Text/Book, the Toronto Standard‘s books column, is written by Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, plus occasional guests.
There was this greedy rotten King in ancient times. He killed and sinned and killed again. He laughed at the Gods until he needed their help. He asked them how to kill his rival, and because he was a sinner the gods plotted against him. They had Thanatos, the god of death, chain him up at the bottom of the underworld. But he tricked Thanatos into showing him how the chains worked. Then he locked up the god of death. This man literally cheated death. And so he had to be punished. The gods sentenced him to an eternity of drudgery. He was forced to roll a big heavy rock up a steep hill, and the fates arranged that every time he reached the summit, the rock would roll right back down. He would spend all of time sweating and cursing as he pushed the rock up the hill, knowing that once he got up there, to the peak, the rock would just roll back to the bottom. Up, down. Forever. That king guy was called Sisyphus and his story is, somewhat depressingly, also forever our story. Well, except that we’re not all kings, and only some of us are sinners.
When David Foster Wallace gave his now insanely famous commencement address to the Kenyon College graduating class of 2005, he tried to tell these young citizens what to expect from adult life. He talked about getting cut off in traffic, and standing for an interminable amount of time in a grocery store checkout line. He talked about the weird social scripts we have, like when a cashier says “how are you” even though they don’t care. These sorts of day-in, day-out social transactions and negotiations. The kind that are frequently underscored by Muzak. He posited, in this speech, that this kind of bullshit was the basis of adult life.
At the start of that talk Wallace told a story. It goes something like this: There are two young guy fishes swimming along doing young guy fish things, talking about, like, homework or fish sports, or something. Then this wizened old grandpa fish swims by and says to the young fish, “Good morning! How’s the water, today fellas?” and they say “Good,” and after Grandpa swims away one of the young guy fishes turns to the other and says, “What the fuck is water?”
Wallace used this jokey parable much earlier than that, though. It shows up in the middle of his biggest book, Infinite Jest. In the book this one sober biker guy, whose name is BOB DEATH, if you can believe it, tells it to one of the main characters, Donald Gately. They’ve just come out of an AA meeting called “Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink.” And Bob Death tells this jokey parable to Don because Don just gave, at the meeting, a big speech about praying for recovery even though he doesn’t believe in God. About keeping a faithless faith. About routinized belief.
So in Infinite Jest the thing about the fishes is about more than bullshit, or at least bigger bullshit, though it’s still about day-in and day-out routines, about being alert and trying to actually see the world.
Okay, let’s do a little plot recap before we really get into it: so the book is basically about these two institutions in some alternate near-future Boston. The institutions are a halfway house where addicts try and fight their demons and a private tennis academy for teenagers. Well, it’s more about the nearly parallel lives led by the characters in these two settings, and capitalism, and paralysis, and terrorism, and anxiety and a lot of other stuff too. It’s a big and messy sort of book.
Donald Gately works at the halfway house. He is living his second life, and in a very specific kind of way Wallace has him cheating death. At one point he was a Demerol addict, and he did a lot of bad guy things to feed his addiction. He burgled, fought, and even killed so that he could keep getting fucked up on Demoral. His daily routine at one point consisted of breaking into places, pawning things, getting swindled, acting as a bruiser for his dealer, and then sitting still for as long as he could, for as long the high would last, sometimes covered in his own blood.
Because of the networked and semi-fractal structure of Infinite Jest, we see Gately and the other characters across many moments. In another moment, his routine is cleaning toilets, making lunch and dinner for the residents for the halfway house, attending AA meeting after AA meeting, and getting down on his knees night after night to pray, to ask for strength from a nebulous entity that lives for him mostly in doubt.
In Infinite Jest, as out here in the real world, AA is a program intended to support addicts and enable them to live clean. It relies, rather famously, on twelve steps. There are also supplementary cliches that inform the way a person lives out “the program.” Platitudes like “one day at a time” and “let go and let God.” The first three steps, and all of the clichés, require that you commit yourself to a practice of blind faith, that you see that your life has become unmanageable, that you believe in some higher power, and that you hand your life over to that power. So Don does his best with these things, because otherwise he’d die on Demerol. Otherwise he’d die caught up in the compulsive spiral of addiction. Like I said, these rituals enable him to cheat that fate, death, and live a second life.
But that life becomes, like Sisyphus’s, about paying the price for cheating death. And he engages the rolling of that rock up the hill, the meetings, the praying, the toilet scrubbing, the day-in day-out one day at a time stuff because it’s better than being an addict, because this second life, however tedious and rote, is one he got to choose. It’s how he was able to liberate himself from his compulsion, and to give shape and significance to whatever remains of his time on earth.
For Gately, then, these routines are more than that: they are rituals. They are what enable him to experience freedom, and to therefore live a meaningful life.
The difference between ritual and routine lies here, I think. For Gately even the ordinary tedium and repetitive aspects of his life add up to more. Because he knows that the daily routines of his life are the price he’s paying for his freedom, he also lives with the knowledge, to crib another cliché from AA, that even his worst sober day is better than his best day enslaved to his addiction. He knows, then, even on his worst day in sobriety, that this is water.
