Dispatches from the Abyss IV

Final Reflections on Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  Back Bay Books.  1079 pp. $18.00.

I don’t know how I expected this novel to end, some massive climax where Wallace tied up loose ends and brought it to a satisfactory conclusion, but of course I got no such thing.  It ends in an orgy of addictive behavior, really low down stuff, with loose ends frayed and all over the place.  I will admit sheepishly that I have no idea what the term post-modern actually means (does anyone?), but I assume it has something to do with the fact that a book satisfies none of the conventions of the traditional novel.  Infinite Jest passes that test with flying colors.

The book is overblown, it goes on and on, its subjects and themes and characters appear entirely at random as far as I can tell.  But this is also a great novel by a man of enormous talent, and I wouldn’t change a word, because Wallace’s virtues are tied up with his flaws.  “More details!” a famous French writer once said.  “More details!  Nothing is interesting except in detail,” and Wallace took that advice to heart.  An evening of reading this novel often exhausted me; it was like having Thanksgiving dinner every night.  I was sometimes physically tired from all the laughing.  My ribs hurt.

I read this novel, as I said before, because I’d seen The End of the Tour and felt a strong bond of affection for the author.  I had little idea that Infinite Jest was more or less the War and Peace on the subject of addiction, making any other treatment of that subject paltry.  I’ve been obsessed with addiction for years, seeing it everywhere, from drugs to alcohol to television to cell phones to the Internet itself.  Auden saw his day as the Age of Anxiety.  I think ours is the Age of Addiction, though the two are closely linked.  One feeds the other, and they’re reactions to the same thing.

I haven’t changed my mind since my previous posts.  I can see now that, despite the vast panorama the novel presents, I was reading because I wanted to understand how this hugely talented man, who saw so much about human existence, could have taken his own life.  I was stunned by his descriptions of crippling depression.  And I was deeply touched by two rather banal moments in the life of Hal Incandenza, who I take as a stand-in for the author.  The first is when he realizes that, without marijuana, he has nothing to look forward to in his life.  And the second is when he faces, as a real question, whether he would rather smoke marijuana or play tennis.  Because it would seem that, at least at that moment, with a drug test coming up, he can’t do both.

Hal is at the top of an extremely competitive world of first class tennis players.  He ranks high in his age group; at one point he has an epic practice match with another guy from the tennis academy, which goes on into the early evening, and the whole school gathers around to watch.  He’s at the top of his game, but even a slight injury could throw away all he’s worked for; a letting up of intensity would do the same.  He’s also a guy with an extremely active mind capable of extraordinary retention—he can call up things that he read years before—but that can be a liability too.  We can see why he wants his daily marijuana vacations.  We can even see why he might want to take a permanent one.

If he does, he’ll wind up like the down and out addicts that we see throughout the novel, one of those sad dreadful people.  He’ll be like the folks I see when I volunteer at the homeless shelter on Mondays, toothless from using crystal meth, totally down and out, not a penny to their name.  Our lives teeter on the brink of relative sanity and total addiction.  We could go either way.

Infinite Jest is about all the things we do to get away from the essential boredom—and the suppressed fear—of moment by moment life.  It’s about how we entertain ourselves.  The Pale King—Wallace’s final, unfinished novel—is apparently about that boredom.  The great meditation teacher (who was, weirdly enough, a powerful addict himself) Chogyam Trungpa, often talked about the practice of meditation, and taking it into everyday life, as learning to deal with boredom (creating what he called “cool boredom”) and about not needing entertainment, taking our life as we receive it.  Wallace understood this dilemma, and wrote about it eloquently, particularly in what was for me the most riveting single passage in the book.  He couldn’t fully live his knowledge.  None of us can.

The whole thing is a mystery.  Life is a mystery.  Wallace celebrates this mystery in a novel that will stand for years as a portrait of the human dilemma at a particular moment on the planet.  It’s worth every moment I spent on it.  I’d happily read the whole thing again.