I remember coming across the book, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace when helping a friend move back to the states. I had never heard of David Foster Wallace, only heard of Infinite Jest thru Hamlet, and the doomed princes comments about gambolling with Yorick.
And then, as I shifted boxes and made suggestions about storage, I saw this big blue book, clearly unread as the spine was uncracked, sitting on top of a box of books. I saw the title and the blue cover and knew I wanted to read it. I kind of stopped helping my friend at this point, pulled the book out of the box, read a few pages of it and saw it was unlike anything I had come across before. It was full of puns and cross references was filled with footnotes and end notes and self referential ironies. Once I started reading I couldn’t put it down. I think I have re read it at least three times in print form and once if not twice as a talking book. Yes, I stole that book, and I feel guilty.
Like all great works, I.J. deals with the big themes – life, death, and particularly about the purpose and meaning of existence in a hyper competitive capitalist culture which has lost its centre, its community, and a shared sense of meaning. Despite how funny it is, Infinite Jest gives a rather bleak picture of the society it depicts in terrifying parodic detail. It is a world of competition without purpose, knowledge in vast ocean sizes without wisdom, wit without compassion, words without connectedness, and human beings living intensely atomised lives. It’s amazing really, considering its thematic purposes that Wallace succeeded in making such a funny book. Wallace used comment that one of the great powers of the literary artist was the magic of words, that as we do not really know what actually goes on in each other minds and lives, we can, though the power of the written word in fiction; connect with the lives of others.
As Dave Eggers comments in one of the introductions to the book, the book itself is ‘drum tight’- meaning it’s a coherent whole despite is hugeness, is a mix of vast erudition and ready accessibility, and absolutely doesn’t need any kind of specialized knowledge to read it. This is more or less true, but the problem with Wallace’s thesis about our disconnectedness from others – how we are irrevocably alone and atomised and do not and cannot know the minds of others, how our languages are private and the interpretations we have of each other’s linguistic structures is at best based on a kind of complex guesswork, is based on something of a human rather than philosophical error. Wallace seems to exclude the power of love and sex to fuse people, to unite one with another. Without this highly unphilosophic and ephemeral human element, this visceral experience of the senses and sensual experience of others, we truly are alone, and to theoretically exclude this in a work of art is to somewhat undercut the human experience in the world and the power of the novel. Along with the sensual and aesthetic world, there is also the power of the imagination, the intellectual ability we have to visualise worlds and the ability we have to visualise what others are thinking or feeling. This kind of knowledge is one level the most unverifiable, but equally the most indispensable. It is the foundation for all advancement in knowledge, and something one is surprised Wallace does not assume seeing as he was both a philosopher and a logician.
As a focus for what passes as a plot (Wallace added three hundred footnotes to deliberately subvert the notion of a conventional plot in Infinite Jest, while still retaining a cohesive whole in the novel) in this monstrous book, we have the Samizdat, or the piece of art known as the Infinite Jest, a movie so deeply entertaining as to render its consumer lifeless and catatonic, has gone missing. I immediately thought of Monty Python’s killer joke sketch – the joke so funny it was employed as a weapon by British military. This Infinite Jest has gone missing and is being searched for by Canadian Terrorists who wish to undermine the entire fabric of the new American society by acquiring the master redistributable copy of the movie and releasing it. One wonders if these Quebec Separatists had considered the consequences of the Samizdat getting back home to Canada. Fighting these Quebec Separatists is the American intelligence agency, the Office for Unspecified Services, who are also trying to get their hands on the Infinite Jest.
So who made the movie Infinite Jest? How did it come into existence? In the opening sequences we have a scene where a doctor is rendered catatonic by the movie. Someone mailed the movie to him, (actually it was Orin – the Incadenzas eldest son). The name, by the way, comes from Hamlet in that oft quoted scene spoken by the melancholy prince about Horatio:
I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of Infinite Jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen? (Act V Sc1)
The central concern to Infinite Jest the book is also Hamlet’s central concern. The world has fallen out of joint. Beneath the Infinite Jest is infinite sorrow, a world of endless distractions amusements and addiction, and eventual effective recovery without any real reason for going on.
