Three things prompted me to read and review Infinite Jest. First, today marks the fifteenth anniversary of its publication, and that seems worth more than a mention. Second, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King is forthcoming in April, which begs a look back at his previous work. Third, the jealousy conjured in me at the time of the novel’s release has diminished, allowing for a fairer assessment. Combine this passage of time with Wallace’s suicide over a year ago and all jealously now seems, at the very least, misplaced.
The best thing Infinite Jest can do for a reader is slow her down. Its length (981 pages) and its footnotes (388 of them) keep even the most ardent page-turner from burning through it. Just when you think you’ve knocked off a good chunk, along comes a footnote several pages long, postponing your sleep. The book takes control of you, makes you tolerate its abuse despite the easier reads piled up on your nightstand. But once you’ve borne Infinite Jest‘s yoke, it offers a perspective so unique and complex reading anything else feels like cheating.
Wallace’s greatest feat with IJ is creating art in the Faulknerian sense of “something which did not exist before.” There is nothing else in the world quite like this book. I was tempted throughout my reading to call it an heir to Ulysses. IJ shares with Joyce’s masterpiece a glacial pace, and there’s something of a Leopold Bloom-Stephen Dedalus combo in IJ‘s pot-smoking tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza and recovering drug addict Don Gately. But IJ is more obviously dramatic and striking than Ulysses. Here are a few very un-Joyce-like elements within it: a gang of wheelchair assassins, a giant crater where the northeastern United States used to be, a gun-and-knife fight between halfway house occupants and floral-shirted French-Canadians, and one young man’s unfortunate defacement (literally) at the hands of a cold window. No matter how slowly, IJ always feels like it’s going somewhere, and even if it Fellinis-out at the end, its sense of forward motion trumps that of Ulysses.
A little plot is all you need with prose as penetrating as Wallace’s. The author not only wants to puncture the skin with his insights, he wants to burrow down to the tender meat in the middle, where all the nutrients lie. Take his spot-on rendering of an addict’s backward thinking:
…he’d smoke his way through thirty-eight grams a day…averaging 200 or 300 bong-hits per day, and insane and deliberately unpleasant amount, and he’d make it a mission to smoke continuously, even though if the marijuana was as good as the woman claimed he’d do five hits and then not want to take the trouble to load and one-hit anymore for at least an hour. But he would force himself to do it anyway. He would smoke it all even if he didn’t want it. Even if it started to make him dizzy and ill. He would use discipline and persistence and will and make the whole experience so unpleasant, so debased and debauched and unpleasant, that his behavior would henceforward be modified…
Some of the best moments in IJ are when Wallace gives us a window into the world of competitive tennis. Below he describes a match between top amateurs John “No Relation” Wayne and one from a rival school Port Washington:
Way up on [court] #1, Schacht sees John Wayne just plaster a backhand cross-court. Wayne hits it so hard a little mushroom cloud of green fuzz hangs in the air where the ball met the strings. Their [scoring] cards were too far to read in the sour-apple light, but you could tell by the way Port Washington’s best boy walked back to the baseline to take the next serve that his ass had already been presented to him. In a lot of junior matches everything past the fourth game or so is kind of a formality. Both players tend to know the overall score by then. The big picture. They’ll have decided who’s going to lose.
Those are merely two excerpts from a nearly 500,000-word novel in which the author clearly agonized over every sentence. Not only is IJ big, it’s dense with writerly attention.
Still, it’s hardly a perfect work. I never got the sense, even with all that attention, that Wallace got to the heart of Hal, the closest thing to a protagonist the novel has. And the dialog, while stunning in much of the book, feels less than fully realized when the students at the tennis academy talk amongst themselves. I caught myself wanting to delete portions of quotes, making the conversations less stilted. A lover of Pride and Prejudice might wonder the point of all this wordsmithing and footnoting, and despite loving IJ, I’m not inclined to argue with him.
What IJ lacks in character depth it makes up for in humor, which is the real heart of the book. Great quips abound. For example, Gately, the recovering drug addict, refers to his Quaalude period as “The Attack of the Killer Sidewalks.” “You didn’t have to be brainy…to figure out the equation (Quaaludes) + (not even that many beers) = getting whapped by the nearest sidewalk.” And there’s plenty of fun at the halfway house: “Gately knows for sure it was McDade and Minty that put the HELP WANTED sign under the window of the lady in #4 that shouts for Help.” Hal’s brother, NFL punter Orin, once kicked a football so high “the hang-time the Special Teams Asst. said you could have tender and sensitive intercourse during.” And on the darker side, when Hal’s dad kills himself by cooking his head in a microwave, Hal admits his first thought upon entering the house that fateful night was “That something smelled delicious!” Wallace knew his Vonnegut, and this dark and funny sensibility pops up frequently enough to make those long paragraphs and endless footnotes a bit more manageable.
I suspect Infinite Jest is no easier to nail down today than it was fifteen years ago, and that its complexity will keep it from being nailed down in the near future. It’s everything I suggest above–the heir apparent to Ulysses, a window into drug addiction and competitive tennis, a funny book that goes nowhere, a sad book that never quite embraces its sadness–and plenty more I haven’t even mentioned. Perhaps most of all it’s Wallacian, which didn’t exist before, and therein lies its value.
Read more about my IJ journey at The Rumpus.