It’s very easy for one to feel as if they are in over their head when reading this book.
I’m not sure how far each of you has read in Infinite Jest, though I suspect those of you who are trying this for the first time scanned over these words with trepidation. David Foster Wallace doesn’t make this easy for us, though in hindsight, the logical method in which the opening conversation unfolds is actually deceptively simple.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Until Friday, I’d not had a bit of exposure to the words of David Foster Wallace. It was impossible not to hear his name, especially since I started college as an English major. I recall a few of my online friends doing Infinite Summer, but at the time, the thought of reading 1,100 pages over the course of a single summer just seemed to be a burden, which is saying a lot for someone who can plow through a mid-length novel in a weekend.
Turns out that Infinite Jest is not actually the first bit of writing I’ve experienced that belongs to Wallace, so I suppose that means I’m cheating, if just a little bit. I read his piece in Gourmet last week, titled, “Consider The Lobster.” (Here’s my obligatory, gushing sentiment vocalized: read this now, or at least when this review is over.) Beyond being fascinating, engrossing, enlightening, intelligent, how many more superlative adjectives can I use, it gave me a stark introduction to what I was getting into: a writer who uses detail to an extreme in order to build from it, and one who is deeply, intrinsically in touch with the morals (or lack of them) that drive even the most banal of minutia. In short: he’s verbose and he’s intriguing at the exact same time. (It was also a practice in reading real-time endnotes. They’re a workout.)
Infinite Jest takes just a few sentences to lapse into a similar style, though “Consider The Lobster” is thematically different. We’re introduced to a whole slew of characters, dropped into the middle of a scene, and the dialogue starts flying. After the first couple pages of introduction of our narrator, Hal Incandenza, a purportedly genius tennis player attempting to join the Enfield Tennis Academy, located outside of Boston, there was one person I was reminded of while reading this: Richard Price. As I said earlier, the dialogue here is deceptively simple. What I mean by that is that it appears to be difficult to follow, especially without the constant “he said” or “she says” interjected after alternating sentences. However, once you recognize the style, it could not be any more natural to how conversation takes place. It’s exactly what we’re used to, especially how words and sentences run on to each other in person. It’s rare that works of fiction capture this reality; it’s generally one person speaking after another. (Interrupting doesn’t count because it’s still existing in precisely the same order.)
I brought up Richard Price because, like many of his fans and readers, I have always felt that there are few people on the planet who can write dialogue as naturally as Richard Price. Go find The Wanderers, Clockers, and especially Lush Life as quickly as you can and consume them. It’s not hard. But many authors (and screenwriters, too) don’t utilize dialogue to build worlds. Here, in David Foster Wallace’s world, we’re given only that.
It wasn’t that hard for me to figure out this scenario of three Deans confronting Hal and his family members about Hal’s odd performance in school because it’s so reminiscent of the absurdity of college bureaucracy. It’s sort of familiar to me; I went to college without the backing of my parents. As I’ve mentioned in reviews before, I ran away from home when I was sixteen, so being on my own at that point didn’t make things easy for me in college. Standing in lines, talking to counselors who seemed unable to conquer basic communication, lost transcripts, meetings with the Dean, the endless cycle of it all…it’s all very familiar to me.
What Wallace does is begin to piece together tiny parts of this story. I get the sense that Hal is a genius of some sort academically. (It’s been established he’s a tennis genius already.) I laughed when the Dean’s cycled through the papers Hal submitted instead of the traditional college entrance essay:
‘Then there is before us the matter of not the required two but nine separate application essays, some of which of nearly monograph-length, each without exception being—‘ different sheet—‘the adjective various evaluators used was quote “stellar”—‘
Dir. Of Comp.: ‘I made in my assessment deliberate use of lapidary and effete.’
‘—but in areas and with titles, I’m sure you recall quite well. Hal: “Neoclassical Assumptions in Contemporary Prescriptive Grammar,” “The Implications of Post-Fourier Transformations for a Holographically Mimetic Cinema,” “The Emergence of Heroic Stasis in Broadcast Entertainment”—‘
‘ “Montague Grammar and the Semantics of Physical Modality”?’
