“We know you need wifi like you need air.” – hotel commercial.
“We want unlimited entertainment.” – Mark Wahlberg, in a phone commercial.
“Nobody but Ludditic granola-crunching freaks would call bad what no one can imagine being without.” – Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest is a notoriously complex and torturous novel, full of arcana, errata, and opacity. IJ is set in a dystopic near-future where chemical accidents have created a toxic “Concavity” (or Convexity, depending on P.O.V.) in what was once upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, creating something of a no-man’s land infested by feral hamsters where children are born without skulls. Enormous fans north of Boston keep the toxins from spreading south. The U.S., Canada, and Mexico have merged into a singular entity called O.N.A.N. (note the pun) under the presidential leadership of the singer Johnny Gentle, though many decisions are actually made by Rod “the God” Tine, director of the “Office of Unspecified Services,” an agency formed by combining law enforcement and intelligence services. Johnny Gentle’s presidency, largely post democratic and deeply corporate (naming rights to years are purchased, such that much of IJ takes place in “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”) is marked by “experialist” policies, which consist of forcing other countries to accept pieces of land (that are often now toxic) which contribute to fairly widespread separatism, particularly in Quebec.
Functionally, IJ has three narrative pieces that are variously interwoven. The basic plot of IJ is an operation by Tine’s agent Hugh (sometimes Helen) Steeply meeting with Remy Marathe, a member of Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants (Wheelchair Assassins, a.k.a. the A.F.R.) and turning him with promise of medical treatment for his wife born in the Concavity. Steeply needs information from Marathe because the A.F.R. are looking for a weapon of mass destruction: a movie created by the apres-garde director James O. Incandenza (a.k.a. The Mad Stork; Himself) titled Infinite Jest that, when watched, renders the viewer mad, with no ambitions other than repeatedly and endlessly watching the film. Steeply spends one night with Marathe in Arizona to thwart the A.F.R.
The scenes between Steeply and Marathe form the narrative backbone for IJ, but they are equal parts philosophical dialogue and framing device for the bulk of novel, which largely takes place in two parallel institutions in “Enfield,” MA (in the vicinity of Allston-Brighton), the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol House. The Ennet House story follows Don Gately, a enormous, small-time crook and drug addict who, after a stint in jail and rehab, is now a live-in staffer at Ennet House. The story at Enfield Tennis Academy is that of the Incandenza family—Himself, now deceased, his widow Avril (tall, beautiful Quebecker, militant grammarian, strange sexual tendencies, a.k.a The Moms), brother-in-law Charles Tavis, and two youngest sons Mario (deformed, childlike) and Hal (brilliant intellectually and athletically, habitual drug user), though the latter is the primary character for this arc. Both stories are linked by the past relationship between Orin Incandenza (oldest son, now NFL punter with troublesome erotic tendencies) and Joelle van Dyne (former cheerleader, star of Infinite Jest, drug addict, cripplingly beautiful, member of the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, a.k.a. radio personality Madam Psychosis). Further, the relationship to J.O. Incandenza make all of these characters A.F.R.-targets in their pursuit of the master tape of IJ.
Explaining IJ in these terms, however, understates its complexity, neuters its brilliance, and doesn’t even touch on what the book is actually about.*
[*To the extent even that one person can claim any sort of authoritative understanding.]
Drugs and alcohol feature prominently in IJ, both in the sense that most of the characters (ab)use substances or are in N/AA and in that there are many endnotes that are nothing more than the commercial details of the drugs mentioned in the story. These features, however, more serve as an entry point for a novel that is, in a much more catholic sense, about addiction and longing. My understanding of IJ is that it is about the universal human desire to have some sort of meaningful connection in the world.
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.
As simple as this sounds, it is actually heinously complex. The world, not so different from modern America, is consumed by tele-entertainment, consumerism, looks, and unapproachable idols such as (in a slightly dated reference that stood out to me because of teaching last semester) Raquel Welch. Everyone wants to feel something and to find some sort of connection, but most of what people actually do in pursuit of meaningful connection leaves them addicted and alone. Usually the act in question is some form of drug abuse, but for others it is sex. One such is Orin Incandenza, a serial adulterer whose perversion is in seducing young, often married, mothers and needing them to fall desperately, totally in love with him before he breaks off the relationship. In dialogue with Steeply, Marathe posits that Americans fetishize freedom, but that their definition of freedom is a “freedom from…constraint” and, elsewhere, there is a discussion of “idolatry of uniqueness.” Of course, the bounds of these freedoms are set by the entertainment because that entertainment sets the parameters of what it means to be hip, which is equated with being admired and accepted. Each new innovation adds depth and complexity to omnipresent social anxiety.
“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves.”
There is a tension between the need for connection with other people and the superficiality of a world saturated with entertainment promising immediate freedom from displeasure without regard for anyone other than the individual. When people go to increasingly depraved lengths, whether to find connection or relieve their neurasthenia, they become increasingly isolated—in no small part because they end up hurting the people around them.
This summation only scratches IJ‘s surface. There are individual scenes that are particularly disturbing to read and others that made me laugh aloud, including a film presentation that is nothing but a real-time film of the audience and lasts exactly as long as there are people in the theater and Eschaton, an abstract global war game using tennis balls in place of nuclear warheads. There are the roots of all the reasons why a particular type of man idolizes Wallace’s exacting and raw style, only doing so in such a way that might repulse women, and there is plenty of fodder for a discussion about the gender and sexual politics in D.F.W.’s writing*. There are limitations in his setting, in terms of globalization and nationalism. There are deep readings to be had about the literary qualities of IJ‘s postmodernism**, and reading it in line with Hamlet where “Infinite Jest” is used in the scene with the skull, adding another layer to Concavity’s effects because it causes children to be born without skulls, and with its lengthy scenes with a ghost. Likewise: the whole story takes place as a flashback, so is Hal’s condition at the start of IJ the result of his consuming a drug or is it a symptom of withdrawal? (I believe it is the latter.) Could the whole story be a hallucination? If so, whose? If not, who is the author? Is there also the hand of an editor? And on and on.
[*I asked a friend whether, had he lived, Wallace might receive similar critical reception that Dave Chapelle had with his latest specials, only on the issues of gender.
**A term that can mean anything or nothing. I mean something specific in this sense, but don’t want to get into it here because I have already gone on too long.]
Let me conclude with this question: did I like Infinite Jest? I certainly appreciated it. I have appreciated everything I’ve read of Wallace’s, improving my vocabulary at the very least and usually coming away with a deeper appreciation for something in the world. It is a book that lingers, that you start to see everywhere, and, in final calculation, I think I did like it.
This does not mean, however, that I recommend that everyone go pick up a copy. Reading IJ is a chore that, partly because of several stretches where I wasn’t able to read at all, it took me nearly a month and a half to do and even then I felt that I missed a lot. Reading IJ takes time and determination and lends itself to a particular type of stubborn personality that crops up again and again in the book. If you made it this far but reading this post gave you palpitations, then I would not recommend the book; if you’re intrigued and want to give it a read, then I can promise that there is something to be gained in the investment.
Next up, my palate cleanser from Infinite Jest was China Mieville’s excellent The City & The City, a fantastical noir story set in twinned and overlapping rival cities in Eastern Europe. I am now reading Gail Tsukiyama’s acclaimed first novel, Women of Silk.