The Color of Olives
Christine Neulieb July 3, 2012 - 8:00pm
I finally did it! I made it through David Foster Wallaces 1996 magnum opus, Infinite Jest. At over a thousand pages, the paperback edition weighs three pounds. I invested in a Kindle e-reader just so I could tackle it without breaking my shoulder carrying it around.The investment was worth it. The book is long and arty, full of postmodern verbal tricks, but Wallace is never difficult for the sake of being difficult. His prose remains clear and contemporary no matter how many clauses he piles onto a single sentence. His reputation for genius is well-deserved (and, by this point, not much in dispute), but reading him feels like entertainment, not homework.Infinite Jest centers not on a single story line or character but on a place, or more accurately, two places: neighboring institutions in Enfield, MA. At the crown of a hill stands an elite tennis academy; at the bottom of the same hill is a halfway house for recovering addicts. Each shelters its own cast of colorful characters, whose lives intersect at unpredictable moments. The time is a hypothetical near-future in which the United States has ceded northern New England to Canada in exchange for the right to use it as a toxic-waste dumping ground. In order to generate revenue, the U.S. government has also introduced a program called Subsidized Time, which is corporate sponsorship for calendar years: instead of numerical dates we have the Year of the Whopper, the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, and so on up to the year in which the story takes place, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarmenta reductio ad absurdum of the very idea of corporate sponsorship. If none of that tempts you, the story also features a deadly band of Quebecois separatists with missing legs, known as Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollentsthe Wheelchair Assassins.Wallace takes this material and riffs on it in a series of virtuosic, often hilarious improvisations, the literary equivalent of jazz. Like jazz, the story lacks the clear resolutions of a more structured novel, and of course it probably neednt be quite 1104 pages long, hence the frequent epithet flawed masterpiece. But better a flawed masterpiece than a carefully controlled but existentially hollow piece of fiction. As the first-century Greek critic Longinus wrote: Perfect precision runs the risk of triviality, whereas in great writing, as in great wealth, there must needs be something overlooked.One of my favorite things about Wallaces writing is his keen observation of the minor details that make up the texture of the world, things that usually fade into the background of our conscious experience. Early on in the novel there is a scene with a tennis match (one of many), and during this scene palm fronds are falling, because theres a sort of palm blight going on, and Wallace pins down the color of the blighted fronds as exactly the color of really old olives in those old slim jars at the very back of the refrigerator. You know exactly what that color is. Every fridge in America has one of those jars. No one remembers buying them or the last time anyone ate one, yet theyre always there. I put the book down and checked my fridge. Sure enough, there was the tall slim jar of green olives, Mezzetta brand, ancient.There are many more such spot-on descriptions. The sound of trolley cars is a ding and trundle. A psychopath creeps around with the high-kneed tiptoed skulk of a vaudeville fiend up to no good. An athletic coach resembles a wingless flyblunt and scuttly. The real substance of Infinite Jest, though, as of any Wallace novel, is a penetrating exploration of the human psyche. The characters inner states emerge as vividly as the sensory details of their external world. The quirky reaction of a Wheelchair Assassin upon boarding the bus via a handicapped ramp: The nation U.S.A. treated wheelchaired persons with the solicitude that the weak substitute for respect . . . [yet Fortier] preferred the condescension, the pretense of institutional sensitivity to his right of equal access; it honed the edge of his senses of purpose. Some addicts become so dependent on chemicals for feelings of well-being that when the chemicals have to be abandoned they undergo a loss-trauma that reaches way down deep into the souls core systems. Or just compare the books mini-essay on depression to Jeffrey Eugenides description of the same state in The Marriage Plot. Eugenides writing about depression sounds like a nursing students summary of a psych textbook; Wallaces description lives and breathes.Infinite Jest is a much more approachable book than its daunting size would suggest. It makes for an enjoyable and rewarding summer reading project. My fellow Verdicts blogger Anthony Domestico recommends The Pale King as a good introduction to Wallaces kaleidoscopic oeuvre, which it is. Infinite Jest itself is not to be missed, howeveror feared.
About the Author
Christine Neulieb is a former Commonweal editorial assistant.