Today’s Klawchat was heavy on draft questions. I also have a new draft blog post up on UNC third baseman Colin Moran, and a post up on Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and other Durham and Charlotte prospects.
It took just over two weeks, but I finished David Foster Wallace’s sprawling magnum opus Infinite Jest, all 1079 pages of its madness and hysteria. It’s a work of tremendous intelligence, a novel that wants to challenge you to follow its undulations and hairpin turns, and yet a work of great empathy as well with its well-considered meditations on subjects like mental illness or addiction recovery. I doubt I can do this book justice in a blog post, given its depth and breadth, and the sheer number of things I liked or disliked about it.
The plot itself is intricate, looped and non-linear, at times deliberately involuted and interrupted by footnotes that have, unfortunately, become one of the book’s hallmarks. The main plot threads involve Hal Incandenza, a tennis prodigy and heavy marijuana user who has lost the ability to feel emotions; Don Gately, a recovering drug addict and thief who is now one of the staffers at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (yes, that’s the name); and a mysterious film made by Hal’s father that causes viewers to enter a catatonic state where they lose interest in anything else other than watching the film again. The film loosely ties the first two storylines together, although Wallace avoids any kind of full integration or catharsis, and I’ve read a very compelling argument by the late Aaron Swartz that the book’s actual end is in the beginning. (Smashing Pumpkins would approve.)
The plot strands themselves may not be the point, or at least not the ultimate point, of Infinite Jest, but as springboards for Wallace to provide us with lengthy ruminations on subjects as wide-ranging as depression, addiction, popular culture, environmentalism, and, of course, tennis. Hal lives and studies at the Enfield Tennis Academy founded by his father and his mother, highly dysfunctional individuals who had, until Hal’s father’s suicide, a highly dysfunctional marriage. Hal’s older brother, Orin, wasn’t so hot at tennis but found a calling as an NFL punter, and appears in several passages in which he starts to think he’s being followed by wheelchair-bound fans, unaware that they are in fact a group of wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatists who are trying to find a master copy of Incandenza père‘s film. The tennis academy and the halfway house both contain assemblies of colorful side characters, fleshed out in impressive detail over the course of the book (so while the book is too damn long, at least most of the real estate is properly utilized), and are eventually connected by the woman who hosts a radio program at MIT while using the pseudonym “Madame Psychosis,” who also appeared in the mysterious film that the Quebecois separatists are after.
Why are Quebecois separatists so central to the book? Infinite Jest is set in the not-too-distant but clearly dystopian future, where the northern part of New England has become the continent’s garbage dump, about which the Quebecois are none too pleased. That and the seeimingly draconian terms under which Canada entered the new Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N., alluding to this guy) have spurred a number of separatist movements, including the ruthless, violent terrorists on wheels who are after James Incandenza’s film. It’s a bizarre sideplot in a strange book, although the presence of some shadowy force bent on mass destruction is necessary for the central gambit of the Entertainment, the nickname for the film the separatists are hunting.
Speaking of mass destruction, one of the book’s best scenes, filmed by friend of the dish Michael Schur in his video for The Decemberists’ “Calamity Song,” is the game of Eschaton played by the main characters at the tennis academy. Named for a formal term for the religious concept of the “end times,” the game simulates a worldwide military conflict where players represent various nuclear states and stage attacks by hitting tennis balls (lobs, to be specific) at opponents’ targets. The game played in the book devolves into a mess of recriminations and missiles fired at other players, with comically violent results.
The various digressions on more serious subjects, like mental illness and addiction, veer from what we traditionally want or expect in a novel, at least an American novel – it harkens more to the traditions of 19th-century Russian literature than anything more recent. His description of depression, starting on page 695, is absolutely remarkable, describing it as “a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it … a nausea of the cells and soul … lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed.” Much of what Wallace writes about addiction, both in discussion of the addict characters’ experiences and the mind-numbing effects of the mysterious film, foreshadowed more recent advances in our understanding of the neurology of addiction, and why addiction may be best treated as a physical disease rather than a mental or intellectual failure.
