Sunday, April 28, 2013

Infinite Jest: The Future is Now

Infinite Jest brings to mind the Irish saying, "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan?"  No novel published in the past 20 years has attracted more analysis than David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.  As I spent the past two months reading the 1000+ book, I've listened to several interviews with Wallace.  He's always so self deprecating, polite, and interested in what the interviewer has to say. He was a master of deflecting questions by always relating them to his own experience without ever really addressing the question directly.  Wallace saw and processed so much in a world where people are so strange, sad, isolated, hilarious, heroic, petty, and full of so much curiosity, loss, and regret over history.  Yes, reading Infinite Jest feels like victory; albeit, a victory more akin to Austerlitz than Waterloo.

Honestly, I believe the novel is at least four scrunched into one.  All the plot lines do intersect at the end - or so I've been told The ending lacks the satisfaction one finds in Ulysses or most literature, but maybe that's the point.  In a first reading I won't even try to venture a theory.  I will say the final 150 pages the descends into one anti-climax after another.  Wallace takes the reader into the darkness of an imagination thriving on the banality of existence in modern America.  

Addiction and entertainment. In a narrow those are the penultimate themes in the novel.  Set at some point in an early 21st century where everyone lives for getting the entertainment.  Most of Infinite Jest takes place at various locations in Boston. One is a tennis academy for prodigies.  The other is a halfway house for recovering addicts.  Life at both places is highly structured to provide assurance for people in highly sensitive situations.  Hal Incandenza is the protagonist, the seventeen year old son of the deceased founder of the academy, who is in a constant state of anxiety.  Hal carries the world on his shoulders and smokes large quantities of pot.  At the halfway house the patients have every part of their daily routine under surveillance as they struggle to imagine life without drugs. The halfway house is the place where the American dream is not only broken, but squashed into goo.  Wallace writes about addiction in such a terrifyingly realistic way and with such virtuosity that one gets a visceral sense of its corrosive aftermath.  But the writing goes beyond mere accounting of addiction and into insights on the human condition, namely, the conflict within the human heart.  What happens when our pleasure outlets no longer satisfy?  How much do we need to escape from reality?  The void awaits . . .   Sometimes these dilemmas, as Wallace presents them, feel insurmountable. And then maybe there lies a faint hope.

The plot of Infinite Jest revolves around entertainment discs ( a precursor to DVD's) where any sort of film is available on demand. One such film causes so much pleasure for the viewer it will literally kill them. Today millions of people are addicted to the internet and its endless opportunities for pleasure.  What does it all mean? Where do we go from here?  Wallace was obsessed with boredom in a world where so many luxuries are available while the need for anti-depressants keeps rising at time when so much entertainment is available.  

The geopolitical situation of Wallace's 21st century plays like a comic tragedy.   America has formed a union with Canada and Mexico, most of New York state is a landfill and angry Canadians plot war with the United States.  Vague references are made to massive population shifts, civil unrest, and economic catastrophe.  A renegade group of Quebec terrorists plan on using the film to alter the geopolitical balance.  The American president, Johnny Gentle, is combination of Ronald Reagan, Howard Hughes, and other oddities in the landscape of American celebrity.  

At the forefront of, is the saga of the Incandenza family.  Hal, the tennis prodigy, is the youngest son of James Incandenza, an avant guard filmmaker  (the footnotes contain a ten page filmography).  Hal has two older brothers as well: Orin and Mario.  Orin is a punter in the NFL who has an obsession with insects and single moms.  Mario is kindly, eternally optimistic, and Hal's conscience.  Their mysterious mother is headmaster the tennis academy.  All are in various stages of grief after the patriarch James took his own life; they are also in need of something they cannot quite define.  Themes of longing are juxtaposed with wrenching passages on the dread of loneliness:

Even when alone, able to uncurl alone and sit slowly up and wring out the sheet and go to the bathroom, these darkest mornings start days that Orin can't even bring himself for hours to think how he'll get through the day.  These worst mornings with cold floors and hot windows and merciless light - the soul's uncertainty that the day will not have to be traversed but sort of climbed, vertically, and then that going to sleep again at the end of it will be like falling, again, off something tall and sheer (p.46). 


Struggles to make connections haunt all the characters as they ricochet like atoms off each other.  In Wallace's dialogue the characters tend to talk not at, but, past each other. 

The novel is made accessible with all the its pop culture references. The 1980s TV shows Cheers and Hill Street Blues are reassessed among other things.  One character devotes his entire life to watching reruns of MASH.  Relationships with media, TV shows specifically, can, for many, be more meaningful than real world relationships.  That's a conflict any American living in the 21st century must face whether they are aware or not.  All are in danger of being trapped in Plato's cave, only now it's in the form of screens representing reality.  But back to my first point, some predict the end of literature as an art form in the digital age.  However,  If good books are written - people will read them. 

What did I get from reading Infinite Jest?  For starters, I know it's made me a better reader.  It took me about 200 pages to get comfortable with Wallace's writing style.  After a while I felt like I was absorbing the prose instead of reading it.  The effect is cinematic because the text overwhelms
with so many images, almost like a collage at times, that it felt akin to watching a fast paced action film on another level entirely   Paragraphs come in large clumps going on for multiple pages.  My favorite section is about a role playing game called Eschaton;  a game simulating nuclear war on a tennis court. The book also triggered an interest in math (my least favorite subject) and the idea of it being a secret language and a skeleton key into philosophical thought.  Mathematics is the antithesis of the fragmented mindset perpetuated by a mass media driven age.  And the book demands rereading after rereading because despite all its intricate wording, fractured plotting, and shifting perspective Infinite Jest is an immensely entertaining and consistently thought provoking read.  Wallace delivers a rhetorical beating to the reader, not as a disavowal, but a plea to wake up and try to see hope within the white noise of the 21st century.