Last week, I told a Christian friend that I think Infinite Jest is not only the best book I’ve ever read, but also presents a view that is pretty Jesus-y. His response (and he’s not the only Christian who has said this to me) was something along the lines of “Really?? I’ve heard that David Foster Wallace is really dark.”
He’s right. Infinite Jest is incredibly dark.1 (Following DFW, I’ve opted to put my support for this in an endnote. I don’t think these scenes are especially important to the plot, but if you’re worried about spoilers, just ignore the endnote). But this darkness shouldn’t make us think of Infinite Jest as un-Jesus-y. What makes Infinite Jest Jesus-y is how it deals with the darkness.
A famous quote of DFW’s is:
“Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid it is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this dark world AND to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”
This plays out in Infinite Jest through DFW’s exploration of selfishness. A major theme in IJ is that it’s difficult for us to be intimate with other people because our selfishness inclines us to search for anything that will ease our pain. DFW’s proposed solution is, well… don’t do that because the analgesics ultimately rob us of our humanity. Even when you really want to keep vegging out and watching Netflix or hit it (person, object of sexual affection, or drug) just one more time, don’t. Because it will rob you of your ability to be intimate with other people and thus rob you of your humanity.
In Christianity, we call these anodynes idols. And, like DFW, we say to reject them because they rob us of what fundamentally makes us humans. But our conception of our humanity is not just that it involves our being able to commune with each other, but also with God. We think idols destroy our relationships with other people and God, too.
Infinite Jest makes a compelling case for shunning idols by showing how much evil comes from them. If we’re not willing to look long and hard at the fruits of sin (i.e., the darkness and absurdity of this world), then we won’t see how bad sin is. We should see sin for the abusive and manipulative liar that it is so that we don’t choose it.
As Christians, we should be willing to examine darkness so that we appreciate the light. It’s not the presence of darkness that makes a book Jesus-y, but how that darkness is dealt with. In contrast to say, Vonnegut (who pretty much surrenders to the darkness, and IMO isn’t a very Jesus-y writer), DFW hates the darkness and rages against it. Because we also rage against the darkness, Infinite Jest is Jesus-y. If we don’t see sin and its effects, then we won’t see a need for Jesus.
Karl Krehbiel ’15 lives off-campus but is affiliated with Lowell House. He studies Statistics and loves dark fiction, soccer, his wife, and Jesus.
- For example: a character commits suicide by sticking her limbs down a garbage disposal, there’s a graphic description of a drug overdose, and a character is seen repeatedly dressing his daughter up as a pornstar and raping her. ↩