Tuesday, February 19, 2013

David Foster Wallace - Infinite Jest

The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you. (p. 389)

When reviewing a novel of over a thousand pages, with literally hundreds of footnotes, it’s difficult to not start with a discussion of size. But Infinite Jest is not simply long. It is also complex. At times, David Foster Wallace struck me as a mad juggler, or at least a demented tosser of balls. Character after character is thrown into the air, dozens and dozens of threads and incidents, all rendered behind a dozen spins and obfuscations. But these are not random throws. No, Wallace may be as madcap as they come, but he is also brilliant, and each of the ten thousand pieces he sets in motion is precise and even, once we manage to follow its arc, beautiful. From early on, I was completely caught by Wallace’s wit and insight, and I soon found myself running along after his throws, frantically trying to understand each and every one. I didn’t succeed. This is not a book I can simply sum up. But my week and two days of determined reading, annotating, and theory-compiling still left me not only as stunned by a book as I have ever been but brimming with new ideas. Infinite Jest is a mammoth, hammer-wielding study of loneliness, meaning, choice, success, interpersonal connections, and addiction in America.

Before I can start trying to articulate what I think all those bells are spelling out or even how they were thrown, I had likely best give you some idea of what the more important arcs actually are. Hal Incandenza is the main character, if Infinite Jest can be considered focused enough to have a single main character. He is a student of the Enfield Tennis Academy, a prodigy on and off the court. On the academy’s grounds, however, we are not just interested in Hal. Wallace pans the camera all around, gradually assembling a picture of the school’s top athletes, its teachers, its courses, its administration, its grounds, and the way that tennis can function as a metaphor for just about anything (and everything, in turn, can function as a metaphor for tennis). Enfield is a shining academy on a hill, a place striving for perfection in every way.

Behind the Academy and even Hal stands the Incandenza family, a bizarre mass of geniuses, eccentrics, tragedies, and Oedpial dynamics. Of particular note is Hal’s father, Jim Incandenza, Himself, the Mad Stork, and even the Sad Stork (Throughout, David Foster Wallace endlessly concocts euphemisms, nicknames, and even neologisms). Up until his suicide by microwave oven, Himself was a genius like Hal who leapt from field to field as he mastered them, passing through and even revolutionizing tennis and military optics and more. Eventually, he landed in film. There, he became a controversial figure, at once lauded for and detested for his technical brilliance and his scorn for conventions and, debatably, even narrative. Himself created the Entertainment, the samizdat, the film Infinite Jest  – but we aren’t quite ready to talk about that yet.

Down the hill from the academy, we find the streets of Boston, and we find Ennet House, a halfway house where a good half or so of our cast and action may be found. As at the academy, our angle is broad. Each of the addicts has a story, and we follow many of them, seeing their falls and their struggles to recover. Our main focus, though, is Don Gately, a longtime Demerol addict and burglar now struggling to get clean, now making it, now even a staffer at the house as he tries to help others follow his footsteps while he, too, struggles on. Coming with these struggles is Boston AA. Within and without the casts’ heads, we attend meetings, wrestle with and interpret AA’s ideology and practice, and plumb the depths of addiction and pain.

Enfield and Ennet may be the two largest arcs, but they are not the only ones. Innumerable smaller stories and styles lie all about them. We are in the future, here, a future assembled as if the present were a film and this its parody. Relations between the US and Canada have grown beyond frosty, and Quebecois separatists form terror cells to injure the United States in whatever way they can. The most fearsome of these are the Wheelchair Assassins, and it is from this conflict that we get Marathe and Steeply, two intelligence operatives whose debates form another of the tapestry’s recurring strands. Elsewhere in the text, we have those struggling on the streets of Boston, articles on the etiquette and economics behind the rise and fall of videophones, the way that broadcast television and advertising were killed by the advent of something suspiciously like Netflix (fact check: did Wallace have access to a crystal ball?), Orin Incandenza’s rise to NFL fame, the and countless other strange and wonderful asides and tales.

Were I simply handed this book without any information at all about its author or the circumstances of its creation, and were I told to take the best guess I could from how all these threads are conceived and played out, I think I might have thought Infinite Jest the work of a partnership between Alexis de Tocqueville and Jerry Seinfeld after the two were bludgeoned and inspired by every walk of life, every kind of loneliness, and every kind of addiction. As for how that pairing (or should I throw in a third name, to match David Foster Wallace’s three?) gets its effect, I think the brew’s three main components can be identified, if not exactly summed up by, the following: detail, insight, and wit.

This is a novel bursting at its themes with details. There are veritable mountains of them within it. Imagine, for a moment, that the world was frozen in time around you, you were given a pad, and you were told to write down everything you saw and heard and felt. Done? Now imagine that you are living a full life and that you treat every second in just that way. That is something like Infinite Jest. One chapter has Hal and his fellow culprits caught after a rule-breaking debacle and left to wait in the anteroom of the academy’s headmaster. They do nothing but wait, and Wallace turns our eye to and fro over every object in that waiting room, drawing connection after connection between them, delving into their pasts, exploring every inch of ground in every direction but simple, forward narrative momentum. That level of it is unique to that scene, but the tendency can be seen throughout. Taken alone, this would make for an unreadably tedious book. But, coupled with Wallace’s other strengths, it makes for a hypervivid one.

David Foster Wallace was a genius. Not only that, but he can impart his wisdom. Though often hard to imbibe, Infinite Jest is a book that, once digested, genuinely expands the way you think. Wallace gets fully within his characters and drags you in after him. Their revelations are yours. The insights of the characters’ lifetimes dawn on the reader as they progress, rammed home by our witnessing their formation, and Wallace’s wide angle allows him to crowd a great deal more than one epiphany in there. Every once in a while, Wallace pauses it all and goes so far as to simply talk to us. In one section, we are told about “exotic new facts” (p. 200) that we can learn in a halfway house, should we ever step foot within one. As we likely have not yet done so, Wallace then tells them to us. This technique should simply not work. For the novelist to break out of character and simply lecture should be unbearable. But the hypothetical novelist the rules were written for was not David Foster Wallace, and it works. Brilliantly. (As for the wisdom that is conveyed, well, I will do my best to lay some of it out soon enough…)

The reader gets through the details and learns the lessons, and enjoys the hell out of it all too, because David Foster Wallace was one funny bastard. His wit can be seen in one-liners and snide remarks. Early on, Hal asks a (potential) professional conversationalist: “Would it be rude to tell you your mustache is askew?” (p. 30). Elsewhere, the book boasts elaborate comedic set pieces, like the depicted game of Eschaton (in which tennis players pose as world leaders and lob balls/tactical nuclear weapons, into each others territory) and how it goes so horribly awry. Often, Wallace’s humor operates in the darkest of places, and Wallace respects no boundaries. In fact, laughter is often how the novel imparts its deepest pathos. At AA meetings, Wallace tells story after story of pain and degradation. The human suffering in these, the Bottom that the members reach, is exaggerated until it is absurd, even parodic. We laugh, and then we realize what we were laughing at, and we feel the blow that they felt.

And now, I think, the time has come to look at the struggle at the heart of it all. Infinite Jest is about the need for meaning, a need that is attempted through successes and entertainments and drugs, but which can ultimately only be fulfilled through genuine connection with another human being. As David Foster Wallace tells us, The great transcendent horror is loneliness (p. 694).

In his quest to illustrate meaning, connection, and the quest for them, David Foster Wallace begins with their opposite: depression. By this point in time, I think it’s fair to say that most of us have heard Wallace’s own story of depression and suicide, and I’ll avoid interpreting his masterpiece through the lens of events of over a decade later. Besides, such biographical readings are not needed to give the text power. Kate Gompert, a resident of Ennet House, is clinically depressed, and Wallace’s evocation of her condition is one of the most painful things I have ever read. In the absence of meaning, life becomes an unendurable slog, a state of utter hell and nausea. “I can’t stand feeling like this another second,” Kate tells her doctor, “and the seconds keep coming on and on.” (p. 74) At the root of this hell is loneliness, for depression is lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. […] a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. […] A clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution (p. 696).

The best, the highest route to purpose seems to be finding something greater than yourself to dedicate yourself to, finding some ideal of perfection to work towards. This is the route that those at Enfield Tennis Academy take. As the instructor Schtitt makes clear to them, tennis is not truly a game between you and the opponent. It is a game between you and your own limits: You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win.  […] All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again (p. 84).

For a time, such drive can suffice, but the pursuit of success is doomed. Should the athlete – or human – in question attain their dreams, they will be destroyed. As we are told of one such triumphal striver: Achievement didn’t confer meaning or joy on his existence (p. 693). The true struggle at Enfield, then, is not to make oneself better, for that struggle is more prerequisite than purpose of this level of play. The true struggle is to not be destroyed when you achieve the source of your meaning and find it hollow.

Striving for perfection does not occur in a vacuum; it, like all of our other strivings and sources of meaning, is a way to connect with others, and the connection at Enfield is that sports are one of the many sources of entertainment that we in America try to connect with one another through. After all, professional athletes are [… also] entertainers, albeit of a deep and special sort (p. 188). And the draw of both sports and entertainment in general is connection, as Orin shows when describing the wonder of football for him: a lot of It seemed emotional and/or even, if there was such a thing anymore, spiritual: a denial of silence: here were upwards of 30,000 voices, souls, voicing approval as One Soul (p. 295).

Such moments of genuine connection, however, are rare. Even when there is genuine emotion in art, it is almost always one way. Mario listens to the radio show of Madame Psychosis, and it moves him deeply, but he is sure Madame Psychosis cannot herself sense the compelling beauty and light she projects over the air, somehow (p. 190). Conversely, one of Himself’s films has a lecturer speaking to students. The lecturer is so moved that he weeps. The students watch, bored and doodling.

The fastest – and, ultimately, the most disastrous – escape route from that loneliness is drink, drugs, addiction. Throughout the story, highs are associated not only with pleasure and a warped sense of time but with a sense of connection, one borne from chemicals but one that nonetheless comes to provide purpose and comes to end that loneliness, such as in this description of Joelle’s high from cocaine: The ‘base frees and condenses, compresses the whole experience to the implosion of one terrible shattering spike in the graph, an afflated orgasm of the heart that makers her feel, truly, attractive, sheltered by limits, deveiled and loved, observed and alone and sufficient and female, full, as if watched for an instant by God (p. 235).

The connection found in a syringe or bottle, though, will ultimately destroy you, leading to the Bottom, a plummeting return to the meaninglessness of depression while the alcoholic stares about their shattered life. This is what so many in Ennet House struggle with, the horrible truth that Once you are sufficiently enslaved by a Substance to need to quit the Substance in order to save your life, the enslaving substance has become so deeply important to you that you will all but lose your mind when it is taken away from you (p. 201).

The only way out is to not simply slaughter that need but to transfer it. As Infinite Jest progresses, it becomes clear that addictions do not end with substances. AA itself is approached in the same way, as are relationships, arts, and religions. We are all addictions, all slaves; we have all shoved our passions entirely into something, desperate for it to give us joy and purpose and connection. As Hal says: 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 oneself away utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into (p. 900).

But what if there was an entertainment that actually formed a genuine connection, that truly touched us? That question brings us to the Entertainment, the final creation of Himself, the film so entertaining that anyone who watches it will never want to do anything else, will gladly chop off their own fingers for another viewing, will sit and starve in front of their television while it loops endlessly. Canadian terrorists are now disseminating that film throughout America, believing that the foolish Americans will prove their weakness by being unable to refuse the choice for death of the head by pleasure (p. 319). The connection is made between it and drugs, and it is clear how absurd and futile it is for a government to try and protect us from our own choices.

