Sunday, November 27, 2011

Infinite (Addictive) Jest - David Foster Wallace

The without-end pursuit of a happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible.

So tells a character during a discussion of the relative merits/demerits of the American mindset. This statement about the pursuit of happiness or rather the addiction to the pursuit of happiness is the major theme of DFW's 'Infinite Jest', along with the attendant side effects of such a pursuit and the consequences of it. The novel is not about a single person or family, but rather a almost sub-conscious cry of plea of a entire society addicted to the above mentioned themes and unable to get away from it. Published in 1996, it would have been a pretty much uniquely American experience then, but reading it now 15 years later, it has come to be the common experience  of a globalized world. 

The novel is set in a period where things have been commercialized/entertainment fixated to such a extent that time is now subsidized (yes, based on corporate sponsors the years are named and not in the normal calendar format), the  ATP tennis tour is referred to as 'Show', (echoes of WWE here), television channels have been obsolete and replaced by cartridges which offer personalized entertainment. The novel traces the emotional graph of many characters, whom are set in two main locations, one a tennis academy where students are trained to become the next big thing in the Show and the other in a recovery house adjoining the academy, for alcoholics/narcotic addicts. The two places, rather their implications act as a juxtaposition to each other in that, in the academy the pursuit of happiness via entertainment is still on, whereas in the recovery house we have people who have had enough of it and are in a battle to get rid of if. Interspersed between the two, is the parallel track of the search for a mysterious cartridge which seemingly has the ability to make anyone who views it completely becomes enthralled by it, loses all interest in everything else other than viewing the cartridge over and over again, becomes catatonic and ultimately has to die because of this condition. Two opposing government organizations are after this cartridge and the discussion of two of their agents on a mountain top are philosophical nature, which serve as a kind of cover for the other happenings in the novel. The narration soars and plummets with the mind state of the various characters ultimately culminating in an emotional Valhalla of two of the characters, one seemingly on the verge of relapsing into his addiction, whereas the other getting hit by the first withdrawal symptoms of an addiction.

Let the novel's name not deceive you. It is not a happy novel at all in the normal sense. Yes, it is hugely entertaining and engrossing, but also has an undercurrent of sadness throughout. It's an utterly strange and unique novel.  I have used 'original' here (though all 3 words in someway seem similar, but with subtle differences) because finally nothing is 100% original and also the themes of this novel, 'consumerism', 'family dystopia', 'addiction' etc have been dealt with many times ad nauseum . So what makes it unique and strange is the manner in which DFW has brought them all together as a mindscape altering  work, which does not so much push the envelope as much as it tears it to pieces and throws it to the winds altering the fictional landscape we are accustomed to. Let's take the style of the novel, long sentences running to paragraphs, even pages which are again not uncommon. But the twist is here, they are not our usual 'stream of consciousness' or 'internal monologues' or descriptions of multiple events. What DFW does here (and in his other works too) is that he takes a small bit of time of action and stretches it to the maximum extent possible, requiring your full mental concentration to the fullest extent, so that your mind becomes taut, almost physical  and if at that point your mental state could be visualized as a string, a touch to it would produce a big twang. Check for instance the below snippet which explains in excruciating detail a tennis lob during a match, which would take about 2-3 seconds maximum in real time.

It's a beauty: the ball soars slowly up, just skirts the indoor courts' system of beams and lamps, and floats back down gentle as lint: a lovely quad-function of fluorescent green, seams whirling. John Wayne backpedals and flies back after it. You can tell — if you play seriously — you can tell just by the way the ball comes off a guy's strings whether the lob is going to land fair. There's surprisingly little thought. Coaches tell serious players what to do so often it gets automatic. John Wayne's game could be described as having a kind of automatic beauty. When the lob first went up he'd backpedaled from the net, keeping the ball in sight until it reached the top of its flight and its curve broke, casting many shadows in the tray of lights hung from the ceiling's insulation; then Wayne turned his back to the ball and sprinted flat-out for the spot where it will land fair. Would land. He doesn't have to locate the ball again until it's hit the green court just inside the baseline. By now he's come around the side of the bounced ball's flight, still sprinting. He looks mean in a kind of distant way. He comes around the side of the bounced ball's second ascent the way you come up around the side of somebody you're going to hurt, and he has to leave his feet and half-pirouette to get his side to the ball and whip his big right arm through it, catching it on the rise and slapping it down the line past the Port Washington boy, who's played the percentages and followed a beauty of a lob up to net.

