The Great American Hack: David Foster Wallace and Aaron Swartz
Feb 2 2013
I just finished Infinite Jest.
Like anyone who's spent months reading a 1,008-page book, particularly this one, I'm at a loss. It's sprawling, and by this point, all the important details from the novel's opening pages are teetering on the foggy edges of my memory. I want to throw it across the room—out of desperation, or passionate love, or both. Instead I pick it up and begin it all over again, this time humbled. A student. But I'm lonely—everyone else I know read this book ten years ago—so I take to Google. "What happens in Infinite Jest???" I type. One of the first resources I find points me to a blog called Raw Thought.
I'm relieved. The blog entry is called "The End of Infinite Jest Explained." "This whole thing is one gigantic spoiler," it begins, warning, "only read it if you’ve already tried to figure it out for yourself first." I check myself, consider my situation for a while, then dive in, only to slap my forehead repeatedly as the author draws several niggling details into an elegant theory of the novel's oblique ending, which David Foster Wallace himself said can only be "projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame," meaning that it's implied, at best. It isn't until after I've thoroughly admired this spoiler artist's analysis that I realize who he is. Or was, rather.
From beyond the grave, it was Aaron Swartz who was walking me through Infinite Jest.
In this private denouement, I'm immediately struck by the resonances between this monumental, insane novel and the man who hipped me to its subtext. It's a melancholy connection, and not just for the obvious reason that David Foster Wallace and Aaron Swartz were both brilliant men who took their own lives after helping make other people's lives better and more interesting. As it turns out, Swartz was one of the Internet's pre-eminent Foster Wallace heads. A Reddit thread calls Swartz "the author of one of the most compelling theories about Infinite Jest's end." At Swartz's funeral last month, essayist Tom Chiarella paid tribute by reading a passage from Foster Wallace's iconic Kenyon commencement speech.
For those of you who've never cracked its spine, the plot of Infinite Jest revolves around a fatally compelling film, the Entertainment. Subjected to the Entertainment without warning, viewers go limp, losing interest in anything other than repeated-on-loop viewings of the film itself, eventually starving to death in puddles of their own waste. Created by an artist in order to communicate with his pathologically repressed son, the Entertainment becomes the subject of a protracted, violent political struggle, a Continental Emergency-style conflict between government forces representing the United States and Canada. Shadowy entities--spies, assassins, sinister-toothed agencies with terrorist tactics--wrest to obtain a master copy, planning nefarious uses for its dissemination.
Read the rest over at MOTHERBOARD