When I started “Infinite Jest,” I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. The only David Foster Wallace piece I’d ever encountered was an excerpt from “The Pale King” in the The New Yorker. From it, I had developed the expectation that Wallace only wrote about Internal Revenue Service employees in somewhat dry, futuristic prose.
Fortunately, when I jumped into “Infinite Jest” as part of my “Three Big Novels” course this fall, every single one of my preconceptions was turned on its head. “Infinite Jest,” first of all, has nothing to do with the IRS. Set in a dystopian, hyper-commercialized version of the United States commonly known as O.N.A.N. (Organization of North American Nations) since signing a treaty of interdependence with Mexico and Canada, the book follows 17-year-old lexical and tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza and 29-year-old recovering oral narcotics addict Don Gately. The two lead distant but interconnected lives in a tennis academy and a halfway house, respectively, on the same hillside.
When the story opens, Hal’s father, James O. Incandenza, an alcoholic auteur of experimentalist “cartridges”(similar to VHS tapes) and the founder of Enfield Tennis Academy, which Hal currently attends, has been dead for five years but has left a web of intrigue behind him.
Incandenza’s family, consisting of his wife, Avril Incandenza, Hal, and Hal’s two older brothers (critically deformed but eternally cheery Mario and football star Orin), is still struggling to make sense of his suicide. Meanwhile, terrorist cells seeking Quebec’s separation from Canada are distributing a fatal cartridge of Incandenza’s called “the Entertainment.”
Gately’s experiences, on the other hand, serve as a microcosm for the Boston AA community, beginning with his criminal past and descent into total dependence prior to his checking into Ennet House, the recovery program where he eventually befriends Orin’s former lover and James Incandenza’s muse, Joelle van Dyne. These, however, are just a few of the threads that intertwine to form the book’s seemingly disjointed yet meticulously crafted plot, which weaves together different segments of time and different perspectives to create a richly textured portrayal of the futuristic world.
Although the details of the dystopia can be overwhelming at times, most of the book’s setting quirks can be tolerated and even appreciated as they become more familiar to the reader. For example, instead of using Arabic numerals, Wallace refers to each year based on the corporation that the government has allowed to sponsor it (the years before the sponsorship system are known as “Unspecified Time”). This means that most of the book’s action takes place during the Year of the Dependent Adult Undergarment, which is in reality sometime in the early 2000s. By this time, Canada has absorbed the United States’ radioactive dumping ground (the “Convexity” or “Concavity,” depending on which side you’re looking from) and most of New England has been lost to nuclear waste.
Despite these departures from reality, Wallace’s style is gorgeously hyperrealistic, unwilling to shy away from the literal piss and shit of day-to-day life while displaying an emotional sensitivity that is almost unparalleled among modern novelists. Though it’s easy to dismiss his writing as obsessive and dense based on the 388 endnotes and the overall length of the book, he takes brilliant risks and manages to live up to the grandiosity of his own title, disguising but not obscuring the exhilarating honesty of his narrative with a wonderfully ironic wit.
The unusual subject matter and wrenching sincerity of “Infinite Jest” made it a particularly compelling book to discuss in class, provoking debates over topics as wide-ranging as the significance of powdered milk and the narrator’s approach to race relations. Moreover, since our professor, Salvatore Scibona, was also experiencing the book for the first time, we were treated to his own exclamations over the text, which often referenced Freudian developmental psychology but were occasionally as blunt as “What the fuck?!”
Because “Infinite Jest” was the most contemporary of the novels we read as a class, the other two being “Middlemarch” by George Eliot and “Independent People” by Halldór Laxness, it was certainly one of the easiest to relate to as college students, and one that inspired some of our deepest and most philosophical conversations. Questions posed included “Can you think with your body?” and “Can we exist without self?”, the exploration of which both captivated and brought us closer as a class.
If you do persevere, and persevere you should, in reading “Infinite Jest,” you will be treated to a wildly entertaining, and at times deeply moving, examination of competitive youth tennis and drug addiction, combined with a prolonged ode to the city of Boston and a political satire so biting you’ll be concerned for the future of our government. And, if that’s not enough of an incentive, you’ll also have the curious experience of hearing the advent of video chatting predicted and described by an author firmly anchored in the 1990s.
It’s not often that I recommend a book so unabashedly, particularly one as eccentric as this, but there’s so little to be lost in comparison to what you’ll gain in the process of reading it. If you consider the time we devote on a daily basis to more mindless activities—checking Facebook; marking promotional emails for the spam folder; contemplating, then deciding against texting a person—it seems far more worthwhile to allot at least some of it to “Infinite Jest,” which, contrary to popular belief, can be ingested in bite-size servings.
So, whenever you next feel like making space for a 1,000-page book in your heart or luggage, give it a try, and be prepared for one hell of a ride.