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Infinite Jest: A Novel

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace Stick with it!The ecstatic reviews of Infinite Jest on this site are not overblown. It’s as good as everybody says. There are so many enjoyable characters and quirky storylines, I couldn’t put the book down for the last three hundred pages. That said, I should warn prospective readers that it is a slow start. David Foster Wallace (DFW) dives in, and doesn’t initially tell you how everything is interrelated. Discovering those relationships is one of the many pleasures of this novel. The basicsThe story occurs in the near future (1), shortly after the US-Canadian border has been altered, and the North American nations have politically merged. Technology is mostly the same as we know it except popular media has moved beyond the DVD format to something called “cartridges“. Wallace introduces you to the following story threads, which he gradually weaves together:-the Incandenza family (2) and the tennis academy they founded-a group of drug addicts, struggling towards recovery in a half-way house-a mellow-voiced late-night female radio announcer, and -a sleeper cell of wheelchair-bound Québécoise separatists operating outside of Tucson, AZThemesI loved the part about the tennis academy. Wallace has a fondness for super-specialized niches of society, and he delves into all sorts of technical tangents in his plentiful endnotes. In this regard, as other reviewers have noted, IJ is a lot like Gravity’s Rainbow. The tennis players are intensively specialized on their game, and the narration goes into lengthy digressions about tennis strategy and training regimens. Likewise the drug addicts possess extensive specialized knowledge about how to obtain, prepare, and administer their substances of choice. DFW goes into considerable detail describing the techniques, paraphernalia, and chemistry of street drugs. Later, he explores the subculture of drug rehabilitation groups in the same manner. Apparently, Alcoholics Anonymous and its sister organizations are rife with their own jargon, inside jokes, and self-referential philosophies. The voluminous cataloging of these had me wondering what research or life experiences Wallace drew from to write this. Each of these little specialized worlds, turned more inward than out, spin on their own axies- not quite independent but not entirely moored to metropolitan Boston, where "mainstream" citizens go about their business(3), ignorant of the drug, assassin, and tennis worlds. When Boston is mentioned at all, it serves as a reminder that the IJ characters are all outliers from the norm. Infinite Jest is more or less obsessive (and I don’t say that in a negative way) in its perpetual examination and reexamination of ideas about belonging vs. not belonging, of isolation vs. congregation, of membership vs. exclusion: ✓applicants to the tennis academy and the half-way house both worry about getting into those institutions✓current students and residents worry about staying in✓the wives of the Saudi diplomats are their own little social island, with its own unique rules of engagement✓the many cliques of ETA represent a careful balance of personalities, socioeconomic standing, and (importantly) tennis ranking✓the "Mad Stork" is not accepted by other film makers as "one of them", until he becomes commercially successful, at which point he does not wish to be accepted, as his whole identity depends on being a "maverick" from the Hollywood establishment✓Alcoholics Anonymous divides addicts into those on the "inside" (i.e. the recovering, in the ranks of A.A.) and those on "The Outside" (i.e. those hopelessly trying to make their way in the world, without A.A.)✓the Québécoise are an unwilling subset of Canada, who wish to break off and declare their own identity✓ETA's directors worry that if its students pop positive for drugs, it will threaten the academy's membership in the ONANTA league✓the various ethnic neighborhoods in Cambridge are culturally distinct, and socially isolated from one another✓young rural Canadians form bonds and gain social recognition by playing chicken with oncoming trains✓America has coerced an unwilling Canada and Mexico into joining an "Organization of North American Nations"etc, etc, etc What I got out of this is that while a few broad (4) commonalities unite all people (e.g. most of us are not cannibals), it is the ways we differ from the “core” which is the basis of our identities. In a world of choices, there are plenty of differences for us to construct identities on.Humanity comprises a million, maybe a billion, of these scattered, occasionally overlapping mini-worlds. By another name, that’s tribalism. Divisions and alliances predicated on our differences have always existed. One of the great challenges of our splintered existence is that the modern face of tribalism isn’t much defined by geography or heredity.