Friday, December 18, 2009
"Infinite" and Beyond
I was thirteen years old in 1996, and that year I read a major bestselling book. I was years away from having any knowledge of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which was published that year, as well as years away from having any personal indications that I would eventually major in English and devote my time to reading and writing. The bestseller I read was H. Jackson Brown Jr.'s Life's Little Instruction Book. Looking back, it was a pseudo-religious, "holier-than-thou" collection of tidbits that were at best common sense and at worst cheesy. At that young age, I remember being irked at the instruction to "buy great books even if you never read them." What was Mr. Brown's logic? Was it his goal to have millions of people with impressive bookshelves to show off when hosting guests? Elsewhere, he suggested reading the Bible in the course of a single year, which is fitting when you're not meant to read the books you've purchased with no plans of reading.
I bought Infinite Jest for a college course some years back, and due to time and semester constraints, we spent only two weeks doing a basic study of the opening chapter. Yes, two weeks on a mere fraction of a book that's 1,079 pages. Since then, the book has been a fixture on my shelves, and it has traveled across the country twice during moves, and it came dangerously close to being my own "great, unread" book. I've read almost all of David Foster Wallace's other books (with the final exception being his debut novel, The Broom Of the System) and decided this past September to finally read Infinite Jest. After nearly three months (which seems to be the average, even for the fastest readers) and a few near postponements, I'm happy to say that I've seen this goal to the end.
Any analyses of the text tends to come with two distinct problems. One, depending on the reader, the act of reading the book becomes the focus instead of merely enjoying and studying it. There are scores of websites and online threads which, in addition to having valuable summaries and insights, also serve as a tangible statement: "Yes, we're reading Infinite Jest." This isn't meant to show off, but rather to verbalize the size of the reading. This understanding ("Infinite Jest is long and complex") too often becomes the plot, instead of the plot itself. This brings us to the second problem.
In a sort of paradox, the plot of Infinite Jest is both extremely complex yet easy to break down in a superficial manner. I'll give the superficial one, but I'll gladly acknowledge that this has been given hundreds of times. If you've read the book, you can skip ahead; if not, understand that this will not spoil or sufficiently summarize anything. The book is a study of happiness, pleasure, entertainment, and family relationships. It's set in the future, and the years have been subsidized by corporations (The Year Of the Tucks Medicated Pad, The Year Of the Perdue Wonderchicken). The bulk of the action takes place in the Year Of the Depends Adult Undergarment, which, depending on the chronology, is generally accepted to be between 2009-2015. North America has merged into the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.), and the U.S. and Canada are at odds over the Great Concavity, a toxic dump located in what used to be the bulk of the Northeast. Québécois Separatists commit acts of stunning and inspired terrorism in the United States, with a dangerously addicting film cartridge factoring into potential future acts. In the metro Boston area, the reader is given an interlocking, wildly complex, and multiple-character driven account of the lives and actions of The Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennett House, a drug recovery/halfway house. The tennis students form a character backdrop for the Incandenza family (the youngest son, Hal, is a student at the Academy; his late father founded it, and his mother is an Administrator). Don Gately, a counselor/former addict, is the focal point of the halfway house, with an equally compelling and messed up supporting cast.
Yes, fans of the book will cry foul at this summary, since it leaves out so much and probably sounds like the kind of description attributed to a high school student writing with Cliff Notes under his desk. All of my book reviews/essays are done with the intention of appealing to people who have either read the book in question as well as people who haven't. With Infinite Jest, it's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't: giving a full explanation of the characters would simply be too long. On the other hand, not giving enough information leaves out too many narratives and too much of the smaller details.
The Incandenza family (father James; mother Avril; sons Hal, Mario, and Orin) is often tidily described as dysfunctional, and while this is true, what seems to be overlooked is Wallace's theme of dysfunctional fathers. Every father/child (be it male or female) relationship in Infinite Jest is marred by problems, whether these are emotional (the following passage, to me, is incredibly reminiscent of William Gaddis-type dialogue, even if most earlier reviewers fell back on describing Wallace as "Pynchon-esque"):
"...Jim, pick the book up if it's going to make you all goggle-eyed and chinless honestly Jesus why do I try I try and try just wanted to introduce you to the broiler's garage and let you drive, maybe, feeling the Montclair's body, taking my time to let you pull up to the courts with the Montclair's shift in a neutral glide and the eight cylinders thrumming and snicking like a healthy heart and the wheels all perfectly flush with the curb...(Wallace 162)."
or painfully incestuous:
"Matty'd [Pemulis] shrink away: shy are we sone scared are we? Matty'd shrink away even after he knew the shrinking fear was part of what brought it on, for Da'd get angry: who are we scared of, then? Then who are we, a sone, to be scared so of our own Da? As if the Da that broke daily his back were nothing more than a. Can't a Da show his son some love without being taken for a. As if Matty could lie here with his food inside him under bedding he'd paid for and think his Da were no better than a. Is it a fookin you're scared of, then (684)."
