Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Reading Infinite Jest

By Michael Norris on Thursday, April 9, 2009 06:13 pm

I began reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace around October 2008. I had ordered the book from Amazon.com after hearing of David Foster Wallace’s death. I was in France at the time, and when I got back to the U.S. there was this big, fat book waiting for me. A thousand-pager. Not too many people write thousand-pagers, much less read them. Undaunted, I picked up the book and was immediately captivated.

It started with this kid (Hal Incandenza, maybe the protagonist) on an interview at the University of Arizona for a tennis scholarship. I began to sense there is something not quite right with him, or with the world he lives in. And then I was hooked.

I read the book almost every day. My favorite place to read is on public transportation. I have the ability to tune out everything around me and just focus on the book I'm reading, so I can read on the bus or train. Plus, it makes commuting quality time for me. Instead of getting in a car and driving, and filling my time listening to some drivel on the radio, I can travel and enjoy great literature at the same time. So I read this thing on public transport, in doctor’s waiting rooms, at home in my chair, on the john -- all of the great reading spots. And I finally finished it on February 18, 2009. If I started it on October 1, (in retrospect I should have noted down the actual date I started), and I finished it February 18, then it took a little over four and a half months to read the whole thing.

What kept me reading a book for all that time? What is the book about?

I kept reading because of the high caliber of the writing. Some of the plotlines and back stories and tangents are a bit sketchy, but the writing is compelling even when Wallace is satirizing the evolution of the video-phone industry in the near future. Wallace uses a mixture of high erudition and colloquial language, along with endnotes (not footnotes at the bottom of the page, but notes at the end of the book). He drops in fragments of stories that tie into other events later on in the novel. He mixes in different points of view, including first person for Hal Incandenza, the tennis kid. Wallace juggles all this stuff seemingly without effort. It may not work in the sense of a conventional novel, but it makes for a hell of a read.

Infinite Jest takes place primarily in Boston, with side trips to Tucson, Arizona. The book was published in 1996, and the action is set in the near future from that time, perhaps about now (2009-2012). The U.S., Canada and Mexico have merged into a single political entity called The Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. (pun intended). Most of northern New England, as well as a large part of southern Quebec, has become a giant toxic waste dump for the United States. Bands of Quebecois terrorists in wheelchairs -- known as the Les Assassins des Fauteuils Roulents [sic] -- the Wheelchair Assassins -- roam the U.S., plotting their separatist agenda. The American President is an ex-lounge singer and germophobe who has sold the naming rights of each calendar year to corporations in order to balance the budget, much as baseball stadiums sell their naming rights. The book takes place primarily in the Year of the Depend Undergarment. Other subsidized years are the Year of Glad and the Year of the Whopper.

Against this satiric, futuristic backdrop, the majority of the action takes place in two Boston locales. The first is the Enfield Tennis Academy, or ETA, founded by mad genius (and father of Hal) James O. Incandenza, optics entrepreneur and film-maker; run by his wife Avril Incandenza and her stepbrother Charles Tavis; and attended currently by their two sons Hal and Mario, and previously by their son Orin.

The Incandenzas are spectacularly eccentric and dysfunctional. The father is a brilliant but hopeless alcoholic who commits suicide by sticking his head in a microwave oven. Hal is a depressed genius and tennis whiz who couldn’t talk to his father while he was alive. Hal has been turned into a sort of tennis robot by the ETA. Mario is a mildly retarded dwarf the size of a fireplug who makes documentary films with a camera strapped to his head. The mother, Avril, is a sort of manic super-mom that lets nothing bring down her children's self-esteem. Orin, a punter in the NFL, specializes in seducing married women who have young children, then calling Hal to relate his techniques.

The second main locale is Ennet House, a gritty drug and alcohol recovery facility just down the hill from Enfield Tennis Academy. It is filled with characters as down and out at the members of the ETA are well-heeled. We meet, for example, Randy Lenz, a coke head who uses Ennet House to hide from drug associates that want to kill him and relieves his stress by slitting the throats of neighborhood dogs on his walks back from AA meetings.

The main plot line is a Pynchon-like quest for The Entertainment, a film titled "Infinite Jest" (with a nod to Shakespeare’s Yorick, "a man of infinite jest"), created by James O. Incandenza, which has the power to turn the viewer into a helpless vegetable, capable only of repeatedly watching the Entertainment, with no thought of eating or sleeping. The Wheelchair Assassins want to find the master to this Entertainment, so that they can disseminate copies to unsuspecting Americans, rendering them helpless, thus furthering their cause. The U.S. government is trying to intercept and destroy the Entertainment, so that it cannot be used for this purpose.

