David Foster Wallace’s tennis-academy-tale has been out for two decades. Like most Big Works by Important Authors, the novel has never lacked for admirers. But why are so many insufferable people in love with Infinite Jest? What about it drives them to read it, and to insist other folks do as well? One of the most unpleasant people I ever knew adored Infinite Jest—just loved it. Once, he lifted the book to his lips, and kissed it.
Talk about an entertainment you can’t quit.
All fandoms attract toxic followers, and every celebrated creator has their share of unpleasant fans. But writing is unique in that almost everyone can write a sentence. Many (if not all) readers believe in their hearts that they, too, could write a book if they took the time.
You could argue that’s the whole point of writing: to erase the distinction between the author’s voice on the page and the reader’s voice in the reader’s head. A successful book says, “Here are your own thoughts, Reader, reflected back at you in a more eloquent form.”
The relationship between a good author and a reader leans towards the spooky. An intimate writer creates a mind-meld which is eerily Vulcan, and David Foster Wallace (DFW) was an intimate writer. His stylistic habits—the studied casualness, the heavy meta-commentary, the high-and-low diction, the Midwest colloquialisms—were purposefully designed to create the illusion that you were reading your own voice in print for the first time. This may explain the fanatic loyalty of his (white male) readers; when you read DFW, you forget that his thoughts are not your own.
Eloquent people forget how hard it is for non-writers to express their thoughts and feelings in evocative and clever ways. And here’s DFW, an artist who promises readability and erudition. Infinite Jest contains his thoughts on practically every facet on modern life. Even body art:
Because the whole thing about tattoos is that they’re permanent, of course, irrevocable once gotten—which of course the irrevocability of a tattoo is what jacks up the adrenaline of the intoxicated decision to sit down in the chair and actually get it (the tattoo)—but the chilling thing about the intoxication is that it seems to make you consider only the adrenaline of the moment itself, not (in any depth) the irrevocability that produces the adrenaline. It’s like the intoxication keeps your tattoo-type-class person from being able to project his imagination past the adrenaline of the impulse and even consider the permanent consequences that are producing the buzz of excitement.
In this section, despite his use of the phrase “tattoo-type-class person,” DFW is talking about a kind of fandom. Why do people love what they love, and why do certain kinds of people love certain entertainments?
I can hazard a guess, at least where Infinite Jest is concerned. The insufferability of a fandom relies on a trio of interdependent elements: the number of fans, the proportion of unbearable fans and the nature of the cultural object itself.
Take The Simpsons. God knows how many unpleasant Simpsons fans exist. But since practically everyone is a Simpsons fan, the deplorables don’t predominate. (Also, The Simpsons has been mocking itself, its audience and its creators since day one. This makes it hard to take yourself or the show too seriously.)
There are far fewer Insane Clown Posse followers than Simpsons lovers. But Juggalos are one of the nicest fandoms I’ve ever encountered. Despite fewer numbers, the proportion of pleasant people in Juggalo circles runs high. There’s several reasons for this, including the Juggalo ethos, which celebrates the marginal. The proportion of nice Juggalo fans is a bulwark against douchebags.
Infinite Jest, however, has all three factors working against it.
First, the numbers.
Infinite Jest was a megahit in 1996, but whatever popularity it enjoyed among magazine writers, it still occupied a niche. By 2016, worldwide sales of DFW’s book just exceeded one million copies. This smaller pool concentrates the numbers of intolerable fans.
Second, the content.
Infinite Jest seems to convince its readers that they are floating above the bestial herd. They’re … just … better? Whatever his gifts, DFW’s writing is preternaturally good at creating Dunning-Kruger in its audience. The Author is readable and relevant and graceful and pretentious, often in the same sentence.
DFW’s writing telegraphs intelligence the same way handguns telegraph strength. Buying a gun is easy. A man who buys a Glock is duped into thinking he is physically strong; a gun is the crystallization of effortless power.
DFW is an accessible writer. A man who reads Infinite Jest can be fooled into thinking he is more intelligent than other people. The book, for all its virtues, is the crystallization of effortless superiority. Listen to the language his staunchest defenders use.
Here is Sasha Chapin on DFW:
Famous dead writer David Foster Wallace made many writers unhappy. The unhappiness, of course, was a feeling of inferiority. You know, if you’re a writer reading Wallace, that you just aren’t that good. You just can’t be. … Wallace was blatantly virtuosic-not a subtle writer.
Here is Scott Timberg on DFW:
He was not a class-skipping frat-boy but a recluse alcoholic. He was also depressive who eventually hung himself. He wrote better than any of these people who’ve tried to take him down.
Here is Jonathan Russell Clark on DFW:
Fischer makes the important distinction here that the kind of men she’s talking about haven’t actually read Infinite Jest. Neither, it seems, has Fischer. In her essay she quotes from Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. and Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock, but never from Infinite Jest.
Adding, near the end,
… so many of these little think-pieces leave out the actual work at the center of both Wallace’s career and the movie itself.
“These little think pieces.” Well, how dare they?
Isn’t there something a little odd about this? Isn’t it a trifle strange, this insistence on DFW’s unsoiled honor? A distant but weirdly beady and obsessive eye?
Doesn’t this seem a tad like, oh, I don’t know, the Rick and Morty fandom? Except Rick Sanchez is a character in an animated entertainment—a medium that is still misunderstood and marginalized. Novels occupy an exalted space, whatever their sales numbers.
Speaking of that novel, and its content. Here are three sentences a quarter of the way into the text of Infinite Jest:
Orin had exited his own substance-phase about the time he discovered sex, plus of course the N./O.N.A.N.C.A.A. -urine considerations, and he declined it, the cocaine, but not in a judgmental or killjoy way, and found he liked being with his P.G.O.A.T. straight while she ingested, he found it exciting, a vicariously on-the-edge feeling he associated with giving yourself not to any one game’s definition but to yourself and how you unjudgmentally feel about somebody who’s high and feeling even freer and better than normal, with you, alone, under the red balls. They were a natural match here: her ingestion then was recreational, and he not only didn’t mind but never made a show of not minding, nor she that he abstained; the whole substance issue was natural and kind of free. Another reason they seemed star-fated was that Joelle had in her sophomore year decided to concentrate in Film/Cartridge, academically, at B.U. Either Film-Cartridge Theory or Film-Cartridge Production.
Perhaps there are unknown depths in this bag of phrases. Personally, I would be embarrassed to have written the above. This paragraph makes me think of a college sophomore writing a short story about how cocaine and boat sex have made him into a superman.
Third, the proportion of unbearable fans.
This problem exists outside of the novel. It has less to do with DFW himself, than the icon of “David Foster Wallace.” As Kelsey McKinney wrote in an essay explaining her hate-love relationship with his writing, “Infinite Jest was so much bigger than the 2000 pages I lugged around.”
DFW’s faults are not hidden. Deirdre Coyle wrote a clear-eyed piece on him, a short essay titled “Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me.” She describes her impression of DFW as “an overly self-aware genius who needed a better editor.” Coyle also points out, correctly, how much of DFW is inseparable from the supercontext. After praising his skill, Coyle writes, “But why have so many men been so insistent that I should read his work? What do they think Wallace has to teach me?”
What indeed? If you fed these men truth serum, I suspect they would say, “Coyle, Wallace will teach you what it’s like to be me, me, me.”
To a large extent, DFW has gruesome fanboys because of his fame. He was the most recent and most celebrated example of what he might have initialized as a VSVMVWAN: a Very Serious Very Male Very White American Novelist. Combine the fame with the writing, and you have honeypot for douchebags. Because DFW is surface-readable, he’s more popular than other VSVMVWANs. To quote from Infinite Jest’s description of Steve McGarrett, “He acts out. It is what he does. The camera is always on him. He is hardly ever offscreen.”
DFW is probably at his best in his journalism, in which he has to confront the outside world and people who are not creations of his mind. In Infinite Jest, it’s pure uncut DFW—just like Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and off-putting for the same reason. Here’s a guy telling you how self-conscious he is about how self-conscious he is about how self-conscious he is about being smart, all while writing in a way guaranteed to get across just how smart and educated and self-conscious he is.
The best comparison for DFW is Hemingway: a problematic fave whose style deceived loads of men into thinking they could write like him and live his life. Infinite Jest invites in this projection.
We’re left with the remainders of a gigantic talent who got closer to greatness than self-awareness.