A PREMATURE REVIEW OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE’S INFINITE JEST: HE’S A MIX OF OSCAR WILDE AND NIETZSCHE

Infinite Jest is essentially a comedy.

With a name like “infinite jest”, I suppose the book gives the impression of being a comedy. But who knows until you look inside? The content of the “novel” (if that’s what it is) confirms it.

Last night Lindsay had to listen to me embarrass myself melting into hysterics trying to read (with vision blurred by tears) the endnote detailing the filmography of Dr. James Orin Incandenza. One of the most bizarre and comedic things I’ve ever read.

I’m not sure what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for a thing being a “novel” (as opposed to an epic, or a series of essays, or a random mind-dump, or a made-up history, or a fairy tale) but Infinite Jest is definitely aiming to be funny, and it succeeds in its bizarro, breathless, cynical, sarcastic, unflinchingly obscene sort of way… so I’m going to stick with “comedy”.

So far, exactly zero of the characters are happy, virtuous, wise, or even minimally decent, so I’ll add that it’s a “dark comedy.”

The term “Infinite Jest” is from a line of Shakespeare, in Hamlet (also darkly comic?) referring to Yorrick as a “man of infinite jest” who is now dead, thus further confirming the the combination of both darkness and comedy.

It’s not a particularly edifying novel. “Interesting” doesn’t automatically mean “worth paying attention to.” I may not finish it for that reason.

There’s a trade off in how much Wallace’s cynicism wears off on me as I read. He is completely given over, in his writing, to a spirit of self-harm, numbness, and obsessively sensual descriptions of everything trivial and ridiculous. It’s tiresome.

When I contemplate a new philosophy or idea, my normal strategy I take it into myself through a persistent effort at philosophical imagination. I was a Hegelian for 12 weeks studying Hegel, a naturalist for 2 years studying naturalism, a Marxist for about three minutes while studying Marxism, a feminist for several years studying feminism, etc.

Like a polymer, I eventually bounce back to my natural shape, but while studying I exercise all my empathy to “try on” the way of seeing things.

This is more enjoyable, as it allows for intellectual “travel” around the world, and gets you out of your own biases if only for the moment. But it’s also important when considering the truth of the philosophy or dialoging with philosophers who subscribe to that idea.

That said, I can’t do it very long with Wallace that with Wallace would increase the chances of getting hooked on substances and giving up on life.

If the laughs are worth it, or if there is any genuine insight or wisdom to be gleaned, I intend to finish it. But we’ll see.

Wallace is observant but despairing. The very absence of transcendence and meaning scream from every witty phrase. In his wittiness, he is like a doped-up and obscene Oscar Wilde.

However, in his obsession with vividly describing the details of mundane phenomena (emptied as far as possible from any transcendent meaning or order) the only other author that he reminds me of is the great Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche trolls you for pages and pages with descriptions of his digestion or defining the delicate shades of his reactions to the climate. He makes a mockery of the written word, even as he masters it, by aggressively refusing to write about anything important.

Maybe Wallace will end up on bookshelf next to Nietzsche, whom I also only read for the laughs (and the occasional flashes of insight), not for any wisdom about anything truly important, such as nature, man, God, philosophy, history, or language.

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Published on March 24, 2020