23 July 2014

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest


I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.

Starting Infinite Jest for the second time, I had high expectations but I was also ready to be disappointed. I remember it being good enough and long enough to be a contender for Favourite Book status. The opening chapter--first-person, present-tense, dramatic, mysterious--kept me up at night. The question "Why can't Hal speak?" propelled me through the thousand-page tome. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me cringe, often all at once--a trifecta of simultaneous feelings unique to Wallace (see: Hal and Orin discussing their father's suicide over the phone, James Incandenza's father scraping his knees off on the tennis court, Les assassins des fauteuils rollent's grisly execution of the Antitoi brothers). When it was over, I didn't want to let Hal, Mario, Gately, and Joelle go. Where would they be in five years? Ten? It was the longest book I'd read, but, the moment I finished it, I was planning to read it again.

I then did the obvious thing and immersed myself in Wallace. I read the lesser novels, short stories, nonfiction, interviews, D.T. Max's biography, Jonathan Franzen's weird camping story/threnody New Yorker thing. I learned that Wallace, like Hal, made a habit of blowing marijuana smoke into bathroom fans to hide his drug use, and that Wallace, like Orin, did cruel and unusual things to his younger sibling. Infinite Jest is tainted with autobiography. His review of Wittgenstein's Mistress became my role model for when I write about books, and I desperately wished he'd dissected other novels so thoroughly. I learned that "Steinbeck, when he's not beating his drum" was an author that rung Wallace's cherries, as well as what Wallace sounds like when he's beating his own personal drum. I learned the politics Wallace likes to bang on about: the nature of the entertainment we consume, its consequences and its effect on us, American values, grammar, civic duty, and what literature should do and be. At first I found his insights in Infinite Jest and articles like "E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction" revelatory--I longed to know what he would have said about the internet or video games. I backed away from my addictions and entertainments in favour of more productive activities--but by the time I got to the murkier thoughts in interviews and lesser articles, the drum was sounding flat. I worried that I'd spoiled Infinite Jest via overexposure to Wallace. It's plot points--a film so entertaining it eliminates the map of everyone who watches it, drug addicts at a halfway house, and stoners at a tennis academy--sound like Wallace setting up a pulpit from which to preach.

Luckily, Infinite Jest is brilliant. While Wallace cares deeply about morality, values and duty, he is not Upton Sinclair or George Orwell or even John Steinbeck. The book does not preach. Other than occasional comments on American culture by Marathe (Quebecois) and Shtitt (German?), the novel's politics are implicit and analysis is required to unearth them.

Again, Infinite Jest is brilliant. Not only clever and funny but also thoughtful and caring. The stories are sad. And absurd. But absurd in a way that is made believable by an abundance--truckloads--of detail. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. It's long, but it's divided into easily digestible chunks, each with its own hook, line, and sinker. It reads more like a series of interconnected short stories than a novel. And it is hard, but Wallace's challenges are considerate and aware of the reader. He's not Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Pynchon, or Gaddis. If you don't understand, don't worry and keep reading. If something is important, it is clear. If something is important, it is repeated. Obscure vocab ("pulchritudinous") is almost always next to an everyday synonym. The novel's main challenge is physical: lugging the big brick around, flipping to the endnotes, and finding a comfortable reading position. Other than parts that are deliberately obscure or omitted, the plot is easily graspable, despite its complexity. It responds well to being read without too much concern for precise chronology or too much worry about how all the events and themes hang together. And while I may be more interested in tennis, philosophy, depression and theoretical sci-fi politics than most, the novel cycles through its plot lines in a way that never lingers too long on one subject. There is a sensitive perfection in the structure that I would love to fully understand.

Wallace's ability as a storyteller is shown by how he sets up and executes dramatic situations. Ken Erdedy--eager, self-conscious, ashamed--awaits a marijuana delivery so that he can binge smoke for the week. Kate Gompert, hospitalized for suicidal depression, navigates her diagnostic interview with a young M.D. A series of exhibition tennis matches. Big Buddies give advice about life, school and training to their clusters of Little Buddies. A series of competitive tennis matches. Each scene is not only rife with internal tension but also shows the characters in a new light. You're introduced to the players at Enfield Tennis Academy, then you see how each plays tennis, how each answers their Little Buddies' inquiries about existence, competition and education, and how each responds to the duress of competitive tennis. Cocaine addict Joelle van Dyne is shown first out in the wild, then as a resident of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, where you see her complaints to the house manager, the dreams she tells Don Gately at night, how she copes with withdrawal, how she reacts to Narcotics Anonymous, and how she responds to violence. And you get to see how Kate, Erdedy, Lenz, and many others react in each of these same situations. In isolation, the set-up and execution of each section is exquisite, and over the course of the whole novel, a cast of beautifully crafted characters emerges.

