Infinite Jest: A Novel by David Foster Wallace (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1996. 1,104 pp)

Born in Ithaca, New York, David Foster Wallace was a regionally ranked junior tennis player in his youth. He earned a degree in English and Philosophy from Amherst College, winning the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize. Later, he earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arizona. Wallace taught literature at Emerson College, Illinois State University, and later became the Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Pomona College. Over the course of his career, he earned a MacArthur Fellowship, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, and the Lannan Literary Award. Wallace died in 2008.

Where Art and Artist Meet

Is it possible to remove an artist from the art form? When we see glob after glob of paint stacked layer upon layer in Van Gogh’s paintings, it’s hard not to think of his troubled history—the textured paint becomes a manifestation of a tortured soul.

Centuries later and on the other side of the spectrum, when you hear the bristling bubble gum of Justin Timberlake, you don’t necessarily think Timberlake has struggled with much in his life. His joy and nonchalance filter through the speakers. He thinks he’s cool; he’s got a cool life; his music reflects this attitude.

So what about an author whose troubled life ended in suicide? Might we read his depression onto the pages of his creative work? It’s certainly difficult to divorce David Foster Wallace’s life from the content of his masterpiece, Infinite Jest.

Future States and Boston Suburbs

Infinite Jest is a sprawling novel set slightly in the future, where the United States, Mexico, and Canada have united into one gigantic nation-state and mega corporations have transformed the solar calendar into advertising space, e.g., “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” instead of 2008.

More focused, the primary narrative occurs in the suburbs of Boston, where, on neighboring hills, the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House reside.

Loosely, the plot surrounds the search for a missing master copy of a short film, titled Infinite Jest, created by Enfield Tennis founder, James Incandenza. The principal character, Hal Incandenza, is James’ son, and a young tennis prodigy.

Across the valley, Don Gately works his way through the Ennet house, coping with addiction, helping others, and slowly closing his orbit with the Incandenza family.

Reading Addiction

At a high level, David Foster Wallace’s focus on addiction exists as a moving foundational motif. Infinite Jest’s two principal characters hold a complicated relationship with addiction. Don Gately, begins as a Demerol addict, breaking into houses to steal valuables to fuel his addictions. His addictive tendencies ruin his life.

“Don Gately was a twenty-seven-year-old oral narcotics addict (favoring Demerol and Talwin), and a more or less professional burglar; and he was, himself, unclean and violated. But he was a gifted burglar, when he burgled—though the size of a young dinosaur, with a massive and almost perfectly square head he used to amuse his friends when drunk by letting them open and close elevator doors on, he was, at his professional zenith, smart, sneaky, quiet, quick, possessed of good taste and reliable transportation—with a kind of ferocious jolliness in his attitude toward his livelihood” (55).

As the novel unfolds, Gately seeks redemption from his hungry ghosts. He might not believe every tenet of substance abuse programs, but his desire for reformation brings true change to the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House.

The other prime character, Hal Incandenza, uses marijuana to fuel his status as a child prodigy. Not only smart but also athletically gifted, Incandenza requires cannabis to help him cope with his stressful life. The product of a messed up home and a child with high expectations for study and professional tennis, marijuana offers Hal balance and better performance.

“Hal Incandenza for a long time identified himself as a lexical prodigy who—though Avril had taken pains to let all three of her children known that her nonjudgmental love and pride depended in no way on achievement or performance or potential talent—had made his mother proud, plus a really good tennis player” (155).

Yet when a random drug test threatens his way of life, Hal must reorient his life and manage his withdrawals.

With both characters, addiction resides as a central thrust of the narrative. It pulls the characters, compelling them to act; it haunts the characters; they can never escape. Wallace writes,

“We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately—the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person” (900).

Sure, the addictive tendencies bring positives, but they also are a harbinger for destruction. Even with self-made programs and accountability, addiction leads to death. We are all giving our lives away.

Reading Suicide

Obviously, Wallace’s own suicide casts a dark shadow over this book and it is impossible to not read into some of Wallace’s grisly narratives of suicide, but nevertheless, these depictions are fascinating.

The central death narrative in the book belongs to Hal’s father, James Incandenza. An auter filmmaker and a distant father, James met his macabre kismet in a revised microwave.

“’As we later reconstructed the scene, he’d used a wide-bit drill and small hacksaw to make a head-sized hole in the oven door, then when he’d gotten his head in he’d carefully packed the extra space around his neck with wadded-up aluminum foil’” (250).

Time and time again, Wallace dreams of inventive, wacky, and compelling suicide narratives. It’s easy to suggest these narratives are a direct link to Wallace’s unstable mind, but I don’t think there are grounds to go that far. But, what I do know?

Reading for Reading’s Sake

Infinite Jest is one of the densest books I have ever read. It is difficult to read from front-to-back cover. Wallace leaves much of the plot in the margins. He often details menial subjects or characters. Yet I feel triumphant having read the book. Wallace writes characters well; the family dynamics of these characters are robust. Infinite Jest is the kind of book which requires a second reading, but a first reading is enough to illustrate the depth of this story.

Wallace’s untimely death certainly clouds the way one reads Infinite Jest, but no matter how much you read Wallace’s experience into the book, the tome is still worth reading.

This book isn’t for everyone, but it is worth the lofty status it has earned in the literary world.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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