Infinite Jest is a young man's book. It is indeed at times puerile. And not in the high minded way of Pynchon, when gets into coprophagy and Nazis. (Too bad Wimsatt and Beardsley did not invent strictures against the perversity fallacy, that the most beastly people do beastly things in the bedroom. There is no correlation, though there are some activities that are beastly so doing them makes the person beastly. There is lot to mine here, but current task is Wallace the Young Man.) You don't have to read much DFW to know he was the 14 year old who could drag any conversation into a clusterfuck of inappropriate and humilating references to sexuality, body fluids and anxiety--The Broom of the System has a major character obsessed with a small penis -- so the moments of high comedy in IJ such as the AA speaker who rhapsodizes about having solid shit -- no surprise. A lot of IJ feels like you have been cornered by the 14-year old boy who, yes, made you laugh back then, sometimes to your surprise, but also revealed himself to be a conversational sink, since he could bring the topic back to his obsession. Which was not your obsession. (To be honest, this is not unlike the feeling one gets when reading Norman Mailer obsessing about anal sex, except the aim is not humor.) At this point (and you hope at his age), you don't think the fascination with the horrible necessarily indicts men as a gender or humanity as a species. Nor the fact that seen from sides the horrible is funny. But if one dwells on the horrible at length, if one endows it with some spiritual grace, then it starts to feel like projection. The walls of irony start to fall and cows go black in the night. Which in fact might have been DFW's point, as the book ends with the two (protagonists is not the word, because both characters are done to rather doing) are in states of suspension, either in asserted ungodly amounts of pain with hallucinatory and uncomfortable visitations or with a total split of internal perspective and external presentation.
It's not cathartic, and the decision for it not to be is principled, and with precedent. The circularity of the story is preceded by Joyce (so I am told) and Delaney's Dhalgren, while V and Oedipa Mas build quite a bit of energy by presenting the possibility of a revealed secret which is ever infinitely postponed. But there is something deadening about DFW's choice, related to how much of the story seems given is being told 14 year old boy who wants to gross you out. And thesis driven, since ever major character is clearly diagnosed with an addiction, the tendency of which is exactly that of The Entertainment, that is, if possible characters seek to be nothing but there addiction. The novel verges on the schematic, though again it may reflect a principled decision on the part of DFW. But it feels very much like that 14 year old boy is now 28 and has had enough struggles and setbacks, both because of his mood disorder and his voracious appetite for substances that, in recovery he paints with the same brush as he did much younger but attempts to purify the gross out, puerile impulse by turning the comedy into tragedy. Because the attention he received because of his sarcasm, his ability to consider any human activity in its most base fashion, elaborated as it was by his enormous vocabulary and observational spark, indicated something wrong in the very psyche of humanity. A refining fire was needed. But the trouble is, the fascination with the horrible in art and in life is not simply because we think, there but for the grace of God, but also because it is DRAMATIC. In art, of course, it offers the most startling contrasts or, in some cases, magnification. For instance, not only is Caulfield's teacher gay, but he may also predate on the more sensitive of his students. Bill in Oliver Twist is awful, but when he kills Jenny he confirms his awfulness. And the fascination of fucked up behavior is itself a part of what can be called the culture of addiction. One of the things that communities of users do is discuss what they have done on certain things; there is always competition at such things. And there is certainly competition in the recovery meetings described by DFW in IJ -- in fact, DFW has some fun with delineating the various sects of recovery, but he uses Gately's journey as well as Hal's journey to suggest, in contrast to such pain, any amount of narcissism and self-help pablum is acceptable. The logic: yes, it is awful, but the opposite is more awful.
Certainly in some cases, but if IJ is an attempt to paint a world that no longer exists, one perspective is achingly deleted. Virtually every character's failing is laid at the hands of addiction, but it is painfully clear that every character is suffering some mood disorder or another. It's as if therapy or mental illness is uncool while addiction is cool. in fact, the character the most derided is the counselor at the Tennis Academy, while Hal's break results in institutionalization and Halcionization. The only episode that hints at Hal's break is his meeting with father in disguise as a therapist, in which guise James Incadenza hopes he can talk to his son but fails. There is a description of depression as full-body nausea, which I have read is how DFW described his own condition. But that is a pause -- DFW is more interested in the mortifications of the flesh brought about by addiction, though they will make a better story. Twitching through a 5 day detox from meth that becomes an addiction to cough syrup is a better story than a character screaming at the walls in suicidal rage. The ending of both could be the same --disassociation, halcion, death--but the cause of the first suggests agency on the victim. The victim need not have taken drugs in the first place and would certainly known that the cough syrup, consumed in such quantities might be worse than the disease. (Though admittedly addiction and obsession can make someone overlook such a problem.)
What I am getting at is that, had DFW spent time delineating in a similar way the mood/mental frailty of his characters, his novel could not have been as cruel to its characters (which is not entirely incompassionate and not without purpose, in some John Gardner sense). The sequence -- trauma, self-medication, addiction, recovery or death -- is the preferred one, and the one with more comic and dramatic potential. And thus more likely to allow a tutelary point, which is an indictment of a culture more interested in being entertained.
This is why I cannot read IJ again, or at least prefer not to. I also think it is not as well made as some of its partisans believe. There are certainly passages which seem to be housed in IJ simply because they could be. DFW excelled at the short sketch, the postmodern genre of story as inventory, with plausible segues and juxtapositions that jump off the page. These bits are welcome, but once passed by, it is hard to not ask why they are in it. I am sure some readers cannot see the relation of the Tennis Academy story with the Terrorist-Entertainment story, and Wallace invites it by drawing circles, but never filling them in. But that is, folks, postmodernism. What is much harder to deal with is his diagnosis, which seems juvenile and the projection of a mind that was shaped by its depression. That, and one simply doesn't buy that the Entertainment would ever work the way Wallace says it would. With it, he is entering a fraught territory, since part of the diagnosis that mass culture was destroying democracy toyed with the idea that said culture is by nature addictive. But most research says neither, aside from the fact that drugs and mental disorders are much more efficient way of redrawing synapses. Since both are also exacerbated by environmental factors such as poverty and cold upbringings, what it comes down is that the fact kids and people watch TV and engage in mass culture is not because it is addictive, but because it distracts themselves from what is around them. It is palliative and perhaps symptomatic, but not addictive. The idea that avante-garde film might be addictive--well, David Lynch actually did make that seem possibly, but really, the whole point of being avante-garde is to make people look away.
To say otherwise is to verge on the Sad Professor view of the world. This view is not uncommon among post-50s white male novelists, but it certainly does not characterize Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, or DeLillo. Hide it as much he wanted (and great deal of what is worth the journey is in DFW deflections and evasions of saying what he really thinks), DFW in IJ too often comes off the grumpy old man harping on how bad EVERYTHING HAS BECOME. Which is possibly art, but mostly is tiresome and, upon reflection, may have something to do with his feeling that EVERYTHING HAD BEEN DONE. In other words, howevermuch IJ is looked at as a reflection of its time, to me ultimately it is a projection of the truly unhappy (and physically unhappy) person that was DFW. It took 15 years to determine just how unhappy,