Tuesday 15 October 2013

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (1996)

Infinite Jest is perhaps the most significant cult novel of the last twenty years. It has also been a critical success, with Time Magazine listing it as one of the hundred greatest novels since 1923. Viewed as a prime example of so called hysterical realism, Infinite Jest is a challenging monster of a book. It’s undoubtably important, intelligent, and brilliant; but it’s also obtuse, arcane, extreme, digressive, frustrating and unrelentingly verbose. The page count, including the endnotes, clocks in at 1079 pages, however the font is tiny, so really the book would be the equivalent of about 1800 standard font pages. Infinite Jest is not your typical reading experience, it’s more like embarking on a relationship; you have to work hard at it and it can be both a satisfying and difficult experience. 

Infinite Jest has three narrative streams that eventually converge (and I really mean eventually). The first involves the Incandenza family – Hal, Mario and Orin are the sons of Avril (The Moms) and James Incandenza (Himself), who founded the Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston. James Incandenza, an amateur auteur, is the creator of the film Infinite Jest (alternately referred to as The Entertainment), which is fatally addictive. A significant portion of Infinite Jest is set at the tennis academy and it is perhaps the most impenetrable of the three streams. Tennis related argot is used extensively and there are sequences that are extremely digressive and obscure, not that this isn’t typical of the novel as a whole. 

The second stream, which is set in a nearby drug and alcohol recovery centre called Ennet House, is perhaps the most accessible. The colourful characters who inhabit Ennet House are arguably more relatable than the ones who populate the tennis academy. The Ennet House sections are particularly tragicomic and endlessly inventive. Wallace riffs on the pathos of addiction, whilst revealing characters back stories in uncomfortable detail. The Ennet House denizens are great fodder for Wallace’s totally devastating satire on the dark side of Western culture’s obsession with instant gratification. 

The third and perhaps most bizarre stream features the Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (A.F.R.) or The Wheelchair Assassins, a French Canadian separatist group who wish to obtain a master copy of Infinite Jest to use as a weapon. This quest to find Infinite Jest binds together the three streams. As the novel progresses they become more involved, including a brilliant sequence in which they raid a shop and search it for the master copy of Infinite Jest; with some of them climbing the walls using suction cups on their stumps, which typically for Infinite Jest is both disturbing and hilarious simultaneously.

Infinite Jest is an utterly original novel and Wallace’s singular style makes a virtue of extreme detail and digression. Wallace’s style is so densely rendered that initially it can be almost impenetrable, requiring great commitment and concentration on behalf of the reader. The narrative form is fragmented across both time and place and characters or events that initially appear to be minor end up being important elsewhere. A throwaway comment by a character or a few sentences in a random paragraph often act as vectors towards understanding the overall plot arc. Unusually for a work of fiction there are over three hundred endnotes (some with their own footnotes), many of which are pages long and are of particular importance to understanding the novel. To read Infinite Jest requires that the reader push beyond their standard passive reading paradigm and actively engage with the novel on its own terms. 

Like the fatal film itself, Infinite Jest is addictive. After a while I realised that I was beginning to think in the style of Wallace’s writing in my everyday life, which fortunately was not such a bad thing. Once you adjust to the digressions, complexity and the multitude of characters the novel becomes a total pleasure to read. The highlights are manifold, such as Mario’s first and only romantic encounter (Mario is a macrocephalic), Hal’s visit to a supposed marijuana addicts recovery group session, Ennet House resident Lenz’s sick nocturnal habits and his drug addled raves; what transpires when Hal comes home and enjoys the smell of dinner cooking, and the tragicomic account of a man’s addiction to watching M.A.S.H that takes him over the edge. 

Towards the end stalwart Ennet House resident Don Gately’s past, present and future becomes entangled in the metaphysical meaning behind what is on the Infinite Jest film. Yes, you do find out what is on the film and it is totally satisfying both metaphysically and intellectually. It is not merely a throwaway plot device and makes perfect sense when the principle reasons behind many of the characters problems with addiction are considered and then applied to the population in general. Most of them have an emotional void created during childhood that they are desperately trying to fill. There is a satisfying existential depth to Infinite Jest that Wallace has pulled off with aplomb. 

Infinite Jest manages to be everything you would want from a great novel, brilliantly realized ideas, intellectually satisfying, mysterious, multilayered and most importantly, profound in its humanity. Wallace himself suffered both from depression and drug addiction (he also played tennis) and to know his story helps to understand where Infinite Jest is coming from. The novel is this era’s Ulysses (James Joyce, 1922) and will keep academics and university students busy for decades to come. One last word of advice, to understand how the plot resolves you will need to pay particular attention to the beginning, which is set during a time after the narrative finishes. Another option is to submit to the pull of addiction and read Infinite Jest again and again and again.....

Above Image:Jonathan Franzan and David Foster Wallace 1996 at the launch of Infinite Jest (Photo by Marina Garnier)

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