Michael Maiello's picture

    Infinite Winter: President John Gentle and the Rise of Donald Trump

    As recapped in the excellent biography by D.T. Max David Foster Wallace loved television and could binge-watch with the best of them in the years before streaming Netflix. Netflix is, by the way, something that Wallace seems to have seen coming. In Infinite Jest, Netflix is an entertainment company called Interlace that sells both streaming videos and entertainment cartridges. Interlace basically destroys the advertising industry and the big television networks, by offering people the entertainment they want, when they want it. No wonder a 20 year old novel set mostly about 10-15 years into the future, feels so damned contemporary. We followed Infinite Jest.

    Of course, Wallace was extrapolating the recent past into the future.  He had lived through two terms of Ronald Reagan, cowboy actor turned politician and had seen the first term of Bill Clinton, he of the Arsenio Hall appearance and MTV interviews about his knickers.  So Wallace definitely saw the continuation of the presidency-as-entertainment phenomenon and he gave us President Johnny Gentle, a former crooner who becomes the first chief executive to twirl his microphone by its chord while delivering his inaugural address.

    A few posts ago, I alluded to Wallace's criticisms of John Updkike. Updike had written a novel set in the future  that had all sorts of political implications that, said Wallace, Updike entirely ignored in favor of the male lead character's preoccupation with his penis.* Wallace does not commit this sin at all.  Instead, he gives us the story of John Gentle's presidency through the descriptions of a parodic film made by Mario Incandenza, son of James of Incandenza, director and creator of the movie "Infinite Jest."

    Gentle is a celebrity rich guy and an extreme germophobe.  He inherits a broken U.S.  All of the big broadcast networks and the entire advertising industry are in chaos and a huge part of the northeastern U.S. is so horribly polluted that babies are being born mutated and giant feral hamsters are a problem.  Gentle rides in on a wave of xenophobia (sounds familiar) and formalizes the NAFTA agreement into the Organization of North American Nations, basically telling Europe, Asia and South America that North America is going to look out for himself.  The consummation of this union is known as Interdependence Day. Then, Gentle gets very tricky.  He forces Canada to accept ownership of the vast, polluted industrial northeast. Gentle becomes the first American experialist, foisting unwanted territories on Canada. In the U.S., the ceded territory is known as the great concavity.  In Canada, the territory forced on them is known as the Great Convexity.  This is one of the motives that terrorists from Quebec have for wanting to get their hands on "Infinite Jest" in order to attack America through its love of entertainment.

    Well, it's not hard to paint Donald Trump into this picture.  Sure, he wants to build walls, not give away territory and he wants to turn inward to the U.S., not all of North America, but the two songs rhyme. In both cases, we have a charismatic celebrity who does what is inconceivable before he proposes it. Gentle creates experialism out of thin air.  I guess the lesson here is that if you think, "Donald Trump can't build a wall, it's impractical and nobody will go for it," that the answer is... "don't you believe it."

    Oh, and about the advertising industry -- Gentle comes up with the idea of subsidized time.  With the networks gone and Interlace no amenable to ads (users skip them), Gentle pays the costs of Experialism by selling annual sponsorships for the year.  He does this, you'll be amused to know, because an adviser tells him that raising taxes will cause "tea party" sentiments to bubble over. This was written in 1996, I remind you. Soon, the first sponsorship deals are signed and the torch on the Statue of Liberty is replaced, for a year, with a wrought iron Whopper.  Soon, Lady Liberty will be wearing a diaper and using a Tucks Medicated Pad.

    It could happen.


    * By the way, in the essay where I talked about Wallace contra Updike, I am also critical of people who got into Wallace for his "What is Water?" speech and, guess what?  The "What is Water" joke is in Infinite Jest and so maybe I should just shut up sometimes.

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