Monday, December 26, 2016

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

After years of thinking about doing so, I read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. After starting it, my immediate strong impression was that he was unbelievably intelligent. The book is chock full of words I've never heard of, and loaded with detailed descriptions of drugs and other things (even mathematical equations) that are absurdly minute.* It goes all over the place, but the main settings are a halfway house and a tennis academy, situated near each other in the Boston area.

My other immediate impression was that he was incredibly funny. Laugh out loud funny, even, as he probes every kind of character you can think of, from the president to a junkie. Yet that goes side by side with occasionally really twisted narrative about human beings abusing each other and themselves. Then they get mixed, like someone committing suicide by putting their head in a microwave oven. But as they say, I digress.

It's a book about addiction, but substances vary. There is the traditional cocaine-type, but the book's title revolves around entertainment (called Infinite Jest) that's so pleasure-inducing that you can't tear yourself away and so you just die. It's so powerful that terrorists (Canadians, actually!) want to get hold of it. The theme is that people are too willing to avoid "real" life in favor of easily digestible mind-altering substances that actually ruin your life. Overall, it's not an optimistic view of the human condition.

One of the most compelling parts for me was the almost anthropological details of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It sounds cliche, but he puts you right there, from constantly shifting, but clear characters. I will probably think about this book anytime the topic of addiction comes up. Really, the book is anthropology. He can describe everything, and put you everywhere, a street-smart intellectual.

But let's face it, it's a hard book to read. Of course, to start with it is over 1,000 pages. There is no plot, he jumps around in time, there are extensive endnotes at the back, which sometimes just meander, and sometimes it's hard even to know what's going on. You really have to want to read it. You won't forget it if you do.

* No, I don't mean putting in an endnote as a pun because of the heavily endnoted novel, but I wanted to point out there is an Infinite Jest Wiki, which deconstructs it page by page.


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