Fragments of books: Infinite Jest

Inifinte JestIf you enjoy books that run to over a thousand pages of mind-boggling literary showmanship, then there comes a day when someone recommends David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to you as the great 1990s equivalent of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, or Joyce’s Ulysses, or something similarly dense and critically acclaimed. Heed these people.

Let me clear the room first: this novel is rambling and circuitous and there are plotlines that start and don’t go anywhere, and it could do with a lot more editing. I can make a case for why all these qualities are integral to the themes of the book, but I won’t. There are some conventional cliffhanger-type storytelling moments near the beginning that lure you in with the promise of a plot, but if plot is something that matters to you above all else in a book – run away from this one.

There’s also the matter of the slightly surreal projected-near-future setting, in which corporate sponsors get to name calendar years (so most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment), Organization of North American Nations has turned most of southeastern Canada and northeastern US into a toxic waste dump (with all the associated birth defects, feral packs of mutant animals, and large-scale weather pattern disruptions) and there’s a far-reaching Quebecois-separatist organization of ruthless wheelchair-bound assassins. All these things are peripheral and – disappointingly, to a Sci-Fi fan – only meagerly fleshed out.

Mainly, this book is about addiction. Also depression, despair, disillusionment and tennis.

Most of the action takes place in a tennis academy and in an addicts’ halfway house in Boston, where seemingly disparate and unrelated characters and storylines come together.

And if, like me, you start reading this book, you go, “It’s very literary and well written and there’s the whole Hamlet allusion thing going on, but does it all have to be so terribly depressing, and I really can’t empathise with this miserable lot of junkies and I just don’t give a rat’s ass about tennis,” – stick with it a bit longer. There’s some genuinely funny parts coming up. New neural connections – along pathways twisted and dark – will be mapped for all your future tennis associations. As for the junkies – you do begin to Identify with them.

Some of my favorite passages in the novel deal with the Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and twelve-step recovery program. There are wonderful scenes in which newly recovering addicts incredulously realize that the program works. Despite their intellectual objections to its corny platitudes, and their atheistic objections to its daily prayer requirements, and their overall feeling that it’s all a load of BS – as long as they stick with it and go through the required motions, it works. No one can explain how it works, but after months of barely hanging in, they wake up to find that they no longer crave the Substance.

Like the AA program, Infinite Jest – if you stick with it – works. If you hang in despite its jarring nature, it draws you in and takes hold of you and shows you insightful and non-trivial things about the world. I can’t explain how it does this, but it does.

On the other hand, I have been reading this book for nearly three frigging months, so this might just be Stockholm Syndrome talking.