Wow. Fuck a diddle wank, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) is a full blown literary compendium of joy. Deeply philosophical, hilariously puerile, wittily base, violent, crass, beatific, joyful, heart-breaking, soul-raising, thought-provoking, mood-altering, distracting, addictive, wow. AAAAAALLLLLLLLLL of the emotions and intellectual responses are forced out of the system at some point within this (my edition) 1079 page TOME.
I lost my original copy a few weeks ago (see previous blog posts complaining about this), but was happily reunited with a fresh one on Monday evening. I have raced through the final 300 pages of the book since then, simultaneously finding too many jobs and attempting a range of “necessary” tasks around the house. The ease of my job hunt gave me more time and less stress than I was expecting to accompany my reading, allowing me to dive in and become enraptured and enchanted by this beautiful, beautiful novel.
The plot is difficult to simply describe (it’s 1,000 pages long), but it is the themes that are significant and more important, in my opinion, to discuss. The book is broadly about addiction – to a cause, to a substance, to an idea, to entertainment. This is not a fun boozy, druggy novel about young people having a good time (there are the occasional flashes of this, but usually in speeches given at AA meetings than inevitably end up with some kind of horrific conclusion), this is a serious, heavy novel about the emotional, social and physical effects of obsession, of over-dedication, of unneeded need.* Many of the characters in AA recount their “Low”, the final binge that leads to the acceptance of their problem, their addiction… As other characters take political ideas too far, ignore all in their life bar their hobby, their art, their sport, the pursuit of sex**, their minds open, memories flow. The novel leaps about a lot between several distinct groups of characters, linked loosely by place, I suppose. There is an effortlessness about DFW’s ability to flit, to never really (except a few times with Hal Incandenza, a tennis protege/intellectual who smokes too much “Bob Hope”) dwell too long on a character. Despite its massive length, this is a novel that is never boring, never a chore to read, and never tiresome in its bleak moments. Whenever DFW writes a heavy passage, he will then offer something funny, often something very funny.
There is a lot of wit in here. And there is also a lot of explorative and well-observed discussion of differing human psyches, differing human emotions.
This is a big, intelligent, fun, book. Though at times, yes, a little pretentious (in the vernacular, rather the literal, meaning), it is inventive, important and (a word I shudder to use) interesting. Because I did feel I learnt a lot from this book, which is rare. DFW did a lot of research on the topics he discusses, and it shows. For anyone with any remotely academic interest in drug use/addiction in literature, I’d highly recommend it. I’d also highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read a virtuosic, charming, contemporary novel. I laughed and cried many, many times. And surely that is a key aim of all art, right?
*This idea is not solely explored through intoxicants – there is for example Le Jeu du Prochain Train, a Canadian competitive train-jumping cult that leaves the vast majority of its members dead or severely maimed.
**Sex addiction is present in the novel, but not really explored. There is a lot of asexuality, really. A lot of characters who see their lack of sex drive as a symptom of their self-crushing substance use, yet there are other characters whose libido drives them into embarrassing and dangerous situations, in fact lust is always portrayed as a bit problematic here. This is one of the many reasons why I was surprised when I learnt that DFW was married – there’s something about his writing that made me imagine he was someone who spent a lot (if not all) of his time alone.
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