Friday, December 2, 2016

Door Stop: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

For the life of me, I cannot remember what it was exactly that compelled me to pick up Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Sure, I had heard of it, and knew of it as one of those incredibly long books that people like to say they have read, even when they haven't. But I don't know what actually made be begin searching the shelves at Half Price Books for it, before finally buying the 20th anniversary edition pictured here off of Amazon. Whatever the case may be, I have read it. It took me forever, but I read it.

The Situation: Hal Incandenza is the youngest son of James and Avril Incandenza. James founded the elite Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA) in Boston, Massachusetts that Hal now attends and trains at in hopes of becoming a world-class tennis player. Though Hal's older brother, Mario, does not technically attend ETA, he does live there, and he and Hal share a room. And while James committed suicide back in the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, Avril continues to assist in running ETA, along with her adoptive brother Charles Tavis. On the other side of the hill, at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery, Don Gately does his best to keep the halfway house running safely and smoothly, while also staying clean and sober. The two extremely different worlds are linked in various ways, but mainly through  a woman named Joelle Van Dyne, a former girlfriend of Hal's oldest brother, Orin, who finds herself at Ennet after a suicide attempt.

The Problem: Though Hal is a fantastic tennis player and incredibly smart, he suffers from severe insecurity, and loves few things more than he going down into the tunnels below Enfield to smoke marijuana in private. His insecurity is so bad that he seems to nearly fall apart after he is almost beaten in a tennis match by one of his close friends. Hal's problems could stem from marijuana; or the pressures of ETA and to be a great tennis player; or his father's suicide; or even his mother's strange behavior, as she has become increasingly agoraphobic since her husband's suicide. At Ennet, Don has his hands full trying to maintain order as well as stay clean, especially after one resident decides to supplement his addictive urges by killing small animals and pets belonging to neighborhood residents. Meanwhile, there is a third main story line where a group of radicals are attempting to commit an act of terrorism by finding and distributing a film that is apparently so addictive, that viewers want to do nothing else but watch it once they see it. And because this film was made by James Incandenza before his death, this group begins to seek out those closest to him as they look for the master copy.

Genre, Themes, History: Because this book is nearly 1000 pages of tightly packed prose, and also contains close to 400 endnotes, it has been categorized as an encyclopedic novel, which of course leads me to simply label it as a door stop. It was published in 1996, but is set in the future. In this future that Wallace has imagined, not only has the U.S., Mexico, and Canada merged to become the Organization of North American Nations, but each year is subsidized by a corporate sponsor, hence the aforementioned Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar. Most of the action seems to take place during the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, which we can only guess to be around 2009. Even without the crazy state the world is in (or at least North America), Wallace gives us characters that fit that space nicely. At first glance, the Incandenza family is not perfect - given James' suicide and Mario's disabilities - but they are stable. All it takes is a closer look at each member and how they interact with each other to realize that this may be one of the most dysfunctional families ever put on paper. At one point, Joelle remembers a dinner she attended at the Incandenza's when James was still alive. While the meal went off without a hitch and everyone was perfectly nice to her, she could tell that something was not right, and that Avril was just controlling enough for everything to look okay, but too controlling for it to actually be okay. And all of this is without the addicts living at Ennet, and the separatists wanting to commit a terrorist act. The title of Infinite Jest refers to the film the terrorist are looking for, created by James and starring Joelle. The novel deals with family, addiction, recovery, suicide, entertainment, and even tennis, as each character just tries to be 'okay,' and struggling immensely only to not pull it off.

My Verdict: More than once I have mentioned how hard Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is to read despite actually being fairly short. Well for me, Infinite Jest has the exact same problem, only it is incredibly long. As a whole, it was okay, with certain parts of it being amazing, and other parts being meh, and still other parts being quite boring. It is regarded by many as a masterpiece, and I easily understand why. What Wallace has done is no small thing, and it is what many try to do but fail to due to lack of execution, talent, or even patience. Wallace goes for broke, and it pays off. And the way he links the different story lines together does not at all feel cheap or easy or convenient. I recommend this book, but only if you have the time, and the desire to take the time, to read something that cannot be knocked out over a few days by the beach, or at a coffee shop. This book is an investment, and it should be approached as such.

Favorite Moment: As macabre, and somewhat gross, as it may be, I enjoyed Hal's description of the moment when he came home and found that his father had stuck his own head in the microwave and turned it on.

Favorite Character: Sometimes this is hard when pretty much every character is an absolute mess. Hal would be the easiest choice I guess, but instead I will pick Don Gately. After a life of hard drugs and hard living, Don has finally gotten clean through Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and now works for Ennet house in several different capacities. He still has his demons, and the other residents give him plenty of grief, but overall he is a decent guy trying to get his life together.  

Recommended Reading: If you want another door stop (although I seriously recommend going for something light after this one), I say go for The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. It also focuses on one main character, but has several side stories that connect to the main story line. For something lighter (as in shorter) that also offers an interesting view of the future, I recommend Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

No comments: