Thursday, 21 October 2010

Review - Infinite Jest

Reviewing David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest, is impossible. As Dave Egger’s says in the foreword, the novel cannot be analysed; cannot be broken down into component parts. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It shouldn’t work – overlong storylines that seem to go nowhere, no overarching plot, characters heading towards confrontations that never happen, insane technical minutiae about drugs and medications, long stretches where nothing much happens, and a language/vocabulary all its own. But the novel does work and it’s clear that the writer was a genius: as Eggers says, “At no time while reading Infinite Jest are you unaware that this is a work of complete obsession, of a stretching of the mind of a young writer to the point of, we assume, near madness.”
Infinite Jest is a reflection of life. This is alluded to in the Eschaton section with the meta-debate about maps and territories. As such, everyone who reads Infinite Jest will have a different interpretation. It can be about drugs, addiction, the American Dream, entertainment, the pursuit of happiness, solipsism, language, or tennis. Some claim that the book is structured like a Sierpinski Gasket

For me, Infinite Jest is about freedom. This is centred around Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty (or at least an idea very similar to it). Running through the book like a spine there is a discussion between a Canadian agent and an American agent that takes place on the side of a cliff over an entire night. At one point, Marathe – the Canadian – says:

“Again passing over the important. This appetite to choose death by pleasure if it is available to choose – this appetite of your people unable to choose appetites, this is the death… someone sometime let you forget how to choose, and what. Someone let your peoples forget it was the only thing of importance, choosing… Someone taught that temples are for fanatics only and took away the temples and promised there was no need for temples. And now there is no shelter. And no map for finding the shelter of a temple. And you all stumble about in the dark, this confusion of permissions. The without-end pursuit of happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible.

Allowing someone to do whatever they want to do is ‘negative’ freedom according to Berlin and Marathe. ‘Positive’ freedom consists in discipline: in the education and maturity to independently choose what is important. America, in its pursuit of the former kind of freedom, has created a nation of children: people who would, of their own volition, watch a film so entertaining it would kill them. ; people who would solve the problem of waste by catapulting garbage into New England rather than reform their lives. 

The ‘positive’ kind of freedom is more existential: it is the discipline to make the right choice for you and the ability to free yourself from cages of which you weren’t (or aren’t) aware. These invisible cages may be social but are more often psychological. They are arbitrary limits on our behaviour or our actions that we impose without even realising we’re doing it. The crux of this point comes in Lyle’s conversation with LaMont Chu about LaMont’s “increasingly crippling obsession with tennis fame.”

“The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for… After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are… LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.’ ‘Animal?’ ‘You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.’ 

In particular, the book focuses on the invisible cage of irony. Wallace knew that his readers were postmodern, literary-types: the kind of post-university twenty-something young elites who reject the world’s values by adopting a veneer of irony; by layering every action with self-reference, self-deprecation, and a meta-appreciation of the ‘narrative’ of life. The teenagers of the Enfield Tennis Academy represent this attitude of intelligence and youth: they come up with ironic nicknames for one another, they have long discussions about life and philosophy, they play complex physical and psychological games. The antithesis of this attitude walks among them: the disabled and ‘immature’ Mario.

“It is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way. The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.”

By the end of Infinite Jest readers are at least aware, if not free, of the cage of irony around them. The novel promotes sincerity and real engagement with the world – with addiction, with drugs, with loneliness, with solipsism – rather than the ironic detachment characteristic of most educated twenty-somethings. The difficulty is remembering that the cage is there after the book has ended.
Anything I can write about this novel is surplus to the volumes that have already been written: the Infinite Summer website offers a window to this immense scholarship. I only wrote this so that I could re-inhabit the book again because, over 2 months after finishing it, I still think about it. And a book with that kind of power deserves a few words.


Hector Macdonald said...

You might enjoy's illustrated profile of Infinite Jest: Infinite Jest on Book Drum

Anonymous said...

I don't want to be an asshole, but you're use of the prefix meta- is completely wrong and it annoys me.