bears numerous similarities to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in its character relationships.  Infinite Jest3Instead of Fyodor we have possibly the most disturbing matriarch in fiction.  Each of the Karamazovs had a different mother; here (possibly) it is different fathers.  But Wallace’s book lacks the central engine of Dostoyevsky’s: instead of Dmitri’s passionate hatred and rivalry with his father over a woman, Orin simply became estranged from his father.  Likewise, the naïve and religious Alyosha of Dostoyevsky’s novel is replaced with Mario Incandenza, an ambiguously deformed and slow-minded teenager with a passion for filmmaking.  Finally, Hal is essentially Ivan minus the philosophical ebullience and plus a substance abuse problem.  I am tempted to conclude that Wallace is trying to say something about modern life, that we have the freedom now to cut off our connections with humanity when they become too painful; modern life encourages self-fulfillment in the worst possible way.

But Wallace is not merely trying to capitalize on Dostoyevsky’s archetypes by affecting a postmodern setting for them to frolic in.  Their motivations have become completely twisted.  Orin shares Dmitri’s passion for women but not his passion for living—his life consists entirely of seducing women.  Mario, like Alyosha, is the only character able to break outside the dysfunction of his family, but he remains oblivious to the pain they are experiencing.  His spiritual transcendence does not necessitate emotional maturity, awareness, or even compassion. And Hal instigates no action throughout the course of the novel.

Karamazov is explicitly mentioned once in Infinite Jest, when the narrator refers to its philosophical conundrums as a “carcinogen.”  The primary difference between the two novels is that where Dostoyevsky’s characters passionately aim their pistols directly at each others’ temples, Wallace’s would rather shoot into the air or into themselves.  The immediate effect of this on the reader is the formation of a narrative that is at best severely disjointed and at worst nonexistent.  This is not exactly a flaw; Wallace’s editor described the novel as shattered pieces of glass dropped from on high, and the novel does indeed import an epic emptiness in proportion to its considerable girth.

I have read several reviews of the book, all of which mention the point at which the reader realizes, close to the end, that there is no way in hell Wallace is going to be able to wrap up the search for an infinitely entertaining piece of film, and by extension, any real sense of closure for the reader to absorb.  It remains unclear if the novel is an assortment of hundreds of unrelated subplots, one giant plot that we are missing the pieces to, or a work that simply necessitates a second reading.  The “narrative,” rather than taking its usual place as the engine of the book, instead feels like an iron lung that cruelly resuscitates characters that really, truly, agonizingly, would be better off dead.

I don’t think it’s a novel about addiction, the same way Moby-Dick isn’t about whaling.  But I do think that the real meta-question here is whether the reader is anything more than a lab rat pushing a button for its endorphin fix.  We crave narrative because of its assistance in finding meaning, and for its unparalleled ability to deconstruct and reinforce whatever parts of ourselves we care to open up about.  Is that infantile?  Sure.  But Wallace is subverting his characters and plot so much that the narrative is our own addiction (and withdrawal) to the bleeding-heart sentimentality of the aesthetics of Aristotle.

We are Wallace’s narrative.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this.  But narrative is a covenant between the author and the receptor; and if we pervert it and abuse it in an escalating and never-ending search for the next post-structural, postmodern “high,” we aren’t really growing as people—we’re just shooting in the air.

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