May 7, 2019
“This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, 'What the fuck is water?' and swim away.”
In this episode of Made You Think, Neil and Nat discuss Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. This is a huge novel taking time in a fictitious 2010 characterized by a non-conventional timeline and a lack of a plot. Despite it’s challenging structure and the fact of being a fiction, it has a lot of philosophical nuggets about particularly on the activeness vs passiveness way of living.
We cover a wide range of topics, including:
And much more. Please enjoy, and be sure to grab a copy of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace!
If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out our episode on Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, another book that critics how media and TV are ruining our lives, and The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey, another book that shows how tennis is not just about hitting balls with a racket.
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0:00 – Spoiler Alert: it’s a fiction book, there will be spoilers. However, this is not a normal book. There is not much of a plot, so to say. This is probably a book intended to be re-read. It’s self referential, once you reach the end it intends you to go back to the beginning.
2:50 – The book doesn’t follow the timeline of events. If you are confused, congrats! That’s the point of the book :). The “missing” year is where most of the action takes.
3:35 – “Fiction is about what it’s like to be a f**cking human being”, David Foster Wallace. The central plot of our lives is just a narrative fallacy. The book gives a sense that it’s like life, in a weird way. Life is extremely complex, but we try to give it a narrative with sequential events. The characters don’t suffer a major transformation. The book ends right before all the crazy stuff is going to happen, but nothing happens yet.
6:26 – DFW intended the book to be an active work of fiction as opposed to just something you seat back and read. There are more than 350 endnotes with essential information to the plot, so you can’t skip them. It’s highly suggested to read it on a Kindle because of them.
9:45 – There are no dates to anchor yourself on. The 10 years where the story takes place, they stop using numbers for the years, but a company’s name that sponsors or subsides that year (“subsidized time”).
11:23 – One of the central characters (that is barely referenced btw) created a movie that is so entertaining that people would watch it till they die. This movie is called “Infinite Jest”. Again, the book is chaotic and focus on the characters details rather than a story. Some parts start getting boring (eg. a kids tennis play) but you don’t want to skip them because something important is said in a couple of sentences. Random passages are really beautiful essays.
13:29 – It’s such a weird book to even talk about. It seems we are talking about a dream that we had. Supernatural characters (a ghost, a guy that levitates) may confuse you and make you doubt about your comprehension.
15:12 – Each chapter is made up of many subchapters, that can have from one sentence to 30 pages. Usually, the point of view is changed for any new subchapter, like into a different character who might be in a different place or even year or day. Sometimes you don’t know what day or character you’re getting drop in to until you’re a couple of pages into it, so it’s moving around a lot.
17:05 – What would the book like if it was written knowing Google exists? What would a movie about Infinite Jest be like? Tarantino could direct this movie. Michael Schur, co-producer and actor of The Office TV series owns the movie rights to Infinite Jest. There are many reference to the book and the author in The Office. Other TV show, BoJack Horseman, seems to be loosely based on this book. Addiction component in the book, and addiction issues that the author had. Psychological addiction to marijuana.
21:52 – Broader context of the main characters. There are basically three or four groups that have their own separate stories and those main groups intersect throughout the novel. There is the tennis academy. A particular family with 3 brothers, Hal, Orin and Mario. The addiction home next to the tennis academy. And the groups of terrorists together with those who are fighting them. The book is hilarious at many times, including laughing out loud funny and horrible tragic things at the same time. There are some absurd parts of the book, that are also very funny because of the way they are written.
26:04 – Weird plots. The wheelchair terrorists that want to kill Americans with a movie. The undercovered anti-terrorist agent that dresses like a woman. The male character enamored with “her”. Kid with his forehead stuck in a glass. The way Jim commits suicide sticking his head in a microwave. Hal tricking the psycho therapists having a major breakthrough. The list of people dying watching the film at one guy’s house. Death by passivity. Examples of characters that stuck between an easy passive life and the will of doing something bigger.
36:12 – Beautiful nonfiction parts. Discussion of kids hitting their goals: “one is that you attain the goal and realize the shocking realization that attaining the goal does not complete or redeem you, does not make everything for your life “OK ” as you are, in the culture, educated to assume it will do this, the goal. And then you face this fact that what you had thought would have the meaning does not have the meaning when you get it, and you are impaled by shock.” “It is more invigorating to want than to have”.
Kyrie Irving, the basketball player, pissed off after winning everything with the Cavaliers. Finding new hills to climb instead of contenting of reaching the top. Happiness comes from the climb, not much from the achievement. Boredom aversion. Losing the impetus to perform after hitting your goals. Veterans missing the war. “If you’re worried you can feel safe, and if you feel safe you should be worried”. Books with porno titles.
47:34 – Infinite Jest is the fictional version of Amusing Ourselves to Death. Heavy critic on TV. Avoiding letting life happen to you, instead of an active life. Effects of the addiction phase, and breaking through it. Cleanse from addiction hero journey. Self improvement and infinite games found in 1-on-1 sports like tennis, box, or martial arts. Yes, you’re fighting against another player, but mainly the fight is against your brain.
53:53 – Transcending own limits. The opponent is yourself. Most characters are fighting an internal battle throughout the novel. Relationship between DFW and his editor. All typos were intentional. First and third person narrators through the book, and the relation to typos.
1:00:53 – The author sees irony almost like a safety valve that people use to avoid feeling real things. Mario, one of the characters, says (or thinks) “there is some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn't happy.” Laughing to avoid deep conversations. In the book, the author takes serious things and wraps them in absurd and funny incidents to make them tolerable or digestible.
1:05:06 – Predictions of the internet. Advertising invading every surface and communication. Snapchat filters. The rise and fall of video calls: “the amazing things about phones is that you can be paying half attention while assuming the other person is giving you their full attention”. The problem of video calls.
1:12:48 – We broke. No, we haven’t, but we missed the opportunity.
1:15:01 – The support of the reading companion. Getting through the first pages of the book. To read or not to read Infinite Jest. Is it worth it? Signaling. Perceptions about the book, what they liked and what not. Nat: “it’s one of the most incredible books I’ve read that I never ever want to read again”. Neil compares this type of difficult to read books with beers. Endurance and feeling of accomplishment.
1:28:23 – The Infinite Jest Reader’s Club. Writers that want to prove how smart writers they are. Fashion designers showing off. Impressing your peers and justifying your professional existence. Kindle reading time estimation. DFW use of psychotropics. Worsts things of the book.
1:40:26 – Stay tuned if you want to listen to a more spoilered version of this book. Find us on Twitter @TheRealNeilS and @nateliason and let us know your version about what happened in the book. Leave a review and share it with your friends if you like the show. Join the email list at Made You Think Podcast, which is the best way to stay up to date on future episodes and things that are going on with the show. Check out ways to support the show at madeyouthinkpodcast.com/support.