Wallace's power as a writer is shown by his adoption of different narrative voices. Most obviously, Marathe, English being his second language, is prone to solecisms that echo the syntax of French, and Poor Tony Krause's sections are a semi-decipherable screed of misspellings and slang. Each character has their own database of sayings, figures of speech, and linguistic patterns, some more apparent than others. And the voices map onto the characters' relations. Phrases from the Incandenza family, e.g. "the howling fantods", show up in Joelle's narrative. The time she has spent with Orin and James Incandenza is reflected in her thoughts and in her speech, alongside her personal unique phrases ("her own personal Daddy"). The care taken is thrilling and staggering, part of the detail that creates a world of the novel's own. However, Wallace only ever half-wears each mask. The whole novel is filled with many of his own tics, his own vocabulary, his lengthy sentences, his "And but so", and the things he aches and cares about. He takes on different voices, but his intelligence throbs behind every word.

Further, while Wallace never explicitly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader, he leaves reminders that there is a mind behind the stories. He plays structural games with chapter headings and endnotes. The novel begins with the cryptic but positive "YEAR OF GLAD". Wallace then reveals that Glad refers to the sandwich bag brand, rather than the feeling. Each year has been subsidized by various corporations--the majority of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. The early convention for chapter headings is that they date the content. Then some of the headers are descriptions of the chapter's content, which quickly swell into the half-page "HAL INCANDENZA'S FIRST EXTANT WRITTEN COMMENT ON ANYTHING EVEN REMOTELY FILMIC, SUBMITTED IN MR. OGILVIE'S SEVENTh-GRADE 'INTRODUCTION' TO ENTERTAINMENT STUDIES..." (and so on). Conventions are introduced, then modified, then bloated into absurdity. Wallace's games create an implicit dialogue with the reader. The endnotes follow this pattern as well. First, they give the chemical details of various narcotics. Then their scope expands to include small addiction tidbits, James Incandenza's filmography and, eventually, whole self-contained episodes with endnotes of their own. Finally, in a bizarre sort of climax two-thirds of the way through the novel, a whole chapter is relegated to an endnote. I spent a couple hundred pages wondering if or when this would happen, and I was gleeful when it did. Wallace never explicitly speaks or addresses the reader, but his presence is always felt in the consistent style behind the various voices, the emotional/political/spiritual/philosophical themes that he returns to again and again, and the ways he pushes and pokes at the novel's structure. Paradoxically, Infinite Jest feels both like a world unto itself--unforgettable characters in complex relationships inhabiting a detailed environment--and like a late night conversation with a very smart, very caring friend.

Some Things the Novel Does Not Do ("Criticisms" would be too strong a word because that would mean expecting the novel to do everything when it already does so much.)
-Quebec is a bastion of French on a continent of English (sorry, Mexico) and this creates an intriguing cultural tension that is ripe for the picking, as well as an opportunity for delicious multilingual puns. Despite making Quebecois separatists a major part of the novel, Wallace does not exploit these opportunities.
-There is very little lyrical writing and lots of (intentionally) awkward repetition, especially of place names. A lot of this has to do with taking on the characters' voices: people don't think pretty. Much of the narrative is meant, to some extent, to mirror the patterns of thought, and it does so beautifully, but the book doesn't churn out beautiful sentences the way a Pynchon or a Nabokov does and the repetition that infests so many of the narratives can spoil otherwise pretty writing.
-Romantic love is a Big Deal that Wallace does not engage. Gately/Joelle and Mario/Millicent Kent are brief glimpses of the subject. Both are touching in the extreme, but only glimpses. Orin/Joelle and Marathe/his wife (sorry, Wife) could have perhaps been expanded. In general, the characters kind of suck at caring about other people.

When I finished Infinite Jest for the first time, I planned to read it again. Now after finishing it a second time, I also plan to read it again. Its a book I can see myself returning to periodically every 3-5 years for the rest of my life. As far as fiction goes, it wins the competition of doing the most things and doing them well. (Thought given its length, this competition might not be very fair.) (Shakespeare's plays taken together are up there too. Nothing else is.)

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