Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest

In some ways the descriptions I read of Infinite Jest made it off-putting to me as a reader. It is said to be a quite difficult, confusing, postmodern sort of novel, not to mention over a thousand pages long, whereas I generally prefer things that make sense.

In other respects, I approached Infinite Jest with a positive attitude because I’ve developed a certain attachment to David Foster Wallace from having read and very much enjoyed two collections of his nonfiction essays, as well as from what I know of his life and the kind of person he was. I want to know him better and understand him better.

So this kind of book is typically not my cup of tea, and indeed normally I wouldn’t read such a book at all, but I feel like due to my connection with Wallace if there were ever a time for me to be open to a book like this and give it a fair chance that would be now.

There are three main plotlines in Infinite Jest, with only a small amount of interaction between them. They run parallel as you move through the book, so that in some ways it’s like reading—and trying to keep track of the characters from—three different novels simultaneously.

One of the three involves an Alcoholics Anonymous group in Boston, and members’ struggles to free themselves from drugs and alcohol. A second concerns an elite tennis academy also in Boston, a boarding school that covers the academic basics but primarily focuses on developing tennis prodigies. A third is about the political context in which the novel occurs.

To elaborate on the third, the story takes place a decade or so in the future from when it was written. The United States, Canada, and Mexico have formed into one mega-country, dominated by the U.S. A good portion of the New England region has been ceded to Canada in exchange for the U.S. being allowed to use it as a giant toxic waste dump. Politics has moved even further rightward toward increased corporate domination and absurdity, with the president being a nincompoop former Vegas lounge singer, and corporations buying the naming rights to calendar years (i.e., instead of numerical years such as 2007, 2008, etc., the years are now named “the Year of the Whopper,” “the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment,” and so on).

A terrorist group of Quebecois French Canadians seeks to disrupt this new arrangement. As a rite of passage in their youth to prove their toughness and loyalty to the cause, they play a sort of game of chicken with trains until their legs are crushed, so as adults they are all in wheelchairs.

The biggest current threat to the new order takes the form of an independent short film (made years ago by the eccentric founder of the tennis academy). It is so mesmerizingly entertaining that no one who sees it can ever focus on anything else, including the bare necessities to sustain their own life. If they can keep watching it they do, until they’re dead. If they are prevented from watching it further they go insane. (It’s like the Monty Python skit about the funniest joke in history, used as a weapon in World War II.)

This third plotline mostly involves long dialogues between a government agent and one of the Quebecois terrorists about their ideologies and such, as well as attempts to use or find and destroy the fatally entertaining film.

As I read the book, I always had in the back of my mind some comments I heard Wallace make about this book in a Charlie Rose interview now on YouTube. One was that while the book was most often praised for being funny, he himself intended it as very sad. A second was that the narrative structure is supposed to be fractured in a way that roughly corresponds to the way life itself—especially modern life in an advanced nation such as the U.S.—is experienced as disjointed, confusing, and incomplete.

As to the first, I suppose in this respect I’m more in tune with Wallace than are most readers and critics, because I definitely experienced this story as more sad than funny. The characters exhibit cruelty, insanity, depression, substance addiction, arrogance, and a host of other unappealing traits. Not that there aren’t also instances of moral strength, intelligence, compassion, and the like, but on the whole these are unpleasant people leading unpleasant lives with little positive human connection. I disliked, or felt sad for, or both, the vast majority of the significant characters.

It’s a sad book that feels like it was written by someone in pain, about life in a darkly ridiculous world that overlaps to an uncomfortable degree with our own.

No question there’s humor in it too. There’s satire at its core, and plenty of inventive absurdity.

But aside from an occasional chuckle the humor didn’t do much for me. I much prefer the style of self-deprecating wit Wallace displays in his nonfiction essays. Some of the things he tosses in here as humorously absurd I agree are absurd but don’t agree are humorous.

Just as one small example that falls flat for me, consider the case of the tennis player who wins all his matches every tournament because he plays with a racquet in one hand and a loaded gun aimed at his head in the other, and threatens to commit suicide if his opponent doesn’t let him win, which opponents always do so they won’t have his death on their conscience.

It’s a clever concept I suppose, but funny? I just see it as unrealistic, and much more sad than funny if it somehow were realistic. I know you’re not supposed to complain that something intentionally absurd is unrealistic, but when I read something like this I have trouble getting past the implausibility that anyone would ever let this guy into another tennis tournament after the first time he pulled out a loaded gun on the court.

Indeed, when I think about how I responded to the three main plotlines in the book, there’s a clear correlation with how serious or funny they’re intended to be. The drug and alcohol rehab stuff is mostly presented straight, and that was clearly my favorite of the three. Those characters felt the most like flesh and blood people doing their best in very difficult circumstances. I could empathize with some of them, care about them and want to better understand them and their situations.

