Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.
He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!
(Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1)
The genius of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is in its understanding and sympathy for human beings. It is deeply human and humane, exploring the significance of emotional connections and what happens when those connections break down. It is somehow also fitting that the text is incredibly frustrating, like our attempts to forge emotion connections, to read as Wallace intentionally interrupts the text with numerous digressions.
Infinite Jest—the title is taken from Hamlet’s eulogy of Yorick quoted above—revolves around three main groups of characters and a host of ancillary and memorable ones. The first is the Incandenza family: deceased patriarch, James, a man who made a fortune in optics before becoming a filmmaker and founding the Enfield Tennis Academy outside of Boston; matriarch Avril, who runs the academy along with her sometime lover and step-brother Charles Travis; sons Orin, an NFL punter with a penchant for sleeping with young mothers; Mario, born with a deformity and a budding filmmaker; and finally, Hal, a burgeoning tennis prodigy with an intellect rivaling that of his father.
Next, there are the various councilors and drug addicts at the nearby Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. Finally, there are a group of wheelchair bound Quebecois separatist assassins searching for a copy of James’s last (and legally banned) film, Infinite Jest. Infamously, any person who watches the film only yearns to keep watching it until they die. The Quebecois seek the film as a weapon against O.N.A.N. (the Organization of North American Nations). After O.N.A.N., a merger between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, turned a section of the Northeastern United States into the Great Concavity, a gigantic hazardous waste dump, and forced it upon Canada.
Wallace’s ability to depict human psychology is the greatest strength of Infinite Jest. As he bounces back and forth between drug addicts, adolescent teenage tennis players, wheelchair bound terrorists, Wallace describes shame cycles, teenage anxieties, love, and depression in frighteningly realistic terms, coming across as intimately and deeply real to anyone who has experienced these things for themselves. His description of depression is particularly evocative:
It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self's most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. Itis an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably the most indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible. (695-696)
While most of the characters in the novel explore their feelings, Hal Incandenza does not. He may be brilliant and a gifted tennis player, but he is unable to feel emotion of any kind. Hal, Wallace writes, “hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny” (694). The causes of his malady range from his damaged upbringing in the Incandenza household to eating mold as a child to his marijuana addiction. The novel suggests that James, the only person to recognize Hal’s emotional emptiness, made the film Infinite Jest to emotionally draw out his son out. As Aaron Swartz wrote, “Hal moves outwardly but doesn’t feel inside; victims of the Entertainment feel—something—inside but don’t move outwardly.” In a novel about emotions, the protagonist is someone searching for the ability to feel, making it the characteristic that most clearly defines our humanity.
Wallace also uses dark humor to highlight the search for emotional connection. James Incandenza, Hal’s father, commits suicide by sticking his head in a microwave. Hal relates the discovery of James’s body in darkly humorous way that highlights his emotional emptiness. When describing where James killed himself, Hal tells his brother Orin, “The microwave, O. The rotisserie microwave over next to the fridge, on the freezer side, on the counter, under the cabinet with the plates and bowls to the left of the fridge, as you face the fridge” (248).
One of the funniest and most memorable scenes in the book is when the tennis players at Enfield play an intricately complex game called Eschaton. Played on the school’s tennis courts with tennis balls serving as nuclear warheads, Eschaton, involving complex linear regressions and game theory, simulates the realpolitik of international diplomacy. The game, under the supervision of game master Otis Lord or O. Lord, however, quickly devolves into childishness with hilarious results. Wallace seems to suggest that despite our best efforts to bring order and rules to the world, we are all just children on a playground.
Infinite Jest is also a deeply frustrating and, at times, difficult read. Wallace packs the book with 388 endnotes consisting of 96 pages of additional text. Some of the endnotes have footnotes in them as well. Apart from an occasionally funny joke—the best was a description of James’s movies—they’re mostly a place for Wallace to show off his knowledge of pharmaceuticals or indulge in asides or further conversations he left out of the main text. They often interrupt the flow of the narrative and frustrate the reader.
Infinite Jest is a mammoth text, a testament to Wallace’s prodigious talent and his keen understanding of the human psyche.