BoJack Horseman and Infinite Jest Are Basically The Same Story
What I learned from watching a tennis player and a washed-up horse actor try to struggle through family trauma
If you talked to me in 2015 in any capacity, chances are I would have recommended two things: BoJack Horseman and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I was spending my days working in a movie theatre box office, and when I didn’t have lines to memorize or wasn’t trying to come up with the next great comedy bit, I was re-reading and re-annotating some of my favorite passages. I even bought a bigger purse so I could haul all 1,079 pages of it with me every day to work. When I got home, maybe just to feel something, I would go to Netflix and get a pep talk from Princess Carolyn or a nihilistic statement from Secretariat or even just watch BoJack go on a bender. The book and show became my bibles of sadness, a road map of my own neuroses and the ones I’d seen in my family for years.
In 2015, a full year after I had graduated college, I had seen few of the changes I had hoped “post-grad” life would bring. I was still working at a movie theatre, I was still pouring most of my paycheck into helping my mom buy gas and groceries, Sallie Mae was calling me almost every day demanding the money they said I must have available based on my part-time salary, and I was just stuck. I was using my theater degree to stand around wearing three layers of wool in 90 degree heat to say five lines in iambic pentameter, and I was using my English degree to write ebooks, blogs, and web content for less than $5 an hour. I was living with my mom, who after two suicide attempts in the last four years, seemed almost okay but barely surviving on the few job prospects available to women who took breaks from careers to raise children. When I wasn’t at home, I was with my dad, also still recovering from losing a job at the bank around 2008 by working as an accountant at the treasurer, a job he gained through working at a temp agency.
So, when I watched BoJack Horseman, a character obsessed with escaping through entertainment and make-believe and a couple substances, I saw myself. Whenever he had a run-in with his mother telling him about the darkness inside him, I saw my mom’s parents printing out her bank statements and demanding, in front of me, why she spent $3 on a video rental when she should be worrying about rent. Standing onstage, the air hazy from kicked-up sand, humidity, and the steam of my own sweat while I told Macbeth he was surrounded, I felt like BoJack or his character Secretariat — running after this impossible thing that made that empty feeling standing inside the box office worth it.
When I opened up Infinite Jest, I saw myself in Hal. The descriptions of his family and the way the brothers spoke to one another resonated with me so much. More than anything, it was the way the characters talked about lying. As Hal says to his brother Mario,
Boo, I think I no longer believe in monsters as faces in the floor or feral infants or vampires or whatever. I think at seventeen now I believe the only real monsters might be the type of liar where there’s simply no way to tell. The ones who give nothing away.
Hal spends a great deal of effort trying to break liars into different categories. I’ve been lied to in one way or another my whole life: that internet and hot water going to come back, that rent has been paid, that mom and dad are just working things out, that dad is attracted to mom and they’re in love, that dad is away taking care of grandma, that it’s going to be okay, and that a college degree guarantees a paying job. So watching Hal navigate the lies and deal with the world, it was cathartic to see a family not unlike my own.
I even tried to articulate it to a coworker one time in the box office. He asked about the book and I said, “Yeah, I like how it talks about sadness.” I’d made him watch BoJack, too, so maybe he put things together. “Are you sad?” he asked.
And I guess I was.
Years later, after watching the most recent season, I know now that these two pieces of media that got me through my post-grad funk have more in common than I thought.
The reasons I started reading Infinite Jest and watching BoJack Horseman weren’t far from each other. Before I got into the book I obsessively read biographies of famous comedians. I found out that Infinite Jest was the favorite book of the showrunner of Parks and Recreation Mike Schur. I wanted it because I thought it would teach me about the entertainment industry, and maybe also about writing. BoJack Horseman, something billed as a “animated comedy you might like” on Netflix, hooked me in the way it spoke about being an actor, being someone in entertainment. After spending hours in auditions, and then in rehearsals that wasted my time with hours of waiting, I got it. I got BoJack’s drive and his need to run away. I got that while being in the performing arts can feel like a way to escape your life, you keep running into the same problems. What I didn’t get was that Infinite Jest and BoJack Horseman are telling different versions of the same story.
The story: A man is talented in his field. In the back of his mind, something is eating at him. There’s something about his home life or his parents or just maybe his brain that he’s trying to get away from, that he’s trying to get past. So, he tries as hard as he can. Eventually he turns to substances to help, but they actually make it worse. Then he has a choice: either move forward or get stuck.