(5) It is much more based on interests, behaviors and socioeconomic standing. It doesn’t just come down to what village you were born into anymore. To an unprecedented extent, these days we choose our social circles. (I am a member of the Hipster Booknerd tribe) That’s great, but choosing wisely is important, and requires reflection and insight that not everyone possesses. As any nervous parent knows, falling in with the “wrong crowd” can fuck up your life, or even end it, as nearly happened to Joelle van Dyne, whose choice of boyfriend got her a disfigured face and a near-death experience with cocaine. Or take the Mad Stork, James Incandenza, whose unresolved hostility towards his father caused him marry an unfaithful wife who fucked up their children, indirectly leading him to create a weapon of mass destruction, before ultimately taking his own life.(6,7) It seems the freedom and opportunity we have to define ourselves may also cloud our ability to really know ourselves and our needs. That in turn confounds our ability to forge healthy interpersonal connections. As a result, many of us live remote from the rest of society, at the distal tips of our own personal peninsulas. In the post-modern world, no man is an island, but no man is quite completely connected either. More people are walking on the Earth right now than in any other time in history, yet isolation and disconnectivity are pandemic. DFW plays this fugue over and over again, examining every scale of society, like one of those fractals which looks the same no matter how far in our out you zoom: (8)Personal- The Incandenza family, while so successful in so many ways, are hopelessly fractionated. The Mad Stork, aloof and distant, haunted by memories of his father, suffers misunderstood and eventually takes his own life. Avril wears a mask of respectability which her own sons never question, but which hides a catalogue of sexual secrets, which may possibly include several cringeworthy flavors of incest. Orin is a pathological liar, and another closet sexual deviant; and Hal is gradually separating himself from the family with his secretive drug use. These people are loosely cohesive at best, and are drifting apart as the story progresses. The only well-grounded one among them is outwardly deformed and inwardly beautiful Mario, who is the most lovable literary character I've encountered in recent memory.Local- The Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA) is nearly a self-contained world. Ennet House addicts traverse an entire social world each morning when they climb the hill to work the ETA kitchens. When Orin leaves ETA for Boston University, only ten miles away, he finds a place so different, he redefines his entire person, shedding seventeen years of intensive tennis grooming to become a football player. Across the Charles River, a Portuguese neighborhood harbors hostile Canadians and a street gang of kids with no communal ties to the likes of Hal Incandenza. These micro-cultures cohabitate in a small geographic area, yet exist completely independent of one other. Conventional ideas of a “community” (Boston) as a local area with shared values and standards is practically nonexistent here. Global- Relations between the United States and Canada in DFW’s world are much tenser and more adversarial than our America in 2010. Wallace’s America simultaneously put a five-hundred mile long chemical waste dump along the Canadian border, while forcing them into a political alliance called the Organization of North American Nations -”ONAN“. (9) The countries celebrate “interdependence day”, but each harbors a simmering hostility towards the other. Wait, there’s more?So far, Infinite Jest has explored the nature of happiness, and why it eludes so many of us, while developing interesting characters and telling an engaging story. That already places it in the running to be considered great literature. What really knocked my socks off, though, is where it went from there. If each of us enjoys unprecedented freedom to define ourselves and choose our social circles, and if our happiness is contingent on forging meaningful interpersonal bonds in a healthy community, then what’s standing between us and happiness? Why aren’t we the happiest society ever? The answer, if I interpret DFW correctly, lies in the very abundance of choice and information that makes us so free to begin with. There are too many distractions to navigate around. This is the book’s other big theme: entertainment, and its extreme manifestation: escapism. The elder Incandenza was an avante guarde director with both comical and disturbing approaches to filmmaking. Wallace goes into a lot of detail describing some of Himself‘s films, and while some of it seems diversionary and senseless, it eventually gets to feeling kind of desperate, which I think was the desired effect. Infinite Jest is not so much about how we entertain ourselves as it is how we destroy ourselves with entertainment. I haven’t read Amusing Ourselves to Death, but I suspect that book is along the lines of IJ. Escapism and a preoccupation with trivialities distract us from true happiness. (10) It’s easy to see how recreational drug use ties into this theme. Likewise for James Incandenza’s deadly-addictive movie, “Infinite Jest” (V or VI), which serves as the title for the book. The deadly “samizdat” is so captivating that a single