‘ “A Man Who Began To Suspect He Was Made of Glass”?’
‘ “Tertiary Symbolism in Justinian Erotica”?’
I get the sense that Wallace finds irony, above all else, to be the most amusing to him. Or, at least the most fascinating. Did Hal submit these essays as an ironic joke to the school? Or was he entirely serious?
The initial conflict introduced, however, is the revelation that the E.T.A. staff is worried that, due to anomalous scores and grades, that the school might be accused of “using” Hal to better its tennis team. Hal’s uncle, Charles, has been speaking for him the entire time; the narrator has kept to himself, providing us with an internal monologue the entire time, until the Dean of Academic Affairs insists it’s time for Hal to defend his academic career and prove why the ETA can’t possibly using him. (That’s really strange, right? Why would they force someone else to prove THEY weren’t going to do something?
I cannot make myself understood. ‘I am not just a jock,’ I say slowly. Distinctly. ‘My transcript for the last year might have been dickied a bit, maybe, but that was to get me over a rough spot. The grades prior to that are de moi.’ My eyes are closed; the room is silent. ‘I cannot make myself understood, now.’ I am speaking slowly and distinctly. ‘Call it something I ate.’
It’s interesting the methodical way that Hal speaks. He narrates in a similar manner, moving to a flashback of a moment in his childhood to explain why he said, ‘Call it something I ate.’ It’s a story about being unable to be understood and I probably would have laughed more at it had the idea of eating a patch of mold been so revolting to me.
All Hal was able to say back then was, ‘I ate this.’ It’s true. He did. He is expressing this fact as both an explanation and a cry for help, but he cannot make himself understood.
I am at a loss for what happens next. Hal flashes out of the memory and we jump back to him talking to the Deans, insisting he is not merely a good tennis player.
‘I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk. Let’s talk about anything. I belive the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated. I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist. I believe Hobbes is just Rousseau in a dark mirror. I believe, with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption. I could interface you guys right under the table,’ I say. ‘I’m not just a creatus, manufactured, conditioned, bred for function.’
I’m fascinated with the idea that Hal responds to the ETA’s requests to validate their choice in accepting him by discussing the very nature of his humanity, to insist that he is not some “machine” to be bred and used and reproduced and exploited. I’m curious if this means something more than what it is.
What I don’t understand is the horror the Deans react with towards Hal. Perhaps this is evidence of Hal being an unreliable narrator in a sense, because as the Deans to insist that Hal has done something terrifying and wrong, Hal never narrates that it happened. One of the Deans asks Hal what the sounds he is making are, but we didn’t experience them happening.
‘But the sounds he made.”
‘Like an animal.’
‘Subanimalistic noises and sounds.’
‘Nor let’s not forget the gestures.’
‘Have you ever gotten help for this boy Dr. Tavis?’
‘Like some sort of animal with something in its mouth.’
This back-and-forth bout of panicked dialogue continues as I continue to feel completely lost. WHAT JUST HAPPENED. Is there something wrong with Hal? Did he actually do this? Are the Deans collectively hallucinating? Am I even asking the right questions?
As Hal is removed from the school on a stretcher and taken to some sort of hospital, Wallace moves to one of the longest paragraphs I’ve ever seen. (I’ve heard there are longer, so I’m trying to prepare myself.) Here’s the strange thing: It works. Completely. There’s a poetic sense of reality to the stream-of-conscious-style narration of Hal, as he jumps from one thing to another, all of which seem to be within his field of vision. He describes the medics, makes note that this is a special ambulance because it has a psychiatric M.D. on board, which takes him to thoughts of waiting rooms, with orange molded chairs, which takes him to a woman sitting in one of those chairs, and then bathrooms and therapists and people he knew in his past, to his upcoming tournament to someone named Dymnphna.
Such begins Infinite Jest. I’m lost, but that’s ok. I feel like I was thrown into the middle of the forest without a map and, to be entirely honest, it’s kind of exhilarating.
Note: For those who are reading along, which I hope is all of you who are reading this, here’s the ISBN number for my specific version, since I’m not doing set chapters: