Until recently I had no idea what this book was about. I don’t mean to say that I couldn’t follow the plot (although that happened on more than one occasion), but rather that it was unclear to me whether this was a book about tennis or addiction or entertainment or families or friendships or pet-murdering psychos or what. It seemed to be about all of the above, each in turn, but none for very long.
But from where I now stand–9/10ths of the way through and surveying the path I have trod thus far–it now seems obvious to me what the book is “about”. Infinite Jest is a novel about sincerity.107
The question now becomes: why does it take so long to realize this? Surely this does not reflect well on Wallace, that he so thoroughly buried the lede that someone could abandon the tome 800 pages in and still not know the point. In fact, it seems as though those with only a superficial knowledge of the book–having read only the first 50 pages before giving up, say, or basing their opinion solely on synopses of the plot and setting–describe the book as the very opposite of sincere, as ironic and cynical and dark.
My theory is that Wallace has pulled a reverse Mary Poppins, here. Rather than using a spoonful of sugar to disguise the medicine, he set his novel in a borderline dystopia, full of depression and suicide and malcontents, effectively disguising the simple and (dare I say it?) sweet message at it’s core. And he spreads it out over a solid k of pages so that, at no given moment, are you aware of what you’re imbibing.
No moment except perhaps this one:
The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy. The worst-feeling thing that happened today was at lunch when Michael Pemulis told Mario he had an idea for setting up a Dial-a-Prayer telephone service for atheists in which the atheist dials the number and the line just rings and rings and no one answers. It was a joke and a good one, and Mario got it; what was unpleasant was that Mario was the only one at the big table whose laugh was a happy laugh; everybody else sort of looked down like they were laughing at somebody with a disability. The whole issue was far above Mario’s head… And Hal was for once no help, because Hal seemed even more uncomfortable and embarrassed than the fellows at lunch, and when Mario brought up real stuff Hal called him Booboo and acted like he’d wet himself and Hal was going to be very patient about helping him change.
That passage is found just shy of 600 pages in. And I can’t help but wonder what my reaction would have been if it had appeared on page 13. Would I have rolled my eyes, or laughed in a way that isn’t happy, or chalked this novel up as just a bunch of glurge best suited for the Oprah bookclub?108 Would my Sincerity Deflector Shields been reflexively raised, and remained in battle position for the remaining 950 pages?
As Kevin noted earlier, my generation has been steeped in irony since the get-go, and plunging into a novel that argued against such modes of thinking would have been the literary equivalent of Cold Turkey, the Bird, white-knuckling. Instead, what Infinite Jest provides is a 13 week irony detox program,109 designed to reduce the cynicism in your system at a slow enough rate that you don’t go all P.T.-Kraus-on-a-subway.
And then at some point you realize that Wallace has been performing something like a spiritual transfusion, that he hasn’t simply been leeching you of cynicism but also craftily impressing upon you the usefulness, the importance, the utter necessity of sincerity. The dude is like a giant ATHSCME fan, keeping the miasma of toxicity at bay.
As we reach the end of Infinite Jest the question becomes: can we retain the message that DFW struggled so mightily to impart, or is a relapse inevitable? It’s too bad there isn’t something like an Ennet House for IJ veterans, designed to keep us from drifting to our old ways of thinking, our “default settings” as it were. I can see now why people feel the need to reread the novel on a regular basis: “Keep coming back”.
Living a life of sincerity is a challenge, but Wallace is going to be very patient about helping us change.