This might be a bunch of hooey, but I think that reading Infinite Jest made my brain bigger.
It is so massive, the paragraphs so dense, that a reader has no choice but to slow down and chew every word 30 times. It’s like: Sit back, put your feet up, you’re going to be here awhile, you might as well get real comfy-like. Then the end notes are like these speed bumps for when you’re getting a little cocky, finding a groove, picking up speed.
So I read a little slower and pictured everything a little harder. And, in maybe unrelated news, my memory seems to have improved on all things — not just the stuff that dribbled out of David Foster Wallace’s fingertips.
Anyway, as for this novel:
In a few words, it is about kids at a high-level tennis academy and it is about addicts at a halfway house. It is also about a video, created by an obscure filmmaker slash crazy genius alcoholic who makes a film so entertaining that viewers get addicted to it on impact. But enough stuff happens that it is kind of about everything in the entire world.
There are moments where writer envy will rip your guts apart. The sheer detail, the dialects and voices. But most importantly, the reckless amount of fun that DFW seemed to have writing this novel. He goes from complicated math and philosophy and politics, to satire, into absurd black comedy:
A woman is trapped in the bathroom of a bus on some bumpy terrain. She ends up with her ample ass stuck hanging out the window. For her embarrassment, she wins a large settlement. She hires a round the clock personal baker. She gourmet cakes herself to death.
An illicit love scene, as observed by a teen-aged boy, includes a cheerleader costume, a helmet, and jock strap.
A brotherly phone call in which the older interrupts the younger’s zen-like moment of nailing toenail shards into a garbage can a few meters away.
A young character plans to anonymously attend an AA meeting, and ends up in a room full of men holding teddy bears, talking about their inner infant.
Whatever. DFW does with this book what sci/fi writers have always done, and that is erase the constraints. Why couldn’t people become so addicted to a piece of film that they rotted away in a La-Z Boy, soiling themselves and moaning with withdrawal symptoms while it was rewinding? It’s fiction. You can do whatever the hell you want with it. Throw in the ghost of of an oft-talked about character, zip him into a pair of high-wad chinos. Let him balance a Coke can on your prone character’s head. Why the hell not? Sell the rights to naming years to corporations. Why the hell not? Take a pensive tennis player in the wee hours of the morning. Prop his sweaty head against a cold winter window. Get him stuck there for hours, and then let face debris remain after he has gotten painfully free. Why the hell not?
This is not to say that I loved every moment of Infinite Jest. There are great chunks of gray text that I thought were boring, and usually these involved U.S./Canadian relations. Politicians, and whatnot. Stuff that still reads like DFW is having the time O’his life, but which lags and drags and is just a bit mind numbing — even when it is posed as a puppet show filmed by Mario Incandenza. During these parts, I referred to it as “Infinite Gist.”
There is this Elton John-“Candle-in-the-Wind”-ishness about reading this book A.DFW.D. Now that we have DFW’s biography in its entirety to hold up next to his novel. His dislikes and neurosis. The way he stutters sometimes during televised interviews. The reason for the bandana. These bits of bio crop up in Infinite Jest, as scattered bits among the characters. The entire theme of tennis. The mother as a grammarian. And in more serious cases: People kill themselves, or at least try to: A head in an microwave, arms stuck in the garbage disposal, ODing. It’s that whole writer immortality thing. Kinda awesome.