But the Entertainment is more than cocaine. For one thing, it is explicitly and obviously a high borne from communication. Himself says that his goal in making it was to contrive a medium via which he and [Hal] could simply converse. […] His last resort: entertainment (pp. 838-9). Furthermore, though the Entertainment obviously brings with it great consequences, it does not bring the Bottom that the bottle does. There is no indication within the text that its high is not a true one. Remember that the horror of alcoholism comes at the end, comes when the drink has destroyed everything else in your life, is your only meaning, and then itself turns to poison: . You cannot get drunk and you cannot get sober; you cannot get high and you cannot get straight. You are behind bars; you are in a cage and can see only bars in every direction (p. 347). The Entertainment brings the outward consequences of such a state and more, but we never see the viewers have any desire to stop at all, we never get a hint that the transcendent pleasure of viewing is less on the thousandth viewing than on the first.

That contrast between inner and outer state, then, may serve a different purpose: it shows the true importance of, as Himself had it, conversing. If we can truly connect with another human, the wonder of it will outmatch everything else, for every other activity in our life is a simple striving for that connection. That is why, when presented with it, we will gladly allow the rest to burn.

The Entertainment, unlike lesser entertainments, manages to go both ways, to touch the entertained and the entertainer, even if its impact on the matter is more oblique. A glimpse of this can be seen in Himself’s film Medusa v. Odalisk, in which the two legendary creatures fight on stage while an on-film audience turns to stone at the sight. With each petrification, the briefest flash of grief can be seen on the combatants’ faces as they realize the destructive (and transcendent?) cost of connection on the audience.

Admittedly, the actress in Infinite Jest claims to have thought it boring, says she can’t understand how anyone could have found it entertaining, let alone lethally so. But that actress, Joelle, wears a veil because of her beauty. I’ll allow her to say why in her own words: I’m so beautiful I drive anybody with a nervous system out of their fucking mind. Once they’ve seen me they can’t think of anything else and don’t want to look at anything else and stop carrying out normal responsibilities and believe that if they can only have me right there with them at all times everything will be all right. Everything. Like I’m the solution to their deep slavering need to be jowl to cheek with perfection (p. 538). The effects of her beauty (itself a form of interpersonal connection), then, have an effect like that of Infinite Jest, and that effect has deeply impacted her. Furthermore, one should remember that Joelle never views the scene herself, just creates it. And as for Himself, it is always hard to say what he is and is not affected by, but one must remember that he not only joked about the film’s lethally entertaining value but also killed himself three months after its creation.

There is another element to this quest for meaning and connection, however, for, though we spend our lives striving for it, we also fear it. We despise it, even. As Hal theorizes: What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being human, since to be really human (at least as [Hal] conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic way forever infantile (p. 695). The final word of that, infantile, is important.

Throughout the novel, there are hints that connecting with each other, while what we really need, is also something we view as pathetic, something we are kept from doing by our very age. One of the novel’s last scenes is the story of the Enfield employee Loach, who tries to prove the goodness of man by living on the streets and begging not for money but for a single touch. Not one passerby will grant him that simple human contact – not until Mario comes along, Mario who had no one worldly or adult with him there to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn’t automatically be honored or granted (p. 971).

The connection we need is something that we also keep from ourselves, then. But the Entertainment bypasses that. And do you want to know one of its tricks? Himself, always the technical whizz, filmed it with a special lens: The lens was supposed to reproduce an infantile visual field. That’s what you could feel was driving the scene (p. 940).

The above is certainly not the only possible interpretation of Infinite Jest. It leaves many facets of the book unexamined. Really, this is the kind of novel that – both due to its length and to its author’s perspicacity – feels, well, infinite. One gets the sense that the only limits to the meanings that can be found within are how deep you are willing to delve. As can no doubt be guessed from all the above, Infinite Jest wowed me. In fact, it blew me away like nothing else I’ve ever read. If I was to pick a single favorite novel, this would be it.


  1. I am yet to complete Infinite Jest, but it brings attention to how dumb America is becoming. It certainly brings to mind the movie "Idiocracy" directed by Mike Judge. The novel brings the sad realization of what is happening to our country (or at least my country, I suppose.) To the table, it also brings humor to coincide that sad truth. A great novel, though I wouldn't consider it a read for pleasure.

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  4. Fantastic write-up... illuminated a few things for me after having read this book twice now... there's so much going on that it can be so nice to see a good writer delineate and suss out some of the big ideas in this novel, which you do very well. thanks!