Sobriety, Mental Health, and Politics; Infinite Jest

“The truth will set you free. But not until it’s finished with you.” – Infinite Jest

My cousin recently asked me if I thought Infinite Jest was worth reading. My answer was no. Because I thought that she probably wanted to read a book that made her feel something, or entertained her, or taught her something. Infinite Jest doesn’t do any of these things. It doesn’t actually DO anything. Because it IS something.

In a modern market saturated to the bone with books designed from preconception to speak to a specific audience, Infinite Jest is a difficult and sometimes laborious tomb of modern literature. Specifically because it never attempts to speak to anyone. David Foster Wallace, as he is often criticized for, refuses to pander to his reader. He doesn’t make sure you get the point. You have to work for it and I believe that it is part of the beauty of his writing. 

I often finish reading a book and wish that I could sit down with the author and get to know them. After reading Infinite Jest, two times in succession, I feel like I know David Foster Wallace. Because Infinite Jest, like most of Wallace’s writing, feels as much like an abstract dystopian work of meta-fiction as a concrete work of personal philosophy. The characters act as extensions of Wallace’s own mental state atavistically battling subconscious demons in a landscape he creates for them. There is no goal or hope for resolution, as the ending well illustrates, but there is purpose.

Such is life.

Likewise in our lives we are often beset with a range of moral dilemma and personal quandary. The reason longstanding pillars like the Bible and the Oprah Winfrey Show are such colossal marketing tools of morality is these outlets are specifically designed to consign moral fiber through emotionally laden social narrative. One modern and the other ancient. Ultimately summarized in easily consumable metaphor or parable. In the form of brand new cars or immortal souls. A gift for goodness. 

Infinite Jest fits into the same category without allowing itself to be stuffed into the box of overly simplistic moral narrative. Wallace goes in the other direction. He floods each moral dilemma with such detail that the avatars woven into the pages takes on a life outside of the frame of his narrative. Resulting in a much more complex reward system.  

One of the personal question Infinite Jest answered for me was “How the fuck am I going to get sober?” or probably more accurately “Why the fuck would I want to be sober?” 

I am not entirely sure if it is clear from reading this blog but I have had my battles with substance abuse. There seems to be a range of how much is too much and what technically qualifies as abuse that varies from person to person. Defined by the relationship of social functionality and chemical consumption. A bellcurve of tolerance and toleration. For my taste I would say I effectively crossed into a realm of abuse far before I ever entered the realm of socially intolerable. 

Unfortunately a large portion of youth culture exist within that prime region of the bell curve where dangerous consumption begins to overtake social functionality and no one seems to think it is terribly dangerous. I believe the logic goes something like, “between the ages of seventeen and twenty-seven a person is expected, if not encouraged, to indulge in a certain level of irresponsibility and folly.” Which is logical because, I think we can all agree on this, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-seven most people don’t really know their assholes from their elbows but think they know everything, are filled with some pretty exhausting concoction of hormones and social responsibilities that are at once very new and also very impermanent and most of all are at the physiological and sociological prime of their lives. So getting a little fucked up and having a good time seems reasonable.

Unfortunately the relationships and routines that a young person develops during this period of their life tends to define what will come afterward in a very tangible way.

My point being that partying isn’t terrible but developing a party lifestyle has serious negative effects on the overall quality of human life. Anyone, I would argue, who disagrees with this statement probably spends at least part of their day getting lit and has been since they were of the age in question.  

I regress…        

Throughout the endlessly roaming and sometimes intersecting story lines of Infinite Jest the character I found myself relating to most often was Don Gately. A former Demerol addict, burglar, and manslaughter-er? turned devout AA member, humanitarian, and all around sweet guy. Gately represents the 75% of people whom have way to much on their plate and are just trying to figure out how to get by. How to make it though until tomorrow without being crushed by the weight of all the yesterdays.

In a section late in the book Gately is laying in a hospital bed in tremendous physical pain from a gun shot wound. He has to fight off a doctor who is trying to mercifully inject him with some mild painkillers. Although the drugs would solve his current problem, of excruciating pain, they would also negate all of his progress from scum of the earth to active member of society. Gately chooses to endure. By deciding that each moment alone is endurable. He decides that if he can put a fence up around each second an not think about any of the ones before or any of the ones after he can survive the pain and stay sober.

This is the only way to become and maintain sobriety. Because it is only when you think of the months and years of past and future pain that sobriety seems unattainable. By taking each moment and putting it in a box and saying to yourself ” I am stronger that my addiction in this moment.” You can usurp the urge to self destruct and discover a person strength long forgotten.  

