I cannot capture in a review what Infinite Jest is and why I love it. Here is a philosopher at work; but also a great wit and exquisite writer.
It sounds strange to say that he ‘gets to the heart of the matter’ when the book is this long but David Foster Wallace pulls from a myriad of conversations, tennis drills, night walks, family dinners and drug busts the essence of what it is to be human.
He does much more besides: predicts the future, gives voice to the marginalised, and entertains. One footnote alone had me laughing for hours.
It’s the story of the Incandenza family and a cast of characters, many and varied – mainly set in a tennis academy and a nearby halfway house for recovering drug addicts. Hal is a tennis prodigy and when the book opens he is in a college interview with Uncle C. T. Travis speaking for him; he has “already justified his high seed in this week’s not unstiff competition…”
And from the opening pages – with echoes of P. G. Wodehouse and Douglas Adams’ humour – I was hooked. 1,000 pages and there is not a pat sentence, much less a cliche, among them.
DFW skewers, variously: fast talkers, film students, sports jocks, conscientious mothers, white-haired AA veterans (‘crocodiles’), politicians and spin doctors. He is so observant, the humour so spot-on, that I laughed out loud throughout much of the book, and re-read passages for fun (the last thing you think you want to do with a book this length).
But what has stayed with me is the compassion for the addicts, the deformed, those on the fringe. The residents of Ennet House are in a battle for survival and he makes heroes of all (or most). An acne-prone student engineer, invisible to most, becomes the star of his own story.
Mario Incandenza, a homodontist dwarf with an extra-large head and permanent smile, who stands on a lean, is almost exaggeratedly deformed but emerges as the book’s wise sage and most poignant character.
Milan Kundera says the job of a novelist is to describe: “compassion for the ephemeral, salvaging the perishable.” (The Curtain).
DFW takes great care in describing the lives of each of his many characters. I felt the anxiety of waiting for a drug dealer with Erdedy: “He had never been so anxious for the arrival of a woman he did not want to see” and could picture the child Hal “holding out the mold, seriously, like the report of some kind of audit.”
Each paragraph shines a light on an aspect of human existence, so that by the end you feel like a country has been brought to life in all its messy glory; he has carefully woven a theory of the meaning of life.
Some say it is self-indulgent but I disagree – it is rather, a generous book in which not one word is wasted. DFW was having fun (I hope); perhaps showing off (who cares) but I had the sense he was trying urgently to communicate something essential about life: that everyone’s life is an absurd struggle, but each has value, if we would stop and cherish the small fleeting moments.
Albert Camus said that life loses meaning when we start doing things by habit and see ourselves as machines or drones, and that:
“There is only one serious philosophical question and that is suicide.”
Tennis is a metaphor for life: the beauty of the game, but also the repetitive drills the juniors undertake; they will become part of the entertainment machine if they make it to ‘the Show’ – but only one or two will, making the endless practice absurd. Jim Incandenza’s father says to him: “Jim, brace yourself against my shoulder here for this hard news, at ten: you’re a machine a body an object, Jim.”
Schtitt explains tennis to Mario in one of my favourite passages: DFW soaring into highbrow maths theory with a continuum of infinities: each shot in tennis leads to infinite responses, but they are contained by the skill and imagination of the player, “ie by oneself” so that tennis is “life’s endless war against the self that you cannot live without.”
Mario: “And then but so what’s the difference between tennis and suicide, life and death, the game and its own end?”
Schtitt answers, “the chance to play.”
Kate Gompert, severely depressed, in a later scene, says “I don’t want to play anymore.”
DFW has compassion for the down-and-out and empathy for the suicidal. He does not shy away, and respects those experiences as much as Orin punting a football or Pemulis scoring DMZ. The fact that DFW took his own life in 2006 makes these sections extra poignant.
Addiction is a major theme. We see Americans’ addiction to entertainment – DFW eerily prescient regarding a future in which people can programme their own TV and watch themselves.
Marathe, a Quebec terrorist, and Steeply, a spy, discuss this.
“Now what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to live … A USSA that would die … for the so-called perfect Entertainment.”
The Entertainment refers to the film “Infinite Jest” made by Jim Incandenza which is reportedly so addictive that anyone who watches it will die.
Hal muses towards the end of the book: “We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. … A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat?” Meaning running from the monotony of life. But one cannot escape one’s own life. And we are back to tennis and Schtitt: “life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without.”
Communication is another theme: Hal is precocious with language but his father believes he cannot speak; Gately is mute at one point; Marathe has translation issues; Joelle is ‘apparently mute’ earlier; Orin lies.
The way we survive and make life bearable is by communicating with others, and how we connect with family and each other. Hal and Orin’s phone conversations are some of the funniest passages in the book, true and touching. Ennet House is a family of sorts.
DFW also makes almost a cult of deformity, notably with the Union for the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, started by a woman insulted by Winston Churchill. Madame Psychosis’s radio show, where she reads out the PR circular for the union, has a wonderfully off-beat, Lynchian black humour: “Come all ye hateful. Blessed are the poor in body, for they.” This running theme shows DFW’s exaggerated quirky brilliance – combining comedy with sadness – that is so affecting.
The great pleasure of the book comes from its language. It is virtuoso and covers every tone, every register.
A street in Boston: “rained-on sienna-glazed streets … cars sheening by with the special lonely sound of cars in rain.”
Avril on Hal’s friends: “reptilian Michael Pemulis and trail-of-slime-leaving James Struck, both of whom gave Avril a howling case of the maternal fantods.”
The drug DMZ: “the single grimmest thing every conceived in a tube.”
Joelle in a moment of ecstacy: “deveiled and loved, observed and alone and sufficient and female, full, as if watched for an instant by God.”
Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner, “suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reactionary voter spasm.”
It goes on and on; every line is quotable and the endnotes are gold.
The ending is much debated and left me dazed and confused, but I would not have expected DFW to tied it up neatly. It left me wanting more. And it leaves other books – good, award-shortlisted books – seeming basic by comparison, or too perfect, vetted and boring. (DFW warned against the ‘tweed breeze’ of taught literature in an essay).
I’m left wondering how DFW could live with all those words, all those ideas, inside his head, with – I’m sure to him – an imperfect ability to communicate them to others – and yet the absurdity of trying to every day. Sadly for all of us, he could not. He burned too brightly.
It is said that IJ is the defining book of the 1990s. I loved the nostalgic 1990s feel. And but so it also made me wonder, what will be the defining book of the new millenium?