Stalking the Behemoth: “Infinite Jest,” by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest
By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 1996
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
It’s hard to talk too much about David Foster Wallace without mentioning the huge cultural moment he’s having right now, and it’s hard to talk about that cultural moment without feeling dismayed that it’s him and not his books that are having that moment. The path his reputation’s on now, which to my way of seeing things ends with him reduced from a writer to an image of a writer (as has happened to Kerouac and Hemingway before him), began when his graduation speech for Kenyon University made the YouTube rounds. Then they turned it into a book, This is Water, which is probably what he’s best known for now even though it wraps his writing up a little too neatly. Then D.T. Max put out the biography. Now that the End of the Tour, a filmed adaptation of the road trip he took with reporter David Lipsky, is in theaters and on track for rave reviews, the idea of David Foster Wallace as a writer is beginning to overtake his fiction. As an enormous fan of his, and as someone who thinks his own complexities play a role in what makes his writing so great, I’d be upset if he was boiled down to “well, I haven’t read him, but he just seemed so nice” in the eyes of the general public. I guess that would be an improvement over an author people only pretended to read to boost up the old intellectual acumen, but not much of one.
So then, how to talk about Infinite Jest? Let’s start by divorcing ourselves from the image of the late Wallace as having stood atop Mt. Empathy and cast down easily digestible little gems of wisdom and good living to the rest of us. Instead, I’m going to suggest we look at this book as a book of traps. While it covers a lot of ground – parts are set in a rehab facility, a tennis academy, suburbia rural Canada and a canyon outside Tucson – the novel centers around a film entitled Infinite Jest that’s so entertaining people who watch it won’t want to do anything else and view the film in a state of catatonia. That’s enough of a bind already, and the way Wallace shows the film creep through the lives of minor characters toward the story’s start is nicely creepy. But then Wallace gets rolling with the people around the film. So we get the story of its director, James O. Incandenza, who committed suicide before most of the novel’s events; his son Hal, a tennis prodigy ready to crack under the pressure to succeed; his frequent collaborator Joelle, so beautiful it becomes limiting for her; the group of Canadian terrorists who want to steal and weaponize the film; and honestly too many more characters to effectively name in a summary. To top all that off, Wallace’s near-future setting is a dystopian merger of the United States and Canada ruled by a clean-freak former lounge singer which runs on “subsidized time,” a system that allows corporations to buy and sponsor a year. So there’s an overarching trap to go with the smaller, more personal ones.
That’s a lot to take in, and in many ways Wallace traps the reader as well. He overwhelms you with facts, characters, a non-chronological presentation whose non-chronological condition isn’t easy at first to place, and the infamous hundred pages of endnotes that come after the near-thousand pages of story. The author himself claimed he received “five hundred thousand bits of discrete information daily, of which maybe twenty-five are important,” and that might strike you as his model for Infinite Jest until you realize that everything in this book, all five hundred thousand bits of discrete information, are key to understanding how it works. There’s a lot to take in here, and as usual, the question is why take it in? Wallace, luckily, has all sorts of strategies to keep you reading. One thing fans tend to note about this book, which might’ve led to his rather problematic and reductive reframing that I’ve discussed above, is that Wallace is a very moving writer. Which is one of the Infinite Jest clich├ęs, but it’s hard not to react to big chunks of this; several of the mini-episodes to the end, such as the story of one Mrs. Waite’s relationship to key character Don Gately and the sad tale of tennis prodigy Eric Clipperton (who has a great moment with Hal’s brother Mario) might be throat-lump moments for you, and the famous bit that recites facts you pick up in rehab is so marvelous I don’t think I could communicate it.
However, what interests me is how well Wallace draws you into his huge cast of characters, specifically how brilliantly he illustrates their traps. This is why I insist Infinite Jest is a book of traps, and why the fact that his characters are stuck is just as important to its method as his insistence that empathy is the way out. Toward the novel’s start, Wallace gets in all sorts of depth about a heavy pot smoker’s failed attempts to stop smoking, and with it his exhausting wait for a dealer to sell him what he swears is his last gram of weed. Wallace’s sentences are famous, or maybe infamous, for being long and dense, and he uses those sentences to his full advantage in this passage. In intense and stifling detail, he wrings out the smoker’s thought processes, surroundings, and raw fear. It’s a physically uncomfortable passage to read, and it becomes even harder when he dives into other characters’ paralyzing internal conflicts: Hal’s increasing pressure to succeed, Joelle’s overwhelming one to please those around her, and the fifty last pages where Don Gately is dragged through a hell I won’t describe for fear of spoilers. I’ve seen Wallace’s philosophical concerns dismissed as shallow occasionally, but his ability to put the reader into his characters’ troubled minds makes any question of philosophical originality beside the point in my mind. This ability also elevates him to the height of twentieth century prose stylists. For as verbose and occasionally bizarre as his constructions are, he knows exactly how to use them. You want to talk writing for effect, read Infinite Jest.
Plus he’s funny, and funny in a way that only a few writers can be, funny in a way that understands the intricacies of his characters. Most fans, me included, would count teenage drug dealer Michael Pemulis as one of the book’s most memorable characters, and it’s no wonder; the humor he grants that character, so smart and so manipulative and so potentially dangerous, allows Pemulis to walk the line between devoted prankster and small-time sociopath. Connected to his sense of humor is his eye for detail. For all the details that are in here, you’ll find a lot of them memorable: the jowls on adolescent tennis player Ortho “the Darkness” Stice, the tunnels underneath the tennis academy that house gigantic rodents, and the mind-bending rules of Eschaton, a tennis variant so complicated it isn’t fully described within the novel, are just a few examples of what this guy can do; I’d give you more (okay, so I can’t resist the lopsided birthday cake in the Mrs. Waite-Don Gately story, and Pemulis’ yachting cap, which he wears at a jaunty angle and which bounces up and down when he’s angry), but it’s better if you find them yourself. A lot to find in here, after all.
In fact, I’m going to propose to you that there’s a problem with looking at great novels, or really any other great work of art, in terms of how much it’ll change your life. Because you often do hear “life-changing” thrown around in discussion of Infinite Jest. This is fine in and of itself – art does strike the emotions like little else in this world, after all – but you can’t lose sight of the smaller picture, either. A great novel is composed of plenty of non-life changers as well as life-changers. A few well-placed details, a joke here and there, a cast of characters that for whatever reason sticks out. Or maybe a well-realized setting or a striking formal device. Bottom line is, maybe you shouldn’t come in expecting your life to change and expecting to learn how to become a perfectly empathetic person. Maybe you should come in looking for brilliantly crafted language, exquisite attention to detail, a great matchup of form and content, and characters that jump off the page and become entirely real. And humor, lots of humor to be found here. This is why it saddens me that Wallace has become reappropriated as a life coach almost wholesale; let’s stop for a moment and think about Wallace the writer and the things that made his fiction powerful as, well, fiction. So it won’t be a big deal to me if you love the End of the Tour. Just please promise me you’ll read Infinite Jest afterward.