Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest. Finally tackled it, folks. David Foster Wallace's magnum opiates, that is. Here, at last, is my book review. 20 years late and a dollar short. First impressions?

Well, at 1,079 pages, it lives up to its name. Sizewise, this is a bigass novel -- a shaggy dog story on a Gravity's Rainbow scale. Not infinite, by any means. It just feels that way. So what's the story?

Tough question, actually.

Wallace's approach to plot makes Quentin Tarantino look like an obsessive compulsive who folds his towels in the same order. Which is to say the plot is all over the place. Non-linear, cut-up, sliced, diced, folded and fragmented.

If you ironed it out, Infinite Jest is a science fiction novel ... sort of. The SF narrative unfolds something like this:

Back in 1996, Wallace dreamed of a new bad future in the not-too-distant years following Y2K. The year is probably 2010 thereabouts, but he never nails it down. Time is subsidized by various corporations, so it's the year of the Tucks Medicated Pads, etc.

America, Mexico and Canada have now consolidated into one bigass country: the Organization of North American Nations. (ONAN, get it?) The real estate formerly known as New England is now a vast toxic waste dump called The Great Concavity. (The waste is fired into this stinking expanse via high-tech catapults.) Herds of feral hamsters roam this vast wasteland.

The computer, TV and telephone have merged into a cartridge-based technology.

Filmmaker James Orin Incandenza (aka "Himself," aka "JOI") has created an impressively twisted oeuvre in this medium. He ends his filmography with a killer entertainment. As in, duh, literally. His cartridge (aka the "samizdat" aka "Infinite Jest") is so addictive, those who see it lose all desire to do anything else but see it again and again and ...

... keep watching the damn thing until they die.

Why kill your audience? JOI's motives are unclear and he's not around to ask. After finishing the samizdat, the filmmaker offs himself by sticking his head in a modified microwave oven.

But the master cartridge is out there somewhere.

Some pissed-off Quebec revolutionaries in wheelchairs want to find it, bien sur. They plan to unleash this media mindbomb on an unsuspecting American populace in their desire to secede from that whole ONAN deal.

In an echo of Hamlet dealing with his father's ghost, James Incandenza's son -- the tennis prodigy, Hal -- gets sucked into the plot. It's possible there's an antidote cartridge. Hal might possibly find it and stop the damn thing. It's equally possible that the Québécois separatists will fry America's collective noodle if they find the master cartridge first and make a shitload of duplicates. (Both cartridges are lodged in Himself's exploded and buried head ... possibly.) It's highly probable the rolling revolutionaries dosed Hal's noodle with a psychotomimetic mold to knock him out of the game. Either that, or a tennis rival put it on Hal's toothpaste. Possibly. Either way, the clock is ticking, eh?

That reads like the plot of a jokey science fiction novel -- something by Kurt Vonnegut or Neal Stephenson, perhaps. (Attentive readers will note the similarity to the mental virus of Stephenson's Snow Crash.) That's a novel I'd like to read, kids. But it's not the novel Wallace wanted to write.

The SF story I just summarized only pops up in bits and fragments. Wallace has fun with it -- but it's not what really interests him. But he's downright obsessed with tennis and addiction. So, my hunch is ...

The SF stuff is a loss-leader to get you to read the two novels he wanted to write about his twin obsessions. Said novels-within-the-novel offer fictionalized versions of two, involuted, convoluted, self-contained subcultures of which Wallace had personal experience:

An academy for young tennis phenoms: Enfield Tennis Academy ("ETA").

A drug rehabilitation clinic: Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House.

Not to dance around the point here: Wallace was a former tennis prodigy and a recovering drug addict. At least until he killed himself

Wallace populates his two subcultures with "a host of interesting characters," as a hack writer might say. He describes their lives with granular detail. Hal helps his father take apart a bed to get rid of a creaking noise? That's 20 pages or so. The Enfield kids play a war game simulating nuclear holocaust with tennis balls? 50 pages. And what thick pages they are. Wallace maintains a consistently maddening, high-res, OCD level of specificity throughout the book. But sometimes even that's just not enough -- Wallace famously peppers his book with "end notes," sometimes explaining shit, sometimes saying "no clue." 

Elmore Leonard he ain't. Though compared to Finnegans Wake, it's a light read. Compared to Gravity's Rainbow -- ah, skip it. I'll cut to the chase.

In summary: The bulk of the book is comprised of two cut-up novels about drug addicts and tennis brats. Wallace intertwines these narratives with a loose SF thread. Snip that thread out, and you're left with two realistic, if fragmented, narratives that could happen in the present day. Realistic. But not an easy read.

Wallace's prose style mixes obscure words that'd cross Anthony Burgess' eyeballs with a loopy conversational style imitating casual Gen X speech patterns. We're talking, like, redundancies, digressions, you know, like the stuff you say when you're talking and saying stuff you don't, like, edit. That there's what they call "authorial intention." Wallace's letter to his publishers threatened dire retribution if they tried to clean up his prose.

If you've got the fortitude for this variety of fictional long distance running, his shaggy dog stories are exceedingly funny. Though the payoff can be a long time coming. (Drum roll please.) And the punchline is ...


Addiction? Seriously?


It sounds so lame.

It's the heart of the book.

Infinite Jest wins the 1996 Stephen King award for most directly stated or implied anti-drug references per page. These include an addict who walked around with her dead baby until it rotted and fused to her flesh. Just say no, kids.

The addicts have their Substances. But the tennis brats are equally addicted to competition and performance. And their own Substances. All God's children are hooked on something.

And let's not forget the book's central image ...

A lab rat with a lever wired up to its brain's pleasure centers. A rat who stops eating, drinking and sleeping and keeps pressing the lever until it dies. Which is pretty much what happens to unlucky humans who see the Entertainment.

Neil Postman said we're amusing ourselves to death. Wallace took the notion literally.

This mountain of a book is the result.