Dispatches from the Abyss II

Halfway through Infinite Jest

I’m beginning to think I understand the title, which hasn’t appeared in the first 500 pages of text.  But in addition to text, this novel has footnotes (footnotes! In a novel?), or more accurately endnotes, in an even smaller font than the already small font of the text; in addition to 981 pages of text, there are 96 pages of endnotes, so at first you’re saying, I not only have to read this incredibly dense and self-indulgent text?  I have to read these fucking endnotes?

But that’s not the right attitude.  You need to admit that you’re devoting six or eight weeks of your life to Infinite Jest, whatever it takes, and luxuriate in the text, read things twice, spend time on the endnotes.

One of the more obscure and stupefying endnotes is a complete filmography of James O. Incandenza, the patriarch of this clan (unless you want to take it back to his father, who also appears; I haven’t yet mentioned this family, but I will below); it goes on for page after page, completely made-up movies.  On three occasions he attempted a film called Infinite Jest, and the third was the last film he completed—if he did indeed complete it; there is some dispute—a film which almost no one has seen, but those who have called it his “most entertaining and compelling work.”  Right after he finished it, or in the midst of trying to finish it, he killed himself, by putting his head in a large microwave and turning it on (I have no idea if that’s possible.  It definitely sounds unlikely).

So either this was a repeating project which the man kept trying and failing to complete, and it drove him to suicide, or he had finished what he wanted to do with his life and killed himself (though artists who are happy with their work don’t usually do that).  We have to formulate our theories about the title with that fact in mind.  We also have in mind, we can never get it out of our mind, that the author of this novel killed himself.

Anyway, here’s my guess about the Jest: Young people, in order to distinguish themselves in some way (in this case, by becoming great tennis players) throw themselves heart and soul into some endeavor (a tennis academy that also serves as a school) and pour their life force into it.  But the nature of the situation is that only a few can really distinguish themselves (become pros), the rest will be also rans, or happy amateurs, or teachers at a club.  In the meantime, the tension of attempting such a thing compels them to find some escape, usually some drug or other, sometimes to enhance their performance (like steroids, or that drug to cure ADD), sometimes to take the pressure off (marijuana, cocaine, any number of other substances).  It seems that in the age we live in, when you’re trying to do almost anything—from becoming a great athlete to getting a solid erection—you take a pill.

People then become addicted to those drugs.  They go—pretty quickly in some cases—from being beautiful promising young people to being helplessly dependent drug addicts, hanging on trying to survive.  So scenes from the tennis academy alternate with scenes of dope addicts out to get a fix, or of former users trying to get their lives together (there are many hilarious scenes about AA; they tend to be my favorites in the book.  Also about NA.  And various other 12 step groups).

In the 12 step groups they discover that they can’t do anything without a Higher Power, can’t even stop taking some stupid pill (“Hey buddy, can you spare me some change?  I’m trying to get a hard-on”), but once they develop their spiritual lives, they discover that God loves them the way they are.  They didn’t have to distinguish themselves.  If they’d heard that in the first place, they could have skipped the whole thing.

Funny, ain’t it?

The point of life is to embrace the moment as it is, which is—in effect—to be at one with the higher power.  But we can’t do that, because we’re afraidSo we go off on some elaborate quest.

This is the wheel of addiction, which we’re hearing a lot about these days, also the wheel of samsara, which the Buddha talked about some time ago.  Even if people avoid getting hooked on some pill, they get addicted to success, or to work itself.  Either way, as a teacher of mine used to say, you lose.

In addition to scenes of the tennis academy (where we see young people on their way to becoming addicts, so we want to yell Stop!), and scenes of various 12 step movements, there are scenes concerning some imaginary political situation, involving the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. (get it?).  That part of the book is the most obscure to me, since I’m not terribly political, though parts of it are hilarious (the symbol for O.N.A.N. is an eagle wearing a sombrero with a maple leaf in his mouth).  There are also other random scenes.  The cast of characters is vast.

But what I should mention (as I promised above) is that the novel revolves around a single family, the Incandenzas, who founded the tennis academy and whose stories are at the center of the novel.  James, the papa, has died by suicide in the present tense of the novel (if there is such a thing; episodes wander all over the place).  Avril, his widow, still lives at the academy.  There are three sons: Orin, once a promising tennis player who is now a punter in the NFL; Mario, who had a severe birth defect and is unable to play tennis, or really even to go to school, but has taken up his father’s vocation of filmmaking; and Hal, who is currently a student at the academy, a very promising tennis player who nevertheless sneaks off and smokes dope in private on occasion, and is also addicted to smokeless tobacco.  For various reasons—the smokeless tobacco is a major one—I assume that Hal is the autobiographical character in this book, if there is one.  Really of course, the whole novel is about, or is, David Foster Wallace, the consciousness of the man, and it is vast, and incredibly complex, and hilariously funny.

Last time I said something about the possibility that he is the most talented novelist I’ve ever encountered, and my wife thought that was ridiculous (as I did myself; I mentioned that when I said it).  What I meant is that I’m amazed by all that he is able to cram into a single scene.  Really this novel is a series of disjointed scenes, and every one seems complete in itself, and satisfying, and full.  Then here comes another one.

It is also—as I keep saying—uproariously funny.  I can’t remember when I’ve laughed so hard at a novel.

But the title suggests that.