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A New Brilliant Start

And it’s a recurring joke of the novel that its characters will sometimes wax improbably eloquent, at which point Wallace will insert a footnote saying, for example, “none of these are Don Gately’s terms.”


Wallace is leading us somewhere with all this emphasis on his God-like knowledge of his characters. He is going to stake his omniscience, his authorial authority, on something, a particular point that he wants to put across to us readers above all.

Submission to AA is not easy for a skeptical thinking person, Wallace makes clear. In his early months of sobriety Gately would regularly

raise his big mitt in Beginner Meetings and say publicly just how much he hates this limp AA drivel about gratitude and humility and miracles and how he hates it and thinks it’s horseshit and hates the AAs and how they all seem like limp smug moronic self-satisfied shit-eating pricks with their lobotomized smiles and goopy sentiment and how he wishes them all violent Technicolor harm in the worst way.

The part of the AA meetings that most annoys Wallace’s characters is the repetition of mottoes. New members “are always encouraged to invoke and pay empty lip or hypocritical lip-service to slogans they don’t yet understand or believe—e. g. ‘Easy Does It!’ and ‘Turn It Over!’ and ‘One Day At a Time!’ It’s called ‘Fake It Till You Make It,’ itself an oft-invoked slogan.”

For Wallace, brilliant student, philosopher, novelist, the submission to “goofily simple,” trite, sometimes ungrammatical slogans is the essence of submission itself. There could be no more dramatic symbol of the depth of trouble that the addict is in than his agreement to hear and repeat these truisms. It represents a submission not just to AA methods, but to the idea that you are not different from everyone else, not exempt from ordinary suffering and ordinary consolations.

But it’s not just that these poor addicts are desperate enough to try any fool thing. It turns out that the clichés actually mean something:

The palsied newcomers who totter in desperate and miserable enough to Hang In and keep coming and start feebly to scratch beneath the unlikely insipid surface of [AA]… then get united by a second common experience. The shocking discovery that the thing actually does seem to work.

Wallace risks the credibility he has built up over three hundred–plus pages of funny, irreverent, macabre, showily agile and complex and original prose, to tell us something that we probably didn’t go into this novel expecting to hear: that sometimes clichés are true, and we avoid or scorn them at our peril. This is what Gately discovers, for instance, after a few months of miraculous-seeming sobriety, when he finds himself helplessly remembering all kinds of scenes from his childhood that years of drug abuse helped him to forget. Some of his memories are mundane (the precise look of his childhood home’s front steps and mailbox) and some of them are more obviously emotionally charged (his mother’s nightly passing out in front of the television with a bottle of vodka), but they are pretty much all unbearably painful for him to relive. This, he realizes, is what is meant by the AA talk about Getting In Touch with Your Feelings—“another quilted-sampler cliché that ends up masking something ghastly deep and real.”

That clichés contain truth might not seem like a startling observation in itself, but it’s a startling thing for a novelist of the first order to make a point of telling us—especially this particular novelist. You don’t have to read Infinite Jest for very long to appreciate Wallace’s sophisticated grasp of all kinds of colloquial, visual, pop cultural, and literary clichés. In one offhand clause he can disassemble some familiar phrase or image, draw attention to it, show us its component parts, implicitly chuckle at its silliness, yet also acknowledge its inescapable importance as a mental reference point for his readers. His dense weave of specific and generic pop references—Reebok athletic clothing in particular and the “centerless eyes,” “ravening maw,” and “canines” of horror movie ghouls in general—is worked in alongside spectacular descriptions of New England weather, the acoustics of a boys’ locker room, and other non-brand-name physical details. Infinite Jest is also a novel that relies, much more than it is given credit for, on fine-grained, psychologically realistic portraiture, at least with regard to its two main characters, Gately and the teenage tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza.

Having established that he is hardly someone who would confuse low art for high, or an original insight for tediously familiar received wisdom, Wallace gives us permission to find solace in common self-help truisms without feeling that we have lost our critical faculties. In other words, he cleaves aesthetic standards from moral ones, and shows us that it is possible, and sometimes necessary, to do so.

This, really, was Wallace’s break from his contemporaries and from earlier generations of the American avant-garde. You would not find a statement affirming the truth of any kind of received wisdom in a novel by Pynchon or Barth or DeLillo. In the history of the novel, clichés have usually fallen on the immoral side of the ledger: received wisdom and received language are a threat to the development of sensibility, to the emergence of a thinking, judging, morally responsive self. If you’re a character in a Pynchon or a DeLillo novel you can be neurotic, paranoid, disoriented, deranged, violent. Indeed, you can be drunk. These are sensitive responses to your times. But the idea of submitting fruitfully to some kind of group intervention or therapeutic program is antithetical to the cultural criticism of these novelists. What is such a program but a simple, uniform solution fit for a simple and sheeplike populace?