This is a brief synopsis of a very complex novel. There are myriad bizarre, eccentric, and downright insane characters that populate the pages of Infinite Jest.

That brings us to our second question -- what is the book about?

First and foremost, this book is about drugs, or as Wallace refers to them, Substances. Virtually every character in the novel is either addicted to a Substance or recovering from his or her addiction to a Substance. Hal Incandenza is addicted to secret ingestions of marijuana that he partakes of in the underground pump room of the Enfield Tennis Academy. Don Gately, another major character, is a former "oral narcotics addict" as Wallace describes him, with a preference for Demerol and breaking and entering. He is a live-in staffer at Ennet House, and he struggles to keep his craving for Substances at bay by rigorously following the AA doctrine. Along the way we meet coke heads, heroin junkies, freebasers, crackheads, Dilaudid addicts, a guy addicted to Quaaludes and red wine, and James O. Incandenza, whose Substance of choice was Wild Turkey.

Wallace presents his Substance-abusing characters in unflinching detail. He shows their states of mind before, during and after ingesting drugs. He describes the sheer hell of drug withdrawal, as well as the euphoric highs and the abysmal lows that come with Substance use. And along the way he draws some wickedly funny scenes, as when Enfield Tennis Academy student and drug-pusher Michael Pemulis shows up on random drug testing days to hand out little Murine vials of clean urine to his clients that they can secrete in their pants, and thus pass the drug tests.

This book is also about depression. Several of the characters are clinically depressed, and some of Wallace's descriptions of depression are almost too painful to read. Kate Gompert, one of the clinically depressed characters, and an Ennet House resident, meets another clinically depressed man at Newton-Wellesly Hospital in Newton Mass, a man who despite his crippling depression goes to work and each day and plays with toy trains. Wallace: "But in her toxified soul Kate Gompert felt only a paralyzing horror at the idea of the squat dead-eyed man laying toy track slowly and carefully in the silence of his wood-panelled rec room, the silence total except for the sounds of the track being oiled and snapped together and laid into place, the man’s head full of poison and worms and every cell in his body screaming for relief from the flames no one else could help him with or feel."

The other main theme could be called the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of trying to be happy, or the pursuit of trying to find out what happiness is. Here, we see the contrast between Hal Incandenza, bright, gifted at tennis, with what seems to be a brilliant future ahead of him, who is nonetheless deeply unhappy, having no real idea what happiness is; with that of Don Gately, the high-school drop-out criminal offender and ex-Demerol addict, who has come to see happiness as simply being able to stay sober. In one of the main sections of the book, Gately is involved in a monumental street fight stirred up by some irate and very large Canadians who caught Ray Lenz cutting the throat of their dog, and who came to Ennet House to exact retribution. Gately saves Lenz from a stomping by the Canadians, but ends up in the hospital with a gunshot wound, and heroically fends off the doctors efforts to give him Demerol for the pain, because he knows he wont be able to stay straight if he takes it. Gately is AA to the bitter end, but is also the most likable character in the novel.

For me, Infinite Jest was a good big book. I bought into its world. I loved the characters, even the disturbing ones. I laughed at the comic scenes. I cringed when I read about clinical depression. I marvelled at Wallace's style, at his way of slipping extraneous information into the book without it being intrusive. I even learned to love the endnotes. If you have a couple of months, and you want to read a good, challenging novel that will teach you a lot about writing, try this baby out.

9 Responses to "Reading Infinite Jest"

by dlt on

Pynchon is new age muzak

by luke t/drifter on

Classy Synopsis to a complicated book. I agree with your conclusions.

Wallace's endnotes are descendants of Kerouac's wild tangents, mixed with a humorous appreciation of the equally necessary drudge of detail in technical writing.

This book will stay with you for a long time & Wallace had several others. I dont think he reached these heights again, but who does? I like all the books of his I read but this one, though superficially frivolous, was life changing. Perhaps it was right time, right place for me.

His 'everything and more' I like alot as it posseses the kind of clarity of intellect I remember from Shaw & some of his contempraries, mainly Russell I guess.

Wallace is so good I dont know why most of us even bother. Serious Firepower. Big Guns.

by stevadore on

Gripping synopsis. You make we want to read this book, so much so, that I plan on picking it up this weekend. Sounds similar to John Irving.

