Monthly Archives: Oct 2014

Times there can be smoke without fire

I hate the expression “there’s no smoke without fire.” It’s just not true.

Here are some examples:

  1. Smoke machine
  2. Burning toast
  3. Blowing out a candle (there’s only smoke when the fire is extinguished)
  4. Smoke Monster from Lost
  5. Smokey Bear
  6. Smokey Robinson
  7. Smokey and the Bandit
  8. Smoke bombs
  9. Referring to a city as “the big smoke”
  10. Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
  11. The jar of smoke I always keep with me at all times.
  12. Something else that looks like smoke
  13. Mist/Fog?
  14. The Fast and the Furious 7: Smoke Without Fire
  15. Smoke from behind an old sofa
  16. Smoked Ribs
  17. When people say “Richard, you are looking smokin’ hot today!”
  18. In a vacuum
  19. Fake Smoke (‘Foke’)
  20. Holy smokes!

Thanks. I’m glad we could clear that up.

Let’s kick banter out of football. (And everywhere else too).

I hate football. That’s not a huge secret or anything, but it’s a good point to begin on.

I hate football for a number of reasons, but it really all boils down to two aspects: the gameplay itself, and the culture that surrounds it. The gameplay aspect is pretty straightforward; I don’t find kicking a leather ball up and down a field to be especially intellectually stimulating. And that’s just a personal preference (albeit one one that apparently 99% of the population disagree with me on).

But its the culture that really gets to me. And I’d like to take a bit of time to explain what I mean by this, as I’m using it in a rather broad sense. By the ‘culture’ of football, I’m meaning:

  1. The idea that everyone likes football, and that being the assumed default.
  2. From 1, the stigma attached to not liking football.
  3. The prevalence of football as a go-to conversational currency.
  4. The way the game is talked about by those who follow it.
  5. The way those who follow it talk to each other.

Since this is a big topic, I’ll do deep dives on each of these in turn to clarify just what the hell I’m talking about.

1: Everyone Loves Football

It’s just simply not true that everyone likes football. I don’t. I know people that don’t. We’re a small minority, but we do exist.

There’s no subject in the world that has absolute unanimity. Yet football is held up as some universal pursuit. This message comes especially strongly from the media, such as in advertising – which becomes totally saturated with football content during major footballing events.

Consider this. Do we see a similar surge of classical music advertising during the last night of the Proms? Nope! Sure, classical music fans are a smaller demographic than football fans, but the amount of time and cultural resources dedicated to football seem disproportionate, especially in comparison to similar sports, like rugby.

The problem with a football-centric cultural view is that it creates a vicious cycle with an ever-narrowing perspective. If football is all that ever gets talked about, it’s all that ever gets heard about, and we talk about what we hear about it, and so on and so on. Football’s on the news, so adults talk about it, kids copy their parents, they start playing it, schools offer the most popular sporting offerings, and so it goes again. Football holds a monopolistic position in the sporting world that is to the detriment of other sports but also to the national conversation more generally.

I mean, does that much space need to be taken up at the end of every newspaper for the sport? (Or even on televised news). Does “Man kicks ball in goal” deserve the same amount of column inches as a political scandal or international crisis. I’d argue not, and that an unchecked obsession with the sport (driven increasingly apparently by money, it seems to me as an outside observer) has led to a deadening of the plurality of sporting opportunities on offer more widely.

2: What do you mean, you don’t like football?

But a far worse consequence of the football cultural monopoly, at least in my personal experience, is that it naturally leads to the stigmatisation of those whose interests occupy other cultural spaces. I’m not wanting to play the victim card here too much or anything, but it is often difficult to be a non-football fan in society.

Since liking football is the default, it means the onus is on those who don’t or can’t engage with football to justify their position (rather than vice-versa). At primary school when I opted to play netball instead of football (netball seemed like the more tactical, strategic game), I was laughed at, accused of being gay by the other boys, and ordered to buy some football boots.

