The Resolution Project Book Forty-Seven: Infinite Jest (1996) – Part Three

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books / the resolution project

This is the third part of my review of Infinite Jest. Here‘s the first part, and here‘s the second part.

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.

Not kidding, so many SPOILERS below. Should you choose to read this book some day, don’t read this, as I’m going to be talking a lot about the last few hundred pages.

So, I finished it, in about two and a half weeks. It’s probably going to take a little longer for the enormity of the thing to set in. It was a lot easier of a read than I had expected it would be. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say that this, along with Blood Meridian, was a book I’d tried to read before, but set down, for a reason I cannot remember now. It is a challenging book that is incredibly readable, with only a few sections that were super difficult in that sense. There’s a fair amount of technical language, mostly regarding the science of optics, and there’s some math problems as well, but not as much as say, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, another gargantuan read.

I actually practiced up before reading Infinite Jest again. When I went to California for Comic-Con this year, I ended up buying three other books by Wallace, Consider the Lobster, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. You can see a lot of what was to become Infinite Jest in these books, particularly in Hideous Men, which is the one I liked the least. There’s a lot of formal experimentation in there that’s kind of exhausting to read, but when these techniques are applied sparingly in a larger (snicker) work like Infinite Jest, they worked better somehow. Things like second-person narration, examining a situation to death by looking at every single last variable, stuff like that. Sometimes I thought that Wallace had potentially been affected by what he himself termed “Marijuana Thinking”; i.e. a compulsive tendency towards explaining everything down to the last detail rather than getting on with the narrative. It’s the same thing that happens to Michael Douglas’ pothead professor in the excellent Wonder Boys, one of my favorite movies.

I really thought the baby imagery was interesting, particularly when Hal ends up going to an “Inner Infant” support group meeting, that was hilarious, especially when you know that Hal probably could use some therapy, just not that. It all ties in to Wallace’s mother/murderer theory, which is expounded to us supposedly through the medium of the Infinite Jest movie. I was sad that we never ended up going to the Concavity physically, but it probably works better as a metaphor for a decaying civilization, toxic relations between the U.S. and Canada, the death of history, any number of things. As a Canadian, I really appreciated that O.N.A.N., for all the stupidity and corruption that went into its creation, decided to be sensible and use the Metric system. Imperial measurements are stupid.

If the objective of Infinite Jest is, like James O. Incandenza’s eponymous film, to make an entertainment so fascinating that you just can’t help wanting to read it again, I think Wallace did an excellent job. While I was researching for this “review” last night, I ended up finding many different peoples’ interpretations of the ending, and what exactly is wrong with Hal Incandenza at the beginning of the book (Infinite Jest is set up fractally, so that the beginning comes after the end. The Invisibles, my favorite comic book of all time, did the same thing).

Then I started thinking about the Hamlet thing. As I mentioned before, Infinite Jest‘s Enfield Tennis Academy segments have an overarching story that resembles that of Shakespeare’s greatest play. Some of the comparisons are very obvious: Hal and his dead father stand in for Hamlet and his father; Charles “C.T.” Tavis and Avril Incandenza could be Claudius and Gertrude. But once you get past those main characters, it starts to get a bit murkier. The ghost/wraith of James Incandenza mentions the name LAERTES to Don Gately, a staffer at Ennet House, a rehab centre not far from the tennis academy, once he (Gately) has been hospitalized after an encounter with gun-wielding Quebecois. Gately as LAERTES doesn’t really make sense to me though, if anything, John Wayne, the silent Canadian tennis phenom and rival of Hal’s is Laertes. If Gately’s to be present when Hal unearths his father’s body (which he dreams about, and Hal mentions earlier/later on), he’s got to be Horatio, right? He certainly gets a lot of things explained to him, like Horatio.

Hamlet and Yorick

I don’t think that James Incandenza’s really the old king anyway. Hamlet and Horatio go to the graveyard to view Ophelia’s funeral, and end up disinterring Yorick, the man of “infinite jest”. Which makes a lot more sense to me. It is revealed through academic criticism and Hal’s own thoughts that all James wanted to do was entertain people. Early on in his career, he’d focused mostly on the optics in his films, treating them as an excuse to make cooler lenses for his cameras. The eponymous Infinite Jest film has as its aim to make his son, who he believed to be mute at this point due to his not speaking very often (his (Incandenza’s) being an alcoholic probably exacerbating this as well), come out of his shell by being so entertaining he had no choice but to react. In doing so, he creates a monster, but that’s besides the point.

You could almost talk about this book forever (see above), but I have to call it quits. If you think you’re up to the challenge, give it a shot. It’s not as terrifying as it looks from the outside, yet it is more soul-searing than you could possibly believe.

Who would I recommend this book to? People who are into really, really in depth worlds created by writers. People with an interest in potential future Canadian-American relations. People who have a lot of patience.

Total pages read since January 1st: 10684 pp.

Total books on the Time 100 list read since January 1st (not including ones read before 2011): 26

Next up on the Resolution Project: Call It Sleep by Henry Roth (1935)

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

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