Infinite Jest – Review

David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest. New York: Hachette, 2009. Kindle e-book.

I had to do it. Sooner or later I had to see what the fuss was about. Also, as a teacher, I look for works that sound related to things we study in class. Last summer, for example, I read The Double Bind because of its connection with The Great Gatsby. So Infinite Jest gets its title from Hamlet—the melancholy Dane meditating on death and remembering “poor Yorick,” the court jester. “A fellow of infinite jest,” he calls him. (5.1.191)

Infinite Jest is set in the near future. Technically, since the book was originally published in 1996, it is hypothetically set around 2014. Canada, the United States, and Mexico have united to form a single country, the Organization of North American Nations. And yes, there is a bad joke about the erection of ONAN. In fact, there are many jokes and humorous scenes in this serious novel.

The current president had been a popular singer before he united the three nations. He was apparently preceded in the USA by Jack Kemp (who in real history died too soon) and Rush Limbaugh, who in the novel had been assassinated. It appears that Wallace may have been somewhat prescient about this Organized Nation as we know today that many political leaders in the United States consider the American borders and even the definition of citizenship somewhat more flexible than is typical of most countries.

Television has been replaced by teleputers (TPs) which play solid-state cartridges or show programs from the Interlace—the next generation Internet. Movie theaters have closed. Even today we see more shows through “streaming,” and as I was reading this book we learned that Sony made a decent amount of money on a film that only played in fewer than 300 theaters, instead of the usual 2500 or so, but that they allowed people to download. We have not quite reached the political or technical stages portrayed in Infinite Jest, but the book is not too far off the mark.

One of the terms of the union of the three nations was made to alleviate environmental stress. The entire state of Maine and parts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Quebec, and New Brunswick have been depopulated so that all the nation’s refuse, including nuclear waste, can be deposited there. Plum Island writ large. The book calls this region the Great Concavity. Rumors of giant, deformed squirrels, hamsters, and even baby humans abound—like the stories we used to hear of the giant rats and alligators in the sewers of New York.

Infinite Jest contains more or less three overlapping and converging plots. Much of the story is set in Enfield, Massachusetts, which corresponds to Boston’s Brighton, at the Enfield Tennis Academy. ETA is a boarding school whose goal is to develop professional tennis players or at the very least have its students get decent tennis scholarships from colleges. We learn about the junior tennis circuit and read about some fairly typical boarding school shenanigans, especially as they relate to illegal drugs. Much of this story line focuses on the ETA student Hal Incandenza whose widowed mother is the school’s current headmistress and whose late father was its founder.

James Incandenza, Hal’s late father, also produced movies. The films sound very strange, even avant-garde. Wallace loves word plays so someone in the story calls them post-garde: They are beyond the avant-garde. (If he were writing today, he’d probably call them meta-garde.) Incandenza called his production company Poor Yorick, and his chef d’oeuvre is a film called Infinite Jest. We only get a few details about the film, but it starred a woman who at the time was the girlfriend of Hal’s older brother Orin. Hal and Orin called her the PGOAT—the Prettiest Girl of All Time. She was so gorgeous, no one ever asked her out until Orin did; he abandoned tennis in college for football and is now a punter of the Arizona Cardinals.

The Infinite Jest film is so entertaining that it lives up to its name. Everyone who watches it wants to do nothing except watch it again. They put it on an infinite loop on their TPs until they die. They do not eat, drink, or do anything except watch the movie. There is a suggestion that one of the characters survives the film because he sees it while heavily sedated in the hospital and can only recall random snatches.

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