Infinite Jest / 1996/ David Foster Wallace
[Pages 1 – 300.
Endnotes 1 – 102.]
Underworld / 1997 / Don DeLillo
Catcher in the Rye / 1951/ J.D. Salinger
1984 / 1948 / George Orwell
Bleak House / 1853 / Charles Dickens
i. Why Read It?
There are some books that beg to be read. Cultural touchstones that single-handedly reinvigorate their contemporary public’s imagination, and publishing industry to boot. By this measure, 50 Shades of Grey should hold great appeal, and I suppose it does, in a perverse guilty-pleasure type way.
In the Venn Diagram of touchstone-books though, it’s that middle section where things get interesting. Where segments of ‘cultural effect’ and ‘enduring quality’ overlap. It’s a lonely cornerstone where precious few authors get to sit, especially as we narrow our focus to the last century or so.
Who qualifies? J.D. Salinger for Catcher in the Rye? George Orwell for 1984? Don DeLillo for Underworld?
It’s a tough debate. But it would be hard to argue against including David Foster Wallace’s epic and ironic tome Infinite Jest. Its sheer size is remarkable enough – 1000 odd pages, plus a couple hundred more tacked on in ‘Footnotes and Errata’. What’s particularly striking about Infinite Jest however is the size of its cultural impact.
As of 2016, it has sold more than 1,000,000 copies. It is a bestselling literary fiction novel – how many books can claim that? TIME included it on their 100 Best Novels since 1923. Foster Wallace is credited with, among other things: typifying an overwhelmed public’s generational angst; influencing a generation of new writers; and meaningfully building on the work of his fellow American literary greats, DeLillo and Pynchon.
Reviews both at the time and since herald it as a seminal book. They are liberal in their use of the adjective ‘momentous’ and it’s easy to see why. In terms of resonance, it was (and is) an undisputed ‘book-of-the-moment’, while its writer-ly construction and reader-ly effort to digest is monumental.
So. Let’s dive in.
ii. The First 100 Pages
All books, long books especially, take time to bed in. I look at it like a batsman’s innings in cricket. You need time to get used to the pace of the ball, the lie of the pitch.
In literature’s case, it’s the author’s delivery and outlook: their way of seeing the world and how they relay that experience, that takes a while to grasp. And boy, is Foster Wallace a tricky bowler.
He serves up multi-syllabled words that will have you delving through the dictionary (a medical one at that). Acronyms abound (‘O.N.A.N.C.A.A.’; ‘N.A.A.U.P.’) for sub-divisions of fictional organisations. A litany of chemical substances is referenced, each one accompanied by a footnote detailing its composition, effects, and street-aliases. Wallace spoke of writing about ‘communities’ not specific characters, and we get that right from the off. There are more than a dozen personas whose lives are loosely linked by Boston, and tangential occurrences therein.
If you commit to the aforementioned footnotes, which you should for the full experience, you might need a magnifying glass. They are often lengthy, dense, and served up in eye-straining-ly small font.
Not to put you off, mind. Just be prepared for a bit of an early slog. I read Bleak House not too long ago, and Dickens’ grim 19th century patter was a stroll in the park compared to Wallace’s obsessive eye for detail.
Here’s the saving grace: the rewards are as vast as the intricacy of the task. The minute detail of the delivery makes for crystal-clear visual compositions (often very filmic). There are laugh-out-loud moments, from slapstick to black comedy, hidden in the dense paragraphing. Most of all, there’s an overwhelming sense of irony and tragedy, where characters are shown as bundles of teeming consciousness, raging against an isolating world which makes no sense. It’s a feeling which really kicked in, for me at least, around the 120-page mark.
iii. Pages 100 – 300
Familiarity with the ‘main’ characters sets in around this point. Boston spanning settings have boiled down to two key locations: the Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House (a drug rehabilitation centre). The rhizomatic plot seems to regulate its orbit around a few narrative bodies. One being the mythical release of ‘Infinite Jest’, a movie so entertaining it paralyses viewers with pleasure. Another one, a more general line, following the Tennis training of the director’s son Hal Incandenza, intellectual and sporting prodigy.
Director of the film ‘Infinite Jest’, James O. Incandenza, is an absent centre-piece to the jigsaw. He committed brutal suicide by sticking his head in a microwave – a fact we learn through a traumatic discussion between Hal and his brother, Orin.
It’s a troubling revelation, typical of Wallace’s mercilessly bleak (yet funny) take on existence in modern consumerist society. The oft-hyphenated, double-barrelled nature of his descriptions soon reveal themselves to be a sales-patter pastiche of constant, never-ending marketing campaigns. The incessant selling of products reaches an absurd pinnacle in the novel’s internal calendar: its years revealed to have corporate sponsorship (i.e. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, Year of the Big Whopper). The narrative voice speaks like consumerism and surface-deep culture has taken over its brain. The buy/sell dynamic has become the filter by which all stimuli is experienced.
I’ll confess it took this long for me to realise the book takes place in the near future. A discovery made harder, I hope, by the time-period Wallace uses being now rendered a 90s retro-futurist one to modern readers. He gets some calls eerily right. Such as the selfie-obsessed narcissism of video-calling, where people spend half the time looking at themselves instead of the other person. Although in Infinite Jest, people’s self-image worries are taken to next-level extremes, hiring celebrity look-a-like avatars to play themselves in video correspondence.
One of Wallace’s prevailing themes is addiction. It seems you have to be addicted to something. Most characters use some Substance or other, while some use the cradle of regiment and ritual. Linked to this, you have to worship something. As he relates in interviews with Charlie Rose and ZDF, Wallace maintains that society can kid itself it’s gotten rid of God, but impulses of devotion, subjugation and ritual are still there, embedded deep within our primate-aping psychological origins.
Addiction and Worship are similarly self-consuming, and beautifully dove-tail in Wallace’s descriptions of Tennis. He makes Hal hitting the ball thousands of times a simultaneously superstitious, meditative and metaphysical experience. The tennis court becomes a mecca for clear-minded thought and organised chaos. As Norm MacDonald’s recent tweets attest, sport remains ‘the last untainted zone’ – a medium bereft of politics or scaremongering, where rules are plainly set, where human excellence can be distilled. I’ve come to savour the tennis sections the most – they are Wallace at his most breath-taking and effortless.
‘[kinetic beauty]…is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body’
– DFW on tennis, in ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’, PLAY Magazine
iv. Errata (Erratic Thoughts)
A few more things. Each character has an intelligence factor that is off the charts. They universally have vocabularies wider than Stephen Fry channelling Oscar Wilde. This community, disparately connected, is plot-able on a MENSA-level IQ-line of subjects. Perhaps there are a few anomalies. In what I’ve learned is the infamous ‘Wardine’ section, where Wallace inhabits the colloquialisms of a black, ghetto-raised woman, the language is notably toned down. Or again in the furtive prose which embodies a heroin addict in the throes of addiction. But even in these cases, the insights alone are far beyond normal human capacity.
So it’s hard to believe these aren’t just embodied versions of Wallace’s best ideas. Some have labelled him a show-off as a result. But I don’t mind it that much. It gives me more time with him. And it is getting easier to inhabit the world more fully as I read on, without having to pause and reflect on a complex idea (you get served so many you get used to them) or trying in vain to remember who a character is.
Join me next time, where I’m predicting the process will have become even smoother. At present, I’m hooked. I’m lugging this masterwork-cum-brick around with me like a flagellating monk mid-penance. But I guess you’ve got to be addicted to something, right?
N.B. There are a number of excellent David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest fan sites, including http://www.thehowlingfantods.com/dfw/ , a Wiki of sorts, and http://infinitesummer.org/, which includes along-the-way essays from a group who tried to read it over one (hopefully long) summer. Worth a look.
 Wallace writes about sport like no-one else. Here he is on the beauty of Roger Federer: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html