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The Panic of Influence

The strongest parts of Infinite Jest suggest that this observation is less interesting as a statement about television than as a statement about dependency as such. The novel’s most serious and sustained conceit is that all-encompassing, self-renewing need is the organizing principle of contemporary culture and the structuring psychopathology of everyday life—that we are, individually and collectively, trapped in endless cycles of compulsion, self-delusion, and denial. What we need is ultimately less important than how we need it. Our daily lives are organized around a repertoire of stratagems designed to feed our habits in the name of breaking them:
> This last time, he would smoke the whole 200 grams—120 grams cleaned, destemmed—in four days, over an ounce a day, all in tight heavy economical one-hitters off a quality virgin bong, an incredible, insane amount per day, he’d make it a mission, treating it like a penance and behavior-modification regimen all at once, he’d smoke his way through thirty high-grade grams a day, starting the moment he woke up and used ice water to detach his tongue from the roof of his mouth and took an antacid—averaging out to 200 or 300 heavy bong-hits per day, an insane and deliberately unpleasant amount, and he’d make it a mission to smoke it continuously, even though if the marijuana was as good as the woman claimed he’d do five hits and then not want to take the trouble to load and one-hit any more for at least an hour. But he would force himself to do it anyway. He would smoke it all even if he didn’t want it. Even if it started to make him dizzy and ill. He would use discipline and persistence and will and make the whole experience so unpleasant, so debased and debauched and unpleasant, that his behavior would be henceforward modified, he’d never even want to do it again because the memory of the insane four days to come would be so firmly, terribly emblazoned in his memory. He’d cure himself by excess.

This nameless character’s doomed, misguided, yet oddly convincing plan to rid himself of his marijuana habit bears an unmistakable resemblance to Wallace’s own repeated attempts to cure himself of his interlocking addictions to irony, metafiction, and the other cheap postmodern highs. If I blow my mind on self-consciousness this one last time, Wallace resolves over and over, I’ll never go near it again. But he always comes back for more. The addict is like an ineducable rat caught in a cruel behaviorist maze of his own devising, and so, much of the time, is the strung-out post-metafictionist. But in a passage like this one, Wallace happens upon an unexpected exit from the cul de sac of postmodern mannerism—a breakthrough into something that is not old-fashioned illusionistic realism but that is nonetheless alive with captured reality. And he accomplishes this breakthrough by applying the spiraling, recursive logic of his own fictional self-examinations to another person, a person who couldn’t care less about literary fashion.

One of the critical commonplaces about Pynchon, Gaddis, et al.—a commonplace to which Wallace clearly subscribes—is that their stylistic and formal inventions were created under pressure of lived experience. What made realism untenable for these writers, according to the conventional wisdom Wallace has absorbed, was reality itself: Pynchon’s involuted, encrypted sentences, Barth’s blatant narrative intrusions, Coover’s self-consuming artifacts—all of these were designed to explode the hypocrisies and jar the complacencies of a monstrously complex society whose deepest workings could not be represented by traditional narrative means. But what these writers passed on to their students and followers was, for the most part, the habit of formal and stylistic invention for its own sake, an empty set of quotation marks, a self-consciousness without selves. In my opinion, a lot of Wallace’s earlier work, including much of Infinite Jest, slips back toward that abyss—an epistemological black hole as comfortable and familiar as a worn-out couch in a graduate student lounge. And many of the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which gathers together the shorter fiction Wallace has written over the past ten years, read like bravura classroom performances—footnotes to his earlier annotations of the experimental tradition.

But a handful, most of them composed since the appearance of Infinite Jest, recover some of the squandered and compromised satirical energies of that tradition by suggesting that meta-metafiction, or post-postmodernism, or whatever you want to call it, is a form of realism after all. The feedback loop of irony and sincerity which animates so much of Wallace’s writing turns out not to be an artifact of literary R&D, but a fact of human nature, or at least a salient aspect of the way we live now:

Please believe me. The whole reason I’m having us talk about my record and what I get afraid might happen is that I don’t want it to happen, see? that I don’t want suddenly to reverse thrust and begin trying to extricate myself after you’ve given up so much and moved out here and now I’ve—now that we’re so involved. I’m praying you’ll be able to see that my telling you what always happens is a kind of proof that with you I don’t want it to happen. That I don’t want to get all testy or hypercritical or pull away and not be around for days at a time or be blatantly unfaithful in a way you’re guaranteed to find out about or any of the shitty cowardly ways I’ve used before to get out of something I’d just spent months of intensive pursuit and effort trying to get the other person to plunge into with me. Does this make any sense? Can you believe that I’m honestly trying to respect you by warning you about me, in a way? That I’m trying to be honest instead of dishonest? That I’ve decided the best way to head off this pattern where you get hurt and feel abandoned and I feel like shit is to try to be honest for once? Even if I should have done it sooner? Even when I admit it’s maybe possible that you might even interpret what I’m saying now as dishonest, as trying somehow to maybe freak you out enough so that you’ll move back out and I can get out of this? Which I don’t think is what I’m doing, but to be totally honest I can’t be a hundred percent sure?
This is from one of the “Brief Interviews” in the current book—an incomplete, shuffled set of seventeen conversations of varying length between a silent, apparently female questioner, represented by the letter “Q,” and her unnamed subjects, some of whom are strangers, some, like this one, lovers. A number of the men have bizarre tics and predilections: one of them involuntarily shouts “Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!” every time he ejaculates; another recounts how an elaborate childhood masturbatory fantasy (highly reminiscent, perhaps inadvertently, of Nicholson Baker’s novel The Fermata) became so philosophically vexing that it drove him to a life of celibacy; and still another explains how his grotesquely deformed arm gets him “more pussy than a toilet seat, man. I shit you not.”

