Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Infinite Jest: perhaps the finest American novel I have ever read

Infinite JestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Leo's Rating:: 5 of 5 stars

There are some books that sit in the center of culture. Like big masses in physics, they either devour lesser tomes, or pull them into orbit about them. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest -- like Joyce's Ulysses and Dante's Inferno were for their eras -- is one of these rare books.

Wallace displays incredible virtuosity in this book. It is by turns satirical, sad, funny and frequently heart-rending. And, like all great literature, manages to be both realistic and yet peel away the reality, to show what lies beneath the surface.

The central concern of this book is escapism. And the lengths that contemporary Americans will go through to escape our empty, frequently atomized realities. Where people are not valued as people, but value streams for mega-corporations. Often, people will go in for mindless entertainments. Like the samizdat, the movie that is supposedly so engrossing that a viewer will be consumed with watching it over and over again. They will not eat, sleep or go to the bathroom. instead, they watch.

This, of course, is "out there." And Wallace keeps this sort of tongue-in-cheek. Because it is part of a preposterous sub-plot in the book. And Wallace is pretty deft with his humor, especially when dealing with politics. Both the inept, commercialized government, and its cross-dressing secret policeman Hugh/ Helen Steeply, who functions as a tongue-in-cheek allusion to J. Edgar Hoover. And Wallace makes even the radical anti-government actors equally outrageous. By placing the main radical group in North America, the Quebec Separatists, in wheelchairs.

This is post-modern deconstruction on a massive scale. And a gas.


Wallace's humor shines through in other ways as well. Like how the government, in order to finance itself, sells naming right of a year to a corporation. So, instead of the year 2020, we have "Year of the Depends Adult undergarment." Funny stuff. And, like all real humor, based on a grain of truth.

But it isn't all hi-jinks in Wallace's world. He's too talented a writer for that.

A lot of the story of one of the main protagonists, Hal Incandenza. He is a typical adolescent in many ways: unsure of himself, and bombarded with hormones, peer and parental demands that he has problems coping with. Added to this, he is hyper-intelligent, and possesses an eidetic memory. Added to this, he is among one of the most talented junior tennis players in the nation.

It seems as if he can write his own ticket. But he seems poised to self destruct, using weed to "unplug." The amazing thing is that Wallace makes it clear that the fear of "being found out" drives Hal to incredible lengths to hide his marijuana abuse. He smokes near a huge vent. Emerges into a bathroom, where he immediately washes his face, brushes his teeth and uses mouthwash. Anything to hide his "secret."

Wallace makes much of these secret pleasures we use to fill the void contemporary American life leaves in the pit of our souls.

The most extreme form of escapism that he points with incredible fidelity is drug addiction. You can feel the despair in this drug-infested underworld. Where people grow callous about death of their fellow humans, especially when awareness of that death would impede their ability to get high and "tune out." ANd the business practices are, of course, brutal. Because drug lords and other underground people cannot use legal means to enforce their contracts. So to do business, they turn to enforcers. Or under-the-radar ways to get back at cheats, like selling dishonest folks "hot shots" meant to kill them. These realities drive sociopaths to the world. Some are budding, like Lenz -- a recovering coke addict who gets his jolly's murdering animals. Others are down-right spooky, like the reptilian psychopath Bobby C.

Mostly, though, the addicts are just pathetic. People with no life. No reason to live. Who will ingest dope all day, not even getting up to go to the bathroom.

But Wallace gives us a glimmer of hope. His second protagonist, Don Gately, is a recovering addict. He is consciously trying to live the Alcoholics Anonymous life. Which is life without the dopamine rush that comes from drugs. Instead, he struggles heroically against his addiction in some of the most incredible scenes in the book. And even refuses opiates while intubated in the hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound inflcited while he was protecting other recovering addicts in a street brawl.

These scenes flit in and out. And illustrate just how hard it is to live, with complete awareness, in the here and now. And just what a heroic act this seemingly simple exercise is.

I could go on and on about this book. It is, after all, over 1,000 pages. But those pages flew by. They made me laugh. Frequently brought me to tears -- especially the AA share by the woman who gave birth to a dead child. But, more than anything, it made me think about the endless rounds of escapism we pull America. How we seem unable to face the reality, and accept the consequences of what we have done.

Highly recommended. Because Infinite Jest is perhaps the finest American novel I have ever read. Bar none.

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1 comment:

  1. I'm giving it a shot Leo. I'm 2 chapters in but not sure I'm going the distance with it.

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