Friday, February 13, 2009

"Infinite Jest"

REQUIRED READING: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2009)

This book falls under the category of “I read it so you don’t have to”, which is not to say that you shouldn’t read it. At just over 1,000 pages of complicated text and twisted plot lines, Infinite Jest is, according to TIME Magazine, one of the most important novels published in the last fifty years. The book, a painfully funny satire and prescient social commentary, is set in a future time when Canada, Mexico, and the United States have merged into one large nation referred to as ONAN (Organization of North American Nations) possibly as a result of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). In this mammoth nation, the pursuit of televised entertainment is the national pastime and sobriety is no longer the norm. Some of the topics David Foster Wallace examines in Infinite Jest include toxic waste disposal, mental illness, tennis prodigies, twelve-step recovery programs, terrorism, and politics. The plot can be difficult to follow at times but the intertwined stories are so interesting and compelling that I devoted an entire summer to this book.

Mr. Wallace, who died in 2008, had the rare ability to capture the inanities of life and use them to examine social changes which often happen before anyone notices. He was brilliant: a graduate of Amherst College with a double major in English and philosophy, and a concentration in logic and mathematics. His senior thesis was so exceptional that Viking Penguin published it as a novel entitled The Broom of the System. Frank Bruni, a writer for the New York Times magazine stated in a 1996 profile that, "Wallace is to literature what Robin Williams or perhaps Jim Carrey is to live comedy: a creator so maniacally energetic and amused with himself that he often follows his riffs out into the stratosphere, where he orbits all alone." Not only was he intellectually gifted, but David Foster Wallace had been a tennis prodigy and experienced a childhood similar to what he so colorfully described in Infinite Jest. Sadly, for much of his life, Mr. Wallace suffered from depression and in the end that is what killed him. When I heard that he had committed suicide, I cannot say I was surprised.

Genius and mental illness frequently co-exist. Edgar Allen Poe, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Ludwig von Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh, and other important cultural and historical figures suffered from depression, anxiety, or bi-polar disorders. Recent scientific studies at Stanford University, Harvard University, and the University of Toronto confirm the correlation between creativity and madness; it is thought that psychological illnesses open extra data gathering pathways in the brain. Infinite Jest is a pure example of this theory. Mr. Wallace describes a world that is a vortex of tragic and comic insanity where people increasingly turn inward, or self-medicate, in the same way that he did. Reading the book, I was awestruck by his observations and intuitions; Mr. Wallace may not have had a “beautiful mind” like the schizophrenic mathematical genius, John Forbes Nash, but he saw trends and social currents the rest of us tend to filter out. Had he been less brilliant, he might have been mentally healthy, or conversely, if he had been mentally healthy, he might have been less brilliant. We will never know.

Unlike Moby Dick author Herman Melville, pioneering geneticist Gregor Mendel, poet Emily Dickenson, and many others, Mr. Wallace did enjoy success during his lifetime. Almost immediately upon release, Infinite Jest garnered a cult following among English literature majors, philosophy students, and others who enjoy a book that challenges them and stretches their ability to think. It remains widely read and discussed because in addition to the brilliance of the writing and social observation, Infinite Jest pushes the novel form. For one thing, it is a blend of genres: sports novel, family drama, thriller, and science fiction, tied up with wit and satire, tragedy and comedy. For another, Infinite Jest makes use of footnotes as chapters, taking us out of our comfort zone, in pursuit of clarity, and leaving us wondering if we will ever get back. (Note: If you skip the footnotes in this book, you will miss a good part of the story.)

Infinite Jest is rich with puns and literary references beginning with the title, which is taken from a line in “Hamlet”, and possibly hints that the joke is on the reader. In the book, “Infinite Jest” is the title of a deadly form of video entertainment which causes the viewer to die from the pleasure of watching it. One plot thread concerns the theft of the original copy of the so-called “entertainment” which has already killed a number of unsuspecting viewers, including its creator. Given its utility as an undetectable instrument of death, the original “Infinite Jest” cassette is a hot commodity. A group of physically impaired Quebecois separatists (the Wheelchair Assassins), who get around on electric scooters, wants to use “the entertainment” to coerce ONAN into letting French Canada secede and to take revenge on the former United States. Other criminals want it as well and will stop at nothing to get it.

Meanwhile, at the elite Enfield Tennis Academy, students get stoned daily in order to tolerate the endless drills and hand-strengthening exercises required to produce champions. Fortunately, just downhill, is the Ennet House of Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (sic) where counselor, Don Gately, works hard to help residents achieve sobriety. Don was himself a football prodigy and therefore knows the stresses the Enfield students are under. He became addicted to pain pills after an injury, lived a life of crime, and accidentally killed someone before being sent to rehab. A number of ETA students cycle in and out of Ennet House throughout the book and Don Gately is there for all of them. He is a non-traditional hero who can’t seem to avoid trouble and is one of the most likeable characters in the book.

The creation of the unified North American nation ignites American-Canadian border tensions when much of New England is ceded to the Canadian part of ONAN and designated a toxic waste dump, named “the great concavity”. The Wheelchair Assassins are particularly aggrieved that New York Giants fans fling their trash into the now-Canadian concavity using oversized catapults. With control of “Infinite Jest” the assassins hope to put an end to this insult. Their plan is to take advantage of Americans’ love of passive entertainment and commit mass murder by disseminating “the entertainment”.

One of the funniest themes in Infinite Jest is the invention of subsidized time. No longer is a new year referred to as, say, 2009; corporations buy the right to name each year. My favorite year is “The Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment”, with “The Year of the Whopper” as a close second. Again, Mr. Wallace might have been on to something. Perhaps our government should consider selling the naming rights to new years as a way of raising revenue for the financial bailout while allowing entities to repair their damaged reputations. Imagine: 2008 could have been called “The Year of Chinese Pet Foods”. How about “The Year of Peanut Company of America Peanut Butter” instead of 2009?

Infinite Jest, published during the first Clinton Administration, is remarkable in how un-farfetched many of it’s predictions are. Mr. Wallace intuited that the American political system was heading for freefall: in the book Rush Limbaugh is a recently assassinated president. He also understood that sooner or later wheelchairs and electric scooters would be everywhere; our population is aging, after all. Finally with the commercialization of everything including time, Mr. Wallace foresaw the collapse of the United States economy. The part he got wrong was that NAFTA would result in the unification of North America. Although, who knows what the world will look like in twenty years?

What differentiates a good novel from a great one is not only how thought-provoking it is but how well it withstands the test of time. Infinite Jest will be studied, discussed, and read for many years by anyone who wishes to understand America pre-9/11 as well as by those who love the English language. Mr. Wallace has been compared with Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis; he was a genius who happened to be a writer, as opposed to Shakespeare, a writer who happened to be a genius. If he had found a way to conquer his depression, we can be certain that David Foster Wallace would have continued to redefine the American novel. As I said in the beginning, Infinite Jest is not a quick or easy read and if you decide not to bother, no one will think the less of you. If, on the other hand, you give this book a try, you will never forget it, and David Foster Wallace’s creative genius will forever change the way you think.

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