Critical Analysis of “The Panic of the Influence”

“The Panic of the Influence” by A.O Scott provides each reader with a detailed yet opinionated synopsis of Infinite Jest, which Scott snidely points out, should be renamed “A Radically Expanded History of Postindustrial Life”. While Scott acknowledges Wallace’s achievements throughout the novel, he spends far more time critiquing the novel as being overly ironic to compensate for a generally, serious topic. He then proceeds to describe the novel’s thematic overview as “the colonization of all aspects of life by the entertainment industry” (Scott 9). He then bores in on the sporadic plotline and the novel’s pointless use of endnotes as a pathetic “effort to maintain continuity” (Scott 9). He also points out that the novel’s title honors the claim of truly seeming “infinite”. But while Scott’s critiques are blunt and harsh, the objective parts seem valid.

Scott argues that Infinite Jest seems “willed and secondhand. They are impressive in the manner of a precocious child’s performance at a dinner party, and, in the same way, ultimately irritating: they seem motivated, mostly, by a desire to show off”(Scott 9). By “they” Scott is referring to the multiple plotlines. Describing the novel as analogous to that of a child suggest that Wallace’s witty execution seems impressive at first but that his wit loses potency with continuous use. Scott also accuses the “novel’s broad satirical intentions—to warn us that corporations control everything and that entertainment is a drug” as “familiar bromides decked out in gaudy comic dress” (Scott 9). Scott describing one of the novel’s most pressing concepts as a”familiar bromide decked out in gaudy comic dress” suggest that he believes, individually, none of the novel’s plotlines are original in themselves. The government cooperating with terrorist to acquire information and a teen whose father commits suicide and throws himself entirely in the game of tennis as a coping mechanism are secondhand plotlines. These are stories, when stripped to their rudimentary form, that are familiar to well-versed readers. Essentially, calling the novel’s execution “gaudy” implies that how Wallace tells each story with great attention to detail is what makes Infinite Jest an unprecedented and popularized piece of literature.

Scott continues to comment on Wallace’s excessiveness, sarcastically describing Erdedy’s “doomed, misguided, yet oddly convincing plan to rid himself of his marijuana habit” as “bearing an unmistakable resemblance to Wallace’s own repeated attempts to cure himself of his interlocking addictions to irony, metafiction, and the other cheap postmodern highs” (Scott 11). Wallace’s characters engage in practices that are parallel to his literary habits. These are practices Scott would metaphorically describe as over told jokes that have run awry or “cheap post modern highs” told at the reader’s expense. Generally, Scott argues that when these cyclical literary habits draw parallel to the novel’s thematic overview these connections just serve as an overkill. But even with such harsh criticism, Scott does compliment how Wallace depicts individual’s round about “stratagems designed to feed our habits in the name of breaking them” (Scott 10) cleverly. Although the circular implications in the novel are repetitive, they play up human’s self-perpetuating habits well.

Reading this critical essay as an extension of my own opinion, I can say that personally I just didn’t get any of Wallace’s sense of humor, but the entire novel as the title “Infinite Jest” implies, is one long running joke the reader never fully comprehends. Wallace chooses to address the discourse on addiction, love and other serious topics from humorous angles. But he places the entire essence of the novel on the reader being able to grasp his sense of humor, which jeopardizes its supposed novelty. With this being so, Wallace seems to have deliberately written the novel for an intended audience of his choice. Leaving readers like myself feeling frustrated, annoyed, confused, and not at all humored, which essentially only shuts us out.

While I agree with many of Scott’s critiques, specifically overusing irony as a compensative mean, I can appreciate the cyclical implications that all seem to narrow in on key points. For instance, many of the plotlines enhance the idea that individuals allow platforms like drugs and entertainment to colonize our lives beyond our control. I’m not saying that readers like myself wouldn’t be able to comprehend any of these points, its just that Wallace’s satire leaves a lot of the story’s brilliance lost in translation.

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One Response to Critical Analysis of “The Panic of the Influence”

  1. mdr50 says:

    Let me just begin by saying that although I really like the book and I feel that there is so much that can be learned from it, I love that there is at least one person who does not particularly love the book. This makes for a far more interesting conversation. With that being said, I am skeptical of the view that Wallace was ever trying to show off. While every passage may not contain some profound message, I do feel that every word was written to at least attempt to describe the places where profound messages can be found. However, I will concede that it is also sometimes very difficult for me to understand Wallace’s humor which at times leaves me in the same frustrated state that you describe. But it is for this very reason that I think the extra detail is needed. Perhaps Wallace understands that his humor is difficult to comprehend thus compelling him to include verbose footnotes and excessive detail.

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