Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

6759 Infinite_jest_cover

When I first sat down to read Infinite Jest, having found a suitably comfortable chair on the first floor of Colby’s Miller Library, I was approached by a friend who asked, “Have you started yet?” From across the room, he’d seen me pick up the massive tome with its sky blue cover. He explained that he’d attempted to start it but gotten no further than page fifteen; he thought David Foster Wallace to be highly descriptive and difficult to understand.

I read fifty pages in that sitting. I can see why my friend quit after fifteen; the opening chapter is the book’s hardest section. It’s situated at the book’s chronological end, and even after finishing all 1,079 pages, it’s not entirely clear what happened and why. There are numerous fan theories, some more logical than others, but no absolute truth.

The other random encounter I had while reading Infinite Jest also occurred in Colby’s library. While on page 200ish, a girl walked by me and remarked, “Best book ever.” During our conversation, she revealed an obsession with David Foster Wallace, manifested by her wrist tattoo of ‘This is Water,’ the title of Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement speech.

As I became increasingly immersed in the book, I began to understand her obsession. Wallace’s long sentences, words, and paragraphs all take some getting used to, but once you adapt to his style, reading his prose is exhilarating. His characters, even the most pathetic, are drawn so vividly that they take on an epic quality in your mind. Wallace hits you with so much breathtaking detail that his world, no matter how absurd, becomes startlingly real; you can’t help but compare it to your own.

Some authors narrate their plot in detail while leaving theme open to interpretation. Wallace does it the other way; his plot is disjointed and sometimes non-existent, major dramatic details occurring off-screen or after the ending, while he explicitly spells out his moral and philosophical themes. This could have been a weakness, but Wallace pulls it off. Every lesson he spells out is supported by the stories and digressions of multiple characters whose neuroses are often relatable and universal.

Infinite Jest  revolves around two locations, the Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA) and the Ennet Halfway House.

The ETA was founded by James Orin Incandenza, whose family dominates much of the book. They’re an odd bunch, plagued by numerous psychological disorders and united in their inability to effectively communicate with one another. The Incandenzas, despite their extreme eccentricity, are relatable; their struggles with depression, addiction, and obsession aren’t unique. But they’re particularly volatile, singularly dense in neurosis and emotional estrangement.

James Incandenza, referred to as ‘Himself’ or ‘The Mad Stork’ by his children, has been long dead throughout most of the book’s narrative. But through memory, he’s brilliantly characterized to the point where he feels as defined and distinct as any of the characters alive during the book’s main action. He’s an obscenely competent man, excelling in everything from optics to nuclear fusion to tennis to obscure avant-garde filmmaking. But he’s also an alcoholic who struggles to relate and talk to his children. His final pursuit, filmmaking, which comes to define his final years, makes for one of the book’s best recurring jokes. Himself’s films are so technical, oddly constructed, and pretentious that they’re hilarious. His most hated film, ‘The Joke,’ merely consists of live audiences sitting in a movie theater watching themselves on the big screen.

Wallace uses Himself’s filmography to comment and mock some of his own tendencies. Himself’s approach to film, in its technical specificity and anticonfluential (lack of narrative convergence) tendencies, is seen by many to be audience hostile and emotionally distant. While Infinite Jest shares the anticonfluentialism of Incandenza’s films, it succeeds where he failed by having a very strong and very sincere emotional center.

The other Incandenzas include Hal, a lexical and tennis genius who struggles with expectation, anhedonia, and marijuana dependency, Orin, a pro football player with a bundle of Oedipal conflicts which manifest as sociopathic attempts to seduce married young mothers, Mario, a disabled, heartbreakingly kind and earnest filmmaker, and Avril, the mother, whose obsessive compulsions extend to cleanliness, grammar, and enclosure.

One of the book’s great strategies is its characters’ failure to communicate and understand each other. Orin comments that he never knows what to say or how to act in his father’s presence. His father comments that he never knows what to say or how to act in Orin’s presence. During his final years, Himself imagines that Hal is unable to speak. Himself is somewhat delusional because he’s confusing Hal’s emotional detachment and loneliness with a literal inability to talk. At one point Wallace uses the Hollywood extra as a metaphor for all who feel powerless and unable to get their voice across.

Wallace’s characters are either numb or in pain. Infinite Jests’s great observation is the way we escape from pain brought on by a combination of fundamental loneliness and existential fear. Hal Incandenza, Himself’s youngest son, muses, “We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give ourselves away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into.”

Wallace’s three greatest examples of our worshipful tendencies are tennis, addiction, entertainment, and nationalism. ETA’s chief coach Schtitt trains students to see tennis as a form of self-transcendence. Drugs, though less useful than competitive sport, also represent an escape from self, a surrender of free will. Entertainment is more passive than the other two categories, but it’s just as important. The central plot device in Infinite Jest is Himself’s lethally pleasurable final film, ‘Infinite Jest.’ The Quebecois wheelchair assassins embody nationalism as they attempt to acquire ‘Infinite Jest,’ referred to as ‘the Entertainment,’ to use for terrorist purposes.

Much of the book is interspersed with conversations between Marathe and Steeply, the former a wheelerchair assassin betraying his brothers for love of his wife, the latter an agent of O.N.AN., the megastate of Canada, America, and Mexico. They talk about issues of free will and devotion. Marathe argues that to be free is know how to choose a cause, a path that gives your life enriching meaning. Steeply sees fascism in Marathe’s argument as he defends America’ s conception of freedom while acknowledging that an unwelcome byproduct is the shallow pursuit of pleasure at all costs. The two act as a kind of chorus, not commenting on the action so much as commenting of the themes illustrated by the action.

Wallace portrays addiction via the Ennet Halfway House, whose central character is Demoral addict/burglar turned AA attendee and house staffer Don Gately. Gately, in spite of a violent past, is the book’s most sympathetic character. He honestly and sincerely struggles to be a better person. His final chapters in the book, as he struggles with temptation, lack of communication, and painful memories, are shocking, heartbreaking, and oddly climactic.

The book’s thin central plot involving the Entertainment isn’t as important as the Entertainment’s existence. Wallace observes an America obsessed with instant gratification and the selfish pursuit of pleasure. What matters is the way his characters feel about the Entertainment, not whether or not the terrorists eventually do succeed.

Infinite Jest is so packed with too many characters and stories to possibly cover in this review, which is probably a good thing, as so much of the joy of reading the book is discovering Wallace’s creations, from the drug-addled, brilliant schemer Michael Pemulis to the gloomy yet irresistibly beautiful Joelle aka Madame Psychosis. The book is bursting with humanity from every social strata and every moral persuasion, but all of its characters grapple with similar dilemmas of alienation, freedom, sadness, and devotion.

The novel isn’t perfect. Wallace’s inclusion of detail is part of what makes the book impressive, but he goes slightly overboard. Many of his 388 footnotes cleverly elucidate character or plot detail, but some of them just add unnecessary information which might be mathematical, scientific, or linguistic. Such gusts of data aren’t limited to the footnotes. Wallace knows a lot, and he wants you to know that he knows a lot, which sometimes gets in the way of his characterization.

But what Wallace does well, he does with such virtuoso skill that his sins become forgivable. Infinite Jest is such an all-encompassing novel; it’s so sad and funny and intellectually stimulating that it’s impossible to read in totality without being consumed by its lessons and its quandaries.

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7 Responses to “Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace”

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve read a fair number of reviews and comments on Infinite Jest — by way of trying to decide whether I want to tackle its monstrous bulk — and this is the most cogent, concise, complete, and incisive discussion of the novel I’ve found yet. It also makes me think I do want to tackle it. I’ve heard it takes 200 or so pages before you begin to get what Wallace is trying to do. Sounds like that is about right.

    • Thank you for reading – I’m happy the review helped. I’d say that it did take around 200 pages for me to really start loving the book, but I was enjoying it before that. Definitely try it out. If it grabs you, you’ll get one of the more unique and rewarding reading experiences out there.

  2. Barbara Merrill Says:

    I wish I had not read this review – now I know I have to read the book.

  3. spenserdavis Says:

    Really enjoying your reviews–we seem to have very similar literary tastes! I’ve read about half the books you’ve put up so far, and I’m hoping to dig into Infinite Jest this summer.

  4. Nice review! I got about 230 pages in, but put it back on the shelf for a while (I just wasn’t really feeling it at the time). Plan is to pick it back up in a book or two, and reading this made me more excited to do so!

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