“You have a chance to occur…To make for you this second world that is always the same: with always a purpose to keep this world alive.” So says a wise old tennis instructor. The key to understanding David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece is the concept of human agency: the gift of choice, and how, if you abdicate your responsibility to choose, “if you just love, without deciding, if you just do…Then in such a case your temple is self and sentiment. Then in such an instance you are a fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self’s sentiments. You become a citizen of nothing. You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself.” Addiction (the big theme of this book) is a way of hiding from real life.
In a dystopian America of the near-future, Infinite Jest is a movie so mind-blowing that watching it will obliterate your every reason to live. Paraplegic Canadian terrorists and the sinister (able-bodied) Office of Unspecified Services are each desperate to get hold of the film, and the boring bits of this book are dedicated to their struggle. The interesting parts of the book are about Hal Incandenza; teenage tennis prodigy, eidetic etymologist, lost soul, pot addict… Hal is the son of the man who made Infinite Jest. He is the book’s “hero of re-action”; by the end he will become “a hero of non-action, a catatonic hero”. The book’s other protagonist, Don Gately (a.k.a., the Big Indestructible Moron), is a man who acts heroically.
There’s a joke about fish about half way into the book. “This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’ and swim away.” The joke being: even water doesn’t occur to some fish. They have yet to “learn to do nothing, with your whole head and body, [so that] everything will be done by what’s around you.” As in all his work, David Foster Wallace impels his readers to be philosophically engaged. This is a book of immense ideas, impeccable erudition, awesome vocabulary and every other virtue of intellect. Fortunately for us mortals, it also has heart.
No major character in this book is without pain. Compassion for the fucked-up is boundless. While academics and know-it-alls may wet themselves at the prospect of deciphering the writing; David Foster Wallace didn’t write this book to play word games. I know this because the best parts of this book are not clever, or esoteric, or post-modern; the best parts are “unslanted, unfortified, and maximally unironic.” As Hal’s brother Mario puts it: “It’s like there’s some rule the real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes of laughs in a way that isn’t happy.” Don’t be fooled by anyone who tells you Infinite Jest should be read as irony. There are real things at stake in this book. The cartwheeling, hyperbolic prose is not just show-off trick designed to poke fun at literary convention; it’s a means of “fracturing reality” in a way that’s authentic to Dave Wallace.
Depression is the book’s nemesis, not a “blue kind of peaceful state”, but real depression, “more like horror than sadness…lurid, that’s the right word for it, like every sound you hear has teeth.” Depressed characters long to be dead, to feel nothing, to turn their hearts to ash. Hal Incandenza exists in a medicated haze. Hal’s dad committed suicide. Don Gately is haunted by “the wraith” of Hal’s father, who confesses that he created Infinite Jest in a bid to prevent his son’s “fall into solipsism… death in life.” Kate Gompert (a recovering addict at the halfway house where Don works) calls it: “a nausea of the soul…lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed…a hell for one.” No prison was ever so pernicious, or harder to escape.
This book, too, makes some people break out in a cold sweat. It’s 1,000 pages long. It has about a thousand characters. It’s not written in chronological order. Nothing is resolved at the end. But all these things are part of a grand scheme, and Dave Wallace isn’t without a self-deprecating sense of humour. Joelle Van Dyne (one of the more perceptive characters in the book) criticises Hal’s father’s work for having “no real story” and for coming across to others “more like a very smart person conversing with himself.” This is how many readers react to Infinite Jest. I’m certain, though, that this book is true. You should react with a jolt. Any supreme act of concentration needs time and effort to “leap over the wall of self”.