‘Infinite Jest’ in the Age of Addiction

July 11, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 18 7 min read


After twenty years, David Foster Wallace’s grand overture on humans and addiction, Infinite Jest, has only become more powerful. Since its publication, the world has moved past the events and years of the novel’s shaky mid-2000s dystopian world. But the most addictive force in Infinite Jest is a seemingly innocuous videotape referred to simply as “the entertainment.” Television holds the strongest allure and danger to Wallace’s many characters. It was an adversarial and endlessly interesting fixture in American life for Wallace, one that he wrote on at length in his essay “E Unibus Pluram.” “Television, from the surface on down, is about desire,” he writes. “Fictionally speaking, desire is the sugar in human food.”

At the core of Infinite Jest is a story about addiction and the different ways that people find themselves hooked. Wallace’s key argument is that to be human and alive is to be addicted to something, and the real power comes in choosing to what you might find yourself beholden. In his famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, Wallace warned college graduates that, “There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” In Infinite Jest, Wallace’s addicts are largely centered around Boston, on a hilltop near Brighton that separates an elite tennis academy run by a family shaken by a suicide and a halfway house filled with a picaresque crew of recovering drug and alcohol addicts. What brings them all together is that mysterious videotape, “the entertainment,” a piece of media at once so literally captivating that it causes certain death. The viewer cannot look away and will forgo the entirety of Maslow’s hierarchy for the sake of watching.

The worship is more multifaceted than just television and narcotics. The young boys at Enfield Tennis Academy worship the perfection of their tennis games and the rising of their rank, a task replete with ritual, superstition, and devotion. Yet some of the boys also use tennis to avoid family angst, failure, or personal faults, and in that way too the uncanny need to play tennis begins to resemble other addictions in the novel. The halfway house residents are addicted to cannabinoids and alcohol and cocaine and opioids and murdering small animals. The most dedicated of them, such as the halfway house staff member and partial-protagonist, Don Gately, have exchanged the worship of painkillers for the worship of A.A. itself.

Television, much like “the entertainment,” is its own form of worship. It’s the desire to be seen, the desire to be a voyeur. It’s the desire to be approved of and to feel communal. Yet our concept of television has rapidly changed since 1990s, when television was still considered the “boob tube,” a uniformly low art that was acknowledged as an aesthetic horror driven by shows like Cheers or The Price is Right. No one would confuse them for art. Now, we have entered — or passed through — television’s Golden Age, and the duplicity and seduction of the media have become hidden behind good storytelling, compelling acting, and excellent cinematography. The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and more have changed TV from a knuckle-dragging affair into something sophisticated and worthwhile.

Many of the shows that have marked the Golden Age of television first aired around 2000, right at the start of the current opioid epidemic — a spooky correlation, if not a scientific one. Since 1999, opioid overdoses in the United States have quadrupled as a result of increased prescriptions, heavy marketing from big pharmaceutical firms, and a cultural familiarity and acceptance with seemingly casual drug use. In the new century, our nationwide desire to be tuned out, euphoric, and entertained seems to go beyond both medium and function. While many of those who find themselves worshiping television are unaware of the effects of something like “the entertainment,” perhaps no character is more aware of his addiction than Don Gately, an addict recovering from his own enthrallment to Demerol and Talwin, who would find himself at home in the America of today.

Fall 2015 brought a sobering study: Death rates for middle-aged white Americans had started to increase, bucking other demographical and historical trends. The cause behind this grand uptick in fatalities was largely attributed to drug and alcohol abuse, which has become brutal and rife in America’s small, postindustrial towns and regions like New England and the Midwest. Heroin and its potent synthetic successor Fentanyl seem destined to find people, particularly those whose circumstances leave them unable to realize traditional markers of personal success in America. To be rural and “working class” is to live in an economy and culture that is increasingly focused on technically skilled and urbanized workers. To be left behind by your country, as one might feel in rural New Hampshire, is to open the door to something sinister but palliative: opioids. Opioids activate the reward centers of our brains. They give pleasure and a sense of wellbeing. They provide momentary fulfillment and satisfaction with one’s life. Tolerance to prescriptions leads to cheaper, easier-to-get opioids, namely heroin and synthetic versions thereof. The how of these addictions is relatively simple, with doctors trained to relieve pain and large pharmaceutical companies pushing their products heavily to their masses, but the why feels more elusive.

Infinite Jest is set roughly in the mid 2000s, right into the thick of a prescription drug epidemic. Despite it being a novel inherently farcical and dystopian, Wallace’s troupe of addicts have only become more commonplace. It’s no mistake that in Infinite Jest two agents from rival governments, in fear and admiration of the power of the entertainment, discuss the seminal experiment of Rat Park: a foundational 1970s study of drug addiction that showed that rats when given a rich, fulfilling environment tended to avoid readily-available, opiate-laced water, but when faced with a stark and denuded cage, the rats found themselves hopelessly hooked on the same opiates. The denuded cage for a person can take a variety of forms: economic stagnation, faltering relationships, lack of enrichment or challenge in one’s life.

The question for Wallace then is what exactly does it mean far a person to be in that cage? Early on in the novel, one character struggles with an infestation of cockroaches before coming up with a rather brutal solution:

The yellow tile floor of the bathroom is sometimes a little obstacle course of glasses with huge roaches dying inside, stoically, just sitting there, the glasses gradually steaming up with roach-dioxide. The whole thing makes Orin sick. Now he figures the hotter the show’s water, the less chance any small armored vehicle is going to feel like coming out of the drain while he’s in there.

This is perhaps the most heartbreaking image of addiction, not just of being imprisoned and slowly dying, but also being unconscionably trapped behind an invisible force field. It’s to not realize that you are dying only that it is happening slowly, and to know yourself as the most disgusting, and hated of creatures.

While narcotics might present the most desperate and fanatical way to dismiss the denuded cage, there’s a more salubrious method among American households. As Wallace argues in “E Unibus Pluram,” television offers a perfect release. Instead of testing the parameters of one’s crappy cage, TV offers escape: perfect families, perfect bodies, perfect jobs, and challenges that are deemed perfectly manageable by the implicit promise that the characters — and thereby the show — will triumph through to the next season. Now, in this Golden Age, the families are more real, the plot lines more complex: we feel smart, sophisticated, involved. If early TV was the heroin, now we have the Fentanyl. While watching Breaking Bad you “get” that Walter White is an antihero. In The Wire, you “get” the comparisons between drug dealers and the police as factions of equal merit. These things are like delicious breadcrumbs of self-confidence, completing little puzzles for our neurological reward centers. Make no mistake that each of these crumbs was laid down by an intentional hand, drawing us further and further in. Now, in this Golden Age, TV has snuggled up close to the critics that once derided it as stupid and trivial. TV as art makes Wallace’s original statement in “E Unibus Pluram” ring just as true:

Television culture has somehow evolved to a point where it seems invulnerable to any such transfiguring assault. TV, in other words, has become able to capture and neutralize any attempt to change or even protest the attitudes of passive unease and cynicism TV requires of Audience in or to be psychologically viable at doses of several hours per day.

Could one imagine that the new season of House of Cards, inspired third-hand by Richard III, could be considered low-quality in The New York Times or any other critical venue that once trashed television as cheap and vapid?

From the easy access of cheap, reliable, and deeply enthralling television, comes the very Wallacean term: “binge-watch.” The concept of consuming television in large swaths as if it were another narcotic like alcohol or cocaine or Oxycontin has a self-imposed irony to it. In Infinite Jest, one of the characters has an eerily prescient and predictive moment that anticipates the addictive, binge-watching nature of online video streaming:

What if — according to InterLace — what if a viewer could more or less 100% choose what’s on at any given time? Choose and rent, over PC and modem and fiber-optic line, from tens of thousands of second-run films, documentaries, the occasional sport, old beloved non-‘Happy Days’ programs, wholly new programs, cultural stuff, and c., all prepared by the time-tested, newly lean Big Four’s mammoth vaults and production facilities and packaged and disseminated by InterLace TelEnt

If I call the six hours I spent watching the old seasons of Parks And Recreation “binge-watching,” then I am doubly insulated by, first, acknowledging upfront the gluttony of it, and, second, by the irony of calling it a binge in the first place. If I jokingly pretend I’m binging on television, then it’s ironic because watching television is better than knocking back a case of beer, right? Yet television, like narcotics, has a certain intentionality behind it, as Wallace lays bare in “E Unibus Pluram”: “Because of the economies of nationally broadcast, advertiser-subsidizer entertainment, television’s one goal — never denied by anybody in or around TV since RCA first authorized field test in 1936 — is to ensure as much watching as possible.” Wallace’s conclusion is as true as ever, but due to the allure of the Internet as the new “low” art, filled by Youtube, Reddit, viral videos, and vociferous memes dominating the sort of repetitive desire that an American Gladiators marathon used to hold, TV had to change its tactics. Ultimately, the new strategy for capturing their viewers, to convince them of their true desire to watch more and more, was a sea change towards quality entertainment, turning TVs strongest critics into its greatest allies. After all, it is hard to feel poorly about spending a Saturday watching an entire season of The Wire, when its creator, David Simon, won a McArthur “genius” Grant

