The Three Pound Mammoth: Thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and the Value of the White, Male Author

It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end.  Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately — the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose?

Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace

I was first introduced to David Foster Wallace my freshman year of college in a class on American literature from 1860 to the present. We did not read any essays on tennis or excerpts from Infinite Jest about, well, tennis or any YouTube interviews where he talked about tennis. We did not consider any lobsters. We read his commencement speech to Kenyon College’s class of 2005, which is now known as This Is Water. It is about the meaning of a “real education,” and how it is not so much facts and skills that make this “real education,” but the acquisition of the ability to question what we are given, ranging from media to even our own selves. It is hella worth a listen. (And, if you would like to ponder that a bit more, I think my high school English teacher gave a lovely Tedx Talk following in its footsteps.)

The following summer, just before heading off to the wonderful reading world of summer camp, I went to the library for Infinite Jest, but they did not have it. Instead, I got The Pale King, the novel Wallace was writing when he killed himself in 2008, and was able to read it within a week. I don’t remember much about it except that it was about taxes, and that there was a character named David Foster Wallace who spoke in the first person. And, of course, that I thought it was absolutely brilliant in the cheeky, post-modernist kind of way Wallace is known to be.

A few weeks later I bought Infinite Jest. Two years of lit-majoring after that, I’d still never had the time to read the 1,079-page, three-pound mammoth.

This year, though, working as an English teaching assistant in France and, basically, never actually having to do the whole “work” thing, I finally had the time to tackle Jest. It’s taken five months, equally having to do with its length, my preference for reading slowly, and the fact that I am usually reading around three to five books at any given time right now (a book in English, a book in French, a book of poetry, maybe a book of poetry in French, and some literary journal). Now, after five months of lugging around this cumbersome stack of dead trees and flipping back and forth between my two bookmarks (one for the normal chapters, one for the endnotes), I am not sure how I feel about Jest.

I would say up until page 700/month 3.5, I was really into it.  I liked the idea Dave Eggers brought up in the foreward that we should all read Infinite Jest because “[w]e have an obligation, to ourselves, chiefly, to see what a brain, and particularly a brain like our own — that is, using the same effluvium we, too, swim through — is capable of.” One of my friends, upon starting the novel, told me it blew her mind in a very good way. I’d liked his previous work. And, for the first 700-pages, I mostly liked what was going on with Wallace’s effluvium here. It had a cool conversation going on between the obvious, familiar manifestation of addiction and messed-up pursuits of happiness through a halfway house of, well, addicts, and with the less obvious, but intensely-more familiar world of American sport/school/film/government with the Incandenza family, whose parents founded and ran a tennis boarding school academy and made artsy films on the side, and whose kids attended said school, one of which going off to become a pro-football punter. There were a couple of transvestite spies on a hill talking late into the night about desire/addiction/the American lifestyle whose chapters were weaved through the two main narratives to supply the philosophical groundwork upon which the more narrative chapters were given context. It is funny. Like, absurdly funny, in a kind of dumb way that made me feel like I was just making jokes with my (beloved) dorky friends, even if, later, I found out in this interview, Ole’ Dave did not see why people said his book was so funny when everything was supposed to be sad (which, I think, is obnoxiously obtuse. There’s a women who creates steam when she gets sexually aroused). Most of all, it is, clearly, the work of a genius.

But, like Wallace said himself in “This is Water,” everything is up for questioning, and the thoughts of a genius ought to be among that everything. There seems to be a bit of the “genius theory” school of thought going on in approaching Wallace that implies geniuses should not be subjected to editing from others. I think Wallace needed a fucking editor though. Two of the biggest stylistic choices, I gather, in Infinite Jest that make it such “a…mind-altering comedy” [back cover of the book] are its length and its end-notes. However, I really don’t see either of these elements working towards anything substantial. Although I get the meta- nature of having to plow through 1,079 pages to talk about America’s need for entertainment and gratification,  there is a lot of stuff that did not need to be in this book, and I’m sure there’s a reason I started to resent the process around page 700 when “long” books would have normally ended. Does one guy really merit getting to say that much just because he’s a genius? Is boring your reader from time to time with lengthy descriptions of things nobody cares about (ahem. Tennis) really necessary to achieve a thematic end? The endnotes, too, do not seem to really have a distinct purpose. I know in the interview I referenced earlier, Wallace says he likes the endnotes because they give him a space for a different voice, but I did not see much of a distinction between the voices in the real chapters and the endnotes. And, unlike the length which at least conversed with the reader on the theme of boredom and entertainment, the endnotes did nothing special for the reading experience other than seeming to “ask something of the reader” for the asking of asking something from the reader.

