The Dim-Post

December 3, 2013

Also too: Notes on Infinite Jest or, Why I will never finish reading Infinite Jest

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 9:35 am

A couple of years ago I did a couple of posts on Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. The idea was that I’d read it over the summer of 2011, and people who read the blog would read it along with me. This didn’t work out: I made it about 300 pages into the book and then gave up, and I was always kind of embarrassed about that. And now every time I blog about a book someone jumps into the comments thread and demands to know: ‘What happened with Infinite Jest?’ 

Short answer: I stopped reading it. Slightly longer answer: I found it entertaining at first, but increasingly boring and unrewarding.

A bit longer still: basically I didn’t have any confidence in the author. I wrote at the time:

When I’m reading this book I always have DFW’s suicide, and the subsequent revelation that he struggled with depression for most of his life lurking in the back of my mind. So when I come across pages of technical minutiae that hardly anyone reading the book can understand I wonder: is this a clever literary technique, or witty joke, or did he write this stuff because he was, basically, a mad genius and its presence in this book defies a sane explanation?

And that lack of confidence got worse the more I read. A twenty page unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness section about a character who has nothing to do with the rest of the book? Followed by a dozen pages describing the air-conditioning beneath a tennis academy? At some point I just decided the author was wasting my time. But, paradoxically, I always thought I’d go back and finish it off at some stage, because it’s an important book, and it must be ultimately rewarding, right?

Then earlier this year I read D T Max’s biography of David Foster-Wallace. The point of Inifinite Jest, it explained, is that DFW thought that the problem with contemporary western society is that we’re addicted to entertainment. We’re ‘amusing ourselves to death.’ His solution to that problem was Infinite Jest which he described as ‘anti-entertainment’. Hence thousands of footnotes so you have to keep flipping back and forth through the book to read it. Hence unpunctuated stream-of-conciousness; hence the lack of a narrative, and so on.

And I have two questions here: is DFW’s ‘addicted to entertainment’ thesis even remotely valid? Is that really the big problem confronting post-industrial capitalist democracies in the late 20th, early 21st century? And even if it is, even if you give him that, is a very long, deliberately unreadable book the solution to that problem?

I like a lot of DFW’s journalism, and his short stories (although I can’t read or listen to ‘This is Water’ and take it seriously.) Maybe Infinite Jest seemed more relevant during the long boom of the 1990s? I don’t know. I do know I don’t intend to revisit it.

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34 Comments »

  1. I suppose the counter-questions are (a) would you go to a novelist for a solution to this (or any other) big problems confronting post-industrial capitalist democracies (whatever that may be defined as this week)?

    Feel free to answer this from your own perspective. Please show your working.

    And (b) leaving aside all sociological/political questions around ‘significance’ and to cut to the Kingsley Amis question: Is it any fucking good? (it sounds, not. )

    Comment by Rob — December 3, 2013 @ 9:58 am

  2. If you’re going to keep making these sorts of highbrow posts, maybe you should relabel your “blog” as a “subscription newsletter”. You might even get quoted in the newspapers!

    Comment by pete — December 3, 2013 @ 9:58 am

  3. Hah – I read Infinite Jest that summer, on your behest, and was pretty impressed with the whole enterprise (I think the trick is to ignore the footnotes – same as in academic writing – if it ain’t worthy of the main text, it ain’t worth my reading). Anyways, The plot strains almost come together at the end, but that’s not the point, it is the scathing commentary on society. I don’t think it is a solution (or meant to be), by any means, just a comment. No one expects solutions from writers – for good reason.

    >>is DFW’s ‘addicted to entertainment’ thesis even remotely valid?
    Absolutely – we’ve pretty much even given up hand-wringing about this or that war or atrocity (apart from a few hand-wringing liberals lurking around internet blog sites ;) – but can’t wait to see it dramatised on the big screen. We’re more motivated by the results of X-Factor TM, The Block TM, All Blacks TM (hell, we even schedule elections around Rugby World Cups TM), than results of the next election – and we pay the whole time for it all (one way or another), without giving thought to the broader consequences for our increasingly corporatised economic system – entertainment is a key plank in that edifice…

    Or something like that…

    >>And even if it is, even if you give him that, is a very long, deliberately unreadable book the solution to that problem?
    As above, it’s really a comment, not a solution (I found it too entertaining – but I guess it would be difficult to franchise as a movie).

