Literature

Infinite Jest – 20 Years

THOUGHTS ON INFINITE JEST 20TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION AND DAVID FOSTER WALLACE’S LEGACY

It’s been 20 years since the publication of David Foster Wallace’s (DFW) magnum opus Infinite Jest (IJ), a book I can heartily say changed my life, and took one paranoid and emotionally vast month from it, yet overall left me with a sense of satisfaction on the same level as that I gained whilst graduating. This may seem like a fanboy-ish bromide the likes of which are often attached to IJ (and Wallace’s work in general) I believe however they are deserved.

The book itself a 1079 page post-modern epic covering addiction, families, tennis, entertainment and advertising, to name a few of its recurrent themes. No other book has ever left me with a literary hangover as lengthy and harsh as IJ did. I can’t actually remember ordering it, or how I even came to hear about it, let alone believe I would finish such a text. I do however remember starting it and within days becoming simply, perhaps even romantically engrossed in its linguistic mastery and hysterically real digressions and details. No characters and scenarios have ever seemed as vividly real as the ones Wallace describes and creates, characters that are so well written one feels as if they’re only really reading a section of their life and that they really have lived, and that Wallace has allowed you to be an observer for a short time and then you just, well, return your own life, and it feels quite blunt, even though the ending of the book calmly sends you on your way.

DFW; who committed suicide in 2008, has become a cult literary figure of late, this could be due to the rise in irony and post-modernism in mainstream entertainment, perhaps people were a little late to the party of a writer who at the time had to battle the Brat Pack for popularity; not that popularity was something DFW was concerned with by any means. Or it could be that IJ in a way prophesized many aspects of the entertainment and stimulant saturated society we live in. From our reliance on entertainment as a supposedly harmless escape, to our disconnect and eventual dissatisfaction as a generation. The book gives a certain amount of comfort to those who find themselves overwhelmed by the pressures of over-stimulation and entertainment-based anaesthesia.

The fact it’s been 20 years since publication most likely wouldn’t be something that would concern Wallace if he was here today, other than perhaps the fear he may have to do ‘After Infinite Jest’ interview of Charlie Rose. It is however, unsurprisingly something concerns advertisers and publishers. There is currently in production a 20th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest in the works. If one is to look at the Amazon Page for this item, one will realise (at current at least) there is no new additions to the text, not that I expected there to be any new editions to DFW’s original text as he was not one for alterations to his manuscripts, however there doesn’t seem to be anything to ‘add’, I have heard there may be an introductory essay from Dave Eggers which I for one do not agree with.

This isn’t really what I want to talk about, it’s the fact there is at current a certain amount of cashing in on a legacy that is very quickly getting a little tarred. Not tarred by publishers dragging out old works DFW would never want to see the light of day (if they exist), but by publishers and marketers rebranding DFW and his ideas; not to mention the James Ponsoldt film The End of the Tour (which I’ll voice my opinions on once I’ve seen it, however I don’t feel too aggravated by the film as others seem to be, as it’s not really DFW’s work getting interpreted). Of course publishers are always going to cash in on events such anniversaries etc. and I imagine this could have been written about a various amount of authors, or artists etc. It just seems that a lot of the ideas and academic hooey DFW warned us about seems to be being brought to light via his work and his ideas, and that what DFW strived for in his work was a sense of sincerity that avoided clichés, overt-romanticism or anti-PoMo-preachiness and this is being ignored and thus the work becomes a simple form of entertainment as any other, not the piece of meta-entertainment it is/can be.

It’s very clear by this text that I’m a big fan of DFW and the majority (if not all) of his work, and that this is someway could be misconstrued as one long text as proof I’ve read IJ, if the reader intends to take it as such so be it, I just feel as if there’s more to be said about DFW than 20th Anniversary editions, a certain amount of what I once heard someone call the Warhol-effect is apparent, in which the viewer can no longer look at Warhol’s Soup Can’s as intended, but only as spectacle, and this I fear is what is going to happen to IJ. That this new found mainstream reverence of DFW as a martyr against irony, highfalutin and Post-post-modernity only leads us into buying into it even more.