Maybe it's 'right time right place' for me, as luke says?

Fine review, Michael. You really covered the book from every angle.

by Pia P. on

I need a huge book for my trip this summer, that could be it... I read a few excerpts of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, but I have a feeling it was not the right timing.

Sounds like a great book to read this summer. Thanks!

by dan s on

levi thanks for this piece on IJ. this book carried me to the same feeling of a pure connected emotion that i got when first reading other writers on this site, a dozen years on. (and let me say i was pleased and impressed by the part of your memoir when you conceived of the internet [paraphrasing] as a non-commercial resource and new artistic media.). there's so much that could be said about this book. new readers should turn to pages 343-374 in the pictured edition for don gately's experience of support meetings, addiction, and the unbelievable quotidien struggle for redemption. if after reading that you don't read every other page and all 388 endnotes and seek out dfw's conception of humanity in everything from his piercing magazine articles to 'good old neon' to his math-intensive disquisition on infinity, then you are a harder man than I. that or you have a happy life outside of music and literature in which case hat's off and I hope to get there myself, substance-free.

by TKG on

Thanks for this Michael and Levi,

This was as good a write up on this book as I've ever seen. I'd had no idea what it was about and this actually told me.

I've always been impressed by this work, and will be by any ambitious work of literature, een if I know nothing about it, really, I respect such efforts.

What little I read of it did involve the endnotes to a large degree and I saw that Wallace did have a good understanding of pharmacology. I was impressed that he was accurate in what he said and his technical descriptions.

Now how about another big big book that seems impressive as wel -- Vollman's Bright and Risen Angels (or whatever). Never read or really knew what that was about either, but seemed impressive to put out such a big ambitious book.

by chad on

michael, great review. it brought me back to the fall of 2001 when i made the courageous decision to pick up Infinite Jest. a friend of mine had sent a list of books that I might want to check out; and infinite jest was on his list. staring at this, the title grabbed me. little did i know what was in store. ....

i was attending the university of montana. the book was located in the basement of the bomb shelter-esque 1970s university library. hardcovered, dusty dirt blue, ominous was its appearance and thick its appeal. at that time i was studying organic chemistry, physics and calculus, yikes! so a dipped sojourn into a literary unknown seemed like a great escape. needless to say it took me quite a while to finish. i started sometime in september and ended in january. the best part was carrying it around amsterdam, brussles and london. i had a northface backpack, skinny and long, with a just-right single strap hold down tie apparatus on the top, allowing for a perfect storage place for IF. how enjoyable it was reading IF as I flew over the Atlantic. trudging around amsterdam, book alit for all to view. oh how many places it went with me! coffee shops, weird and sudden appearance of MC Conrad show, acting as a pillow in the freezing temperatures of the Brussles train station (yep, missed the chunnel train to london), doing rails of coke off back cover at Sanderson hotel in London, leafing through it and pointing out hilarious passages to this girl from Helsinki (they really do walk around naked), underarm while tumbling around red-light district on single gram hawaiin mushroom high, and while on this high-trip-cartwheel-kneel-parade getting attacked by a pack of people-not-liking-me. It saw me getting that nice brown powder heroin, ripped off so many times in those back-alley-dark early a.m. not so often talked about Amsterdam copping spots, anybody have some hop?, opening the little dope pack only to find sugary something else, so dope-sick hung backward shitty sallow mornings, friend across the table, pissed at him just because, pouring milk all over his just-placed-in-front-of-him pancakes, hating everyone after those nights, and finally it arrived back in the US, tattered, traveled, tough. ambiguous was its look, indecipherable back and front. cover falling off, not how i had checked it out. late fees amassed. saddened, slightly. maybe they would retire its circulation, never to be repurchased and set ashelf for another to pick up and wander some other part of the world. and my fear was realized. for a few months later i went down to bathe in a moment of nostalgia, swoon over my old friend, maybe pick her up again, leaf through and find Hal shooting his toenail clippings across the room; but to my dismay it had been ripped clean gone. checking library catalog , removed due to damage. see, before returning it I had hot-glued the cover back together. i thought it looked ok. apparently they didnt. or, hopefully some lonely sole had found it (ok, they dont always have to be lonely), and gone and lost he was somewhere in south america, also turning pages, pointing out lines to some brazilian find. ....

returning back to california, after two years spent at UM, i always had the hope of going down to Pomona, maybe enrolling for just a semester, perhaps the MFA program, just to tell Wallace about a little adventure i once had.....

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