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What I learned from Infinite Jest

09/21/2009

I apologize in advance for this post. There is no way I could sum up succinctly the entirety of what I have learned from Infinite Jest. The following is a sampling and probably won’t make a great deal of sense to someone who hasn’t read IJ. Also, I apologize for any accidental spoilers. Item number 6 may be dangerous in that regard.

Today marks the end of Infinite Summer. It’s officially fall, reading Infinite Jest together as a community is now officially over. I finished IJ in August, but I will definitely miss the insightful commentary of Infsum.
IJ truly is a masterpiece, not just an over-hyped novel. I heartily recommend it to other determined readers.

Now, not in any particular order, things I have learned from IJ include:

1. New words for Scrabble *
These include (from the top of my head) onanism, nictitate, post-prandial, agnate, lordosis (almost used this last night during a fierce game in which a dad-assisted eight year old sister took home 1st place), micturate, bradykinetic, brody

The only problems with using DFW words for Scrabble are your letter limitations and the likelihood that no one else with whom you’re playing will know OED-rank-palabras offhand.**

*plus new slang (like “demap,” “Unit,” and “eating cheese”) and euphemisms (“to hear the squeak”)
**AND the official Scrabble Dictionary will have the same problem.

2. That I never want to take drugs.
This was the first novel I’ve ever read in which drug abuse (aside from alcohol, which is also rampant in IJ) is prominently featured. Wallace does not condone drug/alcohol abuse in any fashion; he addresses the issues (and addicts) in his novel from a standpoint that is as compassionate as it is realistic. Wallace not only describes the actions of addicts but also their mindsets; I found myself cringing throughout most of the novel during his powerful descriptions of the physical and mental “cage” created by Substance abuse (as well as the scenes of Withdrawal where addicts would just as painfully attempt to escape the “cage”).

After experiencing these narratives, I know for me it would be redundant to actually try drugs (plus ignoring everything Wallace said). Alcohol, narcotics, cocaine, X, Bob Hope (marijuana)– these and more and MORE are/were consumed by characters. DFW’s endnotes often consisted of the full medical/chemical names of the drug compounds and their original pharmaceutical companies.

DFW’s compassionate approach to his “encaged” characters (and that includes more than just the characters who were at Ennet House, a half-way house for addicts) was one of the most moving elements of the book to me. Wallace did not glamorize them; I daresay DFW didn’t glamorize any character in this novel. It had been too long since I’d last connected strongly with characters in a novel. Somehow, somewhere in all those endless blocks of text Wallace made me love the people of Infinite Jest. In the back of my mind, I realized how strange it really was to be cheering on and caring for these nonexistent people as they battled against their bodies’ respective Diseases.* It was also wonderful.

*Disease being one of the terms used for addiction by counselors at Ennet House.

3. That interfacing is always better.
I read this statement from one of the main characters of IJ and felt that heart-in-mouth truth sense start throbbing:
“…that the worst kind of gut-wrenching intergenerational interface is better than withdrawal or hiddenness of either side.”

Wallace’s protagonist Hal and his family, the Incandenzas, suffer from acute communicative dysfunction.* Only Mario, the most physically disabled of the Incandenzas, seems to possess health in this regard. If not a pathological liar, Orin is an unreliable source of information and a manipulator thereof; Hal closes himself off from everyone behind his intellect and tennis prowess; their overbearing mother Avril has something about her that gives everyone (including this reader) the howling fantods** and make true communication (which of course involves unpleasantries) impossible.

Wallace stresses the importance of relationships (interfacing) over entertainment, openness and honesty with others instead of being wrapped up (or “encaged” even) within the self. In his Kenyon Commencement Address of 2005***, Wallace also calls this being stuck in the “default setting” where you believe you are the absolute center of your universe and act accordingly.

I can Identify (as they would say in AA) with Hal’s problems with openness with others and definitely valued this message in IJ. It was actually eerie at times to see parallels between myself and Hal. At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, I remember feeling proud of myself for “being open” with my three roommates–the previous year had been difficult in this regard and I felt I’d grown. To my surprise they approached me and said gently, something to the effect of “We want you to be open with us because we love you. You’re still pretty closed off.”
So when Hal experiences the unsettling feeling of the disjunction between his inner and outer self (being told to stop smiling so grotesquely when to his knowledge he wasn’t smiling at all), I understood.

Like other contributors to Infinite Summer, I too want to try harder with interfacing and getting out of the cage, particularly with my family.

*To say that Infinite Jest is a book chiefly about entertainment and communication is very simplistic but also very true.
** Really awesome way to say heebie jeebies or “an ill-defined state of irritability and distress”
*** Which basically sums up the main moral thrust of IJ in a way that gives me chills.

4. “Do not underestimate objects.” -Lyle, the sweat guru
I found myself chanting this phrase while negotiating the semi-terrifying inclines in the local park on my (new) rollerblades. Actually, I’m not sure if this phrase is directly applicable to blading or if I even understand what Lyle means.
Thinking abotu this along with what other characters (Coach Schtitt) have said in the novel, I think this means that you need to know your own limits and fears and act accordingly.

Related: “Don’t try to pull a weight that weighs more than you do.”
The fact that Lyle (a man who meditates on top of the towel dispenser in the weight room at Enfield Tennis Academy and survives off of students’ sweat) is one of the major spiritual counselors at ETA is one of IJ’s wonderful quirks that make it so GOOD.

5. AA and the Gospel
I’ve read Christian literature before that’s compared the openness/brokenness that’s present in AA meetings to how the Gospel should free us to be open with our fellow Christians about our sins and shortcomings. DFW’s AA completely validated that comparison. I didn’t know that much about AA before IJ, or rather I knew its raison d’etre but not many specifics. On the copyright page of the novel, DFW thanks the AA groups that allowed him to come in and ask questions: “Besides Closed Meetings for alcoholics only, Alcoholics Anonymous in Boston, Massachusetts, also has Open Meetings, where pretty much anybody who’s interested can come and listen, take notes, pester people with questions, etc. A lot of people at these Open Meetings spoke with me and were extremely patient and garrulous and generous and helpful. The best way I can think of to show my appreciation to these men and women is to decline to thank them by name.”

DFW does a LOT with AA, NA (Narcotics Anonymous) in Infinite Jest; as heart-rending and horrifying as some of the stories the AAnons told (being abused as children, how they hit Bottom, the way they’d hurt those around them, etc ) these were among my favorite parts of the book. The openness and Identification of their fellow AAers and the cliches “Keep Coming Back” “Hang in There” “Fake It Til You Make It” “But for the Grace of God” and the invocation of a Higher Power to help them through…were immensely encouraging to me. It’s funny how Don would be thinking about how it didn’t make sense why AA worked when it was mostly platitudes and Meetings. Sometimes it feels that way to me in the Christian life, that I don’t understand exactly how I am justified and sinful at the same time, but it WORKS. The baking-a-cake metaphor comes to mind–you don’t have to understand the chemistry of how a cake comes into being in the oven, you just have to follow the instructions and it works.

6. You don’t always get all the answers.
You gotta learn to live with this or you go crazy. In some ways, IJ felt like real life: just like reality there’s more than one explanation for something and you don’t always get to know what the real answer is. In this novel, DFW doesn’t give all the answers. It was tempting to be infuriated, to feel like reading this book was a waste, that I didn’t even know what happened to Hal and to Don and to Pemulis and to the freaking AFR and the Entertainment. I think DFW’s just reminding us that some degree of mystery is the reality of things. Plus there’s all these theories about tides and annulation and how the novel is constructed that I won’t go into here.
And why the hell Stice’s bed would end up on different sides of the room when he woke up in the morning. A mystery among mysteries…but one worth mulling over.

Other bloggers (conveniently linked to InfSum) have speculated that DFW’s lack of answers have to do with the theme of entertainment that overmasters its partakers. By not supplying all the facts and intentionally having a non-linear, fragmented narrative (with ambiguities! e.g. re: Mario’s parentage), Wallace forces the reader to wrestle with this book. There is no passive way to read IJ and enjoy it for all its worth.

