Ugh. This book. Where to begin? First off, its run-on sentences, paragraphs that are pages long, and chapters in which nothing much happens make it a chore to read. There are over a hundred pages of endnotes, so you have to keep flipping to the end of the book while you’re reading. Annoyingly, many of the endnotes didn’t need to be endnotes. The shorter ones could have been parenthetical statements, and the long ones should have just been chapters in their own right. If this wasn’t bad enough, several of the endnotes have footnotes of their own.
The book is way longer than it needs to be with extended descriptions of things like a building’s intake and exhaust fans. We get a firehose of extraneous information pointed at us. The author is a total drug nerd who loves showing off his encyclopedic knowledge of both recreational and prescription drugs, but it get repetitious. For example, the descriptions of pot use by Hal, Erdedy, and Kate Gombert are pretty similar. The book also feels like an advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous at times.
Some sections are dialogue only. The book is mainly written in third person, although it sometimes switches to first or second person narration for no discernable reason. While a couple of the viewpoint characters are women, we don’t spend much time with them compared with the men.
As a couple of his characters are strict grammarians, I must point out a minor grammatical error I noticed: SNAFU is an anagram, so it should be spelled with all caps, not lowercase as it appears in this book. Wallace uses a lot of obscure words for their own sake as well as several neologisms such as “polyesterishly.” Just to be cute, he does things like abbreviating et cetera as “and c.” rather than the more common etc. or even &c.
The worst thing about Infinite Jest is it doesn’t truly end, it just stops. When you get to the last page, the various plotlines and character arcs are left hanging without resolution. It’s like the author is playing a joke on the reader. Is that why he picked the title that he did? To be fair, the opening chapter takes place about a year after the end of the book, so you can get some resolution by rereading the first chapter, but there’s still several unanswered questions.
There’s one scene in which kids at the tennis academy are waiting to be chewed out by the headmaster. We get a long, drawn-out scene of the kids waiting outside his office, and when they finally get called in, the chapter ends. Although we do find out what their punishment is later on, we are never shown the scene inside the headmaster’s office. This is emblematic of the book as a whole, which also ends right when things are about to get interesting. You can get a vague sense of what happened, but you don’t get to actually see it. For a book that’s been described as maximalist, it sure leaves a lot out. Despite the hefty page count, I think a case could be made that this is actually a minimalist book. While it’s certainly maximalist in giving us lots of extraneous details and character thoughts, it’s minimalist in that most of the plot is left to the reader’s imagination.
I did like the opening scene of the book. In it, Hal Incadenza is being recruited to a college. There’s some great writing here such as: “My chest bumps like a dryer with shoes in it.” Hal remains silent as long as possible. When he finally speaks, the other people in the room hear awful sounds instead of what he’s actually saying. It’s a surreal scene.
There’s lots of literary, movie, and pop culture references throughout. Infinite Jest gets its title from Hamlet, but not much of its plot. The ghost of Hal’s father does appear towards the end of the book, but he appears to a stranger rather than to his son. Revenge really isn’t a theme and there’s no indication (except in fan theories) that his father was murdered.
There are three main characters in the novel whose stories intersect at various points. Hal Incadenza is a marijuana addict and top-ranked junior tennis player who attends a tennis academy founded by his now-dead father Jim. (I personally love tennis, but this book has too much tennis even for me.) His mother is on the staff and his disabled brother Mario is his roommate. He also has an older brother named Orin who is a professional punter for a football team. (Orin ends up becoming infatuated with journalist Helen Steeply, not aware that she’s actually a male spy in disguise.)
I think it’s safe to assume Hal is based on the author as David Foster Wallace was also a top-ranked junior tennis player and we know Hal’s mother is based on his mother. His descriptions of her often strike me as undeservedly critical. I mean, he criticizes her for being too kind to her children when she should have been meaner to them. He’s also critical of her for being a strict grammarian, although he’s obviously a strict grammarian himself.
Our second main character is Don Gately, a former burglar who lives at a house for drug and alcohol addicts. We get to know several other addicts who live in the house and sit in on several AA meetings. He says most addicts were sexually abused as children and we get a lot of disturbing stories from the various addicts about the various traumas that turned them into substance abusers. He also says most people who commit suicide are addicts.
There’s a section that distinguishes between different types of depression. Melancholy is simply a lack of joy, while clinical depression is full of active anguish and pain. He tells us suicide isn’t hopelessness, but more like jumping from a burning building. It’s sometimes the only way a truly depressed person can save themselves. (It’s worth noting that the author himself was an addict who spent time in AA and ended up committing suicide.)
Here’s a small except from the pages long list of things you can learn in a substance abuse recovery house: “That cockroaches can, up to a certain point, be lived with. That ‘acceptance’ is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else. That different people have radically different ideas of basic personal hygiene. That, perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it. […] That everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.”
Gately claims AA works. It undoubtedly works for some, however it doesn’t work for most people. It’s difficult to get precise statistics due to the anonymous nature of the program, but studies indicate it works for only about 10% of people. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is twice as successful as AA, so if you’re an addict seeking help, CBT seems to be the better choice.