Another main character, Hal Incandenza, is less sure. He is still sort of a young guy fish, and Infinite Jest’s opening scene details the harrowing prison of his mind unaware of the world he lives in. He can’t reach outside of himself and make a connection, he’s stuck, isolated and suspended, held in place by the chains of a solipsism so total that it is not even aware of itself.
Throughout the novel, Gately and Hal live in peripheral and often parallel association. Hal attends the prestigious tennis academy, which was founded by his famous filmmaker father. The halfway house is down the hill from the school, and one of its more interesting residents was very nearly Hal’s sister in law, and his father’s favorite muse. There are other connections and parallels too, but there’s no need to namecheck them all right now. Besides, it would take too long.
The function of the tennis academy is to train top-tier athletes, though the school is also rigorously academic. It is in the business of creating massive overachievers. The activities of the student body are strictly regimented, and the repetitive practices and tennis drills are designed to instill a rote behaviour of excellence.
For Hal and his peers, success is literally a matter of muscle memory. The aim is to practice until perfection becomes second nature. They are scheduled within an inch of their lives; barely a moment goes unaccounted for. Hal and his peers live in a very narrowly focused and heavily routinized, even regimented world.
There is one ritual that Hal indulges in outside of the routine imposed on him by the academy’s strict administrators. Well, it both is and isn’t a ritual, in the way I’ve been using the term here. Hal crawls underneath the school, goes deep into the labyrinthine system of ducts and vents, to secretly get high every single day. His compulsion is born not entirely out of the desire to get high, though he’s a teenager so of course that’s part of it. The appeal of this daily illicit act comes out of its secret nature. It is one of the ways he feels that he can regain some control over his life. In this act he wrenches himself away from the tyranny of the regimented practices and the rote hours devoted to homework and his grander pursuit of excellence.
Wallace spends a lot of words on describing various highs in Infinite Jest. There are entire multi-page end notes devoted to tracing the chemical taxonomy of various drugs. There are truly disturbing scenes of heroin withdrawl. There are the rock-bottom stories addicts in recovery share at the halfway house. There are performance-enhancing drugs, and recreational ones too, at the tennis academy. There is Hal, and his surreptitious underground tokes.
Part of the deal for Hal is that, because he invests so much meaning into the privacy of this act, and because his need for self-determination is met by retreating from the world rather than interacting with it, getting high becomes an extreme escape. A black hole of compulsion and anxiety that, rather than manifesting his personal liberty, becomes an act of enslavement. He becomes Sisyphus. His life becomes unmanageable. It becomes entirely a thing he did not choose, and the world for him appears smaller and smaller, until it’s just him in it, totally isolated and automated. Hal can’t jump out of the current because he can’t sense the water that surrounds him.
Let’s go back to Sisyphus. I said at the beginning that his story is our story. Which is a bummer, but more or less true. Day-in and day-out our lives are made up of routines; we are fated to live out daily inconveniences, to spend so many hours in traffic or preparing dinner or waiting in line. For most of us these are small pebbles of annoyance, but after walking them up the mountain day after day after day after day they can start to seem like Sisyphus’s boulder.
But it’s not all bad. Camus pointed out that the story of Sisyphus can be a joyous one, that Sisyphus may take pleasure in his work by attuning himself to more than just his tedium, to delight in the absurdity of his lot. Kakfa also found a little levity in the toil of the rotten king, and exploring the relationship between tedium and liberty is arguably a major motif in his body of work.
Wallace loved Kafka for this sense of humor, for his ability to take joy in the banal tragedies of our daily lives. In another lecture Wallace gave, in 1999 at the PEN American Centre, he lamented that some of Kafka’s humour was difficult to teach to students, that the short stories are experiential rather than teachable. That they are hilarious without any punchlines. American students, Wallace contended, had been taught to presuppose that the function of a joke is to entertain, that a joke is something you just “get.” We don’t necessarily “get” Sisyphus, and like Gately we might not ever really “get” God. These are mythologies that have no clear morals, or punch lines. We live in a world of discrete routines rather than ritual, which exists in a space of contradiction between the meaningful and the mystifying.
Wallace also remarked that his students, kind of like Hal Incandenza, had been taught to believe that the self is something a person just “has.” That the self is not embedded in a context, part of a larger world rather than distinct from it. To never think to notice that they are only a fish because they live in the water.
Wallace describes how for Kafka (and so too for Sisyphus, for Hal and Gately, and for us) the real joke is that there is no joke. That, and I quote: “the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle.” He put it another way at the Kenyon commencement address. He suggested that attunement to the world outside of our narrow solipsisms, our personal toils, the tedium of our daily lives, could enliven us. That we can be like Gately. To quote him once more, “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
This week’s column was modified from a talk I gave for the lecture series What We Talk About on April 19, 2012.