Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
(Part 1 of 4)

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
(Part 1 of 4)

Infinite Jest (I) – “Cage”

For our first Throwback Thursday, we’re dividing David Foster Wallace’s gargantuan 1996 novel Infinite Jest into quarters, reviewing 245 pages of the book per week for the next four weeks. As a second-time reader, I’ll be offering some insights along the way as to how Wallace lays the groundwork for his themes and motifs without wading too much into spoiler territory.

(N.B. A book this sprawling, non-linear and dense is, by definition, pretty spoiler-averse anyway.)


Though confronting and sometimes punishing in its form, Infinite Jest yields more rewards and insights in its opening 245 pages than most authors manage to conjure in a lifetime. Wickedly smart but just short of vainglorious, Wallace’s opus dives in head-first to its madcap world, leaving you breathless and spellbound.

Rating: 10.5/11


I literally don’t know where to begin, which is the difference between me and David Foster Wallace. He starts Infinite Jest, his semi-dystopian epic, at precisely the right moment: the end of the story. Our protagonist (or, at least, one of them), the 18-year-old Harold “Hal” Incandenza, is seated with a trio of Academic Deans, each of whom wants to assess his worthiness as a candidate for an athletic scholarship to the University of Arizona. Hal is accompanied by two supporters from the Enfield Tennis Academy – one of his coaches, Mr. deLint, and his Uncle, C.T., who is also the Academy’s Director – where he (Hal) is a resident and considered a prodigy in both his aptitude for tennis and English. Lately, however, he’s been having some trouble; in his own words: “I cannot make myself understood, now.” It is the Year of Glad (or, most probably, 2009) in the O.N.A.N. (Organisation of North American Nations, formerly the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico) but most of this story will take place one year prior, in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (so, again, like 2008). Also, the opening chapter ends with Hal unletting a torrent of animalistic noises and thrasings upon the collective Deans, sending him straight to hospital, never again able to be comprehended by another soul.

Do you see what I mean? How do I even start to talk about this book?

But, in the interest of brevity – which, clearly, is not one of Wallace’s strong suits – let’s cover the broad strokes. Though Infinite Jest‘s behemothic 1,079-page length manages to cover a wild amount of plot, exposition and deep, tragic characterisation, by page 245 everything still feels very much in the primordial stages. The only character we get to know at any real level is the aforementioned Hal, albeit shown in a much more loquacious and stable state than when he’s first introduced. At 17, the E.T.A.-enrolled Hal is supremely intelligent and talented, yet oblivious to his dependency on marijuana (aka Bob Hope), which he secretly imbibes pretty much every afternoon. This, in a nutshell, is one of the many angles from which Wallace attacks the slow, pernicious tug of addiction: not always as an escape from ruin, but often an escape from the ruinous path of potential.

Elsewhere, most of what we’re treated to is slim, tantalising pickings of what the fuck is actually going on in this bugged-out, satirically capitalistic and navel-gazing future of America that Wallace has concocted (which, to clarify, has now amalgamated with the rest of North America to form O.N.A.N., i.e. onanism). Written in the mid-90s amidst a nation-wide, Gen-X-powered turn towards oversaturation of entertainment and self-directed inquiry – not to mention a time when Wallace himself was struggling with crippling addiction – Infinite Jest both predicted and parodied the future it foresaw. No, our years have not been subsidised and the Statue of Liberty is yet to be marketed as an emblematic billboard; however, the Interlace TP home-theatre devices of Wallace’s invention that let you select from thousands of viewing options are basically Netflix and chill, sans chill.

To complicate things even further (a never-ending tendency of Wallace’s), his dissection of entertainment, addiction, ambition and pleasure dovetail in the form of Hal’s late father, one James Orin Incandenza. A former tennis prodigy, then a celebrated innovator in the field of optical lenses and annular fusion (don’t even ask, I don’t fuckin’ know) before, finally, becoming an entrenched alcoholic and aspiring avant-garde (or, in this world, après-garde) filmmaker, J.O.I. focalises many of the book’s most salient issues. J.O.I. achieves greatness in many areas, abutting the grim tonalities of his own failed alcoholic father (“Talent is its own expectation” seems to galvanise and haunt him concurrently) but never managing to divine happiness from his pursuits. The cycle of fatherhood, of abuse and neglect, of misery and failed communication: it’s all here. The only thing that breaks the wheel is J.O.I.’s suicide via microwave oven (I know, right?!), four years before the events of the book. Yet his absence is hard-felt, strung with ghastly tension across every page.

It’s perhaps both unfair to mention and yet evasive to omit that David Foster Wallace himself, in 2008, committed suicide by hanging, 12 years after Infinite Jest‘s publication. He never completed another novel, although his unfinished manuscript and notes for The Pale King were subsequently assorted and published by his editor Michael Pietsch in 2011, to much acclaim. For the morbidly curious, there are some obsidian-black insights into the mind of a suicidally depressed person to be uncovered here, but I’d hope that’s not why people buy the ticket. Wallace’s untimely end aside, his success in forestalling such a tragic demise for so many years is commendable, and the process by which he uncovers meaning and value separate from base desire is the true appeal of Infinite Jest.

But, even without the foresight to see where this is all headed, the individual pleasures of the book’s first quarter – distended and fractured as it all may appear – are undeniable. The second chapter, focusing on one Ken Erdedy, is perhaps the most perceptive, formicative piece of writing ever published about a drug addict waiting to score. Wallace’s incessant pace, his gut-punch metaphors (the insect with the dark and shiny case on the girder) and total rendering of the setting are faultless. He even manages to slip in a tiny incident of crossed-wiring that makes you feel dizzy with its layers: as Erdedy recalls the last delivery of Bob Hope he received from a female acquaintance to whom he was indifferent, he remembers her saying that “she could feel his heart pounding right through his suit coat”. She thinks it’s for her; we, sadly, know better.

Well, already that’s pushing 1,000 words and barely scratching the surface of what Wallace has consolidated here in such (relatively) short order. Some characters that will factor much more prominently as the book continues – such as Don Gately and Joelle (“Madame Psychosis”) Van Dyne, plus Orin, Avril & Charles Incandenza – are afforded little more than basic acknowledgement at this juncture. That said, we’ve already been treated to a soaring establishment of Hal’s guileless and wildly deformed older brother, Mario, in the form of “Mario Incandenza’s First and Only Even Remotely Romantic Experience, Thus Far”. In every instance, Mario is sincere without seeming mawkish and endlessly cheery without grating on the nerves, making him perhaps Infinite Jest‘s most admirable character. However, his malformations never feel cheaply symbolic; indeed, Mario is the sort of character who is just about impossible to write: one with severe disabilities who is not defined by them.

Ok, clearly Wallace’s verbosity is contagious. In summary: the only demerits worth mentioning thus far are Wallace’s most indulgent predilections, evidenced most clearly by his prolific, some would say even sadistic use of footnotes (like, J.O.I.’s entire filmography is pretty funny, but Jesus, is it a slog). And, as far as narrative threads that continue throughout, the only sections that lack the panache, drive and – most significantly – the nuance of the rest of the book are those involving Marathe and Steeply, the Canadian and American agents, respectively, who discuss inter-O.N.A.N. politics.

Apart from that, now that the groundwork has been laid, let’s see how (or if…) Wallace manages to pull this ungainly, superb mess together.

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(Part 1 of 4)

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