Ordinary Unhappiness
The Therapeutic Fiction of David Foster Wallace
Jon Baskin

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2

Playing Games

Infinite Jest as Philosophical Therapy

He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in here. Not let his head look over. What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen.
–David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

PUBLISHED IN 1996, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest became a best seller despite running more than one thousand pages, including more than two hundred pages of small-print endnotes, and earning a reputation as an “exemplar for difficulty in contemporary fiction.”1 Like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Don DeLillo’s Underworld, the book contains a vast panoply of characters and situations, with the connections between them clarifying gradually (but in some cases never completely) as the novel unfolds. Because of its surface resemblance to those earlier landmarks—in addition to the conspiracy-laden plot, there are convoluted sentences, digressions on technology and media, reproductions of emails and fake interviews—it was read by early reviewers as the next big postmodern novel or, in the (in)famous words of the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani, as a pretentious “word machine,” which left its reader “suspended in midair and reeling from the random muchness of detail and incident.”2 Other professional reviewers linked Infinite Jest with the works of contemporaries like William Vollmann, Rick Moody, and Bret Easton Ellis, a group perceived as carrying on the project of the canonical postmodernists. In an influential review for the New Republic, James Wood grouped Wallace with Don DeLillo and Zadie Smith as the vanguard of an offshoot of postmodern orthodoxy, which he dubbed “hysterical realism” (it was not meant as a compliment).3

Later scholars and literary critics have recognized that Infinite Jest can be read, at least in part, as a response to what Wallace considered the excesses of his postmodern forebears. Both Marshall Boswell and Stephen Burn, in lengthy works on Wallace, have connected the novel with the search for a literary “third way” that moves beyond what had become a set of stultifying quarrels between modernism and postmodernism, although without entirely disavowing the formal techniques of either.4 Lee Konstantinou has situated Wallace as a “post-ironist,” attempting through his fiction to create “believers” in a secular age,5 and Adam Kelly has focused on Wallace’s commitment to the artistic and moral value of sincerity, which cuts against early characterizations of his project as pretentious, cold, or excessively abstract.6 Similarly, Timothy Aubry has read the novel as directed therapeutically against what Wallace perceives as his self-consciously intellectual readership’s “inability to feel” deep and authentic emotion.7

Helpful as these corrections are to the early view of Wallace as a grateful inheritor of the postmodernist tradition, they fail to do justice to Wallace’s full animus against postmodern thinking. It is symptomatic of even the most insightful Wallace criticism that it often culminates by ascribing to him a theoretical position—for instance, against the “illusion of autonomy” (N. Katherine Hayles)8 or for the Derridean questioning of “certain metaphysical assumptions” (Kelly)—in familiar postmodern debates. Even Konstantinou, who positions Wallace against “historical postmodernism,” ends up reading his project as “vaguely Foucauldian.”9 Such criticism misses not only the target of Wallace’s project but, so to speak, its depth. To bring “the world” of Infinite Jest to consciousness of itself is to bring to consciousness how strongly we as readers may be implicated in the problems it attempts to address. This is, in the first place, to see postmodernism not as a set of distinct arguments or artworks, which we may already consider antiquated or academic, but rather as a symptom of a modern philosophical “picture” that still determines both what we take to be our most serious problems and how we go about trying to solve them.

The novel’s real “difficulty” lies not in its long sentences, its digressions, or its allusions to poststructuralist critics (Wallace’s readers were ready for those challenges) but rather in what it endeavors to get its reader to see. The demographic of those likely to read a novel like Infinite Jest, Wallace presumed, comprised ambitious and highly educated individuals who had turned previously to advanced art, literature, and social theory for answers to what he once called, in an essay on Dostoyevsky, the “desperate questions” of existence.10 The novel’s challenge may be described as therapeutic because it asks those readers to acknowledge the failure of these forms of culture to address the sources of their confusion or bewilderment—or, as Wittgenstein would have it, their bewitchment.

This is one way of emphasizing the depth of the affinity between Infinite Jest and Wallace’s version of Alcoholics Anonymous,11 which emerges as a successful therapeutic model for those within the novel who have been let down, even betrayed, by more fashionable forms of “help.” Just as the alcoholic must begin by admitting the failure of her previous attempts to cure herself of her “Dis-ease” (as the veteran AA members like to spell it out for newcomers), so Wallace’s novel hopes to compel its reader to recognize that her feeling of “lostness” is connected to her philosophical and rhetorical commitments, as opposed to being addressed by them.

After briefly summarizing the novel’s plot, I offer a close reading of the book’s famous opening sequence. My hope is that the reading establishes (1) the centrality to the novel’s overall ambition of Wallace’s engagement with philosophy and (2) the nature of the philosophical problems (or the problems with philosophy) that he wanted his novel chiefly to address. This will set the stage for my discussion of the Alcoholics Anonymous passages, culminating with the novel’s final scene, in which Don Gately, our guide to Wallace’s AA, lies immobilized on a hospital bed. That we begin the novel in Hal’s head and end in Gately’s signals where Wallace takes his reader to begin and where he hopes she can conclude.

