Michael Maiello's picture

    Infinite Winter: The Causes and Effects of Terrorism

    Infinite Jest is a terrorism novel. This is, in a lot of ways, no surprise.  David Foster Wallace counted Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo as influences and both of them were interested in the topic of terrorism.  Also, it's an interesting topic for fiction and though we tend to talk about it in terms of a post-9/11 vocabulary, terrorism has always been a way that a few people have tried to influence masses and it hasn't changed all that much.

    In Infinite Jest, our terrorists are radical separatists from Quebec who want to get their hands on the killer movie "Infinite Jest," that so engrosses the mind of anyone who watches it, they lose the will to live. Reminding, as I tend to, that this novel was published in 1996 and written over a long period of time because I think Wallace paints a damned clear picture of what a terrorist organization is and has always been.

    At hand we have Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants known in English as "The Wheelchair Assassins." Like most terrorist groups, they are considered freedom fighters by some.  It all depends on your point of view.  They are Quebecois separatists but in the imagined future of Wallace, separatists from that region have far more cause than contemporary Quebec nationalists.

    Quebec is the biggest victim of North America's energy lust.  The United States has attempted ot generate limitless power using a technique called "Annular Fusion" that creates toxic waste products that are then gobbled up by the process to create life-nurturing energy. Because the process laughs at the conservation of energy the waste creates a lush, overgrown region -- so overgrown that infants grow to enormous size and wander the countryside, as to giant feral hamsters and the like. The only way to stop the growth is to poison it. but the process absorbs the poisons to create more growth. So an entire region between the U.S. and Canada is kept at bay by the government lobbing poison into it, which only slows the growth and is only containable so long as the toxins work.  It's a giant freaking cancer and it is also territory that the U.S. has forcibly ceded to Canada. This region abuts Quebec and is generally described as Quebec's problem.

    So, Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants have their reasons for wanting to use the killer movie against U.S. citizens and to gain political independence.  Also, they have been ignored and other separatist groups who have done things like used mirrors to trick people into driving off of windy mountain roads in northern states, have been ineffective. These are people reacting with violence to having been treated violently. They lash out indiscriminately and rationalize it later.

    They also do not hold their own mortality as the highest value: Like ISIS or Al-Qaeda or the groups that preceded them, members of Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants undergo rigorous physical and psychological training to become part of the group.  In this case, they do it by playing an elaborate game of chicken win oncoming trains.  As youth, they gather on tracks and try to jump across as trains roll by (closely as possible, naturally). Those who freeze or refuse to jump are ostracized.  Those who win are generally dead or dismembered. Hence the squeaky wheels that victims hear before they are attacked.  It's all a bit ridiculous but then, in the real world, it's all a bit ridiculous.

    The terrorists go to great lengths to rationalize away the innocence of their victims.  We get to hear straight from Rémy Marathe a quadruple agent who the Wheelchair Assassins think is a triple agent but who is actually one of them, working against them, for them but ultimately against them in order to get medical treatment for his wife. Speaking to an agent from the Organization of North American Nations, Marathe explains victims of the "Infinite Jest" movie are really bringing it upon themselves.  Americans, he says, cannot help but look because they cannot turn down the promise of entertainment, even if they are told it will kill them.  The ONAN agent (Hugh/Helen Steeply, a cross-dressing spy from ONAN's Office of Unspecified Services) only fuels this belief by describing a colleague who should have known better but still tried to steal a glance. Turning the victims of terrorism into victims of their own decadence is just terrorism SOP.


    So, reading a novel with these elements on a day like today is interesting because the novel reminds you, just by predating the news by 20 years, that so much of what is going on in the world isn't thematically new and that makes you wonder about all of the proposed solutions because everything has been tried from Draconian criminal enforcement to outright warfare -- pretty much everything you can think of except for a fairer and more just world.



    Maybe everything has been tried except understanding where episodic violence fits into an actual historical cycle, of violence, revenge, violence revenge.

    What happened in Brussels is part of a process, with real antecedents. Politicians are not interested in analysis, only reactions which serve their own purpose.

    You seem to end in a fatalistic mood. Does the book have a solution, and if not, is it moral, and if not, what's it's value?

    Not being argumentative, just spit ballin'.

    I'm blogging as I go and have weeks of reading ahead.  I will make a post to address your point along the way. You're giving purpose to my reading.  I'm not personally fatalistic, by the way, but I am wary of proposing solutions the same day that so many people died or were hurt. Trying not to lecture during lecturing times (the primaries, a major news event, etc.)

    Infinite Jest is very much about cycles.  The phrase "annular" keeps coming up.  The books is also about addictive behavior, which is frequently cyclical. Are we addicted to the cycle of violence and revenge?  If so, that sounds bad, but Wallace didn't think addictions were inevitably unconquerable.  So... maybe? Future post, but this is where it starts.

    Thanks, Oxy!

    Except it's not cyclical and it's fading. When was the last Far East or Latin American war?  Europe's separatist movements have chilled the last 15 years, Yugoslavia's mostly settled business, and the Ukraine flareup was mild for a civil war. The Mideast has been the center of our oil intrigue and our legacy religious battles, so its symbolism and conflicts are a bit hard to shake off, but with oil growing less critical, there's less Great Game needed.

    Though France/Belgium problems are more about their colonialist adventures and their North African populations. ISIS is largely irrelevant.

    Onecycle though is the US sees its Tom and Jerry role as patient Tom, putting up with annoying disturbing mice until he's had enough, reaches out and slaps, whereas the rest of the world sees the big puss as provoking and prodding until things break open.

    Presuming Hillary wins, Im hoping she's not as isolated and caught up in this Washington self-righteousness - my biggest concern about her, whether foreign military actions or internal US security and surveillance. Every terrorist event lets us overreact a bit more.

    You might be interested in this audio discussion of Infinite Jest. Included is a link to Aaron Swartz on the novels ending.  

    Nice!  Thanks, LULU.

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