But anyway, in looking for the origins of the Infinite Jest, or the Samizdat, one encounters the mind boggling array of characters that parade through this fascinating book, and there’s no escaping either the vastness or the detail with which Wallace delightfully writes. There are dozens of characters in this novel which focuses on the notions of addiction, vision (so many references to optics lenses, vistas, precise descriptions of machineries, the human body, tools, movies, screens, the authors dextrous use of terms and colloquialisms are always a delight), family, depression, film, politics, and human isolation (the book is suffused with scenes of its characters alone in vast complexes, either taking drugs, or distracting themselves from their intense aloneness. Its size and complexity, its forensic descriptions of the absurdly unnecessary complex machinery of existence, implies and shows the infinite near inescapable matrix that is existence in the late twentieth century, the layers of competitive demands placed upon the young American to be someone, to become someone, to achieve, to become part of the world of demand and supply, to meet goals and to continue the work, the endless work of building the infinite complex of technocratic industrial economy, for the Academy and the Recovery clinic is the world writ small, and within this world there is an infinity. Wallace is obsessed with infinity, there are circles intersecting circles within the book, infinite skies and infinite tennis, infinite addictions
But I digress somewhat. The Samizdat was made by James Orin Incandenza Jnr, optics expert and film maker, and founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy during a brief period of sobriety before he microwaved his head thus committing suicide. Leadership of the Academy passed on to his wife, the tall domineering perverse sexually voracious beautiful Avril Mondragon Incandenza. Her son, the one who most reminds one of the author, is Hal Incandenza, the pot smoking prodigiously gifted tennis player who has memorized the Oxford dictionary, has a love for all things intellectual, and is deeply unsure of his own gifts, and later of his own sanity. He winds up later on in the second of the two main institutions in the novel: The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, founded by Don Gateley, murderer, former Demerol addict, and thief, also (because of his size) at one stage an excellent football player. Another deep connection between the Academy and the clinic is the fascinating character of Madame Psychosis, or Joelle van Dyne, Lead character in the Infinite Jest movie, she who resides at the clinic and was the main protagonist in the movie made by the founder of the ETA, J. O Incandenza. Hal, as his brilliant mind fails him and his addictions subsume him, winds up in the clinic.
The fact that the book takes place at a time set in the future where even the measure of time is a corporate advertisement after President Limbaugh was recently assassinated and the calendar sold to the highest bidder (Year of Glad, Year of the whopper, Year of the depend Adult Undergarment), gives one a queasy feeling of hysterical disturbance. Add to this that much of the North East of the former United States and parts of Canada is a kind of wasteland (called the Great Concavity or Great Convexity – depending on whether you are geographically, and its getting positively bizarre. Finally imagine you are living in the former USA and it is now a part of the new super state known as ONAN (Organization of North American Nations) or Canada, and one is getting into the nether regions of absurdity, rather like our present time. It also means that this is both a novel based on the present and extended into the future, as well as being a damning condemnation of the society that the author lives in. Like all powerful novelists, Wallace avoids propaganda and diatribes, and though one is touched by the horror of the emptiness his literary double, Hal Incandenza experiences throughout the book, an emptiness one is tempted to postulate as a reflection a certain absence of any kind of emotional or cultural core in the world in general, but this is never explicitly stated, one is never in the world of self pitying self indulgence, no sentimentality, and the humour is raw clear and is both funny and intelligent.
Central to his concern are the nature and purpose of competition and excellence, the experience of addiction, family relationships, human isolation, and the meaning of suffering, but more than anything Infinite Jest is about a father James Orin Incandenza, trying to help his son, who feels nothing inside, no sense of any kind of interiority. Again we have the parallels with Father and Son, the dynamic of a ghostly father seeing his son as a wraith, and trying to communicate something powerful and healing to him.
As a set of intersecting descriptions of lives that have neither a classic depiction of an opening drama, a series of unfolding plotlines, a compelling third act, or a cathartic moment at the end, the novel draws to a close with the ghost of the father seeking to heal the son, Hal, through the Infinite Jest. The movie was mad for and it’s meant to work only on Hal, to make them feel something inside, akin to the electroshock treatment that Wallace himself received to try to get him out of the horrific depressions he suffered which eventually led to his suicide. If one does not have Hal’s psychology, ones reaction to the movie is counter therapeutic. Instead of kick-starting one, it renders one catatonic. The movie thus fails to move Hal as he never sees it. So things get worse, and he winds up in the clinic. As he devolves into mute non communication, Madame Psychosis, or Joelle van Dyne comes to see him and tells him of the furore around the movie, and Hal has nothing left except his tennis. His father’s ghost possesses Ortho “the darkness” Stice ( a close friend of Hal who, chucklingly, is also known as the Wraithster, also known as ‘the guy with the trusty huge head’) – so we have a bizarre scene of dead father possessing his son’s opponent in the Whataburger tennis finals, a weird connection between father and son through a beloved sport, a kind of meaning and language and interface emerging in the balletic movement of racket and ball and players across a court in the game of tennis. So something true and lasting is achieved beyond the cold logic of winning or losing. Let’s hope Hal felt it.
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