As a novel, Infinite Jest is intended as a loop. Once you finish the last page, the story pushes you to return to page one in order to put all the clues together and understand what you’ve read, over and over again. The final “joke” of Infinite Jest is that the book is intended to be almost as endless and mirthful as the addictions it depicts. To miss the desperate worshipping hidden beneath the strange, erudite, belly-deep joy of Infinite Jest is to fall prey to its pleasure. The ease of access to satisfaction in the Digital Age, from smart phone to Oxycontin, is perhaps even easier and more gratuitous than Wallace envisioned twenty years ago. The desire for distraction and appeasement has rushed up to meet this pleasure in all its forms, in these new ways to worship that shield the reality of disenfranchisement or pain. To have looked into the abyss of addiction, as Wallace does in Infinite Jest, is to see all of life’s worst parts washed away by a torrent of pleasure. But what if the pleasure took too strong a hold? What if, in the end, you could not look away?

has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. He currently lives and writes in Boston. Read more at mikebroida.com.


  1. i still can’t believe how awful the cover for the 20th anniversary edition is. why even bother? did the person who designed the cover get paid? they shouldn’t have.

  2. Addiction must also be considered a form of social control. It wasn’t by accident that poor communities of color were inundated with heroin and crack, destroying lives, ravaging families, and making criminal the state of being poor. Now we see this playing out in white rural communities. Capitalism no longer needs these middle-aged white working class people, and so instead of working toward an inclusive economy in which all can exercise their productive energies, the capitalist system abandons these individuals, who are left to rot and seek solace in opioids. I’m not suggesting a conspiracy, only that addiction benefits the ruling class, and so we never take steps to “solve” the problem. Instead we blame workers for not being smart enough, or technological savvy, and pretend that our economic system won’t do the same to us. It’s always easier to blame the victim than to question the ideas and privileges of the ruling class.

  3. You write, “the most dedicated of them, such as the halfway house staff member and partial-protagonist, Don Gately, have exchanged the worship of painkillers for the worship of A.A. itself.” That’s a common knock on AA, “exchanging one addiction for another,” but I seriously doubt that “worship” is what Wallace had in mind in his portrayal of Gately’s relationship with A.A. Rather, like many A.A. members Gately ruefully acknowledges that despite the often maddening personalities and ardors of regular meeting attendance in return he has gained not only a chance for survival but the opportunity to live a useful life.

  4. Great article. Lots of interesting points here and plenty of good writing and important observations.

    I wouldn’t say that Don Gately trades his addiction to pills in for an addiction to AA. I think it’s more that he finds a sense of self-worth in all the grunt work he does for Ennet House and this makes him feel like more of a human being. I don’t see him as addicted to the tenets of the program, either, just look at the way he goes through the motions about obeying a “higher power” when he pretends to pray every day.

    The other point I’d like to make is that I think TV has become more socially accepted not only because it’s more complex and of higher quality generally, but because people by nature crave narratives and, for various reasons, reading literature turns them off. All too often, it carries the stigma of pretentiousness and intimidating erudition, making people worry if they “get it” or if they’re stupid or clueless or whatever. TV might also be more complex and thought-provoking than ever before but it also feels less culturally loaded for many people since you feel like you’re not being an insufferable highbrow by watching it.

    Just an observation

  5. ….reminding me that one of the single best things i can do on the sizzling beaches of italia this summer is to revist Mr Wallace’s oeuvre! Thx!

  6. 1) Chuck23 and Anon (in the post directly after Chuck23’s comment) nail the psychopolitics of it.

    2) Anyone thinking that “The Wire” was a worthy time-killer or that David Simon is a “genius” should read Ishmael Reed’s Counterpunch interview (“Faking the Hood”), from 2008, addressing the matter… if only for exposure to an opposing viewpoint.

    3) Friends always marvel at how productive I am (despite the fact that Wife and I are co-raising a preteen without *ever* having used a daycare or a babysitter and Wife is an in-demand classical musician) but they stop their ears up and sing La La La when I remind them that, never a heavy watcher, I tossed my last TV out the window c. 2003. You’ll be surprised at how your day expands when you kick that meddling, nasty, Quasi-Stasi demon out of your life.

    4) The official list of addictions seems to grow every day but when will they put “money” on it?

    5) “Now, in this Golden Age, TV has snuggled up close to the critics that once derided it as stupid and trivial.”

    Isn’t that mostly owing to the fact that the current generation of “critics” were raised watching TV, so TV is now being “critiqued” by its own aesthetic values? (such as they are).

