David Foster Wallace’s Greatest Gift

“Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we resolved to carry this message to other alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” – The 12th step of Alcoholics Anonymous

When David Foster Wallace was promoting Infinite Jest, he was coy about how much his experience of Alcoholics Anonymous had affected the book. “I went with friends to an open AA meeting, and got addicted to them,” he told Newsweek in 1996. “I was never a member—I was a voyeur. When I ended up really liking it was when I let people there know this and they didn’t care.” Why exactly Wallace felt the need to dissemble about the extent of his involvement with AA, which began in 1989 and continued until his death in 2007, can only be guessed at, and a multitude of possibilities present themselves. (Perhaps the most generous being that he was concerned to protect the anonymity of his fellow sufferers, the least that he didn’t want to reveal how much the novel owed to their experience.) What is certain, however, is that Wallace’s reticence was in no way indicative of an aversion to the program as such, for according to his biographer D.T. Max during the most intense periods of Infinite Jest’s composition Wallace attended no fewer than two recovery meetings per day. At this time he had been sober for over two years, a point at which even devoted AA members rarely attend more than two or three meetings per week. That he chose to keep to such a rigorous schedule two years into sobriety indicates an uncommon degree of investment in the program—or at the very least that, in Wallace’s words, a benign “addiction” was substituting for more pernicious ones.

Whatever the case, there were probably many reasons why Wallace remained so devoted to AA, as many recovering alcoholics do. He was certainly grateful that the fellowship had, as he said to the editor Steven Moore, saved him from dying “in a most gnarly and inglorious way” before the age of 30. He had also found a uniquely nourishing community in AA’s melting pot of personality and experience. Because of their distance from the academic and literary worlds in which he worked, the company of his fellow addicts, most of whom were working class and unimpressed with Wallace’s hyper-articulate intellect, made him feel both “unalone and unstressed.” They knew how to support him without crowding him, and often adopted him as a kind of eccentric godson. (One couple even hung a stocking for him every Christmas.) But probably the main reason for Wallace’s continued fidelity to AA both in his life and work was more personal and (in the secular sense) vocational, and is written into the text of Infinite Jest itself:

“Giving It Away is a cardinal Boston AA principle. The term’s derived from an epigrammatic description of recovery in Boston AA: ‘You give it up to get it back to give it away.’ Sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay the loan back, but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works, spreading this message to the next new guy who’s tottered in to a meeting and is sitting in the back row unable to hold his cup of coffee. The only way to hang onto sobriety is to give it away.”

All recovering alcoholics, having reached the twelfth and final step of recovery, are enjoined to “carry the message” of AA to other alcoholics and to “practice its principles in all their affairs.” The idea of step 12 is not that it serve as a one-way threshold into sobriety, but rather as a continually renewing commitment, less a discrete stage of development than a philosophy of life. The recovering alcoholic is reminded every day that it is only by the grace of a “power greater than himself” that he has been granted the gift of sobriety, and that it is incumbent upon him to “pay it forward” by helping other sufferers. The only way, paradoxically, to remain in recovery is to bring others in with you.

Zadie Smith, in her 2007 essay on Wallace, wrote about the “difficult gifts” that he gave his readers—gifts that even many sympathetic readers were unable or unwilling to accept.

“Perhaps it was easy, when you read Wallace, to distrust ‘the agenda of the consciousness behind the text.’ Did he truly want to give you a gift, or only to demonstrate his own? For why should we be expected to tease out references to De Chirico and logotherapy, or know what happens during an eclipse, or what polymerase does, or the many nuances of the word prone? Why go through the pain if this is all we are to get in return: ‘Discursive portraits of relentlessly self-absorbed whiners, set down in an unappetizing mix of psychobabble, scholarly jargon and stream-of-consciousness riffs?’”

Smith’s analysis here is not unfair to Wallace, and captures well the tension around which much of his fiction is poised. “I’ve worked hard,” he often seems to say, “to create a sophisticated, difficult gift for you, the reader. Are you now willing to do the work required to appreciate it?” What Smith misses in her essay, though, is a gift that probably only someone within the recovery community could appreciate. While Wallace, from the beginning to the end of his career, did indeed present his readers with difficult gifts, he had also affirmed his desire to create “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction” based on “single-entendre principles” of communication. Sincerity and humanity, antidotes to the cool, disaffected nihilism that Wallace observed in his contemporaries, had become as important to his sense of fiction as to his continued work in recovery, and the absolute sincerity with which he extols the virtues and efficacy of AA unites, in a moment of life-and-work consilience, these otherwise independent threads of his experience. The common reader, one who has not experienced addiction from the inside, may not recognize Wallace’s defense of recovery as a gift. But for the addict, the reader who knows that her very survival depends on her ability to submit to AA’s self-billed “simple program,” this gift is not only “easy,” in the sense that it is offered as ingenuously as possible. It is life-changing—indeed, potentially life-saving—and comes directly from the author’s heart.

            This is not to say, of course, that embracing recovery had been easy for Wallace. Indeed, perhaps the most compelling part of Infinite Jest’s case for AA is the eloquent, often hilarious way it lays out the common objections to it. “So then at forty-six years of age I came here to learn to live by clichés,” says Geoffrey Day, a wine and Quaaludes addict who, like Wallace, had worked in academia before hitting bottom. “To turn my will and life over to the care of clichés. One day at a time. Easy does it. First things first. Courage is fear that has said its prayers. Ask for help. Thy will not mine be done. It works if you work it. Grow or go. Keep coming back.” Day’s voice here is clearly a version of Wallace’s own, a self-deriding parody of the author’s objections to AA during his early sobriety.

“I used to think in long compound sentences with subordinate clauses and even the odd polysyllable. Now I find I needn’t. Now I live by the dictates of macramé samplers ordered from the back-page ad of an old Reader’s Digest or Saturday Evening Post. Easy does it. Remember to remember. But for the grace of capital-g God. Turn it over. Terse, hard-boiled. Monosyllabic. Good old Norman Rockwell–Paul Harvey wisdom. I walk around with my arms out straight in front of me and recite these clichés.”

Day publically believes, as Wallace privately believed, that he is too smart for AA, that its blend of hortatory one-liners and non-specific “God stuff” are too simplistic to work on an intellect as advanced as his. He erects, Wallace writes, “Denial-type fortifications with some kind of intellectualish showing-off,” and tries to take refuge in his head, not realizing that “the Disease makes its command headquarters in the head.” He is, in effect, an avatar of Wallace the over-educated, under-experienced newcomer to a world that, though it seems impossibly foreign to him, he has been destined for all his life.

The obvious move for Wallace, having set up a parallel between Day and his own experience, would be to usher Day along the redemptive arc that he had followed himself. After all, of all Ennet House’s residents, it is Day who most closely resembles, in intellectual and cultural terms, not only Wallace himself but Wallace’s readers. They are much more likely to identify with him, with his graduate-level erudition and pretensions, than they are with the junkies and petty crooks that make up most of the Ennet House population. And yet, this is not what Wallace does. Instead, he not only makes Day the least sympathetic of Ennet House’s residents (with the possible exception of the cat-murdering Randy Lenz), he accords the role of redeemed redeemer, the unironic message-carrier of AA, to Don Gately, a recovering alcohol and Demerol addict with a middle-school education. Gately, who has, in D.T. Max’s phrase, “a kind of Dostoyevskian gloss to him,” has the richest interior life of all the characters in the book, and becomes a kind of prism for recovery as a universal metaphor of redemption—the individual details of these recoveries varyingly refracted depending on the experience and personalities of those involved.

Granada House, the real-life model for Ennet House

Wallace’s reasons for giving Gately this responsibility were partly literary—he was an ardent admirer of Dostoyevsky, and appreciated the power of Holy Fool characters like Alyosha Karamazov to universalize narratives of redemption—but probably also derived from the demotic spirit of AA itself. “We are average Americans,” says the Big Book, “all sections of this country and many of its occupations are represented, as well as many political, economic, social, and religious backgrounds. We are people who normally would not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful.” AA is the only place, says a maxim of the program, where a plumber can teach a priest how to live, and Wallace had experienced the power of this class-crossing discipleship first-hand. His first sponsor in Boston was, he told a friend, a “motorhead from the South Shore,” and the distance between this (still anonymous) person’s experience and his own was probably as great, if not greater than that between the proverbial plumber and priest. And yet, Wallace knew, like so many intellectuals in recovery, that “his best thinking got him there,” and that his best chance of survival, as he said to a former professor, was to apprentice himself to their way of living. A lesson in humility, in submitting to the wisdom of people less “smart” and educated than he was, was essential for Wallace in adapting to the AA program, and he seems, in making Gately his paradigm of successful recovery, to be encouraging the reader to do the same.

Gately’s initial resistance to AA, although lacking the “intellectualish” fortifications erected by Day, certainly reflects the snobbery and skepticism that hampered Wallace.

“Gately couldn’t for the life of him figure out how just sitting on hemorrhoid-hostile folding chairs every night looking at nose-pores and listening to clichés could work…this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever work except for the utterest morons.”

