By Dan Clendenin
Over the Christmas break I started re-reading David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996). I didn’t really mean to — I happened to take it off my bookshelf, and once I started reading I couldn’t stop.
The crazy complexity of the 1079-page story makes it hard to describe. In Infinite Jest, time is subsidized by corporations, as in the “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad.” A terrorist group from Quebec called the “Wheelchair Assassins” attacks the United States with a film that’s so powerfully entertaining that “whoever saw it wanted nothing else ever in life but to see it again, and then again, and so on.” Most of the novel takes place in a boarding school called the Enfield Tennis Academy, and at a residential rehab house just down the hill called Ennet House.
Infinite Jest explores numerous aspects of our culture’s Zeitgeist — national character, information overload (which the book mimics), suicide, loneliness, family dysfunction, and addiction to drugs, entertainment, and pleasure. Many passages make you laugh out loud, others are profoundly sad. There are long run-on sentences, and a single paragraph can go for ten pages. The infamous 388 tiny font footnotes sometimes have their own footnotes. There are also digressions where Wallace just seems to be showboating his prodigious talent.
Most of all, says Wallace’s biographer DT Max, Infinite Jest is “a story of people in pain.” It has a “very quiet but very sturdy and constant tragic undercurrent,” writes Dave Eggers in his introduction to the book, “that concerns a people who are completely lost, who are lost within their families and lost within their nation, and lost within their time, and who only want some sort of direction or purpose or sense of community or love.” Wallace often said that he wanted his fiction to explore what it means to live a life of human wholeness in our badly broken world.
Joelle Van Dyne, for example, a.k.a. Madame Psychosis, is a member of the “Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed” (UHID, that is, “You Hid”), whose members wear veils to hide their shame. Drug abuse and a failed suicide land Joelle in Ennet House. There she meets one of the main and most likeable characters of the book, Don Gately, a former criminal, recovering addict, and current staffer at Ennet House. He’s a truth teller, and the only person in a cast of 200-plus characters who’s found a way beyond psychic carnage to genuine healing — but not in a way that you’d expect.
How has Gately stayed clean for 421 days? In short, by living the clichés of the AA program. He’s committed to AA, even though it drives him crazy. He hates the “corny slogans, foamy enthusiasm, saccharine grins, and hideous coffee,” the “limply improbable clichéd drivel,” the “goopy sentiment,” the cultish “brainwashy elements,” and the smug “psychobabbly” jargon — which he calls “probably just Unitarian happy horseshit.” Nonetheless, if you Hang In, Gateley discovered, and Keep Coming, if you scratch beneath the superficial surface of these clichés, you find “that the thing actually does seem to work. Does keep you Substance-free. It’s improbable and shocking.”
In Gately’s experience, the trite clichés are not just true, they are powerfully transforming. In fact, there’s an inverse relationship at work: “the vapider the AA cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it conveys.”
Of course, many addicts won’t accept that some truths appear “polyesterishly banal,” especially newcomers like Geoffrey Day. He has the added disadvantage of being an intellectual who “taught something horseshit-sounding like social historicity or historical sociality” at a junior college. Smart people are the worst, for “they identify their whole selves with their heads.” And so Geoffrey glibly compares the AA clichés to “macramé samplers.” He dismisses Ennet House as “too hilariously egregulous,” which is a Wallace neologism for egregiously ridiculous.
Gately agrees that the slogans “look so shallow for a while.” He even admits that Day is “right about how it seems.” But then “all of a sudden they drop off and deepen like the lobster-waters off the North Shore.” He hopes that Geoffrey will stay at Ennet House long enough for him “to get a whiff of what’s true and deep, almost magic, under the shallow surface of what they’re trying to do” in AA. Otherwise, Geoffrey’s “a dead man for sure.”
Re-reading Infinite Jest reminded me that we Christians have our own clichés — truths that can sound like insipid slogans but that are nonetheless true and powerful if we scratch beneath their surface veneer. Despite superficial appearances, they have “sharp canines” that can be life-transforming.
The lectionary readings for January 13 include the baptism of Jesus, where we encounter three of the most trivialized words in religion that are nevertheless powerfully true and transformative: “God loves you.” And likewise the poetry from Isaiah 43: “Fear not for I have redeemed you; / I have called you by name; you are mine.”
Why did Jesus ask for John’s “baptism of repentance?” The earliest believers asked this question, because in Matthew’s gospel John the Baptizer tried to deter Jesus: “Why do you come to me? I need to be baptized by you!” In other words, John insists that Jesus was not getting baptized for his own sins. Crossan argues that there was an “acute embarrassment” about Jesus’s baptism on the part of the gospel writers. Even a hundred years after the event, Jesus’s baptism made some Christians feel uneasy. In the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews (c. 80–150 AD), Jesus denies that he needs to repent. He seems to get baptized to please his mother.
Jesus’s baptism inaugurated his public ministry by identifying with “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” He allied himself with the faults and failures, the pains and problems, the sadness and sorrow, of all the people who had flocked to the Jordan River. By wading into the waters with them he took his place beside us and among us. Not long into his public mission, the sanctimonious religious leaders derided Jesus as a “friend of gluttons and sinners.” They were right about that.
With his baptism, Jesus openly and decisively stands with us in our brokenness. It might sound trite, but it’s still true: Jesus loves me. God knows my name. I am his and he is mine. He cares.
Jesus’s baptismal solidarity with us was vividly confirmed by God’s affirmation and empowerment. Still wet with water after his cousin had plunged him beneath the Jordan River, Jesus heard a voice and saw a vision — the declaration of God the Father that Jesus was his beloved son, and the descent of God the Spirit in the form of a dove. The vision and the voice punctuated the baptismal event. They signaled the meaning, the message and the mission of Jesus as he went public after thirty years of invisibility — that by the power of the Spirit, the Son of God embodied his Father’s unconditional love for all people everywhere.
Like the clichéd truths of A.A., this sounds “improbable and shocking.” But it’s also something true and deep, almost like magic. As Don Gately learned, if you’re willing to move from clever sophistication to genuine sincerity, “You’re encouraged to keep saying stuff like this until you start to believe it.”
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