Thursday, November 21, 2013

Guest Post - Infinite Jest, Take Two

Guest blogger (and son) Ernesto, who gave me this book to read, offers his take:
W/r/t my second complete reading of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest:

While I am baffled that I spent several months reading/lugging this humongous book everywhere (again!), it was all worthwhile. Like with any re-examination of something, I found that a lot was gained, more details observed, and the deeply interwoven world of the book came into full focus.

The main questions I am left with are:
Why does JOI [James O. Incandenza, as a ghost] choose to visit Gately of all people?
Why does Orin [JOI's eldest son] decide to unleash the Entertainment?
The ambiguities of the novel's end are numerous, but like any text so massive, many of the answers can be found within. The master copy of the entertainment which JOI had interred inside his cranium is missing when Hal [Incandenza], Joelle [Prettiest Girl of All Time aka PGOAT], Gately, and John Wayne unearth his remains. The imprisoned Orin cuts a deal with the AFR, giving them the location of the master. The shadow government of the ONAN is prepared to handle the onslaught of the paralyzing entertainment with PSAs and mass electrical outages.

The first time I finished, I was flabbergasted by the lack of closure even with these hints. However, a gimmick I discovered on the internet offered a more comfortable resolution: Flip to the start and read through the first section, ending on page 17. Doing so places the reader at the latest chronological point in the story, the last year of subsidized time. It also refreshes for us all of the poignant details of Hal's opening inner monologue. And since one has already sunken weeks of time into the book, clearly showing some obsession, it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to flip to the beginning and start over (ala the Entertainment or a Substance).

The use of style in the book is likewise infectious, giving the reader a repertoire of slang from across the Bostonian class spectrum. The colloquial writing makes the book even more digestible, at least once you get over the hump of the first 200 pages. The main narrative is colored with disturbing stories told both by individuals from and on their way into AA and nearly indecipherable nuggets of AAVE or phonetic Irish-English. These sections are so numerous and seemingly unconnected, but not a single character or tangent stands alone.

The twisted version of America (ONAN) from a dimension where things are just a shade worse is compelling as well. Not only is it futuristic in its predictions -- 1996 was a long time ago, technologically speaking -- but the technology itself moves people to be radically anti-social (see the section on videophones and the mask industry that comes about as a result). This deeply sad America is caught up in spontaneously disseminated entertainment (cough Netflix, cough cough Amazon Prime) and advertising agencies literally own time itself. The amalgamated TelePuter combines our society's favorite technological distractions into one (as we see rapidly occurring with video-streaming technology). The late Ray Bradbury often pointed out that science fiction's visions of our future serve best as a warning. Infinite Jest should be considered in the same way, something to admonish us and give us pause as we creep deeper into self-absorption and indulgence.

One of  the recurring points in DFW's writing, whether it's short stories, speeches, or in IJ is an urging for human beings to be compassionate; to strive to understand and love someone other than oneself. JOI's stated purpose for having made the entertainment was to get an emotional response out of Hal, to show beyond a doubt that he loved his son despite his own emotional distance and crippling alcoholism. In curbing his own addiction, Hal becomes (by all appearances) a rabid and horrifying animal, which adds to the dark irony of JOI's attempt to elicit emotions from his son.
It's easy to see that Wallace writes what he knows: depression (for which he received electro-shock therapy), addiction/recovery programs, and competitive junior tennis. Reading this 1079 page story for the second time I can't help but applaud David Foster Wallace for creating a world so simultaneously colorful and flawed and an opus so magnum.

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