Infinite Jest, 20th Anniversary Edition

Right out of the gate Infinite Jest is a mystery: what is that strange circular symbol?  And what is Year of Glad?  Will there be a Year of Angry later on?  Later blog posts will no doubt reveal what Year of Glad means, when the novel discloses as much, so I’ll begin with the first couple members of the Incandenza family that the book presents, Hal Incandenza and Charles Tavis.  CT, Hal’s uncle or something like it, is maneuvering to get Hal onto the University of Arizona’s tennis team, and what gets the reader leaning in early is that he’s going out of his way to make sure Hal does not speak.  As Hal narrates the first scene silently, his inner life, as the opening pages present it, buzzes with literary activity, yet when he does speak out loud to the administrators and coaches in the room, what happens next–and does not get narrated directly, only in the voices of those present, and only in terms of their emotional reactions–is so horrifying that they have Hal seized and hauled off to the local hospital’s psychiatric ward.

That’s the novel’s opening scene, and already the questions are in the air: what happened to Hal?  Why is his mind forming philosophical propositions while his mouth makes horror-movie sounds and his arms flay the air?  When the novel flashes back (though I didn’t realize it had flashed back for some time) to the year before the Arizona interview, Hal is a promising high-school junior tennis player, exploding in the national 18-and-under ranks and a prospect to go pro straight out of high school.  He smokes marijuana in secret, savoring the secrecy even more than the cannabis, and he stands out among his peers not only as one of the most promising athletes but as the teammate who can recite entire Oxford English Dictionary entries from memory.  As the opening hundred pages roll on, Infinite Jest gives no indication why he will fall from an articulate aspiring pro to someone begging for a spot on a college team and unable to speak conversationally, so that tension rides.

Hal’s older brothers are Mario (a disabled person just a year older) and Orin (an addicted person about a decade older), both of whom attended Enfield Tennis Academy (E.T.A.) and neither of whom plays professional tennis when the novel opens.  Mario never had the body for tennis or even for standing up unsupported, and Orin never had the drive to make the pros but by some means the novel has not yet disclosed has become punter for the Arizona Cardinals (an NFL team, in case any readers don’t know that).  In the world of Infinite Jest, NFL teams are their own mascots, and one memorable (because so bizarre) scene involves Orin, along with some of his Cardinals teammates, “flying” in to play in a game, cardinal costumes and all, suspended by cables from the top of the arena.  From his early scenes, Orin’s tension with his father, Dr. James Orin Incandenza (“Himself”) seem to be much more tense than Hal’s or Mario’s.

I should have said the late James Orin Incandenza.  When the bulk of these first hundred pages happen, during the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, he has been dead just over four years. (In the Organization of North American Nations, which does spell ONAN, and which is another recurring image/theme/pastime in this novel, each year receives not a number–as in the old system–but a corporate sponsor.)  His sons Hal and Orin refer to him as “Himself” because he would often talk about himself as “the Headmaster himself” or “James Orin Incandenza himself.”  A few of the novel’s opening passages describe Himself as a professional drifter, someone who never quite made it as a tennis player so went into the field of optics, where he made his fortune, then used that money both to start Enfield Tennis Academy and to produce a substantial catalogue of digital “Entertainments,” films distributed via digital media rather in movie theaters, none of which placed him among the greats but nonetheless establishing him as a polymath as well as a suicide.  (This is one of those end-notes you’ve heard about–when the book refers to Himself’s film corpus, the endnotes go on for pages listing and summarizing them, and at least three of them bear the novel’s title.  I have a hunch this will become important later.)  All the book has said at this point about the suicide is that it involved Himself’s head and a microwave oven.

And that’s just the Incandenza family, and not much yet has come across the page about the late Himself’s wife, father of the Incandenza boys, Avril “Moms” Incandenza.

I present this family of characters just to note that the novel already, at this early stage in the story, also features the drug addict Ken Erdedy; an unnamed medical attache who serves as an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialist for a Saudi prince and who falls victim to a mysterious “Entertainment” that seizes his attention so thoroughly that paramedics have to turn off the viewing terminal; a drug-addict burglar named Don Gately, who accidentally kills a man by gagging him during a botched burglary and while the man, Guillaume, has an impassible sinus blockage; the tennis guru and ETA authority figure Schtit; and a man named Marathe, who is part of an elite band of wheelchair-riding assassins who operate as a lethal agents of the Quebecois separatist movement.

There are a bunch of characters.

And I’m not sure how their stories, or if their stories, are going to link up with each other yet.

What I can say is that, already, at 3 November, Y.D.A.U. (Page 109 in the 20th-anniversary edition), I can already tell a few things about this novel:

  • Drug addiction is going to feature prominently, and addiction is not going to be a one-dimensional thing, either a medical condition or a personal failure or an epiphenomenon of economics exclusively.  Addiction is going to be all of those things.
  • I’m going to be reading about characters who masturbate.  Already this image is informing the exploration of addiction and vice versa, and as with addiction itself, nothing is going to be simple.
  • This is a supremely literate novel: already I’ve seen novels, plays, philosophers, films, television personalities, and all kinds of obscure words emerging.  I’m not even apologizing at this point for keeping a tablet or a phone handy so that I can hit Wikipedia (and the Infinite Jest wiki) when I’ve never seen a word, a name, or a reference before.  There’s a bunch going on under the surface.  Oh, and there are more than a hundred pages of endnotes, which really do add content to the story.
  • Some kind of network does seem to connect all of these characters and all of these stories.  Already in the section just before I finished, Marathe, the Quebecois wheelchair assassin, is holding conversations about the medical attache and “The Entertainment.”  Beyond many characters’ proximity in the Boston area, something else seems to be going on.

So that I don’t go on too much or give too much away (I’m writing this having read 200 more pages), I’ll stop here for now and pass the baton.  This is going to be a tough read, but already I’m impressed with everything that’s going on in this novel.

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