    Comment by Sam — December 3, 2013 @ 10:06 am

  4. “Amused to Death” – reminds me of the post Floyd Roger Waters album – don’t listen to it, it is mostly awful…

    Comment by Sam — December 3, 2013 @ 10:09 am

  5. “And I have two questions here: is DFW’s ‘addicted to entertainment’ thesis even remotely valid?”

    It isn’t, but a lot of people really strongly believe that it is.

    Comment by Hugh — December 3, 2013 @ 10:43 am

  6. I think the trick is to ignore the footnotes – same as in academic writing – if it ain’t worthy of the main text, it ain’t worth my reading

    The problem with that is that DFW consciously broke the distinction between “main text” and “footnotes”, such that the stuff worth reading is very much split between the two.

    I almost wish someone would put out a redux edition of IJ, stripping out most of the tedious Wheelchair Assassins stuff and emphasising the beautiful, painful sections about Gately towards the end. In fact there’s a whole novel there just about Gately, and it’s a good one.

    Comment by James Butler (@j20r) — December 3, 2013 @ 11:01 am

  7. Yeah – but I actually wanted to finish it. I agree about the Gately story line though…

    Nice counter argument Hugh.

    Comment by Sam — December 3, 2013 @ 11:18 am

  8. Try the Recognitions by William Gaddis instead. As long, as broad and wild, but very well written and very entertaining.

    Comment by Bill — December 3, 2013 @ 11:26 am

  9. It’s a work of absolute genius. I don’t think it’s a commentary on society’s addiction to entertainment but an explanation and analysis of addiction itself. Some bits are hard going, but the best parts (yep the Gately stuff in particular) are amazing.

    Comment by Guy Smiley — December 3, 2013 @ 8:04 pm

  10. Question for you: Since you read about 20% of the book, and had to rely on a biography of the author to distill its essence, how can you possibly know whether a character that you read about (though surely not in a 20 page, unpunctuated paragraph) has anything to do with the rest of the book?
    If you answered it in your post, I apologize. I stopped about halfway out of boredom. I do agree with you though that our society is anything but addicted to instant payoff.

    Comment by donaldgately — December 4, 2013 @ 2:09 am

  11. And I have two questions here: is DFW’s ‘addicted to entertainment’ thesis even remotely valid?

    I don’t believe so, but even if I did I wouldn’t see the point in using an entertainment medium to combat it. People don’t read novels as a task of productive labour or exercise of moral duty, and anyone who does struggle through one written with the deliberate intent of boring and annoying them really should ask themselves just how little their time is worth.

    Comment by Psycho Milt — December 4, 2013 @ 5:28 am

  12. And yet, still we blog …

    Comment by Lee C — December 4, 2013 @ 5:52 am

  13. is DFW’s ‘addicted to entertainment’ thesis even remotely valid?

    As per Hugh. It’s actually a pretty stupid premise.

    Comment by Gregor W — December 4, 2013 @ 11:37 am

  14. If this is in fact a “stupid premise” then I must be the only person addicted to my smartphone, tablet, Breaking Bad, YouTube and the like. But I don’t think I am the only one.

    Comment by donaldgately — December 4, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

  15. Addicted, eh?. You physically and psychologically have no impulse control wrt consumption of theses items and an absence of them leads to heightened states of anxiety and depression?

    I think you might need to get out more.

    Comment by Gregor W — December 4, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

  16. Obviously, I feel the premise is more than remotely valid. LIONSGATE reported $2.71B in revenue for 2013, largely on the success of Hunger Games and Twilight franchises. Revenue from mobile apps will hit $26B this year alone, with no decrease in site. NFL TV viewership has broken records in each of the last 3 years.
    Sure seems like an addiction to entertainment to me.
    I don’t believe that dfw set out (or succeeded) to write a boring book. I think he wanted (and succeeded) to write a book that could not be passively read. The reader is actively involved in the endeavor, and upon completion, may be better for it.
    I would argue that running a marathon is not an easy task, but that does not make it boring, does it?

    Comment by donaldgately — December 4, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

  17. Gregor, perhaps I do need to get out more, but I do get out a lot. I go to concerts and see people recording the concert on their phones, or texting their friends. I go to bars and restaurants and see people glued to the television, or checking sports scores and/or stock prices, or their email, or the weather, or any other trivial inanity.
    Perhaps I am the only one who sees these things? And yes, I do get mild anxiety if I leave the house without my phone. I am in the telecom business so I know I am not the only one.

