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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.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Infinite Jest as Science Fiction

Andrew Findlay

This article’s shtick is reviewing great science fiction, so before I start in on my review, I’ll make my case that this book belongs here. What are some major features of science fiction?

1. Takes place in the future

2. Strange changes in government, cartography, or the overall structure of the world

3. Extrapolated technologies

4. Thematic development of the plot centers around a certain piece of technology

All of these characteristics are strong predictors of science fictional status, and all are strongly present in Infinite Jest. We’ll take it number by number.

Infinite Jest takes place in a (#1) near-future America. It’s hard to tell exactly, but Stephen Burns estimates that the time of the main part of the book roughly matches 2009. That’s fifteen years in the future from the 1994 date of publication. In this future, the reigning method of North American political interaction is O.N.A.N.ism (#2). I don’t think there’s ever been a more intentional masturbation joke, but O.N.A.N. stands for the Organization of North American Nations, a souped-up NAFTA in which the American president basically has the final say on everything. One of the things the president does is create the Great Concavity, where the far northeast of the U.S.A is given to Canada, and then becomes a massive, region-wide landfill.

Fuck you, Montpelier!

Every single bit of America’s waste is sent to that place, which is now legally Canada, so America does not have to deal with it. There’s even a new term for this unprecedented gifting of land to a neighboring country: experialism. There’s also (#3) a bunch of new technologies. I’ll start with a big one: unlimited clean energy. Well, kind of clean. Annular fusion is the whole reason for drowning Vermont and Maine in toxic waste and creating what Americans call the Great Concavity. Annular fusion is a counterintuitive clean energy system that uses hideous amounts of toxic material to initiate fusion that is so clean that it not only purifies the materials used in the process but also sucks every toxin and radioactive particle out of every location in a wide circumference. The whole reason they have to send massive amounts of waste into the area is that the process of annular fusion removes every poison from everything in the area, leading to massive, lush, unbelievable overgrowth. This entails huge trees, lush grass, even gigantic animals and insects.¹

Continual bombardment with poison is the only way to keep these animals/plants from growing out of control and taking over the surrounding areas. DFW includes many additional near-future innovations in this novel, but the most important one is Infinite Jest. The book title references a short film from within the novel itself, a piece of video technology (#4) that is central to the plot and theme. Infinite Jest is an unreleased video that is so entertaining or appealing that, once someone starts watching it, it is so pleasurable that they never stop… ever. Police would know that someone died from watching the video when they saw a self-befouled, dehydrated husk sitting in a recliner. That is, they would know that if the electricity to the entertainment system had been cut. If it hadn’t and the video was still running, they would just sit down and watch, and the exact same thing would happen to them.

This is great! Let’s do this until we die.

Whenever people hear of Infinite Jest, they don’t think science fiction. I didn’t even know it was set in the future until I read it. The issue is that Infinite-Jest-as-science-fiction is not part of Little, Brown’s marketing strategy. Very often these days, booksellers and publishers decide what is and is not science fiction. There’s also a specious assumption that Serious Literature and science fiction are mutually exclusive. In Ursula Le Guin’s brilliant “On Serious Literature,”² she takes this type of thinking to task:

Had he not even understood the importance of the distinction between sci fi and counterfactual fiction? Could he not see that Cormac McCarthy — although everything in his book (except the wonderfully blatant use of an egregiously obscure vocabulary) was remarkably similar to a great many earlier works of science fiction about men crossing the country after a holocaust — could never under any circumstances be said to be a sci fi writer, because Cormac McCarthy was a serious writer and so by definition incapable of lowering himself to commit genre?

The Road is obviously science fiction.³ End of days, world of ash, single wanderer with companion trying to make his way? Except The Road was not billed or sold as science fiction, because Cormac McCarthy. Infinite Jest is the victim of the same type of thinking. This way of looking at things persists across literature. For example, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is not sold as science fiction even though an honest-to-god mad fucking scientist is a title character. Gravity’s Rainbow, almost the entire focus of which was the Nazi’s V2 missile program, the direct technological parent of the rockets that put men on the Moon, is rarely considered science fiction, although there’s a fairly strong argument there from the standpoint of #4.

