David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest
Let me say it upfront: reading Infinite Jest has been one of the most mind-boggling experiences I’ve had as a reader of fiction in many years. I had for ever postponed reading it despite the hype surrounding it since it was published in 1996, or maybe also because of it, but mostly I was daunted by the novel’s sheer size (1079 pages of small print, roughly 100 of which in the form of 388 endnotes, in a even smaller print). But a friend of mine had decided to give it a crack and he strongly encouraged me to read it along with him. So I spent six weeks reading little else (actually doing little else!) but this amazing novel. I’ll never be more grateful to have heeded my friend’s advice. It was fun exchanging notes with him through MSN or Skype or lengthy telephone discussions while reading it and afterwards.
So what is this hugely entertaining monster of a novel about? Attempting to come up with a quick summary of the plot is a futile exercise and I’m sure other readers will find different ways of doing so. But let’s start by saying that Infinite Jest is set in a parodic near future in North America, an era of so-called ‘subsidized time’, whereby years are successively named after different corporate sponsors. The North American continent has been ‘reconfigured’ as the Organization of North American Nations (whose acronym is tongue-in-cheekishly ONAN), where the US is governed by a former crooner, obsessed with cleanliness, and who has carved out northern New England to create a ‘concavity’ for the disposal of America’s ever-increasing toxic waste (hurled into space by gigantic catapults!), such concavity then forcefully ceded to Canada. Needless to say, Canadians are not happy about this reconfiguration. Several Canadian terrorist groups surge to seek revenge against the Americans, most dangerous amongst which being the Quebecois AFR or ‘Assassins des Fauteilles Rollents’ (which translates as ‘wheelchair assassins’). In order to do so they will take advantage of Americans’ weakness for addictive entertainment and ‘disseminate’ copies of a cartridge containing the movie called ‘Infinite Jest’, a movie so lethally amusing, so addictive that its effect on the viewer is to render him catatonic for life or to die if deprived of the pleasure of watching it. For most of the novel the AFR plot ways to find the master copy of ‘Infinite Jest’, its whereabouts unknown. To counteract the terrorist movement the US resorts to the CIA-like Office of Unspecified Services (OUS).
This is the underlying tissue into which the novel’s two other major story lines are interwoven. In one world with have the Enfield Tennis Academy or ETA, located on a hill in the outskirts of Boston, whose main protagonist is Hal Incadenza, a 17 year-old tennis prodigy who is also extremely intelligent but tortured by an increasing incapacity to communicate with the world around him, who smokes serious amounts of dope, and who is slowly sinking into unexplained depression. He is the youngest child in a severely dysfunctional family headed by his father Jim Incadenza, the founder of ETA, himself a former frustrated tennis junior, who developed into a genial optics scientist and an experimental film maker, but who is also an alcoholic and of whom we know at the start of the novel that he has committed suicide by sticking his head inside a microwave oven. Add to that the significant fact that he happens to be the author of the movie ‘Infinite Jest’, his posthumous unreleased masterpiece. Hal’s mother Avril hails from Quebec and is an over achieving, obsessive grammarian and castrating mother, who now co-heads ETA with her half-brother. The family is completed with sex-obsessed Orin, the eldest, who quit tennis long ago to seek a career as a punter in pro-football, and Mario, who was born severely handicapped and is now a crippled dwarf, slow-witted but with a piercing intuition. The cast of characters at ETA is completed with Hal’s tennis companions and the Academy’s extensive staff, each and every one of them with a rich individual story, from a drug dealing prankster, to a telekinetic competitor who only wears black, to a behaviorally-Nazi tennis coach, to name just a few.
Just down the hill from ETA we have the nucleus of other world described in the novel, that of Ennet House, a halfway house for recovering addicts and alcoholics. This world is dominated by Don Gately, a 28 year-old recovering Demerol addict and ex-burglar who has now graduated to become a staffer at the House. A man of gigantic proportions and strength, Gately is also taking refuge from a dogged ADA who’s after him for a previous crime. He’s basically a good natured man whom social circumstances since his childhood have driven him into the hell of addiction and crime, but who is valiantly fighting to come out of it. A ‘thug with a good heart’, Don Gately is Wallace’s best creation and one of literature’s most humane characters I have ever encountered. The gallery of eccentric characters in and connected to Ennet House is even more extensive than the one at the Academy uphill, representing every possibility of addiction, ranging from the House manager who is a stroke victim, to an extremely depressed marijuana addict, to a hard-core cocaine addict and dealer with a compulsive need to kill animals. Finally we have some ‘bad news’ low-lifers, satellite characters associated with drug related crime and with the Ennet House residents. Linking the two worlds is Joelle Van Dyne, also known as Madame Psychosis, a gorgeously beautiful woman who arrives in Ennet House after a freebase overdose and who develops feelings for Gately. Joelle covers her face with a veil because, she claims, she was disfigured with acid in a domestic accident. It also happens that Joelle had been previously in love with Orin Incadenza and that she then starred in some of father Jim’s movies, not least in the – you guessed – ‘Infinite Jest’, and for which she has become a target of both the AFR and OUS, as she supposedly would know where the master copy is hidden.
