by Michael Niewodowski
#98 Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. (#107 on The List)
(Hamlet takes the skull): “Alas poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio—a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred my imagination is! My gorge rises at it…..” Hamlet Act 5, Scene 1.
We live in very stressful times. From the up-to-the-second paced, information-overloaded world of modern technology to constant, screaming streams of bad (never good) news-casts to an excess of daily obligations, a hysterical reality pervades our culture. Infinite Jest* is a study in anxiety. It is a look at the frantic hyper-angst we experience daily and our desperate, futile attempts to process it positively.
It’s a comedy.
In fact, it is the funniest novel I have ever read. I laughed loudly dozens of times. Three times, I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks.
Set in an alternate present in which years are no longer told by consecutive numbers, but rather subsidized by corporate sponsors (most of the action takes place in the Year of the Adult Depend Undergarment), Infinite Jest loosely follows the lives of the Incandenza family. The characters are……..interesting. James O. Incandenza, the paterfamilias, has made a film, ‘Infinite Jest’ (aka The Entertainment), that is so entertaining that anyone who watches it, even for a moment, has no other compulsion but to watch it over and over again, eventually dying from lack of sustenance. Incandenza uses an actress in the film that is so beautiful that she must wear a veil over her face to stop men from falling desperately in love with her; Orin Incandenza, one of the three sons, does. If The Entertainment could be weaponized by Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (Quebec separatist wheelchair assassins), it could be a nation destroyer. A CIA-like agent, Hugh/Helen Steeply, undergoes gender re-assignment surgery to more effectively infiltrate and stop the separatist group. Hal Incandenza, the youngest son, is a marijuana addicted, boarding school tennis brat, who plays Eschaton** and contemplates his relationship with his (now deceased) father.
Many of the episodes in the novel seem to be governed by a more extreme version of Murphy’s Law: if it can go wrong, it will; it can always go wrong, so it always will go wrong; when it goes wrong, it will go wrong in a very, very bad way. This leads to situations in which normal tasks like fixing a squeaky bed, re-parking a car, or interviewing with college admissions become epic struggles reminiscent of The Iliad.***
My father was tightly wound. An annoying song, a squeaky wheel, or a less-than-helpful customer-service-representative could send him into paroxysms of angry frustration that most of us will never know. Besides his more-than-full-time job as a surgeon, he worked sixty to eighty hours a week on home repairs, family auto repairs, and intensive yard landscaping. Even entertainment and relaxation were full-time jobs for him; he would meticulously plan out nearly every aspect of the family vacation- the rest of the family were clearly only along for the ride. For the most part, my father and I differ on this account. I consider myself to be fairly calm, although I imagine that many people that saw me working as a professional chef would say otherwise.
Anxiety and addiction go hand in hand. Most of the characters in Infinite Jest are extremely anxious, and extremely addicted. Much of the action is set at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. In the world of Infinite Jest,
The Entertainment represents the ultimate drug; some characters literally beg to view the film, despite full awareness that it is essentially suicide.
I have recently come to terms with a fifteen-year adrenaline addiction. A professional restaurant kitchen environment is, by design, a high stress environment. Most chefs, myself included, would trigger the fight or flight mechanism to get a rush of adrenaline; this gave us the ability to accomplish superhuman feats of skill and organization. I honestly did not recognize the addiction nor even the ‘adrenaline drug’ while I was working as a chef. I feel very fortunate that I never succumbed to much more serious alcohol or drug addiction, like so many chefs and restaurant workers do.
We all need some sort of escape from reality— some entertainment. For now, I have replaced my adrenaline rush with this healthier(?) escape into 1001 novels and writing this blog.
At over 1000 pages (I listened to more than 56 hours of unabridged audiobook), and with 388 footnotes, David Foster Wallace’s novel is a magnum opus, extravagant in details, with intricate and intense plot and character connections****.
The hyper-anxiety– the hysterical reality– that Wallace so adeptly describes is amplified by his suicide less than ten years after publication of Infinite Jest.
(Hamlet, still holding the skull): “….Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen?” Hamlet Act 5, Scene 1.
The rest is silence…..except, of course, for the footnotes.
*In an attempt to be true to Wallace’s style, I will use footnotes in this blog. In a break from his style, I will use asterisks in the place of numbers.
**Eschaton is a world domination and destruction game played on several tennis courts where tennis balls are nuclear weapons lobbed at opposing countries.
***For example: consider the following excerpt from Infinite Jest:
FROM INTERNAL INTERLACE-SYSTEM E-MAIL MEMO
YEAR OF DAIRY PRODUCTS FROM THE AMERICAN HEARTLAND
I am writing in response to your request for additional information. In block #3 of the accident reporting form, I put “trying to do the job alone”, as the cause of my accident. You said in your letter that I should explain more fully and I trust that the following details will be sufficient.
I am a bricklayer by trade. On the day of the accident, March 27, I was working alone on the roof of a new six story building. When I completed my work, I discovered that I had about 900 kg. of brick left over. Rather than laboriously carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to lower them in a barrel by using a pulley which fortunately was attached to the side of the building at the sixth floor. Securing the rope at ground level, I went up to the roof, swung the barrel out and loaded the brick into it. Then I went back to the ground and untied the rope, holding it tightly to insure a slow descent of the 900 kg of bricks. You will note in block #11 of the accident reporting form that I weigh 75 kg.
Due to my surprise at being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Needless to say, I proceeded at a rapid rate up the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor I met the barrel coming down. This explains the fractured skull and the broken collar bone.
Slowed only slightly, I continued my rapid ascent not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were two knuckles deep into the pulleys. Fortunately, by this time, I had regained my presence of mind, and was able to hold tightly to the rope in spite of considerable pain. At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel from the force of hitting the ground.
Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel now weighed approximately 30 kg. I refer you again to my weight of 75 kg in block #11. As you could imagine, still holding the rope, I began a rather rapid descent from the pulley down the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming up. This accounts for the two fractured ankles and the laceration of my legs and lower body.
The encounter with the barrel slowed me enough to lessen my impact with the brick-strewn ground below. I am sorry to report, however, that as I lay there on the bricks in considerable pain, unable to stand or move and watching the empty barrel six stories above me, I again lost my presence of mind and unfortunately let go of the rope, causing the barrel to begin a
****See character map: http://www.sampottsinc.com/ij/file/IJ_Diagram.pdf