Sadly, DFW will become a product as has Cobain and Hendrix, however small the niche someone will buy the bandana. My thoughts on the matter are only that it’s ironic to think of DFW’s work in this way due its content, and the current ‘idea’ of DFW is taking away from the fact DFW strived extremely hard to be just a regular guy and remain humble, especially whilst in the limelight.

David Foster Wallace & The Simpsons

AN EVIDENTLY IRONIC THING WE’LL PROBABLY DO AGAIN

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, THE SIMPSONS AND HIGH & LOW ART

 

Aboard a 2-dimensional cruise ship amidst the Simpson’s universe sits David Foster Wallace, in a meta-modernist way the co-writer of this episode, an episode that aired 4 years after the author’s death. The episode itself is not-so-loosely based on the essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, an essay recalling Foster Wallace’s time aboard a cruise ship. The essay itself a witty, well-written and stereotypically Foster-Wallace-esque look at an entertainment culture one can only describe as claustrophobic. A culture one can no longer avoid, only redefine or deconstruct for one’s own amusement (This quickly becomes very un-amusing).

The episode in question was titled A Totally Fun Thing Bart Will Never Do Again. Beginning with the notable convention of The Simpson’s ‘couch-gag’, except everyone and everything is simply replaced with words; a certain cynical deconstruction of what it is that makes people laugh every-single-week. Continued with everyone’s favourite schoolboy rebel Bart Simpson being propelled into a distinctly post-modern style of cinematography, showing five-panels side by side assessing what Bart does week-in-week-out, the monotony of not only his fictional life as Bart Simpson, but of his life as a cartoon character, starting the section by pushing down on his Krusty The Clown brand of alarm-clock; a clock I’m sure has been manufactured for real, then uttering the comedy-cliché words “Monday, here we go again.” Episode 505, here we go again, or perhaps just a subtle reference to Office Space. Cutting to MONDAY: Homer acts like a jerk, Lisa plays her Saxophone, Nelson continues to be a bully, Milhouse does something a little dweeby and finally Bart skates home from the school bullies and plonks himself on the couch, most likely to watch the Simpson’s alternative of the Simpson’s universe. Each day of the week respectively showing certain characters acting in the stereotypical way we’ve come to know and love, eventually each day ending side by side with the same conclusion: Bart expressing a certain existential-nonchalance. Note: This section has the song Boy from School by Hot Chip playing over it.

Bart overhears a commercial on the television about Royalty Cruises, and swiftly runs to his parents and repeats what seems to be an ad-slogan word-for-word. Bart finds out that his family don’t have the money needed for the cruise, so after a short chat with his sister he decides to sell everything he owns. In a very short segment in which ‘Bart’s Everything Sale’ is shown, a few notable characters buy certain items simply for gags sake, now, understandably The Simpsons is a comedy program, that’s purpose is to make you laugh, however what I found poignant about this moment was that it seemed to me as if the characters were buying the items for the gags sake, entertainment for the sake of entertainment. The sales of the items only account for half the money needed, so secretly the rest of the family sells something of theirs which could make up the rest. Lisa mentions selling two Jazz records, a genre she’s “not even close to getting sick of.”

Eventually the family gets to the cruise ship where the cabin gets upgraded 3 times, to the point where Bart is sleeping on a boat bed. Bart comes across the cruises ‘fun schedule’ and Lisa finds the Kidzone Elite section leaving Marge and Homer to actually have sex on a family vacation, the ship is a barrage of entertainment. There’s an interesting montage of Bart performing all the activities on the day’s fun-schedule, where the cartoon becomes stylised to a lesser-extent, almost as if Bart actually begins to act like a cartoon himself, or at least act as the cartoon-esque characters he sees on his TV.