Wallace apparently had a prodigious vocabulary – I wrote down about 50 words that I didn’t know but that were common enough to appear in my Kindle’s dictionary (or that weren’t Wallace neologisms) – and also seemed to love wordplay and literary allusions. The book’s title comes from a line in Hamlet, during the title character’s eulogy for Yorick, and Hal is the novel’s Hamlet, the son of a father who took his own life and a faithless mother whose love for her son lacks any actual emotion. This might be a stretch, but I thought Hal’s name might also refer to the antipsychotic drug Haldol, used to treat schizophrenia, given Wallace’s deep knowledge of pharmaceuticals. The pun involved in O.N.A.N.’s name is obvious, as are James Orin Incandenza’s ironic initials (he was a depressive and alcoholic who took his own life). Madame Psychosis is a play on the Greek word “metempsychosis,” meaning transmigration of the soul, while her real name, Joelle van Dyne, sounds like a play on the word “anodyne,” meaning a painkiller or analgesic. Wallace shows an odd obsession with the curvature of characters’ spines, even naming a character Otis Lord (a play on “lordosis,” the inward curvature of the spine at the lower part of your back). He names a town in Arizona “Erythema,” which is actually a skin condition involving red patches on the skin. Many characters, especially the teenagers in the tennis academy, engage in wordplay in their dialogue*, and Wallace makes up his own words and phrases as he goes along, like “novocaine of the soul,” which I assume inspired the Eels song by that name. It doesn’t necessarily make the novel better, but as someone who just loves language and seeing others stretch it and bend it in unusual ways, I found this one of my favorite aspects of the book.
*My favorite is the prank call Hal receives, where another character says, “Mr. Incredenza, this is the Enfield Raw Sewage Commission, and quite frankly we’ve had enough shit out of you.”
Then there was my least favorite aspect, the footnotes, a clear exercise in intellectual masturbation that not only interrupts the novel’s minimal narrative linearity but serves far too often as a way for Wallace to show off. Footnotes can be used well for the sake of humor, as in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or the early Thursday Next novels (where literary characters communicated via footnoterphone), but here they are just Wallace wanking. You can’t get twenty pages into this book without realizing how brilliant Wallace must have been, so why would he try so hard to impress us with these abstruse or esoteric notes? Or, why didn’t anyone discourage him from doing so? Nearly 400 of these notes, some of them lasting several pages and often bearing notes of their own, occupied 12% of the pages in the electronic version I read. That’s an abuse of authorial privilege. The one footnote that was legitimately funny – J.O.I.’s filmography – went on far too long.
I also found Wallace’s vision of the future a distraction from the rest of the book. To raise revenues, the government of O.N.A.N. has sold off naming rights to the years, so we get the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and the Year of Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems for Home, Office, Or Mobile (sic). Aside from the fact that I got a giggle from saying “Yushityu” in my head, this isn’t terribly funny the first time around, and gives little or nothing to the reader in the way of a forecast for or description of this future era. The characters’ quotidian lives are largely unchanged from today – Wallace’s vision of downloadable video content isn’t far off from how we view content via Netflix or iTunes right now – and much of this dystopian stuff is about as relevant to the plot as wallpaper. Again, Wallace shows off his creativity, but someone should have helped him edit this down to size.
Most of the book takes place in Boston, in the fictional town of Enfield that sounds a lot like Brighton, which means that current and former Boston residents get a few bonuses in the book. My favorite was the description of Bread & Circus, a high-end grocery chain bought some time ago by Whole Foods:
Bread & Circus is a socially hyperresponsible overpriced grocery full of the Cambridge Green Party granola-crunchers, and everything’s like microbiotic and fertilized only with organic genuine llama-shit, etc.
Other than Enfield itself, Wallace used real place names, street names, even a church in Brighton (St. Columbkill’s) that I used to pass every time I went to see a game at Boston College. It’s nice to know that even in his alternate-history version of Boston’s future, Storow Drive is still a nightmare.
Where Infinite Jest succeeded over Gravity’s Rainbow and The Recognitions, two fairly obvious influences, is in readability. As long as the book is, as long as Wallace’s paragraphs and sentences can be, there was never a point where I got bogged down in the prose or story, and never a point where I felt like I had to force myself to continue reading. The writing is bright if not crisp, the imagery is strong, there is a lot of humor within the book’s thousand pages, and the characters are so well-developed that even a tangential story will pull you along. I can’t think of another book that has so many characters crafted with this kind of care and given this kind of screen time to tell their backstories or to play a significant role in the novel’s plot. I was never as invested in either of those other two novels, which were similarly long, intelligent, and wilfully abstruse, as I was in Infinite Jest.
This also concludes my journey through the All-TIME 100 Novels list.
Next up: William Alexander’s bread-baking memoir: 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust.