The Collision of 'Roadside Picnic' and 'Infinite Jest'

by Gareth Watkins

28 September 2011

We have love and jealousy and revenge. All this from a McArthur grant recipient with a reputation as one of the most challenging and polarizing writers of his generation. What's going on?
Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film Stalker (written by
the Strugatsky brothers). 

And Happiness for Everyone!

cover art

Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace

(Little, Brown)
US: 1 Feb 1996

cover art

Roadside Picnic

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

US: 1972

A device exists that can give you what you have always wanted. The basic and most primal need at the heart of who you are can be fulfilled—everything can be good forever. That, or it can destroy all life at its most fundamental level. The device is at the heart of a deadly and forbidden zone, and everyone who has tried to use it has died horribly.

This is, more or less, the plot of a best-seller that Time called one of the 100 best books since 1923, written by a recipient of the MacArthur ‘genius’ grant and one of the most challenging and polarizing novelists of his generation. Or, it is (again more or less) the synopsis of a relatively obscure Russian science-fiction novel which would have sunk in to obscurity had it not been adapted for the screen by a visionary film-maker and served as the inspiration for an acclaimed video game franchise. There are enough similarities between David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Boris and Arkaday Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic that it is a safe bet that the former had read the latter and incorporated it in to his work, but making a crucial change that allows Infinite Jest’s moral and even spiritual message to be better understood.

When Wallace’s 1,079-page masterpiece abruptly halts at page 981 the readers of a book its author originally intended to title ‘a failed entertainment’ who became somehow invested in the search for the eponymous and deadly film so entertaining that it kills the viewer would no doubt feel utterly disappointed. The book’s plot has barely gotten going—though the quest-object is definitely out there, the book’s hero hasn’t even received his Call to Action, though we know from a flashback that he will eventually hold ‘The Entertainment’ in his hands, having dug up his father’s corpse and presumably braved the ‘Zone’ to find it. Though I seriously doubt that such a reader exists, or could continue to exist after the book’s first 50 pages, there is material spread throughout that is at least superficially similar to Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash, in which, just as in Infinite Jest, a deadly piece of viral information is about to be unleashed on a corporatist near-future America as a bloody-minded act of revenge by members of an marginal group that the US has wronged (an Aleut harpoonist and Quebecois separatist respectively).

In Roadside Picnic, which inspired Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker (written by the Strugatsky brothers) and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R video game franchise, visitation by unimaginably powerful aliens has left the Earth pock-marked with ‘Zones’, areas in which the laws of physics have been bent out of shape, littered with strange and powerful artefacts—the most powerful of all being the Golden Sphere, which can reputably grant wishes and currently resides in the Zone located in eastern Canada. Desperate men dubbed ‘Stalkers’ act as guides and explorers within the zones, negotiating their many dangers and occasionally bringing back artefacts, though more often than not dying horribly. In the original novella a veteran Stalker named Redrick finds that continued exposure to the zone has caught up with him- his daughter is slowly mutating into a monkey-like creature. He ventures into the Zone one last time to have the Golden Sphere erase his problems, though like Infinite Jest the narrative ends abruptly and without a resolution. Tarkovsky’s film is roughly similar—the nameless Stalker guides a scientist and writer through the Zone (which here is located in Russia) into The Room, which like the Golden Sphere can grant wishes, and once again the film ends without the audience knowing if the device has been used, although in all likelihood it hasn’t.

In Infinite Jest the eponymous film lies at the centre of the ‘Zone of Anullation’, a reference to the real life ‘Zone of Alienation’ surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, which itself is at the centre of ‘the Great Concavity’, a mega-scale garbage dump in, predictably enough, eastern Canada (the name Roadside Picnic is a reference to the trash left behind after travellers stop to eat before moving on, which one character compares to the alien visitors leaving their inexplicable detritus behind after a brief stop-over on Earth.) Even an element that most readers would quite rightly see as a reference to Hamlet, the appearance of the ghost of lead character’s father, crops up in Roadside Picnic: an eerie, silent clone of Redrick’s dead father wanders out of the zone.

When Redrick first encounters the Golden Sphere he must first deactivate a defence mechanism his fellow Stalkers have dubbed ‘the meat grinder’, which tears apart the first person to attempt to use the Sphere. Redrick uses an unwitting dupe for this purpose, whose wish is as follows: “Happiness for all, and no-one will be left out!” Though he could wish for anything Redricks wish, which may or may not be granted, is roughly similar: “Let my inner desires be the good ones, and Happiness for Everyone!
Happiness for all, or in other words, infinite jest.