Yep, looks pretty sciencey to me.

So, back to Infinite Jest. It’s science fiction, so I’m allowed to review it. The thing that surprised me most about it was how easy it was to read. It’s on the same cultural level as Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow – a Big Important Novel you want people to see you reading on the train. I’m not saying Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow aren’t worthwhile, but they are most definitely a fucking trek. Infinite Jest isn’t. There are some advanced bits, and yes there are footnotes,⁴ but for the most part it’s just long as hell. To prove my point, following are excerpts from each book, chosen by opening the book to a random page and typing what I found.

Infinite Jest:

Katherine, I am, in English, moribund. I have no legs, no Swiss honor, no leaders who will fight the truth. I am not alive, Katherine. I roll from skiing lodge to tavern, frequently drinking, alone, wishing for my death, locked inside my pain in the heart. I wish for my death but have not the courage to make actions to cause death. I twice try to roll over the side of a tall Swiss hill but cannot bring myself. I curse myself for cowardice and inutile.⁵

Ulysses:

Lynch! Hey? Sign on long o me. Denzille lane this way. Change here for Bawdyhouse. We two, she said, will seek the kips where shady Mary is. Righto, any old time. Laetabuntur in cubilibus suis. You coming long? Whisper, who the sooty hell’s the johnny in the black duds? Hush! Sinned against the light and even now that day is at hand when he shall come to judge the world by fire. Pflaap! Ut implerentur scripturae. Strike up a ballad.⁶

Gravity’s Rainbow:

He used to pick and shovel at the spring roads of Berkshire, April afternoons he’s lost, “Chapter 81 work,” they called it, following the scraper that clears the winter’s crystal attack-from-within, its white necropolizing…picking up rusted beer cans, rubbers yellow with preterite seed, Kleenex wadded to brain shapes hiding preterite snot, preterite tears, newspapers, broken glass, pieces of automobile, days when in superstition and fright he could make it all fit, seeing clearly in each an entry in a record, a history: his own, his winter’s, his country’s…instructing him, dunce and drifter, in ways deeper than he can explain…⁷

Above are excerpts from the trifecta of Modern Novels You Must Read. I hope they make it clear that Infinite Jest is comparatively accessible and smooth reading. It’s also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Most “funny” books have me smiling a little as I consider how good that last joke was, but Infinite Jest had me in tears multiple times a day. So now we come to the main point of this article: read Infinite Jest. It is funny, compelling, and important. I spent most of my time discussing why certain features of this book put it within my science fiction purview, so Austin Duck⁸ will be along on Wednesday to talk about a massively more crucial subject: what makes Infinite Jest so damn important?

NOTES AND ERRATA

1. This is key, considering that outsized insects were almost as important to early pulp SF as words were.

2.  Read this. Following that link is undeniably a better use of your time than reading this article. It leads to a tongue-in-cheek piece of brilliant microfiction Le Guin wrote in response to a reviewer of Michael Chabon stating that he “has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.” This statement put Ursula Le Guin, goddess of fantasy and science fiction that she is, in high dudgeon. Her response is facetiousness perfected.

3. Or so obviously indebted to it that not acknowledging it is an act of ingratitude.

4. I recommend using an ereader to go through Infinite Jest. It’s gigantic and physically difficult to hold up. Also, clicking on a number to go directly to the footnote is a lot easier than flipping back and forth.

5. If given the context that a French Quebecois man in a wheelchair is speaking this in a second language, I can pretty easily figure out what’s going on here. No challenge at all.

6. What the fuck. What in the actual fuck. Is that Latin? Why? Why is that Latin?

7.  Okay, I know all the words here. All of them. Let’s just put them… together… hm. I can piece this together with some effort, but the fact remains that the author chose to write “rubbers yellow with preterite seed” instead of “used condoms,” so I don’t know.

8. Kind of a dick, but smart as hell and with a heart of gold. Read his article!

Image credits: Allmedia.com, Wiki, and Infinitesummer.org