Towards an Amateurish Theory of Enjoyment…

… :Brief Thoughts Upon the Completion of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and the Reading of the Introduction to Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual

Infinite Jest is a book both celebrated and feared, mostly referred to as unfinishable; a herculean task for only the most voracious and persistent of readers. It is mostly known and referenced for its length and extensive/inconvenient footnoting. It seems to take a decent amount of research just to find the sparest details regarding its plot or subject matter. Admittedly, the enigma is part of the appeal. In that spirit, I must dash the dreams of those of you expecting a thorough synopsis and analysis (though allusions to themes and esoteric tidbits are somewhat unavoidable).

Infinite Jest is not just a really big book, but to invoke the cliche, an experience. The stock questions of “What’s it about?” or “What’s the point?” in their casual/conversational mode have and always will fail to do it justice, as they simply alienate elements of the book from its whole. Infinite Jest is better experienced than talked about; better enjoyed than encapsulated.

It seems we inhabit an orgasm culture: the default demand of our arts and entertainment is the Big Finish, or at least one Spectacular Moment that becomes the focus and raison d’etre of the entire work. We want our enjoyment concentrated and euphoric. It should be noted that this is not in-and of itself a bad thing; it is only when this becomes the expectation, the only criterion by which something is considered “good” that it becomes a bad thing.

A work like Infinite Jest absolutely fails by orgasm logic. There is no spectacular payoff, no cathartic denouement, just the eloquent, exhaustive description of a world just ever-so-slightly removed from our own, and the wild and diverse personalities that inhabit it. The narrative does not move towards anything, but this doesn’t mean that it is static.

Here’s where Brian Massumi figures in. In the introduction to his Parables for the Virtual, he talks about the lack of any understanding of movement in cultural theory. That is to say, when it comes to theorizing culture, we currently have rigid grids and categories (identities, political structures, everything), but no real understanding of change in regards to movement. I can’t claim to fully grasp what Massumi’s after yet, but this idea of the study of movement in and of itself resonated with me right off the bat.

I thoroughly enjoyed Infinite Jest, but still I spent a good deal of the book anxious, anxious that it wasn’t building towards anything, that if it didn’t, it would somehow feel pointless. As I finished the last few pages, which detailed a scene in the past of one of the main characters that seemed completely irrelevant to what few shreds of an identifiable narrative arc there was, the anxiety melted away. I realized the book was not about finishing, but simply moving, abiding. Though I will never know the conclusion to the story Infinite Jest purportedly tells, over the course of it I became intimately familiar with the world it builds, and the characters therein. I was able to move with them and amongst them over the course of 1000-odd pages, and I now say that I reveled in every sentence.

To be able to enjoy the movement itself removes the frustration from narrative ambiguity (not that narrative certainty is bad necessarily), it categorically defies the orgasm-logic that pervades our entertainments, and opens up all sorts of new possibilities in our most cherished art forms.