Too Much Fun
David Foster Wallace
DAVID FOSTER WALLACE has a vision of The End: Imagine an entertainment so alluring and sensual, one that provides its viewers with such purity of pleasure, that no one can turn away from it. Millions upon millions sit watching "the entertainment" --in this case the final masterpiece of an obscure filmmaker titled Infinite Jest. Dumb and unmoving, puddled in their own feces, they watch until they die of starvation. While a couch-potato apocalypse may already seem to be at hand for some TV addicts, David Foster Wallace spins out a thousand pages' worth of brilliantly complicated implications in Infinite Jest (the novel), building them into a macabre, metaphorical, and quite hilarious vision of a doomed America.
Fitting in somewhere along the continuum between Paradise Lost and the writings of Bishop Berkeley, Infinite Jest's main story involves a family and the memory of its patriarch, James O. Incandenza (affectionately known as "Himself"). A former junior tennis superstar and founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy (metro Boston), holder of various engineering patents, amateur experimental filmmaker of a certain cult status, and chronic alcoholic, Himself was a brilliant man who ended it all one afternoon by putting his head in a microwave oven; in true Faulknerian fashion he's bequeathed a tragic legacy to his three sons and wife Avril (a statuesque woman both in appearance and in her inability to be fully human). With another nod to the Southern laureate, the narrative concentrates on one distinctly sensitive son, Hal, and his brother, Mario (or Booboo), who is physically deformed yet quintessentially innocent (cf. Quentin and Benjy Compson from The Sound and The Fury).
Meanwhile, downhill from the ETA campus where Hal, Mario, and "the Moms" live is a halfway house known as "Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic]", whose slovenly, mostly criminal tenants struggle to take life One Day At A Time under the supervision and guidance of Don Gately, a live-in staffer and the book's secondary protagonist. The larger post-NAFTA world is in upheaval: Wheelchair-bound Quebecois radicals are plotting the overthrow of the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN) with an innovative and insidious weapon (the aforementioned "entertainment"). The paranoid, laughably named Office of Unspecified Services plays the patsy in this spook game, which takes place simultaneously in Arizona and Boston (the latter metropolis now constituting the northernmost outpost of the U.S., as the entire northern New England area has been turned into an enormous toxic landfill, a.k.a. "the Great Concavity").
Garnish these three huge, slowly revolving plots with details like an erstwhile-crooner-turned-head-of-state; high-level policy discussions with Glad Corporation about the impending turnover of the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment to the Year of Glad (at some point in the '90s, time became subsidized by corporate sponsors, with numbered years now denoted as "B.S."--Before Subsida-tion); and Eschaton, a wack game of geopolitics, nuclear armageddon, and tennis ball-lobbing precision played on four adjoining tennis courts at ETA. You've perhaps touched the surface of this multifaceted book.
While he's cooked up a hugely fantastical stew, Wallace uses plot to serve a higher purpose (i.e., this is far from sci-fi). "I set out to write a story about... America," says the 34-year-old author from his home in Bloomington, Illinois. Indeed, though he admits this sounds somewhat pretentious (not to mention open-ended), Wallace's characters are strikingly American. The brilliant but confused adolescent Hal, his handsome and over-confident older brother Orin, the pretty, privileged free-baser Joelle Van Dyne, the painfully honest and painfully addicted (oral narcotics) Don Gately--all become familiar faces, whether they remind us of ourselves, or of one another. Yet Wallace hasn't fashioned a fantasy land populated with tropes in order to play a trick. At its core, Infinite Jest is about deep American issues, which Wallace enumerates as "freedom, pleasure, addiction, and... entertainment." Not exactly what the forefathers imagined.
David Foster Wallace's first two books--1987's The Broom of the System (a novel he humbly calls "miss-able") and the 1989 short story collection Girl with Curious Hair--were critically acclaimed, and the numerous comparisons to the work of Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover make Wallace cringe. Though the same names are being trotted out in reviews of his latest book, Wallace's writing has taken a new direction. If the words "manic" and "extravaganza" were used to describe his earlier work, "Shakespearean" and "tragedy" are more appropriate for this novel. Where before his writing was fueled by pop culture and television, here these are merely tools in a greater drama. Infinite Jest is, Wallace admits, rather more like Hamlet than Gravity's Rainbow.
While it's a daunting tome at first glance (all the Pynchonizing not helping a bit), we soon realize that Wallace's style is perfectly readable. He explains that however intricate, the overall structure was created organically. For example, the now-notorious 388 endnotes first developed as the sections about the addicts at Ennet House became more pharmacologically complex. Similarly, as the individual plot lines entailed additional characters and information, the endnotes came to provide a kind of secondary narrative of their own--including single conversations that take up multiple pages. Wallace admits that he had written many more endnotes and constructed an even more elaborate sub-narrative within them; however, his editor at Little, Brown, Michael Peach, recommended major cuts, suggesting that you can't force a reader to read four pages of chemical derivations. Wallace now agrees, and assesses Peach's Trojan effort on Infinite Jest: "He was just a total stud on this."
The same might be said of the author and his writing methods (listen up, MFA students). Of the three years it took to write Infinite Jest, one and a half were spent on the phone with chemists, mathematicians, and pharmacists; or in attendance at Boston-area AA meetings (open to the public); or in libraries, studying up on arcane scientific texts and experimental filmmaking--all in the name of perfection. After correcting some 20,000 typos in the proof pages, Wallace asserts with near-certainty that the myriad chemical derivations and mathematical equations are absolutely correct.
Also illuminating is Wallace's portrayal of 12-step culture, making it one of the most rewarding aspects of the book. He understands the gravity of drug addiction and the power of AA, while at the same time forcefully satirizing its world of clichés and anti-intellectualism. Through long discussions on the finer points of sobriety between two of his many addict characters (Gately, an ex-con who comes off as the most trusting and honest man in the world, and Madame Psychosis, a tortured intellectual), Wallace engages in what one might call addiction dialecticism. It seems to be a topic of endless fascination for the author; he becomes breathless when describing the connections between it and American culture at large, proposing that the latter is in a state of denial about its disease.
Infinite Jest operates on so many levels that it's impossible to pin down: Wallace's own suggestion of an American Hamlet holds weight. Yet I like to think of it in more epic terms, like Paradise Lost. I imagine the sober Gately playing Archangel Michael, unable to deny his power of freedom; Hal as a God who simply has no clue. But perhaps I'm just playing that endless (infinite?) game like so many others, trying to attach this remarkable writer and his book to some tried and tested masterpieces, when in fact his genius is all his own. CP
David Foster Wallace reads March 6 at Hungry Mind Bookstore; see A List on page 26 for details.
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