Review of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

And now my first book review–on one of the most complex, ambitious, and celebrated novels of the last thirty years.

Robbie Baden, and MFA colleague/ fellow typewriter enthusiast, brilliantly described a few of our comps novels–Moby Dick and Gravity’s Rainbow, for example–as “shaggy beasts;” massive, imperfect, and glorious. Infinite Jest sets out to be a shaggy beast indeed. Characters flash in one short section only to return a few hundred pages later. Overarching political intrigue, developed to an encyclopedic degree, threaten the whole host of characters. Not to mention ubiquitous technology which, while its presence is not as deftly handled as the political situation, forms an almost-familiar environment around the characters.

Yet in the vastness of the narrative, most characters wind up in one of two camps: the addicts of the Ennett House, and the tennis prodigies of Enfield Tennis Academy. ETA has a half-metaphorical layout, its own quite capable trickster in Michael Pemulis, games of microcosmic apocalypse, and several hundred “Notes & Errata” worth of very specific narcotics. Ennett House is closer to a realist portrayal, but fogged by a intensely compassionate ethos.

That ethos colors all of the Jest’s plotlines. It’s one of the many places where Wallace plays his hand–not that I would begrudge him for it. The narration itself hints at the author. Our narrator is first person from Hal Incandenza at times, but mostly tells the story from a very strong third-person omniscient voice, ala Pynchon. It also has a dogged empathy. Perhaps the whole thing is from Hal–an interesting reading to play with. Or are we joining the author on a 1,200 page journey toward compassion, attempting to see these characters in all their humanity no matter how horribly they act?

Before I go further on that journey, there’s the matter of addiction. Drugs and alcohol saturate the novel. Half of the plot revolves around a set of characters hitting rock bottom and (only) some of them recovering. But chemical addictions are only the plainest symptoms of a deeper disease. Escape from the self, here, is concurrently the most desperate goal of an individual and his or her greatest danger. The samizdat, a film lethal in its captivating entertainment, is only one of many such threats. In a hilarious footnote, we learn the extent of things which might become a dependent’s crutch:

” . . . yoga, reading, politics, gum-chewing, crossword puzzles, solitaire, romantic intrigue, charity work, political activism, N.R.A. membership, music, art, cleaning, plastic surgery, cartridge-viewing even at normal distances, the loyalty of a fine dog, religious zeal, relentless helpfulness, relentless others-folks’-moral-inventory-taking, the development of hard-line schools of 12-Step thought, ad darn near infinitum, including 12-Step fellowships themselves . . . ”

Perhaps we could solve this problem by doing nothing at all so we become addicted to nothing–but independence is a drug itself. Here is the paradox that Don Gately contemplates, which drives Herr Schtitt to appeal to the greater good, and which nearly crushes Hal. 

Back to the journey; how does the novel set out to navigate these paradoxes? My friend Robbie says this about compassion in the Jest:

“In the end, I distrust the compassion in this book. There is a fascination with banality and deformity, whether moral, physical, or spiritual, and there is a constant move toward finding compassion for these despicable people . . . again and again the book becomes an obsessed exercise with despicabilizing a character or her action (or her appearance) then exhibiting compassion *only at that moment.* Compassion otherwise is hard to come by.”

Some parts of the novel do more explicit empathizing. The arc of Don Gately carries us from addiction and violence to a sort of virtue. ETA does not get much compassion–its denizens lack it and the narrator seems to take up their hard-heartedness even as he shows us the many reasons those young tennis stars have for armoring themselves. But is the project flawed? “Despicabilizing” does happen, and does begin to show its authorial rigging after a while. In places, Gately’s awful backstory begins to sound like the hustler listing off the problems in his life; that is, past ready compassion territory and into suspicion.

Of course it’s flawed; Infinite Jest a shaggy beast, slouching toward a grand, encyclopedic testament of the human drive for escape, novelty, and finally hard-won deliverance.

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2 Responses to Review of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

  1. Ajit says:

    Nice thoughts Jackson. I’m less distrustful of the compassion. Perhaps the length of the novel itself creates an attachment for these despicable people and we should wonder at our fascination, but I’m of the mindset that the length and the banal cataloging of these people’s lives even when absurd is what gives them humanity despite their flaws. Who isn’t captivated by Gately stepping in to save one of the horrible people he’s responsible for in the year of the street parking fiasco or moved by Hal’s recession inward into addiction in the year of the Eschaton Crisis? Something about the way these two characters rise and fall creates a picture of humanity.

    • Thanks Ajit! Somebody said that a novel this long almost becomes a way of life. I agree that the vast amount of time we spend with these characters, especially Gately and Hal, serves to show them from many, many angles, helping to humanize them. Building on that, the novel’s length provides such a focus for the communities, too. It’s as though we were initiated into ETA or having to clean up after some ridiculous mishap at Ennett house. Both these dynamics surely help the empathetic work we do as readers.

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