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David Wallace - Infinite jest

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Infinite jest
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David Wallace - Infinite jest

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Infinite Jest is the name of a movie said to be so entertaining that anyone who watches it loses all desire to do anything but watch. People die happily, viewing it in endless repetition. The novel Infinite Jest is the story of this addictive entertainment, and in particular how it affects a Boston halfway house for recovering addicts and a nearby tennis academy, whose students have many budding addictions of their own. As the novel unfolds, various individuals, organisations, and governments vie to obtain the master copy of Infinite Jest for their own ends, and the denizens of the tennis school and halfway house are caught up in increasingly desperate efforts to control the movie — as is a cast including burglars, transvestite muggers, scam artists, medical professionals, pro football stars, bookies, drug addicts both active and recovering, film students, political assassins, and one of the most endearingly messed-up families ever captured in a novel.On this outrageous frame hangs an exploration of essential questions about what entertainment is, and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment interacts with our need to connect with other humans; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are. Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. The huge cast and multilevel narrative serve a story that accelerates to a breathtaking, heartbreaking, unfogettable conclusion. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human and one of those rare books that renew the very idea of what a novel can do.

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David Foster Wallace


Infinite jest

YEAR OF GLAD

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.

I am in here.

Three faces have resolved into place above summer-weight sportcoats and half-Windsors across a polished pine conference table shiny with the spidered light of an Arizona noon. These are three Deans — of Admissions, Academic Affairs, Athletic Affairs. I do not know which face belongs to whom.

I believe I appear neutral, maybe even pleasant, though I’ve been coached to err on the side of neutrality and not attempt what would feel to me like a pleasant expression or smile.

I have committed to crossing my legs I hope carefully, ankle on knee, hands together in the lap of my slacks. My fingers are mated into a mirrored series of what manifests, to me, as the letter X. The interview room’s other personnel include: the University’s Director of Composition, its varsity tennis coach, and Academy prorector Mr. A. deLint. C.T. is beside me; the others sit, stand and stand, respectively, at the periphery of my focus. The tennis coach jingles pocket-change. There is something vaguely digestive about the room’s odor. The high-traction sole of my complimentary Nike sneaker runs parallel to the wobbling loafer of my mother’s half-brother, here in his capacity as Headmaster, sitting in the chair to what I hope is my immediate right, also facing Deans.

The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me. Passed a packet of computer-sheets by the shaggy lion of a Dean at center, he is speaking more or less to these pages, smiling down.

‘You are Harold Incandenza, eighteen, date of secondary-school graduation approximately one month from now, attending the Enfield Tennis Academy, Enfield, Massachusetts, a boarding school, where you reside.’ His reading glasses are rectangular, court-shaped, the sidelines at top and bottom. ‘You are, according to Coach White and Dean [unintelligible], a regionally, nationally, and continentally ranked junior tennis player, a potential O.N.A.N.C.A.A. athlete of substantial promise, recruited by Coach White via correspondence with Dr. Tavis here commencing … February of this year.’ The top page is removed and brought around neatly to the bottom of the sheaf, at intervals. ‘You have been in residence at the Enfield Tennis Academy since age seven.’

I am debating whether to risk scratching the right side of my jaw, where there is a wen.

‘Coach White informs our offices that he holds the Enfield Tennis Academy’s program and achievements in high regard, that the University of Arizona tennis squad has profited from the prior matriculation of several former E.T.A. alumni, one of whom was one Mr. Aubrey F. deLint, who appears also to be with you here today. Coach White and his staff have given us —’

The yellow administrator’s usage is on the whole undistinguished, though I have to admit he’s made himself understood. The Director of Composition seems to have more than the normal number of eyebrows. The Dean at right is looking at my face a bit strangely.

Uncle Charles is saying that though he can anticipate that the Deans might be predisposed to weigh what he avers as coming from his possible appearance as a kind of cheerleader for E.T.A., he can assure the assembled Deans that all this is true, and that the Academy has presently in residence no fewer than a third of the continent’s top thirty juniors, in age brackets all across the board, and that I here, who go by ‘Hal,’ usually, am ‘right up there among the very cream.’ Right and center Deans smile professionally; the heads of deLint and the coach incline as the Dean at left clears his throat:

‘— belief that you could well make, even as a freshman, a real contribution to this University’s varsity tennis program. We are pleased,’ he either says or reads, removing a page, ‘that a competition of some major sort here has brought you down and given us the chance to sit down and chat together about your application and potential recruitment and matriculation and scholarship.’

‘I’ve been asked to add that Hal here is seeded third, Boys’ 18-and-Under Singles, in the prestigious WhataBurger Southwest Junior Invitational out at the Randolph Tennis Center —’ says what I infer is Athletic Affairs, his cocked head showing a freckled scalp.