This may not have been common knowledge when Infinite Jest was written, but due to his interest in drugs, I’m sure Wallace would have gotten a kick out of the fact that AA co-founder Bill Wilson thought the non-addictive drug LSD could help treat alcoholism. He thought it was a way to have a spiritual experience and meet the higher power mentioned in the 12-step program.
Our third major character is Marathe, a French-speaker from Canada. He’s part of a terrorist group of wheelchair assassins who fear nothing except hills. (Really David Foster Wallace? Really?) However, he’s secretly a quadruple agent. In the world of Infinite Jest, the United States, Canada, and Mexico have joined together into one nation called O.N.A.N. (whose symbol is a sombrero-wearing eagle with a maple leaf in its mouth). A third party, the US Clean Party, or CUSP, beats the GOP and Democrats. Their platform is based on germophobia and cleaning up waste. New England and Maine become toxic waste dumps and the US gives them away to Canada, but keeps using them for waste disposal. The wheelchair assassins therefore don’t like the U.S. very much. There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek anti-Canadian sentiment in this book that feels like actual prejudice at times. (For someone who was famously against irony, Wallace sure uses a lot of irony in this book.)
Joelle van Dyne (a.k.a. Madame Psychosis) is probably the most significant minor character. She used to be Orin’s lover and she appeared in many of the films Hal’s father made. She ends up in the addiction recovery house, and Marathe is searching for her, so she’s the knot that ties the three separate plot threads together. She’s a member of a group called the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed who wear veils to cover their faces. She also does a radio show that Mario likes to listen to.
The wheelchair assassins are trying to get their hands on a master copy of a video that causes people so much pleasure they can’t stop watching it until they die. The video is compared to a real life experiment in which mice can trigger the dopamine neurons in their brain by pressing a lever. In the experiment, the mice become addicted, pressing the lever over and over for hours without eating or drinking, and would die if not removed from the cage. So the central theme of the book is addiction and people choosing pleasure over living, although with a book this huge, there are of course several other themes throughout.
Since it takes place in the future, you could call this book science fiction. It was written in 1996, so the future the author imagines has no smart phones or streaming videos. Instead people watch laser discs sent through the mail by a company called InterLace (basically early Netflix). This business model drives cable out of business. Also, years are named after products. Most of the story takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (Wallace loves his scatological humor after all).
There’s one spot in which he predicts the future correctly (people prefer audio-only calls to the new video calls so they don’t have to worry about what they look like), but other than this, his predictions of the future fall flat. To be fair, this is a largely nonsensical novel and he wasn’t trying to accurately predict the future most of the time.
There’s a lot of rather unpleasant nastiness in the book. We’re told the gruesome results of trying to dry off a cat in the microwave. One character commits suicide by microwaving his head. There’s a really nasty description of someone going through heroin withdrawal. A character’s face gets ripped off at one point. There’s another scene in which a dog leashed to a car is dragged to its death. One character enjoys killing animals. There’s a lot of animal abuse and creepy incest throughout. What’s most disturbing is I think he’s trying to be funny at least some of the time.
The most offensive joke in the book takes place during an AA meeting when a woman is sharing a traumatic experience of childhood rape. I’m not sure if Wallace was trying to be funny or not by mentioning that the father has his victim wear a Raquel Welsh mask. The woman mentions that she’s part of a group for child-abuse survivors called Wounded, Hurting, Inadequately Nurtured but Ever-Recovering Survivors. Yep. That’s right, the acronym for child-abuse survivors is WHINERS. Wallace must have thought he was super clever for coming up with that one. To be fair, his point is that several people in AA have even worse stories (the abuse, after all, happened to her sister, not to her), so she shouldn’t complain or seek sympathy, but rather take responsibility for her own addictive behavior. The joke is still in poor taste.
While the book as a whole comes off as misanthropic, there were a few brief moments of levity. I liked the scene of interrogators switching to a higher-watt bulb to get their loquacious witness to cut to the chase already. There’s brief mention of a herd of feral hamsters. I love when Orin starts a phone call with Hal by saying, “This is the Enfield Raw Sewage Commission, and quite frankly we’ve had enough shit out of you.” There’s a game called Escaton played upon a tennis court in which the tennis balls represent nukes (The Decemberists recreate this in their music video for Calamity Song).
One of my favorite scenes is a flashback in which Hal’s father tries to convince him that he’s mute even though he obviously isn’t. It’s an amusing scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pynchon novel. We also get eccentric characters like a guru in the tennis academy weight room who licks the sweat off students in exchange for advice. I wish we got more off-beat humor like this throughout the book rather than the dark humor that generally pervades it.
At one point, Orin says professional football players are highly superstitious, which makes sense. When all players are at the top of their game, the only thing that separates winners from losers is chance, so of course this would lead to widespread superstition. I also quite liked the scene in which the ghost of Hal’s father visits Gately towards the end.
I liked this description of a football player and cheerleader falling in love: “A love communicated – across grassy expanses, against stadiums’ monovocal roar – entirely through stylized repetitive motions – his functional, hers celebratory – their respective little dances of devotion to the spectacle they were both – in their different roles – trying to make as entertaining as possible.”
So it’s not all bad, but you have to wade through a lot of nastiness to find the light-hearted moments. It’s well written, but too pessimistic for my tastes. I didn’t enjoy it that much, but it’s one of those rare books that I know will stick with me long after reading it.