‘Infinite Jest’ and the challenge of encountering the other
By Isaiah Ellis
Last August I visited my father, who lives in a small town on the east coast of Florida. It’s a sleepy town – not a hot vacation spot like Miami Beach. Here, a few middle class vacationers like me exist next to blue-collar workers, strippers, and retired policemen. Everyone is in each other’s business because no one’s going anywhere except to work, to the bar, or to the beach, and back. Many people here live on the edge of financial ruin and eviction from their close-quarters apartments.
It was in this seaside town that I began, fifteen years after its initial release, to read David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’. I hoped this thousand-page monster of a book would buy me a temporary ticket out of the mundane. I was wrong.
‘Infinite Jest’ is about Americans’ ravenous appetite for entertainment. It’s also about individualistic desires that, when stripped of grand rhetoric, are basically mundane and incomplete. The narrative that Wallace crafts exposes a selective perception that grips the characters in the novel and echoes in our daily lives. Its echoes resonate in the present day, presenting a political and ethical reality still relevant in American culture.
‘Infinite Jest’ takes place in an indeterminate future, where time has become a corporate advertisement. In this world, Canada, the US, and Mexico are allied in the ‘Organization of North American Nations.’ Bringing us into this alternate world, the book features two central narratives. One focuses on Hal Incandenza, a tennis phenomenon developing his talents at a tennis academy in Boston, and the other on Don Gately, a recovering addict who lives at a halfway house just down the road. Both are isolated from mainstream society. The world has little bearing on everyday life as they experience it.
The two characters display a parallel mundaneness. Hal is an up-and-coming entertainer of the professional tennis world, but in many respects, he is lifeless. The stress of high-level performance and teenage angst takes its toll. Meanwhile, Gately seeks to recover from various traumas, fights the symptoms of withdrawal, and fears any excessive stress that might return him to his addiction. This reminds us that people from all walks of life muddle through. Hal’s story is a familiar tale of middle-class boredom and expectation, as is Gately’s involving addiction and violence.
The characters’ agency is constantly thwarted by routine and obligation. As the novel comes to a close, the challenges the characters confront remain unresolved. For example, when Hal is informed of an upcoming drug test at the end of the novel, we find he has been fighting off depression with an addiction to marijuana. Gately, involved in a fight where he is shot, spends the last pages of the novel physically incapacitated and unable to speak. Moreover, he is unable to refuse Demerol – his former drug of choice – which the doctors might prescribe as a painkiller.
Wallace foregrounds these main narratives for us, and they overshadow vignettes from secondary characters that involve physical, emotional, and sexual violence. Of course, the main narratives contain violent episodes as well, but the vignettes are gritty. Their unexpected appearance and their disturbing detail pack a heavier punch. They are told by characters we know nothing about, and who we never meet again. These characters’ traumas are exposed without pursuit of their meaning. Wallace keeps us on track as the horror-vignettes pile up in the background.