Little did David Foster Wallace know that when he wrote Infinite Jest (the widely dramatised image of dystopian American society in the twenty-first century), that Johnny Gentle’s doppelganger would be entering the White House shortly.
Is it a coincidence that the same week I close the last page of Wallace’s 1079 page novel, President-elect Donald Trump wins the November 2016 election? When I started the reading the novel, I had never even heard of Trump. Now I can’t seem to separate the two.
*Disclaimer: As far as I am aware, David Foster Wallace did not predict the future, and I am not suggesting it here.
It is strange that the majority of the action takes place between 3rd-20th November in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment? Many scholars and readers have pinpointed this to 2009, but it could easily be any year in the 21st century, which is probably one of the reasons Wallace does not specify.
The character I am interested in here is President Johnny Gentle, but it is useful to give a brief (if that is possible) account of the novel.
Infinite Jest, published 20 years ago, is an American dystopian novel. It is set in a newly formed America, the O.N.A.N (the organisation of North American Nations), and Canada is represented by a waste disposal facility called the Great Concavity or Convexity, depending on whether you are from the North or South. The novel has many themes and many narrative trajectories, including the attempts of the U.S.O.U.S trying to retrieve the master copy of a fatal film called ‘Infinite Jest’, which is rumoured to be so entertaining that it kills its viewers; the life of the Incandenza family, particularly their genius son, Hal, who is a star tennis player at the Enfield Tennis Academy; the accounts of the various drug and alcohol abusers at the Ennet Recovery House.
Enter Johnny Gentle. In a world full of deadly DVDs and intelligent junkies, President Johnny Gentle is not the most unbelievable aspect of Infinite Jest, although he no doubt provides a lot of the humour. In short, he is the non-political candidate, an actor, who defies all odds to become the President of the newly formed United States. Remind you of anyone?? What’s more, is the crazy ideals and policies that the political parody holds. Gentle is founder of the U.S. Clean Party that’s big plan to solve the waste crisis is ‘Let’s Shoot Our Wastes Into Space’ programme. When that fails, instead he proposes the Reconfiguration of the States. The idea behind this is the creation of the Great Concavity/Convexity, which is basically a massive landfill which serves two functions: 1) it holds all the waste that the postmodern America is producing, and 2) it segregates the north and south.
Perhaps you are seeing the similarities with Donald Trump, the man who is famous now for declaring that there is no such thing as Global warming, and who wants to build a wall between North America and Mexico to force total segregation. All this to reveal that the two social-political problems that Wallace identifies, hierarchy and the environment, are two issues that are still at the heart of the American identity. Johnny Gentle’s role as president is to make invisible the unclean and the unaesthetic, and leave a reformed but totally fabricated America. Wallace, through representing both the macrocosm of politics and the microcosm of everyday life, shows that this is not possible, and that sometimes, like a tumour, the ugliness comes from within.
Johnny Gentle’s promises to ‘clean up government and trim fat and sweep our waste and hose down our chemically troubled streets and to sleep darn little until he’s fashioned a way to rid the American psychosphere of the unpleasent debris of a throw-away past, to restore the majestic ambers and purple fruits of a culture he now promises to rid of the toxic effluvia choking our highways….’ in short – to restore America to its former glory – to make America (dare I say it) great again…
PhD researcher at University of Hull