‘Out at Randolph Park, near the outstanding El Con Marriott,’ C.T. inserts, ‘a venue the whole contingent’s been vocal about finding absolutely top-hole thus far, which —’

‘Just so, Chuck, and that according to Chuck here Hal has already justified his seed, he’s reached the semifinals as of this morning’s apparently impressive win, and that he’ll be playing out at the Center again tomorrow, against the winner of a quarterfinal game tonight, and so will be playing tomorrow at I believe scheduled for 0830 —’

‘Try to get under way before the godawful heat out there. Though of course a dry heat.’

‘— and has apparently already qualified for this winter’s Continental Indoors, up in Edmonton, Kirk tells me —’ cocking further to look up and left at the varsity coach, whose smile’s teeth are radiant against a violent sunburn — ‘Which is something indeed.’ He smiles, looking at me. ‘Did we get all that right Hal.’

C.T. has crossed his arms casually; their triceps’ flesh is webbed with mottle in the air-conditioned sunlight. ‘You sure did. Bill.’ He smiles. The two halves of his mustache never quite match. ‘And let me say if I may that Hal’s excited, excited to be invited for the third year running to the Invitational again, to be back here in a community he has real affection for, to visit with your alumni and coaching staff, to have already justified his high seed in this week’s not unstiff competition, to as they say still be in it without the fat woman in the Viking hat having sung, so to speak, but of course most of all to have a chance to meet you gentlemen and have a look at the facilities here. Everything here is absolutely top-slot, from what he’s seen.’

There is a silence. DeLint shifts his back against the room’s panelling and recenters his weight. My uncle beams and straightens a straight watchband. 62.5 % of the room’s faces are directed my way, pleasantly expectant. My chest bumps like a dryer with shoes in it. I compose what I project will be seen as a smile. I turn this way and that, slightly, sort of directing the expression to everyone in the room.

There is a new silence. The yellow Dean’s eyebrows go circumflex. The two other Deans look to the Director of Composition. The tennis coach has moved to stand at the broad window, feeling at the back of his crewcut. Uncle Charles strokes the forearm above his watch. Sharp curved palm-shadows move slightly over the pine table’s shine, the one head’s shadow a black moon.

‘Is Hal all right, Chuck?’ Athletic Affairs asks. ‘Hal just seemed to … well, grimace. Is he in pain? Are you in pain, son?’

‘Hal’s right as rain,’ smiles my uncle, soothing the air with a casual hand. ‘Just a bit of a let’s call it maybe a facial tic, slightly, at all the adrenaline of being here on your impressive campus, justifying his seed so far without dropping a set, receiving that official written offer of not only waivers but a living allowance from Coach White here, on Pac 10 letterhead, being ready in all probability to sign a National Letter of Intent right here and now this very day, he’s indicated to me.’ C.T. looks to me, his look horribly mild. I do the safe thing, relaxing every muscle in my face, emptying out all expression. I stare carefully into the Kekuléan knot of the middle Dean’s necktie.

My silent response to the expectant silence begins to affect the air of the room, the bits of dust and sportcoat-lint stirred around by the AC’s vents dancing jaggedly in the slanted plane of windowlight, the air over the table like the sparkling space just above a fresh-poured seltzer. The coach, in a slight accent neither British nor Australian, is telling C.T. that the whole application-interface process, while usually just a pleasant formality, is probably best accentuated by letting the applicant speak up for himself. Right and center Deans have inclined together in soft conference, forming a kind of tepee of skin and hair. I presume it’s probably facilitate that the tennis coach mistook for accentuate, though accelerate, while clunkier than facilitate, is from a phonetic perspective more sensible, as a mistake. The Dean with the flat yellow face has leaned forward, his lips drawn back from his teeth in what I see as concern. His hands come together on the conference table’s surface. His own fingers look like they mate as my own four-X series dissolves and I hold tight to the sides of my chair.

We need candidly to chat re potential problems with my application, they and I, he is beginning to say. He makes a reference to candor and its value.

‘The issues my office faces with the application materials on file from you, Hal, involve some test scores.’ He glances down at a colorful sheet of standardized scores in the trench his arms have made. ‘The Admissions staff is looking at standardized test scores from you that are, as I’m sure you know and can explain, are, shall we say … subnormal.’ I’m to explain.

