Book Review: Infinite Jest, Truly

Infinite Jest is, no joke, a work of near-infinity and plentiful jest.

Weighing in at 981 pages, not to mention another 98 of microscopic-font-size footnotes, at the beginning the book was a hassle to read just because of the challenge of balancing it on my chest as I was reading in bed. I quickly relegated it to coffee-shop and table-top reading. Not to mention that it’s almost impossible to read without a pen to mark important plot- and theme-notes, so that three months into the journey, you can come back and remember what the hell happened in the prior two hundred pages. Not to mention that the themes, characters, and places the book addresses are nearly infinite, too. Suffice to say that on the surface, the book lives up to its title.

All that notwithstanding, Infinite Jest is perhaps the most enjoyable, revelatory, immersive, hilarious, enlightening, life-changing work of fiction I’ve had the pleasure to read since Catch-22.

“Work of genius” almost doesn’t quite describe Infinite Jest, as “genius” seems to imply some sort of mathematical or intellectual genius, which Infinite Jest is, but it’s not quite a broad enough term to encompass everything that the book aspires to be. Maybe “Work of da Vinci + Einstein + Dostoyevsky + Hitchcock + Warhol”, might begin to describe somehow the way that DFW wraps art, science, literature, film, and culture all into one (relatively, considering) neat little package for his readers’ occasionally delighted, occasionally depressed, and always entertained, enjoyment.

Infinite Jest was published in 1996, and is set slightly into the future, in a world where mass-media entertainment has begun to rule the consumer economy, where years are no longer numerically dated but instead are purchased (“Subsidized Time”) by various clients, e.g. “The Year of the Whopper” or “The Year of the Trial-Sized Dove Bar”, where Quebec and North America have merged into one strange nation so that America could dump all its trash into a portion of Maine and Northeastern Canada. The book takes place simultaneously at a halfway house (which you really only get to about 250 pages into the book) for drug and alcohol addicts and a tennis academy for promising young tennis players looking to join “The Show,” or, the professional tennis circuit.

The book doesn’t really begin to make sense until around page 200, when you start to realize what’s going on in this strange semi-futuristic world, who the characters in play really are, and what the plot of the book actually is. It’s a struggle to get through those first 200 pages. But what comes after (and what comes before, once you really ‘get it’) is worth the slog.

The locations he’s chosen as his setting are both particular and peculiar, and DFW describes his spaces and his characters with an intimacy that can only be described as psychic. He brings people, places, and emotions to life with precision and detail that never drifts into the absurd or obscene. It’s easy to see why modern literary fiction writers idolize him:

It’s an urban November P.M.: very last leaves down, dry gray hairy grass, brittle bushes, gap-toothed trees. The rising moon looks like it doesn’t feel very well. The click of Lenz’s loafers and the crunchy thud of Green’s old asphalt-spreader’s boots with the thick black soles. Green’s little noises of attention and assent. He says he’s been broken by life, is all he’ll personally say. Green. Life has kicked his ass, and he’s regrouping. Lenz likes him, and there’s always this slight hangnail of fear, like clinging, whenever he likes somebody. It’s like something terrible could happen at any time. Less fear than a kind of tension in the region of stomach and ass, an all-body wince. Deciding to go ahead and think somebody’s a stand-up guy. It’s like you drop something, you give up all your power over it: you have to stand there waiting for it to hit the ground: all you can do is brace and wince. It kind of enrages Lenz to like somebody.

It’s also deadly funny, at times. One of the characters, in a fever dream, remarks about a wraith that’s come to visit him:

He’s got a way clearer and more direct view of the wraith’s extreme nostril hair situation than he’d prefer to.

And, in the large sections that deal with addiction, depression, recovery, and redemption, it’s far more poignant and insightful (especially as someone who has never truly experienced any of these things) than I could have expected:

[…] when [Don Gately] realized that the various Substances he didn’t used to be able to go a day without absorbing hadn’t even like occurred to him in almost a week, Gately hadn’t felt so much grateful or joyful as just plain shocked. The idea that AA might actually somehow work unnerved him. He suspected some sort of trap. Some new sort of trap. At this stage he and the other Ennet residents who were still there and starting to snap to the fact that AA might work began to sit around together late at night going batshit together because it seemed to be impossible to figure out just how AA worked. It did, yes, tentatively seem maybe actually to be working, but Gately couldn’t for the life of him figure out how just sitting on hemorrhoid-hostile folding chairs every night looking at nose-pores and listening to cliches could work. Nobody’s ever been able to figure AA out […]

This quote, and others like it, blew me away in their ability to communicate somehow what it’s like to arrive at the bottom, the scum of humanity, the depths and ruination populated by people who have traded in their entire lives, families, worlds, for a hit of ‘drines or another bottle of Wild Turkey, and to make me understand, sympathize, and even Identify (to use a Boston AA term) with them.

This is what unites the tennis academy and the halfway house: both deal with the pursuit of entertainment, the desire to be entertained, and the desire to entertain others. As Hal Incandenza, seventeen, struggles with his own semi-addiction to what he calls “Bob Hope”, aka marijuana, while also striving to become the best tennis player he can so that one day he can join “the Show” and be a part of “the Entertainment”, Don Gately struggles to recover from his own addiction to his own version of “the Entertainment”, that is, Demerol, pharmaceutical drugs, and alcohol. Gately’s story, to me, was by far the most poignant, though Hal and his relationship to his physically-damaged younger brother Mario came in a close second. As the narrator navigates these two primary characters and their self-destruction or self-preservation, the themes of redemption, resurrection, identity, self-knowledge, and faith (in an non-religious sense) come to the fore.

Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence is really some kind of fear of being human, since to be really human is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile….One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pulses and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.

You can’t help but get the sense, reading passages like this, that DFW has hit on some profound truth about the nature of human isolation and loneliness, that we despise ourselves for what we truly want – happiness, connection, sentimentality – and choose to forego that in favor of maturity, hipness, and cynicism. I love the line “One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is…” because it clues us into how Hal reflects the problem of apathy at large. Hal isn’t just a character – he’s DFW’s representation of a nation striving, and failing, to achieve connection through cynicism.

At the backdrop of the emotional core is the hilarious-yet-terrifying AFR, the Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, which translates colloquially as “wheelchair assassins” (but more directly as “assassins of the rolling armchairs”). This gruesome association of legless separatists, fighting for secession of Quebec from the new political order, are searching desperately for something called “The Entertainment”, a film which is so entertaining that those who have viewed it subsequently give up all desire to eat, shower, shit, socialize, or otherwise continue to live, and thus waste away in front of “The Entertainment”. The idea that our slavish dependence on entertainment could ultimately translate into a deadly WMD is at the heart of his parody of American society.

The only thing you might be dissatisfied with is the ending. I’m not sure yet if I was. It closes on a surprising note, much the way life itself often does, which led me to think that perhaps, for DFW, the ending was never the point.

I laughed my ass off, I almost cried in several parts, I was moved by the sheer force of Foster Wallace’s comprehension of the human existential problem, and through it all I felt like I got a glimpse into the psyche of this strange, complicated, brilliant man. I would read the book again if I had the time, yes, all 981 pages of it. I highly encourage you, dear reader, to strike out and read it at some point in your life. It’s a marathon of a read (it took me nearly half a year) but it’s worth it – as a learning experience, as an emotional trip, as a satire of the highest form. 

This book transcends ratings, so none shall be given.