There’s also a gendered aspect to this as well, which I should briefly touch on. At school, netball was the girl’s game, and football was for the boys. It was literally segregated in this way. But why? There are women’s football teams and men’s netball teams, competing at international levels, but there’s an automatic assumption that boys and girls will fall into line with the ‘expected’ sport choice.

This prejudice carries through into adulthood, of course, as the ‘correct’ version of the sporting event will always get more coverage than the other. Remember the Women’s World Cup anyone? Just a little reminder that it’s EXACTLY THE SAME GAME as the men’s world cup – just with different organs.

So long as this stigma exists, there’ll be problems with sexism in the sport. We need to address the fact that not all boys want to play football and some girls do – and we can’t do that until we address the wider issue of football being everyone’s favourite ever thing to do ever by default. (Imagine if we assumed all doctors were men, and nurses women… oh wait).

3: What team do you support, then?

Another consequence of the prevalence of football is that it becomes an unwelcome and detrimental part of the national conversation. Everyone assumes that everyone they talk to is going to love football, and this means they have something in common.

When we talk to strangers we’ll often do whatever we can to find something in common to strike up a conversation about. For me, that can be very difficult anyway – few people are into Shrek, Wes Anderson, and British Sea Power exclusively – but it’s made far worse by everyone having an inventory of football names and scores to fall back on.

Don’t have a personality, but can memorise the FA Cup winners for the last twenty years and the lineup of every single team? Congratulations, you’re the life and soul of the pub.

I don’t support a football team. I don’t understand why anyone does. Following the sporting successes of some overpaid man-babies who have literally no connection to you or interest in your life whatsoever simply doesn’t appeal to me. Therefore when someone asks what team I support, why I should be obliged to have an answer at all?

Imagine if the question was formed as “the variables of which random number generator do you feel the strongest affinity with?” To me, that’s how the question sounds. But it seems everyone else has an answer and prepared defences for every attack on their chosen team.

What annoys me the most is that this is seen as perfectly normal to do, the memorisation of stats and statistics utterly divorced from anything to do with your life. In any other field of interest, this level of devotion would be regarded as the saddest thing in the world. Society laughs and trainspotters and bird watchers but happily takes pains to digest and discuss whether such-and-such manager is right to be playing the 4-4-2 formation against god-knows-who this saturday. Spoiler: it’s just as sad.

So, don’t try and ask me what team I support. If you do, I’ll be happy to instead tell you about the equipment loadout of my World of Warcraft character.

4: Everyone’s a pundit

It’s not bad enough that those who follow ‘the beautiful game’ insist on pushing themselves onto non-believers, like sporting jehovah’s witnesses, they also without fail are self-proclaimed experts on the subject. And this annoys me. Because they’re not.

Here are some things to please not ever do as a football fan:

  • Mock a player for messing up a kick/goal. Running around for 90 minutes with thousands of people staring at your every move is entirely different to playing Fifa in your pants.
  • Shout at a ref for making a bad call. He is literally in the best position to be making calls and these days can call upon assistant refs to help him out. Remember, that is LITERALLY what those guys are paid to do – make impartial calls. You are not paid to do this.
  • Criticise a manager’s choice of team lineup or substitutions. The manager has full access to the coach reports and team medical staff, as well as the player themselves. They are in every possible way more qualified than you to make the call about who should play. Football Manager is not a qualification.
  • Make any kind of prediction about how the season is going to play out. You’re just going to look wrong and stupid. I don’t care that you think Chelsea are going to top the table this season – maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Football results have at least enough of a standard deviation in performance for your prediction to be wrong. I don’t think I read anyone predicting Germany to win the World Cup at the start.
  • Use “we” to refer to a team, unless you are on the team. Odds are, you are not on the team. To the team, you are just an income stream. Buying a season pass for a team and buying their new kit every season does not give you any kind of membership entitlement. You are still strangers in every conceivable way.
  • Likewise, use “you” to refer to someone else’s football team. Too often I hear things like “we totally smashed you guys last night!” What does this even mean? Neither “we” nor “you” is referentially correct. The team you follow scored more goals than the team the other person followed, but that is the end of it.

