Dispatches from the Abyss III

Infinite Jest: The Blessing at the Heart of Addiction

Various threads of the novel come together when Hal Incandenza—whom I’ve been thinking of as the protagonist, despite the massive cast, and the many scenes where he isn’t present—tries to go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, and winds up instead at a Men’s group, where men are holding teddy bears and nourishing their inner child (as a long-time veteran of the Men’s Movement, I can report with some confidence that the scene is a wild exaggeration.  But it’s hilarious).

Another major trend toward the end of the novel is that Hal suddenly speaks in the first person.  It’s startling.  It’s as if the author suddenly stepped out of the book, or stepped into it.  Not that Hal Incandenza is David Foster Wallace.  But the correspondences are too major to overlook.

Hal is trying to give up marijuana not because he wants to, but because he has a drug-test looming in thirty days—one of his schoolmates has arranged to put it off that long—and knows he has to stop his daily forays to a tunnel at the school where he smokes weed all by himself.  It’s his secret vice.  (His other major vice, smokeless tobacco, is all too public, and rather disgusting.)  It’s also, somehow, what keeps him going.  One of the most poignant moments in the novel is when he realizes that, without marijuana, there’s nothing he looks forward to in his day.  There’s a subsequent moment when he confronts the question of whether he would rather give up tennis or marijuana.  He can’t decide.  It’s like the famous moment in Jack Benny’s radio show when he was asked by a thief, “Your money or your life?”  There was a pause, which went on, and on.

This isn’t some teenage dopehead who has nothing to live for.  This is one of the best tennis players in his age group in the country, who also has an almost scarily brilliant mind, which retains everything it’s ever read as if it’s still there intact, as if he can go back and read it again.  I don’t know that there is such a mind in the world.  But the scary brilliance of this novel, the way scene after scene seems encyclopedic in detail, so we can see every room right down to the window treatments and doorknobs, reflects that kind of mind.  You can understand why he might want relief from it.  Marijuana apparently provides it.

Another detail about those pressures: one morning Hal is up early at this tennis academy, and mentions casually that it’s common to hear students sobbing at that hour, as they awaken to face the day.  They can’t take what they see, apparently, but have a good cry and go on.  At least for another 24 hours.

Somehow or other marijuana has gone from being the thing that takes the pressure off, so Hal can function and live his life, to the thing that he lives for.  Or at least it might be that.  And that’s the whole question about addiction in this book.  Why does a substance that one person can handle take over another person’s life?  In the case of Kate Gompert—the young woman I mentioned in my first dispatch—it made her suicidal.  Other people, according to what I read, smoke dope recreationally and do fine with it.[1]

We all have our addictions.  Everyone, I’m convinced, has behaviors that they use to remove them from the present moment, and carry them away from reality.  It can be anything from heroin or wild compulsive sex to shopping, or television[2], or Instagram[3].  Some addictions are more destructive than others.

There is another candidate for the meaning of the title, which I took a crack at in my last post.  At various moments in the novel, people have spoken of a video—one of the political groups in the book is desperate to find it, they’ll kill to find it, because they think it would be a potent weapon—that is so entertaining that people who begin watching it literally cannot stop; they give up eating, drinking, and any interaction with friends; they watch the film again and again until they die.  It’s the ultimate entertainment addiction.  And there have been small hints—I may be making this up, or maybe it’s so obvious I should have realized it long ago—that this video is that final video created by James Incandenza, the one he had tried to make several times and titled Infinite Jest.  The suggestion here would be that he did make it, and that it’s so good you can’t stop watching.  You’ll give up your life for it.

At first the idea is absurd.  There’s a movie so good you can’t stop watching?  But it wouldn’t be surprising if it were some other addiction.  People give their lives all the time to drug addictions.  My friend Levi had a client who was intelligent, witty, great company, who worked with him as a private client.  One day he told Levi that he was tired of all this rehab, he’d decided to go back to drinking.  Within a few weeks he was dead.

Levi has also told me that some heroin addicts speak to him of the place that heroin takes them, the place where all addicts actually want to go; it’s like a razor’s edge between life and death.  And sometimes, when heroin takes them there, they choose death.  It isn’t that they’ve literally taken too much of the drug.  It’s that they get to that place and decide to die.  That’s what they’d rather do.

Maybe any full-fledged addiction is a similar rejection of life.

There is a character in this book named Don Gately who has been at a drug rehab place and has been badly beaten (the story is too complicated to go into), but now he’s in a hospital and is desperately trying—against the advice of all his doctors—to avoid taking painkillers, because he’s afraid they’ll make him an addict again.  It’s a heroic struggle[4].  It reminds him of certain experiences of detox he went through, when it was so difficult that all he could do was stay with it moment by moment.  There was nothing to look forward to (that’s the situation Hal Incandenza is in, less intensely).  There was just this moment, then this moment, then this moment, of sheer pain.  That was the only way to face it.

But that was also its blessing.  He speaks of the older AA guys as crocodiles, addicts who have been through everything and been sober 30 years (my friend Levi is such a person), and though they look like ordinary old farts, their experience has given them a secret knowledge.  He remembers a particular instance of detox, and it seems worth quoting at length.

“Gately . . . remembered Kicking the Bird for weeks on the floor of a Revere Holding cell, courtesy of the good old Revere A.D.A.  Locked down tight, a bucket for a toilet, the Holding cell hot but a terrible icy draft down near the floor.  Cold Turkey.  Abrupt Withdrawl.  The Bird.  Being incapable of doing it, and yet having to do it, locked in. . . . Feeling the edge of every second that went by.  Taking it a second at a time.  Drawing the time in around him real tight. . . . He had to build a wall around each second just to take it.  The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down into like one second—less: the space between two heartbeats.  A breath and a second, the pause and gather between each cramp.  An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat.  And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive.  Living in the Present between pulses.  What the White Flaggers talked about: living completely In The Moment. . . .

“ . . . He wonders, sometimes, if that’s what Ferocious Francis and the rest want him to walk toward: Abiding again between heartbeats; tries to imagine what kind of impossible leap it would take to live that way all the time, by choice, straight: in the second, the Now, walled and contained between slow heartbeats.  Ferocious Francis’s own sponsor, the nearly dead guy they wheel to White Flag and call Sarge, says it all the time: It’s a gift, the Now; it’s AA’s real gift.”

Gately is describing the other side of addiction, the choice of life instead of death.  He’s also describing its sheer difficulty.  He’s describing spiritual practice, actually.  AA is spiritual practice, as Levi constantly reminds me.  But to make the choice to undertake practice, you’ve got to be desperate.  Though desperation takes various forms.

[1] It’s the way beer is for me.  I’m a moderate beer drinker, have been my whole life; I drink a beer before dinner and one with the meal every night.  But my friend Levi, my mentor on the subject of addiction, could not stop once he had that first beer.  He drank until the money was gone.

[2] Wallace himself spoke of television as an addiction.

[3] I read an article about meditation and mindfulness recently where the author spoke of a severe addiction to Instagram.  I had no idea what Instagram was at the time.

[4] During this struggle he has various hallucinations.  One is of a wraith, a being who is dead and who has visited him.  Wraiths find it difficult to communicate with the living because life as humans live it seems incredibly slow.  This particular wraith had to sit still for three weeks just so Gately would notice him.  The whole episode is zany.  But I believe that wraithe was James Incandenza, father of Hal, and that he was trying to get a message to his son.  Whether that will work out I don’t know.