Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace.

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Back Bay Books (Little, Brown) New York Boston London 1996. F; 12/12.

This one is unique in my experience. This review will be lengthy and chaotic, sorry…

The book feels like a very North American Book of Memories in its incredible complexity. We are first in an elite tennis academy with an unusual but also easy-to-identify-with family who run it, the suicide-deceased father of which has produced an elusive and enigmatic film which has fatally hypnotic power, and one of the sons of which (also one of the major protagonists) is a very good (but not quite the very best) young tennis player. There is also an addiction halfway house just down the hill (all this takes place in Boston) where the other major protagonist who has recovered from opioid addiction (and burglary), nearly gets killed defending a vicious hypocrite house-inmate, and is in love with one of the two gorgeous mysterious female figures who enters the halfway house after giving up addiction but was also the only character in that massively enigmatic powerful film.

Everything dances on a knife edge of irony. Infinite Jest. The language is so dead-on colloquial Boston lowlife addict, teenage elite athlete smart-alec, or clumsy Irish alcoholics anonymous speaker there is no question that Wallace has a magnificent wacky sense of humor. And the… complexity… leaves no doubt we are in the hands of one way-more than adept at manipulating levels of illusion and reality, and hinting at a fabulously cosmic, terribly serious joke.

The writing is as good, mostly, as any fiction I’ve read. The commentator of the later edition, Dave Eggers, tells us I think correctly that there isn’t a single lazy sentence in the whole thousand pages. Lazy sentence: the kind I and nearly everybody else write routinely because we don’t take the trouble to find the best words for what’s really on our mind. Just on the issue of vocabulary, I quit looking up unusual words, because about half the time if I hadn’t heard of the word, it wasn’t in the Concise Oxford, and I had to go to the OED II. Where I did find it about 80% of the time. The other 20% Wallace had just made the word up, I guess.

I made a lot of notes, and present them here in no particular order.

The book is filled with physics, particularly optics, of relevance to the enigmatic entertainment (entitled “Infinite Jest” by the way), the author of which (the tennis family father, James Incandenza) was an optics physicist who turned to film. The annulus is central, and there is a play on annulment, since an area in northern New England has been designated as a sort of dump for society’s garbage. This is termed the convexity, or concavity.

The convexity and strange connection with Canada involves the political subplot, deeply satirical. A gang of Québecois terrorists, all wheelchair-bound, are out to achieve Québec independence in the setting of a recently-united North America, using the strategy of getting their hands on Incandenza’s enigmatic entertainment and using it as a kind of biological/psychological weapon to neutralize the population of the United States. These assasins de fauteuils rollant are mostly legless because of having participated in a terrifying nighttime game of chicken with trains, where the winner is the last one to jump out of the way and still not lose his legs. Many waited too long. An American intelligence officer, dressed as a woman and described in one of the most hilarious passages of the book, befriends one of the agents of this terrorist group, and there is a double-triple-quadruple-agent ambiguity emblematic (again, I’m sure ironically) of the ambiguously multiple levels of illusion and reality in the book, art, and life. Infinite Jest.

There are over 380 footnotes at the back of the book, and we learn quickly not to ignore them, because if we do we miss critical plot elements interspersed among unimportant drug trade names and explanations of Boston street argot. Some of the important footnotes extend to five or six pages. The full filmography of James Incandenza is rendered in one of these footnotes, and contains characteristically hilarious but terrifying titles such as Fun With Teeth, which is a rendering of unanaesthetized dental operations and Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators. The seriousness of the footnotes is for me reminiscent of Syjuco’s Illustrados. Use of pseudo-academia to poke fun and also invoke serious ambiguity.

Wallace sometimes gets more leverage of this kind by making apparently dry logical scientific/mathematical material figuratively jump off the page. A game played on multiple tennis courts by the tennis academy kids involves lobbing tennis balls, which represent nuclear missiles, across an imaginary map of the world. The game gets out of hand and the silly but potentially terribly serious competition enters the more real world of the novel’s plot, again ironically referring to the idea that the book and life itself suffers from this outside-the-game confusion, probably intentionally.

There are too many small gems to list. Nightmares are incredibly realistic. One of the Incandenza brothers is a minor obsessive-compulsive and wages hilarious war against cockroaches in his shower. The Incandenza mother indulges in “politeness roulette” which is a perfect emblem of the maternal dilemma. Hal Incandenza is confronted by a counselor and asked how he feels about important family events, and says that “the most brutal questions are the ones that force you to lie”. He feels nothing at all.

The irony strangely disappears, or loses a few levels of its resonance, in some of the descriptions of the young tennis players particularly in the locker room. Wallace was, we understand, a very good junior tennis player and attended such an academy. I can’t understand this apparently quite intimate rendering of characters and description except as Wallace just suspending his sophistication to tell us about what it was like for him trying to become a professional tennis player.

Also incongruous to a sexually prurient person like me is the handling of sex in this deeply emotional and sensual book. Throughout the huge complicated story there is almost nothing titillating. Like the lazy sentence, Wallace turns away from all sorts of obvious opportunities like the attractive athletic teenagers in the tennis academy, the exquisitely gorgeous enigmatic female character (“Madame Psychosis”), and the Incandenza brother Orin who is a sexual-score champion. Sex, although it crops up in narrative and plot, is on the minds of characters, and is implicit in plenty of dramatic situations, is always held at arm’s length. I’m not sure what this represents unless it is affirmation that something fabulous that doesn’t rely on erotic stimulation can exist.

The whole plot takes place in an imaginary future (with some of the 1984 and 2001: A Space Odyssey reverse-anachronism problems. The book was written 16 years before I read it) in which for example “subsidized time” has replaced the sequential numbering of years with commercial year names. So the novel’s present is the “Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment”, subsequent to the “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad” and so on.

A pervading theme is perfection. Something too perfect. Is it a joke? Apparently not for members of the audience in one of Incandenza (named by his family “himself”)’s films watching two fatally gorgeous characters attempting to avoid being annihilated by one another’s (or their own; mirrors are involved) beauty where the audience eventually are all turned to stone. Madame Psychosis (Joelle), the character in the fatal film Infinite Jest had her perfect face hideously deformed when acid, thrown at her father by her mother, missed and hit her. She therefore wears a veil. She and others who belong to a kind of cult of deformed people are said to be “hidden by hiddenness”.

I’m left at the end with an overwhelming sense of having stumbled through something bigger than I’m able to comprehend, although reading the long story hardly felt like stumbling. There is toward the end a partial dénouement of some of the symbolism, when the central fatal entertainment Infinite Jest is revealed to have been buried with its author, where nobody can get at it, in the middle of the territory where through some sub molecular changes discovered by the governments of the new North American Union all the waste is converted into something harmless, but there are a variety of very strange consequences. The bottom line being nobody can go there. The perfect thing is a failure, a dreadful thing or a deformed thing, but in any case something we can’t get at. Infinite jest.

Through the whole great length of this book, there were only a couple of times where I didn’t want to keep going, want more of the same. I’m told Wallace is one of the few authors to whom entire university courses are dedicated. Shakespeare would be another one, at least in the old days. I’ve ordered a critique of the book by someone called Stephen Burn. It’ll be interesting to see what the common wisdom is.

And of course Wallace, who discusses depression in as emotionally gripping a way as I’ve heard it described, committed suicide. Imagine what he might have done if he had somehow kept going. 9.6/9.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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