Jun 19, 07
anybody with a good chunk of time on his or her hands
Heart-breaking, hilarious, and ultimately all-too-human.
Infinite Jest is a mammoth slice of American pie, tipping the scales at 1079 pages, including 388 endnotes. Some of the endnotes have footnotes, too. A book of these proportions is bound to have its nay-sayers, from people who believe verbosity to be a sin akin to gluttony, to those who got lost somewhere in the mid-500s and never found their way out.
I had some reservations; I'd heard the book was overwritten, overclever, overconfident, and overpostmodern. But I can emphatically say, none of these is actually the case. In the end, after roughly three months of getting through this beast, I can report that it was worth every word and superscripted numeral.
In IJ, David Foster Wallace wants to get at this Janus-faced überAmerican dual-concept of Addiction/Entertainment. Each of the characters has some form of addiction, be it to alcohol, marijuana, television, tennis, cleaning, sex, lying, or addiction-recovery meetings. The characters use their addictions as escapes from their selves, as something Other to focus their powers on so as to avoid the pain of true self-scrutiny.
One of the two main characters is Hal Incandenza, junior tennis star and secret savorer of THC. He is the youngest of the three Incandenza brothers, and the most promising regarding a future playing competitive tennis. But he's also an empty young man. And it's this emptiness that his covertly getting high fills. It's this emptiness that his father feared was making his son mute before the old-man suicided.
The other main character is Don Gately, a live-in staffer at an addiction halfway house and ex-break-and-entering specialist with a recovering penchant for Demerol. Gately offers the book access to the other side of the proverbial coin from Hal's juvenile dependence on marijuana; a look into the sphere of Boston AA and drug-addiction environs and a cast of characters trying to learn how to fill that emptiness without their Substances of choice.
That said, Wallace doesn't just set these two characters up on intersecting narrative arcs and let the story play out like we expect it to. In many ways, Infinite Jest is a refutation of exactly that sort of passive expectation that American culture has taught us to bring to our Entertainment. The author, in fact, goes out of his way to chop up the accustomed flow of the book and makes the reader work, in a way, to "get it". Hence the endnotes, disrupting the linear aesthetic we expect, and the use of non-numerical years (the book takes place after the advent of "Subsidized Time", in which each year is given the name of the highest-bidding sponsor).
While this could come across as chaotic or desultory, it actually lends the text a delightful experiential quality. It lacks the big-picture central truths that some might demand of literature, but it does so in the same way that life, at least in late-twentieth-century America, does. Truth is rather constructed through bits of memory and tangents of thought. The book does not have a climax, though in retrospect one might be constructed by connecting some dots. By defying literary formality, Wallace is doing more than just pulling some intellectual-postmodern stunt; he's reasserting the human element, placing real emotion and desire at the fore. The result is heart-felt and eschews the hipness of glib irony admirably.
In all, Infinite Jest is the best account of the cable-television era that we now live in, of a strange America seemingly on the verge of suicide-by-hedonism. But most of all, it's just an extremely touching and deliciously unironic book with some of the best-developed characters I've ever met, and worth a couple months out of anybody's examined life.