Book review: Infinite Jest

Once hailed as a work of singular genius, time has not been kind to the groundbreaking Infinite Jest, as Paul Ring discovers while reading David Foster Wallace’s novel 20 years on.
Book review: Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace

Little Brown, £12.99;

Kindle, £8.49

LEINSTER is misspelled in Infinite Jest. Buried deep in the bowels of David Foster Wallace’s maddening and magnificent novel, the province makes an appearance along with Co Louth, only it’s spelt Lenster and there is no trademark Wallace footnote to explain what it is.

2016 marks the 20th year since the publication of Infinite Jest and we can assume the error will be corrected when the anniversary copy is published later this year.

Time hasn’t just been kind to this novel, it’s somehow added another veneer of aura over a work that came to define Wallace and whose tentacles have reached a great many novelists operating today.

Witness the garbled realism of current Man Booker winner Marlon James or the jabbing wit of Ireland’s own Paul Murray as proof of the influence of Wallace’s crowning achievement.

But should you read Infinite Jest? Should you crack the spine on this fat book? A little like Ulysses, the sheer heft of it puts people off.

Add the perceived infuriation of end notes, a plot that runs down blind alleys and sentences that seem to stretch for pages, is Infinite Jest a realistic reading option in a world that condenses, summarises and lists everything?

A world that flashes notification after notification and craves your every morsel of attention? Back in 1996, the internet was a quaint, dial up tone refuge of nerds. VHS ruled living rooms and television schedules had actual meaning.

A 1,079 page novel set in the not too distant future, about a movie so entertaining that anyone who watched it ceased to want to do anything else ever again and died from essentially overdosing on entertainment, dropped as the quintessential Generation X novel — a tag Wallace would later wince at.

His publisher Little Brown hyped the novel as a singular work of genius and the mostly fawning reviews that followed announced a work that drew a line in the sand for American writers of a certain generation.

Wallace was the heir to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo’s natural successor at the same time.

Wallace’s great friend and friendly rival Jonathan Franzen would later admit to Jest lighting his competitive fires and launching him into his own defining work; The Corrections.

A halfway house for addicts and a tennis academy for gifted young players are the two pillars on which Jest is set.

Both tapped into Wallace’s own personal experience, at 14 he was a talented enough tennis player to be ranked in his state of Illinois while he also spent time in a Boston hospital for substance addiction in his early twenties.

Jest opens with Hal Incandenza — a brilliant young tennis player and student of Enfield Tennis Academy ‘consciously congruent’ to the shape of his hard chair and about to have the worst college admissions interview imaginable.

We are led into the world of the Incandenza’s, from Hal’s sweetly innocent Mario to his sinisterly neurotic mother, lovingly christened ‘The Moms’ while the spectre of Hal’s father stalks a great many pages.

Enfield also plays host to dozens of characters who could comfortably carry their own novel and the place itself effortlessly draws you into its pulse and geography.

Working opposite Enfield is Ennet House, a halfway house for addicts that hosts one of literature’s true heroes; Don Gatley.

He of the enormous, perfectly square head and big heart who’s just trying to live day by day, minute by minute and get clean.

He is the soul of the book and a reader will laugh, cry and generally root for the big man who discovers that AA slogans are not mere clichés, that they’re not just vague, new-age nonsense but an actual way to get through a day. Gatley learns; “That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt.

That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realise how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack. That concentrating on anything is very hard work.”

Wallace’s peppers the novel with nuggets of unabashed honesty like the above but in the years following the release of the novel and as his reluctant genius persona grew, paragraphs like the above were corrupted by the internet and shaped into delivering Wallace as some sort of sage. His Kenyon College commencement speech ‘This is Water’ only fuelled this image and distorted the engine of his finest work.

Jest is a messy, deliberately infuriating, trailing comet of a novel. Reading it is like being in a room with a brilliant, obsessive and strange friend who will constantly challenge and enrage you but bring you back from the door by making a fart joke.

Wallace wanted Jest to be a challenge, he saw nothing wrong with asking a reader to dedicate themselves to the book but at no time does he treat us as an enemy, at no time does he make it unbearable.

Wallace wrote Jest in a way as a novel that would grow with multiple readings and readers have long made the connection between a book about addiction that becomes addictive.

Part of that addiction lies in its exquisite comic brilliance. The book reads like a person thinks and this train of thought language shudders to a stop every so often with one perfectly delivered punchline.

Jest is also home to some spectacular set pieces and dialogue that cracks like a whip between the boundaries of the likes of Hal Incandenza on a freakishly good streak of clipping his toenails into a rubbish bin.

Even now, Infinite Jest sits with something of a foreboding menace on my bookshelf. Everyone falls into their own book, the book they keep coming back to and Jest sits there like the all-consuming movie on which it’s based, ready to detonate and send one tumbling down the rabbit hole once again.

There are oceans of ink dedicated to the various theories, ideas and influences that Wallace leapt forth with in this book.

But there are flaws that should be acknowledged. It is at times, self-indulgent while Wallace was also prone to showing off a vast mind and there are times when the urge to not merely place the book down but slam it across the room will begin to bubble to your surface.

That it is flawed, merely adds to its achievement. That the seeping tics of Wallace’s persona still found room in this book merely confirms that he put his every being into it.

But for all of its wisdom, for all of Wallace’s foreshadowing of endless on demand entertainment, for his searing insight into addictions and the farce and force of his characters, Infinite Jest has at its heart; great humanity and sadness.

Reading it is an experience that courses right through you and ultimately tries to define what it is to be alive.

In Wallace’s dystopian future, entertainment is endless, in our present, his greatest work is well on its way to infinity.

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