Infinite Jest / 1996 / David Foster Wallace
[Pages 300 – 640
Endnotes 102 – 240]
Blood Meridian / 1985 / Cormac McCarthy
Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption / 1982 / Stephen King
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest / 1962 / Ken Kesey
To Kill a Mockingbird / 1960 / Harper Lee
i. And with a Howling Fantod…
…you’re back in the room. Like taking a dive in David Lynch’s blue box, or being transfixed by Kubrik’s obelisks, Infinite Jest has a way of consuming your attention completely. Not unlike the mythical videotape that draws a through-line in its labyrinthine plot. Characters who watch it cannot turn themselves away, their lives shrinking, catatonically, down to the sole desire to watch it once more.
It’s a symbol whose power resonates today: in Father John Misty tracks and imminent Arcade Fire albums, in promises of ‘limitless’ internet & data bundles, in the recent surge of Virtual Reality goggles, in IMAX screens with the same peripheral-spanning scope. I’m not crazy about everything in Wallace’s magnum opus – and sometimes it feels like he has put everything in here – but his discussion of entertainment addiction is dead on.
So, to the second instalment. This meaty section was more of a slog than the first, and that’s saying something. At no times was it more slog-y than at the novel’s one third waypoint.
ii. Pages 300 – 400
Some reviewers have been kind enough to call parts of this book ‘intentionally frustrating’. But in traversing what I would call Infinite Jest’s deepest trough (so far), I came out thinking: was Wallace’s editor on sabbatical?
There’s so much that doesn’t need to be here.
First, the novella-length chronicle of an Eschaton game. Eschaton is Enfield Tennis Academy’s (ETA) own creation, where different parts of the court stand for countries of the world. The students are then assigned global powers, and make nuclear strikes at each other by lobbing tennis balls toward other territories.
Eschaton has doubtless potential, with international disputes being played out in pubescent microcosm. But Wallace’s incessant level of detail strangles it. The ending fracas and a few engaging images notwithstanding, it’s a gleaming example of unedited prose. We don’t need to know the complex algorithms that determine this game. Or the recent histories of its bit part players. Or the details of Eschaton’s creation. It’s over-facing, and maybe that’s the point, but reading is a dredge here.
This overripe section is chained to another: Mario Incandenza’s puppet-show re-tread of his late father’s political satire flick. Prose breaks into a screenplay transcript, which is mired in near-future history, unfriendly acronyms and discussions that dance along the edge of the ‘Great Concavity’; by inference, we eventually guess that this is a new mega-landfill on the US/Canadian border. Wallace here makes it hard to appreciate his niche commentary by not saying what it is he’s satirising. Several series of mental gymnastics too far, I’m afraid.
At least this section is redeemed by its cutaways. These follow the academy enrolees’ visit to Lyle, a cross-legged shaman who advises the boys on their psychiatric troubles. Scenes here are deliciously odd, and funny, a breath of fresh air from the political commentary in the room down the hall.
It’s about the only light relief in this section. Page 400 rolls up through laboriously recounted AA meetings, replete with horrific stories of stillbirths and sexual abuse. They contain some of the darkest prose I’ve ingested since McCarthy’s relentless Blood Meridian. They reaffirmed my avoidance of hard drugs, but I won’t thank them for some of the images still seared to my retinas.
So, not much fun. Good job the next part ramps up.
iii. Pages 400 – 500
Infinite Jest is at its best when it sticks to one solid idea. Then Wallace is free to flog it to death with enrapturing sentences and dry, gallows humour. This combination abounds in both the ETA drill sessions and in Don Gately’s nightly plight as Ennet House’s drug enforcement officer.
Both settings are contained environments, with subjects that seem worthy of obsessive study. Their daily site rituals and long term confinement make a sturdy backdrop, the variables being inmate/enrolee friendships and personality quirks. Maybe it’s a personal preference, but I can relate more to a group of characters when they’re contextualised against an oppressive institution. Like the prison in The Shawshank Redemption, the courtroom and legal system in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the psychiatric hospital, which Ennet House reminds me of, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Institutions also provide a vehicle for Wallace’s misanthropic humour, which expertly picks out maddening ironies latent in most oppressive regimes.
ETA is overseen by Nazi-ish drillmaster Schtitt, who works the boys to within an inch of their muscular breaking point. For Gately, the authority figure forms more in drugs themselves, referred to as The Substance, although he does have a Greek boss in his side job, who literally makes him scrub shit. There’s more room for comedy here, resolute low-key wit in the face of hardship. Maybe it’s especially appealing for Brits.
In less harrowing fashion than the AA horror-stories, centre stage is taken by those who suffer with deformities, biological conditions, and the deleterious effects of substance abuse. Wallace seems obsessed with whatever is abnormal, and how the ‘normal’ majority treat it. Perhaps it’s his duty as a novelist, to take us closer to things we naturally, and unjustly, avert our eyes from. It doesn’t stop some knee-jerk repulsion when Wallace writes about these subjects, but his empathy and compassion for each tragic human case he deals with is heartening. Even if, in finding black humour and irony in their situations, he strays into some controversial areas. It feels risky, daring and worthwhile, though it must have been punishing to stare so many of life’s duff hands dead in the face.
iv. Pages 500 – 640
By introducing a new main character at 500-plus pages, Wallace is either ballsy or delusions-of-grandeur-level gormless. Luckily, recovering drug addict Randy Lenz is disturbing enough that I’d give it to ‘ballsy’.
Lenz copes with going Cold Turkey by stalking Boston’s back-alleys, then killing whatever small fauna he finds there. He is dark and twisted but elucidated by Wallace’s intimate understanding of addiction. Wallace takes us down the cyclic levels of rush, tolerance and dependence like spiralling steps into hell. Lenz’ descent is maddening and addictive in itself, and is one of the intermittent sections that make the book feel conversely short, pages turning freely, momentum propelling it forth.
Lenz later graduates to dogs, which gets him in trouble with some Québécois. It’s a game of ultra-violent dominoes that comes crashing down on Don Gately, sacrificial guard dog of Ennet House, who is shot defending in-patients from Lenz’ pursuers. In a novel beset with dense prose and Academic level arguments, such an emotional moment is tremendously refreshing. I’ve yet to read on and see if Gately makes it to the conclusion, but his jeopardy confirms I cared for him, which is a bit of a rarity in this over-analytic tome.
Who else do we care for? Probably the three Incandenza brothers, Pemulis, Joelle, and perhaps Lenz. The others, forming one multitudinous mass of side characters, seem peripheral. Occasionally sympathetic and always tragic, but kept at a distance.
I’m excited to tie off Infinite Jest, if just to clear its mammoth cache from my mind’s-eye bookshelves. But I’ll need a break before I let Wallace put me under again.
 In Wallace terms, ‘map eliminating’