Short Version: you really ought to read it.
Long Version: I’m having a hard time approaching Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page paperweight. I put such a high premium on style that Wallace’s deliberate rejection of it tempts me to write the whole project off. And when you conflate voices in the way that Wallace does, you obscure the art behind it. The difference between a character onstage struggling for words and the actor struggling to remember his lines is a tough one. Similarly, when Wallace jumps from arch phrasing to the conversational (“And but so …”), I can’t tell whether that’s deliberate genius or just sloppy craft.
Infinite Jest is one thousand pages long. While not every word in there is necessary, this doesn’t mean that any of them are wasted. Wallace stacks words on top of each other like impressionist brushstrokes, until you forget the nightmare of pastel blobs and see a compelling picture. The end result is what every novelist in the 20th century was aiming at: a real world encapsulated in a book. Wallace creates a world full of oddball characters, but they are odd in such real ways that you forget that they’re fictitious. Everything about the novel makes sense – which, considering it takes place in a not-too-distant future with HDTVs on every wall, movies distributed by mail and online network and a calendar of corporate sponsors, is no mean feat.1
Infinite Jest is a novel about Enfield, MA (a thinly fictionalized version of the town of Brighton). It’s a tale of two cities: the Enfield Tennis Academy, home of the teenaged tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza; and Ennet House, a halfway house for addicts with criminal backgrounds, home of big Don Gately. Hal and the rest of his family live under the constant shadow of his dead father, James Incandenza, director of cult films and contributing inventor to the process of annular fusion. Don wrestles not only with his own addiction, but his struggles to understand the methodology of AA and his duties (as resident staff) to keep the other addicts in line. Into this fragile world surfaces “The Entertainment” – a short film so lethally addictive that, once watching it, you cannot want anything other than to watch it again.
Infinite Jest is about the ways that people screw themselves up in the pursuit of happiness. The beginning half of the novel lays this theme out bluntly, like the conversations in the Book of Job: a U.S. intelligence agent (dressed as a woman) and a Canadian assassin (confined to a wheelchair) talk about their respective countries while the sun sets, and then rises again, over Tucson, AZ. The Canadian observes that in a country which rewards gratification as much as the U.S. does, “The Entertainment” cannot be stopped. The American makes the point that the austere life the Canadian leads has no point to it: what is the community to him, or he to the community? This same debate, about the addiction of pleasure vs. self-abnegating authority, plays out in every segment of the book: in the struggles of competitive high school tennis; in the bizarre euphemisms of AA; in depression that renders the inside of your head intolerable; in a boy rendered mute by the inward focus of his gaze.2
Infinite Jest is one of two novels that’s required reading if you want to understand the 90s, the other being Cryptonomicon. Cryptonomicon is the 90s looking forward: how the technologies of the future would be shaped by, and would help us overcome, the biases of the past. Infinite Jest is the 90s looking backward: how the quest for status and the pleasures of intoxicants never satisfied our search for meaning. Both books are long, full of irony and poignancy and long tangential asides. But they’re both essential reads. Even if you lived through the 90s.
1 In fact, the novel seems so real that only two things struck me as implausible in the entire book: people who are so addicted to marijuana that it renders them unable to leave the house, and a Colt revolver with a safety on it.
2 Oh, and P.S., fuck you, David Foster Wallace, for writing so poignantly about what goes on in the head of a suicide and then killing yourself. Fuck you. You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to stand on the rooftop and utter your cry for help, wait until the trauma counselor’s up there on the ledge with you, talk with her until the news cycle’s forgotten you, and then jump anyway. That’s not allowed. Go fuck yourself, David Foster Wallace. Fuck you and I mean it.