For two years I was fortunate to experience a wonderful, zero-regret relationship with a Designated Lady Friend from Brighton, Massachusetts. Each Friday I’d make the hour’s drive north to Metro Boston, a realm I embraced as my weekend home.
That relationship ended this February, at which point I was a couple hundred pages into Infinite Jest. Back in New Bedford, MA, and left in a vulnerable, impressionable state that often results when a giant life component is abruptly excised, I found eerie solace in an unlikely source: mentally inhabiting a fictionalized version of my now-former area of operations.
The teakettle squeak of the Green Line. The pleasing (and joggable) residential zones of Newton. The iconic intersection at Blanchard’s Liquors, near a great many of my favorite eateries. Heck, my lady lived a minute’s walk from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Each recognizable landmark was a ghost whose haunting aura I was compelled to welcome.
More chilling, meanwhile, was my examination of the trajectory of identity in the story’s many characters. Absorbing Jest’s broad scope felt like a disjointed, abstract therapy session. Wallace succeeds in holding up a giant and brutally accurate mirror. As readers we must admit to, and reconcile with, that in ourselves which generates these reflections.
Pertinent to me was this warning: Beware treading a path that, by imperceptible degrees, forfeits your personal agency to your central nervous system. Wallace humorously tracks the steps of this surefire descent: first “fun with the Substance, then very gradually less fun, then significantly less fun because of the little blackouts you suddenly come out of on the highway going 145 kph with companions you do not know…” (345).
It is during these frightening blackouts when the central nervous system can and will send the musculoskeletal system on destructive quests without attaining your consent, resulting in decisions one “would not ever do sober,” the consequences of which “cannot ever be erased or amended.” (205).
Consider a college friend of mine, who at twenty years old attended a party and consumed Substances continuously until that night’s narrative jump-cut to a hospital bed, where he was informed that he had driven a car into a tree. He retained no memory of the sequence. Family members showed him cellphone photo galleries of his totaled vehicle, a wreckage that by some miracle he emerged from with only a scratch or two.
Thankfully, I myself haven’t done anything felonious when Substanced beyond recommended limits. Still, I have a deep, visceral dread for that moment I awaken from an irresponsible night of consumption and must request from witnesses an oral account of my behavior. Though I have never done anything physically or financially irresponsible, I have said hostile, unpleasant things to good people that didn’t deserve it.
Some point and claim that under the influence your filter is put aside, allowing the truth of how you really feel to come out. In my case, I reject this. The sentiments I’ve dished out during blackouts were not things that had been simmering under the surface, waiting for the proper conditions to be unleashed. Rather, they are fictions that did not previously exist outside of that intoxicated blur. In times like those I am taking my own dissatisfactions with myself and inflicting them on others by effectively saying hey you, shoulder some of this, so that the load I have to carry is reduced. (As if that strategy might work.)
I can atone for the impolitic missteps themselves. But the actual habit in need of repair is the gradual series of micro-decisions that favor relief in the short term at the expense of sustainable well-being in the long run. It’s a slow, nearly invisible self-delusion. We see numerous characters in Jest in the deeper depths of this spiral. Whether they’re entangled in addiction, violence, or emotional malevolence, their good intentions have long since forfeited their fighting chance at achieving a meaningful lifestyle.
If there’s one thing Wallace told me through this novel, here it is: You are a good person, so you’d better not postpone dealing with yourself, lest your base impulses hijack the steering wheel and carry you somewhere with no return ticket. I see Jest as the proverbial teacher/mentor/friend who enters your life at the right time, to steer you in a more productive and healthy direction. I thank Wallace for granting us this novel, and I am fortunate to have read it in the time and place that I did.
Alex Yard is a Massachusetts writer and composer. His commentary and music are presented on Twitter @Zeavo.