Closer To Dave

The Infinite Jest Effect

by Bill Lattanzi

Somewhere out there, you can look it up, there’s a man with the last line of Infinite Jest tattooed onto the inside of his forearm, just one of many readers with Wallace text inked onto their bodies. There’s a visual artist in Detroit, Corrie Baldauf, who has created a set of color-coded copies of Infinite Jest — one chromatically-correct plastic tab for every mention of a color in the book. There are at least two people, one a grown-up outside LA and one an 11-year-old boy in Ohio (with guidance from his dad), who have spent an inordinate amount of time recreating scenes from Infinite Jest in Lego form. And this is not to mention the thousands of words both online and in print written to help decode, celebrate, or just share the experience of reading the novel. Or the art exhibitions, the 24-hour play set all across the streets of Berlin, the fan art, the websites, the film, and the walking tour of Wallace’s Boston. What’s going on with Wallace and his readers?

This combination of devoted fandom and obsessive investigation just doesn’t happen with other writers. This happens with the Grateful Dead, with Dylan, with Shakespeare, with religious figures, with Elvis. So many readers in so many ways, all trying to get closer to Dave. Why?

What Wallace does is lay it out for us, making the case that we healthy Americans are addicted to pleasure and entertainment as surely as hard-core addicts are addicted to drugs.

The party line seems to say that Wallace’s writing sounds like the voice of your own thoughts, except that his writing is far more articulate and far more insightful. Wallace’s voice becomes your own best self, thrillingly acute, devastatingly funny, poignantly sad, and endlessly empathetic. To me, this all seems to be roughly true, but incomplete. After all, the voice-in-the-head effect is pretty much the case for every great writer, everyone who ‘speaks to us’ through the odd alchemy of fiction. Wallace must have something else going on.

What it is, I suspect, is more than the music of the words, more than the fun of the footnotes and the insanely large vocabulary. It’s the actual ideas in Infinite Jest and elsewhere in Wallace’s work that are so exciting. The picture of a U.S. culture besotted by entertainment, spiraling downward in a sea of selfishness strikes a deep chord. Infinite Jest presents a U.S. culture trapped by an inability to find anything worth believing in beyond the next object of desire (lover, product, or cash). A nation where a combination of our own weaknesses combine with the marketplace’s ability to serve them. “The trouble with entertainment”, Wallace said to a German television interviewer in 2003, “is that it’s so goddamm entertaining.” A long time ago, Bob Dylan wrote a taunting line: “You know something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is…” What Wallace does is lay it out for us, making the case that we healthy Americans are addicted to pleasure and entertainment as surely as hard-core addicts are addicted to drugs. We’re like the rats of a storied Canadian experiment, pushing the bar for a jolt of cocaine until we die. For Wallace, it’s the remote, and the mouse, that we’re clicking, until what occurs, he insisted in his interview with David Lipsky, was a kind of spiritual death.

As painful as the message might be, maybe there’s some kind of shock of recognition for a whole lot of Wallace readers. There’s the idea that’s been percolating around our heads, but never put so simply, so clearly. And maybe that shock turns to a kind of joy, a great relief in hearing it spoken out loud, at first inside the reader’s head as you encounter it all across the crazy, hilarious, and sad happenings of Infinite Jest. And then, when you tell someone about it, with a tattoo, with Legos, with an art project, or with words. It’s a weird bunch of evangelists Infinite Jest has created, all of us ready to testify, not about the man so much as the ideas, and not so much as a statement but as part of a conversation started by a big, fat book published nearly 20 years ago, that seems to grow more relevant all the time.

Bill Lattanzi occasionally leads a walking tour of David Foster Wallace’s Boston. He is at work on a documentary about Infinite Jest.