Just a few hours ago I read the last of the 981 pages (plus footnotes) that comprise Infinite Jest. It’s a hard to thing to get my head around, to say the least. There are lots of directions to go in understanding the book (and my experience of it) – literary, philosophical, syntactical (seriously). The best place, though, I can think to start, is by considering the book’s first word – “I.”
I know this seems hugely naive, but – the place to start with this book may be not to treat it as a novel at all. Its first sentence is in the first person, and so, why do we need to see this as a fictionalized first-person? Sure, the “I” turns out to be one Harold (“Hal”) Incandenza, tennis star and dictionary-memorizing prodigy. But it doesn’t seem so much of a stretch to see “I” as David Foster Wallace himself.
When Kurt Cobain killed himself, I was in high school. The first few times after that that I listened to those Nirvana recordings, it seemed so obvious. I asked myself a question I don’t think many of us had asked prior to his suicide (me included): how did we not see this coming? How had we purchased millions of CD’s worth of Bleach, Nevermind, In Utero and all the other ancillary releases, and not heard them as the blatant cry for help that they were? Granted, we were just in the audience, not in a position to actually help, but why was it that, once Cobain had committed suicide, all the nihilistic anger seemed so obviously self-destructive? The first time I realized this it really hurt – I felt like I had taken part in some sort of collective pop-culture murder. I mean really – “look on the bright side suicide”? “It’s so soothing to know that you’ll sue me, for starting to sound the same”? “All Alone is all we are”? Sure, we’re used to accepting a singer’s lyrics as an adopted persona, we’re never so naive as to commit the intentional fallacy and think that an actual human being was actually saying what they felt once it had become a recording, come down to us through all the bizarre distributional schemes that get music to the masses.
But with some artists, they achieve such a pique of intensity that the “intentional fallacy” seems impossible not to commit. So with David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest. The book starts in the first-person, as Hal Incandenza is brought to a college interview (as we learn somewhat later) is taking place a few months after most of the action of the book. By page 12, he’s begun to suffer from some kind of a psychotic break, or seizure, or something. He’s brought into a bathroom, and then an ER. That sequence would seem to be “in medias res”, like the story will come back here, but it actually never does. Assuming this interview is in the spring Hal’s senior year at the Enfield Tennis Academy, the rest of the book centers around the fall of the previous year. So this isn’t “in medias res,” this is “ad terminem rem.”
Though the first “chapter” (that’s why I assume are delimited by the crescented circles every so often through the text) is in he first-pers0n, very little of the rest of the book is. Even so, Hal is undoubtedly the main character. I haven’t counted but Hal is probably not mentioned or referenced or alluded to on the majority of pages of the book. He’s not a main character in the ordinary sense. It’s more like his mindset looms over everything else.
So if this is somehow autobiographical (and I know I haven’t provided a good argument justifying that perspective), what is DFW trying to convey about his life?
That he was raised in a cluster of settings that valued his “talent,” and that focus on his talent destroyed him and destroys others like him, which means a lot of us – probably almost everyone raised in middle-class and upper-middle-class public school systems across the country.
It’s ironic (I think) that on the edition of the book I have, at least, the word “talent” appears in 3 of the 18 blurbs in the first few pages. One of the most straightforward, and therefore chilling clauses in the entire book appears early on:
…talent is sort of a dark gift… talent is its own expectation: it is there from the start and either lived up to or lost (173).
To me, while reading, this became something like this book’s thesis statement. Whether that talent is for tennis, prescriptive grammar, film-making, breaking-and-entering, lobbing, punting, or – in DFW’s one case, writing – talent is a trap. Once everyone else knows that you can do (or thinks they know) you are doomed either to repeatedly exhibit that talent (whether you are interested in doing so or not), or one day you fail to exhibit it, and suffer the consequences. Unless you opt out. But none of the characters here ever opt out in anything like a healthy or well-adjusted way.
The book’s other really big theme is entertainment (not to be confused with “the Entertainment”, though that’s obviously related, either metaphorically or literally). It’s sort of easy to see how talent and entertainment connect. Talent is, from a 3rd-person perspective, entertaining. That’s why we in the audience don’t question suicidal lyrics or writings until after the fact. Talent holds our attention (to speak to the etymology of “entertainment”). The boys at ETA are studiously kept from the entertainment-side of things – one of the coaches explains at one point that when they’re in “The Show” (i.e., professional tennis) there will be enough of that. At ETA, the point is to refine their talents to the greatest extent possible, independently of any external adulation (though there’s plenty of internal adulation at ETA).
So – we live in a world which has crafted many subcultures devoted to the cultivation of talent, which talent is honed for the purposes of providing mass entertainment. If you’re first-personally “talented”, you have one form of suffering; if you’re a 3rd-person viewer of such talent, you have another. Again, unless you opt out. And that seems to mean ending up on a bathroom floor, in an emergency room, a halfway house, etc. etc. The rest of the book (excepting perhaps the Quebecois Separatists) all falls out of the swing back and forth between those perspectives, and the various attempts, successful or otherwise, to opt out.
All that might sound sort of hoo-hum (like the AA cliches this book is filled with, perhaps the truth is hoo-hum), also might not make you realize that this book is hilarious. And ridiculously literary. And postmodern. And everything else. I’ll try to write about all those things later.