Chris’ Review: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

My husband Chris’ reading interests are very different from mine.  I always have a book on the go:  when I finish one, I immediately start another.  Chris, however, is happy re-reading favorites.  When he picks up something new, it usually falls under the heading, “seriously ambitious reading project.”  For example, several years ago he read all 7 volumes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  A couple of years ago something sparked an interest in David Foster Wallace.  Spotting a seriously ambitious reading project in the making, I gave him a copy of Infinite Jest for Christmas.  For a long time, it just sat on a table awaiting his attention.  Another Christmas passed.  And then one day, the seriously ambitious reading project took hold.  As Chris worked his way through the book, he occasionally shared passages with me, and often launched into dissertations for the family over dinner.  Sadly, this “entertainment” was mostly met with blank stares as we all struggled to grasp the meaning.  As he approached the end of the book, he offered to write a review as a guest post on this blog.

Today I’m proud to feature guest reviewer Chris, and I think you’ll be interested in what he has to say about Infinite Jest.  Every time he shared thoughts with me, my response was something like, “that’s very nice dear, but I’m really not interested in reading the book.”  But I have to admit, after reading this review, I’m just a tiny bit interested.  So without further ado …

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It seems that you can’t swing a literary cat these days without bumping against the legacy of David Foster Wallace, a once-in-a-generation writer whose breadth of subject and depth of analysis made him an icon for legions of millennial, hipster/brainiac supplicants.  His commencement speech in 2005 at Kenyon College is treated as a mini masterpiece of practical philosophy.  Consider the Lobster, an article written for Gourmet magazine, quickly became agitprop for strident vegetarians (of which I am one.) And this year’s release of The Pale King, his last (and unfinished) novel, went directly to the New York Times best sellers list.  But these works all orbit around a bright sun that is his magnum opus, Infinite Jest.

When he took his own life in 2008, David Foster Wallace had already grown weary of answering questions about the book.  Weighing in 1,079 pages and containing 388 end notes, it challenged the notion that popular, commercial fiction needed to provide a swift and accessible read to the literary public.  Wallace’s biggest gripe about the avalanche of positive reviews that came out shortly after it was released in 1996, was that critics couldn’t have actually read it.  “I’m pretty good at elementary mathematics – it is physically impossible to finish it that quickly.”  In addition, he took issue with some opinions that it was in any way humorous.  “I set out” he said, “to write a sad book.”

Infinite Jest is indeed a sad book.   It brings together the darker elements of Kurt Vonnegut and Samuel Clemens, and sets them loose in a dystopian near-future — where years bear the names of corporate sponsors and North American countries operate as a sort of super state.  In rough terms, the story revolves around three loci: a tennis academy, a drug rehabilitation halfway house, and a Quebecois independence freedom fighting/terrorist group.  Once Wallace establishes the similarities of these bodies, he then sets the characters free, stumbling like Kilgore Trout toward their own metaphorical Midland Arts Festival.  They all are somehow connected to a Dingus that takes on increasing importance as the story progresses.  Along the way, the tennis players, junkies, and amputees will interact (or not), find connections (or not), and slowly give themselves over to their addictions (or not.)

The genius of Infinite Jest is not the resolution of any dramatic arc, but rather the discomfort we feel while being engaged in the process of living within Wallace’s narrative.  Ultimately, at least for me, Infinite Jest is about families – the ones we are born into, the ones we join, and the ones we create in ourselves as we shed our skins to move from one phase of our lives to another.

Atop the hill, the Incandenza family owns the Enfield Tennis Academy.  Leaving aside the important and rich histories of the mater and pater, the three brothers carry much of the action.  Orin, the prodigal womanizer, is a punter in the NFL and has very little contact with the family.  Hal, who shares many traits with Wallace himself, (tennis prodigy, polymath) is the heart of the novel.  Mario, the deformed middle brother, is a sort of spiritual center.  I suspect that any similarities to the Brothers Karamazov are intentional.

Down the hill lies Ennett House, a halfway house for recovering addicts who constitute a slightly less tidy family.  The residents’ addiction to substances mirrors the ETA students’ addiction to sports success.  Wallace’s insight into the mind of an addict displays either a great deal of first-hand knowledge, or an empathy that borders on creepy brilliance.  Some of the best passages in the book explain Wallace’s respect for the seemingly trite AA bromides that guide the addicts’ lives.  There is a kind of poignancy as this towering intellect, this Amherst scholar, this recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship brings his full weight to bear on the power of a phrase such as “One Day At A Time” or “Easy Does It.”

