Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace


Rating: ★★★★

Genre: Adult lit, fiction

Medium: Paperback

Warnings: Suicide, drugs, alcohol, violence, animal violence, abusive relationships

Synopsis: A group of separatist Canadian wheelchair assassins have found proof that the movie Infinite Jest exists, and it’s somewhere in Boston, MA.  Infinite Jest is a movie rumored to render people so entertained that they die in a state of catatonic bliss.  Cue the Incandenza family: Jim, the late father who created Infinite Jest; Avril, the widow who is trying to hold herself–and the Enfield Tennis Academy–together; Orin, a collegiate football player who likes to woo women; Mario, a horribly disabled and disfigured person with a heart of gold; and Hal, the human dictionary with an incredible talent for tennis.  Down the hill from ETA is the Ennet House, a house for recovering addicts where Joelle van Dyne, otherwise known as Madame Psychosis, resides for the time being.  Joelle van Dyne, once Orin’s fiance, few times Jim’s subject of the films, and always wearing a veil to cover her either hideous or beautiful face (nobody really knows for sure).

This is only half of the rich cast in Infinite Jest, and they’re only the beginning.  With the help of these characters, can the separatist Canadian wheelchair assassins find Infinite Jest so they can begin their plot to render their enemies inutile, as they would say?

Review: Wow, where to even begin with this.  This book consumed a lot of my time: I read it between class periods, on the train, at home–anywhere I could possibly think of.  This is not a novel for the light-hearted.

I’ve seen people both love and hate this book, and for good reason.  However, I do have to suggest giving it a shot, even if you find out you hate it.  But, if you can get through it and you love it, that’s pretty dang cool, too!  David Foster Wallace (DFW) sets up his story with an intriguing set of characters: the wheelchair assassins, those residing in the Ennet House, the Incandenza family and their friends at ETA.  A human dictionary, a suicidal father, and many, many drug addicts.  None of these characters are stale or one-sided: DFW (sometimes painstakingly) takes great care in fleshing out their histories, their desires, and their everyday hobbies.  These characters help the novel feel well-rounded, though I must admit that at times, I was much more interested in their personal lives than the overarching plot itself.

And, speaking of plot, I must tell you that if you’re reading this novel: do not skip the footnotes!  While yes, some of them are so stuffy that you just know that they’re from Hal’s perspective, there are entire chapters in there, entire backstories, entire explanations for one character’s offhanded expression–and for that, they’re all extremely important to the story as a whole.

With books as long as this one, it’s easy to get discouraged, especially in the beginning.  Typically, with books longer than 500 pages, the expositions tends to be rather long–and rightfully so.  You  have a huge plot, a plethora of sub-plots, and a cast of probably at least 20 characters to flesh out.  But, there are some hidden gems in here that make this book worth reading.  My personal favorite is around page 250, when Orin rings up Hal to discuss their father’s (‘Himself’ is their nickname for him) death, since Hal was the first one to find his dead body.  I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite as shocking before.  It left me bereft, stunned.  For some authors, it takes entire novels for their characters to be fleshed out, but it only takes a few pages of Hal’s shouting and ranting and describing the day of his father’s death to really understand just why Hal is the way he is.

This brings me to something about Infinite Jest that I really, truly appreciated, and I think others should appreciate as well, even if the book wasn’t their cup of tea.  DFW treats the subject of death and addiction with great care.  No character is safe from something traumatizing happening in their lives, but DFW doesn’t romanticize it.  He shows the gritty details, the screaming matches, the abuse, the depression that comes from such horrific topics.  Characters struggle to go to AA or NA, they struggle to resist the “Disease” one day at a time.  Some find themselves locked up in library bathrooms with bottles of cough medicine trying to get a fix.  Others have had whiskey since they were eleven.  Some have to buy urine off of others to ensure that they won’t be kicked off the tennis team.  Others land themselves in the hospital, beaten to a pulp.  DFW makes these topics interesting to read, but he makes them hard.  And cold.  They’re not fun to read.  They’re harrowing depictions of what surely has happened to hundreds of people, if not thousands, around the world.

But, in any case, I’m saying this all as a recent college graduate who hasn’t touched hard drugs in their life.  In all honesty, I’ll probably reread this in 10 years, once I’m in a different place in life.  I think then, I’ll be able to get even more out of it.  And what I’ve already gotten is quite a lot.

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