Thursday, November 26, 2009

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

I think today’s irony ends up saying: "How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean."

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The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn't do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life's assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level person will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire's flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It's not desiring the fall; it's terror of the flame yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don‘t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You'd have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

I read Infinite Jest mostly because it was a big, long literary novel I'd never read. At the time, I knew nothing about David Foster Wallace at all. His death last year didn't impact me at all. In my mind, I think I'd linked him together with authors like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, great authors who write substantial books that nevertheless tend to eschew genuine emotional impact and human characters for satire, impeccably-structured prose, and witty bon mots just dripping with irony and self-awareness. I'm a fan of this style of writing (Underworld is one of my favorite books of all time), but undertaking a novel the size of Infinite Jest, 100pp of which are taken up with just endnotes, was intimidating.

Now that I've actually finished it, my perspective is different. Infinite Jest isn't really much like Pynchon or DeLillo at all. In spite of its postmodern trappings--the extensive footnotes not being the least of which--IJ isn't a particularly difficult read. The length is intimidating, but it's a truly human book. It is at turns hilarious, heartbreaking, psychologically penetrating. Now, in retrospect, I feel a sense of loss at DFW's death.

The plot is all over the place, winding, taking detours in weird, unexpected places, combining ultra-realistic setpieces with vaguely sci-fi trappings. The time is the near future, where years are named after products, i.e. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and North America has become a unified entity known as O.N.A.N., at least, the sections of North America that weren't made uninhabitable by massive toxic waste dumps in the midwest. The principles of the cast are pretty numerous, but the bulk of the narrative revolves around the following:

- Hal Incandenza, a tennis prodigy living and breathing the sport at the prestigious Enfield Tennis Academy, athletically-skilled, socially awkward, and confused by his father's inexplicable suicide.

- Don Gately, a hulking, former small-time burglar now working at Ennet House Drug and Recovery House (sic), who barely remembers certain drug-fueled episodes from his past and is ultra-sensitive to be such a big, nearly-indestructible guy.

- Madame Psychosis, a former rado talk show host, now possibly deformed and always wearing a veil, who's time at Ennet House began after a suicide attempt of unknown motivation

- Les Assassins des Fauteuils Roulants (The Wheelchair Assassins) - A Quebecois seperatist faction made up of, obviously enough, assassins who are incapacitated.

- Various other drug addicts, cross-dressers, tennis students, Incandenza family members, Enfield staff, etc. Honestly, the cast is large, although it expands and contracts somewhat depending on how you identify some of the more ambiguous characters.

The actual storylines are more divergent than the cast of characters. The unifying object in the narrative is The Entertainment, possibly the eponymous Infinite Jest, a video so fulfilling that anyone who watches it once becomes a drooling moron who only wants to see it again. It serves as a metaphor for the whole novel, which, as you might guess, focuses at least partially on addiction in all of its various forms. Drugs, sex, power, entertainment, athletic pursuits, etc. There are so many weird intersections of the various characters that I won't even attempt to explain them all here, but I will say that nothing comes together the way you'd expect and--fair warning--there's a fairly large coningent of internet critics who absolutely hate Infinite Jest because of its ending, which I won't spoil, but which you should know does not exactly tie up the loose ends.

To be honest, I don't even know how to begin to deconstruct IJ thematically or even narratively, which is probably obvious from this review. Addiction is a major theme, but to say that it's what the book is about is doing it a grave disservice. It could be read as a political or social satire, a high-comedy, a tragedy in the Greek mold, a commentary of sorts on society and the lengths to which it will go to entertain itself. I'd like to postulate though that while all these interpretations (and many, many more) hold water, I don't see how you could read IJ without getting the feeling that all this stuff is peripheral to the characters, the people and their relationships. Wallace himself said “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being, [Good writing should help readers to] become less alone inside.” It is on this count that I think IJ succeeds most brilliantly. In spite of any conflicted feelings I may have about the narrative itself, the characters are so richly drawn, so completely and unironically human, that I couldn't help but get wrapped up in them.

This is an uncharacteristically personal ending to one of my reviews, but Infinite Jest did something for me that maybe no piece of fiction has ever done to me before: It made me feel like I was a better person for having read it, and it accomplished Wallace's stated goal: it made me feel less alone. It's just too bad it couldn't do the same for Wallace himself.

3 comments:

Christopher said...

Infinite Post.

Nihil Novum said...

Zung!

Carlton said...

Good review. I liked the quote from Wallace about what good writing should do.