“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.” (p. 54)
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.
This is going to go a little differently than my normal book reviews. Since Infinite Jest is so big (not to mention so amazingly good), I’m going to split my posts about the book up into 4, maybe 5 rather than one big one. Also, since I’m only about a third done (again, there is a lot of stuff going on in this book that I’ll probably only really have a handle on by the end), this post’ll be more like stray observations concerning the text rather than any sort of grand review.
Infinite Jest is a chronicle of the near future, where individual years have been subsidized by the O.N.A.N. (Organization of North American Nations, i.e. the United States and Canada, most likely Mexico) to raise money. So instead of say, 2011, you get something like “The Year of the Whopper”, or “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”, which most of the book takes place during, called Y.D.A.U. for short. Surprisingly, this doesn’t get old, and it’s pretty funny actually to see how, say, academic writing deals with the shift in years. There’s a fair amount of academic papers strewn throughout the book. The story mostly takes place around the Boston area, with some excursions (so far) to Tucson, Arizona. It looks at the lives of young men and women training at E.T.A., the Enfield Tennis Academy, an elite tennis/hard science prep school, and it also looks at recovering Substance-abusers at the Ennet House and Alcohol Recovery House (sic.), which is just down the hill. Some important people are: Hal Incandenza, a tennis prodigy and habitual marijuana smoker; Remy Marathe, a potentially treasonous member of Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, a hard-core Quebecois separatist group whose gimmick is that they all use wheelchairs to get around; Don Gately, a worker at the Ennet House with a history of breaking and entering. There’s a ton of people in the book, that’s only a few of them.
- One of the main themes that links the groups of people whose lives are attached to either building is the condition of being overly interested in oneself and not so much the world around you (there’s a pretty good reason why North America is now called O.N.A.N.). The lives of the young tennis prodigies revolve around tournaments and grueling training regimes, while the drug abusers down the hill are primarily concerned with taking stock of their personal inventory and trying to beat the disease that has gotten its clutches into them. One of the best examples of the solipsism that has taken over the future, not to mention one of funniest parts of the book so far, is an examination of the societal impact of videophones on O.N.A.N.ian culture. Wallace takes us through the history of videophony, the machine being hooked up to your TV and computer as part of one entity called a “TP”, or teleputer. He shows us how human vanity gets out of hand when it comes to the videophone, starting with masks users can wear instead of maintaining their faces at all times, then whole body cutouts you can stand behind, the whole thing culminating in little dioramas that fit over the TP camera, giving the illusion of a lovely house with beautiful people in it. Finally most discerning users just turn the video part off, but some less discerning types still use the dioramas (and are looked down on for it).
- There must have been a zeitgeist thing going on in the early nineties where authors were starting to become concerned with the idea of “entertainment-as-weapon.” Fellow Time 100 List book Snow Crash (1992) takes its name from a computer virus/designer drug that makes people into zombies and has the potential to be an Omega-level species ending event, while Theodore Roszak’s excellent Flicker (1991) deals with the dissemination into the mainstream of the works of an obscure German filmmaker whose overpowering nihilism makes people check out of life. “The Entertainment” that James Incandenza produced as his last filmed work must have come out of this idea, D.F.W. is such a smart guy that I’m sure he’d read or at least heard of these two books as he worked on Infinite Jest. The twist Wallace throws in the mix is that the Assassins des Faulteuils Roulents are basically using it as a way to distinguish themselves from their hated O.N.A.N. enemy, as these proud Quebecois apparently have so much more to live for than your average American, who’ll choose to spend their whole lives in pursuit of frivolity and mindless entertainment. Quoth Marathe speaking to his handler from the O.N.A.N. Office of Unspecified Services, M. Hugh Steeply:
“For your walled-up country, always to shout ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from restrain and forced duress.” (p.320)
In other words, O.N.A.N.ites deserve to get turned into zombies by the “Entertainment”, as it is the ultimate expression of how they choose to waste their precious freedom by sitting around doing nothing. It’s a shame, though, that Wallace didn’t live long enough to see what I believe is the real entertainment that could doom us all, cat videos on Youtube. Celebrate the end of the world with me, won’t you?
- I’m glad to see that James Incandenza’s dad shares my opinion of golf: “Golf. A golf man. Is my tone communicating the contempt? Billiards on a big table, Jim. A bodiless game of spasmodic flailing and flying sod. A quote unquote sport. Anal rage and checkered berets.” (p. 163). I’m surprised to see how much I’m enjoying learning about tennis, though.
- I’m also learning a lot about doing drugs. So far my favorite drug-related conversation comes when Pemulis, a student at E.T.A. comes across an incredibly dangerous hallucinogenic named DMZ. The description made me laugh out loud at work: ”One monograph had this toss-off about DMZ where the guy invites you to envision acid that has itself dropped acid.” (p. 214). A love of pharmaceuticals is another thing that the E.T.A. sequences share with the rest of the book. For all of the difficulty I had getting through the unblinkingly difficult to parse Ebonics in the second Poor Tony and C sequence, which starts on page 128, (I had to read it out loud to Lady E., because my brain was getting tired every few lines, note not sentences, lines, it’s basically one long run-off sentence, so thanks to her for helping me through that rough patch) it really laid the groundwork for what daily life would be like as a junkie. They say that great books, the truly great ones, teach you how to read them as you go. This is especially true, I believe, for Infinite Jest. Where something like this sequence could have just been an anecdote to provide “local colour” in a more disconnected work like The Berlin Stories or The Golden Notebook, there is a huge payoff from the sad story of the cross-dressing junkies. Through them, you learn about the Boston Common drug ecology, who’s selling what and where, and you also get a necessary counterpoint to the relatively benign drug habits someone like Hal Incandenza (one-hitters) or Michael Pemulis (‘drines) has. It shows you what’s at stake.
- The saga of Joelle van Dyne, the Prettiest Girl of All Time, is probably the most emotionally affecting thing I’ve read so far, with the potential mention of every time Mario Incandenza shows up. It, along with the basic fact that, yes, this is sort of like Hamlet at a tennis academy, what with the stepfather moving in with Hal and Mario’s mom before their father’s body’s really even cooled, is the most tragic story in the book. I think the first time I tried to read Infinite Jest I must have given up somewhere around her suicide attempt, as it is one of the most difficult and heart-wrenching pieces I’ve ever read. That, coupled with the fact that she’s sort of a non-entity at this point and it is only later that we find out where she fits in with the Incandenza family saga made it very hard to read it was so sad. If I had to compare it to something for a non-reader to understand, I’d say it’s sort of like if Gaspar Noe’s film Enter the Void was condensed down into about thirty pages of sheer desperation. People who’ve seen the movie can chuckle now, as they know it could probably have used some judicious editing, but the situation is very similar in both works; a junkie remembers their entire life in the moments leading up to their imminent demise. Here’s the opening credits for that movie, as they’re sort of amazing. Listen to them really loudly, in a darkened room if at all possible:
I’ll have more on Infinite Jest next week. Here’s a quote.
“Certain far-right fringes in Alberta weren’t too pleased, but not much pleases an Albertan far-rightist anyway.” (p. 311).
I wish this wasn’t so true, and that there weren’t so many of them around in real life.
For the second part of my review of Infinite Jest, go here. For the third part, go here.