Infinite Jest comes, in time, to seem like some great clattering vehicle that is powered by a rudimentary three-stroke engine, the narrative passing in steady sequence from Enfield to Ennet to a plateau lookout in the Southwest where two Québecois-separatist agents are having a secret rendezvous, trying to determine how their people might get hold of a particular “cartridge,” or film cassette. The film, the eponymous Infinite Jest, was made by James Incandenza and has the terrifying capacity to send anyone who views it into a crazed state of fixation that quickly leads to death. Why or how this should be is never made clear, nor do we expect it to be.
Each of the narrative sections has its own compelling dynamic, often against the odds. Why read countless pages detailing the Byzantine logistics of daily tennis drills? Because, for one thing, Wallace’s writing is edgy, accurate, and darkly witty.
Here is how to don red and gray E.T.A. sweats and squad-jog a weekly 40 km. up and down urban Commonwealth Avenue even though you would rather set your hair on fire than jog in a pack. Jogging is painful and pointless, but you are not in charge. Your brother gets to ride shotgun while a senile German blows BBs at your legs both of them laughing and screaming Schnell.
Though nothing much happens at Enfield, our prolonged exposure to the academy system reveals the terrible repressions that keep everything in its place. This is a game world, a closed system, but the idea of play has been pumped out of it, and the remaining husk is but a slight barrier against the maniacal forces at large in the world. These are conjured for us through countless vignettes: of the awful unraveling of Hal’s father; of the brittle poise and warped lusts of his mother, Avril; of the desperado backgrounds of the Ennet residents, not least the self-immolating habits of the younger Don Gately.
Gately, like his housemates, is at once sick and arrestingly vulnerable—and more human than the competitive automatons being groomed at nearby ETA. When tenderness and conscience announce themselves in the soul of a thug, we cannot but be moved. So, too, we have to smile at the fumbling steps he takes on his way to true self-reconstruction.
He had nothing in the way of a like God-concept, and at that point maybe even less than nothing in terms of interest in the whole thing; he treated prayer like setting an oven-temp according to a box's direction. Thinking of it as talking to the ceiling was somehow preferable to imagining talking to Nothing. And he found it embarrassing to get down on his knees in his underwear, and like the other guys in the room he always pretended his sneakers were like way under the bed and he had to stay down there a while to find them and get them out, when he prayed, but he did it . . . .
Stroke, stroke, stroke—over a distance of hundreds of pages. Readers either drop out (some will) or push on, lured by the interest of the idiosyncratic prose itself, but also by curiosity and some fundamental incredulity. The denizens of these worlds are so far removed from one another—tennis brats, recovering druggies, Québecois separatists—that the author will have to turn magician. Surely the hankies he has tucked into various pockets will cascade forth in a riotous splurge of color. But no. Even though signs of linkage start to proliferate, and even though a fascinating bridge between worlds is created through the trajectory of one Joelle van Dyne (a former girlfriend of Hal’s older brother, and perhaps of his father, too; the star of the film Infinite Jest; a suicidal cokehead who comes to Ennet and takes a shine to Gately), the plot lines do not come to apocalyptic or even transfiguring intersection. Whatever aesthetics we espouse, we are all closet traditionalists in our expectations—and these must be shelved. Wallace rebuts the prime-time formula. Think Beckett, think Pynchon, think Gaddis. Think. Wallace has, in interviews, scourged himself, admitting to “devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them” (as noted). But the artistic intent in Infinite Jest overrides such considerations, or at least places them in perspective. Wallace is, clearly, bent on taking the next step in fiction. He is carrying on the Pynchonian celebration of the renegade spirit in a world gone as flat as a circuit board; he is tailoring that richly comic idiom for its new-millennial uses. To say that the novel does not obey traditional norms is to miss the point. Wallace’s narrative structure should be seen instead as a response to an altered cultural sensibility. The book mimes, in its movements as well as in its dense loads of referential data, the distributed systems that are the new paradigm in communications. The book is not about electronic culture, but it has internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst. The plot is webbed, branched, rife with linkages. This could be a liability. If Hal were effectively the protagonist (as we first imagine he will be), he would not generate binding energy sufficient to counteract the diffusion. But the emergent figure of Gately—wounded, desperate, but able to find and give love—allows Infinite Jest to work as a postmodern saga of damnation and salvation. The novel is confusing, yes, and maddening in myriad ways. It is also resourceful, hilarious, intelligent, and unique. Those who stay with it will find the whole world lit up as though by black light.
Illustration by Mark Todd