Unfortunately this is the easy part of sobriety. The difficult part is trying to answer the question of why you would want to actually accomplish this mental fence construction. Why would you want to be stronger than something that brings you joy and erases your pain, what is the point?

Any junkie, pothead, or alcoholic can get sober for a few days, kick the habit and face “the bird”(cold turkey) to use Wallace’s terminology. What is far more difficult is facing the reality of citizenship that lay at the other end of detox.

All that is left over is the thing which probably caused you to become an addict in the first place. Which is your (probably damaged) mental condition. Represented in Gatley’s hospital scene by “Herman” the sucking void in the ceiling and a common theme throughout Infinite Jest and all of Wallace’s work. Stemming from Wallace’s own battle with mental illness and his seemingly endless impetus to infuse his characters with this same struggle to varying degrees. Ultimately endowing them with a resounding and uncommon depth of humanity for fictional characters.

It is my belief that we have a mental health epidemic in this country. Scratch that, I believe that we have a global metal health epidemic.

The prima sui of religious wars and genocide, obesity and body dysmorphia, pedophilia, opiate addiction, school shootings, mass beheadings, gang rape and all of the other terrible shit that human beings are capable of is not because one race or gender or school of thought is evil or superior but rather because we are taught to believe that this is the case. We are mentally handicapped by our cultures to delineate between the value of one human being over another and adjust moral and ethical consideration accordingly.  

It is not ironic or coincidental or unfortunate that the only thing human beings have perfected is how to kill. It is representative of our human condition. Of our fear and obsession with death. From the atomic bomb to the handgun human beings have not found a way to use their seemingly endless intelligence and inventiveness more effectively than inventing ways to kill each other.

Solving global hunger? Nah. Clean renewable energy? Nope. Curing major pervasive population threatening disease? Not interested. Murder millions of innocent people as quickly as possible without any risk to ourselves? Yes please.

I am not saying that conflict is a bad thing, because I think it is a necessary driving force of human evolution. What I am saying is that our inability to utilize a form of cognitive dissonance and develop a general respect for mankind, even our enemy, has lead us down a self destructive and socially limiting path that people like Jesus, Oprah, and Wallace find to be the most unfortunate aspect of human nature.

Enter the storyline of Hal Incandenza. A young prodigal genius who cannot understand why, if he is as great as everyone says he is, still feels like shit most of the time.

Hal is the youngest child of Avril and James Incandenza, proprietors of then Enfield Tennis Academy which he (Hal) is one of the top, athletically and academically, students. Hal, like Gatley, is one of three main storylines that take place throughout the novel. On the surface he is a gifted tennis player, academic genius and social moron. Beneath this he is your average insecure teenager dealing with the suicide of his father (James) and the general strangeness of his world.

During a conversation with his older brother Orin, which takes place while Hal clips his toenails sending them in a parabolic trajectory which he actively calculates, Hal cooly recounts his encounters with his therapist while Orin talks about the weather. This conversation is representative of Hal and also, on a broader note, is representative of a part of Wallace’s overall style that many people find confounding.

In that the context begins simply enough, with Hal answering a phone call from his brother. Then quickly deteriorates into several different contexts taking place simultaneously without any indication from the author to the reader which voice is being utilized.

In this specific case Hal is clipping his toenails and giving narration of his success rate (from toe to garbage can using only the force of mechanically severing the nail from foot) while Orin oscillates between asking about his therapy, their mother and brother and randomly discussing the perils of Arizona weather. Hal replies absentmindedly to the questions about his family and therapy and sort of by association his father suicide while maintaining very serious narration of his toenail clipping operation. Meanwhile Wallace enters into a sort of ethereal third person narration of Hal’s perceived metal state where Wallace recounts in painful detail Hal’s subconscious memory of his interaction with his therapist. All of this crammed into one section of the book which, as far as any sort of plot goes, has almost nothing to do with anything.

To a casual reader this sort of banter could be excruciating. To me this is an exercise in the futility of written word, which Wallace and Hal felt the constant pressure of, to accurately illustrate true human emotion and depict physical interaction. All of Wallace’s work represents a masters attempt to overcome this boundary.

In truth any human interaction is at the very least dualistic. What we say publicly, how we dress and where we go for breakfast are all preconfigured based on our preference and perceptions of the external world. Also what image we hope to project. Beneath this layer is a entire internal existence which is utterly personal and could never be shared even if we desperately wanted to. Because, to take the example above, Hal could tell Orin every little detail from his memory about the experience with the therapist but he could never actually relay enough information for Orin to actually experience what Hal experienced in that office. 