But while many reviewers have been captivated by the more outré specimens of hideous manhood, what is most striking about the interview subjects, and what they ultimately have in common, is their slippery, narcissistic ordinariness. Number 11 dumps Q on the pretext that he can no longer tolerate her suspicion that he’s about to dump her. Number 31 explains that the best way for a man to please a woman is not to perform oral sex on her (a common misconception, apparently), but to trick her into performing it on him, which is what she really wants. The interviews hold up to hilarious, disturbing scrutiny the endlessly inventive duplicity that animates men’s single-minded pursuit of sex. Acknowledging what louts they are becomes another weapon in the arsenal of loutishness.

The most important thing is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’vegot it made. Wallace’s “Interviews” apply Laurence Olivier’s cynical show-business truism to the theater of sexual conquest and betrayal. Or, as pop singer Nick Lowe put it a few years back, “All men are liars, and that’s the truth.” Wallace’s Q, intrepidly documenting this version of the Cretan liar’s paradox (the corollary of which is that all men are cretins), seems to have stumbled upon an unnerving Darwinian insight. If, that is, male behavior has evolved through a series of adaptations meant to maximize opportunities for copulation, then the ability to use “honesty” as a strategic form of deceit—an infinitely reusable capacity, at least for some—may have evolved not in the laboratory environment of recent US fiction but in the primordial wild. This, at any rate, is something like what two of Q’s interlocutors (identified in interview #78 as “E” and “K”) seem to think:
> E——: ‘Plus remember the postfeminist girl now knows that the male sexual paradigm and the female’s are fundamentally different—’

K——: ‘Mars and Venus.’

E——: ‘Right, exactly, and she knows that as a woman she’s naturally programmed to be more highminded and long-term about sex and to be thinking more in relationship terms than just fucking terms, so if she just immediately breaks down and fucks you she’s on some level still getting taken advantage of, she thinks.’

K——: ‘This, of course, is because today’s postfeminist era is also today’s postmodern era, in which supposedly everybody now knows everything about what’s really going on underneath all the semiotic codes and cultural conventions, and everybody supposedly knows what paradigms everybody is operating out of, and so we’re all us individuals held to be far more responsible for our sexuality, since everything we do is now unprecedentedly conscious and informed.’

E——: ‘While at the same time she’s still under this incredible sheer biological pressure to find a mate and settle down and nest and breed, for instance go read this thing The Rules and try to explain its popularity any other way.’

K——: ‘The point being that women today are now expected to be responsible both to modernity and to history.’

E——: ‘Not to mention sheer biology.’

K——: ‘Biology’s already included in the range of what I mean by history.’

E——: ‘So you’re using history more in a Foucaultvian sense.’

K——: ‘I’m talking about a history being a set of conscious intentional responses to a whole range of forces of which biology and evolution are a part.’

E——: ‘The point is it’s an intolerable burden on women.’

K——: ‘The real point is that in fact they’re just logically incompatible, these two responsibilities.’

E——: ‘Even if modernity itself is a historical phenomenon, Foucault would say.’

K——: ‘I’m just pointing out that nobody can honor two logically incompatible sets of perceived responsibilities. This has nothing to do with history, this is pure logic.’

E——: ‘Personally, I blame the media.’

This is a fine parody of a graduate school bull session—“Foucaultvian” is an especially deft touch. It is also, of course, a knowing self-parody on Wallace’s part. The effect, and perhaps the intention, of his habit of turning his jokes around on himself is to short-circuit criticism, much in the way that the hideous men’s confessions of their own dishonesty are meant to make them appear, ultimately, sincere. But the effect of this kind of heavily defended discourse—whether metafictional or “real”—is ultimately to prevent communication, just as the impeccably logical seductions and repulsions of the hideous men are designed to protect them from the illogical messiness of genuine human contact.

Wallace, of course, knows this too, and the best story in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men conveys the terrible emptiness that lurks behind our era’s rituals of compulsive self-reflection. The story is called “The Depressed Person,” and it describes, in the flat, clinical language of psychotherapy, the life of a woman whose unhappiness is not so much the result of any particular trauma as the wellspring of her identity. She is depressed because she is the Depressed Person, and vice versa. The joke of the story is that the woman is sent into paroxysms of navel-gazing agony by trivialities—by the memory of her pampered childhood or her parents’ relatively harmonious divorce, or as a result of overhearing an insensitive remark about a woman she barely knows—while her therapist and the friends she refers to as her “support network” fall victim to tragedy, disease, and death. Which makes her feel even worse—about herself:

At this point in the sharing, the depressed person took a time-out to solemnly swear to her long-distance, gravely ill, frequently retching but still caring and intimate friend that there was no toxic or pathetically manipulative self-excoriation here in what she (i.e., the depressed person) was reaching out and opening up and confessing, only profound and unprecedented fear: the depressed person was frightened for herself, for as it were “[her]self“—i.e. for her own so-called “character” or “spirit” or as it were “soul” i.e. for her own capacity for basic human empathy and compassion and caring—she told the supportive friend with the neuroblastoma. She was asking sincerely, the depressed person said, honestly, desperately: what kind of person could seem to feel nothing—“nothing,” she emphasized—for anyone but herself? Maybe not ever?

This story is the most brilliant dissection I have seen of what Christopher Lasch once called “the banality of pseudo-self-awareness.” And there is probably no writer whose work makes a stronger case, twenty years after Lasch wrote the book on it, that we still inhabit a culture of narcissism. Does Wallace’s work represent an unusually trenchant critique of that culture or one of its most florid and exotic symptoms? Of course, there can only be one answer: it’s both.

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