David Foster Wallace and the Election That Made Fun of Itself

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On the 20th anniversary of the late-author’s Infinite Jest, an inquiry into satire.

Artwork by Jennifer Heintz


Viking Penguin offices, New York City, 1986.  The twenty-three year old sitting in editor Gerry Howard’s office is wearing a U2 t-shirt and sneakers so untied Howard is afraid that the kid (who eschews “Gerry” in favor of “Mr. Howard”) will trip over their laces. The manuscript in question is titled The Broom of the System, written by a then-unknown David Wallace, a first-year Arizona MFA student who’s been shipping his Amherst College English thesis around since graduation. Howard, who’s fairly convinced he knows prodigy when he sees it, still cannot shake how nervous this kid looks, or how young.

Of course nobody could know, then, what would become of Wallace – that he would soon ascend the literary ranks into avant-garde superstardom, that he would accrue a cult following who’d refer to him by all three initials, that he was to produce a novel so good that it would electrify a generation that was told it no longer desired fiction – but Gerry Howard may have been one of the first to get the idea, even if Broom were only a vague suggestion of what was on the horizon. “[It] was a portent for the future of American fiction,” Howard later recalled. “It wasn’t just a style, but a feeling he was expressing, one of playful exuberance… tinged with a self-conscious self-consciousness.” [1]

A decade later, Wallace published Infinite Jest, a sprawling 1,079 page tour de force that grapples unsparingly with America’s corrosive relationship with entertainment through the lens of tennis, substance recovery, and (yep) a legion of wheelchair-bound Quebecois terrorists searching for a weaponized art film so good that if you watch it it kills you. As in literally. The novel was hailed as the next great leap forward in avant-garde fiction, a fusing of Pynchon’s chaotic zaniness with the serious moral vision of Kafka and Dostoyevsky, held together with a prosaic agility so readable that critics were shocked it was the voice of someone so young.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Infinite Jest’s publication, and although its message is as relevant today as it was in 1996, you are forgiven for not having read it. I mean, come on, the book’s more than a thousand pages (not to mention three pounds), and we’ve all got stuff to do, Netflix episodes to catch up on (five, six at a time), social appointments unmissable, and so on. So if you haven’t gotten around to reading it it yet – or, for that matter, to any of Wallace’s writing – that is alright, but let’s stay with each other for a little while anyway. Let’s explore the thematic relevance his work has regarding our current political climate – particularly the Donald Trump phenomenon and the overall childishness of the 2016 Presidential election. Because that, as far as I know or can tell, we are all complete experts in.

(Also, if you have read Wallace, that’s fine too. I won’t tell anybody.)

Set in a distant future in which each year is owned by a different corporate product, Infinite Jest tells the story of a group of teenage athletes who attend an elite Massachusetts tennis academy that neighbors the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic], where residents are dealing with life-threatening addictions. Below its comedic screwball narrative and heartrending character studies, the novel’s hidden core is – as is true with all important fiction, I believe – an uncomfortably simple inquiry: Why do I need constant entertainment, and, if I cannot overcome that need, what’s going to happen to me?

Americans, particularly of the Millennial generation, have just experienced the first Presidential election in history to be engaged with almost entirely via a digital screen connected to the Internet. The Donald Trump fiasco has been to social media what the first Nixon/Kennedy debate was to the broadcast era in 1960, i.e. a precise moment where a new tech medium rips apart every trusted strategy that was, up until then, proven most effective. When John F. Kennedy, powdered and charismatic and televisually beautiful, appeared on screen across from the perspiring, fidget-prone Nixon, the future of American politics changed in a single instant. All at once, words became secondary. Image was the new master.