Beyond stylistic choices, though, there is an almost unbearable whiteness, ableness, heterosexualitiness, and cis-ness going on throughout the book (and yes, it does address every one of the issues directly at one point or another. From the position of the privileged each time, too). One cannot help but notice that all the real main characters are able, hetreosexual, white, cis-men, with a few women (a mother and a love interest, of course), two cross-dressing spies, and a disabled little brother appearing so regularly that I wonder whether they too are main characters or not. But these characters are very clearly an “other” to the main ones. They are less developed. They are there to serve as a prop in the human setting that the white, male characters live in. The “Moms” is a caricature of nurture; Joelle van Dyne is a love interest/muse whose beauty is her most defining characteristic until she is later deformed. Mario’s disabilities clearly serve as a means to make him some inhuman creature that makes him better than the fucked-up standard Wallace focuses on in everyone else. The spies’ cross-dressing is just some lame joke that doesn’t seem to ask much more of the reader than to laugh at the skin-deep image of two men dressed up like women. The insight into any human condition is all done through the accepted standard of white, able, cis-, heterosexual manness.

And, yet, I still want to like Infinite Jest. While reading the book, I recommended it to a friend who I saw having a similar sense of humor and was sent this article  in response, which talks about how the big Wallace fans are white men who feel like Wallace gets ~their problems,~ and they, subsequently, always try to force his literature onto those around them, and more white man literature is not as valuable as literature from other voices. And so Infinite Jest, for me, has become a sort of culmination on the very discussion of white male writers’ worth that I’ve been hearing for a while. White men have too much of a presence in our English canon. Yes. Obviously. But, at the same time, I feel like the themes and artistry in Infinite Jest, among other white, male authors (my favorite author right now is Ander Monson, who is also a white male) are something I can connect to and enjoy as a woman. I am a human. I am American. I’ve struggled to understand just how to pursue happiness before. Orin Incandenza was a character that especially got me. In a fictitious future that features a sort-of Netflix, when Orin is asked what he misses, he says the subjected boredom of mass television. There’s a passage about sex — “It is not about consolation. …It is not about glands or instincts or the split-second shiver and clench of leaving yourself; nor about love or about whose love you deep-down desire, by whom you feel betrayed. Not and never love, which kills what needs it. It feels to [Orin] rather to be about hope, an immense, wide-as-the-sky hope of finding a something in each Subject’s fluttering face, the need to be assured that for a moment he has her, now has won her…that there is now inside her a vividness vacuumed of all but his name: O., O. That he is the One” — that has never pinned down my feelings so exactly. I keep thinking back to an article I read in Poetry Magazine‘s December 2016 issue, “A Politics of Mere Being” by Carl Philips. In it, he says, “To insist on being who we are is a political act — if only because we are individuals, and therefore inevitably resistant to society, at the very least by our differences from it. If the political must be found in differences of identity, who gets to determine which parts of identity are the correct ones on which to focus?” And while this is of course referring to non-white men’s ability to write from a place outside “the other,” I can’t help but think of it in terms of an ability to see my individual self in the work of another individual who does not share the same societally categorized characteristics as me.

Wallace would have done better not to mock certain groups of people based on their very belonging to those groups (I’m thinking specifically in terms of gender queerness and disability), but, at the same time, everybody in Infinite Jest is a flat characterization of our own selves, and he seems to be asking us to mock what we see reflected back at us with him (spoilers, there’s even a mirror held up to a drug addict’s face by the mob as, like, an intimidation tactic at the very end of the book). Of course he wrote the book from the white male perspective, as he is himself a white male. We all see the world through this lens of “self” and “other”, and Wallace’s shifting perspective and voice throughout the novel indicate (I think?) an encouragement to sympathize with everybody and nobody, main character or someone acting as furniture to a main character’s identity.

Going back to “This Is Water,” we don’t know the stories of everybody around us, and, therefore, everybody must deserve our love, sympathy, and withheld judgement. After 1079 pages, I may know the stories of the white male characters a little better than the others, but I think what is more important is the very surface, caricature-like characterization that is rife among everybody in Infinite Jest. We come out still not really knowing anyone, yet somehow feeling deeply connected to their problems. What exactly is the endless joke here? we wonder, even if played out through the view of what has long been the narrative norm of the white male lens.

Infinite Jest is too long. It is problematic. It does style stuff just for the sake of style stuff. There are many better books out there. But, in the end, I am happy I read Infinite Jest‘s three pounds (I think?). If for nothing else — and even though David Foster Wallace said his masterpiece is “deeply sad” — because it was fucking hilarious.

*Photo courtesy of Chelsea Moreno