    Many, many times, after being goaded to do so by enraptured chums, I’ve relented and checked out some “brilliant” series (eg, True Detective) by watching two or three episodes on YouTube… I’m always shocked at how little they diverge, in *essence*, from the Escapist crap I stopped watching years and years ago. The structural reason that the TV series, as a medium, can’t ever, in truth, present any genius’ idiosyncratic vision is that it’s a heavily filtered, by-committee-created-and-vetted commodity that costs millions to make and that needs, immediately, to reach (and please) millions to justify its existence. These are the ideal conditions for ANTI-ART.

    In order to seem more realistic and/or heavy, TV’s crap is now all dressed up in FFN and unbleeped “fucks” (and sexualized violence/murder, often) but it’s the same silly cack confirming the same Americoncentric Norms with the same thin post-Friends acting techniques. “Breaking Bad” (MacGyver meets Meth) I found to be an especially ridiculous form of Escapism.

    But that’s why drug addiction and TV addiction (of which Facebook addiction is a subset) are, at core, the same… it’s all just Escapism Addiction. People are desperate to be anywhere other than HERE/NOW. That’s the ultimate conspiracy theory: subliminally, we all know very well what’s Really Going On and most of us *need* these opio-Televisual drugs to cope with every horrific instant.

    5) DFW’s suicide is IJ’s ultimate footnote.

  7. Internet addiction is the going to make television addiction look quaint. Take away people’s access to television and they get sad and agitated. Take away people’s access to the Internet? They will turn fucking homicidal. You just wait. I can see it in children already. The Internet is a demon let loose. That might sound absurd, but trust me, it’s the truth.

  8. I would argue that it is more than a tool. It is an appendage, a physical landscape that will eventually meld with the meat world to form a hybrid existence from which banishment means death itself. Again, call me absurd, but I feel this in my bones.

  9. UPDATE: Here in Washington DC, the director of the Holocaust Museum has requested that players “please stop catching Pokémon” on the premises.

    From today’s Washington Post:

    “It’s not like we came here to play,” said Angie (37)…who also declined to share her last name for privacy reasons, “But gotta catch ’em all.”

    I don’t think even the late David Foster Wallace could have made this up.

  10. This has been said many times before, but the most prescient creative writers (Kafka, Foster Wallace among others) are human beings who “sniff” the air and can sense the changes to come, sometimes decades ahead. 10,000 years ago, they were there, sitting alone in a cave far from the rest of the tribe, lost in their musings. The tiny percentage of our race who are the true seers and shamans.

    What loneliness, though, when I imagine the sensitive and fragile Wallace staring at his blank page, alone after his book tours, well aware of the solitude of his vision.

  11. When is someone going to write about Wallace’s take on what happens after we die in his story Good Old Neon? You wanna talk about getting out of one’s pleasure seeking head and into the world of others man I’d go there. I’ve been applying his imaginative approach as a nurse aid for the past 11 years and think it the best way to regain our shared humanity.

  12. The lengthy and complex work takes place in a North American dystopia, centering on a junior tennis academy and a nearby substance-abuse recovery center. I really like this.

  13. Key sentence:

    “Fall 2015 brought a sobering study: Death rates for middle-aged white Americans had started to increase, bucking other demographical and historical trends.”

    Key word being White. DFW might’ve had a tremendous vocabulary, but to say he represented America is presumptuous, arrogant, and out of touch. He represented the male, middle-aged, over-educated, elitist side of White America, which dominates American literature, for sure. But does he provide any insight into the conflict of those demarcated as the Other? Hardly.

    “To be rural and “working class” is to live in an economy and culture that is increasingly focused on technically skilled and urbanized workers.”

    Urbanized. Pray tell, who are you referring to when you refer to the “urbanized”?

    In retrospect, DFW represents Trump’s America. The characters are “disenfranchised” white males. Poor Hal–he can’t relate to the agonizing existential crisis that accompanies his excruciatingly privileged life while attending his exclusive posh Tennis academy. Luckily, he’s a steadfast virgin–that way we can know he’s the “protagonist.”

    After reading IJ, has anyone considered the other cultural groups are represented? Blacks are negroids. Asians are Orientoids. Minorities as a whole are grotesqueries or comic relief. Female characters? Well, I don’t think they’d pass the Bechdel test. There’s the Prettiest Girl of All Time. And then there’s the Moms who has an illicit affair with a student. But let’s not look to the Others. It’s up to the Whites to show us “what it really means to be fucking human” (DFW paraphrase).

    Fuck DFW. If you presume to think he represented a generation, let it be the generation of White Privilege. And speaking as a former addict, in no way does he represent me.

  14. Excellent, well-reasoned and insightful article, though I’ve always found Wallace’s use of the term “worship” problematic, in particular its conflation with “addiction.” Love this: “Ultimately, the new strategy for capturing their viewers, to convince them of their true desire to watch more and more, was a sea change towards quality entertainment, turning TVs strongest critics into its greatest allies.”

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