One Way to Read Infinite Jest

I’m fresh off a reading of David Foster Wallace’s awesome “David Lynch Keeps His Head” (in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) and also a re-reading of his “Frank’s Dostoevsky” (in Consider the Lobster) and I feel like taking a stab at saying something reasonably holistic about Infinite Jest.

[By the way – if you haven’t read all these essays and books – by all means – DO SO RIGHT AWAY!  I know it’s not all that critically minded or suitably objective but, every time I read something else of DFW’s I haven’t read before, the real reaction it creates is almost pre-verbal – I want to grab anyone nearby, thrust a copy of the book upon them and just say “OH MY GOD!  READ THIS! DO NOT WAIT!  THIS IS SO AWESOME THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN KNOW IT BY READING IT!!!”  Not sure if I’m the only one who’s had the reaction, but there it is – and I say this as someone who had read hundreds of books, and isn’t given to just over-the-top fan “obsession.”  If you’ve ever wanted to read something about movies (or David Lynch) that’s neither merely academic nor totally ridiculous pop-cultural crab, “David Lynch Keeps His Head” is pretty much the perfect neither-of-the-above.]

Anyway.  Back to Infinite Jest.  My thought a few weeks ago, upon finishing it, was, this could be revealingly seen as a grand synthesis of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  It probably seems like any book that attempted that would be a colossal failure.  Not so with Infinite Jest.  

A rough sketch of how I mean this:  DFW takes Joyce’s syntax/diction-bending-allusive mindblowing modernist behemoth, ostensibly a “novel about nothing”, and marries it to Dostoevsky’s grand anti-nihilistic final testament-of-faith “novel about everything”, updating both models in a way that deals with the shortcomings of each (if it’s fair to say that either has shortcomings).

Here’s something DFW says in “Frank’s Dostoevsky“:

Part of the explanation for our own lit’s thematic poverty obviously includes our century and situation.  The good old modernists, among their other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of ethics — maybe even metaphysics — and Serious Novels after Joyce tend to be valued and studied mainly for their formal ingenuity.  Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that “serious” literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life.  Add to this that the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism and literary theory, and it’s probably fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free of certain cultural expectations that severely constrain our own novelists’ ability to be serious.

Call this the modernist ethics-aesthetics double-bind: what DFW is arguing is, as brilliant as Joyce and other modernists were, they’ve trapped today’s would-be “serious” novelist into a requirement that they play certain aesthetic tricks and display “formal ingenuity” in order to be “serious.”  This is a trap, however, because the more formal ingenuity one deploys, in a bid to be taken seriously, the more of the narrative sincerity DFW so prizes in Dostoevsky, among others, will have to be sacrificed.  All serious novels, therefore, cannot be serious anymore – they cannot ask the “big questions,” or else they will be, ipso facto, not serious.

If you don’t believe me that this is a real double-bind, ask a bunch of hipster bookstore employees what they think of Jonathan Franzen (who has his own opinions about Dostoevsky and Joyce, though they’re much more “I like Dostoevsky more than Joyce”).  The hipsters are like “Franzen can’t just pretend Thomas Pynchon doesn’t exist…/his early stuff is experimental but now he’s just like, no better than the Oprah book club stuff he turns his nose up at/DFW was so much smarter than him, it’s a shame”, etc. etc. [I heard a lot of this in real time at a Don DeLillo reading at the Chicago Public Library]

You can probably take almost anything DFW wrote as an attempt to squirm out of this double-bind – or may be a better way of putting it – rather than being neither formally ingenious nor morally sincerely big-question-asking (arguably what’s happened to Franzen) – DFW more or less gives both sides of this dispute the finger and says “actually, I’ll give you both.”

Here’s another clearer pro-Dostoevsky sentence: “The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we — here, today — cannot or do not permit ourselves.”  In a footnote following, he goes on to suggest that Dostoevsky’s anti-nihilism applies just as well to us today, mutatis mutandis, suggesting that “maybe [we are] under our own type of nihilist spell.”

But then, DFW doesn’t just go for the “Joyce is a gimmicky hack” reactionary stance.  Even the Dostoevsky article itself plays that clever Moebius-strip sort of formal-ingenuity-style trick.  It’s tough to describe without you just reading it, but, every few pages, he’s put in a free-standing paragraph that says something like the following:

** Am I a good person?  Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me?  Is there a difference?  How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking? **

There are other similar **’ed interpolations, about faith, the meaning of life, selfishness, the possibility of loving someone else, nationalism, and Jesus Christ as a historical person.  But then here’s the kicker, after the reader has pondered the significance of these **’ed interpolations, DFW throws us this:

contemporary writers have to either make jokes of [serious moral questions] or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like inter-textual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.

Is this “formal ingenuity” or is this “asking serious questions”? It’s both-and, and it’s neither-nor.  Like Wes Anderson, the cleverness exists right alongside the passion, it even super-charges it, it doesn’t act as a substitute for it.

