Two Americas – Infinite Jest and The Wire

(This post contains mild spoilers).

A double loss – It has been a couple of weeks since I finished reading the brick-like Infinite Jest, which I was reading as part of the Infinite Summer project.  And now I’ve just finished watching the last ever episode of The Wire, the Great American Novel of TV shows.  I am now feeling the loss of two sets of characters.  I have been removed from Boston and Baltimore simultaneously.

The two pieces are obviously very different in style.  The Wire is brutal realism (if not totally real), whereas Infinite Jest is satire, fable, comedy, with a little magical realism thrown in.  At least, I think it is.

Nevertheless, the two have a fair few similarities.  The first is the theme of interconnectedness, which any piece of fin du millénaire art must include. Infinite Jest painstakingly introduces us to the back-stories of a dozen or more  minor characters, justifying the route that each addict takes to the door of the Ennet half-way house (the first, when Ken Erdeddy awaits the delivery of his dope, is one of my favourite sequences in the novel).  Meanwhile, The Wire presents hundreds of co-incidences and minor tragedies that culminate in all the best-laid plans going awry.  Many of these involve the bald and simple Herc, one of the low level officers in the Serious Crimes Unit, who is too stupid to realise the negative effect his indiscreetness has on the investigations of those around him.  Instead, he feels under-appreciated and hard-done-by, which makes him one of the most dislikable characters in the series.

A strong parallel is of course in the theme of drugs and addiction, which both Infinite Jest and The Wire have by the kilo.  At the end of series 4, street-junkie Bubbles (who tried and failed to get clean in earlier episodes) inadvertently causes the death of his young charge Sherrod, and tries in vain to hang himself.  When we meet him again in series 5 he is at NA meetings and on the road to redemption.  Sherrod’s death is clearly the “cliff” that David Foster Wallace describes so eloquently in Infinite Jest, the point-of-no return.  Bubbles fails to eliminate his own map for good.  He has hit the very rock bottom, which provides his motivation to get clean, however demeaning that might be.  Bubbles’ NA ‘sponsor’, the biker Walon, is a giant of a man, who doesn’t know big fancy words, but has the wisdom of one who has transcended his addiction.  He could be Infinite Jest’s Don Gately (if Don let his hair grow out).

Bubbles at an NA meeting (Series 5, The Wire)
Bubbles at an NA meeting (Series 5, The Wire)

I never had faith that Bubbles would survive.  Of all the characters we met in series 1, he was the least likely to make it through to the final credits intact.  I expected the writers to find a way for him to die senselessly and tragically (at the whim of some low-level dealer, perhaps?) that would shock the audience.  But Bubbles is a good character, with a sense of justice, and he deserves to beat his addiction, and the tribute of the newspaper article, late in series 5.

Bubbles success is a triumph of sincerity over cynicism, which is, as Matthew Baldwin has been arguing this week, a major theme in Infinite Jest.  In the book, the sincerity is for the most part internalised:  Hal Incandenza and Don Gately talking to themselves.  But Don’s AA meetings teach the value of openness with others (most hilariously, in Ken Erdeddy’s meeting with Big Tony on page 505).  Hal’s brother Mario, slightly warped both physically and mentally, is the embodiment of sincerity, while their Mother – “The Moms” – is ruined by her inability to communicate honestly with anyone else in her family.

Back in Baltimore, “high-functioning alcoholic” Jimmy McNulty is at his happiest when he is true to himself: twirling a baton out on the streets at the end of series 3, and celebrating with his ex-colleagues after finally, spectacularly crashing out of Baltimore PD.  And the little montage which closes The Wire, beginning and ending with Jimmy looking out over the city, shows us that those who have made a stand for something other than themselves, seem most happiest:  Gus Haynes, the Baltimore Sun‘s City Editor, is content at his desk; Bubbles finally gets to eat dinner with his sister; and Cedric Daniels is smiling in a cheap lawyer’s suit, having dumped his police career on a point of principle.  Meanwhile, poor Duquan, who waits until the final episode to tell his first lie, is seen shooting-up by the junk-yard fire; and ex-Kingpin Marlo, in a suit and trying to be something he is not, looks disorientated and confused on a street corner.  Tommy Carcetti wins the State House, but he seem troubled, his idealism in tatters, after a series of compromises made in the pursuit of power.

There are plenty of cynical characters in The Wire, and the power-bureaucracy it describes is depressing.  Nevertheless, the message that emerges is positive and noble.  None of the dramatic moments, in any of the five series, would be possible, if it wasn’t for the abundance of good characters – on both sides of the law – trying to do good things.  It is an uplifting, optimistic TV series, despite all the blood.

Sadly, I think the reverse is true of the country David Foster Wallace has created in Infinite Jest.  This is odd, because of the two, the book is a much funnier creation.  I don’t think that the America of The Wire and the America of Infinite Jest can be the same place (and this is not just because, in the book, the USA has annexed Canada and Mexico!)  While Foster Wallace is clearly a sincere and honest writer, the darkness in his America seems more malevolent.  The corruption is psychic, psychological.  It erodes the minds of the citizens like a cancer, and “The Entertainment” – a mysterious film that kills viewers – is just an manifestation of this.

The decline of Foster Wallce’s America is terminal.  This is not so in The Wire, where we have had a stolen glimpse of a better way.  Baltimore could be saved, perhaps.  Boston, I fear, is already lost.

MIT, Boston, 31 May '07. Photo by vincent-b
MIT, Boston, 31 May ’07. Photo by vincent-b

One Reply to “Two Americas – Infinite Jest and The Wire”

  1. Awesome and thoughtful parallel analysis of the two giant works. I also finished watching “The Wire” pretty much right before we got into “Infinite Jest” as part of “Infinite Summer” and I too miss both sets of characters. They’re a motley bunch, aren’t they?

    The only part that I find a little hard to swallow is the section on “‘high-functioning’ Jimmy McNulty. To me, it doesn’t so much seem that he enjoys being a pain in the ass, he just enjoys getting the bad guy. He’s willing to pay the cost to get a bad guy, even if it forces a major setback in his own career. That seems to make him happy. But when he takes this too far and starts manufacturing an entirely fictitious serial murderer, it spirals out of control, destroying his new-found happiness and close relationships. Jimmy’s character arc is probably one of the most compelling on the show.

    Again, great post. Thanks for taking the time to dive into some unique subject matter. Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *