When I started reading this book I was living in London, working in a dead-end job where reading at lunch time was what got me through. I took it on holiday with me over Christmas, came back to London having discovered it’s not a beach book. I was still reading it the Christmas after that, in December 2013, in London again preparing for a move, doing a million other things. Now it’s April 2014 and a few weeks ago I finished, on a balcony in Bangkok. Life goes on. A big book will tend to make you pay attention to the passing of time in this way, I find.
I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I’ve been reading other things alongside Infinite Jest, in the year and a half that I’ve had it on my mind, my shelves, my bike. It’s not portable, is it’s major downfall. While I was reading it and making this complaint, several people suggested I get it on a Kindle/e-book device… here’s the thing; I like paper, but more than that, I honestly feel like you need the physicality of this book – it’s an important part of the experience of reading it. Thumbing dutifully back and forth to the footnotes, sometimes only to be given a crumb of reward by the author, isn’t something you could replicate without paper, and it’s part of the point. It’s a joke. I’ve tried to explain this to many people and nobody else seemed to find it funny, but bear with me.
There’s no way I can give even a comprehensive overview here, but I’m going to talk about the experience of reading this monster, and some of the themes that occur to me along the way.
If I said that this was a novel about tennis, addiction and rehabilitation, set in a dystopian future American superstate… I’d have to clarify a little to hold your attention, I’m guessing. The professional tennis academy plays host to most of our main characters – it’s an almost military operation, honing young bodies into tennis-playing machines, with grossly over-developed playing arms and uncanny ability with pure maths, physics and philosophy, but not much else. It’s one of the nerve centres of the novel. The founder of the tennis academy is also the creator of a fatally entertaining and contraband film, which the novel is named after. The other main stage is a narcotics rehabilitation centre not very far from the tennis academy, where another large chunk of the action takes place. Here is the yin to the tennis academy inmates’ yan; ruined, desperate, broken people each with a saga of personal suffering and strangeness behind them. Foster Wallace gives his novel the space and time to ensure we get to know almost everyone on these two stages, and much more besides, very well indeed.
The film, or ‘entertainment’ that the novel is named after is a good way to illustrate the quirks and conent. Anyone who watches the film becomes unable to do anything else, and invariably dies in front of this utterly compelling film; fixated, dehydrated, starving, in their own excrement and possibly surrounded by the similarly prone bodies of people who have tried to rescue them. The passive-to-pathological relationship that we have with entertainment is being played out here in a gruesome and unambiguous manner. But yeah, so what? what do we learn from this huge novel about entertainment, addiction, depression, healing and faith? I suppose we learn a lot about Foster Wallace, and that’s no bad thing.
I’d like to come back to humour, to put an end to what could be a very long, rambling, badly structured essay. I feel strongly that humour is the linchpin of this novel and to confuse oneself into thinking because of its size it must be serious is a huge mistake. It’s clever, yes, and serious about its subject/s, but it’s also very, very funny. Not all the way through, and there are moments of genuine horror, too – grotesque and horrifying and hopeless chapters that deepen the story and make it what it is – BUT the overall tone, I think, is… jest. This is a novel about self-love and self-annihilation, the relationship between the two, and the stupidity of both. The whole way through you’ve got someone or something digging you in the ribs. Those footnotes that say “Perhaps.” or “He thought.” after you’ve flicked through 300 pages and broken your train of thought just to see what could be added are infuriating, but also entertaining – every time it happens you can picture Foster Wallace having a little chuckle to himself. Did you expect to be entertained? For the book to lay itself out for you neatly and as it should for you, the sovereign reader? Life is more complicated than that, it says. Try harder, look further.
You get laughed at. You get spun around in circles. You get teased and frustrated. You might resign yourself to just not reading the footnotes for a while. But you keep reading. Because when it comes down to it, it’s a bloody good novel about big, timeless human stuff by a lucid, ingenious writer. If I hadn’t been genuinely enjoying it every time I picked it up over the past year and a half, I would have given it up as a bad job long ago. It’s heavy, the print is small, have I mentioned that it’s unwieldy? Like an unhealthily intense love affair, it takes up too much space, makes you feel a bit guilty for seeing other books. But like that heady, maddening love affair it also makes you see god, just often enough to keep on keeping on. I won’t tell you to read it, because really who has the time? but maybe buy a copy, and see if it intrigues you enough one day to make a start. It’s worth it.