Least compelling are Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (The Wheelchair Assassins), a Quebec separatist group whose rite-of-passage includes throwing yourself in front of a moving train.  The AFR’s beef with ONAN (Organization of North American States) is as vague as it is violent.  Their desire to find the Infinite Jest cartridge (“The Entertainment”), and put its power to their use, drives the story to its eventual conclusion.

Each of the three families has a connection to the all-powerful entertainment cartridge and this puts them all in danger.  With broad and specific allusions to the bard, (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest.”) the protagonists move toward  their tragic fates.  Or do they?

Infinite Jest contains some of the grimmest passages I’ve come across in literature, and at times it is almost unreadable.  But within the detailed accounts of bad trips, child buggery, family dysfunction, domestic violence, animal cruelty, and utter despair, Wallace’s tortured voice does speak to some light in the human condition.  There is a particularly charming Tom-and-Huck-like scene with “little buddies” searching for giant rats in the subterranean caves of the academy.  Wallace’s ability to write authentic dialogue shines as brothers Orin and Hal converse in their prep-school jock lingo about girls and personal hygiene.   And the ongoing monologue of recovering addict and Enfield House hero Don Gately, as he faces the tedium of his own and his community’s substance abuse, should be required reading for anyone considering a career in social work.  Contrary to what some say, it requires all 1,079 pages to fully flesh out the technical, psychological, and pharmacological requirements of this truly big book.

But what raises Infinite Jest out of an emotional quagmire is Wallace’s own belief that in a sprawling, post-modern world it is possible to find grace.  And for me, this grace is personified by the hideously deformed Mario Incandenza.  No taller than a fire hydrant, without a skull, unable to stand on his own, Mario seems to be the only character not driven toward (or from) something bigger than himself.  Late in the book, younger brother Hal confesses to Mario a myriad of sins.  It marks Hal’s first moment of self-awareness, but could create disaster for the entire Incandenza family.  He asks for forgiveness, and understands how his duplicity has hurt his brother.  Unfazed, Mario reassures Hal, “I’m zero percent hurt, Hal. . . I feel like you always tell me the truth.  You tell me when it’s right to. . . I feel like you’re the only one who knows when it’s right to tell.  I can’t know for you, so why should I be hurt?”  In one brief exchange, Wallace provides forgiveness for the human condition and a blueprint for finding peace in an imperfect world.

As Infinite Jest reaches its frenetic conclusion, you will be left with more questions than answers.  And there is a sizable sub-culture that has emerged to explain the loose ends of the final pages — and there are many.  But the biggest question of all is what could have David Foster Wallace achieved, in his writing, his activism, and his life if he could have overcome his own demons and found his own peace.

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10 thoughts on “Chris’ Review: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

  1. You just nudged this thumper up the TBR pile, Chris, with this superb review. Back in my marking days this would have had an A+.

  2. Wow, what a terrific review of a book I will admit scares the crap out of me for its density and philosophical wanderings. I’m with you, Laura, Chris’ review makes me almost want to go out and read the book (almost – but I’m still scared!). I think Chris should have a guest spot more often 🙂

  3. Wow, this is an excellent review that may just push me towards a book that I’ve considered in the past, but then always stepped back from because of the time commitment and the “too many books” issue. Very persuasive Chris!

  4. Thanks for the kind words! I do think that this would work best in a book group setting, as it would help push you through the roughest bits. Be warned, the last 200 pages or so take some real determination.

  5. Loved this review! Infinite Jest is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages. I was thrilled to read the about the depth of this book!

  6. I have been both fascinated by and a bit scared of Infinite Jest for years now. This review really gave me a much better sense of what the book actually is than I have ever had before. Thanks for such a great resource.

  7. My 18 year old son considers Infinite Jest to be the best book he has ever read. There are four copies of the book floating around his group of friends – as one friend finishes a copy it is passed on.

    It took him nine months (with a two month break for AP tests) and he thinks it should be required reading. He just finished Wallace’s This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life and has already packed it to go to college with him.

    I know Consider the Lobster will be on his Christmas List.

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