Fast forward. In the novel’s world – set primarily in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (2009) – America has elected President Johnny Gentle, a paranoid Trumpish B-lister with undeniable charisma and gumption. Gentle is described by Wallace as “a kind of post-Perot national joke for years, until – white-gloved finger on the pulse of an increasingly asthmatic and sunscreen-slathered and pissed-off American electorate – (he was) suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reactionary voter-spasm.” [2]

With this, Wallace is proposing that the ability to entertain in shocking, mindless bursts would soon be the ultimate vector of political leverage in the information age. Consider the viral mastery of Donald Trump, how he not only managed to turn himself into a 3D meme, but also fractured the entire electoral process into an online, interactive mosaic of entertainment of at which he was the front and center. Sure, he channelled a repressed anger in the body politic that aided his rise, but it’s hard to deny the assistance he received from the millions of Americans laughing at the havoc Trump wreaked on political discourse. It was, like everything else, one big hilarious spectacle. Until it all came back home.

It was not simply Wallace’s vision of a deranged celebrity President that makes Infinite Jestas powerful and lasting a political satire as it is. The genius of his prose ran deeper than that. Wallace was doing more than warning readers that Donald Trump was coming, that our 200-plus-year-old political system would erode into meaningless farce… rather, he was telling us that we would be complicit in that erosion.

That we would enjoy it.

As anyone who’s read Infinite Jest can tell you, the political satire of Johnny Gentle’s administration is really just a side gaff in the novel’s central narrative. It is a symptom of a far deeper-rooted cultural disease that Infinite Jest (and much of Wallace’s work) explores – the pervasion of irony into everyday discourse, irony as no longer a weapon against the power structure but as an alienating force between ourselves and the world we live in. Between ourselves and each other.

It may seem surprising that Wallace, a pretty obvious student of postmodern irony (see Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo, et al.) was wary of our cynicism’s eventual danger; wary that, overtime, irony is destined to become its own inescapable cell inside the prison it sought to destroy. “I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly fun to listen to at parties,” he wrote in a 1993 essay, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, “but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures… not only empty, but, somehow, oppressed.” [3]

In our current political landscape, Donald Trump is not some kind of freak accident. He is, as is Gentle in the novel, merely a symptom of something greater, something much harder to look at or see in any sort of direct way. A central theme in Infinite Jest is the question of whether or not anything is more culturally destructive than people forfeiting their right to take stuff seriously. Donald Trump, while of course villainous, loathsome, etc., seems to me to be filling a vacuum opened in part by our wholehearted cultural embrace of the meaningless.

Consider for a moment, before it fades entirely out of the American rearview, the meteoric online sensation of Ken Bone, a character who feels literally hand-plucked from a Pynchon-inspired DFW short. Do you remember? The bespectacled coal plant operator from Chicago who, in a stroke of Warholian happenstance during the second Presidential debate, stumbled into the viral spotlight for asking a fairly legitimate question on energy policy, becoming a meme in seconds. The Internet decided, with the help of millions of us, that, despite a world-altering Presidential election on the immediate horizon, Ken Bone and his ghastly quarter-zip were the only details that mattered. He is a symbol for a unique moment in politics where the notion of giving a shit is so ludicrous that it’s funny.

And it is funny. Please don’t think I’m saying it’s not. During debates, I participated in the Twitter pageantry as much as anyone. The point is, however, that despite this fun, there is tremendous danger in the erosion of our ability to care. I need to ask myself whether or not it’s helpful, culturally, to contribute in this discursive paradigm shift that is warping Facebook and Twitter into these weird sardonic temples of meta-reference that serve only to grant attention to whichever person/event/etc. can generate the most immediate digi-burst of ethereal, sarcastic joy.

In an early scene in Infinite Jest, a young depressed woman named Kate Gompert is visited by a seemingly humorless doctor on her psychiatric ward. He is continuing to not respond to her jokes, ignoring all her attempts to tease him. Later she realizes perhaps his lack of response is not due to his being humorless or lame. Maybe he recognizes something about her reliance on irony that she can’t herself see. Writes Wallace: “Sarcasm and jokes were often the bottle in which clinical depressives sent out their most plangent screams for someone to care and help them.” [4] Now, imagine if Kate could operate as a symbol for our current political discourse, for this flavor of nihilist hilarity and mocking self-reference that saturates every message, every joke, every kilobyte of personal communication that floods into us via computers attached to our heads, all day long, every day. Consider, perhaps, the relevance of that.

One Friday in the fall of 2008, while his wife Karen Green was away from home, David Wallace wrote a two-page note and hanged himself from a patio rafter. He was 46.