One of the first posts on InfSum suggested that when reading IJ, one must swim deep or stay at the surface. Even though I opted for the snorkel-view of IJ, I felt myself being stretched as a reader– my sense of syntax, my optical attention (blocks and blocks of text= not particularly eye-friendly), my suspension of disbelief (stretched beyond all recognition), my memory for holding details that would string seemingly disparate characters together not to mention abbreviations, etc etc etc. This book made me want to discuss it with others, hear theories, laugh about horrifically funny bits; it made me want to talk to others who were also “wrestling.” In this way, DFW’s warning in IJ about entertaining ourselves to death by being so self-absorbed we’re emotionally dead (or literally with The Entertainment) also came with a solution–this prompting to discuss.

7. In IJ, Don Gately and Mario are my heroes.
Yes. Yes they are.
Don is my hero for the “realness” that comes through in his character–he’s working so hard on turning his life around. He does all the things AA says to do: repeating cliches that don’t really make all that much sense until you just accept them for what they are (Fake It ‘Til You Make It), every morning his huge knees hit the floor and he Asks for Help from his personal Higher Power. Don’s also a counselor at Ennet House trying to help others beat their addictions; I love his conversations he has with the residents.

How can you not love Mario? There were so many notes in my journal where I simply wrote a page number and “Yay Mario!” He is wise, loving, and self-forgetful as he is deformed. I think DFW has to remind the reader throughout of Mario’s physical challenges because his heart is so pure and emotionally he’s got it together the best of any of the characters. Towards the beginning of the novel, DFW writes that the ETA kids consider Mario the kind of person you just like to have around. I love that he has a passion for filmmaking (and was close to J. O. Incandenza, patriarch and deceased as of the beginning of the novel) and that he’s also a spiritual guide to the students of ETA. Mario embodies the person whose life is lived without the default setting–he’s quite inspiring (I think I was almost reduced to tears during the Barry Loach episode near the end of the novel).

8. I want to have an awesome radio show like Madame Psychosis.
Simply having a DJ name that neat and not feeling pretentious about it would feel like a good start. Though I am extremely tempted to read aloud from the pamphlet of the Union for the Hideously and Improbably Deformed with strange, ambient music playing underneath, I’ll have to figure out my own way of communicating what I deem is important and noteworthy to my listeners.

This of course presumes that I will have listeners. Ha.

9. I know next to nothing about tennis.
Even after reading a book largely about a tennis academy, I still don’t really understand it. Except that Schtitt’s conditioning programs for the ETA’ers were as tough as his views on the abstracts of tennis were fascinating. Now, however, whenever I walk past tennis courts I can hear that tennis balls being hit do really make a sound like “thwok.”

DFW was a tennis player (not medicore, either) and I’ve heard his renderings of on-court events in the novel are absolutely excellent.

10. “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” – DFW
As a Christian, I believe that God is the source of all truth and He places an awareness of truth in the hearts of human beings (see Romans 1 for more on that), even in those whose hearts are not regenerated. When instances of truth occur in the works of people who do not claim Christ, these can be called Common Grace Insights (or at least my Christian college calls them by that: “All truth is God’s truth, wherever it is found.”)

IJ contains an astonishing amount of CGIs (haha), actually. A couple years ago (oh narrowminded high schooler that I was) I would have worried about how much this book affected me while I was reading it: “Oh no, a non-Christian’s work is impacting me… I must not be contaminated!” But really, if DFW’s work is pointing me back to the Biblical truths I hold dear (such as “dying to the old sinful self” = getting out of the “default setting”), there’s nothing wrong with treasuring this book. Because I have a feeling I’ll be treasuring it for a long time. Other bloggers who are long-time fans of IJ have written about how it stays on their bedside table almost like a Bible and they have read it over and over. It’s taking everything in me not to immediately start it again but unfortunately I don’t have the time I’d want to devote to the novel right now with a new semester upon me.
But I will return to it. I know I will.

I feel like I drop DFW’s name into any conversation I can (particulary with friends who have read him before). I admire his compassion, his excellent writing, his vocabulary, and the way he challenges his readers’ abilities and normal habits of living (i.e. being encaged to self or addictions). His work makes me want to be a better writer and a better person (and I know I’m not alone in this feeling or else I might feel a little strange).

Thanks again, DFW, and thank you for reading.

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