Foster, Cheryl [faculty advisor, Department of Philosophy]




David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, metafiction


David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest is usually touted by its fans as being a postpostmodern opus of unparalleled genius; this reaction is inconvenient for me insomuch as I don’t actually agree. More specifically, I have difficulty with the way Infinite Jest’s thematic content is framed by the techniques used to express it, despite the fact that Wallace’s verbal acrobatics are the stuff of legend. This paper argues that the style in which Infinite Jest is written consistently undermines the thematic considerations being simultaneously addressed, creating a dissonance that interferes with the reader’s ability to engage the novel on the emotional and personal level Wallace apparently craves. Infinite Jest is conceptually dense and requires significant commitment from its readers, as most “serious works of fiction” tend to do. It concerns itself with addiction and recovery, self-control and excess, the nature of communication and the pitfalls of ironic detachment. But Wallace’s trump card is not in thematics but in the nature of their deployment, and as a result readers are thrown instantly into a world riffled with footnotes, neologisms, and unexpected abbreviations. The book is chronologically disorganized, its prose unpredictable, and the grammar often stuffed to the ears with clauses meant to disorient; these disruptions are the hallmarks of Wallace’s work, much more so than his numerous and recurring conceptual interests, and are at the root of my criticism. He distracts, digresses, and details his readers often to the point of frightening them away altogether, and he does it for a lot of very good reasons. But are these reasons good enough? My main concern is that as much as it is possible to see many of these digressive tactics parried by the book’s thematic undercurrents, there still seems to be a serious disjunction between what the novel is saying and how the novel is saying them. Although Wallace is of the strict and open opinion that postmodern irony has passed its peak and that “avant-garde irony and rebellion have become dilute and malign” (E Unibus Pluram), this doesn’t seem to stop him from using it and other devices that inhibit the novel’s efforts to posit a world in which ironic detachment is a pitfall and a danger. Since Wallace has proclaimed that “really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself” (E Unibus Pluram), is there any acceptable way to defend his technique without positing a sort of disclosure-inhibiting mask?