Monday, May 02, 2011

Book Review - Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (Abacus 1997)

where to start..?

In this massive, magnificent study of addiction in contemporary America, it is entirely appropriate that the reader should be compelled to return again and again for fixes of hypnotic, hallucinogenic descriptions of a near-future society bifurcated into political, economic and social haves and have-nots, where broadcasting, sport, advertising and waste-disposal have evolved through their own inherent contradictions into bastardised versions of what they are today.

To attempt a plot summary is to do Wallace a gross disservice. Much of it takes place in the near future in the Enfield Tennis Academy, Boston, founded by alcoholic avant-garde film director James O. Incandenza. Nearby, in Ennet House for recovering addicts, Don Gately has taken the pledge to break away from prescription drugs. Meanwhile, the Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, wheelchair-bound fanatical Canadian nationalists are searching for the Master copy of Incandenza's film Infinite Jest, which is so transfixing that anyone who sets eyes on it will never take them off again, and finally expire in a state of neurasthenic bliss.

This is one of these big books that for the first hundred pages you think you've made a big mistake. The many plotlines have no apparent connection, radical concepts - such as the Organisation of North American Nations (Dorothy Parker's canary would have approved) - are unexplained. The novel careens backwards and forwards from plotline to backstory to digression and back - but slowly it comes together and you slip into the magnificent rythmns of Wallace's writing, mainly present tense, immediate, long, loopy, slangy sentences packed with idioms and idiosyncracies, footnotes and uncompromisingly difficult words.

Essentially, this is a novel about addiction and its impacts. J.O Incandenza was an alcoholic. His eldest son Orin is addicted to sex, his younger son Hal to Bob Hope (dope). All the residents of Ennet House are recovering addicts. The viewers of Infinite Jest become addicted to the film itself. Yet it is also a bleak vision of contemporary America. Those addicts of the future are being fucked up - to use Larkin's term - by their moms and dads today, way before the current calendrical system is given over to its sponsors.

Wallace may be likened to Pynchon in many ways, but his vision is bleaker. He itemises but does not glamorise drug use. His descriptions of life on Boston's underside is bleak and disturbing. Many characters come to deeply unpleasant ends as bodily functions break down as a result of their addictions, or of actions undertaken as a result of these addictions. Unlike Pynchon, Wallace's characters are not constantly pursued by figures of authority; in Wallace's Boston, the finest appear only incidentally. Only the A.F.R bear any resemblance to a Pynchoneque conspiracy nightmare. Wallace's characters are more likely to be pursued by demons entirely of their own making.

Don Gately is the most sympathetic character in the book - a recovering addict, but also a burglar and killer with an anger-management problem. He has come to terms with the impact of his addiction, and is now a trusted member of the Ennet House community. The kaleidoscope of characters at Ennet house give scope for sympathy, but most of them are too damaged and fragile for the reader to hold them close. Only Gately lets you get close enough to understand why he deserves redemption.
There are certain key events which stand out, where Wallace's descriptive powers and invention reach a crescendo. The game of Eschaton is one. To call Eschaton a mathematically enhanced game of Risk with tennis balls is to do it a grave injustice. Only Michael Pemulis knows the computer code which can calculate the impacts as the younger tennis players at ENA engage in the ultimate game of global strategy. As Hal, Pemulis and Axford get stoned, J.J. Penn claims that the snow falling on the tennis courts will impact the nuclear weapons he has at his disposal, thus unleashing a breathtaking chain of events which lead to the theoretical annihilation of all life on Earth, and carnage on the tennis courts, in a bravura extended section of writerly genius.

Wallace's satire is not overt. There are some but not many places where Infinite Jest is laugh-out-loud funny - it is too dark for that. The Assassins des Fauteuils Rollent - the Wheelchair Assassins of Quebec - are as sinister as any able-bodied terrorist organisation. The creation of the Great Concavity where all the USA's toxic waste is disposed is a satirical invention, but too close to the environmental catastrophes playing out today to be anything other than disturbing. There will be some marketing executive somewhere contemplating the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and thinking - what a great idea!

This is a massive book of vision and contrasts, of the finest writing and incomprehensible jargon, of brilliance and frustration. Its vision of the future picks at the scabs of America today. It warmly deserves the place in the literary Pantheon for which it is already destined.

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