Later, when counseling a newcomer to the program, Gately recounts his how this snobbery eventually grew into contempt,” saying that that he “hate[d] this limp AA drivel about gratitude and humility and miracles and how he hate[d] it and thinks it’s horseshit and hat[ed] the AAs and how they all seem[ed] like limp smug moronic self-satisfied shit-eating pricks with their lobotomized smiles and goopy sentiments and how he wishe[d] them all violent Technicolor harm in the worst way.” To be sure, even though it is nominally Gately speaking these words, these bravura rhetorical take-downs—replete with witty imagery (“Technicolor harm”) and lip-smacking alliterations—are not those of a sub-literate Demerol addict who never finished high school. Indeed, some critics have taken issue with the obvious blending of Gately’s voice into Wallace’s high octane, belles-lettristic style when descriptions of recovery are involved.  (Are we really to believe, for example, that Gately thinks in phrases like “goofy slapdash anarchic system” and “violent Technicolor harm?”)

Such judgments do not necessarily misread Wallace’s stylistic choices at these moments, but they do rather miss the point. The modulations in tense and register that occur during Gately’s apologia for AA—notably the inflation of vocabulary and shift to second-person address—do represent an eruption of Wallace’s own voice within the text, but only insofar as they reflect, in an appropriately post-modern way, the cardinal AA principle of “identifying” between speaker and listener. The power of one alcoholic testifying before another, drawing upon shared feeling and experience to communicate in a common language, is recognized as one of the pillars of AA’s success, and Wallace is calibrating his language to reflect this dynamic between his consciousness and the readers. If Gately sounds much more like Wallace here than he does otherwise, it is because Wallace knows what kind of language will communicate most directly with his reader, the style and rhetoric to which she will intuitively respond. The power and “success” of Gately’s recovery testimony is, according to the standards of the program, directly proportionate to the reader’s/listener’s ease in identifying with it, and here Wallace is making the “IDing,” between Gately and the reader as well as his interlocutor, as frictionless as possible.

This dovetailing of narrative and personal witness only becomes clearer as Gately’s recovery journey unfolds. At first, desperation and a court order the only things keeping him in the AA program, but he soon passes from frustration at the program’s system of “low-rent gatherings and corny slogans” to the stunned, even suspicious realization that it actually seems to work.

“[A]fter maybe five months Gately was riding the Greenie at 0430 to go clean human turds out of the Shattuck shower and all of a sudden realized that quite a few days had gone by since he’d even thought about Demerol or Talwin or even weed…It was the first time he’d been out of this kind of mental cage since he was maybe ten. He couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t Grateful so much as kind of suspicious…How could some kind of Higher Power he didn’t even believe in magically let him out of the cage when Gately had been a total hypocrite in even asking something he didn’t believe in to let him out of a cage he had like zero hope of ever being let out of?”

Gately’s difficulty is overcoming disbelief, in accepting Step 2’s claim that “only a higher power could relieve him of his alcoholism,” and then his subsequent amazement that this in no way hinders his recovery, and is a direct translation of Wallace’s own. Wallace had, Max says, drawn upon his readings of Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and other philosophers to create a conception of God that he could believe in, but said he still he found trying to pray “hypocritical.” This didn’t stop him from trying, however, and he soon made the discovery that even militant atheists make when they commit to AA: No matter who or what your higher power is—whether it’s the Christian God, the AA fellowship, “Going Off Drinking,” or something else—it’s the act of surrendering your will that counts. You give away your will, your obsessive desire to control yourself and those around you, and you miraculously have that will returned to you, purged of its selfish, self-destructive impulses. And all you have to do is accept that just maybe there’s someone, something, out therethat will help you if you keep an open mind. “I used to think you had to believe to pray,” Wallace later recalled hearing at a meeting. “Now I know I had it ass-backwards.”

The fact that such an emphasis is laid on this revelation, on the persuasive power of a reluctant, even grudging conversion to AA’s philosophy, speaks volumes about the “single-entendre” motives actuating Wallace here. Where so much of his previous fiction, and indeed much of Infinite Jest itself, has the character of a Chinese puzzle box, with obsessive intellectual effort required to recuperate the rewards concealed beneath its surface, the passages defending AA are offered up, at least to those who might benefit from them, on a proverbial silver platter. Sobriety is, he writes, “less as a gift than as a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay it back, but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works.” The earnestness of these passages is striking, particularly when one discovers that, in a book saturated in ironic Po-Mo structural/thematic tropes, they are entirely devoid of irony. But the shock of this ingenuousness is also, in its way, part of the point. “If we are painstaking about this phase of our development,” says the Big Book in a passage often used to close AA meetings, “we will be amazed before we are half way through.” A sense of surprise and discovery, a revealing of previously unimagined horizons, is one of the great joys of recovery, and the shock at finding an author willing to bare his soul in this way, to so genuinely offer the benefit of his knowledge and experience, primes us to accept the even more shocking truth that AA, once you give it a chance, really does deliver the goods.

David Foster Wallace in 1996

Leslie Jamison, herself a recovering alcoholic,writes in her 2018 memoir The Recovering about reading Infinite Jest during her second stab at sobriety:

Infinite Jest had metabolized recovery with so much rigor that it had already asked all of my questions and weathered all of my intellectual discomforts…The novel offered an encounter with recovery charged by double consciousness: both interrogating and affirming it, investigating its labor, its oddness, and its sublimity. The novel was questioning the recitations of recovery but still alive to its miracles, and not afraid to say so.”

