Response: Infinite Jest is Probably Not Science Fiction

Austin Duck

(Editor’s note: This may or may not be a response to a previous post here by someone else. It’s certainly at least related, so you may want to open the other one in a new tab.)

Before I begin, I think it necessary to make one thing absolutely clear: I wholeheartedly believe that science fiction can be literature. Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, these women write literature.

Reader, I think you’ve been misled. You were told that I’d be here to “throw down” with Andrew Findlay, that Infinite Jest (henceforth IJ) is a work of science fiction, that I have a heart of gold (if you read AF’s final footnote), and, unfortunately, none of this is true.

I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, right now, “how are you not going to argue with AF while fundamentally disagreeing (and claiming that you’ll address that disagreement),” and, honestly, that’s the predicament I’m finding myself in. You see, I don’t find any particular pleasure in launching what will inevitably be a pointless argument about a book that no one reads (though everyone owns a copy). However, I can’t help but talk because I find problems not with the claim that IJ engages sci-fi elements but with the way it has been presented to you as being sci-fi.

The truth of the matter is that, so far as I can tell, IJ is not a sci-fi novel given the criteria I use when I approach it. This criteria seems to differ from Findlay’s in a single, meaningful way. But, before I get to that, let’s revisit the criteria he laid out on Monday:

  • Takes place in the future
  • Strange changes in government, cartography, or the overall structure of the world
  • Extrapolated technologies
  • Thematic development of the plot centers around a certain piece of technology

All of this, very superficially, seems to create a sci-fi novel. I say superficially because, aside from the last criterion (which I’ll address below), none of these elements are inherently anything but set-dressing, asides, bits of information that require more willful suspension of disbelief but do not fundamentally alter anything in a text. If, for some reason that I don’t quite understand, we were to assume that realism were the only capital-L “Literature,” then yes, absolutely, this criteria would hold, but as we’ve seen in our postmodern literary landscape, that’s not quite the case. Do we inherently classify something as sci-fi because it engages these set-pieces? Is White Noise sci-fi? Or Gravity’s Rainbow? Does Haruki Murakami write fantasy novels? I just don’t think so.

To be completely honest, I don’t really have a full grasp on what’s changed since modernism that would allow Murakami to be regarded in the same vein as Faulkner or Atwood as with Stein or Cather, but one thing’s for certain: it happened. Sci-fi fans can disclaim the statements of “literary heavyweights” like Jonathan Franzen, but, ultimately, people like Franzen don’t influence literary tastes nearly so much as critics, intellectuals, and popular culture and, fuck, just look around. Sci-fi is everywhere, and everywhere in high regard. So fuck Jonathan Franzen. Seriously.

I think that what’s happened is the result of post-structural linguistics, post-colonial literatures, and politico-ideological theories of gender, race, and sexuality. I’m not going to get into why (because you’ll fall asleep) but, to give a profoundly abridged version, the prevalent critical consensus of the last 30 years at least (though you could easily trace it back 50) is that “Art” exists beyond a white, Latinate, logocentric (sorry) realism. It just does. There are too many experiences and too many minds for prescription of what creates art, experience, or meaning.

I know it seems like I’ve gone pretty far from IJ, but trust me, I haven’t. IJ, begun somewhere in the late 80s and published in 1996, is a direct inheritor of all of this literary/cultural upheaval. It occurs, it is composed, in a time where experimentation—of different forms, idioms, genres, voices, styles, etc.—makes it perfectly acceptable to cannibalize, to pull from the highest culture (the title refers, in addition to the film that Findlay discussed, to a line in Hamlet) and the lowest (the dime store fantasy or science fiction novel) to make something new, a device consistently utilized by Pynchon, whom Wallace developed a lot of chops imitating.

So does it mean that, to borrow elements of a genre makes a work itself of that genre? In some ways, yes, it does, in the sense that IJ could not exist, as it does, without the existence of the sci-fi genre. Just as I am of my father, so too is IJ of sci-fi. But is it actually a sci- fi novel?

