ArticleOur Psychic Living Room
A lot of important-sounding people will tell you that Infinite Jest is a book about addiction, obsession, consumerism (and how it’s related to the two prenominate things), passivity, power, and the need to find order in one’s life. They are right, but if they stop there, they overlook the fact that the book is also about trying your best to be a good, kind human being in a hostile world; about telling the Truth; about admitting your vulnerabilities and sincerely seeking help from others. In certain cases, characters must trust their lives to the inbound goodness of other people, which is a scary thing to do in an incredibly self-centered age.
The reader learns quickly that an important part of cultivating this inbound goodness is forgoing the numb passivity that controlled substances induce, a message we may recognize from medicated, dystopian novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Gately awakens Lazarus-like from a twenty-year doze by finally kicking the Demerol monkey. Hal realizes that his prodigious marijuana consumption is only harming him and tries to stop. The reader gets the impression that those who make a good-faith effort to fight against the passivity will emerge triumphant. Those victors are Wallace’s saints. They are the ones who actually give a shit about something besides themselves.
The Tin Man's Legacy
Wallace was on this earth for too short a time, but it was good while we had him. For a couple of years there, we knew just what Hal Incandenza meant by “thought-prophylaxis”; we marveled at John McCain’s story and agreed that state fairs are weird and that tennis is a great metaphor for life. We willingly gave ourselves over to Wallace’s mind and personality—we devoured his output, and we wanted him to write more. We wondered what he had to say about basketball or antiabortion activists or the American Southwest. We felt welcome in his head. And Wallace wasn’t condescending. He bent over backward to help us understand what he was trying to say: he agonized over word choice, tried to explain away ambiguities with footnotes, and packed as much expository detail into every sentence as he possibly could. And ultimately it turned out that what he was trying to say wasn’t that complicated. We read Wallace with the attitude of a meek old man at a peep show, simultaneously marveling and shuddering at what was on display. We would never think of putting ourselves on display in the same way—we don’t even know how. But of course we couldn’t look away.
Wallace’s intellect became our psychic living room, the place we went to be comforted and reassured: “Yes, you’re normal. Don’t worry, someone else has already had this exact same thought.” All this reassurance would make us think, “If this guy has been having these thoughts, then maybe I’m not alone in this world. Maybe there are even more people out there with the same thoughts as mine.” Then we’d get to wondering about the billions of other minds at work just like ours, like the mind of a stockbroker in Tennessee and the mind of a toddler in Costa Rica and the mind of a mother in the Congo and the mind of a construction worker in Lebanon, and we’d imagine how all their thoughts are knit together in the same way ours are. And we’d think, “Isn’t this whole thing miraculous, the fact that we can share all this stuff and the only thing we’ve got to do is be human? Now this is one hell of an idea. This is something I can really get behind! What’s the point of hermiting yourself in your own brain if there’s a whole world out there full of love and fear and pity and compassion?”
And that is exactly what David Foster Wallace wanted us to think. •
Rebekah Frumkin is a contributing editor to The Common Review and a junior at Carleton College. Her story "Monster" is featured in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009.