At the other end, the political stuff is the most clearly satirical, and it’s the plotline I found least satisfying.

This is something I’ve noticed before, just how difficult it is to satirize something that’s already ridiculous (e.g., televangelism). It rarely if ever works, and it doesn’t work here.

It’s like Wallace is telling us that if we only took the reality of politics and the plutocracy of corporate America and such and pushed it a little farther toward the extreme we’d realize just how ridiculous and horrifying it is. The problem is I have no difficulty perceiving the ridiculous and horrifying nature of that reality, without having to imaginatively take it any further. For heaven’s sake, we live in a world where Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin, and the Koch brothers are taken seriously. If you don’t see that as clear evidence of the basic stupidity, irrationality, and sheeplike nature of a large segment of the American, and human, population, then I seriously doubt satire is going to open your eyes.

Plus, again, there’s the plausibility issue. I know, I know, it’s intentionally absurd humor so I’m not supposed to mention it, but I’m just saying.

Take the corporate sponsorship of years thing. I get that it’s a satirical extension of the already obnoxious corporate naming of sports stadiums and such, but it’s not a plausible next step in corporate domination. Years are numerical for a reason. You calculate with them in a way you don’t with sports stadiums. It’s ten years from 1997 to 2007 because those numbers are ten apart. How many years is it from 1997 to the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment?

Furthermore, it’s unenforceable. With sports stadiums you can do such things as mandate in the TV contracts that the announcers have to refer to the stadiums by their corporate sponsor names. With the Year of the Whopper, other than Burger King and the government who would call it that? Why would McDonald’s or Japan or Joe Shmoe in Podunk call it the Year of the Whopper instead of 2005?

But what about this matter of an intentionally fractured, disjointed, postmodern narrative? Does it work? Does it somehow reflect the absurd and confusing reality of contemporary life?

For me, this book was largely not an enjoyable read, and that was due more to the style than anything else. I’d like very much to have had an opportunity to converse with Wallace about his intentions here, to have him explicate his remark about wanting his story to be fractured in the way that life is, because mostly this doesn’t seem to me to achieve that.

I mean, to a very limited extent I get what he’s saying. I understand that conventional fiction can often be characterized as unrealistically neat and tidy compared to real life, that everything kind of hangs together understandably, the loose ends are tied up in the end, etc. Or as has been remarked about television, a story has to be presented in such a way that all its problems can be resolved inside of thirty minutes. Certainly there’s an unrealistic simplicity in that sense to most stories we’re used to, and certainly life itself is not experienced so conveniently.

But still, does this kind of surreal or postmodern storytelling better recreate the non-simple, inconvenient reality of life? I’m unconvinced that it does.

The book jumps around out of chronological order. Life doesn’t. The book gives you little bits and pieces of information about characters not at all in an order that would make the most logical sense in getting to know them. Life can be sort of like that, but not to this extreme, in part because you can focus your attention where you need to in order to better understand someone or something, rather than having to take what happens to be doled out by a writer who is in control. The book mentions things in ways that enable you to read between the lines to learn something about the world these characters live in, such as the corporate sponsorship of years. In real life you wouldn’t have to infer such things; you’d know them straightforwardly.

Maybe life’s not all that much like conventional storytelling, but it’s not like this either.

Think about how infuriating and pointless it would be to deal with a postmodern person, someone who communicated like postmodern books and movies and other art. I doubt you’d come away from such an encounter feeling like engaging with this person was typical of contemporary life. I would think instead it would stand out to you as very atypical (not that you ever would encounter such a person outside of an asylum). I assume I’d quickly get disgusted with a person talking in riddles and making little or no sense.

That’s how I typically respond to postmodern narratives, though it’s worth noting that this book seems to me a quite mild and therefore more palatable version of postmodernism.

But when a book jumps around like this without explanation, about all I can do is react to the trees rather than the forest, and indeed even my perception of the trees is adversely affected by having so little grasp of the forest, since context can help enormously in understanding particulars.

My understanding of the trees, while limited, was interesting enough often enough that I wouldn’t say it was an unrewarding chore forcing my way through Infinite Jest. It was more difficult than most things I read, but I didn’t hate the experience. I suspect, though, that my perceptions were influenced by my previous connection to the author. Were this by someone I was previously unfamiliar with, I probably wouldn’t have had as much patience with it. But I really wanted to like this book and to get something out of it.

The length in and of itself is not that big a deal. If I hadn’t read this book I likely would have read about the same number of pages over the same time period, just spread out over two or three other books. It’s a strain to get through because of its style, not because of its length.

