[Review] David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace is an acquired taste, a bit like hot sauce or sushi. I started with the essay Consider the Lobster in the now sadly defunct Gourmet magazine. Actually, this isn’t true. I found some other essay online that I read and greatly enjoyed but now I cannot find it again so I will start with Consider the Lobster.

After Consider the Lobster, I worked through his collected essays to get to Infinite Jest, a 1000 page tome of a book with 200 pages of absolutely essential footnotes. The closest work to Infinite Jest, the Internet tells me, is Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and if you like Pynchon you will like DFW. This is undoubtedly true; both specialize in dense and complex works of weird non-linear fiction. The difference is DFW is on the Kindle and Pynchon is not to spite me and me personally so the one on the Kindle got read and the other one did not.

The best way to describe the book is a dense post-modern surrealist novel that is often not surrealist at all. It focuses on strong themes of depression, drug addiction and recovery, fall and redemption, tennis, Quebecqois separatism, terrorism, adolescence, suicide, LARPing, film theory, philosophy, and other fun topics all set to a tone that is best envisioned, bizarrely enough, fully animated. The world is science fiction the same way Vonnegut’s worlds are science fiction: it is a vague near future where even the years have a corporate sponsor, everyone is wired into their ‘entertainments’ and New England has been turned into an enormous toxic waste dump for electoral reasons. The future is full of American’s inalienable rights to consume and consume until they cannot consume any more, pleasure and fulfillment, and the Infinite Jest being the ultimate pleasure, a movie so pleasurable after watching it once, a victim will kill to watch it again and again and again.  Now if only someone could weaponize infinite pleasure in the form of a DVD…

The story follows two separate storylines — one at an Elite Tennis Academy high school and one at a drug and alcohol addiction recovery halfway house down the hill.  The cast of characters feels vast at first and impossible to track with their special ticks and personalities but this turns out to not be an insurmountable task. Both the Ennet Recovery House and the Enfield Tennis Academy are populated with dozens of characters, each with their own special personalities that manage to come through on the page. Some characters show up and hang around for a scene and wander out again. Some are given full and rich backgrounds until they, too, drift away. But through it the two main threads of story never quite touch except in one paragraph possibly in a flash-forward early in the book — although several characters from the two threads often cross.

Like Catch-22, Infinite Jest is not in chronological order. The story jumps around showing a future scene and then flashes back to show the full runup to that scene. (Arguably, the entire book is a run-up to the first, opening scene.)  Sometimes a chunk of essential narrative is told in a long footnote.  This is where the ‘challenge’ comes in — sometimes it is difficult to tell where in the cut-up machine of Infinite Jest a certain scene fits. The narrative jumps around point of view from character to character. One long stretch is told entirely in script-form with puppets. Another is the story of a particularly strange LARP played with tennis rackets and giant maps. The book is not difficult to read, not in the way a dense text from Victorian England can be difficult to physically read. The text itself is quite easy and quick to read. The book itself is structurally challenging.  This is not a band thing.

Infinite Jest is highly referential in places — Dostoevsky, Melville, Shakespeare, Joyce.  The Enfield Tennis Acadamy is full of Hamlet references in the last half of the book. Even the Ghost of the Father! The skull! Gravediggers! The Queen and Polonius! The final scene as Hamlet goes off and Horatio is left behind. Read or refresh Hamlet before picking up Infinite Jest.  Most of the play is embedded in the book.

My favorite part of the book was the last 150 or so pages of Don Gately, the main character of the Recovery House arc, laid in a hospital bed hallucinating his life and the Ghost and the truths to complete his Redemption cycle. It is probably DFW’s very best writing and it is deeply compelling writing.

I want to recommend this book. Obviously I enjoyed it. I read the whole book and the required footnotes. The formal requirement is you must like strange, unconventional, and weird literary books that do not conform to the basic novel form.  I would say — start with the essay above, and then the other essays, and then the short stories, and kind of eeeease into it. It’s a very cool book but it is extremely mind-bendy and challenging.