Book of the Year: Infinite Jest

The worst fear of any serious Infinite Jest reader is that some well-intentioned person will look at her or him hefting about an enormous novel and, with kindness, ask, “What’s that book about?”

In September I finished the novel, a 1,079-page behemoth known throughout the literary and twenty-something worlds as a sort of novelistic Mount Everest often read to say that one has read it. And, now, after twenty-six days of reading, and several months of being-finished, I’m just barely starting to form an answer to the question, “What’s the book about?”

That cover, so harmless-looking.

I’ll put it this way. We’re all told in this era that we should find a passion or job or occupation which we love, and then throw ourselves into that thing. Do what your heart says, in other words; if your occupational counselor says be an accountant and your heart says snowboard, then go snowboarding, of course!

But imagine a scenario where two people have followed those passions. Let’s say there are two people who crash cymbals in orchestras (as a bit character in fact does in Infinite Jest). Let’s say that ever since they were kids, all they ever wanted to do was play the cymbals, and they spent years training and getting cymbal-crashing degrees, then found jobs and now all they do is crash cymbals all day. Suppose one of these two people absolutely loves it: he’s found the thing that makes his life worth living, and he crashes cymbals every day with a sort of fulfilling spiritual joy. Suppose the other one, though, feels strangely empty and lost while he crashes his cymbals. He stands there in the back of the band wondering: is there something else to life? Or maybe the tragedy is that he does not wonder that at all; he’s not aware that he’s feeling empty; he’s just lost, and depressed, and in a funk, because he has spent his whole life working to fulfill his passion for cymbal-crashing but he never realized there was anything else.

In a single sentence, what Infinite Jest is about (maybe) is: what is the difference between those two people? Why do some people center their lives on something and feel happy while others center their lives on something and feel as if they’re in hiding?

All of the characters in the novel are facing this problem. The first of three primary plot strands concerns teenage boys at a tennis boarding school, where they spend six-and-a-half days a week practicing and playing tennis, improving their technique and mentality, training rigorously for a career in professional tennis. One of the boys, John Wayne (nickname: “No Relation”), is a tennis prodigy because he has apparently shut off all the emotions and feelings which might lead him anywhere other than the court. Another, Hal Incandenza, begins for the first time to have the idea that maybe he doesn’t want to play tennis every day, and his game is in danger of falling apart.

When kids are trained from birth to compete, and to win, then when they fail to be anything other than the very best, will their lives be a crashing disappointment? More interestingly, if they do achieve the goal they’ve been raised to target–then what? If you spend your whole childhood training to be a tennis champion and actually become one, does that actually make you feel happy? One teenage tennis star in the novel achieves the No. 1 ranking and immediately shoots himself. He’s been chasing an ephemeral goal, and once he reaches it, like a pot of gold, it vanishes.

A second plot strand concerns a halfway house for drug addicts (alcohol included). Somebody in the book makes the valuable point that taking a drug is basically a lonely activity, something that separates your experience from everyone else’s. People hide when they do drugs because it’s illegal, but they also hide when they do drugs because drugs are isolating. The halfway house throws them all together.

The book also raises interesting questions about 12-step programs. Consider: does Alcoholics Anonymous replace an addiction to alcohol with an addiction to Alcoholics Anonymous? If so, is that a bad thing? Is it slightly sinister? Or, since it at least gets people off booze, is it an improvement?

The third plot in the novel asks just how far people will go to achieve instant gratification, and how screwed up, exactly, our idea of happiness is. See, a crazy old filmmaker’s last work before suicide was a short movie called “Infinite Jest,” which is, Monty-Python-style, so incredibly entertaining that anybody who watches it replays it and replays it and watches over and over until they starve to death. And somebody keeps making copies and sending them out to unsuspecting victims. Now both the government and a crazed gang of legless separatist Quebec terrorists called the Wheelchair Assassins (Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents) are trying to find the master copy of the tape.

So there’s a lot going on, and there’s a great difficulty in saying what the novel is “about.” But there are a few tentative hypotheses: the novel is about the way in which so many people substitute addictions for the grunt-work of finding lasting pleasure; the novel is about different means of gratification, instant or otherwise, and whether they, too, can be addictive; the novel is about people who aspire to great things and then aspire just to be normal again; the novel is about our reliance on external creations for entertainment, rather than ourselves or each other; the novel is about the unreasonableness of our demands to be made happy.

There are approximately 15 more blog posts’ worth of things to talk about in Infinite Jest. For example, there’s the prose, Wallace exhibiting a scarily accurate ability to write the exact way his characters think (one of the difficulties of the book is that characters who can’t spell have their lives narrated with attendant poor spelling). There are sentences which glow like moons suspended above the page. There are profoundly sad sections and there are hilariously funny subplots, like the backstory of the Wheelchair Assassins or the young tennis players’ game Eschaton, in which every player is a Cold War nation lobbing tennis balls at the other nations’ nuclear stockpiles. The Eschaton game might be the funniest scene I’ve read in a novel in months.

Another thing worth talking about is: why is almost everybody in the novel deformed in some way? There are characters with gigantic boxy heads, faces burned by acid, agoraphobics, an entire network of amputated murderers, an epileptic, a Saudi prince who eats only Toblerone and has tons of digestive problems as a result, a recovering alcoholic with no hands or feet, a midget, a woman whose right half is paralyzed, a Crohn’s disease patient, tennis-playing Siamese twins, and a tiny birth-defected boy who can only stand while propped up by some kind of support. What’s up with this fixation? Does it mean anything? I don’t know.

You get the idea. Books have been written about Infinite Jest, and will be written about it for some time. Months after finishing it, I still can’t organize a blog essay about it. It is a huge novel, yes, maybe slightly too huge; its vocabulary is off the charts and I had to keep a dictionary on standby; some episodes are a little too preposterous, some characters sound a little too much like each other. The novel’s worst page, weirdly, is its first. Yes, there are slight flaws in the tapestry.

But the feeling I had upon finally finishing Infinite Jest was a feeling I’ve only had after finishing one other book. That other book was The Brothers Karamazov, which Wallace mentions in the novel’s final pages. The feeling I had, upon finishing Karamazov and Jest, was much the same. I looked at each novel’s massive heft and, more urgently than any other desire, wanted very much to turn back to page 1 and start all over again.

The parallel is no mistake. In a 1996 essay, Wallace praised Fyodor Dostoevsky as an author who “appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we cannot or do not permit ourselves.” DFW (as he is called) thought FMD (as DFW called him) a “model” for any contemporary author who intends to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction [which is] also ingenious and radiantly human.” A self-aware thing to say, since the phrase is also a perfect description of Infinite Jest.

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