Have you ever had a conversation with someone who is so far beyond you intellectually that the very act of keeping up with what that person is saying is both exhausting and thrilling? You get the sense that the other person is trying to talk down to a level that you can comfortably comprehend, and it’s not as if if the person is trying to condescend, they are just trying to be polite. Yet your brain is redlining just to keep up. You’re worried that at any moment your eyes are going to glaze over and drool is going to start running down your chin. This is exactly how I felt reading David Foster Wallace’s epic, Infinite Jest.
What most people know about Infinite Jest is that it’s long and has a lot of footnotes. Both of these facts are true. This is a book that takes a long time to read. It’s not the kind of novel you take with you on a weekend getaway and read while tanning on the beach. Make no mistake, David Foster Wallace is a genius, and he’s not afraid to challenge his readers. The prose are beautifully written, but it’s Wallace’s insistence on granular, often times tedious detail, that will give even the most hardcore reader moment’s of frustration. There is a particularly infamous footnote in this book that lists the movies produced by Jim Incandenza’s film company, the footnote is multiple pages long, and itself is full of footnotes. Infinite Jest in the Inception of footnotes. I read this book on a Kindle, and while I’m usually fairly agnostic when it comes to the ebook vs print book debate, I have to say that being able to click on links for each footnote was a lifesaver. Hearing horror stories about having to use two bookmarks to navigate the 1,000 page paperback was one of the reason’s it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Infinite Jest.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I guess the most pressing question that most would be readers of this book would have is: what the heck is this book about anyway? This is not an easy question to answer. This is a book about addiction. It’s main characters are all dealing with some kind of addiction whether it be to drugs - both natural and pharmaceutical, alcohol, or the pleasures of everyday entertainment. It’s main characters - Hal Incandenza and Don Gately are both addicts, but come from two very different places. The two characters never meet, but their stories are interconnected at many points by other characters and their actions in the narrative.
Infinite Jest take place in an alternate version of America. An America that has has decided to sell naming rights for each year to the highest bidder, e.g. most of the events of this book happen in “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.” America has joined with Canada and Mexico to form the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.) and deemed it wise to turn most of the northeastern United States into a hazardous waste dump, and have forced Canada to annex the completely unusable land. This causes extremist groups from Quebec, most notably the Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (yes wheelchair assassins) to stop at nothing to not only get their revenge on the United States, but also succeed from Canada. Throughout the two main plotlines of the story both the Assassins des Fauteulis Rollents and the O.N.A.N. are looking for a master copy of a video that renders anyone who watches it catatonic. (More on this video later)
Hal Incandenza is an eighteen year year old who is both prodigiously talented at tennis and has a photographic memory. He lives and studies at the Enfield Tennis Academy (E.T.A.) which was founded by his late father James Incandenza. Hal has a passive aggressive overbearing mother Avril, and two older brothers - Orin, who who is a punter for the Arizona Cardinals, and Mario, who’s suffered from multiple birth defects and is Hal’s roommate at the academy. It’s apparent from the beginning of the books that Hal is addicted to marijuana, which few people know about, and once circumstances require him to get clean, Hal begins to question his place in the world.
The reader spends about half of the book learning about every aspect of life at E.T.A. Wallace was himself a highly regarded tennis prospect, and dumps more tennis knowledge into this book then you are likely to find in almost any instructional video. You learn how a player uses a serve to control the baseline and why certain players are great offensive lobbers, but struggle when playing at the net. You also get a good feel for how soul crushing the daily routine is for an individual at an athletic academy. Life becomes a series of routines which tend to involve a lot of eating, sweating, and rehabbing various injuries that occur as a result of a life dedicated to athletic greatness. Wallace dives into the frazzled psyche’s of the academies players, who range from preadolescents to eighteen year olds who are all looking to either go pro, or play tennis at major universities. If Infinite Jest was just a book about about the pressures of high level children’s athletics, it would be a great novel.
