Prior to his death, my only exposure to DFW was his graduation speech “This is Water”. I thought it was apt stuff, insightful on a level uncommon with graduation speeches, which are so often concerned with mindless platitudes like “help others” or “success is inspiration + perspiration” or “wear sunscreen.” Here was something that looked at life not just through a fine microscope, but a magic decoder ring as well.
DFW’s big claim to fame came before that, back in 1996, with his novel Infinite Jest. It was one of the last big postmodern novels of the 20th century. There were all the comparisons with Pynchon and Gaddis. Wallace actually didn’t like the “postmodern” attribute, instead hoping his writing possessed more of a humanist morality, more heartfelt than the clever intertextual nihilism of his peers.
Not to say the book isn’t daunting. Over a thousand pages, multiple spans without paragraph breaks, footnotes, words not found in common dictionaries, etc. The introduction does its best to dispel such qualms (by Dave Eggers, no less), but still, there is a sense of foreboding when taking the thing on, perhaps even dread. The title claims “infinite!”…but only in “jest”…?
That dread is appropriate – Hamlet being one of the primary allusions. There’s even a scene set in a graveyard, a skull held aloft, potentially holding secrets. Hal Incandenza is our protagonist, a tennis prodigy at the Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA) in urban Boston. His late father, James, was the headmaster of the school before offing himself in a jury-rigged microwave. James Incandenza was a film auteur of some renown, but his final film (titled Infinite Jest) is the novel’s MacGuffin, a film so entertaining that anyone who watches it becomes instantly addicted, a mindless zombie.
The book meanders to this plot point, however, laboring over Hal’s family, his peers, the physics and philosophy of tennis, Hal’s chemical addiction to marijuana. The writing itself is what keeps the entire thing aloft. Like “This is water”, DFW sees things from an angle beneath and within.
First – he has verisimilitude and inner monologue so perfected that instead of “communicating” the thoughts/feelings/actions of a character in question, the reader has a running “download” of the event in question. Dialogue goes on for many pages without attributive pronouns and you can follow along because the characterization and verbal tics are so distinct and well-mapped. On top of that, the characters and conversations are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Second – DFW has admitted the book takes its structure from a Serpenski Triangle, a rough sort of fractal. Both the narrative and the character threads start out simple enough at the top. But as the novel progresses, we revisit those same characters (and sometimes tertiary peers) with an increasing zoomed macrovision. This pattern shows up both at the highest level: the days that comprise the “chapters” of the book, and also the inner monologue of the characters – tiny little bits of flotsam (from J. Incandenza’s filmography, to a bizarre plot that involves a Québec terrorist group of wheelchair assassins trying to obtain the master copy of Infinite Jest (called the samizdat) in order to threaten O.N.A.N. (organization of North American Nations), even the various chemical substances imbibed by characters) are expanded into lengthy anecdotes in the infamous footnotes.
The footnotes are an interesting aside. They make the act of reading the book a sort of performance art. The reader has to decide to interrupt the narrative, break concentration and flip to the back of the book to expand upon an obscure reference. In a way it’s similar to using hyperlinks on a webpage – perhaps DFW was alluding to this when the web was in its infancy. Even more fascinating is that the footnotes are probably less interruptive than DFW originally intended, because we have 10-15 years of training on the web under our belts.
Hal’s counterpart is a man named Don Gately, a hardcore synthetic opoid addict and burglar, now recovering in a halfway house down the hill from ETA. Don’s had a sorry life, rising out of the typical abusive family into an adolescence of experimentation and inevitable addiction. Burglary is only to support the habit. But when we encounter him he’s attending AA, attempting to be clean and sober. So in a way his arc is the inverse of Hal’s: Don attempts day by day to find lucidity free of Substance; Hal degenerates day by day into growing Substance addiction.
The core moral revolves around the interplay between happiness, entertainment and addiction. What is the threshold when anything we enjoy becomes addictive, be it tennis, pot, morphine, television shows, films, even Alcohol Anonymous groups? Do we have any hope when we’re bombarded with messages of infinite consumption, vehicles of addictive entertainment, on-demand pleasure? Since the book was published, there already have been instances of people dieing of dehydration, glued to some video game in a South Korean net cafe. Technology will only grow more insidious and addictive, and that same sad story will be repeated.
Infinite Jest is a brave book, because DFW gives so much of himself in writing it. There are passages about addiction and depression and suicide (half a dozen characters attempt/succeed in de-mapping themselves) so insightful and truthful they can’t be anything other than autobiography. Wallace’s suicide was tragic, but I will admit it was one of the reasons I started reading him (both IJ and his essays). He never could escape the demons he paints so well. If we think about his original intent – to create a sort of moral literature – IJ is a vital book. It’s wrong to call Wallace a martyr – that he felt the weight of his ideas so strongly he died because of them (ignoring all the biochemistry of depression). But if his death brings readers to his writing and ideas, and in turn makes them think and escape the traps of addiction/depression, is that a silver lining?
Ultimately we do come back to the samizdat, the failed entertainment. The book ends where it begins, questions of the climax hidden in the opening paragraphs, and we’re sucked into reading the whole thing again: an infinite loop, an infinite jest.