In her article Infinite Summer: Reading, Empathy, and the Social Network, Kathleen Fitzpatrick looks extensively at the interactivity of Infinite Jest through the use of reading groups, especially Infinite Summer, which helped to enable a more “authentic human connection” with Infinite Jest than with other novels read in book clubs (Fitzpatrick 183). Fitzpatrick compares the connection induced by Infinite Jest via Infinite Summer to, specifically, Oprah’s Book Club and the connections Oprah’s readers felt toward the characters in novels they read together. Fitzpatrick claims that the most striking difference is that, while there are connections made in both Oprah’s Book Club and Infinite Summer, O.B.C. participants tend to feel sympathy toward characters whereas I.S. readers experience empathy. She describes sympathy as a selfish emotion where the sympathizer does not need to change his worldview in order to experience emotion related to the character with whom he is sympathizing. Empathizing, Fitzpatrick states, goes a step further: the empathizer becomes aware of his position due to the text and, sometimes painfully, is forced to change this position (Fitzpatrick 187). Therefore, instead of projecting his emotions onto something else in a one-sided exchange, a reader that empathizes instead of sympathizes actually receives some sort of realization; the exchange is no longer one-sided.
Fitzpatrick claims the structure of Infinite Summer itself is one of the ways in which Infinite Jest is able to bring about empathy in readers. She compares its blog form to that of the Pynchon and even Wallace email-based discussions of that past that also attempted to form a community while reading novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow. However, the emailing, according to Fitzpatrick, allowed for much of the material to get depersonalized. It was less inviting to access for readers that had fallen behind, and individual voices were more easily lost in “email chatter” than in the blog posts of I.S (Fitzpatrick 194). As an example of the empathy and exchange evoked from Infinite Summer, Fitzpatrick also brings up and then quotes a blogger, InfiniteDetox, who participated in Infinite Summer and used it as a sort of motivator to giving up substance dependence. The blogger compares surrendering to Infinite Jest to surrendering to the twelve step AA program. Perhaps as important, though, is that InfiniteDetox kept a blog covering both his participation in Infinite Summer and his road to recovery from opiates; many participants of Infinite Summer also kept up with InfiniteDetox’s progress which allowed for a sort of human-to-human-through-book interaction—the reading of the book in this community actually connected people to each other instead of just to the book (Fitzpatrick 195).
The success of Infinite Summer, though, is not accredited to the book blog structure alone. Fitzpatrick talks in the beginning of her article about the dangers of relating Wallace’s work to what we know about how he took his life. By comparing DFW’s death to that of Kurt Cobain, Fitzpatrick talks about the mistake fans make in identifying with the work and projecting that identification to the artist. She in part describes the reaction of the fans to Wallace’s death as “an unhealthy transformation of artist into celebrity fetish object, and of a private tragedy into some kind of public performance” (Fitzpatrick 185). Although it’s clear from fans’ reactions that the works of Wallace allowed them to create connections through characters and maybe even learn something about themselves, Fitzpatrick once again uses this example as a way to see the danger and ease with which readers can sympathize instead of empathize, or project between the author and the reader the idea of a connection when in reality there is none.
Fitzpatrick, I think, starts to look at what makes Infinite Summer such a successful way of connecting readers from all over. The accessibility and inclusivity of blog posts, the outstanding circumstances of Wallace’s death, and the gamely appeal to readers of accepting the challenge of a novel as daunting in size and reputation as Infinite Jest all contribute to the incredibly interactive reading. It is true that the community of Infinite Summer functions as a sort of support group for readers the way Alcoholics Anonymous functions as a support group for addicts in Infinite Jest itself. However, what Fitzpatrick looks at surprisingly little is the way the content of this specific book helps to create the environment which drove Infinite Summer to its success. She does mention that Wallace’s magnum opus includes “rich investments in form, in ideas, and in emotion” and pays especial notice to the honesty of his text but neglects to offer insight as to how he did this (Fitzpatrick 186).
I wish I had the knowledge, creativity, and time to put into words what exactly it is that makes Infinite Jest such an empathetic and sincere text. The most striking aspect of it, I would say, is the material itself that is covered. From Avril’s discussion with Mario about how to know if someone is sad (Wallace 764) to Kate Gompart’s introduction in the text at a psych ward after trying to kill herself (Wallace 68), the content boldly explores dark and horrible parts of individuals’ lives from their perspectives and also from the perspectives of those around them. Avril isn’t just an obsessive compulsive adult; she’s a mother that cares so dearly about her children that when Mario even hints that something is wrong with Hal, she can’t help but to semi-interrogate Mario, even though restraint from this kind of questioning is something she strives for in her parenting. Likewise, Kate is more than just a young adult suffering from depression. We see her in the psych ward but also in the halfway house, walking down the street, the innocent victim of a purse thief, and perhaps most heartbreakingly of all, rejoicing in the gift of feeling “decent” while in a bar with Marathe (“I’m not talking like good, I’m not talking like pleasure, I wouldn’t want to go overboard with this thing, but at least at like zero, even, what do they call it Feeling No Pain.”) (Wallace 775).
The thoroughness with which Wallace defends his characters’ character, or maybe their humanness, makes it impossible to pick out some “bad guy” to dehumanize and hate. What about the man that steals Kate Gompart’s purse and sends her to the bar in the first place? Well, we know that that man happens to be Poor Tony Krause, and he just had a hell of a time going through heroin withdrawal, codeine withdrawal, and a seizure. PTK’s action seems a little more justified when we realize he only stole the purse in hopes of acquiring money to feed the addiction he’s suffering unimaginably for (Wallace 700). This lack of an antagonist is, I think, part of what forces us away from the sympathy and toward the empathy Fitzpatrick talks about in her essay. While I’m not saying that there is no sympathy involved in the reading of Infinite Jest, the novel still pushes you to change your way of thinking. It makes you take identifying with the character one step further than just feeling their pain or indignation or struggle. You’re forced, next, to evaluate where they are standing in a world that even they don’t understand fully. This extra effort, I think, supplies the reevaluation of life that Fitzpatrick names as a necessity to an empathetic work.
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