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Infinite Jest–David Foster Wallace

David Foster WallaceNever have I posted an opinion of a work without having finished it. I break with that tradition today, as Infinite Jest found its way back into its dust jacket and onto the shelf. I left the bookmark in place, suggesting the hope that someday I will return to figure out what in the world Quebec separatists, a tennis prodigy, and a rehab clinic have to do with one another.

Weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages, Wallace’s most celebrated novel is a load. Still, Dickens, Dostoevski, and Grossman have wrought masterpieces of a similar length. Why should Wallace do otherwise? I recall Samuel Johnson saying that many books are worth reading but not nearly so many are worth finishing. In fairness, I would not relegate Infinite Jest to the latter category. I believe it to be worth finishing; I simply couldn’t pull off that task at present.

As admirable as we find Tolkien’s creation of an entire alternate world in Lord of the Rings, the world that Wallace crafts here is perhaps more remarkable. Rather than starting nearly from scratch, hanging on only to human nature, as Tolkien does, Wallace abstracts and exaggerates certain pronounced aspects of American culture from the present era. He creates a world just slightly beyond the believable, a bit too close to home to be utterly comic.

In the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment–the years in Foster’s world carry corporate sponsorships rather than years–we find a world dominated by sports, games, drugs, and entertainment. Written during heady years of plenty, Wallace extrapolates the curve of the future to envision a time when an American’s biggest problems would be trash elimination and amusing oneself.

The infinite jest of the title is ostensibly a video, created by the central character’s father, so entertaining that it destroys in the viewer all desires but to watch endlessly. However, there is a larger infinite jeft, the quest of the characters and their surrounding world for infinite entertainment.

We, of course, cannot see the title without thinking of Hamlet’s words about Yorick. Hamlet speaks of Yorick as a fellow of infinite jest while holding his skull and contemplating death. As a jester, Yorick provided infinite jest while also reminding the court of more serious matters. This is, to a large degree, what it seems that Wallace intends with his novel.

Perhaps in order to assuage my guilt over giving up on this book today, I have hatched another theory. The book itself is an infinite jest, a thousand-page joke played upon the reader. It is bulked up with long descriptions of absurdly complex games, tennis rankings, and AA processes. One is tempted to simply pass over these stretches, like the whaling chapters in Moby Dick, yet Foster’s prose is sufficiently compelling that, like the video of the title, the reader is drawn in. In the end, however, Infinite Jest is a seemingly endless jest–or joke–played upon the reader.

Honestly, I believe that may be the point. Perhaps it is not the point that Foster had in mind, but it is the point that I draw from the forty percent of the novel that I endured before quitting it cold turkey. Modern life, a life largely without real purpose, is a seemingly endless joke played upon us by the world. We amuse ourselves as best we can in the land of plenty. When tempted to pull ourselves away from the carnival of entertainment and consumption, most of us find the gravitational attraction too strong, falling back into a vaguely pleasant but ultimately pointless orbit. Like Yorick, we wind up in the grave.

From what 400 pages of this novel shows me, David Foster Wallace crafts a vision of a purposeless world in which the inhabitants attempt to find some sort of meaning or who medicate themselves to blot out that meaninglessness. Augustine would say that Wallace’s characters are seeking to fill their God-shaped hole.

While Wallace, despite his staggering talent, failed to find sufficient meaning in life to keep him from ending it, he has left us with a large fable for our age. Of course, I could be wrong. The last 600 pages could morph into a spy thriller, but I rather doubt it. The joke is on us, infinitely, if we try to find purpose in the conventional ways of the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment.

Posted in American Literature.

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