February 1 of last week marked 20 years since the publication of David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest. The book is filled with oddball characters and fancifully absurd settings. The hundred-plus pages of fictional footnotes also intrigued me. In retrospect, they foreshadow the hypertext links that we now see daily online. For the most part, I found Infinite Jest deeply weird and, at times, confusing. The book seemed to have no plot, but instead revolved around a series of digressions. At times, when first reading it, Infinite Jest seemed like it was riding on a bookish parallel to Pulp Fiction, both towers signifying the rise of postmodernism into mainstream culture. I also found Wallace’s honesty in the book and in interviews refreshing. By this time the culture had become thoroughly drenched in irony, and Wallace’s genuine enthusiasm for things he liked (rather than trying to assume an ironic distance) almost seemed more ironic than actual irony. As a whole, this book had a significant impact on me when I first read it 20 years ago. I have previously discussed postmodernism, a theory I first encountered in undergrad in the early 1990s, just a few short years earlier. Infinite Jest took this theory out of the world of academia and put it in a context I could understand: specifically, a dense-but-readable meditation on how entertainment may be a sort of addiction unto itself. The “binge watching” phenomenon currently made possible and fully embraced by Netflix (“Next episode begins in 10 seconds” anyone?) seems straight out of Infinite Jest, as does the terrible penchant for naming everything after its sponsor (e.g. The Beef O’Brady’s Bowl).
One thing that both surprises and relieves me is that we are not getting an “uncut” or "Author's Definitive" edition of Infinite Jest to celebrate and cash in on this anniversary. The book underwent numerous edits. Perhaps, for once, the world will leave well-enough alone. Of course, given the doorstop size of the novel now, one has to wonder if there is someone clamoring for new material to make this book longer. But, given the book’s cult-like following and its popularity among critics looking for new angles to analyze, the answer is probably yes.
Unfortunately, the most well-known event to have taken place in Wallace’s life in the 20 years since the publication of Infinite Jest is his suicide in 2008. In Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s biography, Wallace's efforts to cope with mental illness and addiction are painfully detailed. That he struggled with these issues is something that is probably not terribly surprising to anyone familiar with his work. In fact, Every Love Story contains the assertion that the bulk of Infinite Jest was written during an extended manic phase. Given that much of the novel reads like a transcript of “pressured speech” often associated with a manic phase, this strikes me as a reasonable assertion as well. Pressured speech occurs when a person seems to have so many thoughts that they can’t get them all out, and may be displayed not just as talking fast, but also with a sense of grandiosity, as if these ideas can change the world if only I can get them all out of my head and do every single one of them RIGHT NOW. That Wallace likely suffered from some form of depression was hardly a stretch given that he committed suicide. The biography also details his struggles with substance abuse and the trips to Boston-area AA meetings later fictionalized in Infinite Jest.
That said, viewing Infinite Jest as a symptom of mental illness or as an extender precursor to suicide strikes me as unfair both to the art and artist. To me, great art is a synthesis of many things in a person’s life. In the case of Infinite Jest, it is also informed by Wallace’s participation in youth tennis. Should we also consider his tennis wins through the prism of mental illness and his future death?
As I stated in the introduction to this post, the novel has recently celebrated its 20th birthday. Anniversaries serve as a time not just to reflect on what happened a certain number of years ago, but also to evaluate our own life and progress with the initial happening as a sort of milepost. Looking back at Infinite Jest, I can see that it cemented my love of postmodern theory, but it also influenced what I like to read and my style of fiction writing. These influences are much more obvious 20 years on. I still love fake footnotes and fiction written with a “fake” non-fiction bent, something I attribute to Infinite Jest.
So how about you? What was your favorite book 20 years ago? Is this still a book you enjoy now? Why or why not? How has it influenced your life and what does that choice of book say about what was going on with you two decades ago? And, more than that, what did you learn from reading that book that is a lesson you can apply to coping with your life today, 20 years later? For me, Infinite Jest taught me that no matter how weird your art (or you, personally) may seem to be, there is a place in the world for oddballs and weird theories. And that place may very well be all over the New York Times Books Review and the bestseller list.
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Antonio, Tx.
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