I’ve spent some time over the past couple days thinking about why Infinite Jest annoyed me so much. I went and read several gushing reviews of the book, as well as interviews with Wallace where he explains what he was trying to do. Part of what Wallace was apparently trying to convey was that life is messy and complicated and it doesn’t come to a neat conclusion. He wasn’t trying to write a typical narrative novel; in fact, he’s explicitly rejecting the conventions associated with the form. I think that’s a copout, though. If you’re writing a novel, you’re making an implicit agreement with the reader that you will follow the conventions, or at least have a good reason to not follow them. To have the reader work for 900 pages and then say “Ha! Just kidding!” is an elementary school amusement, of the order of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown.
While I was talking to my friend Wilfred about it, he pointed out that there are no finite points in postmodern relativism. Like the game of Eschaton, the map is not the territory. But, again, if that’s the point of Infinite Jest, I cry copout. I don’t need a novel to tell me that. I can look at the world and know that it’s infinite and unable to be described completely in writing. But does that mean we should despair and not even make an attempt to write? Of course not!
Why do we write? We know that we can not capture all of life, so what’s the point? Here’s my answer. We may not be able to create a complete map, but we can create a useful one. All of writing is an attempt to create a useful abstraction of the world. It is distilling it down to interesting or useful tidbits that can be captured. It’s making a map of life that others can hopefully use to assist them in finding their way, by benefitting from our experience.
Why do I write this blog? It’s because I like trying to create such abstractions. To try to distill my experience and thoughts into little nuggets that I can refer back to later. I know that most of my writing contains gross simplifications and generalizations. But that does not necessarily invalidate its viewpoint, so long as it is understood that my views are on a specific subject at a specific time, and not a general description of life. Yes, my map is not the territory. But it can still be a useful guide in navigating this complex world.
Why do people write nonfiction works? They are often sifting through their experience and sharing the portions that they think are relevant. Just because Kunstler is tremendously biased against cars doesn’t mean we should ignore everything he says if we like cars. He may not capture all the subtleties of the debate in developing a community, but he provides a viewpoint, one that we can weigh and judge in light of our own experience. And if it makes sense to us, we integrate it into our own guides to the world, our own maps.
I love that feeling when I read something, and a little light goes on, and my view of the world is shifted in response to this new viewpoint. Reading that first interview with Lakoff was like that – it just opened up a new way of looking at politics and the world that made so much sense. There are often a few nuggets in any book I read that I want to hold on to. I started writing book reviews for myself just for that reason – to grab the bits that jumped out at me, that made me open my eyes and look at something in a new way.
I think the same motivation holds true for fiction works as well. Authors are trying to communicate something, get an idea across to their readers. Wallace had several points that he was trying to make with Infinite Jest. I don’t think he was entirely successful, but that may be just because I’m still annoyed. A romance novelist is reinforcing a fantasy view of the world where love at first sight exists, and everybody lives happily ever after. A science fiction writer may be speculating on what the effects of technology will be in the future. There is a reason they’re writing, and it’s to get some idea out of their brain and into the reader’s.
And it’s hard. Communication is one of the trickiest things we do as human beings. Given the incredibly low bandwidth we have to communicate with in speech and writing, it’s amazing that we can convey what we are feeling and thinking to each other. I’m influenced here by the book The User Illusion and Norretranders’s description of exformation, which is the enormous amount of context that we each use to interpret the words on a screen in front of us, or a conversation with a friend. It’s similar to the idea of reality coefficients, where it’s really hard to communicate with somebody who’s using a different context or a different set of assumptions.
Which brings us back to postmodernism, oddly enough. One of the great insights of postmodernism was that the meaning of a work was not solely in the work itself. It was also in the context that a reader brought to the work. Using that in the example of Infinite Jest, Wallace intentionally evoked the context of a narrative novel, but then intentionally rejected the conventions associated with it. He broke the implicit contract he had with his readers. Given his affection for postmodernism, perhaps he was trying to point out this importance of context explicitly by showing how much we depend on it. Perhaps.
P.S. This post was written while wearing a bandanna, one of David Foster Wallace’s trademarks. Thought you’d like to know.
P.P.S. Any postmodern theory referenced in this post is unlikely to be accurate, since I am a total poser when it comes to postmodern theory.