Thursday, May 30, 2013
David Foster Wallace
Some books you forget the second you’ve turned the last page. Others linger on for as long as you do, the pages still unfolding in the mind decades after the book was last taken off the shelf. For me, as for many others, Infinite Jest is the latter sort of work. But it’s hard to capture just why that’s so—describing the effect of such a book is a bit like describing the effect that a person close to you has had on your life. It’s easy to summarize the impression made on us by people who show only one side of themselves to the world, or whom we only know in a narrow way, but a person who becomes an integral part of your life may bring joy, frustration, enlightenment, amusement, and despair—sometimes in the same instant. Like a person, such a book doesn’t just shape itself to you; it also demands that you shape yourself to it, and if the book is meant for you, when you’re finished the bends and folds you’ve undergone in the process of reading stick, and life itself assumes a different shape because you have.
Lots of people have heard of Infinite Jest (the adjective often applied to it is something like “generation-defining”), and so when people learned that I was reading it, they’d often ask me what it was about. I couldn’t give a decent answer after the first hundred pages, or the second hundred, or even the third. I was in a state of thoroughly bewildered enjoyment throughout the first chunk of the novel, but I must admit I was hoping to be able to answer that question in some coherent way by the time I’d turned page 1100. By the time I was half-way through, I could give a relatively stock—though entirely inadequate—answer [NOTE: If you want to experience the book in the same way, skip to the following paragraph.]: “It’s a near-future science-fiction novel, set mostly in a tennis academy and a drug rehab facility, which seems to be mainly about drug/alcohol rehab and features a group of deadly Quebecois terrorists who are all wheelchair-bound and are looking for a fatal videotape that is so compelling that people who see it want to do nothing else but watch it.”
The very stupidity of my summary shows how futile a synopsis is. I've mentioned before the Zen story about a young monk walking down to the river to wash and passing an old monk coming back. The young monk asks “How’s the water?” and, without a word, the old monk shoves him off the bank and into the drink. Really, if the novel was a river I would have loved to just shove people in.
Infinite Jest is an intensely intellectual work—in a radio interview Wallace revealed that he structured the novel along fractal lines, and I guarantee that, no matter how broad your vocabulary is, if you track down a quarter of the 50-cent words Wallace mixes into the legion of voices that populate the novel, you’ll increase your word power by 20 percent. It’s funny, sometimes farcically so—for entertainment the kids at the Tennis academy regularly engage in a game called Eschaton, in which they simulate various nuclear warfare scenarios by staking out a space on the academy’s field of tennis courts and then lobbing balls at each other, following instructions fed to them by a computer; and Hugh Steeply, a hefty security agent tracking the Quebecois wheelchair terrorists, persists in disguising himself as a woman even though he is a massively incompetent cross-dresser. It’s tragic—examining in gritty, sometimes disturbing detail the effects of substance addiction and the various traps that ensnare addicts. Some are socially set, but the deadliest ones are self-sprung (and among the panoply of addictions in the book, perhaps the most toxic is the all-American aspiration for success). And, most importantly, it’s human—given the genre-mixing, the off-putting, skewed reflections of contemporary society and technology, and the free-floating paranoia that infuses some of its chapters, the world of Infinite Jest can sometimes feel like DeLillo- or Pynchon-land. But there’s an in-earnest nature to the novel, and a profound empathy attached to the portrayal of even the most unsympathetic of characters (and there are more than a few) that makes us care deeply about what happens to them, even as we steer our way through the disorienting postmodern framework they inhabit.
No book is for everybody, especially one that’s 1100 pages long, with 100 pages of endnotes—388 of them, some of which have their own footnotes—and includes just about every literary technique imaginable. But if you’ve been looking sideways at that sky-blue cover and wondering if you should take the plunge, as I did for about ten years, I’d say wade in and take your first strokes. As you would with any long, worthwhile journey, you’ll experience both challenges and joys, and if you’re open to them, both of those will leave you changed. By the time you’ve found your pace, you’ll be heading for the far shore. One often-described reaction to finishing Infinite Jest is, after navigating its 1100 pages, to turn the book over and start again from page one; I experienced this urge myself. I needed to move on to other things and resisted (well, I did re-read the first fifty pages), but I’m already looking forward to the time when I can wander into its weirdly familiar world again. Having been through it once, I feel like I’m finally ready to read it.
PS If you’re tempted but feel like you're needing some support before you set out, check out the How to Read Infinite Jest site, this 1996 Bookworm interview with Wallace on his book, and Brain Pickings's display of Three Ways to Visualize Infinite Jest.