Hal is a young man at a tennis academy with nothing but a great future in front of him, but he’s addicted to pot. The more he thinks and talks to people, the more we see it turns out that his substance use is a symptom of something deeper. Whether it’s due to the horrific death of his father, the fraught relationship between his brother and his mother, or the lies nearly every member of his family tells, he can’t function and desperately wants to.
BoJack Horseman is not a young man. Years after his successful but mediocre sitcom Horsin’ Around, he’s addicted to multiple substances and desperate for a comeback. He works with a ghostwriter and has to deal with both his past and how he can change for the future. Over the course of several seasons he also intentionally sabotages the future of his roommate’s rock opera, drags a costar along on a bender that ultimately results in her death, abandons a movie project where he plays his dream role, Secretariat, to see his friend, and almost rapes her daughter. For me, the whole show revolves on the question of whether BoJack Horseman, despite the way he tends to abuse drugs and alcohol and drag people down with unhealthy behavior, can actually move forward and be a “good person.” Like Hal, he seems to want to, but ultimately always gets in his own way.
Both stories deal with the idea of entertainment and how it can consume you; in Infinite Jest people are literally killed by their addiction to escapism, while in BoJack it’s the entertainment industry that sucks them under. As BoJack’s friend Charlotte says in season 1, episode 8: “Look over there. See those tar pits? Hollywood’s a real pretty town that’s smack on top of all that black tar. By the time you realize you’re sinking, it’s too late.” But the real tar in both of these stories is the legacy of family trauma.
As Adam Piper writes in “Chained in a cage of the self”: Narcissism in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,
Parental neglect and abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, and obsession with entertainment all work to increase characters’ narcissism and self-absorption. This increased narcissism prevents characters from developing meaningful relationships, and this absence of meaningful relationships contributes to the feeling of sadness[…] Rather than confronting reality and working to overcome their sadness by attempting to form meaningful relationships, characters instead seek to escape this sadness through the various fantasies provided by drug-use and entertainment. These fantasies […] [increase] their unhappiness. Certain characters are able to break free of these narcissistic impulses by turning outwards to form meaningful relationships.
Netflix could use this as a show summary for BoJack Horseman.
Just like Hal, BoJack is raised by parents who don’t have the capacity to really care for him due to past trauma or even just ineptitude. Pain and suffering is a part of his development. As his mother, Beatrice Horseman, says to him in season 2, “You were born broken, that’s your birthright. And now you can fill your life with projects. Your books and your movies and your little girlfriends but it won’t make you whole. You’re BoJack Horseman. There’s no cure for that.”
Because of that kind of upbringing, BoJack has a hard time holding on to relationships without just burning them to the ground by doing something horrible. The real difference between Hal and BoJack? Hal sinks into the tar, and at the end of this season, BoJack seems to be moving out of it.
Three quarters of the way through Infinite Jest, in “The Year of the Adult Depend Undergarment,” Hal loses control of his voice and body when he tries to communicate. What happens after Hal starts developing symptoms is unclear. He definitely does his best in school, despite what happens whenever he tries to communicate with another person. He definitely tries to go to a college interview and is subsequently hospitalized. He also attempts to dig up his father’s head in relation to a Canadian terror plot. But the book doesn’t tell us Hal’s eventual fate. Does he get better? If he doesn’t get better, what does he do? While he’s still able to be a remarkable tennis player, he is presumably never able to communicate with another person and probably becomes addicted to pot again. His whole life has been dedicated to tennis, but without the ability to communicate, he won’t be able to be on a collegiate team. He loses all agency.
BoJack, even with all of his issues, does have the ability to take action — because unlike Hal, he can recognize the patterns that are imprisoning him and dragging him down. Though BoJack goes on more substantial benders and seems to relapse more than we ever see from Hal, he actually proves that he can change for the better and get past his family trauma. The horrible experience his mother had is passed down to him affects him every day, but in this season proves he can walk away from it. He can take control and make things right and walk away from the horrors of his family’s past. Hal, on the other hand, simply can’t. When he gives up pot, he finds it so unbearable to stay vertical that he decides to be horizontal. He is also grappling with how easy it was for his best friend to lie his way out of a urine test for him and how much lying that easily scares him. So he lays on the floor, and like BoJack watching “Horsing Around” over and over, he watches every single film his father made. When he finishes his entertainment bender, he finds he has lost the ability to even speak.
