Infinite Jest – by David Foster Wallace

Okay, it’s done. After prolonged, albeit on and off, efforts that have accompanied my days since the beginning of the year, I have made it to the end of Infinite Jest. So, what am I doing now? Do I really want to write my review of a book to which countless scholarly articles are devoted? Of what is heralded as one of the most important works of the 20th century? Well, after labouring through more than a thousand pages, I think I’m at least entitled to share my very incomplete impressions.

Title: Infinite Jest

Author: David Foster Wallace

Original Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Publication Date: 1 February 1996

Genre: Encyclopedic Novel

Pages: 1079

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: In a near future that feels like a grotesque parody of our own world, a lethal work of fiction – a film so entertaining to prevent its viewers from doing literally anything else – is becoming a veritable threat to the North American superstate known as O.N.A.N.. On its trail, undercover agents as well as wheelchair-bound terrorists. Its fate is interwoven with those of several people from all walks of life – from the wealthy but highly dysfunctional Incandenza family, whose existences revolve around their prestigious tennis academy, to the many inmates of a rehabilitation facility.

Analysis: Despite following a multitude of different points of view, flitring with different formats, and even incorporating fictional pieces of non-fiction, Infinite Jest is written in what overal feels like a single unifying style: that is to say, DFW’s overflowing and obstinately redundant prose, that describes every facet of its world to the point of grotesque – not unlike endless repetitions of the same word will devoid it of its meaning. The author has an extenuating eye for minutiae and a taste for unusual words, better if employed in an even less intuitive meaning (just to make an infamous example, why does Hal Incandenza states that he has become “an infantophile”? Does it mean he’s enjoying his inability to speak? That he’s become something uniquely repulsive to societal standards? Is it a symptom of his mental degeneration, now affecting his inner monologue as well? The jury is still wavering).

At first, I though such a style was exceptionally fit to represent Hal’s point of view – that is to say, brilliantly rendering the experience of a very precocious and very challenged genius, brought up in a very sheltered environment under extreme societal pressure. But, no – the same tone extends to the novel in almost its entirety, regardless to the perspective it’s supposed to follow, with the main difference than people of lower status make more abundant use of racial slurs (and I’ll try to be generous and not dwell on DFW’s embarrassing attempt to write what looks like a parody of AAVE).

Such a stylistic note is a sympthom of a larger issue: that is to say, for its hefty size if nothing else, Infinite Jest presents itself not just like a story, but like a Grand Theory Of Everything. Its perspective, however, is highly specific, and likely reflective of the author’s own experience, rather than of the modern world at large. It sounds the most sincere when it explores the utter misery of overly educated suburbian enfant prodiges, it hits and misses when it ventures through different echelons of society, it falls flat when it tries to approach any individual other than white and male. Which is fair, as a deep inquiry on a rather specific experience. But it is not, by far, a Grand Theory of Everything.

The story is told in a diachronic order, starting from the end and spreading in all directions. Any attempt to figure out what’s going on is made even more, uh, interesting by the fact that the setting has replaced the traditional numerical designations of its years with more or less atrocious corporate names (most of the story is set during the The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment).

The novel is also infamous for its gargantuan amount of endnotes, some of which have their own footnotes for good measure. Such notes are of disparate size and purpose: some are essentially additional chapters, required to at least try to understand the story. Others are minor and more or less negligible annotations. All of them, especially given the fractured nature of the narration and the pedantic quality of the writing, could have easily fit inside the book proper, thus their existence as endnotes must be meant to serve some other purpose. Perhaps, forcing the reader to move back and forward over and again is meant to mimick the pattern of a tennis match. Perhaps, DFW just wanted to make us as miserable as possible.

As mentioned, the novel is set in a near future, where each year is subsidized by a corporation, and where all North America has been united in a single and vaguely dystopic entity. Despite such elements of worldbuilding, however, the novel comes across as failry apathetic in political terms; the absurdity of its institutional choices points more to the overall nonsense of existence than to any sort of specific criticism. A sizeable plot arc revolves around Québécois radical serapatists, and some of its characters are indeed passionately devoted to their ideals, but this hardly prompts the reader to any reflection on the merits of their cause; if nothing else, we’re left to wonder if their fervour isn’t perhaps comparable to the many other forms of addiction that are depicted in the novel.

Addiction is, in fact, one of the main themes of the novel, and closely linked to that of entertainment. Infinite Jest describes the disruptive effects of all sorts of addiction on people’s life, and seems to imply that not only the eponymous and lethal film, but the very concept of entertainment is inherently toxic and dangerous, as it distracts from experiencing reality in its fullest. To such extent, the novel seems to have a strangely moralistic undertone, sounding like an almost savonarola-esque condemnation of all sorts of escapism. Unlike most moralistic preachers, who promise either an otherworldy reward, or at least a sense of austere but wholesome satisfaction, DFW offers no payoff for its appeal to mental and physical sobriety: the world he describes is in fact quite disheartening, his characters are suffering under different shades of oppression, and there is no hint that by renouncing marijuana and soap operas they’ll become more able to break free from their constraints, or even more capable to communicate with each other. Infinite Jest seems to call for a momentous effort, but such effort all in all feels pointless.

Conclusion: Honestly I can’t say if this work is a piece of genius that only a superior intellect can appraise, or a monumental and pretentious chaos with the occasional bit of brilliance buried inside – but bound to gather some cult devotion as a result of the most classic sunk cost bias, or, well, becasue admiring it might denote your exquisite taste, not unlike the Emperor’s magnificent clothes. For better or worse, there is more to this book than a single post can analyse, and honestly I don’t plan to spend any additional time on it.

Content Warning: Drug Abuse – Suicide – Mental Illness – Sexual Abuse – Incest – Death – Death of Parent – Racism – Sexism

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