Serious Question: Has anyone happened to notice any uncanny similarities between some of the depictions of early 21st century America in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and, well, early 21st century America?
Now, I know that Infinite Jest is more or less the novel that gets name-dropped if one wants to sound bookish and brainy, and David Foster Wallace has more or less ascended to the top spot of “celebrity writer dudes,” belovedly dead, whose work doesn’t get read so much as referenced. Just about every grad student in modern English literature probably claims to have read Infinite Jest, even if many of them are more like the guy in this video. But when it comes down to it, Wallace strikes a lot of chords with the American culture of the 1990s in which he wrote Infinite Jest, chords which have indeed resonated up until the present, even to the point of eerie though totally coincidental prophecy.
I’m thinking here of the fact that the geo-political disarray of Infinite Jest‘s North America (reconfigured as the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N., assuredly an allusion to onanism; see GEN 38) features, among other surreal elements, an American president who is described as a “sterile-toupee-wearing promotor and entertainment bigwig” — effectively a Donald J. Trump character.
The similarities go deeper than this, though. Taking a look at the section titled 8 NOVEMBER YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT GAUDEAMUS IGITUR (somewhere around pg. 380, depending on the version), we can see that Wallace forecasted several elements of the current American political climate quite presciently. The Trump-like president in question, one Johnny Gentle, does more than wear a wig. He’s also something of a nationalist, proclaiming to the American people: “Let us go forth, to pretty much any nation we might feel like calling, that the past has been torched by a new and millennial generation of Americans.” Ok, the futurist burial of the past sounds decidedly un-Trump-ish, who peddles more than his fair share of reactionary nostalgia, as we all know from his campaign slogan. But this ‘America first, everyone else second’ mentality materializes in sci-fi levels of strangeness in the novel, as the reigning U.S. Commander in Chief strong-arms Mexico and Canada’s heads of state into forming the above-mentioned North American union, pushes for the annexation of Quebec, and orders the dislocation of toxic waste via catapult into a region of the former American Northeast dubbed “the Great Concavity.”
But perhaps the more on-point characterization of this bizarro president, who Wallace almost certainly never would have believed possible, consists in his ostentatious behavior and the milieu it signifies. Infinite Jest‘s Johnny Gentle wins the honors of “first U.S. President ever to swing his microphone around by the cord during his Inauguration speech”, “first U.S. President ever to say shit publicly, shuddering”, and “[f]irst U.S. President ever to use boss as an adjective.” Trump’s lowbrow rhetoric might come to mind here, but so too does the shift in political attitude in the so-called ‘post-factual’ free-for-all of fake news and Twitter tantrums. This attitude, too, comes to expression in the 8 NOVEMBER section of Infinite Jest. There, Wallace describes a narrative of anti-politics and ideological polarization similar to that of the 2016 election campaign, though not without significant differences. In Wallace’s 21st century America, Johnny Gentle leads a third party surge more akin to Britain’s UKIP, Germany’s AfD, or France’s Front National than to Trump’s grassroots takeover of the G.O.P. Yet, Gentle’s movement is also not simply far right. Instead, it’s far everything. Wallace characterizes it as
a strange-seeming but politically prescient annular agnation of ultra-right jingoist hunt-deer-with-automatic-weapons types and far-left macrobiotic Save-the-Ozone, -Rain-Forests, -Whales, -Spotted-Owl-and-High-pH-Waterways ponytailed granola crunchers, a surreal union of both Rush L.– and Hillary R.C.– disillusioned fringes that drew mainstream-media guffaws at their first Convention
One might draw parallels, then, between Gentle’s political fringe mobilizations and both Trump’s and Sanders’ viral campaigns, though the leftish throngs in Gentle’s America, true to Wallace’s own 90s vibes, gravitate more toward environmentalist rather than social justice causes. At any rate, this fictional political movement, more of a breed of anti-politics masquerading in the garments of political process, advances with alarming parallels to the 2016 fury. Though hardly taken seriously at first, the movement “suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reactionary voter-spasm that made the U.W.S.A. and LaRouchers and Libertarians chew their hands in envy as the Dems and G.O.P.s stood on either side watching dumbly, like doubles partners who each think the other’s surely got it…” Sound familiar?
Ultimately, though, the real insight into contemporary American political life probably comes not from the circumstantial parallels between Gentle and Trump’s campaigns. Rather, what we should probably have our eyes on is the political climate in general according to Wallace’s forecast. Wallace continues, writing of how “the two established mainstream parties split open along tired philosophical lines in a dark time when all landfills got full and all grapes were raisins […].” Political polarization is hard to escape in a two-party state, but Wallace’s insight actually goes further than this. Not only does his fiction foresee a culture of political division, it also envisions a country of internalized, self-destructive fear, as “the U.S. sort of turned on itself and its own philosophical fatigue and hideous wastes with spasm of panicked rage that in retrospect seems possible only in a time of geopolitical supremacy and consequent silence, the loss of any external Menace to hate and fear.”
The lack of external threat, of course, does not totally ring true with current news coverage of Russian hackers and Jihadist terror. But Wallace’s Infinite Jest is on to something in diagnosing American culture’s internal fragmentation. In the novel, this plays out in narrative strands of addiction, hyper-self-consciousness, over-drilled and over-schooled youth, and, of course, mindless entertainment. Rather than amusing ourselves with unreal coverage of a Jester president, we might be wise to turn back to the sort of fiction that Wallace wrote, which places the burden of analysis on us, both to make sense of the writing in front of us and to understand the connections, and occasional predictions, the words reflect back at our culture.