ArticleOur Psychic Living Room
What Wallace is often trying to say in his fiction and essays—the message, as it were, at the heart of so much outpouring of feeling—is simple: think about someone else besides yourself. Which is a message a lot of us need desperately to hear. Wallace attacked the bored stasis of the unengaged American life—the stoned sitting and staring, the herdlike consumption of pleasure-inducing drugs (which could be anything from alcohol and cocaine to shopping and television)—and sounded an unselfish call to action. As someone who fought valiantly to escape the constraints of his own troubled mind, Wallace knew the value of a good change in perspective. “You are not the only person on this earth,” he seems to be telling his readers. “You really need to understand that and try to act accordingly.” If every bored person could just wake up and stand witness to what’s happening in the world, then maybe we’d all be a little more generous with our time and resources. To appropriate the words of MimiSmartypants, Wallace wants us to do everything we can to talk ourselves out of the metafictional spiral, to stop “hiding” and start doing something.
Soma and the American Life
In a 1996 interview, Wallace identified Infinite Jest as a "sad" novel:
The sadness that the book is about, and that I was going through [when I wrote it], was a real American type of sadness. I was white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated, had had way more career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and was sort of adrift. A lot of my friends were the same way. Some of them were deeply into drugs, others were unbelievable workaholics. Some were going to singles bars every night. You could see it played out in 20 different ways, but it’s the same thing. . . . I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values.
That sadness—that feeling of being adrift—has a very strong presence in Infinite Jest: the students at the ETA are competitive but not entirely sure why (there is much talk about entering “The Show,” which is the world of professional competitive tennis, and whether such a fate is more desirable than just going to college or dental school). Many ETA students are frequent abusers of recreational drugs, and a rowdy and slightly insane student named Michael Pemulis makes a comfortable living selling Visine bottles of clean urine to students who need to pass drug tests. The Ennet House is full of melancholy, aimless addicts who want desperately to get clean but sometimes cannot, and therefore have a difficult time determining how or why they began abusing to begin with. The only place in the book where characters are forced to undergo the sort of maturation Wallace described—confronting “stuff about spirituality and values”—is in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The former addicts are force-fed clichés like “one day at a time” and asked to thank a higher power they may or may not believe in for granting them the courage to live a sober day. At first, this all feels like a giant lie to a lot of the addicts, but then they begin to realize that this “lie” is the only thing keeping them alive and that they should have developed this primitive telos (cheesy though it may seem) a long time ago. The Alcoholics Anonymous spiritual network is the kind of thing that frees addicts from their own minds and allows them to enter the real world.
And there’s the rub for so many characters in Infinite Jest: medicate oneself into a waking dream or struggle through all the discomfort and pain and claim a spot in the world? Somewhere around page 896, Hal Incandenza lays down on the floor in one of the ETA subdormitories and does not move from that spot for the rest of the book. The banal details of his adolescent life fell him: “Maybe the worst part of the cognitions involved the incredible volume of food I was going to have to consume over the rest of my life. Meal after meal, plus snacks. . . . I experienced, vividly, the image of a broad cool well-lit room piled floor to ceiling with nothing but the lightly breaded chicken fillets I was going to consume over the next sixty years.” No one can rouse Hal, not even Michael Pemulis, who happens to be his best friend. Questions directed at Hal about why he has been lying on the ground for so long go unanswered, except the question “Thinking?” to which Hal responds: “The opposite. Thought-prophylaxis.” (One could think of Radiohead’s music video for “Just” as a visual analogue to this scene.)