It’s clear that this really pretty sincere yellow Dean at left is Admissions. And surely the little aviarian figure at right is Athletics, then, because the facial creases of the shaggy middle Dean are now pursed in a kind of distanced affront, an I’m-eating-something-that-makes-me-really-appreciate-the-presence-of-whatever-I’m-drinking-along-with-it look that spells professionally Academic reservations. An uncomplicated loyalty to standards, then, at center. My uncle looks to Athletics as if puzzled. He shifts slightly in his chair.

The incongruity between Admissions’ hand and face-color is almost wild. ‘—verbal scores that are just quite a bit closer to zero than we’re comfortable with, as against a secondary-school transcript from the institution where both your mother and her brother are administrators —’ reading directly out of the sheaf inside his arms’ ellipse — ‘that this past year, yes, has fallen off a bit, but by the word I mean “fallen off” to outstanding from three previous years of frankly incredible.’

‘Off the charts.’

‘Most institutions do not even have grades of A with multiple pluses after it,’ says the Director of Composition, his expression impossible to interpret.

‘This kind of … how shall I put it… incongruity,’ Admissions says, his expression frank and concerned, ‘I’ve got to tell you sends up a red flag of potential concern during the admissions process.’

‘We thus invite you to explain the appearance of incongruity if not outright shenanigans.’ Students has a tiny piping voice that’s absurd coming out of a face this big.

‘Surely by incredible you meant very very very impressive, as opposed to literally quote “incredible,” surely,’ says C.T., seeming to watch the coach at the window massaging the back of his neck. The huge window gives out on nothing more than dazzling sunlight and cracked earth with heat-shimmers over it.

‘Then there is before us the matter of not the required two but nine separate application essays, some of which of nearly monograph-length, each without exception being —’ different sheet — ‘the adjective various evalua-tors used was quote “stellar” —’

Dir. of Comp.: ‘I made in my assessment deliberate use of lapidary and effete.’

‘— but in areas and with titles, I’m sure you recall quite well, Hal: “Neoclassical Assumptions in Contemporary Prescriptive Grammar,” “The Implications of Post-Fourier Transformations for a Holographically Mimetic Cinema,” “The Emergence of Heroic Stasis in Broadcast Entertainment” —’

‘ “Montague Grammar and the Semantics of Physical Modality”?’

‘ “A Man Who Began to Suspect He Was Made of Glass”?’

‘ “Tertiary Symbolism in Justinian Erotica”?’

Now showing broad expanses of recessed gum. ‘Suffice to say that there’s some frank and candid concern about the recipient of these unfortunate test scores, though perhaps explainable test scores, being these essays’ sole individual author.’

‘I’m not sure Hal’s sure just what’s being implied here,’ my uncle says. The Dean at center is fingering his lapels as he interprets distasteful computed data.

‘What the University is saying here is that from a strictly academic point of view there are admission problems that Hal needs to try to help us iron out. A matriculant’s first role at the University is and must be as a student. We couldn’t admit a student we have reason to suspect can’t cut the mustard, no matter how much of an asset he might be on the field.’

‘Dean Sawyer means the court, of course, Chuck,’ Athletic Affairs says, head severely cocked so he’s including the White person behind him in the address somehow. ‘Not to mention O.N.A.N.C.A.A. regulations and investigators always snuffling around for some sort of whiff of the smell of impropriety.’

The varsity tennis coach looks at his own watch.

‘Assuming these board scores are accurate reflectors of true capacity in this case,’ Academic Affairs says, his high voice serious and sotto, still looking at the file before him as if it were a plate of something bad, ‘Til tell you right now my opinion is it wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be fair to the other applicants. Wouldn’t be fair to the University community.’ He looks at me. ‘And it’d be especially unfair to Hal himself. Admitting a boy we see as simply an athletic asset would amount to just using that boy. We’re under myriad scrutiny to make sure we’re not using anybody. Your board results, son, indicate that we could be accused of using you.’

Uncle Charles is asking Coach White to ask the Dean of Athletic Affairs whether the weather over scores would be as heavy if I were, say, a revenue-raising football prodigy. The familiar panic at feeling misperceived is rising, and my chest bumps and thuds. I expend energy on remaining utterly silent in my chair, empty, my eyes two great pale zeros. People have promised to get me through this.

Uncle C.T., though, has the pinched look of the cornered. His voice takes on an odd timbre when he’s cornered, as if he were shouting as he receded. ‘Hal’s grades at E.T.A., which is I should stress an Academy, not simply a camp or factory, accredited by both the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the North American Sports Academy Association, it’s focused on the total needs of the player and student, founded by a towering intellectual figure whom I hardly need name, here, and based by him on the rigorous Oxbridge Quadrivium-Trivium curricular model, a school fully staffed and equipped, by a fully certified staff, should show that my nephew here can cut just about any Pac 10 mustard that needs cutting, and that —’

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