I have been meaning to write about this all week. In the end it took a pensive mood and an evening alone to get it done, but that seems appropriate.
“It changed my life”. Hard for it to not sound like a sales pitch. But as I lay that claim, let it be clear that I feel older and sadder – as much clueless as wise, depressed as inspired – for having read the brilliant, baffling Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. You may doubt your interest in learning at modest length how exactly an individual book wrought such change upon me. That is fine – let me only promise to conclude by explaining why I feel such a blog post is worthy of a reader’s time.
I don’t read many novels these days. On account – I like to think – of my furious film-viewing schedule, I can recall completing only two novels in 2011, before I began to read Infinite Jest. My impulses to attempt such an endeavour stemmed from three or four friends – you know who you are – who have been passionate advocates of either the novel or the author. And endeavour is an apposite noun for a book this gargantuan. 1079 pages, the last 96 of which consist of 388 footnotes, many of which run for five pages or more – and have their own footnotes.
The novel is set in a satirised America of the near future, in which Canada, Mexico and the US are grouped as the Organisation of North American Nations, with Quebec the rebel separatist state. Years are no longer named by number, but sponsored by corporations, i.e. Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar. The plot gradually centres around two adjacent institutions – a junior tennis academy and a drug addicts recovery house. But plot is a largely obsolete word in a novel which spreads its endless tentacles in so many directions.
The quick-to-judge will suspect the footnote device as pretentious, but in fact it emerges an essential and ingenious part of disrupting and interlacing the myriad threads that the narrative encompasses. To give one example, we are closely following the antics of a wheelchair-bound Quebecois terrorist when he recalls a childhood memory that refers us to a footnote – number 45 to be precise. But when looked up, footnote 45 refers us forward to footnote 308, which is presumably referenced far ahead in the narrative. Footnote 308 relates the attempt of a teenage tennis academy pupil to plagiarise a badly written academic essay on the subject of the childhood game (of the life-or-death, jumping-across-traintracks variety) that the Quebecois terrorist is recalling. So rather than simply narrate the childhood event, or filter it through the terrorist’s memory, it is not only filtered through the poor academic prose of the essay, but then again by the tennis academy pupil as he attempts to comprehend, analyse and plagiarise by altering words and phrases of the text. To put it simply, at the very moment that an event resonates for a particular character, we learn nothing of his perspective on the matter, but instead two other entirely unexpected perspectives, before being thrust back into the protagonist’s narrative (who, incidentally, is conducting a secret meeting in drag in the desert).
I could go on… and on and on. When you consider that this is merely the content of a few pages in a book containing 1079, the scale of the project starts to become clear. But if all this sounds like high-minded jiggery-pokery, then know that the novel is utterly concerned with emotion and infused with an intensely felt humanity.
And that is what makes its endless invention so astonishing – and why I feel moved to write this post. To wrestle with the infinite wonder and sadness of human existence so hard, and so long – what a feat. I’m lost for any other response than a witness’s rapt recounting of his experience. Infinite Jest made me aware of how infrequently I come across what I would consider true artistic genius – a work that is the product of a mind greater than mine ever will be – which made the attempt to fit it into my own brain bewildering, overwhelming and incredibly satisfying.
That the author killed himself four years ago at the age of 46 makes everything a dozen times sadder. Which is why I consider it the least – I hope not the most – that I can do in response to memorialise my experience as a reader and instant advocate of the book. All credit here must go to the friends who originally enthused to me. Consider this my grateful extension of that evangelism.
So, yes, read this book when you have the time (and I would suggest finding a weekend or holiday to navigate the first hundred pages or so). If that is not immediately feasible, let it suffice for me to share what I found to be one of the most beautiful passages of the book. It begins as a flagging tennis junior recalling a sporting philosophy he once heard from an elder. But, as with all great art, the sentiment is quite evidently universal:
“The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion. Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic exercise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again”.