…The rebellious irony in the best postmodern fiction wasn’t just credible as art; it seemed downright socially useful in its capacity for what counterculture critics called “a critical negation that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems” [the quote is from music critic Greil Marcus]. Kesey’s black parody of asylums suggested that our arbiters of sanity were often crazier than their patients. Pynchon reoriented our view of paranoia from deviant psychic fringe to central thread in the corporo-bureaucratic weave; DeLillo exploded image, signal, data and tech as agents of spiritual chaos and not social order. Burroughs’s icky explorations of American narcosis exploded hypocrisy; Gaddis’s exposure of abstract capital as deforming exploded hypocrisy; Coover’s repulsive political farces exploded hypocrisy.
But nowadays, Wallace claims, the hypocrisy of television is so overt, its explosions so carefully programmed, that it turns revolt into cynicism. In his account, which borrows from the work of media critics such as Todd Gitlin and Mark Crispin Miller, television has made us into passive, alienated consumers of the very forces that pacify and alienate us. If fiction is to recapture its ethical function—its ability to brush the culture against the grain, rather than merely reaffirm its commonplaces—serious young writers will have to abandon irony in favor of…well now, that’s a tough one:
It’s entirely possible that my plangent noises about the impossibility of rebelling against an aura that promotes and vitiates all rebellion say more about my residency inside that aura, my own lack of vision, than they do about any exhaustion of US fiction’s possibilities. The next real liter- ary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in US life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.
These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.”
As cultural history—for that matter, as literary criticism—“E Unibus Pluram” has its weaknesses. For one thing, Wallace’s discussion of television is, as discussions of television often are, maddening in its blithe, judgmental generality. “Television” is about as useful a category in the analysis of contemporary life as “print”: at long last, sir, the medium is not the message. What’s more, Wallace accepts (or at least appears to accept) a rather melodramatic account of the impact of R&D fiction, which depends on the assumption that the world of letters, to say nothing of the world at large, was until the advent of postmodern-ism dominated by hypocrisy, naive realism, and widespread credulity about the benevolence of capitalism and the state. In or around 1960, thanks largely to the efforts of a brave cadre of novelists, most of them employed in universities, all of this changed, with enormous and far-reaching (though curiously short-lived) social consequences.
For all the shortcomings of this account, Wallace’s anatomy of the predicament facing young writers after postmodernism is in many ways persuasive; if he can’t quite capture the grand dialectic of contemporary culture, such as it is, he at least has a feel for its mood swings. He might even be credited with a degree of foresight, both about the ascendance of a certain knowing, allusive, world-weary superciliousness—“E Unibus Pluram” was composed just as Seinfeld began to epitomize the prime-time Zeitgeist—and about the simultaneous emergence of a defiantly plainspoken sensibility ranged against it. The anti-metafictional jeremiad in “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” ends with a paean to the New Realism, which offers “some of the most heartbreaking stuff available at any fine bookseller’s anywhere.”
While the designation “New Realism” may already be dated, the steady outpouring in recent years of earnest, heartbreaking memoirs and short, sensitive story collections by ever younger writers might be taken to bear out Wallace’s intuitions. The backlash against irony has recently found a spokesman in the person of Jedediah Purdy, a twenty-four-year-old product of Exeter, Harvard, and West Virginia home schooling who, with his ambiguously provincial background and his faintly allegorical name, might have escaped from a David Foster Wallace story. In any case, For Common Things,* Purdy’s much-discussed manifesto, argues precisely for renewed attention to “old untrendy human troubles” and for the virtues of “reverence and conviction.” (Purdy’s book has been greeted, as Wallace might have predicted, with a fair amount of eye-rolling and rib-nudging.)
It is therefore at least arguable that we have lately witnessed the emergence of a group of anti-ironic anti-rebels. But is David Foster Wallace among them? Are his harangues against the tyranny of irony meant to be taken in earnest, or are they artfully constructed simulacra of what a sincere anti-ironist might sound like? Or both? If one way to escape from the blind alley of postmodern self-consciousness is simply to turn around and walk in another direction—which is in effect what Purdy advises, and what a great many very interesting writers, without making a big deal about it, simply do—Wallace prefers to forge ahead in hopes of breaking through to the other side, whatever that may be. For all his impatience with the conventions of anti-realism, he advances a standard postmodern view that “the classical Realist form is soothing, familiar and anesthetic; it drops us right into spectation. It doesn’t set up the sort of expectations serious 1990s fiction ought to be setting up in readers.” Wallace, then, is less anti-ironic than (forgive me) meta-ironic. That is, his gambit is to turn irony back on itself, to make his fiction relentlessly conscious of its own self-consciousness, and thus to produce work that will be at once unassailably sophisticated and doggedly down to earth. Janus-faced, he demands to be taken at face value. “Single-entendre principles” is a cleverly tossed off phrase, but Wallace is temperamentally committed to multiplicity—to a quality he has called, with reference to the filmmaker David Lynch, “bothness.” He wants to be at once earnest and ironical, sensitive and cerebral, lisible and scriptible, R&D and R&R, straight man and clown, grifter and mark.
