|DFW, not Rob Taylor!|
Reflections on Infinite Jest
Capitalism and the Novel have grown up together. For 300 or so years the development of the one has been variously and suggestively mirrored in the other. But where Capital subsumes, homogenises and reifies, the best novels are able, momentarily at least, to awaken the multiple transgressive energies, meanings and divergences within human consciousness which the mechanisms of hegemony rigorously function to expunge and conceal. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, published in 1996, is an incredibly apposite and percipient exploration of the pathologies at once the by product and life blood of our current phase of pervasive global Capital. The novel’s consubstantial trinity of themes – obsession, compulsion, addiction – are tackled with what is itself a kind of heightened-state micro-obsessiveness resulting in some of the finest comedic writing ever conceived. Conversely, the very same aspect of the book also produces some deliberately trying passages of maniacally convoluted detail and tangential prolixity designed to test the endurance of the hardiest reader in much the same way as the ‘Eumaeus’ episode of Ulysses or Chaucer’s The Parson’s Tale. Extensive footnotes function as a sort of anti-narrator frequently sending you to the back of the book for lengthy digressions of anything up to nineteen pages of tiny print itself smattered with microscopic sub-footnotes.
From a subtly different yet closely related entry-point it is equally a book about loneliness, loss, disconnectedness and the longing for human contact these precipitate. Beneath the broadly comic satire and intermittent brushes with nihilism there is compassion and a sense of ineffable sadness for human failure and frailty.
It is a huge novel: experientially vast, with frequent supple narrative shifts adapting proteanly to the various characters and their environments. As with the narrative strategy of Joyce, there is no neutral or default narrative voice from which the plurality of idiomatic registers depart. Infinite Jest consistently employs what is, as Hugh Kenner first noted, a characteristically Joycean approach to narrative; that the consciousness of the nearest presiding character inflects the rhythm, diction and ideological complexion of a sentence at any given point in the book. This is made nicely explicit when the hospitalised and delirious Gately, having been phantasmagorically visited by James Incandenza’s ‘wraith’ , finds his mind inundated with words which are entirely unknown to him:
‘..with roaring and unwilled force, comes the term PIROUETTE in caps, which term Gately knows for a fact he doesn’t have any idea what it means and no reason to be thinking it with roaring force, so the sensation is not only creepy but somehow violating, a sort of lexical rape.’
This passage also points up the way in which socially and culturally disparate characters are in fact very close in terms of their experential malaise and are ironically connected through the very isolation of their various solitary compulsions. The twin axes at the novel’s centre, Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, both encapsulate a boundlessly lonely emptiness. Judged by the criteria of ‘the American Dream’ they are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of achievement and prestige but both symbolise equally, the impossibility of attaining, let alone maintaining, the imagined point of fulfilment. Both sets of inmates are just as in thrall to the chimerae of consumer-culture’s hollow drives; their shared nexus an agonisingly single-minded will to self-transcendence and annihilation. Thanatos and Eros are locked in a perpetual, tormented dance for which Incandenza’s ‘The Medusa v. The Odalisque’ might provide an apt embodiment. The dialectic of ‘pleasure’ in a consumption-driven capitalist monoculture lies at the heart of Infinite Jest. What at first may seem diametrically opposed turn out to be two sides of the same desolate moon, as, indeed, the author of Hamlet who supplies the book’s title often demonstrated when dramatising his own anxieties toward a then just-emergent capitalist culture.
Infinite Jest contains some of the most haunting, funniest and uncannily exact prose you could hope to encounter. It’s bawdily humane, prodigiously generous in its refusal to pass judgement on the self-inflicted sufferings of its characters. It’s anarchically form-defying, ever-shifting vastness - is, finally, its own ungraspable form. The bathetic tailing-off of its many plot-strands seems at once inevitable and unsatisfactory but really it would be fatuous to expect some kind of denouement or plot resolution from an ‘entertainment’ such as this one. It is the bastard offspring of Tristram Shandy and Moby Dick midwifed by Gravity’s Rainbow and at the same time nothing at all like any of them or any other contemporary novel. In a literary culture that has still perhaps yet to recover from Foster Wallace's staggeringly untimely death by suicide in 2008, we are equally yet to measure the full importance of this seismic, gargantuan anti-epic, whose dystopic fictional future (conjectured back in the early 90's) seems uncomfortably near to where we are now.