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A Supposedly Uncomfortable Book I’m Glad I Read

A review of the book Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Before I tucked into the book, lo many months ago, I read its Foreward. This isn’t a given for me, but I couldn’t resist this one. It was written by Dave Eggers, a writer I’ve greatly enjoyed. It was also describing a book that:

  1.  I knew nearly nothing about
  2. Was a real horse-choker
  3. Had no impending plans for a Major Motion Picture, if you get my drift

This was literature. I feared my goose was cooked.

David Foster WallaceThe forward didn’t reassure me. Hey, are you reassured when your physician tells you a procedure might be “uncomfortable?” Yeah, like that. The foreward did reveal that the author liked people to call him Dave Wallace instead of his full, formal mouthful. But who was Eggers kidding? He used this note of endearment the way reporters quote neighbors of mass murders (“He was always so nice and polite”).

Was I going to be “Dave” Wallace’s next victim?

Only after I finished reading the book, as I did a few weeks ago, did I reread and fully appreciate that foreward. Suddenly these far-from-reassuring descriptions of author and work made sense. Eggers talked with optimism about  those readers who not only read middlebrow fare, but can boldly veer to the extremes, reading Elmore Leonard one day and Thomas Pynchon the next.

If you’re that type of reader – and I guess I am – you may find this book as ultimately rewarding as I did, and should read on. You, like me, may finish the book, reread Eggers’ words, and cry out: “Damn, he nailed it.” (Okay, there was no crying out. But I thought that sentiment quite loudly.)

I’ll resist the urge and not quote any choice Eggersisms until the end. Instead, in this review you’ll get the thoughts of a mostly self-educated fiction veerer who suddenly found himself well onto one shoulder.

This is the book by numbers:

  • Pages: 1,097
  • 100 are devoted to a total of 388, 6-point-type-sized, footnotes. Yes, footnotes.
  • Many of these footnotes have, themselves, been footnoted. That Dave Wallace is such a nut!

The footnotes are in the back of the book. Consequently I had two bookmarks going at all times. One was for my place in the narrative, the other, for my place in the footnotes section.

The action of the story mostly flips between a private school for young, potential professional tennis competitors and a half-way house for recovering drug and alcohol addicts. These two facilities are separated by a hill in the same fictional Massachusetts city. The residents and staff of both comprise the majority of the book’s characters. The protagonist, Hal Incandenza, attends the tennis school, excelling in spite of the large amounts of pot he smokes in its underground tunnels. His impressively dysfunctional family also factors heavily into the action, including his late father, an early-David-Lynch-like film auteur.

Still other characters come from a U.S. government “Office of Unspecified Services,” plus more than one Quebec separatist group (members of the most ruthless of these have in common that they are all in wheelchairs, having maimed themselves in an annual competition involving a speeding train). Wallace does a good job of keeping these progressively more absurd characters vivid and discernable. Although it took me months to complete, I never felt like I needed to go back in the book, or rely on its extensive summary and analysis in Wikipedia.

The book’s action takes place in a vague near future. Some scholars think Wallace intended the setting to be 15 years after the book’s publiciation. If this guess is correct, this “future” is now just around the corner – 2011.

You can’t blame readers for wondering. Although chapters are precisely named for their day and date, Wallace obscures things by painting for us a North America where leaders have sold naming rights to years. Similar to the way sponsors buy rights to parks and stadiums (think Chase Field for the Arizona Diamondbacks), the action mostly takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, or YDAU for short.

Other years include:

  • Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad
  • Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar
  • Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken
  • Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster

And let’s not forget the Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office Or Mobile [sic]. That’s a type of television / VCR. Video entertainment in this world comes by the cartridge. These are popped into an “InterLace” machine and viewed.

If this “Subsidized Time” is Wallace’s running joke about the ubiquity of corporations and their brands, his central plot device is about our addiction to mass-produced entertainment.

Early in the novel, a cartridge arrives in the stack of mail of a minor political operative. He pops in the entertainment and never turns it off. It’s turned off by emergency personnel who find him dead. This entertainment is so enchanting that no one is immune to its deadly charms. Viewers inevitably die of self-neglect, watching it again and again.

Finding the original print of this film becomes the book-spanning goal for political groups who recognize its value as a secret weapon. This film was the last that Hal’s father, James Orin Incandenza, produced before he died.

If this sounds like loopy fun, I assure you that it is. Yes, there is way too much detail about what it takes to be a tennis pro (similar to the drudgery of reading how to filet a whale, when all you want to do is get back to the story of the white whale and the captain pursuing him).

It’s also often grim. There are a few scenes of violence and abuse that may make you want to turn away. Instead, like watching the lethal entertainment, I’m betting you’ll press on. Here’s how Eggers describes the book at the outset of reading. You’ll get “the impression that this book is daunting. Which it isn’t, really. It’s long, but there are pleasures everywhere. There is humor everywhere. There also a very quiet but very sturdy and constant tragic undercurrent that concerns a people who are completely lost.”

In the end, I think Wallace has completed a work – and, I’ll warn you, abruptly ends said work with most ends still quite loose – that is a clearheaded assessment of modern life: Its families, its politics, its obsessions. It is therefore a comedy and a tragedy.

If you’ve gotten to the end of this review, I suspect you will also finish Infinite Jest (but not quickly; Eggers himself took a month). Tell me what you think when you’re done.

Postscript

There may be a reason I enjoyed the book. I just took the above copy and dropped it into IWriteLike.com. The results are below.

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!