    Comment by donaldgately — December 4, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

  18. If society is addicted to entertainment writing something really boring is hardly going to address it. It’s just going to preach to the converted, and even then only to those with quite a lot of pointless willpower.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — December 4, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  19. Ben,
    I think you have to define “boring” and “the masses.” If you finished the book and found it boring, so be it. Many others did not reach the same conclusion.
    I could say that I am not a dr because I took an anatomy class that was really difficult so Med School is boring, but that would not be treating the issue honestly.

    Comment by donaldgately — December 4, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

  20. >I could say that I am not a dr because I took an anatomy class that was really difficult so Med School is boring, but that would not be treating the issue honestly.

    Depends upon whether you were honest about it being boring. If you were, then that would be a perfectly valid reason to not be a doctor. Indeed, if learning medicine bores you, I’d certainly rather you didn’t become one.

    But my statement was a hypothetical. IF the purpose of the book was to be boring, AND it’s point was that society was addicted to entertainment, THEN only people who agreed with that, and had enough willpower to bore their way through a boring book, would learn this lesson. This boring, unoriginal lesson.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — December 4, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

  21. I go to concerts and see people recording the concert on their phones, or texting their friends. I go to bars and restaurants and see people glued to the television, or checking sports scores and/or stock prices, or their email, or the weather, or any other trivial inanity.

    I get your point, but there ios a lot of hyperbole associated.
    The creation of new syndromes is big business – new ‘diseases’, new cures! The media get to alternately pontificate, moralise and hang-wring. Self help books get sold. All is well.

    What you describe is at worst rudeness with a splash of narcissim and a short attention span, or at best, boredom.
    It’s a symptom of jerkisness if you can’t concentrate on your friends company, not some pseudo-ailment.

    “Techno-anxiety” is a myth. 100 years ago, did people get fretful and anxious if they didn’t carry an newspaper with them at all times? I doubt it.
    When an inconvenience is raised to the level of a neuroses, the marketers have already won.

    FWIW, I’ve worked in and around telco (mobile and fixed) on and off for most of my working life and I fucking hate phones.

    Comment by Gregor W — December 4, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

  22. >It’s a symptom of jerkisness if you can’t concentrate on your friends company, not some pseudo-ailment.

    Or it could be that your friends are less entertaining than the phone. Which is sad, but often true.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — December 4, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

  23. “I get your point, but there ios a whole lot of hyperbole involved” – so what?

    Comment by Daniel Lang — December 4, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

  24. so what?

    So it’s an untenable position not supported by empirical analysis.
    See: “It’s actually a pretty stupid premise”.

    Comment by Gregor W — December 4, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

  25. Ummmm yeah. Citing the numbers I provided as well as the current state of affairs I think the evidence would support the assertion that DFW was a visionary. To remotely suggest that we, as a society are not addicted to entertainment is myopic at best, delusional at worst.
    My big question is: are all of the condemnations/accusations coming from people who did not finish the book?

    Comment by donaldgately — December 4, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

  26. To remotely suggest that we, as a society are not addicted to entertainment is myopic at best, delusional at worst.

    donald – are all growing markets an indication of “addiction”? Do more restaurants in a town mean we are addicted to food? Of course not.
    Lots of varied entertainment is factor of demand (and of course, preceived utility), but not an “addiction” – something that implies entrapment and compulsion and limited agency.

    Changes in media content and modes of delivery are principally about getting eyes in front of ads – it has practically nothing to do with the content.

    If monkeys fucking on TV could sell toothpaste, you’d be damn sure you’d see a vast increase in primetime monkey porn.
    But this would not be indicative of ape smut “addiction.”

    To answer your Q: No I haven’t read the book and it’s not on my reading list. I’m sure DFW is a terrific writer and all but that not really the point. I just dont think this particular observation – if that is what the writer intended (who knows?) – is accurate.

    Comment by Gregor W — December 4, 2013 @ 5:26 pm

  27. @gregor
    Dfw made a very similar point about advertising. Too bad it is buried in boringness. You would enjoy it I think.

    Comment by donaldgately — December 4, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

  28. You’re quite welcome to call it a stupid premise, but the criticism of hyperbole is lame – hyperbole is one of the tools of satire, which is what the book is.