Jamison, an Ivy-educated writer and academic like Wallace, has a strong claim to be his ideal reader, the kind of person he knew himself uniquely qualified to reach, and her reaction to Infinite Jest is surely that of hundreds, if not thousands of self-flattering “intellectuals” who have turned to it in recovery.

“I read Infinite Jest like a desperate old man running his metal detector over the sand, waiting for every ding that signified buried wisdom…Perhaps that made me simplify him, as I sucked on lozenges of truth—‘sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt’—but his novel had gotten me through plenty of moments of just sitting there and, like, hurting.”

It may be that to a certain species of alcoholic, it is only the heartfelt testimony of a genius like Wallace that can make these lozenges palatable.  “I’m smarter and better-read than you are,” he seems to say to them. “I’ve considered every philosophical and aesthetic objection to AA, every weak point in its unpromising architecture of clichés and metaphysical pabulum, and yet I’ve still made it work. And if it works for me then it can definitely work for you.” To an addict, particularly one plagued with Wallace’s neurotic, intellectualizing tendencies, such testimony is of invaluable, inexpressible comfort.

It certainly was for me. The first time I walked into a recovery meeting, in a rundown church in Paris’s 5th arrondissement, Wallace and Infinite Jest were very much on my mind. Beyond the clichés I’d absorbed from TV and movies—Styrofoam cups, rusted folding chairs, miasmas of cigarette smoke—practically everything I knew about AA came from either the novel or my readings about Wallace’s life. I knew that he’d struggled with its hokeyness, its crimes against English style (the Big Book is famously badly written), and that it had often been necessary for him to substitute God with “Good Orderly Direction” to buy into its metaphysics. But I also that he’d been brought back from a brink much more vertiginous than my own, and that the principle of “keeping it simple,” of treating the program like a recipe on a box of cake mix, had seen him through as effectively as it had the legions of AAs less learned than he. So I took a leap of faith and, putting a copy of IJ on my bedside table along with the Big Book, jumped in, as a man in one of my first meetings suggested, with both feet.

As of this writing, the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous has been translated into over 100 languages; Infinite Jest only five

Over the next few weeks, re-reading Infinite Jest as I stumbled through early recovery, I was astonished to discover not only the same insights that sustained Jamison, but to find Wallace perceptible in his writing in a way I never had been before. The dazzling stylist who’d wowed me as a college student was still there, but seemed more like an afterthought, an agreeable sideshow to the main event. Suddenly, when I was desperate for guidance and reassurance as I embarked on a terrifying new phase of life, one alcoholic looking for help from others, here was one of the great literary minds of the last 50 years offering me what I didn’t even know I needed.

“And so you Hang In and stay sober and straight, and out of sheer hand-burned-on-hot-stove terror you heed the improbable-sounding warnings not to stop pounding out the nightly meetings even after the Substance-cravings have left and you feel like you’ve got a grip on the thing at last and can now go it alone, you still don’t try to go it alone, you heed the improbable warnings because by now you have no faith in your own sense of what’s really improbable and what isn’t, since AA seems, improbably enough, to be working, and with no faith in your own senses you’re confused, flummoxed, and when people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming.”

It’s remarkable to read passages like this and to feel personally addressed by them, like the “you” is being whispered to you across time and space. It was as though I were encountering the “real” Wallace for the first time, like our shared alcoholism had allowed me to see beneath IJ’s sinews of Po-Mo artifice to find the beating heart underneath.

There is nothing, I now know, special or unique about this experience. Jamison’s account, infinitely more thorough and accomplished than my own, proves that Wallace has a similar effect on many, if not most like-minded alcoholics. But this very absence of specialness, the banality of my response in common with those of so many like me, is also appropriate, for it means that I cannot do any more in response to Wallace’s gift than what AA’s are enjoined to do every day: cultivate an “attitude of gratitude.” I am grateful, then, that Wallace decided to include within his magnum opus the best ever fictional case for Alcoholics Anonymous. I am grateful that he decided to “pay it forward” to future generations of addicts with the gift of his testimony. And I am grateful above all that he managed to marry this gift with his own figurative (and yes, sometimes difficult) “gifts” for English prose—for if Infinite Jest were any less dazzling, its merits as a work of literature any less pronounced, then the more modest, life-saving portions of the book might never have seen the light of day.

Part of me, the part learning to cultivate an AA’s suspicion of vanity, suspects that Wallace would have resisted such tributes, calling Infinite Jest’s AA evangelism just another part of his “working the program.” But another part of me, the part that relies, as Wallace did for nearly 20 years, on this program’s tradition of gratitude to survive, hopes he would have understood.

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