He left behind folders stuffed with work on an unfinished novel, The Pale King, organized by Michael Pietsch (Infinite Jest’s senior editor, whose last name Wallace once interrupted an interviewer to clear up isn’t spelled “like the fruit”) and published by Little, Brown a year after his suicide. The novel is, in a sentence, a stripped down exploration into the notion of human boredom, e.g. the “terror of silence with nothing diverting to do.” [5] What are those nagging feelings during the brief intervals of stillness between entertainments, and why do they always feel so scary? As Wallace suggested:

Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there… which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. [6]

The literary community was shocked and saddened by the news of Wallace’s death; many had little idea of the severe depression he’d been tormented by for most of his life. His voice was so inimitable, so dominant and hilarious that it was hard for readers to imagine a storytelling future without him. And that remains so, eight years later on the 20th anniversary of his most significant contribution. From all of Wallace’s work, Infinite Jest is perhaps the most useful star to steer by in making sense of the seemingly “untalkaboutable” disengagement deeply seated within the American political conversation, a feeling most of us know but have for so long refused to discuss with each other.

As in, example: Why do we, as witnesses to the first true nirvana of information and social access, seem so unwilling to talk about this obvious gap in our interior lives, this allergy to honest attention and care which has helped, in part, facilitate both Trump’s rise and the total memefication of U.S. politics? Because for some reason, rather than face the reality of this problem, we limited ourselves to smirking at its most obvious metaphors. And that was funny, that sufficed for awhile – until, eventually, it all came back home.

A xenophobic nationalist billionaire, recognizable not from CSPAN but from Celebrity Apprentice, has become President of the United States to thunderous applause. There’s no longer anyway around the long-hinted-at notion that U.S. politics have become another childish, corrupt, branded entertainment parade for network advertisers to sink their teeth into. An irony-laden, postmodern facade, just like everything else.

But who’s playing whom here, really? Can we really be that pissed off at the dangerous joke our nation has become when our most common response to that joke was to act wry and jaded, praising ourselves ad nauseum online for being “smart” enough to get it? The answer is yes, obviously, of course we can. But the point is that with this disaster comes an opportunity for self-reflection in a serious way.

The reason that Infinite Jest is a work of artistic heroism, to me and to many others, is because it goes beyond social diagnosis and actually proposes a solution. An idea that there is something more. That, perhaps, this recession into literal fascist dystopia can be reversed if, together, we each owned up to our role in its creation – in part by accepting Wallace’s 20-year-old call, his promise to us that we will have to choose to focus hard on the shit that matters, to take all of it seriously again. A choice that has become, as this mammoth novel foretold, perhaps the single truest struggle of modern U.S. life.

One of the more resonant scenes in Infinite Jest features a central character, Mario Incandenza, avid fan of late-night MIT radio show “Madame Psychosis,” who’s hurt when he finds out the mysterious host has vanished from the airwaves without warning. The show isn’t the same without her, and Mario knows it, but he continues to listen anyway. He discovers that what he enjoyed most about her was the commitment she had to speaking sincerely, with no sort of ironic edge at all, about “stuff that was real,” which was an attitude harder and harder for Mario to find on television, or amongst his classmates and friends, or even at home. He listens for weeks, waiting, sad but always hopeful.

How weird it is, he considers, to miss somebody you’re not even sure that you know.


Aren LeBrun is a fifth year journalism major originally from East Madison, Maine. He has written several long form stories for NUPR and was most recently a bi-weekly featured columnist detailing the 2016 U.S. presidential election (For Some Reason I’m Not Concerned). He is returning to campus after a five month editorial internship at Rolling Stone magazine in New York City, and will be graduating from Northeastern with his Bachelor’s degree in December.


SOURCES

[1] Max, D. T. (2012). Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A life of David Foster Wallace. New York: Viking.

[2] Wallace, D. F. (1996). Infinite Jest: A Novel. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

[3] Wallace, D. F. (1997). A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company.

[4] Wallace, D. F. (1996). Infinite Jest: A Novel. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

[5] Wallace, D. F. (2009). The Pale King. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

[6] Ibid.

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