Sunday, February 10, 2013

the last book I read

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

You might have been wondering what had happened to the book reviews, given their usual schedule of one every couple of weeks or so. On the other hand you might not be able to muster the energy to give even the most slightly tepid of fucks about the whole thing. Whatever. Anyway, rest assured they have not been abandoned or abolished; it's just that when you tackle a 1079-page book you need to set aside a bit of time in the calendar. More on this later.

So, anyway. It's some unspecified "five minutes from now" in the near future, or some parallel version thereof - hard to tell because in this future all the years are corporate-sponsored, so we have the Year Of The Tucks Medicated Pad, the Year Of The Perdue Wonderchicken, the Year Of The Depend Adult Undergarment (in which most of the action takes place), and so on. There's a lot going on, so let's dive in and meet the Incandenza family: oldest sibling Orin is a former tennis prodigy, current American football prodigy and rampant womaniser, younger brother Mario is a strange stunted malformed creature who nonetheless finds gainful employment at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston, where the youngest Incandenza sibling Hal is one of the Academy's brightest prospects. The Academy is run by their mother Avril Incandenza and was founded by their father James O. Incandenza, who was also a maker of bizarre experimental movies, right up to the point where he checked out of the tennis and movie businesses simultaneously by putting his head in a microwave oven.

The last movie James O. Incandenza made before his messy self-inflicted demise was one called Infinite Jest, a film of which it's difficult to make a critical judgment because it has the unfortunate effect of rendering anyone who watches it a drooling semi-sentient vegetable who if left unattended will starve to death rather than tear themselves away from the screen. The existence of such a thing is of interest to various political groups, including the usual suspects like the US government but also various groups of Québécois separatists of varying degrees of fanaticism, Québécois militancy having become more of a thing since the US decided to make the north-eastern US states (mainly Maine) a giant nuclear waste dumping ground called The Great Concavity, much to the chagrin of the people in Quebec at its northern border, who have been subjected to some fascinating and gruesome genetic mutations ever since. One group in particular, the wheelchair-bound les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, bound together in mutual fanaticism by their love of Quebec and their childhood passion for a dangerous pastime involving jumping railway lines in front of trains (and presumably failing, judging by how they've ended up), are looking for the master copy of Infinite Jest (the only one from which further copies can be made) in order to use it as a terrorist weapon.

Just down the road from the ETA is the Ennet House drug rehabilitation facility, peopled by various disreputable and unfortunate types including giant Don Gately, so committed to his new-found position of responsibility at the facility that he's prepared to put himself in the way of a couple of blasts from a shotgun in its defence and spend a good proportion of the novel in a hospital bed recovering, and Joelle van Dyne, ex-girlfriend of Orin Incandenza, ex-muse of James O. Incandenza (and star of at least part of the unviewable Infinite Jest) and now wearer of a face-obscuring veil on account of being maimed with concentrated acid by her own mother. Like pretty much everything here, it's a long story.

Copies of Infinite Jest start turning up in odd places, les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents close in on both the Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House as places where information about the missing master copy may be found, and Hal Incandenza's behaviour becomes gradually more and more erratic, ostensibly as a result of his going cold turkey on his increasing marijuana habit in order to avoid falling foul of compulsory drug testing. And so things build towards a climax - will the master copy be found? Will the wheelchair terrorists be thwarted? What is wrong with Hal? Why did James O. Incandenza kill himself? Surely these questions will be answered.

Well, no, actually things just kind of stop. It's one of those books where you think, about 30 pages from the end, wow, the author is really going to have to work fast to tie up all the loose ends before the end of the book, and then about 10 pages from the end it dawns on you that actually he isn't going to do that at all. How cheated you feel by all this (particularly after having stuck with it for 1000 pages) will probably colour your feelings about the book.

One might go on to say: yeah, but plot schmot, this is really a book about other things: the emptiness of modern "entertainment", the nature of addiction, be it to TV, drugs, whatever, and tennis. Wallace, a junior tennis prodigy himself, writes at great length about tennis (both here and in non-fiction vein, for instance in this famous 2006 New York Times piece about Roger Federer), but he's at his best writing about the grinding reality of drug addiction and depression, two things he knew about from bitter personal experience.

The novel's enigmatic ending has given rise to a whole swathe of theories as to where the various unresolved plot strands were going to converge, most notably in this pretty convincing analysis by recently deceased internet activist Aaron Swartz. It's perhaps significant that Swartz's brief synopsis of how the timeline would have continued contains more actual plot and action than actually features in the book. So what the heck does Wallace fill 981 pages of narrative and 98 pages of footnotes with? Well, there's a lot of describing stuff in minute and excruciating detail (echoing Nicholson Baker who likes to do the same sort of thing), lots of fractured timeline stuff (the book's nominal "now" is right at the start when Hal has his breakdown in the interview room and is subsequently hospitalised, most of the action takes place in what we assume is the previous year, and there are various further flashbacks into the more distant past), lots of stuff at the start that doesn't really make sense until you've finished the book and really needs to be subsequently re-read (a bit like the first chapter of Lolita), lots of dazzling erudition and wordplay. It scarcely needs to be said that there is probably an excess of words here - the 20-odd pages Wallace takes to describe the annual ETA game of Eschaton, a sort of cross between tennis and Risk, could probably have been boiled down to one or two without much trouble, but he was evidently too pleased with the idea to cut it off before he'd wrung it dry - and the whole thing has an air of being written by a man slightly in love with his own articulacy and erudition, and one who perhaps having started a book and had it grow out of control didn't really know how to end it and eventually just had to say: stop, enough. No doubt there is another metaphor for addiction and compulsive behaviour in there somewhere.

Something of an insight into Wallace's mental processes can be gleaned from this TV interview in 1997 (shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest) - it's in four parts, but it's worth watching the whole thing just to recognise Wallace's awe-inspiring articulacy and intelligence and then to start thinking, whoa, this is a guy who thinks about stuff way too much, to a degree that's probably not healthy. It's not totally surprising to learn, therefore, that Wallace suffered from crippling depression for most of his adult life, and, tragically, after an experimental break from his usual medication in 2007, suffered a particularly acute depressive episode and ended up killing himself in September 2008. He thereby brings the number of suicides on this list to four (at least, I haven't checked everyone), the other three being Heather Lewis, BS Johnson and Richard Brautigan.

Off the top of my head, the only other novels I have on my shelves whose page-count exceeds 1000 are Leo Tolstoy's War And Peace (1444 pages), Stephen King's It (1116 pages) and Richard Adams' Maia (1129 pages). It's good to do this occasionally, and Infinite Jest is a good deal easier to read than some of the stuff written about it would have you believe, for all its archness and self-referentiality and frankly absurd length, and it's mostly pretty good fun. I might go for something a bit more digestible next time, though.