Infinite Jestis an extraordinary accomplishment, for both its author, David Foster Wallace and his readers, most of whom demonstrate some degree of compulsion to stay with it. Difficult to categorize, it clocks in at almost 1100 pages and has been hailed as a post-modern classic. Told in what appears to be randomly-arranged episodes, it recounts the travails of the epically dysfunctional Incandenza family, founders of an elite tennis academy, sometime in the near-future, and their neighbors, addicts of every stripe and color who inhabit a rehab center down the hill from them. Reading it is something like channel-surfing in a time machine.
The Incandenza patriarch, a film maker, is responsible for an entertainment video so powerful that viewers expire as they watch it. A group of Québécois terrorists seek to gain control of the video for political reasons. Countering their effort is the government of ONAS (Organization North American States) a corporate-dominated conflation of the former nations of the US, Canada, and Mexico. Subsidized Time has replaced the months of the year and the president of this reconstituted entity is a pop singer-turned-politician named Gentile who demonstrates both intellectual deficits and ethical lapses.
The narration shifts as each of a seemingly endless array of characters takes center stage. As disparate as they seem, discernible patterns emerge as we read about them. Most share terrifying personal histories and, in order to ameliorate their emotional pain, they have developed debilitating drug dependencies and a host of neuroses and/or depression. Wallace spares us nothing as he conjures up the various treatment options for substance abuse and the events leading up to it. We read about harrowing tales of child abuse, incest, addiction, denial, exploitation and betrayal. Part of his artistry is that he assumes a tone which suggests both irony and earnestness-a kind of sarcastic sincerity which seems to be both appropriate-and wildly inappropriate-at the same time.
As I read, I couldn't stop thinking about Walt Whitman and hisLeaves of Grass. Whitman's barbaric yawp was a celebration of the promise of America in the Nineteenth Century. Wallace's vision of America at the close of the Twentieth Century is dramatically different. Whitman's individualism has morphed into a desperate alienation. Drug addiction has gone mainstream. Suburban Moms are as apt to abuse drugs as ghetto teenagers. 12-Step programs are available for overeaters, alcoholics, gamblers, compulsive shoppers and a myriad of other obsessives. Sports figures use dope-and deny it-as they strive for mastery only to discover that their achievements are hollow. For Wallace, the one common thread in contemporary America is the sense that something critical-perhaps undefinable-is lacking. His dystopian vision of the future seems eerily prescient. While he avoids preaching, he isn't afraid to pose some very tough questions in this harrowing, intermittently hilarious, and, ultimately, heartbreaking journey into the soul of modern America.