Because of Wallace’s manifest interest in philosophical conundrums and language games, it is tempting to judge his ambitions on their logical merits, and to declare that, on theoretical grounds, he can’t have it both ways. But since he is, after all, a fiction writer, it may be wiser to judge his output with reference to that hoariest of creative-writing-workshop questions: Does it work? In the case of Infinite Jest (1996), Wallace’s longest, boldest fiction so far, the answer is yes, it works; it works too damn hard.
Infinite Jest might be subtitled “A Radically Expanded History of Postindustrial Life.” It takes place in a future meant to represent a logical extension of the present. The trend toward corporate sponsorship, which has in the real world given new names to college bowl games and professional sports stadiums, has, in the novel, colonized time itself: around 1997, it seems, the numerical calendar was scrapped, and chapter headings indicate that action is taking place in the “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad” or the “Year of the DependAdult Undergarment.” (The excremental associations of the products in question—a hemorrhoid medication and an adult diaper, respectively, in case you don’t pay attention to the commercials during the evening news—are indicative of one aspect of Wallace’s sense of humor.) And the colonization of all aspects of life by the entertainment industry—currently a source of endless handwringing in the journals of opinion—here takes a lethal turn. “Infinite Jest” is the name both of a lost masterpiece of experimental cinema and a video cartridge that, wired directly into the viewer’s nervous system, produces an overpowering, instantly addictive stimulus leading irreversibly to drooling, catatonic paralysis.
“Infinite Jest” is also, of course, a description of the novel’s structure. The book is almost eleven hundred pages long, but it feels even longer, owing in part to several hundred footnotes, which disrupt the reader’s attention and send it looping backward and forward in an effort to maintain continuity. Even without the distraction of the footnotes—which sometimes consist of pseudoscholarly apparatus, sometimes of extended narrative tangents, sometimes of humorous asides—the text itself is simultaneously fragmentary and recursive. Story lines alternate wildly; some resume after long digressions, some turn out to be nothing more than digressions themselves, and the connections between the proliferating threads are persistently elusive, and just as persistently hinted at. Infinite Jest is, to my knowledge, the longest novel about tennis ever published. It is also a dystopian political satire set on a North American continent menaced by paraplegic Quebecois terrorists and splintered into new territorial arrangements, the most wildly metaphorical anatomy of drug abuse since William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and a tender, heartfelt, coming-of-age story.
The novel’s Pynchonesque elements—the fact that part of the United States is now a federation called O.N.A.N., the symbiotic relationship between terrorists and law enforcement agencies, the shadowy career of underground filmmaker-turned-tennis-coach James Incandenza—feel rather willed and secondhand. They are impressive in the manner of a precocious child’s performance at a dinner party, and, in the same way, ultimately irritating: they seem motivated, mostly, by a desire to show off. And some of the novel’s broad satirical intentions—to warn us that corporations control everything and that entertainment is a drug—are familiar bromides decked out in gaudy comic dress.
But along with its fast-fading pyrotechnics, Infinite Jest also offers some genuine illumination. In the two main plotlines, which trace the adolescent travails of tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza and the struggle for survival of Don Gately, who works in a halfway house for recovering addicts, Wallace’s relentless intelligence yields some old-fashioned novelistic insights into characters, events, and places. Wallace is blessed with a brilliant ear not only for the noise in his own head—he is surely one of our most gifted self-mimics—but for the harsh polyphonies of contemporary American speech. And in the self-contained vignettes of chemical dependency and clinical depression that punctuate the proliferating subplots, Wallace’s style at last finds a substance it can use. In “E Unibus Pluram” he made some sweeping claims about the addictive powers of the entertainment media:
It’s tough to see how…having more “control” over the arrangement of high-quality fantasy-bits is going to ease either the dependency that is part of my relation to TV or the impotent irony I must use to pretend that I’m not dependent…. My real dependency here is not on a single show or a few networks any more than the hophead’s is on the Turkish florist or the Marseilles refiner.