Avery Edison

The Biblical Experience of Reading Infinite Jest

08.28.09 | 33 Comments

Avery Edison is in transit today, so Nick Douglas is subbing in. Nick Douglas is the editor of Twitter Wit: Brilliance in 140 Characters or Less, a collection of witty tweets, which was released earlier this week.

I’m an atheist – if I were in AA, I’d get on my knees with far less openness than Don Gately. But until I “deconverted” in the summer after my sophomore year of college, I was a Christian. A Creationist, even. (That made it easier to switch all the way at once, actually.)

At least twice, I tried to read the entire Bible. I failed both times. I hear that once you get through the grueling books of law, it gets a lot more interesting and things start clicking.

So first let’s tick off the obvious similarities: Infinite Jest is big. It’s hard to read. There are many characters. It has a cult of followers, and it’s best read with bookmarks in several spots so you can go back and piece everything together.

But that’s trivia. What matters is, the story of IJ is deeply Biblical. Kind of. So far. (I’m on page 533.)

An evil threatens to destroy the world, and an insignificant person is called to become a hero to protect it. This is the most pervasive theme in the Bible: The smallest, weakest hero must face the mightiest forces of evil, because God has called him to. Joseph Campbell organized this archetype into the Hero’s Journey, a prototype for western hero stories. It’s the story of nearly every memorable Biblical hero.

When God calls Moses, the exiled Israelite asks, “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? They will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The Lord hath not appeared unto thee.” Judeo-christian scholars think Moses was a stutterer. Imagine that, a hero who can’t communicate.

The “judges” who repeatedly rescued the ungrateful nation of Israel from its military enemies were all similarly unimpressive. Gideon, whom God told to lead Israel’s army against the Midianites (spoiler alert: he does; they win), was the weakest man in the weakest family in the smallest tribe of Israe. He also made God prove his identity by performing little miracles with a sheepskin before he’d even listen to the plan. Samson’s enemies didn’t know where he got his strength – so the man couldn’t have been visibly muscle-bound; he was just a normal-looking guy who could overpower a lion and topple a building. The warrior/judge Deborah was a woman, which in ancient Mesopotamia usually relegated you to making babies, taking showers on the roof, and having poetry written at you.

Okay, here’s where things get complicated. Because while plenty of the Boston AA members are heroes in their own personal stories, there’s one character who really strikes me as a weakened hero like the above: Marathe.

Like Moses (or the opening-scene Hal Incandenza) he has trouble communicating, since his English is still shaky. He comes from the most pathetic province (the one stuck downwind of the Great Convexity) of a conquered nation (though the Israelites, who at one point complained that things were so bad under Moses they’d rather go back to being slaves, seem a lot like IJ’s America). He faces temptation and speaks with his counterpart on a mountaintop (like, you know, Jesus). I don’t know what to make of his rejection of his holy mission. But he’s certainly the disadvantaged hero, what with having popped his legs off in a game of beat-the-train-just-barely, and he’s the character most likely to change the whole game here while musing about the nature of choice and freedom.

The book is Biblical in structure too. Marathe’s conversations with the devil Steeply are an example of the meditative dialogs, monologues, and thought experiments with which David Foster Wallace chops up the “story” part of the story, mimicking the Bible’s tendency to hop from history to lawbook to poetry. (The Bible can also seem terribly self-indulgent, especially around the descriptions of temples and bloodlines. But hey, what editor is going to call up God and ask for him to tone it down? He’s got a fucking verse in there condemning anyone who changes a word of it to hell. Must be a real headache for the copy editors at Zondervan.) As in the Bible, there are letters printed verbatim, oral histories being codified – like the rules of Eschaton.

The Eschaton breakdown is another great Biblical section: The end of the world foretold. That happens in more than the book of Revelation. The prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah make end-of-times prophecies in their books. An assistant at my youth group once convinced a group of us to go around the table reading the entire book of Daniel (a talented Israelite academic serving with his three friends in the Persian king’s court) in one sitting. I don’t think he knew that this book included a big-ass prophetic passage about the end of days. Well it does, and it’s really boring to read aloud. A lot less fun than Eschaton’s breakdown.

But so the last similarity really is a stylistic trivium, but it’s my favorite: I know of one other author who begins this many paragraphs with conjunctions, and that’s the Apostle Paul. Most of the Bible verses that sound so profound because they begin with “For,” “So,” and “Therefore, brothers,” are from Paul (a lawyer, kinda) in the middle of a letter to some church or another, in which the whole thing is one long train of thought and every paragraph builds on the conclusions of the last. A structure like that probably helps the author justify to the editor that he keep absolutely everything in, even as it glosses over all the goddamn digressions.

So I think the lesson from all of this is that the author is God, the author can do no wrong, and anyone – is Pemulis listening? – who tries to edit God while he’s on the job ends up in deep shit.