These citations are not meant to absolve the mothers of wrongdoing. However, the way the characters are shaped by the actions of their fathers reminds me of a quote by, of all people, George Carlin (not an exact quote): "All the problems of the world can be traced back to what fathers do to their sons." In Infinite Jest, this goes for daughters as well. The first quote is part of a rambling dialogue by James O. Incandenza's father, planting the seeds of competitiveness and masculinity in a father figure who, for the most part of the novel, is seen as a ghost or in post-mortem flashbacks. In their own (sometimes very twisted) ways, the fathers either don't see the problems of their actions, or feel that they're doing good in some way. Therefore, a lot of the issues presented in the novel can be traced back to the dysfunctional fathers.
In a wildly opposite point of view, it's hard to overstate how wildly funny Wallace was as a writer. For all the interlaced characters and actions, for all of the pages of pychosis and visually striking drug problems, Wallace outlined the book as a comedic masterpiece. A small example of this is his gift for writing quick, juvenile, but ultimately hilarious dialogues between the boys of Enfield Tennis Academy. In this passage, some of the players are attempting to figure out if the cafeteria milk is real or powdered:
"'You're saying they mix powered milk and then try and pour it into milkbags, all to allay?'
Schacht clears his mouth and swallows mightily. 'Tavis can't even regrout the tile in the locker room without calling a Community Meeting or appointing a committee. The Regrouting Committee's been dragging along since May. Suddenly they're pulling secret 0300 milk-switches? It doesn't ring true, Jim (630).'"
This is not the most obvious example, but for such a seemingly inane piece of dialogue, Wallace combines both intelligent insights and hilarious ramblings. Perhaps citing such a random snippet is best, since they're spread out throughout the novel. Given its length, that's part of the beauty of Infinite Jest: Wallace provides both the important "big picture" scenes and events mixed in with these smaller moments, all of which combine for authentic characterizations.
After finishing the book, I set out to find some critical essays on the text, and stumbled upon a valuable collection of reviews that came out in 1996. The collection is run by one or more diehard fans, since any review that has even a whiff of criticism is put down (Jay McInerney, for example, is referred to as a "has-been"). I selected two different reviews at random to read, and I was especially taken by this passage from Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times, originally published on February 13, 1996:
"Perfect, however, Infinite Jest is not: this 1,079-page novel is a 'loose baggy monster,' to use Henry James' words, a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Wallace's mind. It's Thomas Wolfe without Maxwell Perkins, done in the hallucinogenic style of Terry Gilliam and Ralph Steadman. The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a big psychedelic jumble of chracters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscenses and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent."
At the same time, these sentences are both praises and criticisms of the same idea. In the Boston Book Review, David McLean (in the other review I selected) offers the same argument, but with a dose of optimism and, for lack of a better word, forgiveness:
"What follows is a scattered, non-linear, hilarious, sometimes aggravating collection of voices that somehow manages to hold together to create an aggregate, a world, that works. Wallace has not so much written a novel as created a system that is fueled by his endless imagination, his pure verbal prowess, and a language that looks familiar but feels utterly invented. Critics will debate the efficiency of the system, while others will simply put the book down in annoyance." (italics mine)
Granted, hindsight is 20/20. Later interviews and revelations revealed Wallace to be a writer who wrote fiction because of or in spite of crippling depression (my reading of this book coincided, unintentionally, with the one-year anniversary of Wallace's suicide). Writing was his way of creating order and almost scientific balances. In a strange way, the realization that even the most intelligent, well-read reviewers fell into the "is this book too long?" question is comforting. Then and now, thirteen years later, readers and reviewers struggle, not with trying to understand the book, but to understand the audacity of such an undertaking. The simple answer is yes, perhaps some scenes could have been left out. The more complex answer is no, that Infinite Jest is essential in its entirety. As I mentioned earlier, the readers get the big pictures (the characters, the vision of the future, the philosophical metaphors of the existence of a film, a piece of entertainment that is deathly perfect), along the the smaller slices of the lives, dialogues, and thoughts of even the most minor characters. There will always be a debate as to whether Wallace was indulging himself or creating his word system. Again, with the understanding of hindsight, and given how the book has become almost its own genre by itself, every word is essential. The future will bring more examples of encyclopedic narratives and post-modern showcases, but David Foster Wallace's definite masterpiece will continue to be the example by which all others are judged.
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Copyright 1996 by David Foster Wallace.