What a great way to read Infinite Jest.  It’s got the Joycean inventiveness and the Dostoevskian serious questions.  But there are also much more specific allusions to both Ulysses and The Brothers Karamazov.

The Brothers Karamazov: The Incandenza family has three brothers: a broken-sensualist oldest Dmitri-type – Orin; a strangely committed aesthete Ivan-type – Mario; and an intuitive but fragile youngest brother Alyosha-type – Hal.  They have a deranged and deranging father (though he’s a suicide, not a patricide), and a strangely alluring temptress (Joelle, the PGOAT, Madam Psychosis, etc.).  The novel is centrally concerned with the youngest brother’s attempt to find some way of reckoning with the world morally, while not losing his head.  The grandly hilarious opening scene if TBK (the whole family at the monastery) is not just a little analogous to the college-interview opening punch-in-the-gut of IJ.  I’m sure I devoted myself to extracting more parallels, I could.

Ulysses: Officially, Ulysses‘s 18 episodes each have their own form.  That’s probably not really true – clusters of chapters are more similar than Joyce seems to have imagined, but among other things, you get first-person internal monologue (“Proteus”), newspaper-article-sized chunks punctuated by ALL CAPS HEADLINES (“Aeolus”), Bloom-and-Stephen catachism (“Ithaca”), confused nonlinear multistory counterpoint (“Wandering Rocks”), and all-these-men-are-so-silly extended internal narrative (“Penelope”).

Each of these probably has a one-to-one analogy in Infinite Jest, but then think also of the formal innovation more generally: Hal Incandenza’s secret reasonings/drug rituals, Himself’s filmic CV, the narration of the “eschaton” game gone bad, Madam Psychosis’s radio show, the random addicts’ attempts to steal stuff in Boston, etc. etc.

And we can map the major characters on to Ulysses‘s cast too: Stephen = Hal; Bloom = Don Gately; Molly = Avril Incandenza; Milly = Joelle, etc. etc.

Rather than any one-to-one mapping through, what I think IJ has is the feel of both TBK and Ulysses.  There’s always enough Joycean deflection and trickery that the Dosteovskian anti-nihilism can sneak its way into an otherwise “serious” reader’s ironic posture.

The anti-nihilist agenda shows up nowhere more prominently than in Gately’s continued attempt to let overly intellectual would-be recoverers understand that irony, self-reference and posturing is not the way out of drug and alcohol addiction.  One of the most oft-repeated and powerful truths of IJ is that the cliches of Alcoholics Anonymous seem to work, whatever the Boston-educated grad-school-addict set wants to believe.

But just as with Dostoevsky, this anti-nihilism is rendered somewhat ineffective because like Dostoevsky before him, DFW is too good at portraying the nihilists for them to be seen as simple parodies of popular ideology.  Gately’s compelling, but so is Hal, which may be why the novel ends in a sort of inverted synthesis, where instead of Bloom leading Stephen to safety, we get Gately imagining one last great O.D. (and Linda McCartney solo vocal tracks screeching through it all).

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8 Responses to One Way to Read Infinite Jest

  1. juan says:

    Interesting. I haven’t read Wallace, what he says may be accurate of a lot of writers. But there were others who found a way out of this dilemma, like some of the French New Novelists.
    Anyway, it seems from the way the dilemma is stated that Joyce is classified as entirely on one side (the style-side) and Dostoevsky on the other (the seriousness, or content side). I think this is correct, and I’ve long had the impression that Joyce was just a bunch of tricks. Sure, he was a great innovator as concerns the form of the novel, but you don’t get the same feeling like in Dostoevsky, that he’s trying to cope with real issues. I’ve always wondered what the parallels critics draw between the episodes of Ulysses and those of the Odyssey are supposed to show. So what, if Stephen is doing something that’s kind of similar to what Ulysses did?
    There’s other modernists who also side-stepped Wallace’s dilemma: V. Woolf, W. Faulkner and S. Beckett, for example. It’s true they did not go as far as Joyce in terms of form, but what Joyce did with the novel’s form is unique and there is no point trying to repeat it. It’s like trying to write like Shakespeare. Joyce opened up a new era of formal and technical possibilities, but I’m not sure he did much more than that. Perhaps I need to read more criticism about him.

    One can also take what Joyce did in Ulysses too far. Case in point, the above-mentioned T. Pynchon. Pynchon, generally, is overrated meaningless and boring crap.

  2. David says:

    Great stuff, Josh. Seeing DFW as combining the strengths of Joyce and Dostoevsky seems right to me. His dazzling language keeps him from being ponderous, and his moral seriousness/vigilance keeps him from being merely flashy. Or I suppose I should say: ‘kept.’ What a shame.

    Also, I second Juan’s mentioning of Wolff and Faulkner–the bit I’ve read of each had both substance and style.

    Juan–HERE’S a link to Wallace’s essay on Lynch. You’ll love it.

    And here’s a site that’s compiled a bunch of his essays:

    • juan says:

      Thank, David, great essay on Lynch. Loved the description of the crew, and his comments on Patricia Arquette, Bill Pullman, and R. Loggia. Funny he mentions Jeff Daniels, I used to always confuse him with Pullman. Note also that there exists a guy called Bill Paxton, who looks like both, to complicate matters.

      I’ve recently seen Lost Highway again (3rd time). It’s impossible to make sense of all the details, and I don’t know anyone who’s done it. But it’s still awesome.

  3. Josh says:

    I want to re-watch Lost Highway too… I was going to re-watch it before reading this essay but oh well.

    I agree about Woolf (though that has, to be, just an entirely different feel from any of the sort of stylistic stuff one finds in Joyce and DFW). I’ve never read Faulker (except a couple of short stories – “A Rose for Emily” and “That Evening Sun Go Down”). Obviously this is a deficiency.

    To address Juan’s earlier suspicion about Joyce – this is a tough one for me. I had another blog idea (which I might get back to) which is about what Wallace has to say about Bakhtin in that “Frank’s Dostoevsky” essay. And then what Bakhtin has to say about Joyce. Briefly, DFW doesn’t seem to like Bakhtin (though “the Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics” was awesome, and in a pretty similar way to DFW’s writing). Bakhtin also doesn’t like Joyce, referring to his work as “decedent bourgeois fiction” or something like that” (admittedly, probably a required formulation for a writer under communism). But then, DFW seems to have a bit more respect for Joyce than Bakhtin (or Juan for that matter).

    But back to the point about Joyce – he’s definitely a trickster, but I don’t think he’s *merely* so (which seems like a fair enough thing to say about Pynchon [though at the same time, _The Crying of Lot 49_ is pretty awesome]).

    I put Joyce in the grand tradition of comedy – comedy which attempts to elicit actual joy at the written word and what it describes, rather than wry and effete snobbery about it. There is a warm humanity that emanates from many of Joyce’s “tricks.” An analogy might be to elaborate Bach counterpoint or a medieval illuminated manuscript (this latter was something Joyce was self-consciously emulating – _Finnegans Wake_ is even, at some level, a re-working of one particular page in the Book of Kells).

    Often times, the tricks are to establish a certain kind of realism – say, about the extent to which Stephen Deadalus has established an overly intellectual boundary between himself and his friends and family (so the allusions show us his allusiveness, not only Joyce’s. And just like with Dostoevsky, though Joyce is critiquing Daedalus at those moments, he’s doing it *so knowingly* that you’re not exactly brought to either merely critique or merely sympathy with Daedalus’s snobbery. The Bloom chapters have a similar (though inverse) effect with respect to his simplicity-cum-simpleton-ness. Nothing in Pynchon achieves this sense of rich humanity, mostly because he doesn’t seem to care about *characterization* at all.

    As for the Ulysses/Odyssey parallels – to me, it was always about the self-conscious use of an archetype. Its deliberate invocation (whether intended ironically or sincerely) conjures forth a whole tradition of other derivative literature, which allows the particular (i.e., Bloom) to be general (i.e., western-literature-epic-protagonist) in a really interesting way. In lesser hands, it just doesn’t work because it feels heavy-handed. Somehow the self-conscious invocation of it prevents that. It’s also just irreducibly clever on several occasions in the book. Even just think of the opening chapter – you cannot read it without thinking about Telemachus the whole time, which sounds so many overtones in so many other registers, which allows you to appreciate both the specificity of the narrated situation *and* the universal value of that situation (and then also, at the level of irony, the extent to which that situation has NO universal value – it somehow does and does not at the same time).

    The Joyce of _Ulysses_, I guess I’m saying, is much more the Joyce of _Dubliners_ than the Joyce of _A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man_ (though I like that book too).

    • juan says:

      These comments kind of make me feel like picking up Joyce again. I liked the Portrait way more than Ulysses, but I understand what you are saying, I think I need to re-evaluate Ulysses. The problem is just that I’m not sure I can, at my age aesthetic taste (whatever there is of it) is already formed. So at an intellectual level I can understand pro-Joyce arguments, but it’s still possible that Joyce doesn’t impress me like Kafka or Celine, which are 2 of my favorites. One can’t like everything. Of course, this is not an argument for or against anything, it’s just the confession of an inability.

      I also agree about The Crying of Lot 49, I remember enjoying that. But the other stuff by Pynchon I’ve read was usually some sprawling mess that wasn’t really going anywhere (notwithstanding some beautiful passages here and there).

    • juan says:

      Forgot to mention the only story I really liked from Dubliners: The Dead, and that only after I had seen the John Huston movie first. I’m a fan of Huston, and probably without the movie I would not have understood or enjoyed the story.

  4. Josh says:

    And if you guys haven’t read “Big Red Son” (on the page of links David references above)… it’s another just RIOTOUSLY good read.

    • David says:

      –“Mr. Peter North, in particular, delivers what seem more like mortar rounds than bio-emissions.” It’s funny because it’s true.

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