The book is agnostic on why, exactly, Hal loses his power of speech — a powerful drug? Mold he had eaten as child? The ghost of his father? But at any rate, he loses everything. Hal fades into the background of a story that he started. BoJack, despite everything that has happened, is moving out of the tar, and for the better.
What allows him to succeed where Hal fails? The turning point for BoJack may be Todd’s speech in season 3, episode 10:
You can’t keep doing this. You can’t keep doing shitty things and feel bad about yourself, like that makes it okay. You need to be better […] BoJack, just stop. You are all the things that are wrong with you. Not the alcohol or the drugs or any of the shitty things that happened to you in your career or when you were a kid. It’s you. Alright? It’s you.
Before that moment, it seemed like BoJack ruining his and everyone’s lives over and over and over again was going to be the formula of the show. Every season it would get bleaker and bleaker until he destroyed himself. Instead, BoJack seems to gradually learn first how to stop living in the past, then how to stop running from his problems, then how to consider running towards something, and finally, how to stop. At the end of Season 1, we see BoJack looking over the sea, trying to reclaim his past. At the end of Season 2, we see him trying to run and that other runner telling him he has to keep running every day. At the end of Season 3, we see him almost kill himself by letting go of the wheel but then pull over to watch wild horses run together. At the end of this past season, he’s not looking to escape and he’s not running. He’s not going off to escape on a bender. He’s standing at home and he’s talking to his sister on the phone. He’s not running, but he’s moving forward.
To be a BoJack, and specifically a BoJack at the end of season 4 and not season 1, is to recognize when you’re living in a pattern. More than that, it’s to recognize that you’re not letting yourself taking control of it.
I didn’t see my pattern until July 2016. It was staggered at first. Every two years my family would have a major incident: a suicide attempt, followed by past due notices, and a big move sometimes, other times not taking enough insulin. December 2015, a little after Christmas, after a feverish night of limited mobility, I called an ambulance. A paramedic screamed at me, “Why did you wait so long? HER FOOT, IT’S LACRIMOSING!” In the car, my sister sobbed while we waited to follow the ambulance, and said “she said it was lacrimosing, does that mean it’s dead?” I remembered Latin class in high school and said: “I think that means it’s crying.”
They ended up cutting off my mom’s foot. She was able to get disability after going into rehab and got a nice apartment. That worked out for a while. It was back into the pattern: big disaster, solving the disaster, finding a new place to live, and everything’s okay again for now. The pattern repetitions got faster, though: several months later my mom started having mini-strokes and we received an eviction notice. She went to the hospital and came out again. She started staying with friends while my sister and I backed out on a roommate deal and started looking for a place. Mom went to the hospital again maybe a month later, for surgery to remove her gallbladder, apparently the trigger for the “mini-strokes.” After the surgery, her friends were worried about letting her stay. Sitting in this hospital room in the middle of this pattern accelerating and accelerating out of control, spending the night because I promised I would even though I have an opening shift as a hostess in the morning, and my mom has sobbed herself to sleep because we don’t know what to do, I realized I had a choice. I could do what we’ve always done: crawl back to my mom’s parents on our bellies and ask them for help even though I know there’s a cost, even though I know it will make me feel like shit, even though I know it will force me to swallow their poison — or I could do something different.
On July 7th, 2016, I published a GoFundMe and raised $2,825 dollars from Facebook friends. That money allowed us to stay in the Red Roof Inn for a little over a week and provided us with the down payment of the apartment we currently live in. We haven’t gotten the help of our grandparents since they stormed out of the hospital room just a few days later. I now work as a full time writer at a marketing company, which pays the rent for this apartment totally out of the pattern.
Like BoJack, I had to realize the things I was letting happen to me and my family: borrowing money, being beholden to my grandparents, not being able to pay rent, late notices, and mental health crises. I realized in that hospital room, I had to make conscious choices to make things better. I had to try something different. That’s the saving grace of BoJack this season. He tried something different and so far it’s working. Hal did make an attempt to change — he tried to quit pot, he saw that people were lying to him, but in the end, he didn’t break the pattern. He got overwhelmed with the lies people told him and didn’t change his narrative. But BoJack’s trying, and I am too.