Sunday, January 4, 2009

Happy Y.D.A.U.!

Happy New Year, everybody! 2009 is the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment! Allow me to explain...

I am currently finishing up and greatly enjoying Infinite Jest by the late David Foster Wallace (1962-2008). Wallace won acclaim in the nineties as a rarely gifted writer and a voice of his generation (he won a MacArthur "genius grant" in 1997). He also fought a life long battle with depression which led to his suicide in September of last year (2008) at the age of 46. Most readers are familiar with Wallace through his nonfiction essays on topics ranging from John McCain's 2000 Presidential Campaign and conservative talk radio, to boiling lobsters ("Consider the Lobster") and cruise ships ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"); but Wallace also wrote two novels: the Broom in the System (1987) and the +1,000 page Infinite Jest (1996) which Time magazine included in its 2005 list of "the 100 greatest English-language novels from 1923 to the present". After reading news of Wallace's death and learning a little about Infinite Jest and its critical kudos, I decided to give the novel a try.

Published in 1996, Infinite Jest takes place in the near future. As part of our society's increasing commercialization, and in order to increase revenue, the government has started a system of subsidized time in which advertisers bid to get the new year named after their product (e.g. The Year of the Whopper, the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad). The US, Canada and Mexico have entered into a closer union known as the Organization of North American Nations (or O.N.A.N.) and the northern half of New England has become a toxic waste dump, to which garbage and pollution are almost magically transported by catapults and industrial fans, and which the US has somehow pawned off on Canada.

Here's a bit more on the novel:


Most of the action takes places in the Boston metro area and centers on the inhabitants of the Enfield Tennis Academy, a private high school with a grueling academic and athletic program, and the nearby Enfield halfway house for recovering addicts. Much of the story also concerns "Infinite Jest," an elusive video which is supposed to cause whoever watches it to abandon everything else and just keep viewing it over and over again until he dies. Both US Intelligence (with their field operative in drag, impersonating a female magazine reporter) and the Wheelchair Assassins, a terrorist organization of extremist Quebecois separatists, are trying to get their hands on a master copy of the video.


Part of what makes the novel so great are its characters who are at once oddballs and extremely well-fleshed out human beings. Take, for example, the Incandenza family. There's the late James Incandenza, the purported director of the video, who was a collegiate tennis star, one of the scientists who helped develop nuclear fusion and the founder of the academy before he took up experimental film (and alcoholism) later in life. His widow, Avril, a Quebecoise by birth, is hyper-productive and obsessed with good grammar; while she appears to go to great lengths to never interfere in her children's lives she still manages to be a controlling mother, and she currently runs the academy with her half-brother/adopted brother Charles Tavis with whom she has an ambiguous relationship. The Incandenzas' eldest son Orin, who has disowned his mother, gave up tennis in college to become a star punter in the NFL. He lives in Arizona where he has a string of one night stands with different women (preferring single mothers). Hal is currently a student at his mother's tennis academy where he is ranked #2, but he is also becoming a serious pothead. And, finally, Mario is the odd man out among his athletic brothers as he was born with severe birth defects: he is deformed but also guileless and filled with empathy. Mario has also inherited his father's passion for film.


As the above would lead you to believe, Infinite Jest definitely has its comic parts, but it can also be serious at times. In fact, one of the points Wallace tries to convey is that there's a problem with our society's constant sarcasm and affected "too-cool" indifference and that there's something to be said for genuinely felt emotion. In interviews, Wallace has said that he hoped the novel would say something about what it's like to live around the turn of the century and that he thought the contrast between the Tennis Academy with its high standards where they're molding little phenoms and the halfway house for people who've hit bottom and are just trying to survive one day at a time was informative.


Wallace is known for his voice which effortlessly mixes formal and conversational English. One interesting feature of Infinite Jest which I didn't notice right away is how, although the novel is narrated in the third person by a seemingly omniscient narrator, the voice changes in different chapters mimicking that of the passage's central character (e.g. a working-class addict uses Boston slang and mispronounces some big words, a Quebecois terrorist speaks in broken English and uses "U.S.A." as an adjective). I've also heard readers talk about the obsessive nature of the book: the brilliant author goes off on tangents, sometimes about the oddest things, giving us minute details (e.g. the lengthy description of James' alcoholic father taking apart a bed), and in order to get into the book and enjoy it you need to be willing to go with the flow. Some of the parts I think I learned the most from discuss in detail the nature of withdrawal from alcohol and drugs, and the nature of depression.

Anyway, that's my spiel on Infinite Jest. If this sounds interesting to you and you're not afraid of big books, you should check it out. And for more info on David Foster Wallace, his life, works and death, I'd recommend you check out this great article that appeared in the Oct 30, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.

Images: Depend Undergarments produced by Kimberly-Clark Corp., Infinite Jest (c) 1996 David Foster Wallace paperback published by Bay Back Books.


nola32 said...

i'm not afraid of big books (maybe i'm a little afraid of 'little, big' but that's another story).
i do have to say that it sounds like something i would really enjoy.
oh and all of the quebecois people remind me of the time i told you that you should see 'the barbarian invasions' and i said that it was about a dying quebecois. then i asked you a few weeks later if you had seen it and you said, 'oh, didn't you say that was really boring?' and i said, 'no. i said it was really good'. to which you replied, 'oh, maybe i just inferred that it was boring from 'dying quebecois''.
that was funny.

Meeg said...

Cool. I think out of everyone I know you would definitely enjoy it.

And RE The Barbarian Invasions remember how then you told me how he starts using heroin and I was like "Wait, what?" and you were like "Mmhmm. Doesn't sound so boring now, does it?"