Clichés in Infinite Jest
Wallace deals significantly with the notion of clichés as they relate to addiction in the novel, primarily in the context of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. Providing a glimmer of hope, the AA offers characters in the novel a possible way to escape addiction. Because it is a cultural entrapment in irony that causes addiction, AA reflects not only the modes for escape from addiction, but also the modes for escape from irony—such modes are clichés. The AA program is entirely founded on the idea of “[learning] to live by clichés” (Wallace 270). The members of AA are encouraged to internalize and truly abide by simple trite statements, such as “One day at a time. Easy does it. First things first” (Wallace 270). The idea is that once one can strip away all preoccupation with the Substance and instead commit oneself to following the directives of the clichés, then the need for the Substance will slowly dissolve. But, as Gately’s points out, “the thing is that the clichéd directives are a lot more deep and hard to actually do. To try to live by instead of just say” (Wallace 273, emphasis in original). The clichés are so hard to actually do because they are clichéd; they have been repeated so many times that they are now deemed superficial and insignificant. But Gately suggests that, in fact, if one takes the time to actually think about what appears to be a cliché instead of dismissing it, the statement will actually begin to open up and reveal its true deeper meaning. For, at some point in time, a cliché actually had meaning; it was once new and original and significant. But, in the post-modern irony-ridden society, we have hidden the meaning of clichés behind sarcasm and cynicism. Society has scoffed at anything that holds true emotional value and has instead covered everything with a smirk and a nudge.
But, AA works to counter this irony in order to ultimately counter addiction. Once a member can overcome the banality of the cliché and “accept them without irony, without intellectual disdain” (Boswell 143), then the addict can be open enough to overcome their addiction, for the AA slogans’ “vapidity is the source of their truth” (Boswell 143). Boswell contends that in the novel AA serves as “a genuine and viable…religion, one that attempts to solve the problems of irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and the dread of being” (143). As much as AA cures addiction, it also makes strides at peeling away irony, for ridding oneself of irony is integral to the cure of addiction. The members of the White Flag AA group try “so hard to be so disgustingly humble, kind, helpful, tactful, cheerful” (Wallace 357) because they are attempting to strip away sarcasm and irony and get to true feeling and sentiment, for this is what will stave off their addiction. AA attempts to rid its members of cynicism, for it is only then that they will be able to begin their journey to sobriety.
Wallace’s solution to rid post-modern literature of irony parallels AA’s basic principle: “really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naïve or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something” (McCaffery 149). The stripping away of irony requires truth and honest recognition of sentiment and emotion, requires deep thought about clichés. As Gately says of an AA meeting, “the thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. Irony free zone” (Wallace 369). Ridding oneself of irony and instead truthfully living by clichés is the only way to rid oneself of addiction.
On p138-140 of Infinite Jest, DFW provides a transcription of an insurance claim filed by a bricklayer, in which he details a chain reaction of comic injuries. It's a common and popular urban legend, this tale of our unlucky bricklayer, that’s been frequently referenced for decades if not longer. Taken simply, it’s just a joke. And even down to the insurance claim format, Wallace has pasted it nearly verbatim in between a description of a drug rehab facility (Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House) and one of Hal Incandenza’s junior high essays about TV. He’s added his own weight values for the barrel of bricks and the bricklayer himself, and layered in the extra context of a forwarded email. He also leaves the last sentence incomplete like in The Broom of the System: “causing the barrel to begin a” (p140). The specifics of the legend, however, remain intact. This work is fiercely original, so the appearance of this clichéd story is definitely striking.
Perhaps on top of enjoying the humor, the legend helps to locate and define the novel’s world. Wallace focuses intently on character and dialogue, often leaving the reader to discern the surroundings through this more personal perspective. Even when he provides descriptions, they often focus on origins or physical detail; explanation of subsidized time doesn’t even come until page 223. In Infinite Jest, everything down to basic geography of North America is different, and it may help to understand the anxieties or passions of the characters to learn about their own surreal surroundings. The idea that urban legend in the reader’s eyes could actually happen in Infinite Jest’s North America could help to contextualize the conversations and occurrences that DFW presents, whether they’re mundane or bizarre.
But the extra context, the email, could change all that. Forwarded emails are just chain letters or photoshop gags, nothing anyone takes seriously. If people at work are casually forwarding this story around, then it’s nothing but a joke to them, too. This exact thing could happen in our world. It probably already has. So what now then? Does the world of Infinite Jest mirror ours in everything but geography and technology? This may mean that these characters are fundamentally the same as their readers, that they think and feel in basically the same way. That knowledge could actually help the reader to relate to them, despite the differences in surroundings and even era in some cases. These conflicting notions are tough to untangle, but ultimately context and surrounding play a big part here, but explaining the work they do is, like the legend, left incomplete. Either way, cliché here plays a notable role in locating the context and social dynamic of the novel.