These days our technologies — phones, laptops, personal voice assistants — seem to dominate every sphere of our existence. Take a walk through the dining hall, or Rush Rhees, and look around; you’ll be hard pressed to find a person whose eyes aren’t — at least periodically — glued to their phone screen or laptop. David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” (set in North America around 2009) touches on trends in modern entertainment and their consequences with near clairvoyance regarding what would come to be the state of our interaction with technology.
Wallace’s literary musings predict modern technological amenities such as Snapchat filters, FaceTime, Netflix, as well as a comically underqualified celebrity president elect.
As uncannily accurate as some of Wallace’s foresights are, their byproducts are just plain frightening. Wallace explores depression, abuse, addiction in its many forms, and — more broadly — the devastation of a society’s attention span in the face of an unrecognized crisis: passive consumption of entertainment.
“Infinite Jest” is an unavoidably necessary novel right now, but it’s difficult to gauge just how necessary it has become until you’ve read it. Many of the trends in Wallace’s novel closely parallel those of America today, and he illuminates how some of them could and already have metastasized into deeper, more systemic issues.
“Infinite Jest” could be categorized as dystopian, but it is a far cry from the nightmarish, seemingly distant worlds of “1984,” “Brave New World,” “Fahrenheit 451.” Instead, “Infinite Jest” grounds itself in a plausible landscape — taside from mentions of giant radioactive infants — plagued with increasingly relevant dilemmas centered around the perils of entertainment overdone.
Wallace weaves together the stories of a troubled tennis prodigy, Hal Incandeza, and his struggle with the suicide of his fathe, the residents of a nearby halfway house for recovering addicts, and the plight of two secret agents in the face of international crisis.
Hal’s experience at Enfield Tennis Academy — a rigorous boarding school for athletically gifted children — sticks out partly due to Wallace’s hilariously accurate lens on the mannerisms and attitudes of teenage boys, and partly due to the psychological complexity of Hal’s struggle to process his father’s death and succeed professionally.
Its pinpoint accuracy is perhaps the biggest strength of “Infinite Jest”. Wallace’s nuanced portrayal of addiction, youth, and grief reveal what a personal project this novel may have been for him. Sometimes it feels like Wallace attempts to personally communicate with his readers through the world he has created. Although rare, these moments are chilling.
Although many consider “Infinite Jest” a postmodern novel, the book is actually laden with subtle (and less subtle) critiques of postmodernism, especially the movement’s tendency to stray from sentimentality and insincerity. The novel is packed with irony and wry humor, yet it maintains a sense of moral direction which could have been lost in a more dedicated postmodern work.Wallace embraces the innate human qualities of vulnerability and sentimentality throughout “Infinite Jest”: sincerity constitutes one of the novel’s prevailing themes.
Replete with rhetorical flourish, biting wit, and well-developed, deeply human characters, “Infinite Jest” makes for a compelling read on its literary merits alone; however, the relevance and potency of its message is what makes “Infinite Jest” a must-read for anyone living in the digital age — especially those who find themselves disillusioned by modern technological “conveniences.”