SUMMARY

The plot of Infinite Jest is anchored in the asymptotic narratives of its two main characters, the teenage tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza and the recovering Demerol addict Don Gately. At first, Hal and Gately seem to represent inverse notches on the bell curve of American achievement: Hal is a gifted student-athlete, about to set off a recruiting war between top colleges; Gately is a burned-out former football star, now an orderly at a shabby recovery center down the hill from Hal’s school. The setting is a dystopic near-future America where the years are sponsored by multinational corporations—“The Year of the Whopper,” “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”—the president is a big-business stooge, and terrorists, bitter at having their land and culture polluted by America, attack with a weapon of potentially mass destruction. Meanwhile, the shell-shocked American public plays sports, watches TV on the fancy new “Interlace” holographic media system, or indulges its addictions in what one of the terrorists refers to as a vast “confusion of permissions” (IJ 320).

Preceding the frame of the novel is the suicide via microwave of Hal’s father, an avant-garde filmmaker, world-class alcoholic, and the founder of Ennet Tennis Academy, where Hal goes to school and prepares for “the show.” As we learn during Hal’s farcical sessions with a “grief counselor,” Hal had discovered what was left of his dead dad’s exploded—Hal’s brother Orin calls it “deconstructed” (251)—head in his kitchen, but he had refused except sarcastically to discuss what he’d found with his mother or therapist. As the novel progresses, Hal withdraws from family and friends, taking solace in a secretive daily marijuana-smoking ritual under center court at the tennis academy. He describes himself repeatedly as feeling “empty” or complains that his life seems “theoretical,” as in an early dream:

In this dream, which every now and then recurs, I am standing publicly at the baseline of a gargantuan tennis court. I’m in a competitive match, clearly: there are spectators, officials. The court is about the size of a football field, though, maybe, it seems. It’s hard to tell. But mainly the court’s complex. The lines that bound and define play are on this court as complex and convolved as a sculpture of string. There are lines going every which way, and they run oblique or meet and form relationships and boxes and rivers and tributaries and systems inside systems: lines, corners, alleys, and angles deliquesce into a blur at the horizon of the distant net. I stand there tentatively. The whole thing is almost too involved to try to take it all in at once. It’s simply huge. And it’s public. . . . High overhead, near what might be a net-post, the umpire, blue-blazered, wired for amplification in his tall high-chair, whispers Play. The crowd is a tableau, motionless and attentive. I twirl my stick in my hand and bounce a fresh yellow ball and try to figure out where in all that mess of lines I’m supposed to direct service. . . .
The umpire whispers Please Play.
We sort of play. But it’s all hypothetical, somehow. Even the “we” is theory: I never quite get to see the distant opponent, for all the apparatus of the game. (67–68)

The dream is not just a recapitulation of a certain kind of postmodern metaphor;12 it is also a critique of it. The problem with the game in the dream, for Hal, is not that it is not “real,” or interesting, or even that it cannot tell us something about reality. The problem is that it fails to facilitate contact. For “all the apparatus of the game,” Hal cannot see his opponent on the other side of the net—and in a sense he does not even believe in him: “even the ‘we’ is theory.” Hal might as well be alone on the court, “twirling his stick.” The dream thus emerges as a parable about a game that fails to facilitate communication, one of dozens that are laced throughout Infinite Jest, a novel that attempts to communicate with its reader in large part by showing her how far she has been failed by her customary forms of communication, including the brand of literary novel that stops with the description of the contemporary world as “unplayable.”

Later on, we learn from Hal’s deceased father, who appears as a “wraith” over Don Gately’s hospital bed in the novel’s closing sequence, that Hal had begun to sink into his anomic malaise even before his father’s death, which was why the elder Incandenza had left his son a message in the form of a film. The film had been designed to address the very feeling that Hal describes in the dream. The wraith explains that he had

spent the whole sober last ninety days of his animate life working tirelessly to contrive a medium via which he and [his] muted son could simply converse. To concoct something the gifted boy couldn’t simply master and move on from to a new plateau. Something the boy would love enough to induce him to open his mouth and come out—even if it was only to ask for more. Games hadn’t done it. Professionals hadn’t done it. . . . His last resort: entertainment. Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self ’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life. A magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make his eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciously, to laugh. To bring him “out of himself” as they say. (838–39)

The father’s intent was concomitant with Wallace’s own ambition to carry on a therapeutic “conversation” to bring his readers out of themselves. But, underscoring the delicacy and risk of such a project, the “entertainment” crafted by Hal’s father—called Infinite Jest—turns out to be too entertaining, immediately paralyzing its viewers with insatiable desire. Literally, they can only ask for more. Intercepted by wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatists planning to disseminate it en masse to the American public, the film never reaches Hal, who, in the book’s opening sequence—chronologically its end—reports that he can no longer make himself understood. What he means is that when he thinks he is talking, his listener registers chaotic animal grunts. It is not immediately clear why this has happened—although two popular explanations are that Hal has somehow seen the film or that his toothbrush had been spiked with an especially lethal hallucinogenic drug. (Much more on this scene below.)

Hal, however, is not the novel’s only protagonist, and he fades from the second half of the book in favor of Gately and his grizzled peer group of survivors at Ennet House. Through Gately, the reader is introduced to Boston AA, whose meetings, regulations, and customs Wallace meticulously catalogues. An appropriately skeptical reader is led to wonder when Wallace will puncture the balloon of respect he inflates around “this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee [that] is so lame you just know there is no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons” (350). But, contra much of the criticism of the AA portions of the novel, Wallace finally means to suggest that AA’s “corny slogans” are wiser than the condescending witticisms with which we might dismiss them. As a response to despair, the program turns out to be both more serious and more effective than the high-concept entertainment crafted by Hal’s father.

The precocious teens at Hal’s tennis academy are addicted, too, the novel implies—some to substances and almost all to the individualistic, irony-soaked cultural style that Wallace had described in his earlier fiction and essays13 and describes again in Infinite Jest. This is a world the reader is meant to recognize as her own, only more so. The Recovery Center, an “irony-free zone,” represents an “unromantic, unhip” alternative path open to those willing to admit that their “best thinking” has mired them in isolation and pain. It is no surprise that the AA portions of the novel have often been dismissed by critics or interpreted as an index of Wallace’s despair with our present condition (Aubry, Konstantinou), since, taken at face value, they seem to challenge directly many of the unspoken pieties of twentieth-century high culture: for instance, its faith in creative self-expression, its contempt for clichés and received wisdom, and its reliance on theory and science-based knowledge as the preeminent forms of understanding.14 Infinite Jest’s “arguments” against these intellectual commitments are not made systematically; they are made through characters like Gately, the novel’s supreme embodiment of the AA philosophy. To see Gately as a real hero—and not a parodic or hopelessly compromised one—is to see what is most radical (and also most difficult) about the novel Wallace has written. And it is the key to understanding in what respect precisely he hoped his novel would be therapeutic for his readers.

NOTES

1. Stephen J. Burn, David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”: A Reader’s Guide (London: Bloomsbury, 2003), 10.

2. Michiko Kakutani, “A Country Dying of Laughter,” review of Infinite Jest, New York Times, Feb. 13, 1996, www.nytimes.com/1996/02/13/books/books-of-the-times-a-country-dying-of-laughter-in-1079-pages.html.

3. James Wood, “Human, All Too Inhuman,” New Republic, July 24, 2000, https://newrepublic.com/article/61361/human-inhuman.

4. The books are Burn’s Reader’s Guide and Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003).

5. Lee Konstantinou, “Wipe That Smirk off Your Face: Postironic Literature and the Politics of Character” (PhD diss., Stanford University, 2009).

6. Adam Kelly, “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” in Consider David Foster Wallace, ed. David Hering (Los Angeles: Sideshow Media Group Press, 2010), 131–47.

7. Timothy Aubry, Reading as Therapy (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011).

8. N. Katherine Hayles, “The Illusion of Autonomy and the Fact of Recursivity: Virtual Ecologies, Entertainment, and Infinite Jest,” New Literary History 30, no. 3 (1999): 675–97.

9. Konstantinou, Wipe That Smirk,” 156, 155.

10. David Foster Wallace, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York: Back Bay, 2007), 271.

11. Henceforth “Wallace’s AA,” to be clear that I am referring to the presentation of AA within the novel, not to the organization itself. I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of Wallace’s depiction of AA, but I am not in a position to evaluate where it might be inaccurate, nor would such discrepancies be of concern to me here.

12. Although it is that. For example, “Each language partner, when a ‘move’ pertaining to him is made, undergoes a ‘displacement,’ an alteration of some kind that not only affects him in his capacity as addressee and referent, but also as sender. These ‘moves’ necessarily provoke ‘countermoves.’” This is how Lyotard describes a conversation in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 16.

13. See especially the novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” in Wallace’s first short story collection, Girl with Curious Hair (New York: Norton, 1989), 231–373; and his well-received essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” originally published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 2 (1993): 151–94, before being collected in David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (New York: Back Bay, 1998), 21–82 (citations are from the latter). I discuss Wallace and irony specifically in “Death Is Not the End,” The Point, no. 1 (2009) https://thepointmag.com/2009/criticism/death-is-not-the-end.

14. AA has been attacked for being “unscientific” throughout its history, most recently by Gabrielle Glaser in The Atlantic, who intoned that “the problem is that nothing about the 12-step approach draws on modern science.” Gabrielle Glaser, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous,” The Atlantic, April 2015, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/04/the-irrationality-of-alcoholics-anonymous/386255. For Wallace, this is precisely what makes it so promising as a counterweight to contemporary forms of despair.