And so Bart toddles back to what looks to be a large dining room, where the rest of the family is sat waiting a show and a meal. At which point the animators have clearly added a cartoon version of David Foster Wallace in the background, wearing the tuxedo shirt he mentions in the original story. The cruise director/captain begins singing a song which basically tells its audience that they should enjoy the cruise while they can, because soon they will be back to their boring lives, which of course worries Bart, he begins thinking that it will be the only good week of his life, and another post-modern moment appears is his thoughts where he scans along images of his life of his simply living the monotony of adult life until death, and that this week of pure hedonistic escapism will be the best part of it all. This for me is where the interesting, at least accessible within what the essay is talking about stops, in brief: Bart realises he’ll have to go back to reality, fakes an onshore pandemic using a DVD about a virus ruining earth over the ships broadcast system, the ship becomes an apocalyptic mess, eventually it all turns out ok.

“You want your art to be hip and seem cool to people, but a great deal of what passes for hip or cool is now highly commercially driven. And some if it is important art. I think ‘The Simpsons’ is important art. On the other hand, it’s also, in my opinion, relentlessly corrosive to the soul and everything is parodied and everything is ridiculous. Maybe I’m old but for my part I can be steeped in about an hour of it and then I have to walk away and look at a flower.” – David Foster Wallace – Conversations with David Foster Wallace.

Everything is parodied and everything is ridiculous. This episode has a monopoly on irony. Perhaps I’ve picked a piece of entertainment that is clearly knee-deep in duality and post-modern thought. However, the episode itself seems to unknowingly (hopefully?) be a reiteration of Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram , an essay on TV, Fiction and Irony. Foster Wallace discusses in the essay that usage, or, over-usage of irony in terms of entertainment can lead to something that, yes, might very be intellectually fulfilling and inclusive of all that lovely grad-school stuff, yet at its heart is missing something: sincerity. And that to be sincere within contemporary entertainment currently proves itself rather difficult, as one has to avoid being thought of as sentimental, or nostalgic, or ‘pithy’ and all of the greetings-card-esque sentiments we know and…love?

What’s poignant; in terms of entertainment at least, about this episode is that it has to tackle the ironic beast it seems to be against. The episode enters into a multi-entertainment-dimensional dialogue:

DFW’s high art writing > Re-written as a ‘low-art’ cartoon episode > said cartoon previously mentioned by DFW > cartoon knowingly inherits DFW’s style for said episode > DFW warns us in E Unibus Pluram of irony usage > episode uses irony, post-modernist-tropes…ironically?

And the whole thing becomes this silly debacle of who can out grad-school who. The reader of course could comment I am only adding to this entertaining mess. What I would like to address however is the dangers of PoMo and ironic usage, in that, yes, The Simpson’s were being all very clever with that episode, and in fact the episode is quite a nice homage to DFW, however what they achieved was what DFW (in his later years) set out to tackle, which was finding a way to be sincere in your art without being obvious, cliché or preachy. This essay will only perpetuate what it’s going to bring-to-light of course, this cannot be avoided, and when dealing with irony you enter yourself into a ring of self-doubt, self-awareness and seemingly-intellectual-digressions, which are often nothing but that, “seemingly”.

The viewer is no longer watching The Simpson’s, they’re watching this ‘idea’ of The Simpson’s and it’s all very clever, but what happened to just watching a cartoon? Not to say that cartoons have to spoon-feed you or that they can’t have a ‘point’ it just seems that as a viewer I feel wary of such entertainment. Entertainment that’s status is based off of ‘hype’ or clever marketing; like coffee sandwich board slogans that make you go “Ah…” and then 5 minutes later you realise that actually the quote was hollow and had all these loopholes and now you feel even less satisfied than before you saw it. To note: the opposite of this the reader will realise is what something genuinely interesting does to you, say 1984 or the TV show Utopia, on first viewing you think “Yeah, that was pretty good…” and then over months or years it grows into your day-to-day life like gout and now you can’t un-see what you’ve been shown.

Episode 505 of The Simpson’s is a welcomed pastiche of DFW’s essay, and in parts a clever ‘meta’ look at post-modernism’s pitfalls, clichés and tropes. However it is of a certain kind of later-into-the-series episode, wherein once this ‘kind’ of self-referential episode airs a screw somewhere loosens and there’s a sudden loss of sincerity, which is quite sad, because it seems nothing can just be a cartoon anymore.