Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Published February 1, 1996 by Back Bay Books
“And Lo, for the Earth was empty of form, and void.
And Darkness was all over the Face of the Deep.
And We said:
‘Look at that fucker Dance.”
Believe it or not, there’s an audiobook for this 1079-page beast. And on Audible’s reviews section, a user wrote that experiencing David Foster Wallace’s writing is like listening to Yngwie Malmsteen shred on guitar. As in, it’s a lot of dazzling virtuosity, but at the end of the day, there’s really not much there. Well, I would say that Wallace is more like Steve Vai. Like Malmsteen, Vai is an unfairly good technical player. But unlike Malmsteen he (usually) applies that skill with structure and a surprising heap of humor and heart. Steve Vai doesn’t just shred on guitar; he writes songs. And Wallace doesn’t just shred with a pen; he writes a damn compelling story.
If you’re uninitiated you’re probably wondering about the plot. This isn’t really the kind of novel you read for plot, but it does offer one of the most intriguing and complex ones I’ve encountered. So here’s a very bare-bones elevator pitch: Basically, the stage is set in a near-future where the United States, Canada, and Mexico have united under one governmental body called the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). Not everyone is happy about this unification, particularly Québec, which is home to violent separatist terrorist cells like the infamous Wheelchair Assassins. In the interest of taking down the United States, these guys think they’ve found the perfect weapon: an underground movie called Infinite Jest. This film is so entertaining that once you see it, all you want to do is watch it on loop, uninterrupted, until you die in your seat. The film’s deceased and eccentric director, James O. Incandenza, also happened to establish the elite Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston, Massachusetts. The action is mostly set here following the surviving Incandenza’s, a wonderfully dysfunctional family, as well as the neighboring Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, which holds an even weirder collection of weirdos.
This book has sort of changed my identity as a reader. From now on there’s Pre-Infinite Jest and Post-Infinite Jest. I didn’t know writing could be this good. Books that I would normally have liked just fine in Pre-Jest days aren’t really cutting it. So often now when reading a decent novel I think, “Hmm, the characters are pretty solid, but the dialogue could be so much more engaging.” Or, “What does this setting even look like? Where are the pages upon pages of lush sensory description?” Or, “Huh, I haven’t had to consult a dictionary yet.” Or, “Yeah, okay, this is a cool plot and all, but it’s not really about anything.” Still, sometimes you need books like that as an antidote to the kind of bigheaded snobbery a book like this can bring out in you.
Let me get this out of the way though: I did NOT love everything about Infinite Jest. For every few things I adored there was something(s) that made me want to go out to some remote part of the woods, dig a very deep hole, and bury the book there so it wouldn’t be as easy for me to open it back up again and resume the flogging. 388 endnotes. Interjections of French and Latin. Lots of made-up words. A plot that doesn’t pick up until around the like 400-page mark. Long rants about calculus and the mathematics of tennis (feat. formulas and graphs). Pages-long scenes of unattributed dialogue without action lines or description. Incessant acronym usage. Copious use of academese. Phrases like, “But and so and but so…” Sentences that are so long you get lost in them. Endnotes that are so long they have their own endnotes. And then of course there’s the matter of how this incredibly complex thing you lost sleep over just kind of ends with no resolution.
This is the sort of stuff I was expecting/fearing going in to Jest. My first exposure to Wallace (and to postmodernism in general) was a couple years ago via Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. His technical ability impressed the hell out of me but I found the emphasis on cleverness to be just what that Audible reviewer described. A lot of wow-inspiring fireworks that read less like stories and more like notebook exercises (some of which probably didn’t need to be published). Given how frustrating I initially found Wallace’s short fiction, it was a gamble to dive into a novel by him, let alone a novel over 1,000 pages long. But the premise looked too good to pass on, the hype was apparently to be believed, etc. Anyway, I mention this because if you’ve read some of Wallace’s other stuff and found it technically brilliant but insufferably pretentious and masturbatory, don’t let that stop you from trying this one if it interests you.
I find Jest to be overall way more readable and entertaining than anything he would later write in Brief Interviews. The pomo stuff is there in spades but it’s less show-offy, used to add threads to the narrative tapestry rather than distract from it. The characters are fascinating and, despite their overt absurdities (we’ve got a sweat-licking yoga guru in the cast), they feel wholly human. The world-building offers some really fun ideas, including the concept of subsidized time, with which we’ve abandoned numerical years and now allow corporations to buy years and name them after products (e.g. “The Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster”). Plus when Wallace pauses the shoegazing and really throws himself into a scene, this thing moves. We even get a couple of intense action scenes that remind you this is the same guy who said Die Hard is “a great film.” Basically in writing a narrative treatise likening entertainment-dependency to drug addiction, Wallace creates a book so entertaining that you just might become addicted to the point of obsession and want to read it again and again to absorb all the details and themes. Ah, see what he did there?
But when I say “readable” and “entertaining” don’t think we’re even in the neighborhood of Conventional, narrative-wise. This is a weird story. The last time a novel has rocked my comfortable reality this much was last year when I discovered Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut throws a ton of absolutely insane ideas at the same dartboard and they shouldn’t all stick, but somehow they do. Like David Lynch, Vonnegut taught me that not only is it okay to write very weird stuff, but that you can use that weirdness to arrive at truth. In Infinite Jest Wallace does that, but with six times the paper. If the synopsis above doesn’t sound strange enough we’ve also got mutant babies the size of Volkswagens, garbage-shooting catapults, an OCD lounge lizard as the U.S. President, and furniture that moves by itself. But, just as Wallace said was his goal in writing, all this weird stuff doesn’t serve as escapism. It reminds you what it’s like to be alive. The strange amplifies truth, gives it a megaphone in ways straight realism cannot. I never thought a novel that takes place (primarily) in “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” would offer such profound and relatable musings about addiction and depression. Somehow a novel that features hordes of giant feral hamsters made me feel more in tune with my species.
It’s the kind of book you’ll want to buy, not borrow, so that you can desecrate it with a highlighter when you get to passages like this:
“We all have our little solipsistic delusions, ghastly intuitions of utter singularity: that we are the only one in the house who ever fills the ice-cube tray, who unloads the clean dishwasher, who occasionally pees in the shower, whose eyelid twitches on first dates; that only we take casualness terribly seriously; that only we fashion supplication into courtesy; that only we hear the whiny pathos in a dog’s yawn, the timeless sigh in the opening of the hermetically-sealed jar, the splattered laugh in the frying egg, the minor-D lament in the vacuum’s scream; that only we feel the panic at sunset the rookie kindergartner feels at his mother’s retreat. That only we love the only-we. That only we need the only-we. Solipsism binds us together, J.D. knows. That we feel lonely in a crowd; stop not to dwell on what’s brought the crowd into being. That we are, always, faces in a crowd.”
Tacked-on conclusion: Basically, this book is excessive, overwrought, scatterbrained, demanding, very pleased with itself, and often crushingly tedious, and you may very well despise it but I’m happily going to trudge through it again once I recover from it.