When Lit Blew Into Bits

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It seems significant, somehow, that Infinite Jest—the big buzzy signature meganovel of the nineties—was set at the end of the aughts. Most of the book’s action appears to take place in 2009, which means that we’ve all just survived the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. It also means that David Foster Wallace’s prophetic window has now (at least in the most literal sense) closed forever, in the same way Orwell’s did when we reached the actual 1984. And in fact Infinite Jest’s vision of the future does, these days, look slightly dated. One of the book’s nightmare scenarios is the existence of an entertainment so addictive that people watch it until they die—a film they access via a machine Wallace calls a “teleputer,” which turns out to be some kind of ungodly hybrid of HDTV, computer, telephone, and VCR; it crunches data on “3.6-MB diskettes” and plays films off actual physical cartridges. All of which carbon-dates the novel’s creation precisely back to the early-to-mid-nineties (it was published in 1996)—before the rise of iPhones or even DVDs, when the Internet was just beginning to percolate on our dial-up modems. (In mid-1993, there were only 130 websites, and most people didn’t even have a browser to visit them.) The DFW generation’s primary technological bugaboo was TV, a rival narrative engine that both attracted and repelled. (See Wallace’s classic essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in which he calls TV “both medicine and poison.”) Novelists in the aughts, however, had to contend with a very different bugaboo. The technology that infinitely distracted us this decade, sometimes even to the point of death—the entertainment that tore us away from work and family and prevented us from immersing ourselves in complex meganovels from the noble old-timey decades of yore—was not a passive, cartridge-based viewing experience but largely a new form of reading: the massive archive of linked documents known as the World Wide Web. TV, in comparison, looks like a fairly simple adversary: Its flickering images lure readers away from books altogether. The Internet, on the other hand, invades literature on its home turf. It has created, in the last ten years, all kinds of new and potent rival genres of reading—the blog, the chat, the tweet, the comment thread—genres that seem not only to siphon our attention but to change the way our brains process text.

more from Sam Anderson at New York Magazine here.

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