If the story of the E.T.A. is one of people forming neuroses and addictions the story that takes place in the Ennet House is how people are trying to live with neuroses and addictions. Don Gately plays the Yin to Hal’s Yang. Gately, a former Demerol (a weapons grade painkiller) addict, is a supervisor at The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (yes that is redundant). Don’s described as a huge man, whose head is a shaped like a rectangle. After going through some truly harrowing experiences, the last of which serves as the novels conclusion, Gately comes clean and fully buys into the concepts of AA. Besides Don, you meet a slew of characters who live in Ennet House, and learn what brought them to their addictions. It should be noted that many of the characters Wallace writes about are at least partly based on people he met while in recovery himself. Much like with the tennis, you will learn more about addiction and AA than you will ever need to know. The traumas that most of the people in Ennet House have experienced are soul crushingly awful. They’re the kinds of experiences that render it almost impossible to lead a normal life after. It’s hard to read in many spots, but it also serves as the heart of the story. You feel for these characters in a way that you can never feel for Hal, who is smart and funny, but it emotionally unreachable.
There’s a point in the book where Don get’s shot in the middle of a brawl that is started by another of Ennet House’s residents - an obsessive compulsive cocaine addict by the name of Randy lenz. After meetings Lenz walks the streets of Boston killing small animals, and eventually kills the wrong persons pet dog. Gately refuses to accept any kind of painkillers in the hospital because of his addiction, and the pain that he suffers is so great he spends much of his time in the hospital either hallucinating or passed out. Gately is physically incapable of talking because of a tube that is in his throat, and finds that the only “thing” that he is able to communicate while lying in his hospital bed is a wraith that keeps appearing to him. Gately is unaware that the wraith is actually the ghost of Hal’s late father James.
Hal’s father was an alcoholic who committed suicide by cutting a hole into the front door of a microwave oven, sticking his head in, and... you get the picture. Jim made his fortune making photographic lenses for private and military use, before starting the tennis academy, and later in life became obsessed with creating avant garde films that tended to focus on extreme realism, and while beautifully shot thanks to Jim’s earlier interest in lenses, never moved the needle much in the plot department, and his films never achieved much critical or commercial acclaim.
The most important film that Jim makes is one that is claimed to be so entertaining that upon viewing whoever watching is immediately addicted to it contents, leaving the viewer in a complete vegetative state. This film becomes a major MacGuffin, and serves as a reminder of our addiction to entertainment, particularly television. It’s in Jim’s posthumous conversation with Don Gately that we learn why the “Entertainment” was created in the first place. Jim felt it was the only way to get Hal to snap out of his existential funk.
The narrative of Infinite Jest jumps around alot (think Pulp Fiction on steroids).You spend a lot of time with Hal and his family, and a lot of time with Gately and his jolly band of misfits at Enfield House. I tended to enjoy the Gately sections more than the Hal’s because Gately comes across a sympathetic character - the guy has been to hell and back, and I wanted nothing more than Gately to find some level of happiness by the end of the narrative. Hal doesn’t become a dynamic character until the end of the book, when he finally wakes up from his marijuana induced emotional coma. whereas Gately is a character who we learn is every day trying to hold on to the changes that have brought some normalcy back to his life. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a character as well written as Don Gately. For a guy who admits to not being all too bright, I found him to be the most insightful character of the book, which is saying a lot in this case.
Its weird. I really don’t know how to explain how I felt about this book. I can say that no matter how hard the reading got, either from an intellectual level or an emotional one, I never once felt like quitting. I was compelled to see my way to the end because I cared about the characters and wanted to live in the world Wallace created so completely. When I was wasn’t reading the book I was constantly thinking about it. I imagine I’m not alone in this. I believe Infinite Jest is a masterpiece written by a genius who was at the height of his powers. When David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008 I didn’t know what the big deal was. I do now. When we lost him, we lost one of the most talented writers of our lifetime. I’m just thankful that we have Infinite Jest, so he’ll never be forgotten.