view leaves its victims willing to sever their own digits for a chance to see the cartage just one more time. Less clear-cut is the role that tennis plays for the kids at ETA. On one hand, for most students there, the game started off as entertainment. Some kids still love playing it, but the endless wheel of drills and competitions will change that. Just like the street drugs which ensnared Don Gately, tennis will morph for them from being a diversion to become their master. The true purpose of ETA is not to develop a love of the game, but to turn out the next generation of professional sports entertainers. Top-ranked players like John “No Relation” Wayne have been isolated, not enriched, by the game; his friends and colleagues have become competitive obstacles in his path to glory. Meanwhile, Hal Incandenza continues to abuse the ripped tendon in his left ankle because he believes he has a shot at the pro tour. It is a wicked and ingenious tidbit of humor that ETA students amuse themselves with the game “Eschaton”, where tennis serves as a metaphor for global thermonuclear war. Why shouldn’t they see tennis as a menacing and destructive force? Even the Québécoise separatists engage the theme of entertainment-as-a-weapon, when their government conducts experiments on the brain’s pleasure center. They reduce human subjects to the state of rats -you know the ones- who keep pressing a stimulating button, to the exclusion of all other needs, until they ultimately die of dehydration. If this all seems very heavy handed… well, it is. But Infinite Jest was also great fun to read. It entertained (!) me in so many ways that I don’t have the time or room to write about here. (12) I’ve barely mentioned Mario Incandenza, who I’d love to read an entire separate book about. Or Joelle van Dyne, and her fucked up family. Or the residents of Ennet House, and what becomes of them. I’d love to read yet another book about ONAN, and the history of DFW’s imagined future in the era of subsidized time. You could say this book is overwritten (13), but I’d rather compare the experience of reading it to wandering through a museum, or a bookstore, where new and diverse curiosities lay almost anywhere my eyes wander. And like a good museum, I left Infinite Jest wanting more, and looking forward to a future return.============================================ENDNOTES(1) Exactly when is a subject of some debate, as the advent of subsidized time tends to confuse things! That is one of the odd, imaginative curveballs DFW throws us early on, and I have to admit I didn’t know what he was talking about at first! (Reference)(2) The dynamics of this family could alone fill a novel. On one hand, they reminded me of the Glass family of Franny and Zooey, because they were such high-functioning individuals. On the other hand, their foibles and scandals were more reminiscent of the 1970’s sitcom “Soap“.(3) Of course, the idea of a “mainstream” core of society is largely illusory, and I’m sure DFW is making that point on some level. (4) Perhaps too broad to be meaningful? Was that the point?(5) No wonder it is so easy to feel alone in a crowd. Most of us depend for survival more on colleagues sprinkled across the globe than on our next door neighbors. That’s great, but the downside is that you may frequently find yourself without the companionship or support of your fellow tribesmen around you. Another modern tripup of tribalism is that loyalties are more tenuous than they used to be. A tribe used to be a social affiliation founded on survival needs, and as such, were infused with a powerful immediacy which is lacking in the post-industrial world. Most work and play in 2010 feel only indirectly or artificially connected to fulfilling our basic survival needs. Sure, work in a cubicle gets you the money you need to buy food, but cubicle work lacks the direct and visceral connection to survival that hunting and farming had. I’m sorry to say it, but that makes a difference. Business partners who hang out at the country club are just never going to experience the same bond that a clan of Neanderthals felt for one another when they worked as a team to bring down a mastodon to feed their village.(6) The many ways parents and children can fuck each other up is another ongoing theme in this tome.(7) On the other hand, some characters manage to know themselves and make healthy social choices accordingly. My favorite of these are the “crocodile” old-timers at the Allston/Brighton Alcoholics Anonymous, who have overcome their addictions by investing themselves in the fellowship of mutual support at the nightly meetings. (8) (Reference)(9) Map(10) I’m typing this alone on GoodReads at 1 am, as my wife, exhausted, has given up on an evening together with me and gone to bed, so you tell me who deserves the lecture I'm dishing out here.(11) Operant Conditioning reference(12) The story is set in Boston, with one story line playing out in Tucson, AZ. I’ve lived in both of those towns, and it tickled a nostalgic nerve of mine to read about old stomping grounds. (13) To give you an idea of its complexity, take a look at this character map! (link courtesy of brian)