Infinite Jest by prodigiously talented but tragically suicidal author David Foster Wallace is emphatically not a difficult book. I finished it this weekend after starting almost a year ago, and am at once reluctant to post about it because as an Important Novel it’s been dissected to death, but at the same time it was thrilling, hilarious and dare-I-say important for me too.
And whilst not difficult it is enormous and often intimidatingly dense, so I can’t pretend I’m not a little pleased simply to have read the whole thing. Y’know, properly read it. Without skimming or sounding out words.
Infinite Jest charts in minute detail the scenery, characters, behaviours and events of a fortnight (or so) in two places: a halfway house for recovering addicts and a top tennis school nearby, both in Boston, Massachusetts in a near future (when published) dystopian America in which part of Canada has been annexed for use as a toxic waste dump. Weaving through these two main arenas of action is the story of the pursuit – by government secret agents and a Canadian terrorist group – of the master copy of a short film that’s so addictively entertaining it’s coma-inducing and practically lethal.
Here are the ten things I enjoyed most about Infinite Jest, in no particular order and off the top of my head:
1. The comedy. Infinite Jest is, as befits the title, a very funny book. In addition to the high farce set pieces, often hilarious dialogue and smartly parodic elements (see below), the novel is littered with beautifully comedic grace notes: vignettes that capture surreally funny actions or behaviour, like the parents who are so keen to be rid of their tennis prodigy children that gravel flies as the family car screeches to a halt on arrival at the academy and accelerates away, or the relapsed cocaine addict who becomes convinced that the enormous shopping bags carried by tiny Chinese women are stuffed full of cash. I frequently found myself laughing out loud.
2. The gruesome memories. Throughout the novel we’re treated to several characters – mostly but not solely recovering drug addicts – recounting episodes from their past that are so imaginatively awful and so incredibly vividly described that you find yourself both amazed and appalled at what Wallace was able to dredge from his mind.
3. The names. Wallace gives his characters names that in some cases achieve Dickensian identity fit, but always sound brilliant: ‘Lateral’ Alice Moore, Ann Kittenplan, Mary Esther Thode, Ortho Stice, LaMont Chu, Joelle Van Dyne.
4. The parody of highbrow cultural academia. The founder of the tennis academy is also the arthouse director who produced the apparently lethally addictive film of the title. Which gives Wallace licence to invent the most elaborate, baroque film titles, subjects and critical theories. I particularly liked The American Century as Seen Through a Brick; Poultry in Motion; and Möbius Strips, in which ‘a theoretical physicist who can only achieve creative mathematical insight during coitus, conceives of Death as a lethally beautiful woman’.
5. The account of addiction. For me the pages (and pages and pages) dedicated to explaining/expounding theories of addiction, treatment, rehabilitation and relapse were the most ‘realistic’ and seemingly heartfelt of a novel that is also chockful of surreal artifice. How accurate these passages are I have no idea, but they have the clear ring of authenticity.
6. The set-pieces. These showcase Wallace’s amazing talent best, I think. Throughout the thousand pages of the novel there are about three or four ‘big events’ that build, and build, and become achingly suspenseful, and then climax with supreme Wallaceisian style. My favourite comes right in the middle of the book: a geopolitical strategy wargame played out with rapidly decreasing mathematical precision on tennis courts.
7. The richness of language. By which I mean the breadth of Wallace’s vocabulary and his ability to work effectively and meaningfully with such a rich palette. I’ve never read a novel which had me reaching for the dictionary so frequently and being so consistently pleased I had. You never feel like Wallace is showing off: he’s revelling.
8. The portrayal of family life. Parent-child and other family relationships are right at the heart of Infinite Jest, one of its central themes. Almost every character mediates on his or her place in the family, and the impact fatherly or maternal influence has had. Parents in the novel are variously aloof, abusive, overbearing, incapable, well-meaning, claustrophobically open, repulsive and loving. There’s a wonderful, subtle seam of unquestioning brotherly love running throughout. Families are never simple, always formative. Just like in real life.
9. The dialogue. Wallace captures voice, cadence and delivery superbly, whether the to-and-fro banter of the locker room or the overlapping, solipsistic chatter of the rehab room. However hard it would be to translate the impact of Infinite Jest into film, the quality of the dialogue surely makes it worth a try?
10. The sentences. In the foreword to the edition of the novel I have Dave Eggers compares Wallace to Proust, and putting aside the question of the general accuracy of the comparison for a second, there must be something to be said for Wallace matching his predecessor for crafting incredibly lengthy sentences that never seem to flag.
In the interest of balance I should say that I enjoyed less the overarching narrative stuff about the politics (both geopolitical and entertainment business politics) – in particular the central theme of a North American president so much in thrall to advertising and entertainment that he allows companies to sponsor years (hence the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment in which most of the action occurs) – because for me it uneasily straddled outright comedy and biting satire, achieving neither quite as well as the standard set by the rest of the novel. But that’s simply a personal reaction, and detracts not a bit from my feeling of being bowled over by this amazing book. Emphatically worth embarking upon, however long it takes.