Of all the ideas crammed into David Foster Wallace's sprawling 1996 novel Infinite Jest
, there was one that reviewers never failed to mention. In the future, Wallace predicted, the Organization of North American Nations, representing the merged countries of Canada, the United States, and Mexico, would sell off the naming rights to each calendar year to whatever corporation had the highest bid. 223 pages into his 1,079-page opus, he lays out the "Chronology of Organization of North American Nations' Revenue-Enhancing Subsidized Time (TM), by Year" as follows:
(1) Year of the Whopper
(2) Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad
(3) Year of the Trial-Sized Dove Bar
(4) Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken
(5) Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster
(6) Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Internatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office, Or Mobile (sic)
(7) Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland
(8) Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment
(9) Year of Glad
According to some chronologies
, we're now in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, when the novel was set. And Friday, in his home in California, David Foster Wallace committed suicide
There must have been marketing executives out there who read Wallace's visions not as a dystopian horror show but as a collection of brilliant revenue-generating ideas. (Certainly the Year of the D.A.U. was on my mind last year when, tongue-in-cheek, some of my colleagues and I proposed to sell off the naming rights to Christmas
as part of a hypothetical assignment for Studio 360.)
is named for a movie that that is so entertaining that people who see it don't want to do anything but watch it over and over for the rest of their lives. It is the ultimate consumer product. An obsession with consumerism, branding, and commercialization pervade the book, and indeed are a leitmotif in much of Wallace's fiction and nonfiction. Designers have much to learn from him. His legendary essay on cruise ships, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," is not only scary and funny, but one of the best pieces on the mechanics of experience design
ever written. As a media analyst, he was relentless and dispassionate: read "Host
," his piece on right-wing radio personality John Ziegler which avoids predictable ad hominem
judgments and instead focuses on the mechanics of the process.
It would be tempting to see his Wallace's body of work as a damning critique of the moral bankruptcy of capitalist culture. But I'd maintain you can't come up with something like "The Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster" unless you have some kind of empathy for the people who devise — and respond to — such things. Wallace turned the language of Powerpoint into poetry, and created a way of seeing depth in a shallow world.
"The problem is now," he told Charlie Rose in 1997,
"that a lot of the schticks of postmodernism — irony, cynicism, irreverence — are now part of whatever it is that's enervating the culture itself." Perhaps David Foster Wallace, in the end, lost his personal fight to overcome that enervation. What he left behind made that struggle worthwhile.