Escapism evaluated

Well, it happened again. On April 16, the Pulitzer Board announced for the first time since 1977 that it would not award a prize in fiction. One might ask, “Isn’t this the most prestigious award in literature? How can they do this?” The short answer is that the jurors selecting the work submitted their recommendation to the Pulitzer Board, and the board both rejected their choices and, at the same time, failed to make its own. The board can do that apparently, much to the dismay of almost everyone involved in the process except David Foster Wallace, who is dead. While you skim this article before your 10 a.m. English seminar, this is the most important fact you will read in the next three minutes: David Foster Wallace is dead, and his unfinished novel, The Pale King, was a Pulitzer finalist this year. He will never get another chance to submit his work (and he didn’t even submit this one).

One might assume that Wallace would garner a sympathy vote, a literary lifetime achievement award, but he didn’t. The board didn’t even have the decency to vote against him. They simply chose to not choose. Oh, the outrage! Oh, the injustice! Calm yourself, bookworm. Their apparent lack of administrative gumption is okay. It really is. I swear. While I cannot speak for Wallace (and neither can he), one of the central theses of his magnum opus Infinite Jest is that humanity will do anything possible to minimize unpleasantness, whether that unpleasantness comes from the humdrum drone of everyday life or the overwhelming frustration of incomplete understanding. Such a minimization may have occurred last week with the Pulitzer decision (or lack thereof). Such a minimization may also be occurring right now, to you, at Williams. What are you hiding from right now? Midterms? Finals? Saying hello to those around you?

In Infinite Jest, escapism is rampant. The novel is set mainly in two places: a high-intensity tennis academy (where drug use is rampant) and a circus-like halfway house (where drug use is pretty much still rampant). In addition to the overt drugs-as-escape-ladder metaphor, we are treated to much more complex depictions of tennis, mathematics and interpersonal relationships as subtle tools to further our many escapes from reality. If you manage to make it to the end of this gigantic work, this is the point you tend to remember: The feeling of escaping into depictions of other people escaping is one of the absolute weirdest things a reader can subject him or herself to while still having a good time. But realizing this brings us back to reality, forcing the reader to evaluate how he or she escapes. As a heavily-yoked “Williams proto-student,” the decision of the Pulitzer Board reminded me of this escapism thesis and made me consider the myriad ways that each of us choose to escape our surroundings when the going gets tough. Some of us choose alcohol while others choose exercise. Some of us choose procrastination while others choose ambivalence. Everyone escapes, but the escapes we choose speak volumes about our inner mental states as stressed students. The array of escapes seen in Infinite Jest’s elite tennis academy supports this assertion and, frankly, disturbs the reader if he or she is in a similar setting. We are in a similar setting.

However, the Pulitzer Board members weren’t evaluating Infinite Jest. They were evaluating The Pale King, an unfinished work about the soullessness that comes from working in a bureaucracy (here, the IRS). The Pale King is not a crowd-pleaser, but it could have been. In fact, it could have been any number of things. It wasn’t finished. That sort of thematic ambiguity stymied the board. The fact that it was abstract, socially relevant and downright weird came off as, well, unpleasant. If a group of academics is going to evaluate an author’s work for a major award, the last thing that work should be is unnecessarily unpleasant. The board members dealt with the unpleasantness of this uncertainty by choosing the escape hatch of a no-award year. Whether they knew it or not, their refusal to decide Wallace’s legacy decided his legacy anyway. He was a master people-watcher. He predicted that his peers would avoid making an unpleasant decision about his work long before he even died.

But of course, if this is true, it means that Wallace’s observations about humanity’s propensity to hide apply to you as a student at one of the world’s most rigorous undergraduate institutions. We face difficult choices every day and sometimes we choose not to choose as well, whether that choice is to speak up in class or to write an essay a week before the deadline (blasphemy!). In our private moments of vulnerable indecision, we’re often accountable to ourselves alone. In these moments, we can courageously distinguish ourselves by choosing to choose, regardless of whether that choice is the “correct” one. Even if you choose incorrectly, the choice is still your own. So evaluate in a way that the Pulitzer Board chose not to. What are you hiding from?


Gabe Stephens ’15 is from Kendallville, Ind. He lives in Williams Hall.