By Chet Yarbrough
By David Foster Wallace
Narrated by Sean Pratt
Great credit is deserved by the publisher and editor of “Infinite Jest”. It is unlikely that most publishers would stick with “Infinite Jest’s” stream-of-consciousness journey. It is too long. As one of Wallace’s characters observes, the explanation has “too many words”. “Infinite Jest” is disjointed and comes together late in its narrative. “Infinite Jest” takes fortitude to complete. It is an excruciating story of a closely examined life. The author is testing the reader to see if he/she would rather escape than stick with David Foster Wallace’s examined life.
David Foster Wallace frustrates and fascinates readers with several extraordinary but flawed human beings. The main character in Wallace’s book is Hal Incandenza. But every created character is a part of who David Foster Wallace is or wants to be. Wallace’s self-absorption, destructive behavior, and vulnerability seep from every ink-stained page; from every enunciated sentence. His “Infinite Jest” becomes real and complete with his wasted suicide at age 46.
“Infinite Jest” is about addiction. “Infinite Jest” argues that modern civilization is jaded by plenty, i.e., movies, sex, drugs, and other distracting entertainments are so plentiful that escape from the trials of life becomes the purpose of life. Human success is redefined. Escape from conflict replaces drive for money, power, and prestige. Obsessive/compulsive behavior focuses on immediate gratification.
Hal Incandenza’s father, named “Himself” in Wallace’s book, creates a movie that has the seductive and destructive characteristics of an addictive drug. The movie becomes a secret weapon of destruction that stimulates the pleasure foci of the brain that destroys human interest in anything other than its replay. The jest is that pleasures, though ephemeral, are pursued without end and at any cost (including dismemberment and death). The pleasure of a watched movie leads to self-destruction.
In real life, Wallace achieves fame and financial stability with his writing. Retrospectively, “the jest” is that Wallace’s literary achievement is not enough to sustain his life because continued life demands work rather than Wallace’s chosen escape from reality. He lives the life and dies the death of his characters in “Infinite Jest”.
Wallace’s main character, Hal Incandenza, is a self-destructive, amateur, world-class tennis player in “Infinite Jest”. (Wallace was a competitive tennis player in real life.) Himself, Hal’s overachieving and failed-athlete father, is a wildly successful inventor and optics expert. Hal has two brothers. One is Mario, a middle son of the Incandenza family that reminds one of Dostoevsky’s main characters in “The Idiot”. The second is Hal’s older brother who is a star punter for a professional football team. All of the Incandenza characters are aspects of an examined life of David Foster Wallace.
Himself (Hal’s nicknamed father) makes a movie entertainment with a beautiful young woman who is half his age who disastrously couples with Hal’s older brother Orin. The beautiful young woman is so beautiful that she bargains with Himself to offer her naked image in his film in return for Himself’s abandonment of drugs. An irony of the bargain is that the beautiful young woman is a drug addict herself (another jest). Himself chooses to commit suicide by sticking his head into a microwave. Himself finds it easier to avoid rather than challenge the stresses of life.
Playing competitive tennis, writing a book, or making a movie is not as easy as hitting the re-play button for a movie, snorting a line of cocaine, sniffing a bong, or offing oneself. There is prescient insight here that resonates with today’s growing escapist drug use.
Mario, the younger brother of Hal, is a mentally challenged, strangely insightful, angelic character that reflects an altruistic aspect of life. One wonders if that is a part of what David Foster Wallace wishes himself to be. Competing, writing, and movie making require thinking, working, creating, with all its pains, disappointments, failures, and ephemeral successes. As an addict, the experience of drugs, alcohol, sex, gaming, etc. are great pleasures in the beginning, faltering pleasures in the middle, and killers in the end; at least it became so for David Foster Wallace.
“Infinite Jest” is a brilliant piece of work. However, it is David Foster Wallace’s view of life. It is sad that Wallace ends his life because the meaning of life is trivialized by his suicide.
If brilliant minds like Wallace conclude that suicide is a preferred end to life’s journey than perfecting humanity is a delusion. If society is addicted to entertainment, then Wallace infers suicide is a harbinger of the future. Are we all becoming addicts? Increasing drug use and overdosing statistics suggest Wallace knew what he was writing about.