In 1997 David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was awarded the Nebula by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the highest honor in the field once known as “science fiction”….
Just kidding … Infinite Jest was nominated, but didn’t even make the short list for the Nebula, created in the free-wheeling ‘60s to recognize innovative or “daring” approaches to “speculative fiction.”
In a 1998 essay in the Village Voice, science-fiction-fan-and-author-turned-respectable-writer Jonathan Lethem bemoaned the fact that Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow did not win the 1973 Nebula, arguing that the award would have had yanked SF out of the ghetto, and, with any luck, severed it from its embarrassing pulp roots.
Pynchon’s weird and arduous novel (“It’s not much fun, is it?” said a friend when we read it together) features but a single fantastical conceit — Tyrone Slothrop’s erections predict the arrival of German V2 rockets during the London Blitz — making it, at most, a fantasy, or bit of paranoid magic realism. Better to call it what it is, a classic Pynchonian satire — whose influence just happens to scream silently across Infinite Jest.
Ray Bradbury — a nostalgic fantasist and techno-doubter, despite his association with SF — famously declared, “I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.” Still, squint and you’ll see poetic extrapolations of everything from cell phones to virtual reality in his work.
And Wallace? Boiled down to its essence, Infinite Jest is plausibly read as a warning against — nod to Neil Postman — amusing ourselves to death. Twenty years later, we live in a post-empirical, social-media-lemming, atomized-attention-span, all-distraction-all-the-time America. Without trying, Wallace, like Bradbury, conjured an absurd future that has become disturbingly plausible.
How not to perceive at least partial foreshadowing in Crooner-President Johnny Gentle, an indiscriminate populist and bloviating entertainer who hammers home — and perhaps even believes — the message, “Dammit there just must be some people besides each other we can blame”? He’s “crazy in the head,” observes Quebecois terrorist Marathe, “but in this ‘fault of someone’” drumbeat, Gentle understands that the people are never more easily led than when they have, “Un ennemi commun.”
Wallace not only anticipated cell phones and tablets and Hulu and Netflix with teleputers and InterLace, but also our capitulation to beloved one-stop distraction terminals that mainline perpetual-ephemeral pixel-fixes, the bullshit memes of Facebook, Twitter and alternate-reality feeds that stampede past distraction and entertainment on their way over the cliffs of righteously comfortable, cheerfully consumed and blindly regurgitated lies.
Infinite Jest not only predicts the arrival of the long-awaited SF techno-orgasm of “videophones” — remember the cute birthday girl talking to Daddy on the space station in “2001”? — but also its doom as a mass technology. As all adopters-cum-ditchers of Skype and Crotchtime have grasped, the problem isn’t so much that your hair or whatever looks like shit, but that you your half-, quarter- or full inattention is now so nakedly revealed.
And fuck that, not because of some quaint, get-off-my-lawn notions of courtesy and respect, but because, as Wallace writes, on a telephone “you were never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided.”
And so but if anyone has a better catchall label for all our noble avatars, Photoshop miracle diets/depilators/weight training, and the evolutionary compulsion to post only images reflected in the sheen of our deepest ego mirrors than Video-Physiognomy Dysphoria, hit me.
At first glance little more than a fantastical McGuffin — on a level with Slothrop’s predictive hard-ons — James O. Incandenza’s final, fatal film is surely made a bit less absurd by the advent of death-by-selfie, now more likely to kill you than a shark.
NAFTA … O.N.A.N — enough said.
Subsidized Time and fries-with-that Lady Liberty may be pointed flourishes of hyper-satire, but if I had to bet, I’d put my money on that future over the wet dreams of Bernietopians — if you wouldn’t, I want what you’re taking. It’s no longer cynics, but realists, who know the price of everything, and they know who, or what, paid for it, thanks to “naming rights,” and universities, fire departments and transportation planners, forced into obsequiousness, fall their knees, mouths agape, desperate to fellate wealthy benefactors in hopes of replacing revenues lost to a generation of citizens trained to loathe taxes.
Infinite Jest is a comically painful dissection of addiction and (mostly loving) deconstruction of 12-Step recovery, rambling, Pynchon-inflected romp, caricature of a kind of non-supernatural Addams Family, and troubled examination into the many ways we hide from each other, from ourselves, and from reality. It’s also a distressingly accurate projection of where we’ve come in the last two decades.
But so is it science fiction? Maybe. No less so than most of Vonnegut, maybe Pynchon, some of Margaret Atwood and Kashuo Ishiguro. But it’s also a mystery, comedy, sports novel, drug novel, family saga, political satire — and just imagine how ridiculous it would be to slap any one of those labels on Infinite Jest to the exclusion of others.
Clay Bonnyman Evans is a freelance writer who loves critters, running, surfing and hiking. His checkered college career was interrupted by a six-year stint working as a cowboy around the West, after which he continued his descent on the social ladder working as a journalist for more than 20 years. He’s on Twitter @claybonnyman