There’s plenty of other ways in which the parlance of the game is broken, but those are the main ones. Everything about it is slightly off to me – assuming membership of something you’re not and thinking your opinion is at all valid. These are ignorant ways of talking and we really shouldn’t be encouraging them.

5: Banter Banter Banter

My last point of annoyance regarding football is all about the banter. Above, I talked about how football fans will incorrectly talk to each other as if they were the teams (again, why?). But there’s a whole other level to the culture surrounding the game that’s much, much worse: the banter. But what even is banter anyway?

Well, there’s not one single definition for it – which doesn’t help. The long and short of it is that it’s a kind of playful teasing between close friends, often of a crass nature. But even that’s missing the nuance of it.

Say I’m in a group of friends and one of them is fatter than the rest, would calling him Tubby be considered banter? By the above definition, yes, but that would probably be considered positively Dickensian by the banter standards (yes, I just used the phrase “banter standards”) I’m clumsily trying to refer to. A more appropriate example would be if I photoshopped ol’ Tubby’s face onto a photo of a blue whale – the world’s largest mammal – and printed it out, then distributed my offensive publication to all of Tubby’s direct family members along with sachets of Slim Fast, and then took a photo of all my handicraft, uploaded it to Facebook and tagged Tubby in. That’s closer to pro-level banter.

The upshot is simple enough, Tubby is upset and offended but has to pretend not to be and all the lads get a good laugh out of being so incredibly naughty. But what does any of this have to do with football?

Well sadly it seems that banter is simply a part of the game today. Remember back when I was laughed at for not wanting to play football at school? Protobanter, there; a situation in which a subject is victimised by their peer group but it’s not regarded as direct bullying by society because of arbitrary reasons.

Here is some prime banter, fresh off the Twitter:

Ah, good old @FootyBantLAD. Totally correct there in mocking a football team on the basis of the number of Twitter followers they have. Because as we all know, football skill stands in direct correlation to Twitter followers. LMFAO

Haha, Andy Gray is stupid! Ha ha ha. Laugh at stupid people!

Hahaha! Imagine being a Birmingham fan right now! You’d be all like “oh man, this totally sucks!” Just imagine that! LOL

And so on.

It’s not an intelligent critique. There’s no wit. There’s nothing even new or insightful. Just photoshopped picture after photoshopped picture on Twitter, Vine after Vine, that green backdrop becoming the familiar stage for an endless pantomime of pratfalls and outright prats.

Maybe it’s partially a defence thing? Like if your team isn’t doing so well at least you can bring down everyone else. That I could understand, though it’s a terribly childish way of going about things. But at least it’s all fun and games, right?

Well, no. Banter is now so ingrained in football culture that genuinely harmful behaviour gets written off as just part of the sport. I don’t want to go over well-trodden ground with this point, so I’ll just link to my storify page on the subject: The Beautiful Game. Here, I collect stories in the news of footballers behaving badly. And for some reason there’s just loads.

Remember when John Terry racially abused Anton Ferdinand? Banter, right? Nope, just plain old racism I’m afraid. It’s not cool or acceptable. And that’s why I stand against banter in football. Bullying is bullying, no matter how you dress it up. Sure, there’s a gulf between joking that so-and-so looks a bit like a potato and being racist – but drawing a line in the sand is really the only way to un-blur the lines in any effective way.

6: Lad Culture

There’s just one more thing I’d like to mention here. There’s a wider problem here, not just contained to football, that comes from the banter culture, and that’s “lad culture” more generally.

