[by Ben Ficklin]
How does one read such an imposing text? It’s cumbersome even holding Infinite Jest. A second bookmark is needed to navigate the one-hundred pages of footnotes. There is no page of respite from the bombardment of structural challenges. The mythos of the novel alone is often enough to deter most readers. So perhaps the better question: Why does one read such an imposing text?
The participants of the David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest seminar offered various answers at the onset of the first meeting. Many had read the novel previously, a few had read it several times, but the majority were first time Jesters. As we went about the room introducing ourselves, many of the newbies cited the legend of DFW himself as their impetus for enrollment. Even the inclusion of his name in the seminar’s title testified to his reputation as a writer that defined…something. A generation? A literary movement? The nature of humanity under the duress of hyper commercialization? What were the preconceived contributors to his legend? We mentioned his supposed genius, Infinite Jest’s aura of masterwork, all the sagacious journalism. But it was his suicide that was mentioned most by the first time readers. Perhaps the fascination with his self-termination is what gave Trevor Dodge, our guide, immediate clout within the seminar: Dodge studied under Wallace. Maybe personal insight could satisfy our craving to interpret a genius who killed himself before we could feel we understood him.
Dodge addressed this elephant during his self-introduction. He knew Dave, so of course his emotions were involved. And yes, he had information that someone studying Wallace from afar would not. But Dodge quickly clarified that this personal knowledge would not keep the seminar from fully criticizing the book. He was as interested as anyone in taking the book apart, exploring its faults, and talking about it within the greater context of a troubled writer.
The first tool Dodge offered to the seminar participants was a printout out of the Sierpinski gasket. This fractalizing shape is analogous to the formatting of the text. The Sierpinski gasket begins as a large triangle and breaks forever into smaller triangles until the mini-triangles shrink so minutely that the original shape seems to have reappeared. The book offers its scope relatively early in the page-count, but instead of progressing on an arc or some sort of hero’s journey, the text bores inward. The more you stop to consider the text, the more it seems the book is forever considerable–The Library of Babel in one work. Considering the Sierpinski gasket helped us consider the book in a less conventional way.
So into what did the book fractal? Drugs. OCD. Tennis. Anhedonia. Addiction. Social pressure. Savant-complex. Tortured genius. Boredom. Pride/shame. Familial dynamics. Individuality/audimation. Platitude/complete skepticism. Hyper-commercialization. During each meeting we searched these themes for proclamations, particulars that would help us understand Wallace. We all felt something was being said, absolutely–yet the specifics of the statement seemed meticulously buried beyond any hope of excavation. The characters of the novel flounder in this same ontological maze. One member of the seminar asked, “Is there ever any sort of transcendence or escape within this book?” We struggled with this question during every meeting.
Societal and philosophical entrapments are depicted as so pervasive that the book’s characters seem to have little hope. Compulsive cleaning, the slaughter of domestic animals, television, tennis, avant-garde films, the need to be a play-by-play announcer, and addiction to crack, marijuana, cocaine, booze, sex. All the characters are consumed by something to various degrees. The novel includes a film so enrapturing that whoever watches it is forever hypnotized. The semi-fantastical nature of the Infinite Jest universe compounds the addictive potency of these things. The majority of the book occurs in an immediate future where The United States, Canada, and Mexico have combined into one country where even the names of the years have commercial endorsement. This reality is so competitive, hedonistic, and abstracted that individuals hardly notice their indoctrination into depression. Thus the susceptibility to addictions, anything to tolerate such a painful world. Attendees of the seminar noticed only one character capable of experiencing life slowly enough to find happiness. Mindfulness seems to be the only cure.
This methodical interpretation of reality also acts as a suggestion for how to best imbibe Infinite Jest. Trying to perceive the entirety of the book is maddening, while considering passages carefully and individually is gratifying. Therefore, gathering week after week, we isolated recurring themes, characters, symbols, and ideas as we proceeded through the book. We never approached a class asking, “So what did everyone think about everything we read this week?” It was more like, “What element of the book has fascinated us so far?”
Tennis is a constant theme throughout the work. Tennis and DFW are reminiscent of Hemingway and bullfighting or Thompson and presidential candidacies–writers of fiction that devoted journalism to a competitive fascination. Despite Wallace’s significant amount of nonfiction on tennis (and his adolescent tennis career), Infinite Jest is the primary contributor to this association. Much of the book takes place in the Enfield Tennis Academy, a preparatory school founded by the dead patriarch of the novel’s central family. The sport acts as an anchoring metaphor for the novel. During the seminar we discussed how the competitive nature of tennis is analogous to highly-individualized capitalism: People know their rank (net-wealth) compared to those around them, everyone admires the best (richest) players (citizens), and participation in the sport (economic system) becomes the only way these people self-identify because they know nothing else about themselves. This hyper competitive atmosphere also allows the book to explore anxiety, another of the recurring themes. Many of the students at Enfield are so stressed by their surroundings that they turn to drugs.
Just on the other side of the hill from Enfield happens to be Ennet House, a live-in recovery facility for substance addicts. Here we meet the book’s other cast of characters. The use of Ennet House reminds readers of the aforementioned antidote to existential pain: Mindfulness. The recovery cliché of “one day at a time” ensures that the recovering addicts meditate on the small increments of a lifetime instead of being overwhelmed by the chaotic scope of life-in-total. This temperament stands in stark contradiction to the Enfield tennis players who dream of professional careers and all the implied sponsorship. One of the seminar’s attendees noted, “The addicts are rising while the academy boys are in free fall.”
This juxtaposition of perspectives is indicative of Horizontal Logic. Infinite Jest undermines the want to narrativize an individual human experience. Everything comes at the reader in interrupted episodes. A character might appear central within the first 100 pages but disappear until five hundred pages later. There is by no means a central protagonist. Wallace attempts exploration of (nearly) everyone’s stream of consciousness. These interruptions can be tormenting when there seemed to be an energy propelling one scene that abruptly ends so 30 pages can be devoted to a footnote. These challenges act as reminders to appreciate Horizontal Logical: no one thing is any more important than anything else. The reader must break the habit of prioritizing certain people or events. A reader could spend all 1079 pages waiting for the climatic scene.
We reflected on this difficulty at least once during every meeting. Certain passages of the book have such an arduous structure that several attendees expressed anger at the book. As one person put it, “There is often the sense of Can You Be More Clear?” But as we progressed through the seminar, an enlightened feeling grew within the group. Along with the reward of finishing a gargantuan book, the reader who accomplishes the novel gains Wallace’s unique insights on humanity, society, and the struggle to find contentment. Another attendee expressed comfort in feeling that DFW empathized with the exasperating pursuit of happiness in America. Many were surprised to find the book so funny.
On the last meeting it seemed impossible to summarize the novel. It felt as if the ideas and discussion could continue forever. Dodge asked the group when any of us would pick up Infinite Jest again, and one woman responded, “Asking us when we’d read this book again is like asking a mother who just gave birth when she’s going to have her next child.” There was both a sense of completion and a frustration that we hadn’t more time to spend discussing the work. That’s, maybe, the infinite nature of the book–there is no finished feeling to be had. We read Infinite Jest to have the veil lifted momentarily on the infinitely complex nature of our lives. And somewhere in the unreachable core of his book, the author was still hiding.
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