My first thought was that I wanted to give this book a 4.5, which again made me want to stomp my feet and hold my breath over the fact that the rating scale is 1-5 and not 1-10. The more I let the book sink in, however, the more I felt it probably deserved a 5 (out of 5) anyway.
At its heart, the book is about addiction. Personal addiction, addiction as a society, addiction to drugs, to entertainment, to profession, to sport, to beauty, and even addiction to not being addicted (AA, NA, et al.). Addiction in its many forms leads to a sense of despair in this book that we all seem to be addicted to something
. And are somehow held back or at least feel held back because of it. I think the following passage sums up Infinite Jest perfectly.
“It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging into. Flight from exactly what?”
In addition to the common addiction theme of recreational drugs and alcohol, the spotlight is also shone on society’s addiction to entertainment, and to increasingly inane forms of such. The book wonders whether we are becoming so addicted that if there was a form of entertainment that was so supremely enjoyable and pleasurable that it actually left the viewer in a permanent vegetative state, would we not be able to help ourselves? Could it be used as a weapon? Would it possibly be a threat to humanity?
There’s so much more to this book though. I enjoyed one of the other underlying themes of how difficult it is to know if someone really is who they’re presenting themselves to be. I love the scene where Mario is asking his mom about how to tell if someone is sad when they’re not showing any outward signs of sadness. I also love the scene where Hal is discussing with Mario the various types of liars out in the world and how easy it is to typically tell that they’re lying, but how there’s one type that he really fears… “I no longer believe in monsters as faces in the floor or feral infants or vampires or whatever. I think at seventeen now I believe that the only real monsters might be the type of liar where there’s simply no way to tell. The ones who give nothing away.”
David Foster Wallace tackles these themes seriously and completely, while still leaving you unexpectedly laughing out loud throughout the book. Don’t let the prospect of lengthy run-on sentences give you the howling fantods. They’re coherent. They flow. They’re just…right. Don’t be scared away by the 300+ endnotes, some of them up to 16 pages long with a dozen additional sub-endnotes. They add to the story. They’re necessary. Don’t be frightened by the words you would have bet weren’t even words. Hal Incandenza, young tennis prodigy and pot addict, is also a lexical genius. Keep a dictionary by you. All of these things just add to, and not detract from, the experience of reading this book.
Finally, I’ve seen some reviews expressing disappointment that the book has no ending. But isn’t that the point? Isn’t that what addiction is? A blissful high, that when it’s over, leaves you unsatisfied, yet wanting more? That’s exactly what the book was for me.