What exactly is this book about? There is no easy answer. It’s about a near-future where an ecological disaster has turned much of North America into a wasteland. It is about a world where consumerism has proliferated to the extent that our years are now subsidized (The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, The Year of the Whopper, The Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, etc). It is about a halfway house outside of Boston. It is about depression, suicide, and family. It is about a video tape so enthralling it renders all viewers unresponsive to any other stimulus, leaving them catatonic. And it is about tennis.
Does this make any sense? That a novel can be about a war between Canada and America and an elite tennis academy? An environmental Apocalypse as well as a father’s dangerous addiction to the TV show M*A*S*H? How could the author write such a novel, faithfully chronicling the minutia of a privileged childhood and the sleepless drug addicts prowling Boston’s Inman Square and Chinatown? And, with this extreme mash-up of high-concepts, from the low-brow to the academic essay, how could this possibly be what it is generally regarded as: one of the most important literary works of the last century?
Combining any two of the elements above into a novel, say hyper-consumerism and students at a tennis academy, or an ecological disaster with recovering alcoholics, might seem reasonable, if hard to pull off. A family of prodigies and a war with Canada? Sure. An underground radio show and a precocious, deformed child? Maybe. Smashing everything together at once, without the signals a reader expects, seems impossible. But Wallace does exactly this, and accomplishes something remarkable -he shows us the crossovers, the universal sameness. The same amorphous fear and boredom that exists for the recovering junkie haunt his polar-opposite, Hal Incandenza, the gifted tennis player and academic genius. There is something recognizable in the love an amputee double (triple?) agent feels for his mutated wife and that of a professional punter for his unbearably beautiful, doomed girlfriend. The camaraderie felt by a team of tennis phenoms is similar to the surge of companionship the manager of a half-way home feels when, shot in the shoulder, beaten, bleeding out in the street, he sees a favorite resident clamp a half-nelson on the Quebecois terrorist about to shoot him for the second and final time.
Wallace’s combination of disparate elements is shot through Infinite Jest, all the way down to the sentence level. In his book On Writing, critic James Woods argues that the “clashing of registers” in prose as one of the pleasures of reading good writing. A single paragraph can move between regal language and everyday vernacular, evoking humor and depth through distance, the way Philip Roth might allude to Greek literature in the same breath as he describes masturbation (this is what Philip Roth writes about, right?). Wallace’s book abounds with this just type of fleet-footed shifting.
In one passage, a recovering alcoholic, addict, and thug, describes the thrill of taking a supervisor’s car rocketing up and down Comm Ave, the car so tight around his bulky frame the he feels like he is strapped inside a missile:
Pat’s (mustang) is functional and mint-reconditioned–her shadowy husband with something like ten years sober being big into cars–with such a wicked nice multilayer paintjob that its black has the bottomless quality of water at night.
Wallace is smuggling his literary tendencies inside an unbelievably believable vernacular. The addict uses a favorite Boston adjective, and a conversational tone, “Such a wicked nice multilayer paintjob,” but the language elevates, ending on “the bottomless quality of water at night.”
This kind of clashing is everywhere in Wallace’s work: sentence-by-sentence, Infinite Jest is the most inventive and entertaining novel I’ve ever read. And Wallace’s subjects allow him to pursue this fascination endlessly. Hal Incandenza, the genius, addicted, depressed adolescent tennis prodigy is a character who, because of his faults and advantages, moves easily between high and low culture, as does the prose when Wallace is writing about him. This is evident in most passages focusing on Hal, and never more so than when he decides to find help for his addiction to marijuana by making a trip to an NA meeting far outside of Boston. Hal borrows the tennis academy’s tow truck, drives for many miles, and finds a building that seems empty when he arrives:
By the time he was in Wellesley Hills, the sky’s combustionish orange had deepened to the hellish crimson of a fire’s last embers…Once off the highway the whole nighttime scene out here in exurbia–Boston’s true boonies–seems ghostly and circumspect. Hal’s tires crunch cones in the road. Some sort of bird shits on his windshield. The driveway broadens into a like delta and then a parking lot of mint-white gravel, and the physical Q.R.S is right there, cubular and brooding.
The entire novel is written using this kind of linguistic acrobatics, with Wallace counterbalancing his precise style at every opportunity. The image of the sunset draining from the sky is described as “combustionish.” Wallace knows the perfect word to use, combustion, just as he knows what he will gain by augmenting the word enough to make it imprecise. His description of the delta of mint-white gravel is undercut by the intentionally clumsy “like.” The rising language of the paragraphs is reigned in by “Some sort of bird shits on his windshield.” Wallace realizes that he’s veering too far into the intelligent and, like a smart teen trying to hang with the cool kids, like his protagonist, shrugs and adds “Or, like, whatever.”
Of the many scenes that stuck with me (expect vignettes instead of a linear plotline), one I was unable to shake comes soon after the description above. Hal finds the labyrinthine building seemingly deserted, and wanders empty hallways until finally finding a support group meeting underway. He sits in the back of the room and slouches low, open-minded but self-conscious, hoping for help. Hal soon realizes he’s wandered into the wrong meeting, however, and is instead attending a support group for men who regain their masculinity by reverting to the state of infants to confront their problems at the source. A man nearby sobs openly, clutching a teddy bear, urged by a circle of differently-bearded middle-aged men to “release his Inner Infant.” The man is told by the session’s leader, Harv, that he must ask forgiveness of a member of the group. Hal’s horror does not end at seeing the sobbing man shuffle in his direction, mewling for his mother and father to come love and hold him while engaged in “projectile weeing,” but increases exponentially when Hal recognizes the man as Kevin Bain, a friend of his older brother, someone he’s know for years. This is how episode ends:
“Is this how an Infant moves toward its needs Kevin?” Harv says.
“Go for it, Kevin!” a full-bearded man calls out.
“Let the Infant out!”
“Let your Infant do the walking, Kev.”
So Hal’s most vivid full-color memory of the non-anti-Substance Meeting he drove fifty oversalivated clicks to by mistake will become that of his older brother’s doubles partner’s older brother down on all fours on a Dacronyl rug, crawling, hampered because one arm was holding his bear to his chest, so he sort of dipped and rose as he crawled on three limbs toward Hal and the needs-meter behind him, Bain’s knees leaving twin pale tracks in the carpet and his head up on a wobbly neck and looking up and past Hal, his face unspeakable.
A thousand writers would have played this scene out for humor; a thousand more would have ratcheted up the excruciating pity. How few could have found what is truly remarkable, not the humor, although it is funny, not the pity, although it is a pitiful scene, not even the discomfort, although it is beyond uncomfortable, but the strangeness of all three combining at once.
This is what Wallace achieves in this novel: he brings together the strangeness of his characters, his plot, his prose into a book that can be enjoyed on many levels, for the kind of Lovecraftian dread that worked so well in Bolaño’s 2666–a cosmic horror felt for everything unmentioned yet visible in the periphery–down the specific word choice, and remarkable balancing act the author pulls of sentence by sentence, clause by clause, word by word.
A novel like this requires much close reading, and a distraction-free deserted island surrounded by an endless ocean would be ideal. One would have time to read and reread, to work through all the footnotes and discover a frightening, and frighteningly accurate, world that through extreme exaggeration invokes the everyday, a novel so carefully constructed that every piece combines to create an incredible effect, a depth that seems truly infinite, with such a wicked nice multilayer paintjob that its black takes on the bottomless quality of water at night.