About half way through David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus of a novel, Infinite Jest you realize it’s not going to end like a regular book. You realize this because the book tells it to you pretty openly. It spends much of its time ruminating and wondering about and arguing about and analyzing all of the ways in which our expectations tend more to reflect an abstracted definition of success rather than reality. And in so organizing it this way, Wallace gets to the heart not only of his book’s over-arching thematic statements (which incorporate nearly all realms familial, societal, artistic, athletic, narcotic, political)– its raison d’etre (as it would, did, does say)– but also Wallace’s own deep-rooted conflicts about the power of art to change people; of entertainment; of their place and status in our lives, and those of the artists and entertainers delivering them to us.
But it’s even more than all that too. Our expectations (in general, but for the novel in particular too, I suppose) are only important because they can help us try to figure things out or at least organize experience in a way that makes sense from one moment to the next. What should our lives be, what should anyone’s life be? What should we be doing, what does it mean to live life successfully? And in order to answer that, we have to figure out what does it mean to be successful in the first place? Whose definition? Our own? Our parents’? Society’s? And since one of the main ways success is gauged is by achievement, we look at our talents and we look at what achievements those talents can accrue and we set ourselves to the task of achieving those achievements. For Wallace, achievement lies in writing. And so this book is as much about itself as it is about its author trying to figure out what is the best type of book for a single author to attempt to write.
See? This is what happens when you start thinking about this book. Because it’s so big and so dense and can get your mind swirling very easily, I notice I haven’t been able to do more than imply the role that “addiction” in all its forms plays into all of this. But to put it simply, which is nearly impossible to do, to me the book is about addiction – to success, expectations, entertainment, family demons, et al. – and how it takes something more than (and outside of) ourselves to be able to do anything about it.
It makes sense, then, that the book is all over the place, which it is, though as I said way back in September, not all over the place in a confusing, un-followable way; but instead in an ingenious, alive, playful, searching way. One of the greatest pleasures of the book is its ability to open up your own wonder at how it could possibly have been conceived by another person, how that person managed to juggle and blend and just keep straight all the pieces to the puzzle, while still creating a cohesive, engaging, entertaining piece of literature.
The best comparison I can make is the one that will also identify why I connected to this book so much — Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.” Both are sprawling stories in which the unbeknownst interconnectivity of a community of people creates the landscape for the story; in which plot details are not simply vague but indecipherable; in which the past has a vice-grip on the characters and forces them to wonder how far back the patterns go and what, if anything, they can do to change that; and in which the ending can be described as so many different things, among which “conventional” is not one.
Infinite Jest has the advantage of being a novel which allows it to move more seamlessly through many different places in time. As well, because it shows us things with words, not images, it is able to make a character who is almost never actually present the central, dominating force of the book: James O. Incandenza. For fun, I’ll gives the most basic plot outline. James O. Incandenza was an annular- physicist-turned-tennis-academy-founder-turned-uber-anti-confluential-filmmaker (see?) who makes one particular film called “Infinite Jest,” which is said to have be so entertaining that all who watch it cannot look away and eventually die from watching it. A Canadian terrorist cell, “The Wheelchair Assassins” wants to get its hands on the film to make copies and use as a terrorist weapon. Trouble is, the film was never released, so no one has a copy, except but there must be a master copy floating around, right? The filmmaker has three sons, Orin (a kicker for the Arizona Cardinals), Hal (a 17-yr old at the tennis academy), and Mario (who is disabled and shared his father’s cinematic interests). The book also follows Don Gately, who is on staff at the half-way house down the hill from the tennis academy, where he is on parole himself and where he helps others who are connected to the filmmaker and the film itself, though none of them seem to know it. And all of this moves out in larger and larger circles.
When the book begins, James O. Incandenza has already killed himself. The book follows a few major plot lines, chronicling the events of the tennis academy — with about dozen major supporting characters and ### minor characters — and those at the halfway house – with another few dozen supporting characters and another ### minor characters — and then there are Steeply and Marathe, government officials involved in multi-layered double crosses, Marathe being a member of the aforementioned “Wheelchair Assassins.” When your book is 1100 pages long, you’d be surprised how effectively you can keep all of these strands going.
What makes the book powerful to me is the way Wallace balances his book’s world. He succeeds at creating a hilariously absurdist world, which contains so many elongated passages involving multiple complex rationales and some of the flat-out funniest writing I’ve ever read, which exposes the flaws in manmade systems. He also examines the endless minutiae of three very separate worlds – drug additions, sports [mainly tennis and football], and filmmaking – and does so in a way that is neither comprehensive nor simplified and uses them to powerfully extend into the thematic realms.
Because the writing is so funny and so smart and contains so much word-play, there is the very real danger of losing touch with the characters; of populating the world with interesting but ultimately un-identifiable people. And so Wallace deliberately slows things down sometimes and allows characters to talk, to really just talk and communicate and seek and try to make sense of their lives and circumstances and pasts. He allows them to share themselves with others in the hope of creating a connection and maybe just identifying with them. These passages come to us in a few different ways. Some are third-person narrations which take on the particular speech patterns of one specific character, as the events are relayed. Some are told through recollections of other characters, with rich, detailed prose that takes your breath away. Some are told through letters, some through terse transcripts of recorded conversations. There is the tale of the woman who refused to stop using drugs during pregnancy, gave birth to a stillborn child and carried it around like it was alive, so great was her guilt, so crushing was her grief. There is the story of Eric Clipperton, who played every tennis match holding a hand-gun to his head, threatening to shoot himself if the other player did not let him win. There is Mrs. Waite, an old lady who lived across the street from Don Gately and “basically radiated whatever mixture of unpleasantness and vulnerability it was that made you want to be cruel to her.” But my favorite is a monologue spoken to James O. Incandenza as a young boy, by his father. The section details all of the aspirations the father has for his son and also recounts an enormously painful moment in the father’s childhood that involved his father. The monologue is 12 pages long, unbroken by any prosaic interruptions. Just a father talking to his son. I could quote from these passages for a hundred pages and still it would not be enough. There is too much great writing in this book to choose economically.
These small diversions, these “systems within systems” are here because this is how people help other people and this is how Wallace hoped to help his readers, maybe the only way he knew how to. There is so very much of him in this book, so that you establish a personal connection to the writer as well as the characters. This is a writer placing himself right there with his creations, in their midst, on their level. A writer seeking to write something lasting, that will create a bond between himself and those who read the book, as well as between the readers with each other. The book is a constant reference point between myself and a friend who’s read it; not because we’ve created an elite club, but because there is a sense of shared experience between us.
I love books like this. As a writer, it has dazzled me, because it’s something so far beyond the abilities I possess. There is so much skill and craft involved, and yet love of story and of character. I also love it because reading this book is like going to writing class. It’s expanded the way I view writing in every way. It has built bridges to islands of imagination that were hitherto uncharted in my mind. I don’t think I’ve ever had this many new ideas to write about.
Infinite Jest can be overwhelming. It takes time. It takes patience. There are big words. But the effort it requires is nothing compared to the rewards that reading it affords. Please read this book. And then call me in 4-6 months. We’ll go get some food and talk about it, and we’ll have a great time.