BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- By sheer coincidence, I found myself deep into a second back-to-back reading of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” during the celebration of its 20th anniversary.
The irony being -- as you know if you’ve completed its 1,079 pages and 388 footnotes -- that this book, which is partially about an entertainment so entertaining that it addicts its viewers to death, was so good that when I finished my first read-through, I just turned back to page one and started over for the sole purpose of enjoying it again.
And so, as the numerous paeans to Wallace’s magnum opus flooded out this month -- in anticipation of last Tuesday’s new release of a special edition -- I was reduced to echoing lavish venerations, practically begging everyone I ran into to pick up the book.
I usually run screaming from critical praise, figuring it’s either press-release-generated hyperbole or just plain East Coast conceit. But let me tell you: The hype is real.
In the foreword to the 2006 paperback edition, the writer Dave Eggers calls it drum-tight, relentlessly smart, but also something of a different order. “This book is like a spaceship with no recognizable components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no way to take it apart. It is very shiny, and it has no discernible flaws. If you could somehow smash it into smaller pieces, there would certainly be no way to put it back together again. It simply is. Page by page, line by line, it is probably the strangest, most distinctive, and most involved work of fiction by an American in the last 20 years. At no time while reading ‘Infinite Jest’ are you unaware that this is a work of complete obsession, of a stretching of the mind of a young writer to the point of, we assume, near madness.”
True as this may be, it doesn’t address the chief complaint of those who have a hard time getting past the first 50 or so pages because the reader is cast into an unfamiliar landscape groping for a narrative thread.
You might wonder, “Is there are plot?” Yes, there is.
Ostensibly the story is about: (1) a movie so powerfully engrossing that when one lays eyes on it, one is instantly hooked and dies from the inability to tear oneself away; (2) the craziness of James O. Incandenza, the director of the film, his three sons: Hal, Mario and Orin, their “moms” Avril and the Enfield Tennis Academy community; and (3) the drama of the interconnected lives of the people looking for the master copy of “the entertainment” and of those who were involved in its creation.
Plus, an avalanche of criticism and keen observation about consumer turpitude, the pleasures of addiction and the grief of recovery, our obsession with professional sports, sibling rivalry, the future of digital entertainment and the fraying connections between humans.
The intertwined plots and their supporting atmospherics, however, are almost beside the point. If you make it past page five, you’ve been grabbed by the lapels and shaken violently by the writing: The descriptions of characters, the turns of phrase, the literary hyper-reality and the camp -- deadly wheelchair assassins, germophobic U.S. presidents and a skewed future in which George F. Will chats on NPR through a post-laryngectomy voice prosthesis and “Nightmare on Elm Street XXII: The Senescence” happened. It’s hilarious, disgusting, prescient and alarming.
Writing in The New York Times Book Review, author Tom Bissell rhapsodized, “Here is one of the great Wallace innovations: the revelatory power of freakishly thorough noticing, of corralling and controlling detail. Most great prose writers make the real world seem realer -- it’s why we read great prose writers. But Wallace does something weirder, something more astounding: Even when you’re not reading him, he trains you to study the real world through the lens of his prose.”
It’s true! But there’s no need to fall back on all the reasons “Infinite Jest” is the literary equivalent of kale, “good for you” because of its beautiful language and genius character sketches. It’s simply fun.
Don’t get me wrong, it is lofty, and very challenging -- in a variety of ways from the use of arcane vocabulary to the psychedelic order in which events are presented. But, ultimately, “Infinite Jest” is just plain juicy, addictive entertainment. If you’ve been dodging this book for 20 years, go ahead, surrender yourself to it now.
Esther J. Cepeda is a Nationally Syndicated Columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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