A sober living house, a tennis academy, and a futuristic nation fixated on entertainment cartridges. With a deft eye and scathingly black comedic tone, David Foster Wallace has woven a narrative that spans not only over a thousand pages, but also more than a dozen tortured and ultimately unforgettable souls. This is Infinite Jest.
A Gargantuan Plot
Infinite Jest is a novel whose mammath scope actually does justice to its vast network of subplots. Hal Incandenza and his brother, Mario, reside at Enfield Tennis Academy (E.T.A). Their NFL superstar brother, Orin Incandenza, is a complete womanizer who is always trying to impart pearls of wisdom to his younger brothers. The three siblings are shepherded by their wiry and wound-up mother, Avril, who struggles with her neurosis while also running E.T.A. As the Incandenzas try to surmount the horrific suicide of father/husband James O. Incandenza, they swerve in and out of each other’s lives with reckless and often tragic abandon.
On a more national level, a largely covert war is brewing between a now-irradiated Quebec and The Organization of North American Nations (Wallace has a field day with acronyms throughout this sprawling tale). The O.N.A.N. president, a bumbling germaphobe and ex-lounge singer, sells off each North American calendar year to wealthy corporations, so that each is named after a famous product or household staple (e.g., the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment).
There is also a ruthless band of wheelchair assassins from Quebec known as Les Assassins des Fauteuils Roulents, or the A.F.R. Their objective? To interrogate those who have encountered the holy grail of media known only as The Entertainment and capture the master copy. These Quebecois operatives, often hidden in plain sight to great comedic effect, engage in both reconnaissance and grisly murders. At one point, they make a simple broom become an object of utter terror.
Then we have Ennet House, where dozens of recovering addicts are trying to mend their lives while juggling rehab, detox, and unrelenting socioeconomic oppression. They are watched over by one Don Gately, a former Demerol addict whose recovery and romantic snafus leave him feeling constantly untethered. Not to mention his fellow residents, Kate Gompert and Ken Erdedy, are struggling to keep their lives from unspooling. However, astute readers may realize that Don’s past is bleeding into the narrative present. Don is actually holed up in a hospital recovering from a gunshot wound he suffered after a skirmish with burly Canadians goes terribly wrong.
Still with me? Good!
This Tragic Panoply of Characters
Wallace explores the post-modern perfectionism of aspiring young adult athletes and their helicopter parents with a wicked sense of self-awareness. Hal is reminiscent of Bart Simpson, but with a way more profound sense of existential dread. The poor kid has a nervous breakdown before a room full of university Deans in the first chapter, for cryin’ out loud. Not to mention that Hal’s father killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave (“the howling fantods,” indeed).
Meanwhile, dwarf-like Mario is easily the most innocent and inquisitive of the Incandenzas; he spends much of his time at Enfield Tennis Academy with a camera strapped to his overgrown head, recording the daily debacles of Hal’s fellow tennis peers. It’s an academy full of half-pubescent teens, so of course many of them are fixated on their “substances” of choice, their tennis rankings, sex, or some combination therein. It’s refreshing to get Mario’s genuine take on the competitive world of tennis around him, as well as his family’s truly dysfunctional nature.
There are also M. Hugh Steeply and Remy Marathe, two covert operatives working on opposite sides of the U.S.O.U.S. Both men stand on an outcropping overlooking Tucson, Arizona, mulling over their warring nation’s obsession with The Entertainment. This one-of-a-kind entertainment cartridge was filmed by none other than James O. Incandenza, whose fascination with film and pain left an indelible impression on his family long after his abrupt suicide. Just when the dark and twisted imagery becomes almost unbearable, M. Hugh Steeply decides to go undercover and cross-dress, identifying as Helen Steeply during his interviews with Hal about his late father’s magnum opus. All in the name of The Entertainment!
“In the Show they’ll get all they want of being made into statues to be looked at and poked at and discussed, and then some. For now they’re here to get to be the ones who look and see and forget getting looked at, for now.”
“But even you call it ‘The Show.’ They’ll be entertainers.”
“You bet your ass they will be.”-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (p. 661)
Themes without Boundaries
Themes run rampant throughout Infinite Jest, but it’s clear that Wallace is always in control. For a book with over a thousand pages, nearly a hundred of which are extended endnotes, there is a calmly self-assured and nihilistic tone that is present throughout. I was struck most by how fluidly he jumps between addiction, suicide, and the self-aggrandizing attitude of professional athletes in the making. There’s also the statement on the nature of mental treatment and how we can become more fixated on the cure than the process of healing. This is writing by a soul well versed in both unbridled joy and depthless self-torture. May Wallace rest in peace.
As for the disjointed timeline, I found that my best remedy was sticky notes — and plenty of them, too. Wallace perfectly captures the lucid nature of a drug-induced fever dream, bringing readers closer to the painful pangs of addiction without pulling a single punch. There’s a reason Infinite Jest has been so revered across plenty of literary circles for the past 22 years. Human suffering and longing for social connection are the crux of this mind-bending odyssey. Whereas House of Leaves is a maze when it comes to syntax, Infinite Jest explores the labryinth of the soul. From Hal’s own insecurities, to his mother’s desperate attempts to shield him from the horrors of the world, every level of self-deprecation and rock-bottom are fully realized within these pages.
With an emotional wallop and complex web of narrative threads, Infinite Jest is perhaps one of the few literary works that is built to leave an impression on whoever reads it. Whether your demons are primarily drug- or family-induced, there is no doubt that this book will wring you out and leave you breathless. It’s a hard and sobering look at what it means to be truly fixated on entertainment and personal achievement — and how we ultimately lose sight of ourselves in our desperate search for outside affirmations.
🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 out of 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