Furthermore, in the context of written word, when a character has a conversation with another character there is often a few lines of dialogue interjected with a third person narration of one or both mental states of each character. Which traditionally is acceptable and lends to easily understandable storyline.

Wallace takes a separate path. He creates multiple veins of narration in which the characters are accessible to each-other, only to themselves and then in a narrative sense not even to themselves but only to the reader. He does this in a way that is not easily accessible and leaves it up to the reader to decode the combination of narrations in order to see the broader picture.

Such is life.

It is at time like these that Wallace is at his most brilliant and his most difficult. He captures the physiological and neurological storm taking place within each momentary interaction. How the confluence of past, present and future floods each moment of consciousness. He attempts to encode this abstract dance of animus and animal into words. The satisfaction and consternation arrises from the same fact every reader must come away with, the structure conveyed is absolute madness. Which is what makes it so realistic. 

Because in reality human beings are sort of insane. As postulated earlier in this post this insanity becomes enhanced by our culture. Hal’s phycological state is consider damaged because his reaction to his fathers death is deemed inappropriate by his culture. Much to Hal’s amusement it is only when he breaks down in front of his therapist and seems to lose control over his emotions does this signify proper reaction. 

From personal relationships with invisible father figures whom communicate through texts written thousands of years ago to addiction to tiny blue pills which eviscerate our limbic system and take away fundamental aspects of our humanity. The human condition constantly proves fragile. When large groups of humans get together and try to act in any sort of consortium things get even more difficult. 

Which brings me to Remy Marathe. A member of Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (A.F.R.), a group of French Canadian wheelchair assassins devoted to the destruction of O.N.A.N. (Organization of North American Nations) in order to liberate Canada from the oppressive American rule.


For those of you keeping score we have ascended various different levels of the social ladder along with each character of the book. From personal, to pervasive and now finally to global. The reason some people call Infinite Jest the first modern American novel is because it encompasses an entire world. Wallace creates his dystopia from the ground up and fills it at all levels. From fictitious lowly criminals to reorganization of national and international borders.

The political aspect of this book and in effect this post, is told through the interaction between two characters who mirror each other. One being the aforementioned Remy Marathe and his counterpart Huge Steeply. Both of whom are agents for government shadow groups. It is in conversations between these characters that a majority of the plot and structure of the world Wallace creates is revealed. 

Both Marathe and Steeply are trying to hunt down the master copy of the “Entertainment”, which is a movie so optically and cinematically engrossing that when viewed it renders the viewer unable to do anything except watch more of the “entertainment”. When I say nothing I mean nothing, the viewer or viewers (anyone within eye shot) is effectively zombified on the spot. This “Entertainment” was filmed by James Incandenza, Hal’s father, and is the main driving force behind the majority of the overall narrative. 

There are many philosophical points and parallels to be drawn here between drugs, mental health and our current over exposure to all things of a technological medium designed to captivate us that echo the warning of all Orwellian thinkers, but I will leave those to the reader.

The specific point and parallel I would like to draw from the “Entertainment” is the dangers of political group-think which are currently so divisive at home and abroad.  

We live in an era where it is difficult to fool people. Conversely we live in an era where people are more wiling to be fooled. With such a plethora of evidence pointing towards things like global warming, our insignificance in the universe and the subjective invalidity or at the very least challenging of sacredly held beliefs, human beings often look for things to soften the hard edges of our reality. This is well represented in the polarization of liberal and conservative ideologies. Because the facts are easy enough to find if your willing to look. Unfortunately any version of “the facts” can be found depending on the source. 

Remy Marathe represents what I believe to be Wallace’s own political avatar. A reticent leader held hostage by his ideology, unyielding in his devotion to what he saw as righteousness at the expense of himself which he saw as fatally flawed. Burdened by a political system systematically unrepresentative of the population by design on one side and the feverish emotional irrationality of revolutionary thinking and unquestionable righteousness on the other.

Marathe is a caricature of what every conscientious democratic voter SHOULD feel made to look ridiculous by the kool-aid drinking identity sacrificing political true believer Huge Steeply whom represents how most voters DO feel, i.e. willing to agree with whatever it is you say so long as they can think as little as possible. 

At the end of a lengthly reading ( the book itself and this post as well ) the best encouragement I can come up with for anyone willing to challenge Infinite Jest is that it makes you ask yourself questions about humanity. Questions that are not easy to answer. Perhaps questions that have no answer. I think this is what good writing should attempt to do.

Keep going.   



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