Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Imagine an immense book about the Royal Tenenbaums, but instead of the father just being generally quirky and giving his family complexes, he also makes a fortune as a genius optical theoretician, opens a tennis academy, produces movies including one so entertaining that anyone who sees it becomes a mindless vegetable, and ultimately kills himself by putting his head in a microwave. And all of this happens before the novel’s narrative even begins.
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is a little bit like what that book might have been like. Like Wolfe’s Peace, the last book I reviewed on Goodreads, Infinite Jest has multiple levels. As I got into it I was a bit surprised to find I had never seen it classified as science fiction. Many of the elements are there: a near-future in which the USA has sort of haphazardly absorbed Canada and Mexico, waste launched by giant catapults into a toxic landfill where much of northern New England had been, at least one ghost who may be electromagnetically induced, and a cabal of paraplegic Quebecois separatist assassins trying to get their hands on the “Entertainment” mentioned above to use it as the ultimate terrorist weapon against the US. In this respect, aspects of the book read like an incredibly dense, exceedingly verbose cross between Philip K. Dick and Douglas Adams.
Infinite Jest is also about substance dependency (which also brings Dick to mind): what it looks like and feels like, what it does, and how people live with it and after it. Much of the action of the novel takes place at a drug-recovery halfway house, and the portions of the work that I found most compelling were the long descriptions that one of the novel’s main characters, a former addict named Don Gately, provided of the ins and outs of AA meetings. Gately is surrounded by the after-effects of drug addiction and alcoholism, and he moves through it as a quiet, humble, and intensely real character, even rising briefly to the level of heroics. Wallace gives the reader a long look into the mind of (several) recovering addicts as well as an unflinching view of psychotic depression, but what is amazing about the way he does it is that you come away with the sense that not only are all these people true and real characters, but most of them are intensely likable.
The book is also about tennis, at times excruciatingly, precisely, microscopically about tennis. Besides the halfway house down the hill, the tennis academy founded by one of the protagonist’s now-deceased father is the other focus of much of the book’s—I almost want to say action, but you might just as well write description. But of course even here it’s about much else: family relationships, sibling love, adolescence, and again some drugs. And even in the places where the detail reaches a near-frenzied level of description, as for example in Wallace’s extended description of a Risk-type game the tennis players play for fun on a field extending over several tennis courts that continues to a play-by-play description of said nuclear-Armageddon-simulation game, it is often to build up to a situation in which the humor (not in a laugh-out-loud sort of way but in a more Wes Anderson-esque “Isn’t life just so excruciatingly funny that I don’t know whether to cry or laugh?” sort of way) could never have arrived at without the detail, and so much of the time the labored detail is worth it. (Plus, an argument could be made that you can’t create characters as intensely real as Don Gately or Mario Incandenza without hundreds of pages describing their memories and thoughts and random experiences.)
But the detail is also the biggest hurdle in reading this book. Wallace introduces so many characters it’s nearly impossible to keep track of them all. Most frustratingly, some of them never seem to appear again or to appear again briefly only to disappear without a trace. Once you’ve found the author’s rhythm (which took me about 300 pages), you ride that through most of the middle of the book (which is where a lot of the truly wonderful prose takes place), and then you’re amazed and excited when the lives of some of these characters start to intersect. Plus the wheelchair assassins are getting closer, and the dreaded Entertainment could turn up anywhere, and at least one character gets to do something heroic—and (spoilers)
Well, then the book ends. With so much left hanging. With very little neatly tied up. The ending reminded me of my experience after viewing Donnie Darko. I thought the movie was great but had to spend an hour afterward researching on the internet what exactly had happened in said movie and was disappointed because I didn’t think enough clues were there in the movie itself for viewers to make clear sense of it. Infinite Jest is quite a bit denser than Donnie Darko, so I’ll admit there are probably loads of clues I missed. Re-reading the first chapter hinted at some pivotal interfacing between main characters taking place after the primary narrative’s conclusion (a little bit like going back and re-reading the beginning after finishing the end of Peace or Lafferty’s The Devil is Dead only with a few more inches of paper between), but not much that I could tell beyond that.
Was I disappointed? A bit. I wanted a bigger narrative payoff after such an investment of time. The book is after all called Infinite Jest, but ultimately I didn’t feel the author was playing a joke on me. I didn’t feel like my time had been wasted. I’ll admit I started to get aggravated with the end-notes, especially as it seemed some pivotal information was hidden away there that I had to keep interrupting the narrative to go ferret out (and which I often didn’t). If I ever feel audacious enough to tackle this 1000+ page leviathan again, I definitely won’t tear through the final dozen pages nearly beating my head against the wall because who needs more back story about Gately’s addictive death-spiral because I just want to find out if these crazy Canadians find the cartridge and whether Gately and Hal and Mario and Joelle are all going to be okay. Wallace doesn’t tell you whether your characters are going to be okay. But he does say a lot about addiction and reality and life, and the book reads like he was someone who knew.