As I read Infinite Jest, plenty of other thoughts came to mind. I’ll toss out a few of them now, in more or less random fashion.

As I mentioned, I found these characters to mostly not be likable. There are few of them that I can imagine wanting to spend time with, wanting to be friends with.

There are multiple reasons for that, but I’m convinced that one of them is language. It’s most noticeable with the tennis academy kids, but not limited to them.

It’s a pretentious, posturing kind of speech, where characters are constantly trying to top each other in intellectual or pseudo-intellectual ways. There’s a very high usage of metaphors, often quite obscure ones. In fact, obscurity seems to be one of the goals of this kind of communication. This is language as a way to keep people out, or to establish one’s superiority, not a way of connecting.

I don’t know if the language is even supposed to be realistic, but in a long life where I have spent time with countless people of different genders, races, ages, and socioeconomic levels, urban and suburban people, people from all different regions of the country, students, professors, doctors, lawyers, and those in working class occupations, religious believers and non-believers, etc., I’ve met zero people who speak like this.

Maybe this way of speaking is intended as absurd, and it’s just part of the humor of this book that I don’t get. Or maybe there’s some milieu I’m not familiar with—certain elitist northeastern prep schools?—where this kind of speech is normal.

I don’t know. It’s vaguely like how Maude Lebowski and that video artist friend of hers with the goofy mustache talk in The Big Lebowski. So maybe it’s the way certain pompous artists and intellectuals talk, for instance the sort of folks who would create postmodern art. But Wallace himself created this more or less postmodern novel, and judging from the interviews I’ve seen of him he spoke nothing like this. I have trouble imagining him in some circle of intellectual friends where they all speak this way.

And even if that were a common way for some crazy subgroup of the population—pompous intellectuals or whatever—to express themselves, why do so many characters in this book that don’t belong to any such subgroup speak this way?

Here’s an example, though this is written rather than spoken. This is supposed to be an excerpt from an essay by a 7th grader analyzing TV shows:

What kind of hero comes after McGarrett’s Irishized modern cowboy, the lone man of action riding lonely herd in paradise? Furillo’s is a whole different kind of loneliness. The ‘post’-modern hero was a heroic part of the herd, responsible for all of what he is part of, responsible to everyone, his lonely face as placid under pressure as a cow’s face. The jut-jawed hero of action (‘Hawaii Five-0’) becomes the mild-eyed hero of reaction (‘Hill Street Blues,’ a decade later).

Probably about 10% of graduate students would be capable of writing that paragraph. 7th graders? I’ll say 0%.

The tennis academy is run by a family headed by the aforementioned filmmaker who created the film that everyone who watches it becomes addicted to. He’s one of the more interesting characters, especially of the ones who are not very realistic. We mostly get to know him through flashbacks and descriptions by other characters, as his death (he puts his head in a specially altered microwave oven and turns it on) is recounted early in the book.

I especially liked the descriptions of some of his film projects in a very long endnote. Think of the recurring Vonnegut character Kilgore Trout, and the way Vonnegut gives you titles and brief synopses and such of Trout’s bizarre supposed books and short stories, but of course never any of them in their entirety.

Some of the films described are just funny, but some sound like they’d be intriguing to see if someone were to actually make them. This is a character who thinks outside the box in ways I think I’d enjoy a lot more than I do the works of the real life abstract or postmodern artists I’ve encountered.

Some of the films are much sadder though. They were discovered and catalogued after his death as if they were films intended for release, when in fact they were likely just home movies with little or no editing, specifically home movies where he was being particularly crazy or abusive toward his family.

Speaking of endnotes, of course Wallace is well known for his quirkily excessive use of endnotes, or footnotes. Some people like that, and some people find it distracting. (In that previously referenced Charlie Rose interview, he said they’re intentionally distracting, that they’re part of his effort to make his text disjointed.) In his nonfiction essays I found them to be consistently interesting asides that enhanced my enjoyment of his writing. Here they’re only occasionally interesting or funny.

I got a kick out of the section wherein he lists some of the things one learns in AA (though really a lot of them are about life in general rather than drugs and alcohol, and are conclusions one could just as easily have reached in other contexts). A few of them are:

• That loneliness is not a function of solitude.
• That cats will in fact get violent diarrhea if you feed them milk, contrary to the popular image of cats and milk.
• That pretty much everybody masturbates. Rather a lot, it turns out.
• That “acceptance” is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.

And perhaps my personal favorite:

• That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.

(I’ve since seen something very like this last one as a quotation attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m not sure if that’s where Wallace got it.)

As I noted, I got into the AA plotline somewhat more than the other two, in part because he plays it straighter with that material. For instance, there’s a particularly powerful section about a character remembering the domestic abuse in his past, the way his mother was mistreated.