Why spend so much time ranting about football if it’s really lad culture I’m mad about? Well, it goes back to my point above that football is the dominant cultural topic and acts as a universal conversational topic. The banter culture endemic to the game of football thus permeates into wider culture and helps form a lot of what is known as “lad culture.” (I’m taking a big stab here with an assumption about the direction of the causal connection, but I think it’s firm enough to base what I’m saying on).

Let’s just cut right to the chase here. Lad Culture is the worst thing ever. It’s everything I hated about football culture but applied to everything. Everything, but especially how young men should act and behave. The main sources of it are the usual media sources but also in banter hubs (banter hubs, yes) on social media. Case in point, The LAD Bible.

The LAD Bible is not literally a bible. I don’t know why it’s called that. It has no testaments, gospels, or books of any kind. It is not a historical account of the life of any prophets or theological figures. It offers no mythological chronicle of how the earth came to be, or indeed spiritual revelations of any sort. What it does have is banter.

What have they been up to recently? Let’s take a look.

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 18.11.16

Oh look, a football one. The joke here is that Luis Suarez is dangerous because he’s been known to bite other players on the pitch. In fact he is so dangerous that he travels internationally in a dog kennel, even though this is stupid and impractical in every way. ha ha ha! great banter!

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 18.13.29

Presented without comment.

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 18.16.32

This is a Facebook story linking to a website linking to a tweet. This is 2014.

There’s also lots of lame PRANKS and GRATUITOUS PHOTOS OF FEMALE CELEBS FOR NO REASON. All in all it’s awful and everything that’s wrong with everything.

But I’m sure I’m just the minority, right? This is just a fringe group – not representative of any seriously large group of people or society at large.

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 18.18.26

Oh. Oh dear. But it’s just those damn students, right?

Fun fact: the HSEA places the number of students (that’s undergrads + postgrads) in full time in full and part-time education in 2012/3 at 2,340,275. In other words, even if every single student in the UK liked this page TWICE that would still leave a shortfall of one million people who like The LAD Bible on Facebook.

But at least they claim to not be bullies in their description:

The LAD Bible. NO names. NO seriously offensive behaviour to any individual or group/community of people. The LAD Bible should not be taken seriously.

Now that I CAN do.

Postscript: The Anti-LAD Movement

But what’s to be done about all this? Football isn’t going anywhere as the dominant sport of society. And LADs aren’t changing their ways anytime soon; Dapper Laughs already has his own TV series. Yes it’s sad that something so clearly destructive and unnecessary can’t be done away with – but what exactly am I proposing to do about it?

Well for a while I thought the right approach was to just be really surly and sarcastic about it. Like maybe we should all start acting like LADs ourselves, but in a really exaggerated way. Then the inherent ridiculousness of the very idea of a LAD would be naturally exposed. This can work in some cases, especially when the person doing it is so clearly not a LAD themselves. But I’ve learned that this simply doesn’t work. Mocking LAD culture can’t ever work because mockery is one of the tools of banter: you’re just fighting fire with fire. You can’t make jokes about something that already thinks it’s “just a joke.”

A better response to try and build a better LAD culture from the ground up. So please like the Ultimate Lads Facebook page. You’ll get gems such as these:

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 18.27.40 Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 18.27.44

Hopefully it’s obviously what I’m trying to achieve here.

Thanks for reading. Please don’t be a terrible person.

Boxscriptions

It’s a great time to be alive. Everything you could ever want is now available. In box form.

It all started with Graze. Healthy snacks sent straight to your door. Compellingly convenient.

Of course, Graze didn’t invent postal subscription servies. LoveFilm are due a debt of thanks too. But they don’t deliver things in boxes so let’s forget about them for a minute.

These days, it seems like you can get a box full of anything. Think of something, and there’s a box for it. Here are some of those things:

The list goes on and on. And it gets really weird.

It’s interesting to look as this as the same shift we’ve seen in physical retail, viz. from an “ownership” to an “access” model. Case in point, nobody buys DVDs anymore (I hope); you just go and see what’s on Netflix and watch that. You pay Netflix every month for access to movies, relieving yourself of the burden of having to store a Netflix-sized library of physical disks in your home. Same for music with Spotify. (Woo, Spotify).

It’s almost just like adding another outgoing to your monthly budget (well, it literally is I suppose). We’re already familiar with rent, which is just access to housing as opposed to ownership. Likewise with internet, phone bills and water – we pay for access to these utilities. Annoyingly, gas/electricity is still provided by usage but I suppose that makes sense since are you physically consuming something and usage can vary drastically by season.

There’s no reason that “subscription” couldn’t eventually become your primary method of consumption. I’d pay my rent and so on, then my monthly “Food & Drink” bill, provided to me by a single company according to my need. Hopefully it wouldn’t necessarily be served in a cardboard box, but you can see what I mean.

This would help enormously with people on a budget, I think. Knowing up front how much you’re spending on food is an essential part of budgeting, and having it as a simple flat rate every month would be really helpful.

But is there something intrinsically worthwhile in the old model? Are some things irreducible to a boxscription? The way things are going would suggest not, though it seems likely that there’ll be some consumer resistance and the revolution will be a slow one.

When ‘out’ shopping you are an active agent, making decisions for yourself about yourself, picking smart offers and acting on whims. Giving this up to an external agent feels a bit like surrendering control of your life. But does it really matter, if we still have the choice about who we’re surrendering control too? (There’s enough competition in the boxscription industry to allow this). Losing that choice can sometimes be liberating.

So my overall point is that this future isn’t necessarily a bleak one. Having our daily essentials packaged and shipped to us in a small box every week might appear to be the apex of the consumerist nightmare dreamt up by Huxley and others, but it’s not so scary.

And that pants subscription looks REALLY useful to be honest.

What’s the deal with smoothie copy?

The other day I reached into the office fridge and pulled out a Coldpress smoothie. I hadn’t heard of them before either. Check them out here.

So far, so good – right? Well, I got on with the business of drinking said smoothie and that was all fine. But then I decided to read the label to find out what was in it, etc. This is what I saw.

2014-10-04 14.13.58

 

Ugh. I just mean… ugh. What’s going on here?

Firstly, don’t patronise me, smoothie. Sure, I’m not a specialist in High Pressure Processing, but please don’t assume that it’s going to go over my head. The phrase “a little whizzy” kind of implies I’m some kind of dumb pleb who gets flustered at the sound of anything at all scientific sounding.

And the explanation given is weak as hell. Apparently High Pressure Processing is “the freshest, gentlest and most nutritious way to let fruit smoothies flaunt their inner frutiness.” Sure, opting not to go for an oxford comma after gentlest is something I can let slide. But I can’t understand why they thought it was necessary to provide this “explanation.”

Read it again. We’re told there’s this thing called High Pressure Processing. It’s a technical term, so you’d expect a definition to follow. Maybe High Pressure Processing (HPP) is a cold pasteurization technique by which products, already sealed in its final package, are introduced into a vessel and subjected to a high level of isostatic pressure (300–600MPa/43,500-87,000psi) transmitted by water. Nope! Instead we’re told it’s just the thing that makes the smoothie taste so yummy and lovely.

In fact, this sentence would make more sense if it was reversed. Cf. “What gives our smoothies the freshest, gentlest and most nutritious taste possible? It’s all thanks to a special process called High Pressure Processing.” This sentence actually has a logical form in which some X is presented, and followed by an explanation Y. This is a natural explanatory form, which the original lacks. So the content alone is inane.

Then there’s the font. Quite possibly VAG Rounded – the only slightly more sensible cousin of comic sans – it’s just meant to scream friendliness and *shudder* loveliness.

Because that’s the word, right? Brands want to be LOVELY. Which brings me to my main point, and my real target here.

Hello innocent. Aren’t you just lovely?

Coldpress may be awful and banal, but they’re simply following in the footsteps of innocent. They don’t even really do a good job of differentiating themselves, they’re just treading the same old formula that made innocent all that money.