This stretching of real time to as much as possible is a constant feature of all DFW's works and to me is his unique identity along with his totally unpretentious quality where he does not look down upon either the characters or the readers themselves the one that makes him stand out from others. DFW makes me think always of the highly intelligent boy, who is conscious of his intelligence, but is neither awed by it, shy of it nor is he conceited about. it's like as if the intelligence flows naturally and cannot be controlled. (Calvino and his shorter works especially 'The Cosmicomics' come to mind to me here, when I think of a kid running amok with his outrageous talent). It's one thing to do this for a couple of pages, but to do this successfully over 1000 pages requires a rare kind of talent. And it is this writing talent that drives the novel, the fuel propelling the characters/incidents in a such way that your mind becomes an inferno itself while reading it. There are whole sentences, paragraphs, pages and even whole chapters who as a reader one enters this 'mind on fire' state, a state which is excruciating painful and pleasurable at the same time, leaving you at a chapters end, breathless but wanting for even more. But DFW is not a one trick pony, but capable of doing anything with words. He can make a full chapter about the various tattoos inked by the residents of the recovery house interesting. He can give a truly terrifying account of a junkie withdrawal symptoms and the depravity it drags him into it. It can even be a small portrait of a sunset with the unique DFW spin

The temperature had fallen with the sun. Marathe listened to the cooler evening wind roll across the incline and desert floor. Marathe could sense or feel many million floral pores begin slowly to open, hopeful of dew. The American Steeply produced small exhalations between his teeth as he examined his scratch of the arm. Only one or two remaining tips of the digitate spikes of the radial blades of the sun found crevices between the Tortolitas' peaks and probed at the roof of the sky. There were the slight and dry locationless rustlings of small living things that wish to come out at night, emerging. The sky was violet.

An usual  description of sunset maybe, but consider the parts on bold where the unique and original of coining of words takes this to a different plane. It could be a tongue-in-cheek look at the clumsy fumbling of two adolescents, which takes out the erotic but replaces it with a wry but more real feeling.

What Mario perceived as a sudden radical drop in the prevailing temperature was in fact the U.S.S. Millicent Kent's sexual stimulation sucking tremendous quantities of ambient energy out of the air surrounding them. Mario's face was so squashed against the U.S.S. Millicent's thorax that he had to contort his mouth way out to the left to breathe.

DFW has been so ahead of the curve in experimentation of the ways of writing. Remember this was written in 1996, before the SMS lingo would have been in vogue even in the U.S and sample the following

..It was yrstruly and C and Poor Tony that crewed that day and everything like that....

..we just left the type there in his vehicle off Mem Dr we broke the jaw for insentive not to eat no cheese and C insisted and was not 2Bdenied...

There's a whole chapter in this vein about a gang of junkies trying to get high, in which the writing preempts the SMS lingo in vogue now. Now, DFW would not have had the SMS in mind when he wrote this, but decided to use in this one chapter only, which is appropriate when you consider the characters state of mind in this chapter. It would have been only too easy for him to replicate it elsewhere too, but it would have stuck out like a sore thumb when applied to either the academy or the recovery house where the residents would not be in such bad shape.

What about the (in)famous footnotes of the novel?. DFW has been quoted as saying that he wanted to mess up with the reading experience (or words to that effect) and so he put so much footnotes which in some cases tell a story of their own. Reading them can be real painful yes, particularly when there are so many in a single page, but I settled down on a pattern in this. I marked the footnotes of a chapter and after completing it read all of them in shot. It made it less painful.

There is so much yet to write about this amazing work, but will stop here as this is just a basic introduction to it. (Have an idea to write a series of posts on the various themes/styles in it). This is not a novel for DFW beginners and I am not telling this based on it's complexity or length (which are not an issue at all), but rather on the fact that one should have an idea of DFW's themes/styles beforehand to decide whether one wants to read him or not. So his shorter works are the best place to start for beginners. For readers already into DFW but are somehow put off but reading it, just jump into it. This is a novel that is postmodern in style/themes but as entertaining as the modernist novels of the 19th century. The novel is also episodic in nature, being split into chapters, so you would not have the feeling of leaving it in the middle to do something else. You could read 2-3 chapters at a time and get on with your day to day life. Give a month of your reading life to this book, you will be enriched. At the end you will be exhausted, exhilarated, mind teeming with ideas and curiously empty as you confirm the realization that started occurring somewhere in the middle of the novel, the realization that you are reading a work of art whose scope and ambition itself is difficult to match let alone it's execution and end result. What else do you need from a book? It is the rarest of rare books that make you feel like this and I have been lucky enough to read 2 such books this year and in a nice symmetry,  one at the beginning of the year and now the other at the end. A word of caution though, just like the mysterious cartridge in the novel, you too could get addicted infinitely to the novel itself.


  1. "An usual description of sunset maybe"

    To be honest, just reading that paragraph made me shiver. Need to revisit this book urgently. He does strange, amazing things with words, maybe more so than anyone else.

    thanks for the review, you've picked up on some interesting bits.

  2. Yes, fightthelandlord, DFW indeed does amazing, strange things with words.