Sunday, January 9, 2011

Book Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

"I am not sure whether you could call this abuse, but when I was (long ago) abroad in the world of dry men, I saw parents, usually upscale and educated and talented and functional and white, patient and loving and supportive and concerned and involved in their children's lives, profligate with compliments and diplomatic with constructive criticism, loquacious in their pronouncements of unconditional love for and approval of their children, conforming to every last jot/tittle in any conceivable definition of a good parent, I saw parents after unimpeachable parent who raised kids who were (a) emotionally retarded or (b) lethally self-indulgent or (c) chronically depressed or (d) borderline psychotic or (e) consumed with narcissistic self-loathing or (f) neurotically driven/addicted or (g) variously psychosomotically Disabled or (h) some conjunctive permutation of (a) ... (g)."

"And who could not love that special and leonine roar of a public toilet?"
--Infinite Jest by Davide Foster Wallace

Indulge me for a moment, and imagine that every experience one has with a story, or a work of fiction, or some sort of narrative can be described in terms of a journey--metaphor as vehicle, as Michel de Certeau would put it. (And by my trotting out a French theorist in the first paragraph, you can reliably extrapolate exactly what kind of review this one is going to be.) A thrilling page turner is a kayak through some rapids, a familiar poem is a contemplative walk through a favorite neighborhood, and the blog post is the rough equivalent of walking outside, coming to a complete stop, and staring blankly straight ahead a few moments before going back home, because you've forgotten what it is you wanted to do in the first place. At least, I feel my posts are often like that.

Under those terms, then, my reading of Infinite Jest is a pilgrimage. I made the first attempt to read the book about five years ago, when I was a baby-faced first year MA. Newly flush with my success over finishing House of Leaves--a 500+ tome in its own rights--I was eager to jump into another post-post-modern epic. I got about 50 pages in before the reality of grad classes set in, and reminded me that reading unassigned books is a luxury reserved for people who were capable of writing faster. Next year, I tried again, this time bolstered with the knowledge that I made it through the 600+ paged pre-post-modern juggernaut, Tristram Shandy. This time, I dented a whole 75 pages before calling it quits. A third attempt in a third year brought me up to 100. Given the total page count was approximately 1000, I would, at this pace, finish the book shortly before I acquired senior citizen status.

The problem was, with each new reading, I not only had to forge a new trail, but to repeat everything that came before it. Infinite Jest is not a book that can be read in installments. Every time I tried to pick up where I left off after a busy week, I found myself completely lost, and set it aside for another year. This year, however, I vowed things would be different. I had, as I've mentioned, my syllabus and dissertation proposal forwarded to the appropriate bodies, and I had some time for myself. So, I marshaled my forces, and, in between X-Mas preparations, pored through the volumes one more time. I went through the familiar landmarks: Hal's original disastrous interview, Gately's fatal burglary, the really, really intense marijuana scene. And I blazed onward into new grounds: the halfway house. The puppet show. The Eschaton, which may be one of my favorite scenes ever. And onward and beyond them, to the end, up to and including the extra 100 pages of endnotes. Somewhere along the way, I realized what kind of pilgrimage I was on. Essentially, all of my previous readings were the spatial equivalent of wandering up to the foot of Everest, and wistfully mouthing "some day," before going back into the cabin for some cocoa. This final reading was the climbing of the other thousands of feet, and coming to a stop at the pinnacle, wild-eyed, frost-bitten, and with fewer appendages than when I started, wondering who the hell's idea this was anyway, and what the hell is wrong with spending the holiday season watching Star Trek re-runs.

Sorry for the ridiculously long (and still unfolding) preamble, but how a person reads is, I think, absolutely essential to their understanding of what it was they were reading. And when you read something intensely for a long period of time, the book has a tendency to linger. I've noticed this tendency before; after Mallory's Morte d'Arthur, everything seemed like a quest; after a power read of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, everything was a little more confusing, but in a generally pleasant sort of way. I think this tendency most wrt my comp exams; after spending months in intense study, it wasn't just the ideas of the books that stayed with me, but their style, and cadence; for a lingering time after, I thought in the terms of an academic essay, picking everything apart, and marveling in a detached sort of way about the power of a REAL ideological apparatus. (In fact, that's probably the point of the process; sure, learning the ideas are important, but how would we ever know a scholar if she/he didn't sound like one?) What I'm saying, then, is that there's a haunting, lingering specter of Infinite Jest still present in my own thoughts--and particularly in my articulations--and I'm not sure exactly when, or if, it'll go away.

But the plot of the book. A tennis pro--James O. Incandenza--opens a teaching academy before turning towards film. His final work before he commits suicide is the movie "Infinite Jest," whose content is so thoroughly engrossing and addictive that anyone who watches it will continue to do so exclusively until they die. The book follows a variety of characters related to the master copy of this film and its creator, including his three sons, Orin, Mario, and Hal; a transvestite Unspecified Services man and his colleague/competitor, a Quebequois who is also a legless member of the League of Wheelchair Assassins, both searching for the "Infinite Jest" tape; and more than a few of the members of a halfway house nearby the original academy, in particular, its "manager," Gately. And it all begins long after Mr. Incandenza's suicide, with a "flashforward" to Hal having a mental breakdown during a college interview. The plot takes a long time to come together; it's not very clear until a few hundred pages in, which really didn't help my attempts to weld together a unified mental map of the story. It meanders at a very leisurely pace, and Wallace takes every opportunity to digress, whether on the page, or in the detailed endnotes, a single one of which can be a dozen pages long.

But the plot's really not what's at stake here. It's like a nail in the wall; it plays a necessary role and does it in a functional manner, but one's attention should really be on the picture it's supporting. Infinite Jest is not about its plot. If I had to reduce it to two things, I'd say it's about compulsions and addictions. Many, if not all, of the characters in the novel are addicted to something, and they've certainly all got their own compulsive actions. In fact, there's a passage where one character complains that if AA had its way, everyone would be labeled either an addict or a recovering one. His sponsor doesn't tell him he's wrong. AA itself isn't portrayed in a particularly positive light here, as more than one character notes its resemblance to a cult. But the same can be said of the tennis academy. Or Incandenza's films. Or the Entertainment industry itself. Or the FLQ's desire for vengeance. Or... You get the idea. These things aren't particularly portrayed in a negative light, either. Avril Incandenza, James' philandering wife and the boys' overwhelming mother, makes a big point out of never condemning or judging the boys' actions, and letting them come to their own decisions. It's as if the narrator of the book is taking the same approach, and portrays Mario (the mentally and physically disabled son) and his puppet show in the same light as the former addict who fills his own personal void by stalking and murdering alley cats. The irony of this nonjudgment, if that's what's going on, is that more than one character espouses that Avril's approach places a monstrous weight on her and her children; is Wallace placing that weight on the reader? (Answer at 568 pages in, at 3 am: YES.)

I could fill a book about other interesting elements of Infinite Jest(and a quick search of Google books tells me that some people already have). So I'll limit myself to three long ramble-style comments about three facets that I found particularly appealing or significant.

First, there's the observation relating the quotation above: bad parenting. Every addicted, obsessive person in this novel had a monstrous parent in one form or another. There's fathers that molest their sons, fathers that covet their daughters, mothers of enormous girth, mothers that seek out abusive relationships, mothers that drink themselves daily into oblivion. One of the more inventive cases (Gately's father, I think) starts watching M*A*S*H. That's it. He watches the new episode every week, and brooks no interruption. Then he starts watching the reruns. Then he switches to a VCR. Soon, he's quit his job, and frantically watching it all day, unable to talk about anything else for any length of time. It's one of Wallace's more obvert points: entertainment doesn't have to be "Infinite Jest" to become a compulsion. And looming behind all the parents are the leaders of the Incandenza clan, James and Avril, or Himself and the Moms, as their sons know them--one perpetually sunny, and one a suicide.

What does it mean, all these terrible parents? Well, on the surface, it appears that it means that there is Someone To Blame--these neurotic, addiction-prone children are forged in the crucibles of their parents' pressures. But it's not that simple--James and Avril are both subject to unhappy childhoods of their own. There doesn't seem to be anyone at fault; just people in pain.

It's a rather gloomy conclusion, really; so much of narrative fiction is about punishing the guilty, if not righting a wrong (or both). So let's turn from that, and consider the story in terms of its sci-fi. (I really wanted to do an in-depth analysis of Eschaton here, but alas, that would make this post a little too long, even by my standards. In short: it's like DEFCON, but played in person, and I would have been thrilled to read 1000 pages of nothing but it.) Now, readers may be somewhat confused at this point. More than usual, I mean. Besides from the Infinite Jest tape itself, I haven't really mentioned the sci-fi element of the book. But if the plot is the nail, then the sci-fi is... the frame, let's say, to stretch the analogy further, and the futuristic setting allows some of Wallace's most cutting satirical attacks on contemporary culture to shine through.

A quick word on the satire aspect. It was this side of the book that reminded me the most of another classic work of satire, Catch 22. Catch 22, for those who haven't read it, is a critical examination of the American side of things of the last days of World War II, the point where the Ally victory was inevitable, but soldiers knew they could still die in the mop-up stages. The enemy, then, ceases to be Nazi villains and becomes instead the relentless, plodding bureaucracy that forces the soldiers to stay there against their will. The satire is starts as fairly lighthearted--arbitrarily censoring letters home, going to brothels, and so forth. But there's a point in the book where the bodies of the main character's best friends start piling up, and the horrors stack up, one after the other, and the reader realizes that whatever levity was there is now gone; there's nothing left but the darkness. There's the same moment in Infinite Jest, but with one big difference: when you realize the full extent of just how dark the book is, you realize it was that way the whole time, that the laughter was always a bit hysterical--which, in its own way, is much worse than shifting into darkness gradually.

The main historical sci-fi difference is a change of political climate. As documented by Mario, a compulsive neat freak became President of the United States, and pushed forth an agenda of extreme cleanliness. What this meant was taking a large tract of the American Northeast, pouring all of the USA's waste, nuclear or otherwise, into the area, and succeeding the whole territory to Canada--experialism, whether Canada wants the waste dump or not. But rather than render the entire area barren, all the waste turns inward on itself, and turns the rest of the area into a superverdant valley of mutants--watch out for the feral hamster herds, in other words. The other historical change is (comparatively) more subtle; in this alternate world, the FLQ is much more active and much more violent, assassinating Canadian political leaders such as Jean Chretien and Lucien Bouchard. It's nice to see an American sci-fi novel even acknowledge Canada's existence, albeit in a rather "short end" of the stick kind of manner. But again, everything comes back to addictions and compulsions: the President's compulsion towards cleanliness, and the FLQ splinter group's, the Wheelchair Assassins, obsession with reclaiming their nation, and their pure absolute hatred of anything and anyone that gets in their way. (Some of the best scenes of the book feature an American secret agent/transvestite arguing with a Wheelchair Assassian double/triple agent over the viability of the American dream in the face of such obsession.)

Finally, I'd like to talk about the elephant in the blog post. Infinite Jest is, as you've heard ad nauseum at this point, a book about compulsion and addiction. And it's about what happens when you try to find a release for those items. The book presents many alternatives: a slide into madness, homicidal tendencies (okay, maybe that's a subset of the first one), and almost religious devotion to AA. But it also doesn't shy away from a permanent solution: suicide. And given that Wallace committed suicide himself in 2008 (and, in a further parallel, was apparently a tennis prodigy), it's tempting to read the characters' stance on suicide as Wallace's view on the subject. According to the reports I've read, Wallace was on anti-depressants for most of his life; his attempts to wean himself off the drug failed, and he found that when he returned to the drugs, they were no longer affective. And when the depression returned, there was nothing to stop it. That's how one of the character's in the book describes suicide: as a pain so great, that there is no price not worth paying to alleviate it, to stop it, just for a moment. If there's any condolence to be had, Wallace is now beyond whatever pain he was experiencing.

And on that less than uplifting note, I'll draw to a close. Infinite Jest is a complex, compelling, and even sometimes funny, book. It's also a very difficult book, one that will require intense commitment and attention to finish. It's a huge time investment. And when I finished it, I felt like the first year psychology major that thinks he/she has every disorder in the book; I was convinced that my own life operates under a half dozen compulsions of my own. And yet for all that, I think it was worth reading. If you've ever got the time and inclination, go ahead and tackle a monumental text like this--everyone needs a pilgrimage every now and then.

Later Days.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Had to skim a lot of this as I should be doing work, but I think we're definitely on the same page with respect to this book.

My only notes of contention are:

1) The Year of the Glad interview opening: I don't buy the mental breakdown aspect. It seems Hal has undergone some sort of real physical damage to his nervous system, whether from DMZ (re: toothbrush conspiracy theories) or from viewing Infinite Jest, or something. There's too much weaved throughout that suggests the breakdown of his ability to control his physical mannerisms, and so much about the static hero...

2) That you can't put this book down. It actually took me a year to very slowly, putting it down over and over, get through the first 300 pages. Then I burned through the rest. The fact is, the book doesn't reveal any great secrets during that acclimatization period that you can figure out without having read the rest of it. In fact, I'd say reading the first 60 pages or so again is essential to finishing the book - and also its nicely reflective of the media addiction stuff.

If you feel like tackling another tome I would suggest 2666 by Roberto Bolano. I read it right before Infinite Jest. Very, very different in terms of how it sprawls out so far. Also much more literary than Wallace, if that makes sense (and is by no means meant as a slight, but rather, reading Infinite Jest feels more like reading postmodern theory to me than it does lit a lot of the time.)