Wallace’s depiction of AA registers these criticisms but turns them on their head: he uses a program that urges blind submission to argue for thoughtful broadmindedness. For he is not, of course, celebrating clichés in general; he is issuing a corrective, one meant mainly to address the biases—the fixed ideas—of his own generation of readers: don’t be too quick to dismiss what sounds obvious, familiar, or unsophisticated.

In writing about AA, Wallace supplies his own description of the nightmare of addiction, uses his own voice to tell the universal story in a way that is vitally intelligent and self-consciously literary and funny. (And he must be funny, for he has to show that getting away from jeering cynicism does not mean getting away from humor.) “If you sit up front and listen hard, all the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own,” Wallace writes, and proceeds to sketch the basic outlines of every AA testimony. At first, you have

fun with Substance, then very gradually less fun, then significantly less fun because of like blackouts you suddenly come out of on the highway going 145 kph with companions you do not know, nights you awake from in unfamiliar bedding next to somebody who doesn’t even resemble any known sort of mammal, three-day blackouts you come out of and have to buy a newspaper to even know what town you’re in; yes gradually less and less actual fun but with some physical need for the Substance, now, instead of the former voluntary fun; then at some point suddenly just very little fun at all, combined with terrible daily hand-trembling need, then dread, anxiety, irrational phobias, dim siren-like memories of fun, trouble with assorted authorities, knee-buckling headaches, mild seizures, and the litany of what Boston AA calls Losses…then more Losses, with the Substance seeming like the only consolation against the pain of the mounting Losses, and of course you’re in Denial about it being the Substance that’s causing the very Losses it’s consoling you about—

Wallace is famous for his ear for idiomatic expression, but he is often assumed to be merely listening rather than reconfiguring his generation’s impoverished English at every turn. Jonathan Raban, for instance, has written in these pages of Wallace’s “absolute fidelity to the patterns of [American] speech and thought I hear around me.”* Would that this were the case. In fact Wallace takes our unremarkable, stammering colloquialisms and works them into monologues that are verbally and grammatically complex and highly literary, while also sounding like a real voice speaking to us. But it could only be the voice of one person, and it could only be written. Imagine trying to adapt the above passage for dialogue or voice-over. Could you make the words sound natural if you had to speak them? Wallace has worked a reverse-Promethean theft, taking our humble spoken idioms and delivering them to the gods, to the firmament of high literary art.

If irony is only good for emergency use, the same might be said of clichés. Infinite Jest limns states of personal emergency. In these circumstances, we take Wallace’s point about the need to pay attention to people trying to help us who are saying simple, obvious-seeming things. But what about non-emergency times, when we go about our business suffering no more than ordinary unhappiness?

Wallace’s books after Infinite Jest turned to more or less normal life, to the “trenches of adult existence,” to characters who are able to keep up with domestic and professional demands and moderate their pleasures—if they are capable of experiencing pleasure in the first place. “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” a story in the collection Oblivion (2004), introduces a subject that Wallace was also pursuing in his new novel (which would be published posthumously in 2011 as The Pale King): the state of extreme, crushing boredom brought on by tedious white-collar office work. The narrator recalls that the look in his father’s eyes when he would come home from a deadening day of actuarial work inspired a series of childhood nightmares about

a large room full of men in suits and ties seated at rows of great grey desks, bent forward over the papers on their desks, motionless, silent, in a monochrome room or hall under long banks of high lumen fluorescents, the men’s faces puffy and seamed with adult tension and wear…. The men’s expressions were somehow at once stuporous and anxious, enervated and keyed up—not so much fighting the urge to fidget as appearing to have long ago surrendered whatever hope or expectation causes one to fidget.

“I could never convey just what was so dreadful about this tableau of a bright, utterly silent room full of men immersed in rote work,” the narrator tells us, but, he adds later, “the dream’s bright room was death, I could feel it.” As a vision of office work, or adult responsibilities more generally, this seems precisely childish, touched with a note of hysteria. But you could see it too as an alcoholic’s vision of a life of sobriety, or a vision of clinical depression.

  1. *

    Jonathan Raban, “ Divine Drudgery,” The New York Review, May 12, 2011. 

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