Thursday, June 27, 2013

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Read: 4 December 2012 to 24 February 2013
4 / 5 stars


By the time I hit third grade and had still demonstrated absolutely no inclination toward athletic pursuits, my parents forced me into the township's local softball league. Because that's what you do when your bookworm daughter begs to take art lessons and possesses a nigh prodigious talent for falling up stairs, right? My first year of being a young ball player was punctuated by lots of praying for rain, daydreaming in the outfield and swinging at every pitch just because I liked how it felt: Somehow, despite my staggering disinterest and physical ineptitude, my team won the championship that season, heralding another god-awful year of endless drills that still have phrases like "loosey goosey," "call for the ball" and "keep your HEAD in the GAME!" providing the hellishly looping soundtrack to my nightmares.

Miraculously still, I landed a spot on the all-star team my second year, which only led to more rigorous and more time-consuming practices after school, on the weekends, before games, after games, whenever there was even half an hour to spare in the pursuit of athletic greatness -- time I would have preferred to spend with my nose in a book. Any book. By my third year, I was pretty much self-sabotaging myself at every step of the game, eventually sacrificing the only thing I cared about: my beloved spot at second base. By the time I was a sullen eighth-grader and limply going through the motions I’d had mercilessly drilled into my rote memory for nearly five years, I made it pretty clear that my parents were wasting their time and money on misguided wishes that I’d conform to whatever young-athlete ideal they had mistakenly thought could be pinned on me. This was only a viable exit strategy because the one thing they hated more than relinquishing control over their children was throwing money at hopeless endeavors.

But my doomed-to-fruitlessness years spent toiling at the batting cages and the local baseball diamonds and the front- and backyard were not why this book resonated deeply with and brutalized me as severely as it did. Though being forced into the arduous efforts of participating in a sport I didn't much care about save for the way it occasionally diverted the otherwise endless torrent of parental disappointment sure endeared Enfield Tennis Academy's students to me in a way I didn't see coming.

It's incidental that, about a month into the nearly three I spent reading this gargantuan tome, I kicked my own chemical dependency. I won't at all go so far as to call it an addiction, as it was a habit I dropped with surprising ease and have yet to miss at all. And I sure as hell didn't have half the troubles that I learned true addicts do (thanks to this book, which I'm pretty sure the completion of is the equivalent of a master's degree in twelve-step programs). But I did take the cold-turkey approach, and the sudden absence of a comforting vice offered a hard look at just how close I was to losing myself in what began as a recreational escape.

For as easy and as shockingly non-disruptive my sudden cessation of a years-long habit was, you're goddamn right there were moments when my resolve almost caved -- not of weakness, really, but just because, meh, why not? That's about when I realized that the ritual has become as comforting as the substance itself. So I focused on the distance that my new-found independence from dependency put between me and that last indulgence: One week without backsliding. Two weeks. One month. Now almost two.

Pardon the descent into clich├ęd territory for a second, but every journey of 1,000 miles begins with just one step: My attempt to shake a years-long bad habit began with one day of sticking to my guns, just like conquering the beast that is Infinite Jest began with the turning of a single page. Both offered a few instances of me wondering what the hell I’d signed up for but, even with their lesser moments, both efforts have been more than worth their comparatively few and fleeting pains.

I’ve made it abundantly clear before that I don’t give a leaping, prancing fuck about tennis but DFW sure made it interesting in the two essays he devoted to the sport in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Coming into this having read even one collection of his non-fiction ruined IJ for me from the beginning, as it is the man's non-judgmental but deeply, quietly observant presence in his fact-based writing that draws me to him the most. But it also made me realize that the guy could have rewritten the phone book and I would have vomited praise all over everything because he’s that good at honest storytelling.

There are truths pouring from every page in IJ, which do lend a certain familiar presence reminiscent of DFW's non-fiction: The AA meetings, the depression, the internal conflicts, the biggest truths coming from the most inconsequential moments and, yes, even the tennis all resounded with real-life personal experience. Even the characters I absolutely hated (like that fucker Lenz) were crafted in a way that made them so human and multidimensional that it was obvious they were intended to be victims of circumstance who demanded more than black-and-white consideration.

The ways DFW blurs the lines and draws parallels between seemingly at-odds concepts show how polar opposites aren’t even as far removed from each other as we like to tell ourselves, that perspective, motivation or a simple name are all that separate, say, physically brutal athletic training and mindlessly indulgent entertainment, as the former is shown to be just another means for an individual to deliver the latter to the many. Similarly, an elite tennis academy really isn’t that far removed from a rehabilitation program: It becomes screamingly clear that both house addicts of some kind when you’re forced to examine what really lies at the heart of each institution. Even, obviously, sexual encounters and the family of one's childhood are complicit in one's effect on the other, as seen in Orin’s tendency to seduce mothers and how his own mother, in turn, carries on an affair with a boy young enough to be her son and who is wearing a disturbingly familiar football uniform when their tryst is brought to the reader’s full awareness. Because, really: Is the path to learned, painstakingly accrued greatness not all that different from a seizuring, pants-shitting junkie in the realm of addiction? Filling a void with finely honed talent that will one day destroy the body is revealed to not be entirely unlike filling that same void with a destructive substance that, too, renders the addicted vessel to a ticking time bomb of physical and mental ruin.

But in a time when one can no longer be certain of what the future holds -- the country is run by an increasingly unstable president, when something as indelible as a country’s topographical familiarity is eliminated, when one can’t even rely on the unfailing numerical certainty of what to call the next and all subsequent years -- is it any surprise that extremes are no longer separated by distinct boundaries and that the sweet escapist nectar of entertainment has ascended to such obsessive, pervasive heights? All people can be sure of is that the television show or movie that provides comforting relief from the unflagging instability of the real world is never more than an always-available cartridge away. In this regard, DFW presents a strange sort of dystopia where any addiction or superficial sense of microcosmic control is necessary to cope with a world whose only constant is perpetual upheaval.

It is that very instability that dominates the end of this book, as demonstrated by characters being (sometimes violently) uprooted from the surroundings that the reader has spent the length of three normal-sized novels relegating them to and then replanted in wholly surprising locales: Hal is taken from the strictly regimented ETA where children are turned into perfectly performing machines and thrust into a regressive support group where adult men are encouraged to embrace their inner infants; the imperturbable Remy descends from his southwestern heights to the rock-hard bottom of Ennet House’s desperate pursuit of getting life back on track; poor Gately is ripped from his more-or-less secure life of sober, middling authority to being completely dependent upon machines to keep him alive, where he is at constant odds with his rational mind to avoid all addictive substances no matter what necessary relief they bring while battling unimaginable physical pain; the less said about Orin's upturned world the better; even the long-deceased JOI returns to the mortal coil in a sense –- by the way, I could have happily read nothing but the interfacing between Gately and Himself the friendly wraith for 1,079 pages and been as happy as an addict on a weekend drug binge.

Life is not always interesting or without its flaws and, honestly, neither was this book. For me, IJ wasn’t a perfect novel, nor was it the absolute best thing I’ve read. But it was the most human, the most humbling and the most honest: As far as I’m concerned, those are much more difficult and far more noble superlatives to reach for, especially with a piece of fiction that manages to resonate with more desperate sincerity than some people can ever hope to manage.

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