I see how good Wallace is at writing like that and I kind of wish he’d drop the fractured narrative, postmodern cleverness and game playing.

Another effective section—in a creepy and disturbing way—concerns the junky who gets his kicks murdering people’s pets. (There are some seriously fucked up people in this book, and not just in an absurd, funny way.)

It’s interesting, though, that his presentation of AA is so laudatory. It’s like he holds his fire with the satire and such because he doesn’t want to associate such a miraculously successful program with any kind of ridicule.

I’m far from an expert, but I’ve done a little bit of reading on the subject and my impression is that there is no consensus on the effectiveness of AA and similar programs, that the assessments from researchers range from impressively effective to pretty close to useless.

Insofar as it does work, that may be attributable to certain aspects of it, with the other aspects being just window dressing or overrated dogma. For instance, one article I read awhile back suggested that the “secret” to it is that members belong to a supportive group and can be physically present in that group very frequently (daily in the case of some members), and so always have people monitoring them and encouraging them. Keep those things constant, and maybe you could change just about anything else in the program and it would still work to a similar degree. Once you have a clubhouse instead of a bar you can come to regularly “where everybody knows your name,” maybe the “steps” and the “higher power” and all that don’t really add much.

But in any case, Wallace, who had his own struggles with drugs and experiences with rehab programs, seems to be a firm believer.

I liked his explanation of why video phones—after seeming like a clear “next big thing”—bombed. As he explains, it turns out people like being able to hide when they’re on the phone. They don’t want to have to be dressed and have their makeup on, and they especially don’t want to have to provide visual reassurance that they’re paying close attention to everything that’s being said. They want to be able to clip their toenails or watch TV with the sound muted when they’re on the phone, but they don’t want the person at the other end to know they’re doing so.

I wonder if something like that explains the explosive popularity of texting. To me it’s ridiculous. Why do I want to awkwardly type my message one finger at a time on some tiny device, when I could simply call the person and say the same thing to them or their voicemail box using only a small fraction of the time and effort? But maybe what draws people to it is precisely the lack of human connection. You don’t risk actually getting drawn into a conversation with someone or having to listen to what they have to say if you send them a typed note instead. Maybe the impersonal, inefficient nature of texting is precisely what makes it preferable to calling the person, as Wallace opines that being able to only hear and be heard by a person can be preferable to that plus being able to see and be seen by them.

Fans of Wallace’s This is Water commencement address, which can be heard on YouTube and was even published as a book after his death, might be interested to know that the joke that the address is based on comes from this book.

I keep wanting to return to the point that despite its sometime zaniness, there’s a lot of darkness and sadness in Infinite Jest. One striking passage, about the family that runs the tennis academy and the mother in particular, reminds me very much of Wallace’s short story Suicide as a Sort of Present. I don’t know a lot about his family life growing up, but it’s hard not to wonder if there’s an autobiographical element to this kind of thing that pops up in multiple of his works:

Why do many parents who seem relentlessly bent on producing children who feel they are good persons deserving of love produce children who grow to feel they are hideous persons not deserving of love who just happen to have lucked into having parents so marvelous that the parents love them even though they are hideous?

It’s notable not just that there’s plenty of sadness and pain in this book, but that specifically the topic of suicide comes up various times throughout the story. Depressed characters contemplate suicide, discuss suicide, philosophize about suicide, and in some cases commit suicide. Given how Wallace’s life ended, it’s eerie seeing how much that subject seemed to be on his mind when he wrote this book.

In keeping with the unconventional nature of the narrative I suppose, the story is not given any kind of closure, any kind of satisfying ending. It appears that the three subplots that have mostly been only minimally connected are finally about to come together in some kind of climax, but then the book ends abruptly without their doing so.

Being the sort of unsophisticated fellow that I am, if I spend over a thousand pages getting to know various characters and their stories, I’d kind of like to be allowed to find out how things turn out for them. But that’s just another indication that I’m not the best audience for postmodern writing or however you want to classify this.

In conclusion, I came to Infinite Jest wanting to immerse myself in Wallace’s mind and to open myself up to material I might otherwise disdain, motivated by a certain respect, fondness, and loyalty I feel toward him as a person and as a writer. On the positive side, I definitely found some intellectual and emotional value in this work, I feel I’ve gotten to know him slightly better, and I feel a certain sense of accomplishment that I stuck with it and got through this book at all. On the negative side, I found a lot less value in it than many, many readers and critics have. It reached me, but not nearly as much as I realize it has reached others.

I will likely read more of Wallace’s fiction because of my desire to connect with him however I can. But Infinite Jest certainly didn’t make a convert out of me: Postmodern art of this kind is still not my cup of tea.

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