Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: Novel Review

May 6, 2021 by Essay Writer

Despite being written in the early 1990s, Infinite Jest was decades beyond its time. It correctly predicted humanity’s obsession with the internet and the subsequent addiction that came from it. The novel also predicted the ability to call one another while being able to see each other’s faces and with that, the overwhelming insecurity many experience while using this technology. Finally, the novel addressed the issue of anonymity. It showed how anonymity both plays to the strengths and weaknesses of the one using it and also how it affects the people it is being used against. Infinite Jest reveals that when confronted with technology, humans will go to extensive lengths to falsify themselves to the perceived image of perfection often through the use of anonymity over the internet.

Addiction pops up in many different forms throughout Wallace’s novel. Readers are first introduced to addiction through Hal Incandenza and tennis. Hal, along with many others at the tennis academy, are addicted to tennis and winning. It is later shown that Hal is also a marijuana addict, a connection he has with Don Gately. Gately, of course, the infamous marijuana addict who tells himself every time he smokes will be his last but never follows through. This source of unbreakable addiction leads to the novel’s namesake, the Infinite Jest cartridge. As opposed to cable, in Wallace’s novel people watch cartridges as a source of entertainment. The Infinite Jest cartridge is an extremely powerful source of entertainment that will capture the attention of any viewer and will not release it until the viewer has died. This exaggerated form of addiction sets the stage for the rest of the novel, showing that humans are incredibly easily distracted and manipulated.

Humans are not only so often manipulated but also are responsible for manipulating others a majority of the time. This manipulation has become increasingly easier with the creation of the internet. The internet has opened the door to the ability to speak one’s mind with 100% honesty, all the while being completely anonymous. This anonymity can be a good thing, such as providing feedback for a product, but it most certainly also a bad thing. A point has been reached where almost everything seen on the internet has been entirely falsified or at least altered. No one does this more than social media users.

Not only will users of social media falsify their posts to make their life seem more glamorous, often times they will also alter their interests to fit into the general public. As explained in the paper Social Networks, Self-Denial, And Median Preferences: Conformity As An Evolutionary Strategy, it’s stated that individuals will sometimes be so desperate to conform to society that they will transform “a dislike into a preference for something they did not originally care for”(Klick, Jonathan, and Francesco Parisi). This herd thinking turns individuals into a pack with one brain. This is seen most often in impressionable young girls and boys. Young children and teenagers will often conform to their friend group so they are not seen as outsiders. This sense of repressing one’s self then continues as they grow older and begin to use social media; the anonymity making it even easier to silently conform.

A study was done comparing and contrasting different social media sites and the way their users act on and offline. One of the most crucial discoveries that was made is that the users of most sites are trying to fit into a certain stereotype. Especially on the websites Pinterest and Twitters “users have more concern on self-integration and self-determination”(Lin, Chen-Yu, and Enmi Chung). These users try to conform to what they believe is the best possible lifestyle and believe they are able to do it by consciously changing things about themselves that they don’t like or believe others do not or will not like. They use the anonymity of the internet to alter others perceptions of themselves.

The anonymity provided by the internet is very comparable to Joelle van Dyne’s veil in Infinite Jest. Joelle’s veil protects her from completely revealing her identity, letting others form their own opinions and theories about her. Some believe her to be a member of the U.H.I.D. (Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed) while she herself states that she wears the veil because she is the P.G.O.A.T. (Prettiest Girl of All Time) and will “drive anybody with a nervous system out of their fucking mind”(Wallace 538). Wallace also uses phrases such as “hideously attractive girl”(Wallace 290) to describe Joelle, causing even more confusion amongst the other characters and readers.

Joelle van Dyne’s veil is much like a computer screen for much of today’s population. Computer screens provide protection and anonymity from those that the user is communicating with. Even if someone is able to identify a user, unless they were with them they don’t know whether their status updates and photos are the real thing. This is comparable to the debate between Joelle being part of the U.H.I.D. or actually being the P.G.O.A.T. Since no one has ever actually seen her, no one is able to tell what is the truth except by her word. This is a parallel comparison to social media. Without being able to see what is going on in someone’s life, one is unable to tell what is going on except through the other person and other who were there’s words.

While this may seem all fine and well, this massive amount of anonymity and radically changing of oneself can have very negative effects on users of social media. First of all, there are the negative effects to others. Social media can be used to spread rumors or downright lies quickly and efficiently. This is shown almost daily through tabloids and news outlets that don’t fact check thoroughly but was also recently demonstrated at Capital University. Midway through the first semester of the 2015-2016 school year, a rumor was spread through the social media app YikYak that claimed one of the university’s students had died. The rumor quickly escalated, causing an uproar that finally came to a conclusion when public safety was called to check on the student in question. While this rumor did no permanent damage to the student’s life or future, rumors spread through social media can quickly turn ugly and destroy the lives and careers of complete strangers.

While the effects on others can often be devastating, falsifying oneself has irrefutable effects on a person’s psyche. Excessive use of social media can result in “jealousy, envy, and surveillance behaviors”(Nitzburg, George C., and Barry A. Farber). Looking through other’s altered photos and exaggerated accounts of what is going on in their lives causes individuals to easily become jealous and envious of those that they’re friends with. By seeing these images daily, it’s easy to see how social media users’ personalities and attitudes could suffer a blow. Believing that one’s life is inferior to those around them leads to lower levels of self-esteem and self-worth. If not dealt with effectively, these can lead to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.

A study at Deakin University in Burwood, VIC, Australia explored how adolescents with depression who used social media affected their family structure. Results concluded that parents believed that “prolonged exposure to SM exposed their already vulnerable child to additional stressors and risks”(Lewis, Andrew J., et al). Not only can social media be linked to mental illnesses, it can aggravate it and cause more problems. Showing a depressed adolescent photos of someone the same age as themselves who seems to be doing fine and have their life together will only worsen the depressed adolescent’s self-esteem and send them further into depression. Although it’s likely the adolescent in the photos is photoshopped, filtered, and edited almost to the point where they can no longer be recognized, it’s harder for someone who is depressed to remember these facts.

Aside from the anonymity discussed in Wallace’s novel, technology also plays a role in humanity’s stretch toward physical perfection. The specific technology that leads to this is the videophony. Videophony is an advanced form of telephoning where both parties can see one another while speaking. It soon goes out of style which analysts suggest is “a symbolically charged episode of successful resistance against the encroachment of technology”(Ribbat). This technology causes those who use it to become vain and begin to change who they are so they will like themselves more and so others will praise their false identity.

Videophony is a fictional technology discussed in a fairly short section of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that is no longer as fictional as it was during the mid-1990s. Videophony is described simply as video-phoning, much like facetiming or Skype today. Unlike facetiming and Skype, the videophony died out fairly quickly in Wallace’s novel. It is stated that “within like 16 months or 5 sales quarters, the tumescent demand curve for ‘videophony’ suddenly collapsed like a kicked tent”(Wallace 145). Wallace then tells readers the three major downfalls to videophony: “(1) emotional stress, (2) physical vanity, (3) a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of high-tech”(Wallace 145). The combination of these three downfalls quickly leads businesses creating masks for customers to wear while using the videophony. People became so engrossed with appearing perfect, that they were willing to pay for a mask simply to appear flawless over videophony.

Flash forward to 2015 and you can see a similar thing happening on social media. People use facebook, twitter, and instagram to falsify themselves and seem more impressive to their friends and families. The anonymity and sense of disconnection these social media sites provide gives users the chance to create a fake life for themselves. While the actual status updates, photos, and videos may be from the user’s actual life, they are often heavily edited and filtered to only show one’s best self.

The fact that people refuse to show anything but their “best self” online has led to the creation of finstagrams. Finstagrams are instagram accounts with a private setting so that only those one deems acceptable can see the pictures posted. On these private instagram accounts, people post inside jokes or pictures that they believe are outside of the norm of what the everyday instagram user wants to see. The privacy provides them a space to actually be themselves. In a world where teens are expected and conditioned to act a certain way, they are breaking out of the mold to create a new and realistic identity for themselves(Safronova).

Along with the falsification of oneself shown through the masks used over videophony, there is ultimately also the issue of narcissism to discuss. To believe that one does not look good enough and must buy a mask to make themself look better over technology seems to be the ultimate form of narcissism. In an essay entitled “The Art’s Heart’s Purpose”: Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace, the author tells of a story titled A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In this story, a passenger goes on a cruise and is treated overly luxuriously and becomes dissatisfied after several days. The passenger then tells how he is not dissatisfied by the pampering but rather “the Dissatisfied Infant part of me, the part that always and indiscriminately WANTS”(Holland).

This infantilistic narcissism is what is seen in Infinite Jest. Despite the fact that humans have been given the ability to communicate with one another while able to see one another without even being in the same country as one another, it is not enough. People must look perfect while talking to their friends and family. They demand more and refuse to settle for anything less. In their world, everything revolves around them and if they cannot get what they desire, they’ll find it elsewhere.

The link between narcissism and the videophony masks is to be expected. In a study done by Harvard University, it was found that narcissistic persons are “precarious and easily threatened”(Narcissism And Self-Esteem). It was also shown that they “avoid acknowledging failure by setting low standards that are easily met” and if they don’t ultimately succeed “blame their failures on others”(Narcissism And Self-Esteem). The simple act of being able to control their appearance would put a narcissistic person at ease and let them have a relatively normal videophony conversation.

There is absolutely no denying David Foster Wallace’s genius beyond his years. If one believes in such, it would be easy to believe that Wallace was a psychic or time traveller. His ability to accurately predict technology as humanity’s downfall, while technology was still in its relatively early stage, is almost eerie. Not only are his accurate predictions interesting to analyze within the context of the 1990s and as they apply to today’s world, but his storytelling is also marvelous. Wallace immerses his readers in the story, using concepts familiar to everyone to draw them in and then keep their attention. With the length and extensiveness of Infinite Jest, one could almost say that analyzing and understanding the novel thoroughly is, in itself, a sort of addiction which Wallace warned against.

Despite mostly living in the mid and late 20th century, David Foster Wallace was able to predict technology that has only been invented recently and the consequences that would come from this technology. Even then, he knew that as convenient and helpful as technology was, it could easily become addicting and cause people to do ridiculous things to impress others. The anonymity, comparable to Joelle van Dyne’s use of a veil in Infinite Jest, causes people to do things they never would when held accountable and can lead to a number of unforeseen consequences. Humans have been striving for perfection since the beginning of time, the creation of technology and social media finally allowing them to give the illusion that they’ve achieved it. So far, the effects of this illusion of perfection have been largely unrecognized by the public but if this pattern of behavior continues, it’s not implausible to believe the world could become even more like Wallace predicted.

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