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|Written by Daniel Polgar|
|Wednesday, 29 December 2010 00:00|
There are many reasons to be daunted by the prospect of reading David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel Infinite Jest. First of all, there's the sheer size of it: it's an absolute brick. My Back Bay paperback edition weighs 1.19 kg. (By comparison, the average Dickens paperback - Martin Chuzzlewit - weighs only about a third of that, 357 grams.) And with 1,079 pages of tightly packed text, including 96 pages of footnotes, it's not a book that can be ploughed through in a single, coffee-fuelled weekend, like, say, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Infinite Jest took me two months to read, and by the end I was atserious risk of contracting scoliosis from carrying it around and holding it in various awkward positions.
Not only does the novel contain a lot of words to read, but some of them are difficult to understand: words like "carminative," "rutilant," "carbuncular," "endocrinal," and so on. On top of that, the chronology of the plot is non-linear, and, worse still, the story takes place in a hyper-commercialized near-future in which years are tracked not by number but in something called "Subsidized Time": the Year of the Whopper is followed by the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, and then the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar. Most of the story takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. This chronology is explained on page 223; up until then, the reader is fumbling around in the dark as to when the various events take place in relation to each other.
Those 96 pages of footnotes mentioned earlier add another disorienting element; they physically and mentally break up the flow of reading. (Many readers find it necessary to use two bookmarks.) Sometimes the footnotes are simply technical descriptions of various prescription or non-prescription drugs, plus colloquial descriptions of their effects on users; other times they are pages-long transcripts of conversations between main characters; or, yet again, they offer important background context to the political and social setting of the story. In any case, they should not be ignored, or even lightly skimmed over.
Wallace is a virtuosic, ultra-bright writer, but hardly ever a smooth one. He writes in a mishmash of different voices, sometimes using a third-person omniscient narrator and at others writing from the points of view of different characters, each with his or her own distinct level of articulacy and personalized vocabulary - sometimes academic, or stoner jock-ish, or junkie slang. Some of these characters develop as the story goes on, but others die off quickly, or simply fade away, mentioned once or twice more, but with little relevance to any of the main strands of the plot.
And finally, there is Wallace's own idiosyncratic voice and use of language: for example, beginning sentences with an almost tic-like "And but so..."; using the phrase "eliminate his map" as a euphemism for killing someone; extensive use of acronyms and nicknames like "the Moms," "Booboo," "O.N.A.N." (the Organization of North American Nations), and the "A.F.R." (les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents [sic]). Characters tend to have unusual names, such as Ortho Stice, Ann Kittenplan, Matt Pemulis, Troeltsch, and John "No Relation" Wayne.
In short, this is a book for which you need to check your readerly ego at the door, and keep a good dictionary beside you. To get through this book, you'll need to meet Wallace on his own terms; he sets the bar high, and expects the reader to use his or her own intelligence and mental stamina to leap over it.
So, with all these challenges in mind, why should you read Infinite Jest? For one thing, it's entertaining. It is funny - in an endearing and often melancholy way - particularly in its depiction of a family of eccentric geniuses, the Incandenzas: James, a "post-garde" film-maker who has committed suicide before most of the action takes place; Avril ("The Moms"), a tall, grammar-obsessed agoraphobic of French-Canadian descent; their athletically-overachieving sons Orin and Hal; and the middle son, Mario, who, despite fairly severe physical challenges - he is macrocephalic and homodontic, walks and stands at a 45-degree angle, and supports himself using a police lock - maintains a sweet and innocent good nature throughout the story.
The plot is wildly - occasionally absurdly - inventive. The most prominent strand involves the search by the ruthless Quebecois separatist gang, les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents [sic], for James Incandenza's final film, Infinite Jest - a movie so devastatingly entertaining that it turns its viewers into gibbering lunatics - for use as a terrorist weapon. (Why are these assassins in wheelchairs? Because they come from a remote, economically depressed region in Quebec where the young men engage in a ritualistic night-time test of courage and agility that involves waiting until the last possible split-second before leaping across a set of railroad tracks ahead of an oncoming locomotive - leading to many deaths and mutilations.)
Most of the action takes place in two institutions in the city of Enfield, Massachusetts: the Enfield Tennis Academy, run by Avril Incandenza and her step-brother Charles Tavis (CT), and where Hal is an increasingly disillusioned, lonely, and pot-addicted tennis prodigy; and the nearby Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic], a rehab centre. One of the central tensions in the book is the recurring juxtaposition and on-going relationships between the tenants of the two institutions: the academy students are voracious consumers of steroids, cocaine, speed, and marijuana, known as "Bob Hope," or "Bob"; while the Ennet House inmates - particularly one Don Gately, who becomes, along with Hal, one of the main characters of the book - are trying to re-start their lives by establishing routines every bit is repetitive and disciplined as the training regimes of the tennis players.
These strands of plot and setting - the junior tennis players at Enfield, the recovering addicts at Ennet House, and the Wheelchair Assassins - spiral around each other, sometimes parallel to each other, sometimes crossing each other: Avril Incandenza may have ties to the A.F.R.; John "No Relation" Wayne's father was from one of the A.F.R.'s home communities, but was a humiliating failure at the railway-jumping game; Avril and John Wayne are also having an intergenerational affair. Meanwhile, the elder Incandenza son, Orin, a professional football player for the Arizona Cardinals, is being tracked by the A.F.R. In years past, Orin dated a girl named Joelle van Dyne - aka the Prettiest Girl Of All Time, or the P.G.O.A.T. - who was also an actress for James Incandenza in several of his films, including Infinite Jest. Joelle has since hit a rough spot in life, and now wears a full veil due to a horrific acid attack, and is a resident at Ennet House. These intertwining threads often threaten but never quite coalesce into an "Aha" moment whereby the whole structure of the book clicks into place and everything makes sense.
Though it resists easy interpretation, Infinite Jest will, like any good book, make you think: about depression and addiction; about entertainment, games, and leisure; about families, love, and friendship; and, perhaps most of all, about how loneliness ties into all of these things.
There is a frightening mass of information, both true and fictional, crammed into this book. You will learn more about tennis than you ever wanted, or thought you wanted, to know. You will have a much deeper understanding of addiction and addicts, and the techniques they use both to maintain their habits and then to break them. You will also learn about completely made-up things, like the history of O.N.A.N., the A.F.R., the game of Eschaton, and the complete filmography of James Incandenza,
To add to the frightening quantity of mental capacity required to hold the story of Infinite Jest in your head, there is also an ever-increasing volume of auxiliary material available: essays, theses, blogs and websites, Youtube clips, and other publications by or about Wallace, that are read, parsed, and debated by Wallace scholars and enthusiasts. It is easy to find yourself, after reading Infinite Jest, running down various rabbit-holes of interpretation, trying to figure out what exactly this huge, shaggy mountain of story all means. You can follow all the Shakespeare references, starting with the title (a quotation from Hamlet), and continuing on with the main character (Hal - another Shakespearean name) and his unresolved feelings towards his dead father and unfaithful mother, as well as numerous references to ghosts. Moving beyond Shakespeare, there is also the Ennet House inmate with the same name - Hester Thrale - as the 18th-century brewer's wife who was a patron and intimate friend of the great lexicographer, scholar, and wit, Samuel Johnson. There are other references, to Joyce, Poe, Orwell, and so on - far too many for one reader to even notice, let alone list.
As with most densely allusive novels, though, following all these loose threads, while satisfying in a superficial way, will not offer any deep reward. What is rewarding is exposing your mind to this getting a little bit lost in it, and coming out again feeling as if you've learned something, about life and how to live it. Like going for a walk in a rainforest, you won't come out with an encyclopedic knowledge of every plant and insect, but you'll nevertheless be deeply enriched by the experience. Wallace, as a writer, was fascinated by the idea that through reading, a solitary activity, one can learn how to live properly with other people - how to, as he put it, "become less alone inside."
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