Note however, the first part of Redrick’s wish—for all of his inner desires to be the the good ones. He is seeking, in other words, not to have his existing desires sated but, accepting that desire is a constant of human life, to have desires which are truly good. Though the characters in Infinite Jest fall all over the moral spectrum, it would not occur to the vast majority of them to question whether the desires they have (for drugs, sex, tennis mastery or a free Quebec) are good. “Everyone worships something,” as he would tell the Weslyan College Graduating class of 2005 (published as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life). They arise as spontaneously and arbitrarily as a cold sore. Through the Golden Sphere Redrick is ceding his ability to choose to a unknowable alien intelligence, trusting that it can distinguish right from wrong and guide him. There is another immediate parallel to Infinite Jest here—as mentioned, a large part of the book’s considerable heft comes from scenes that take place in a Narcotics Anonymous treatment centre. There, as with anywhere in the Anonymous brand, the Twelve Steps are key. Let’s remind ourselves of a few of them before moving on:

  • We admitted we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  • Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  • Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  • Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  • Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

The final scene in Roadside Picnic involves Redrick, previously a rugged individual in the mould of a noir anti-hero, carrying out these steps. His Higher Power may be a piece of alien technology, but if it performs as advertised then it is functionally omniscient, omnipotent and omni-benevolent (since it can perfectly distinguish good desires from bad). Many people have a problem with these aspects of the Twelve Step Program—whether you subscribe to the tenants of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand or Elizabeth ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ Gilbert, the chances are that you believe that you are or should be in charge of your life, and that even your failures are fundamentally yours.

Wallace devotes an early scene in Infinite Jest, and perhaps many more, to countering the reader’s scepticism about the 12 steps by invoking what appears to be simple pragmatism, but which is strikingly close to the Jesuit doctrine of sacrificium intellectus, the sacrifice of the intellect: though the steps above may appear to be hokey and to to run counter to the be-yourself-and-you-can-achieve-anything message we have all been absorbing since pre-school, the simple truth is that they work, that through a great deal of struggle and many dark nights of the soul a person really can bring a higher power to bear on their problem. It would seem then that Redrick’s wish is, in terms of the Twelve Steps as endorsed by Wallace, a sensible idea—and yet in both Infinite Jest and the film Stalker the intention of the various persons questing after their respective Higher Powers (the Entertainment and Room respectively) is not to use it, but to prevent it from being used by destroying it.

It is easy to see why—both the Room and the Entertainment offer instant salvation. Another concept from theology is useful here: Tertullian’s Credo quia absurdum, belief not in spite of but because of the absurdity of a doctrine. For Kirkegaard this became all important—we are under a constant barrage of evidence that God does not exist, from the problem of evil to the problem of dinosaurs, so the only way to believe is to make a leap of faith. As stated above, the decision to worship something is not a difficult one to make, and it is one we make all too often. For Wallace, as he elucidates best in This is Water, the only things worthy of worship are those things that are the most absurd: “JC or Allah [...] YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles.” These things may be ludicrous, but they won’t let you down.

Again, the decision to give oneself up to a higher power is justified by simple pragmatism (which, paradoxically, doesn’t really seem that absurd.) This is why the Entertainment and the Room/Golden Sphere are insufficient and ultimately dangerous: they are simply not absurd. The Entertainment requires nothing more than for the viewer to be within sight of a screen playing it to impart instant, lethal bliss. The wish-machine in Roadside Picnic can impart the kind of self-knowledge that Wallace advocated instantly, and to the whole world—perhaps the whole universe.

More significant than the similarities between the Golden Sphere and the Entertainment is their key difference. The sphere grants wishes—any wish, no matter how mundane or far-reaching, whereas the Entertainment has one purpose, to Entertain—perhaps deeply and profoundly (the ghost of James Incandenza states that his motivation for making the Entertainment was to ‘make something so bloody compelling that it would reverse thrust on a young self’s (his son’s) fall in to the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life’). The Golden Sphere can be used to fix the world and fix the user—it is set up for a user that is not solipsistic, who can feel empathy for others. Even if it were used to grant purely selfish desires, it still requires an operator who considers worldly happiness a possibility. The Entertainment, on the other hand, assumes an audience like Hal Incandenza—Infinite Jest’s terminally bored tennis prodigy protagonist and the son of the Entertainment’s creator.

Hal and many others in Infinite Jest are tortured by their own self-consciousness and will gladly have their mind obliterated to relieve the pain of having to Be. That the Higher Power in Infinite Jest is capable of this and only this is Wallace-as-moralist’s home-truth about contemporary America, that at other times and in other places (even in Soviet Russia) we may have been able to imagine humans as fully human, capable of care for others and the desire to improve themselves, but here and now the panoply of choices that the Golden Sphere offers have been narrowed down to one—to be entertained.

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