Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest is a novel that undoubtedly divides readers. Any of you who follow my blog will know that it has taken me over two weeks to read and review this book and this is in part a response to some things that have been happening in my own life, but also because David Foster Wallace’s prose demands attention; you cannot speed read Infinite Jest, there are too many turns in a sentence, too many phrases that require an aural reading of the language, too many hidden delights buried in technical discussions of film-theory or tennis demanding thought in a way that even someone like me, who isn’t that interested in tennis (though does like a little film theory now and then), can’t turn away from.

Even reading this first sentence of mine, you can see how hard it is to break free from the D.F.W. way of writing. No surprises that those who like Infinite Jest are near-on obsessives, possibly mostly young male American literature-geeks who find themselves understood and expressed in the playful yet earnest prose.

There are three strands to the plot set in a near-future world where time is subsidised. Most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment in the Boston area where a tennis academy and a halfway house for addicts share a hillside. One plot strand follows some of the addicts and residential wardens of the halfway house, most importantly Don Gately a former burglar who began his addiction issues at the age of 10 drinking his mother’s vodka. One plot follows the lives of those at the tennis academy, especially those of the rich and talented Incandenza family. The final plot is about the war for Canadian and Québécois independence since the USA, Canada and Mexico signed a deal to become the Organisation of North American Nations in which the USA gave Canada all of its toxic territory destroyed by years of bad waste management (Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, violent Québécois seperatists in wheelchairs whose squeaks provide fodder for many nightmares, are some of Wallace’s more amusing if bizarre inventions).

The tennis academy was set up by James O. Incandenza, who also dabbled in making films, was an alcoholic, and who killed himself by putting his head in a microwave. The last film he made, ‘Infinite Jest’, becomes the pivot around which the plots converge. Whoever views this film finds it so pleasurable that their mind is unhinged and they are reduced to a state in which all they can do is crave further viewing of the film. But who has the original cartridge from which further copies of the film can be made and who will use it for what political purpose?

With much of the text being about addiction of one kind or another, the novel itself is addicted to flexing and stretching language in a way that exercises the reader. If you want something to chew over, there is plenty in Infinite Jest both esoteric and mundane, a language rich in slang, obscenity, dialect, acronym and challenging grammar. Any word that carries meaning, even if it requires explanation in the voluminous number of endnotes, is as valid as another; there is a pleasing parity of expression. This doesn’t mean that such a book is always a delight to read and this is where readers, I assume, divide: some will revel in the occasionally convoluted prose and Wallace’s divergent discussions of, for example, the demise of commercially subsidized television or the reason for the failure of the videophone; others will feel frustrated by it and lose the heart to continue especially as the plot evolves relatively slowly. However, the sheer wealth of detail and knowledge, whilst occasionally overwhelming, is also revealing and intriguing.

David Foster Wallace has a voice that lives up to the hype (I say has despite being aware that he can add no further words to the voice already committed to the page) and in Infinite Jest he unabashedly confronts us with our desire for pleasure and asks us what we are willing to risk to sustain that pleasure and whether we should consider redefining the meaning of pleasure itself. I would argue that the sheer volume of words is part of Wallace’s joke on our endless desire for more. If you don’t like the idea of wanting more and more of this kind of narrative, I would advise that you don’t even begin.

Next week I’m reading They Are Trying to Break Your Heart by David Savill.