Book of a Lifetime: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Friday 11 February 2011
For all David Foster Wallace's formidable and, to a bunch of woolly humanities graduates, estrangingly mathematical intelligence, when my friends and I first read 'Infinite Jest' about a year after it came out in 1996, we felt the instantaneous devotee's delusion of ownership. This guy was ours. Here was a way of writing that restored to literary English the crackle of contemporaneity it lacked, absorbing the registers of psychotherapy and street slang and hard-core analytic maths into a style that might have sagged under the weight of its own syntactic ambition had it not been underwritten, always, by Wallace's whistle-bright logical clarity, comic inventiveness and unexpected largeness of heart. When, a few years later, I began to write myself, it took a conscious effort to wean myself off the rhythms and loop-the-loop habits of mind of a writer to whom, judging by my concave-spined and painstakingly sellotaped copy of 'Infinite Jest', I had perhaps become a little addicted.
And addiction, of course, is the subject of 'Infinite Jest'. To TV and film, to drugs and alcohol, to the anaesthetic pleasures of contemporary America: like and unlike Martin Amis's John Self, Wallace's characters are addicted to the 21st century. Set in an indeterminate near-future in which time itself is subject to corporate sponsorship – the events of the book mostly take place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment – the plot concerns the lost master copy of a film so entertaining it induces a state of eventually fatal catatonia in its viewers. Hal Incandenza, an academically gifted teenage tennis prodigy at a Boston sports academy, and Don Gately, a recovering Demerol addict at a nearby halfway house, become involved in the search for the film.
This is only the main narrative thrust in a book that derives its power from a thousand incidental victories: the brilliant riff on videophone technology, the heartbreaking story of bedraggled drag queen Poor Tony Krause, who weighs in at 50 kilos and has "skin...the color of summer squash", the street-fight between Gately's fellow-inmates and a cell of Québécois separatists, in which Gately is shot and sees the gunman "drawing a second bead on Don's big head... with the bore's lightless eye and a little pubic curl of smoke coming up from the vented muzzle".
The gun's "lightless eye", the "pubic curl of smoke": DFW's style is so relaxed, and so sparsely punctuated, that the eye speeds past phrases another writer might have cushioned in commas, as jewels worthy of the reader's special attention. Wallace once said that the goal of modern fiction was to "take it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic", and "ask how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn't have a price". And this insistent faith in human generosity is enacted in his talent, in the superabundant felicities of his prose: he gives them away.
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