What an amazing essay Samuel Cohen has constructed. It offers so many interpretations of what David Foster Wallace was trying to convey in Infinite Jest that one could seemingly talk about the essay for years without doing it justice (much like Infinite Jest itself). However, being that I am faced with limits of time I will choose what I believe are Cohen’s best arguments that he derives not only from his own critical considerations, but through the work of other critics as well.
Cohen begins his essay by discussing the strange arrangement of Infinite Jest and points to what he believes to be the three main stories within the novel: the story of Hal Incandenza, the story of Don Gately, and the story of the struggle between agents of the US government and the Quebecois separatists. Cohen contends that while there may be small connections between the three stories, the expectation that the three stories will fully converge by the novel’s end is left unfulfilled. This presents the obvious question: why does the novel leave us hanging?
This question leads Cohen to his thesis where he derives a lesson from literary critic, Frank Kermode, that says that the shape of Infinite Jest’s narrative is about what it’s like to live “in the middest” of history. Essentially what Kermode is trying to impart is that human beings are all thrown into “the middest” meaning that they have no coherent understanding of beginning or end; its form resembles history and the only way which humans can experience time. Cohen argues that this thesis helps us understand Infinite Jest by connecting the interrelated contexts of Wallace’s personal crisis as a writer with regard to his moment in literary history and of his moment in late twentieth century America.
In talking about Wallace’s moment in literary history, Cohen brings our attention to the idea that all writers must face the inevitable consequence of “inherited anxiety.” Cohen agrees with most critics that say that Wallace struggled with inherited anxiety during his early work, but he disagrees with the notion that Infinite Jest was a coming of age novel where he finally was able to break away from the anxiety he inherited from previous great novelists such as Pynchon, Gaddis, and Barth. Rather, Cohen feels that Infinite Jest is constructed in such an unusual way due to the fact that he never resolved this problem. Wallace remained in a continued, possibly even dramatized, state of anxiety.
There is also the issue with a different kind of anxiety that stems from the moment in American History in which Infinite Jest was written. Infinite Jest was written around the time that the Cold War ended which caused many critics to question how this may have affected the novel. Some said that the end of the Cold War signaled an “End of History” in which history had reached its terminus and liberal democracy had triumphed. Cohen asserts that Infinite Jest repudiates any such argument and that the end of the Cold War was not an end but a middle of history. While Infinite Jest is no longer looking at the defining moment of possible demise, it is left to deal with a future of uncertainty. (This may be the whole basis for Hal’s character. Hal is simultaneously forced to deal with a troubled past that seems to overwhelm him while confronting an uncertain future.)
While I do not disagree with any of Cohen’s arguments, I do feel that he could present the arguments he is refuting with a little more detail. I feel that some of the statements he is against are presented as very small paraphrases or quotes from other essays that force one who is analyzing his essay to have to look up the sources he is refuting. For instance, when he was explaining the End of History, I do not feel that he explained the argument with as much detail as he should have (although I must admit that I feel the End of History was a ridiculous argument to begin with). When Cohen agreed with fellow essayists, he either brought long quotations from their works or took paragraphs to explain what they were saying. I feel that an equal representation of both sides of the argument, regardless of which side he leans toward, is an important factor in allowing a reader to reach as objective a conclusion as possible.