What do I mean by that? Well, simply that innocent have this thing where they pretend to be the “good guys.” The theme matches their drinks, which themselves are free of anything fake or nasty (apart from tons of sugar of course, that life-giving health supplement helping our children grow up to be big and strong). Their whole brand is centred around this – being nice and lovely and everything. They even have photos of animals on the bottles – who could hate that?

innocent is over 90% owned by Coca-Cola. They made £12m in profit in 2012.

They’re not really your best friend. But their marketing is super successful. So you think they are.

And I’m not really criticising them (I mean, whatever works right?). I’m just more annoyed that it’s created a copycat copy culture in smoothies. Coldpress are a great example of this, but there are others too.

Take Naked Juice for instance. To begin with, “Naked” is nothing less than a direct synonym for “innocent” (both could share the definition “having nothing to hide”). So great job there, guys! But it’s more stuff like this…

 

Screenshot 2014-10-09 at 20.19.45

I mean, what the hell is that? A plasticine face on a bottle. Nice job! Well worth it for the three likes. That’s gotta translate into at least one sale, right?

Just focus on how it tastes. Personally, I really like the taste of Naked Smoothies. The red machine one in particular is great. If it didn’t cost more than about three other drinks combined I’d drink it every day.

There’s also SoSmoothies, which is almost too perfect an example.

[EDIT: SoSmoothies is no longer a thing??]

This is (was) their logo.

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Look at that smiley face. Their website [no longer active] has all the innocent elements: an unnecessary “our story” section,  full biographies of the people behind the drinks and yes, even the ubiquitous “hello@companyname.com” email address. Because you’re emailing a lovely person, not the inbox of some corporate CRM that’s assigning your ticket to the most appropriate work queue based on the keywords within it.

What’s the point of this rant? None really. It just annoys me to see brands mindlessly following a trend. Of course, I get that marketing drinks is hard. All you’ve got to differentiate yourself with is the brand since essentially all smoothies taste exactly the same. But maybe do something different, yeah?

Of course, I wouldn’t dare criticise something without my own suggestion. So, allow me to introduce… SMASHED UP SMOOTHIES

At SMASHED UP SMOOTHIES we mercilessly PUMMEL fruit to DEATH. With our BARE HANDS. This fruit isn’t picked by hand, it’s RIPPED off the tree by HARDCORE MEXICAN WRESTLERS who live simply to create FRUIT ORPHANS. Whatever isn’t POUND INTO OBLIVION by their FISTS OF FURY is then bottled and shipped direct to shops worldwide. 

Our smoothies taste like HULK HOGAN sweating into a PIT OF LAVA (that’s a good thing, by the way). Your taste buds will be SCARRED for the REST OF YOUR LIFE.

SMASHED UP SMOOTHIES: CRIMES AGAINST FRUIT.

Please invest £250k in Smashed Up Smoothies. Thanks.

25 thoughts at 25

I turned 25 this week. Here are 25 thoughts I have about that.

  1. How am I so old?
  2. Is it normal to feel so tired all the time?
  3. Why do I feel so old and tired?
  4. What are you supposed to do with your life?
  5. Why are so many people I know getting married?
  6. Do they know what they’re doing with their life?
  7. Why is Lee Evans so inexplicably popular?
  8. Do I have to go to work?
  9. Can’t I just stay in bed all day?
  10. Am I getting fat?
  11. Should I start taking better care of myself?
  12. How on earth do people have time to go to the gym?
  13. How on earth do people afford to go to the gym?
  14. How on earth do people have time to do anything?
  15. Where is everyone getting all their money from?
  16. Will I ever be a homeowner?
  17. How did all the millions of current homeowners become homeowners?
  18. Is it unusual that I still really really love Pokemon?
  19. What happened to all the people I knew ten years ago?
  20. Where did all those years go?
  21. What four more things can I possibly add to this list?
  22. Is my LinkedIn profile suitably ironic yet?
  23. When applying thermal paste to a CPU, is the spread or dot method more effective?
  24. Is my job right for me?
  25. Why did I waste my time writing this?

