I began reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace around October 2008. I had ordered the book from Amazon.com after hearing of David Foster Wallace’s death. I was in France at the time, and when I got back to the U.S. there was this big, fat book waiting for me. A thousand-pager. Not too many people write thousand-pagers, much less read them. Undaunted, I picked up the book and was immediately captivated.
It started with this kid (Hal Incandenza, maybe the protagonist) on an interview at the University of Arizona for a tennis scholarship. I began to sense there is something not quite right with him, or with the world he lives in. And then I was hooked.
I read the book almost every day. My favorite place to read is on public transportation. I have the ability to tune out everything around me and just focus on the book I’m reading, so I can read on the bus or train. Plus, it makes commuting quality time for me. Instead of getting in a car and driving, and filling my time listening to some drivel on the radio, I can travel and enjoy great literature at the same time. So I read this thing on public transport, in doctor’s waiting rooms, at home in my chair, on the john — all of the great reading spots. And I finally finished it on February 18, 2009. If I started it on October 1, (in retrospect I should have noted down the actual date I started), and I finished it February 18, then it took a little over four and a half months to read the whole thing.
What kept me reading a book for all that time? What is the book about?
I kept reading because of the high caliber of the writing. Some of the plotlines and back stories and tangents are a bit sketchy, but the writing is compelling even when Wallace is satirizing the evolution of the video-phone industry in the near future. Wallace uses a mixture of high erudition and colloquial language, along with endnotes (not footnotes at the bottom of the page, but notes at the end of the book). He drops in fragments of stories that tie into other events later on in the novel. He mixes in different points of view, including first person for Hal Incandenza, the tennis kid. Wallace juggles all this stuff seemingly without effort. It may not work in the sense of a conventional novel, but it makes for a hell of a read.
Infinite Jest takes place primarily in Boston, with side trips to Tucson, Arizona. The book was published in 1996, and the action is set in the near future from that time, perhaps about now (2009-2012). The U.S., Canada and Mexico have merged into a single political entity called The Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. (pun intended). Most of northern New England, as well as a large part of southern Quebec, has become a giant toxic waste dump for the United States. Bands of Quebecois terrorists in wheelchairs — known as the Les Assassins des Fauteuils Roulents [sic] — the Wheelchair Assassins — roam the U.S., plotting their separatist agenda. The American President is an ex-lounge singer and germophobe who has sold the naming rights of each calendar year to corporations in order to balance the budget, much as baseball stadiums sell their naming rights. The book takes place primarily in the Year of the Depend Undergarment. Other subsidized years are the Year of Glad and the Year of the Whopper.
Against this satiric, futuristic backdrop, the majority of the action takes place in two Boston locales. The first is the Enfield Tennis Academy, or ETA, founded by mad genius (and father of Hal) James O. Incandenza, optics entrepreneur and film-maker; run by his wife Avril Incandenza and her stepbrother Charles Tavis; and attended currently by their two sons Hal and Mario, and previously by their son Orin.
The Incandenzas are spectacularly eccentric and dysfunctional. The father is a brilliant but hopeless alcoholic who commits suicide by sticking his head in a microwave oven. Hal is a depressed genius and tennis whiz who couldn’t talk to his father while he was alive. Hal has been turned into a sort of tennis robot by the ETA. Mario is a mildly retarded dwarf the size of a fireplug who makes documentary films with a camera strapped to his head. The mother, Avril, is a sort of manic super-mom that lets nothing bring down her children’s self-esteem. Orin, a punter in the NFL, specializes in seducing married women who have young children, then calling Hal to relate his techniques.
The second main locale is Ennet House, a gritty drug and alcohol recovery facility just down the hill from Enfield Tennis Academy. It is filled with characters as down and out at the members of the ETA are well-heeled. We meet, for example, Randy Lenz, a coke head who uses Ennet House to hide from drug associates that want to kill him and relieves his stress by slitting the throats of neighborhood dogs on his walks back from AA meetings.
The main plot line is a Pynchon-like quest for The Entertainment, a film titled “Infinite Jest” (with a nod to Shakespeare’s Yorick, “a man of infinite jest”), created by James O. Incandenza, which has the power to turn the viewer into a helpless vegetable, capable only of repeatedly watching the Entertainment, with no thought of eating or sleeping. The Wheelchair Assassins want to find the master to this Entertainment, so that they can disseminate copies to unsuspecting Americans, rendering them helpless, thus furthering their cause. The U.S. government is trying to intercept and destroy the Entertainment, so that it cannot be used for this purpose.
This is a brief synopsis of a very complex novel. There are myriad bizarre, eccentric, and downright insane characters that populate the pages of Infinite Jest.
That brings us to our second question — what is the book about?
First and foremost, this book is about drugs, or as Wallace refers to them, Substances. Virtually every character in the novel is either addicted to a Substance or recovering from his or her addiction to a Substance. Hal Incandenza is addicted to secret ingestions of marijuana that he partakes of in the underground pump room of the Enfield Tennis Academy. Don Gately, another major character, is a former “oral narcotics addict” as Wallace describes him, with a preference for Demerol and breaking and entering. He is a live-in staffer at Ennet House, and he struggles to keep his craving for Substances at bay by rigorously following the AA doctrine. Along the way we meet coke heads, heroin junkies, freebasers, crackheads, Dilaudid addicts, a guy addicted to Quaaludes and red wine, and James O. Incandenza, whose Substance of choice was Wild Turkey.
Wallace presents his Substance-abusing characters in unflinching detail. He shows their states of mind before, during and after ingesting drugs. He describes the sheer hell of drug withdrawal, as well as the euphoric highs and the abysmal lows that come with Substance use. And along the way he draws some wickedly funny scenes, as when Enfield Tennis Academy student and drug-pusher Michael Pemulis shows up on random drug testing days to hand out little Murine vials of clean urine to his clients that they can secrete in their pants, and thus pass the drug tests.
This book is also about depression. Several of the characters are clinically depressed, and some of Wallace’s descriptions of depression are almost too painful to read. Kate Gompert, one of the clinically depressed characters, and an Ennet House resident, meets another clinically depressed man at Newton-Wellesly Hospital in Newton Mass, a man who despite his crippling depression goes to work and each day and plays with toy trains. Wallace: “But in her toxified soul Kate Gompert felt only a paralyzing horror at the idea of the squat dead-eyed man laying toy track slowly and carefully in the silence of his wood-panelled rec room, the silence total except for the sounds of the track being oiled and snapped together and laid into place, the man’s head full of poison and worms and every cell in his body screaming for relief from the flames no one else could help him with or feel.”
The other main theme could be called the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of trying to be happy, or the pursuit of trying to find out what happiness is. Here, we see the contrast between Hal Incandenza, bright, gifted at tennis, with what seems to be a brilliant future ahead of him, who is nonetheless deeply unhappy, having no real idea what happiness is; with that of Don Gately, the high-school drop-out criminal offender and ex-Demerol addict, who has come to see happiness as simply being able to stay sober. In one of the main sections of the book, Gately is involved in a monumental street fight stirred up by some irate and very large Canadians who caught Ray Lenz cutting the throat of their dog, and who came to Ennet House to exact retribution. Gately saves Lenz from a stomping by the Canadians, but ends up in the hospital with a gunshot wound, and heroically fends off the doctors efforts to give him Demerol for the pain, because he knows he wont be able to stay straight if he takes it. Gately is AA to the bitter end, but is also the most likable character in the novel.
For me, Infinite Jest was a good big book. I bought into its world. I loved the characters, even the disturbing ones. I laughed at the comic scenes. I cringed when I read about clinical depression. I marvelled at Wallace’s style, at his way of slipping extraneous information into the book without it being intrusive. I even learned to love the endnotes. If you have a couple of months, and you want to read a good, challenging novel that will teach you a lot about writing, try this baby out.