Irony in Infinite Jest
“Postmodern irony’s become our environment,” Wallace pointedly says (McCaffery 148). And it is this very environment that constitutes the setting of Infinite Jest. Wallace explains in the McCaffery interview that “what’s been passed down from the post-modern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness” (McCaffery 147). This sense of detachment, sarcasm, and cynicism pervades the novel, from the O.N.A.N- Quebecois political strife, to the Incandenza familial relationships, to the tenants at Ennet House. Rémy Marathe, a member of the Quebecois separatist group the Wheelchair Assassins, comments on the society depicted in the novel, several times “call[ing] U.S.A. to Steeply ‘Your walled nation’ or ‘Your murated nation’” (Wallace 127). The walls Marathe alludes to are the walls of the “Great Concavity” that have been built by O.N.A.N to separate the toxic Canadian wasteland from the rest of the country. But these same walls also correspond to the defenses and the masks that have been put up by the irony of the American culture in order to stave off any form of true emotion or sentiment. Any such emotion is seen as toxic to Americans, and so walls must be built to hide such toxicity.
The lack of true sincerity that comes from irony is born of the ridiculing and the stripping away of “stuff’s mask…[to] show the unpleasant reality behind it” (McCaffery 147). The problem is that once we began stripping we never stopped, and now we do nothing but constantly ridicule everything around us. There is no longer any room for sincerity, for no one wants to look “sentimental and naïve to all the weary ironists” (McCaffery 147). As Marathe explains in the novel, you feel “an aftertaste of shame after revealing passion of any belief and type when with Americans, as if [you] had made flatulence instead of had revealed belief” (Wallace 318). Irony is the language of the novel. And it is such a culture of irony that breeds a culture of addiction.
The problem arises when it becomes clear that though the cultural irony of the novel is “useful for debunking illusions,” once these illusions have been de-bunked over and over and the “unpleasant realities” of society have been exposed again and again, irony no longer serves its original purpose (McCaffery 147). Initially meant to expose falsity and arrive at reality, irony now only serves to create more illusion. The sarcasm and cynicism of the ironic society works to cover true sentiment, emotion, and feeling. In the end, irony creates an external world of illusion where nothing is sincere. Living in such an illusory world is the very thing that leads Wallace’s characters to addiction.
Not only are Wallace’s characters caught in the claws of irony and therefore addiction, but Wallace himself seems to be stuck within the very same cage. As Mary Holland asks in her essay, “[h]ow can a writer, however well intentioned, survive his own unconscious addiction to irony?” (“The Art's Heart's Purpose: Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest” 330). It seems as though Wallace fails to truly escape the cynicism he fights against, for the instances in the novel where characters seem to utter truth and meaning are couched in sarcasm. Gerhardt Schtitt, an E.T.A. tennis coach, has many meaningful speeches in the novel concerning the nature of life and the nature of tennis (Wallace 84, 459), but the significance and truth of his words are overlooked by those around him because he is a foreigner and cannot speak English very well. Wallace essentially makes fun of him, covering Schtitt’s meaning with sarcasm: the truth becomes obscured under the veil of irony.
Furthermore, it is significant that Mario Incandenza is one of the only characters who does not have a debilitating addiction and who also represents naïve truth in the novel. However, he is also the only character who is severely physically disabled: he is “so damaged he can’t even grip a stick” (Wallace 79). Wallace’s denotation of Mario as damaged and abnormal leads the reader to assume that any attempt at unironic truth is decidedly atypical and perhaps fundamentally flawed. Holland corroborates that
contributing to the sense of the culture’s capability in this vicious cycle [of irony] is the fact that, in a novel filled with people both modeling hipness and craving infantile regression, only those who somehow remain outside or rejected from mainstream American culture perceive and consistently resist its pathetic state. (230)
This ultimately leaves the reader wondering if escape from the cage of irony or addiction will ever truly be possible.