By Chet Yarbrough
“Infinite Jest” is an excruciating story of a closely examined life. Great credit is earned by the original publisher. To complete “Infinite Jest’s” stream-of-consciousness journey is an arduous task. It is too long. As one of Wallace’s characters says, I hear you but the explanation has “too many words”.
Though widely praised, “Infinite Jest” is disjointed in time and confused by fragmentation. Using words of the past like
nigger and spic distorts Wallace’s dystopian picture and betrays his personal prejudice. Wallace’s story comes together too late in its narrative. It is a brilliant explanation of drugs and addiction but it smacks of the 1% world of the spoiled rich.
Every created character is a part of who David Foster Wallace is or wants to be. Wallace’s self-absorption, destructive behavior, and vulnerability seep from every ink-stained page; from every enunciated sentence. His “Infinite Jest” becomes real and complete with his wasted suicide at age 46.
“Infinite Jest” is about addiction. “Infinite Jest” argues that modern civilization is jaded by plenty. Movies, pornography, drugs, and other distracting entertainments are so plentiful that escape from trials of life becomes the purpose of life. Human success is redefined. Escape from conflict replaces drive for money, power, and prestige. Obsessive/compulsive behavior focuses on immediate gratification.
Hal Incadenza’s father, named “Himself” in Wallace’s book, creates a movie that has the seductive and destructive characteristics of an addictive drug. The movie becomes a secret weapon of destruction that stimulates the pleasure foci of the brain. The movie destroys human interest in anything other than its replay. The jest is that pleasures, though ephemeral, are pursued without end and at any cost (including dismemberment and death). The pleasures of a watched movie lead to self-destruction.
In real life, Wallace achieves fame and financial stability with his writing. The jest is that his literary achievement is not enough to sustain his life because continued life demands work rather than Wallace’s chosen escape from reality. He lives the life and dies the death of his characters in “Infinite Jest”. “Inifinite Jest” is a tragedy played out in the real life of David Foster Wallace.
Wallace’s main character, Hal Incandenza, is a self-destructive, world-class amateur tennis player in “Infinite Jest”. (Wallace was a competitive tennis player in real life.) Himself, Hal’s overachieving and failed-athlete father, is a wildly successful inventor and optics expert. Hal has two brothers. One is Mario, a middle son of the Incandenza family that reminds one of Dostoevsky’s main character in “The Idiot”. The second is Hal’s older brother, a star punter for a professional football team. Hal’s mother, “the Moms” is a familial anchor for a family torn apart by interpersonal confusion and misunderstanding. All of the Incandenza characters are aspects of an examined life of David Foster Wallace.
Himself makes a movie entertainment with a beautiful young woman who is half his age. This young woman couples with Hal’s older brother, a professional football player, Orin. The beautiful young woman is so beautiful that she bargains with Himself to offer her naked image in his film in return for Himself’s abandonment of drugs. “The Moms” believes the young woman is sleeping with her husband but Wallace’s story suggests that is false.
Orin becomes estranged from the beautiful woman but the reason for the estrangement is ironically not “The Moms” false belief. An irony of the bargain (aka the infinite jest) is that the beautiful young woman is a drug addict herself and Himself’s death may have been caused by awakening psychic pain that had been blunted by Himself’s use of addictive drugs. Himself chooses to commit suicide by sticking his head into a microwave.
Himself finds it easier to avoid rather than challenge the stresses of life. Himself is a parody of Wallace’s life of addiction ; i.e. playing competitive tennis, writing a book, or making a movie is not as easy as hitting the re-play button for a movie, or snorting a line of cocaine, or sniffing a bong, or offing oneself.
Mario Incandenza, Hal’s younger brother, is a mentally challenged, strangely insightful, and angelic character that reflects altruism in life. It is an aspect of what David Foster Wallace wishes himself to be. Competing, writing, and movie making require thinking, working, creating; with all its pains, disappointments, failures, and ephemeral successes. As an addict, the experience of drugs, alcohol, sex, gaming, etc. are great pleasures in the beginning, faltering pleasures in the middle, and killers in the end. At least, it became so for David Foster Wallace.
No question,“Infinite Jest” is a brilliant piece of work. However, it is David Foster Wallace’s “one percenter’s” view of life. This is a sad, depressing story because Wallace trivialized his life by committing suicide. If society is addicted to entertainment then Wallace implies suicide is a harbinger of the future. This is a myopic view of humanity but a true story of a closely examined life.