Of Findlay’s above-mentioned criteria, I think no, IJ is not a sci-fi novel. Yes, it is sort of set in the future (or really, for us, the now), and yes, there is a differently arranged America, giant bugs, and advanced technologies, but none of this, and I mean none. of. it. has any actual bearing on the novel itself. Of the approximately 1,000,000,000 plots engaged in IJ, the two most prevalent are of tennis prodigy and aspiring drug addict Hal Incandenza and former junky and street criminal Don Gately. Engagement with these characters (or something closely related to them (the tennis school that Hal attends or the halfway house that Gately oversees)) occupies approximately 75% of the book (that’s over 750 pages to you and me) and the sci-fi elements of the plot occupy exactly none of these pages. Neither Hal nor Don ever hear anything concerning the more fantastic elements of the film Infinite Jest, nor do they ever encounter giant insects or interact meaningfully with the reconfigured United States (neither character leaves Boston during the entire novel).

Instead, both characters (each in their own ways) are obsessed with drugs, with doing them or not doing them, and with the material conditions of living in a world that encourages escape—through drugs, through Netflix (which Wallace calls the Interlace viewer with streaming and cartridge capabilities), through work and family and games—while hiding the consequences of quitting—the psychosis, the inability to relate to other people, the inability to function in a way that makes the world less lonely. And, as a result, that’s what the book hovers over, brings forward as the theme, as to what is truly important. The world then, with its years having been named by companies (for example, instead of 2002, the year is officially called The Year of the Whopper) and its giant insects created by a former-actor-and-ultimately-incompetent-president as the result of turning the upper Northeast into a giant trash bin, does not drive the plot(s). Instead, these set pieces exist as hyperbole, they exist to make larger statements about a culture at large. Ultimately, they exist to be metaphorically, hyperbolically similar to those real plots of Incandenza and Gately, to explode them, rendering them generalizable (i.e. evident in other aspects of the culture) without making them generalities.

And I think this is an important distinction: IJ is not a book about characters. Yes, there are characters, loads of them, some of whom you’ll get very attached to, who will show you yourself and your world in very uncomfortable ways. But really, truly, IJ is an analysis of the culture, a hard look at a culture of escapism, of shirking responsibility, of letting go toward achieving pure, individuated pleasure, and is invested in showing the material outcomes. Sure there are big bugs, but they’re the effects. They don’t matter, they don’t really do anything except exist, and, in their existence, they remind us of the realities beneath the stories being told to us, the stories we’ve invested and of which we are not likely to escape.

Which brings us finally to Findlay’s fourth claim—that thematic development of the plot centers around a certain piece of technology—and its relationship to the film Infinite Jest (which, for those of you just tuning in, is a film created by Hal’s optical-physicist-gone-auteur-filmmaker-father that is so entertaining anyone who views it never stops watching and dies.) I do agree that there is something to this film’s presence in the text that goes pretty far beyond what I’ve discussed above in terms of adding a serious sci-fi element to the text. The story of the film’s effects does come across as being the third most important plot in IJ (right behind Don and Hal, though occupying much less actual page-space) and its existence is pervasive, showing up directly in nearly every minor-character arc in the book.

Despite this, I’m still not convinced that this element makes the book sci-fi; yes, IJ definitely makes a strongly sci-fi move, but not, it seems to a sci-fi effect. Let me try that again. Here are three reasons why I don’t think that the film Infinite Jest makes the book Infinite Jest sci-fi :

1) while this film is a technology that doesn’t exist, it doesn’t seem to be the effects of radically advanced science that make the difference as it does the effects of experimental art (much more in line with the structure of the book, the meta-textual, self-conscious foot-noting, etc.),

2) that, rather than a specific material/technological aspect that makes the film “addictive,” it seems that IJ (the movie) stands in for a Platonic idea of entertainment (i.e. something completely, purely entertaining) as a means for hyperbolizing the novel’s themes (as mentioned above), and

3) (most importantly) that, to me that what makes a piece of literature quintessentially sci-fi is not the engagement of specific science-materials in a text, but an in-depth study of what, logically, could come of the use of those materials and their effects on humanity. IJ ultimately isn’t speculative because it’s not concerned with what the effects of Netflix or the film’s particular technology will be; it’s concerned with what’s already here and uses these sci-fi pieces to hyperbolize and generalize, to exemplify cultural patterns in these objects that affect multiple lives.

It’s undeniable that Infinite Jest contains sci-fi elements. However, rather than calling it sci-fi (which is not derogatory; it’s just not accurate), let’s just call it what it is: an enormous, important, genre-bending book that cuts to the core of the contemporary American experience of pleasure and addiction. It’s simple to read, nearly impossible to think about, and you are truly at a loss if you don’t read it just because it weighs like 20 pounds or because you’d rather watch Girls.


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