    At a broader level, and this is where it gets hyperbolic, it is dealing with societal ‘addiction’ to entertainment – again, not a medical ailment – It is proposing a dystopian future extrapolated from selected contemporary trends – it isn’t a realistic future, and nor is it intended to be – although that jerkiness you describe could be seen as symptomatic of that (figuratively speaking, not medically), and could be extrapolated to that reality (or you could say people’s growing preoccupation with their digital wares as being symptomatic of any number of other things). But anyway, this is fiction, so has a license to take any direction and exagerate it – you have to understand how fiction operates (something to do with the imagination I think you’ll find)… The key film clip at the centre of the book’s narratives is the most hyperbolic device of all – and is meant to be. It isn’t supposed to be believable in any world except the fictive extreme created here.

    To compare it to an actual neurosis is also just daft, and something of a strawman. The book is a comment on all sorts of ‘addictions’ (and the popular use of the term also does not imply a necessarily medical condition – although some are), from sports participation to alcoholism and drug addiction.

    And perhaps if DFW was intent on creating a solution (and it is an odd move to use a work of entertainment to do so), then it is some extraordinary joke – oh wait, what’s the title again?

    Comment by Sam — December 4, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

  29. Check out this image of people addicted to the latest technology, so desperate to find amusement that it is disconnecting them from their surroundings and stopping them from making genuine human contact.

    I mean, do you know how much the companies who made this technology and provided its content were making? If THAT’S not a sign of a something, then something something!

    (Oh – and I don’t have a ‘phone, so I don’t need the curative medicine of Infinite Jest. Lucky me.)

    Comment by Flashing Light — December 5, 2013 @ 8:05 am

  30. Aah – you’ve pinpointed early forms of the dreaded affliction* – nice work! To be fair, although newspapers were derided by Victorians for being popular fodder, they aren’t as pure entertainment as that which is occupying the minds of the masses today – At least newspapers play (or attempt to), some role in informing us of something worthwhile – gaming, youtube, twitter, facebook, or indeed, at least 90% of internet, not so much**.

    It may be a stupid premise***, but it certainly picks up on something that can easily be seen as a trend (it doesn’t have to be accurate, or even rise above generalisations – this is fiction****, remember), DFW turns it into a conspiracy, amplifies it, and goes for gold – an increasing absorption in increasingly vacuousness forms of entertainment. As far as premises go for dystopian scenarios – I’ve seen much stupider. It isn’t meant to represent the real world, just an alternative future created by picking up selected trends and extrapolating them for all they are worth.

    Hyperbole – sure, lots of it – especially in the key film that ties some of the narratives together – but then, hyperbole is a pretty important device in fictional satire – and that is what this book should be seen as. The plausibility of the premise shouldn’t necessarily worry you, as long as the world created is coherent within itself*****.

    If it was a book about the current state of society, all realistically told, well… it would be even more boring than you perceive it to be now (you could just go back to your newspaper). That’s why I don’t buy the comments about it being any kind of intended solution – that comment was surely passed off in jest.

    * It is completely acceptable to use the word addiction in a popular, non-medical sense – especially when generalised to capture societal trends rather than individual behaviours******. Trying to suggest that anyone was using addiction in its medical sense is nothing more than a straw man.
    **Why, last night I watched a video of a group of people watching videos of someone playing computer games – obviously I was hopelessly enthralled…
    ***Do premises need not be 100% accurate in order to be valid for a fictional exploration/extrapolation? – Secrets of the Aro Valley anyone?
    ****Fiction isn’t real – I think you’ll find it has something to do with imagination…
    *****How else would Animal Farm or 1984 function – or for that matter Star Wars, Tolkien, Avatar, Hunger Games, etc., minus the satire?
    ******Although some of the characters in the book do have ‘real’ addictions***

    Comment by Michael — December 5, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

  31. Guillermo del Toro’s take on ‘death by entertainment’ is that Those In Charge encourage mass entertainment as it’s easier to govern and shape a populace that is willingly distracted. (From his character Ephraim in The Fall – the second in the Strain books with Chuck Hogan.)

    Comment by Ataahua — December 5, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

  32. Guillermo del Toro, after Huxley…

    Comment by Michael — December 5, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

  33. One for Gregor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfUD0WhE264#t=188

    Comment by Michael — December 6, 2013 @ 9:04 am

  34. Guillermo del Toro, after Huxley…

    …after Juvenal, Satire X:

    “Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

    So it’s not a new proposition.

    But – diversion, does not an addiction make.

    Comment by Gregor W — December 6, 2013 @ 10:49 am


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