Thanks. Check back next year for more.

Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

The best book I’ve read this year. And maybe ever.

The first thing to say about Infinite Jest is that it’s long. Like really long. It took me months to finish. Not only is it lengthy in the technical word count sense, but also time-consuming in the very way it’s written. Qua Proust, sentences go on and on and on, to absolute technical perfection (Wallace is the master of sub-clause), meandering and wandering off course and really requiring you to pay close attention until the very end.

It’s also written with a style I can best describe as deliberately hostile to the reader. Wallace uses the most esoteric words he can, or just plain makes them up. He doesn’t just use a good word to describe something, he’ll use the exactly right technical term for it. An example used throughout is that of the drugs the characters take throughout the book. Each time, a footnote directs you a full pharmaceutical description of the drug and it’s chemical composition. It’s utterly superfluous, but totally unique at the same time and I was pretty much blown away with this level of detail.

Oh, and those footnotes. There’s just under 400 in total. That’s a lot of flicking back and forth between the text (thankfully, my Kindle edition made that pretty simple), but again it really breaks up the reading experience and leaves you exhausted as you’re performing mental gymnastics trying to suspend your position in the prose to read a footnote, which may or may not have sub-footnotes of their own and could go on for as long as the chapter you were originally reading. But I’m stressing that this is all a good thing.

An example I loved was that of James O. Incandenza’s filmography. James O. Incandenza is the father of the Incandenza family, around whom 50% of the plot of the book revolves. He’s a film-maker (amongst other things) and Wallace at one point lists his entire filmography. Read it online here. Each film is listed with a synopsis of the plot, but also with details of how it was filmed, what kind of film was used, etc. Barely any of these tie back into the story ever again (though some do) and many are just jokes, but it really fleshes out the backstory (literally) and the book’s world more generally. It might be unnecessary, but then again so is the whole book in the first place.

So, what’s it actually about? The answer is complicated… It essentially all boils down to a deadly film (yeah..) created by the aforementioned James O Incandenza, and the struggle between the US government and Quebecois separatist militants (wheelchair-bound assassins, by the way) to gain control over it. But this is all going on in the background to other things. Along the way there’s drug overdoses, tennis tournaments, long philosophical exchanges on a rocky outcrop, and a weight-room guru who licks the sweat off people’s foreheads. It’s dealt with all in the most serious tones, with a blunt matter of factness that only exaggerates the comedy. Basically, it’s really really funny. (I was tempted to call it the ultimate farce, before realising those are basically literal synonyms for Infinite Jest).

I read one review on Goodreads that complained that Wallace’s prose comes across as though it was written by a depressed robot. And that’s not a bad comparison. But that’s also sort of the point. Central character Hal is a young man totally dead on the inside, devoid of feelings, and able to recall on demand the full dictionary definition of any word. He has a great relationship with his father, JOI, where the father believes Hal to be mute – leading to a great scene where JOI dresses up a psychologist to try and trick Hal into speaking, as Hal explains that JOI has clearly gone insane. It’s just really stupid, but kind of sad too.

Wallace was clearly a really smart guy. The detail and complexity of the book are amazing. He writes about themes such as addiction and depression with complete conviction (much from his own experience, as I understand it). The great irony of the book is that the Entertainment (the deadly film everyone is after) is really a metaphor for Infinite Jest itself, the suicide of its creator even mirrored in reality.

I wouldn’t recommend the book for everyone, though. It takes real commitment to make it past the couple of hundred pages before the parallel threads start to merge, and the tone of voice takes real getting used to. But once you’re in, you’re hooked. I’d love to read it again at some point, but not for a long time.

In the meantime, if you talk to me about it I’ll definitely have that conversation with you for at least an hour. It’s just really really good.