Did I completely lose you? It’s actually not all that complicated. After the first 50 to 100 pages in which you may lose your bearings sometimes, the story, or stories rather, flow quite smoothly. Wallace ably switches gears back and forth in time and hops around the different settings, alternatively describing the repressive and pressure laden but nevertheless fun world at the ETA, and the times and tribulations of the Ennet House grotesque residents and their outside connections. Interspersed in between these sections, and for a lengthy portion of the novel, we are sent to an outpost in the Arizona desert where a long, Naphta-Settembrini-type conversation takes place between an AFR triple agent in his wheelchair and an OUS spy dressed in drag, who also doubles as a journalist trying to infiltrate the Incadenza family, as they both plot to secure the film for their opponent sides. Wallace describes with amazing powers of observation and obsessive narrative detail (time and again sending us to the endnotes), and with a tone that ranges from wacky hilarity to excruciating sadness, the worlds of tennis, drug addiction, AA meetings, where we also learn more than a primer lesson in as diverse subjects as eschatology, pharmacology, clinical depression, film industry, optics and nuclear fission, a.o.; his erudition seems limitless.
I’ve read about Wallace being compared to writers such as Pynchon and De Dillo and categorized mostly as a post-modern writer. I’m not so sure about this. I think he may be on a par with those masters in terms of scope and sheer creativity, but I view Wallace as having a voice of his own and what strikes me most is that he produced this engrossing piece of work at the young age of 33 with almost insolent ease. With respect to post-modernist traits, I think Wallace’s only concessions to such a debatable categorization are restricted to his extensive use of endnotes and his love for digression. We don’t see much self-conscious authorial invasion at all in Ininite Jest or other formal experimentation; most of the time Wallace uses an omniscient third person, with the occasional first person and lots of dialogue; in other words, his story-telling technique is not so different from the great nineteenth century novelists. As I said, though, Wallace loves to digress and he does so with what I’d call ‘delirious control’. The main strands of narration are spiced with hundreds of vignettes, most of which could eventually be seen as the kernels of future novels (e.g. the story of how the AFR came about, or each of the stories told at AA meetings). In Infinite Jest he demonstrates that he could basically write about anything any way he wanted; every paragraph is full of meaning. And the geniality extends to Wallace’s stylistic prowess. In one long sentence, he may use quite complicated Latinate words (or invented terms, for that matter) and street jargon or colloquial stammers such ‘as in’ or ‘and so but’, plus endless acronyms, and then he will end almost every clause or sentence with a preposition. Crazy stuff, eh? Yet it all reads beautifully. I found myself re-reading entire pages for better understanding and for the sheer pleasure of such an intoxicating prose. I also had to stop, back-pedal and re-read passages that were either feverishly funny or heartbreakingly sad. But where Wallace excels, and towers above most contemporary American writers that I’ve read in recent times, is in the creation and development of endearing flesh-and-blood characters. In this sense, what goes on in the minds of the two principal characters towards the last 150 pages of the book, and the way Wallace tells it to us, is a tour-de-force.
I must say, however, that Infinite Jest is far from being a perfect novel. It could be argued that the novel could have been edited to half its size; as lengthy as it is it gives you the impression, upon finishing it, of an unfinished job. Wallace could also be accused of being self-indulgent. Quite a few mysteries subsist about key elements of the plot, a handful of red-herrings are planted throughout the book that apparently lead nowhere, unless of course you read the beginning again and make up your own conclusions. The very title of the novel, with allusions to Hamlet’s Act V grave scene, may or may not have to do with it. But this is beside the point. Who cares about tying up all the loose endings? The lack of closure may in the end be a deliberate joke on the part of the author himself. I also found that the overall structure or architecture of the novel could have benefitted from a savvy editor. But I didn’t care about these jagged edges as, for instance, I wouldn’t try to find perfection in, say, Picasso’s Guernica, or any other work of art. I much prefer to appreciate the work of art, or read the novel, of an unbridled genius.
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is a towering achievement as a masterly depiction of contemporary America. It is a mordant indictment of a society obsessed with achievement and perfection, the search for identity and meaning. It is a frightful description of a civilization prone to addictive behaviors including that of the need for unrelenting entertainment and, most significantly, it is the most touching account I’ve ever read about what it means to be a drug addict or to be clinically depressed. Poor Mr. Wallace knew too well about these sufferings.
I strongly recommend making the effort and reading Infinite Jest. It should be read aloud and shared with friends, in a seminar perhaps. Don’t be intimidated by its length or plot complexity. There are many useful reading guides to be found on the Internet apart from hundreds of more scholarly papers written about it. I’ll link you to some useful sites:
Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace Wiki : Infinite Jest
Infinite Jest: a scene-by scene guide
Infinite Jest Page by Page - David Foster Wallace Wiki : Infinite Jest
And Like But So: A Character Guide to Infinite Jest