Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In Infinite Jest, main character Hal Incandenza recalls his own father telling him that:
talent is sort of a dark gift, that talent is its own expectation; it is there from the start and either lived up to or lost . . . leaving you yourself in a kind of feral and flux-ridden state with respect to talent . . . avoid thinking about any of this by practicing and playing until everything runs on autopilot and talent’s unconscious exercise becomes a way to escape yourself, a long waking dream of pure play. . . . The irony is . . . you . . . become regarded as having a prodigious talent to live up to.
In writing Infinite Jest, author David Foster must “live up to” his own prodigious talent and expectations as a writer. His artistry with the English language is a “feral” talent that makes Infinite Jest a “long waking dream of pure play.”
The story takes place during the twenty-first century. New England is so polluted that President Johnny Gentle wants to cede it to Canada. The book’s title is taken from that of a film made by Hal Incandenza’s father, James O. Incandenza. Infinite Jest: The Film is so entertaining, addicting, and lethal that viewers are unable to stop watching it and literally die from an overdose of pleasure. It is no surprise that the film is fanatically pursued by Quebeçois terrorists who plan to use it to kill all Americans and thus avoid the acquisition of New England.
In the chaotic and episodic storytelling of Infinite Jest, environment is a key element, as reflected by the expression “if the walls could talk.” The major environments in Infinite Jest are the Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House, a drug rehabilitation center. They exist down the road from each other in Enfield, Massachusetts, a community located within commuting distance of Boston and Cambridge.
A storyteller usually wishes to convey an idea to an audience. When there is no clear purpose or function in telling a story, the writer becomes a language artist. The story is then experienced as art for art’s sake, with the artist as explorer. Writers who follow this path are often linguistic pioneers or revolutionaries who seek to shake things up, change the way people think, and question the fundamental laws governing their chosen art form.
David Foster Wallace’s “long waking dream of pure play” lapses frequently into levels of artistic exploration which generously contribute to Infinite Jest’s one- thousand-plus pages. His mad, rambling, drug-addled descriptions postulate the double-bind of a writer who is both shaping and reflecting his culture. Wallace’s art-for-art’s-sake approach is his escape from the very vision he shapes and reflects, his prose reading as if it were the rant of a madman.
Infinite Jest follows the three basic functions of storytelling: “autopoiesis” or “self making,” the process by which storytellers produce, transform, or regulate themselves; “dissipation,” in which the story journeys through an environment while refraining from disturbing the environment’s organization; and the “cognitive” criteria, which effects closure in the mind of the reader and presupposes both acquired and intuitive knowledge on the part of the observer. The cognitive function answers the questions “Where do we come from?,” “How are we are adding to the confusion in the world?,” and “Where we are going?” Infinite Jest is a clear example of how humans add to the confusion of the world.
In nonlinear structures, idiom follows form. Hal Incandenza, a tennis prodigy (and drug user as a result of discovering his father’s suicide) provides the voice of the rigidly coached, driven to excel, live-up-to-your-seed tennis academy environment where much of the story takes place. Hal is contrapuntally echoed by the narrative voice of Don Gately, a resident staff counselor at Ennet House. Yet so many other voices abound in the novel that it is easy to lose track of everyone. They each tell stories within stories like Russian nesting dolls, ad infinitum. Ultimately, the author’s omniscient viewpoint and visionary environment becomes the story’s decisive narrator.
Structure follows idiom, and in Infinite Jest, the structure is multilevel and sequence-spaced. Environments that tell stories should provide metaphorical openings or cues and artificial finish lines as closure clues. They should take journeys that are both literal, linear, and logical as well as allegorical, circular, and cultural. Tension thus comes from contrast not necessarily conflict.
Time is subsidized in Wallace’s word sculpture. Each year is named after a consumer product. Each chapter is headed by one of the years, such as “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” or “Year of the Perdue Wonder Chicken.” The story opens during the “Year of Glad,” which is significantly the twelfth and final year in Wallace’s pantheon.
Environments that tell a story through space and time...
(The entire section is 2068 words.)
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