Infinite Jest (1996) Review: Encyclopedic Askesis



Everyone is addicted to something and use it as a way of escapism — even if that addiction is thinking.

For those addicted to vices, their addiction morphs into a ritual since the societal view of vices is less than approving. People lead double lives to have affairs and celebrities get high by finding drug dealers by proxy proteges separated by more degrees than Kevin Bacon.

For many the real high is the suspense leading up to getting high and why anything less than “feeling” high is usually not because of the drug but because of the greater anticipation to do the drug. It’s no wonder why some prostitutes are hired for chores vs sex; or, perhaps less lewd, why Ted and Victoria didn’t kiss (with How I Met Your Mother‘s first “mother” when they didn’t know if they would be cancelled or not).

Some even make religion into addiction as a way to ward off vices — and there are plenty of rituals in religion. And, though not necessarily a vice (in as much as sloth is a sin), but some find “entertainment” as their addiction, an escape into fantasy worlds where even the creative cognitive work is done for you.

David Foster Wallace, throughout Infinite Jest, makes no attempt to mask this. The text may as well be printed on mirrors to remind you that you have an addiction; that regardless of whether or not you empathize with his three protagonists (Don, Hal, and Marathe), they’re all essentially reflective of you. Hal may be a veritable Achilles (complete with bum-ankle), but once he’s forced to give up his daily dosage of Bob Hope (colloquialism for pot), he loses sight of why he even bothers to wake up in the morning and prays that his heel’s tendons come loose so that he can quit being the athlete. In fact he hopes it’s permanently damaged, so society (and his mother) will view him as a sympathetic tragedy instead of a disappointment — wasted talent. That he’d rather be permanently handicapped than speak his mind speaks volumes (about the country, society, the world, maybe).

Marathe, the undercover double-double-triple(?) agent who doesn’t remember which side he’s really working for. He’s been told to let the other side know-they-know, but not letting them know-we-know-they-know.

Don Gately is your typical brute, but he’s sober — which is quite the achievement when you reflect on the fact that he once spent — God knows how long — with a needle in his arm from Mt. Dilaudid.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

In a book that weighs more than my entire wardrobe, about a fifth of the text is dedicated to footnotes (bringing about one of the most interesting ways to do a character description as we learn more about James Incandeza through his filmography than we do through his own sons’ interactions with him — fascinating that; and yet probably reflective of our celebrity worship and liking an actor for their portrayal of a character that’s written to be likable… and then we’re all shocked when he [the actor] goes off on some racist tirade like something in him must’ve changed), and yet iBooks still labels Infinite Jest as fiction/literature instead of the much more suitable genre “epic.” Not that I mind how misleading that is, the text is supposed to be misleading; Wallace, it would seem, has no hope that you’ll finish reading the book. Nonewhatsoever because of Hal’s father — aforementioned auteur, James Incandenza — is a surrogate for Wallace.

James Incandenza is Wallace Surrogate

An auteur filmmaker, Incandenza has been lauded and/or derided by critics — sometimes simultaneously. Incandenza purposely hires amateur actors so their piss-poor abilities never convince you that you’re escaping into the film. You’re not allowed to escape. Incandenza once seated an audience in an auditorium and played his latest film, which was really just a live feed of the seated audience, some of whom laughed, but over time, steadily grew annoyed, impatient, then perhaps a moment of catharsis in self-reflection, until reaching a point of frustration where they walked out of the theater. This is just what Infinite Jest is supposed to do to you: make you laugh, at times annoyed, and then catharsis. As far as walking out of the theater (or putting down the book), you’re not meant to finish it; he doesn’t expect you to.

Incandenza’s version of postmodernism was taking a phone book and pointing to a random person’s name and joking with his colleagues about what’s happening in that person’s life over the next hour. Nothing was even filmed and yet it’s listed under his filmography. But is this not what some sequences do in Infinite Jest? (See the hilarious email of a construction worker who doesn’t have any impact on the story whatsoever.)

And rumor has it that many of Incandenza’s films were not actually films (perhaps books, if that), and yet they’re listed within his filmography because how can you tell when an artist — who cares little for the term “artist” and doesn’t think much of what people think of him — is actually making art?

James Incandenza is the reason for the title, Infinite Jest which is said to have been made for a fifth and final time… although no one is even sure it was completed, let alone filmed. And this sentiment is repeated in the ending, as the novel doesn’t end… not in a way a story would, or a paper, or a film. Arguably, the closest modern example of how Infinite Jest ends is in Bret Easton Ellis(however despised by Wallace)’s The Rules of Attraction, which ends before the sentence does.

But this is why James Incandenza is the Wallace surrogate. He has no — or very little — expectations of the audience/readers/you-and-I and therefore, he never finished Infinite Jest (i.e. James and the film) just as Wallace didn’t expect us to finish the book, because if we don’t finish reading it, then why finish writing it? So he didn’t. It doesn’t end in such a blunt manner as The Rules of Attraction (which by comparison now looks less cool and more juvenile), but Infinite Jest ends equally abruptly with no more closure… despite the fact that there’s another 500 pages of footnotes (if you hadn’t been flipping back and forth) — the point being that, you think there’s a lot more, that there must be more, but there’s not. It’s over.

Death by Entertainment

In Infinite Jest, there’s a belief purported by Hugh Steeply, that we die by entertainment. That we let entertainment take over our minds, lead with film/TV in conversation, and whenever opportunity arises in conversation to make a quip from a television series, we leap upon it as though it was unexpected. We rewatch and replay entertainment the same way a crack addict returns to the substance. We let entertainment mold our thoughts, become slaves to it, the reason we wake up, the escape. In fact, there’s a bit about Incandenza’s penultimate film being so entertaining that (if played on a loop), the viewers will watch until they wither and die… shockingly, this isn’t even a far stretch from reality — how many people have played World of Warcraft to their literal death? Incidentally, Vonnegut has a short story about something similar in Welcome to the Monkey House, and but it bears little relevance here, only an observation.

And who hasn’t counted down the days to a release of a movie, or waited for a Thursday for a new episode of their favorite program?

And the main medium of entertainment in Infinite Jest is the TP viewers which seems to operate — although don’t quote me on this — as a 3D 360 view of a film… That’s the impression I got. Regardless of how the cartridge-based TP viewers work, it’s another form of escapism but providing the illusion of being close to others in the vicinity. That’s the biggest illusion that Hal uncovers. The truth of the matter is, we use entertainment in conversation and experience it first hand in an effort to connect with others, but we’re not connected. The only real connections happen when people expose their soft-underbellies and although embarrassing, it’s the only time we can be honest and connected — addiction and entertainment get in the way and provide a false sense of intimacy.

Then there’s Hal’s analysis of Hawaii Five-O and Hill Street Blues as the problem with a society that transitioned from modernism to postmodernism that will blow your f***ing mind.

Encyclopedic Askesis

Similar to — I would imagine — Brave New WorldInfinite Jest recreates a timeless world with as much sci-fi as any Philip K. Dick novel. “Time” is subsidized, so we don’t see 2009, but Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment — because yes, if we can charge people for “time” on the air, why not for an extended amount of time — and who’s to say the subsidized time is a 365-day calendar year?

But the self-referential world these characters live in is a demonstration of Harold Bloom’s Askesis where, in the footnotes, Wallace deliberately cites Bloom as a hack and, if he’s to be believed at all, then Askesis — or self-purgation — is the only means of conquering the “Anxiety of Influence.” The ability to disregard everyone who came before — including oneself, as Faulkner would say, “Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself” — and there are few, rare mentions of other literary works. In fact, only briefly does Wallace speak of the shortcomings of dinosaurs in film (presumably talking about Jurassic Park), and his one notable literary reference is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, wherein he forever corrupts the image of Hamlet for the reader by explaining how the inherent flaw is that Hamlet is crazy — he saw a ghost of his father, really? — and by pretending he’s not crazy, he’s displaying classic crazy, the “I don’t know I’m crazy,” crazy, so he pretends, when really he’s not, and he’s lying to himself because “crazy people don’t know they’re crazy.”

Anyway, for Infinite Jest to achieve askesis, it must be self-referential, wholly contained. It does this by being a veritable encyclopedia of itself.

–But I stop myself here in regards to analysis because these are some spastic thoughts from a book (read epic) that will no doubt inspire more spastic thoughts — potential analysis — and articles. Infinite Jest is life-changing, it’s a must read, and here are two non-artsy-fartsy reasons why.

The Best Two Things about Infinite Jest

There are two things about this novel that set it apart from others for me.

  1. Character Physical Descriptions
  2. Morbid Humor

For the first, Wallace creates characters, no doubt with an image of how they look in mind, and yet he holds off on physical descriptions for some of the most grotesquely deformed characters until the end. For example, there’s a character with stumps where his legs ought to be… but we don’t learn this until the end of the novel, and when it’s revealed, it’s not out of place, it actually makes a bit more sense, but no attention was drawn to it beforehand. We see the character for who he is on the inside… long before we make a judgment on their appearance. Similarly, there’s a character with claw-like hands, a lower-case ‘w’ shaped spine, and an eyelid that’s half-hung on one eye… yet we don’t learn about these physical anomalies until after there’s been a chapter dedicated to his one (and only) romantic endeavor.

For the second, the morbid humor… Every story within the walls of Infinite Jest are in jest until the reality sets in. It’s like watching a sitcom where a character makes a large blunder and the recorded laugh track plays… but then Wallace explores the harsh reality of the situational comedy — ugly and morbid, but true.

It’s like if, when Joey and Chandler accidentally left baby Ben (Ross’ son) on a bus in New York, but instead of finding the baby… they didn’t. New York is full of whack jobs, to think that no mother, addicted to methamphetamines would look at the baby and think, “meal ticket” is surprising. But even a relatively happy outcome would probably result in the bus driver calling child services and Ross’s parental rights being revoked, and Carol filing a restraining order.

My copy had an introduction by Dave Eggers (although I’m not certain he’s a real person since the postmodern movement is full of fictitious forewords: Pale Fire, Lolita, Princess Bride) and he completed the book in a month. It may have been he was paid for that undertaking, but I spent 7 months on this novel and I still don’t think that was enough time — for much longer than I care to admit, I couldn’t have told you the difference between Stice, Schtitt, and Schacht. Some nights, I got through 50 pages… others, I’d pause on a single sentence — don’t get me wrong, I wanted to read more, but was paralyzed by it.

Even if you don’t finish it for years, start reading Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest (1996)
By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown

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