David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: The Soundtrack (With Endnotes)
One of Time magazine's Top 100 English-language novels of the last century, the late David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is a gargantuan book. Its cutting, comedic views cover a broad swath of American life, but focus on family dysfunction, chemical dependency, depression, entertainment saturation and the notion that everything in this country is for sale.
Set in a not-very-distant future, the book's events occur over several years, designated no longer by numerals, but subsidized by corporations willing to shell out the most dough for naming rights. As it were, many of the novel's events occur in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, rather than, say, 2017.
Infinite Jest follows the Incandenza family, Bostonians of considerable pedigree, whose Enfield Tennis Academy is a collective of supremely intelligent students and administrators. They live up the hill from Enett House, a halfway house for recovering addicts. The bulk of the book's characters reside in one or the other. Everyone is broken in some fundamental and hard-to-fix way.
Wallace was the embodiment of the "write what you know" adage. The book's nearly 1,100 pages (and 388 endnotes!) are filled with poetic wisdom on depression. Wallace struggled with the disease for years and committed suicide in 2008.
David Foster Wallace
Photo by Steve Rhodes
His legacy is, in part, an important but intimidating novel. Many folks hold its two-pound heft in hand and head on over to the Stephen King section.
A work of this magnitude needs more audience. As much as Wallace would hate the idea, there should be a film adaptation of Infinite Jest for those of us too lazy or busy to read it. And these are the bands whose music could set the right tone for the film.
5. Iron & Wine Iron & Wine singer/songwriter Sam Beam shares some similarities with James Incandenza, the fictional family's patriarch and a central character. Incandenza is a film director. Austin-based Beam graduated with a film-school degree and was teaching the subject at the University of Miami while he wrote songs for his first album.
His work has been featured on soundtrack albums previously, most notably his cover of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" from Garden State. Beam's sparse compositions possess the kind of lonely melancholy associated with the book's heavier themes. 1
4. Dropkick Murphys Going solely on bands with Massachusetts roots, Dropkick Murphys best fit the bill. 2 Many of Infinite Jest's more colorful characters are its blue-collar Bostonians, the same sorts of chowderheads that might actually attend a Dropkick show.
The Celtic punk band's biggest hit, "I'm Shipping Up to Boston," has been used in film (The Departed) and is a staple at Boston pro sports events. Two of the Incandenza brothers are athletes (Orin, the eldest, is a kicker for the Arizona Cardinals and Hal, the youngest and the book's central protagonist, is a star junior tennis player), so there's a sports-song connection already in play.
Dropkick Murphy's catalog includes enough songs about drinking and drunkenness to make them strong contenders, since a good deal of the book concerns substance abuse and recovery.
3. Radiohead Wallace was an academic who attended Harvard grad school before abandoning higher learning to write full-time. A serious discussion about bands suited to the task of penning music for his greatest work has to include the smartest band performing today. Who could argue with Radiohead if the criteria is intelligent and demanding presentation of creative ideas? 3 Infinite Jest challenges readers. Radiohead challenges listeners.
At the core of the book is the relationship between the brothers Incandenza. Radiohead's got its own pair of siblings, the Greenwood brothers. A book that spends so much time reflecting on suicidal tendencies probably benefits from the fellas who wrote such chipper ditties as 'How to Disappear Completely" and "Let Down."
Photo by Kris Krug
2. The Flaming Lips If this band seems a bit out of place, just know the book is satire and, while dealing with daunting issues, does so with spot-on humor. Wayne Coyne and company have the sort of absurdist approach required to create music that expresses a specific time and place, particularly if that time is the Year of the Whopper, or the place is a pawn shop under attack by wheelchair assassins. The Lips can go from ridiculous to sublime with Wallace-like ease.
The band may have already recorded one of the songs for this hypothetical soundtrack with its biggest hit, "Do You Realize?" That song could easily be attached to Joelle Van Dyne, the female protagonist dubbed the "Prettiest Girl of All Time" or the "PGOAT", for short. 4
1. Pixies Wallace didn't write much about music inInfinite Jest. He does make a brief reference to R.E.M. and Pearl Jam in his endnotes (#66). And he's suggested in interviews he listened to Nirvana while writing the book.
Pixies are commonly regarded as influential to at least one of those bands and several others on this list. Additionally, the band is from Boston, they'd understand the lay of Wallace's land. Black Francis is an avant-garde movie buff who would probably delight in Incandenza films like Annular Fusion Is Our Friend and Fun With Teeth.
Pixies' songwriting ponged back and forth from intense and earnest to loose and goofy. And, like the Incandenzas, they're a family that acknowledges its dysfunction, mania and substance abuse. It's unknown whether any of the Pixies have read this mammoth work, but no need. Just find the Cliff Notes and get to writing, guys.
ENDNOTES 1. Iron & Wine's latest album, Ghost on Ghost, is actually a bit more upbeat than some past efforts. It's a free-rides-and-cotton-candy afternoon at the fair compared to "Naked as We Came," for instance.
2. An argument could be made for Massachusetts' Passion Pit (from Cambridge, but too synthesized for this job) or Aerosmith (you don't seriously want another "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing," do you?) My runner-up here would be the Modern Lovers (or at least Jonathan Richman), since their songs were frequently humorous and detailed the awkwardness of growing up, which are also trademarks of the book.
3. Other "smart, but depressing" bands might include Pink Floyd, Muse, The Cure, or Florence & the Machine. Wallace would likely approve of any of these groups. I'm sure there are tons of others. Can you name a few bands whose songs routinely draw large rain clouds overhead? Everybody try, it's a fun game!
4. The PGOAT is a redhead with porcelain skin and a body that won't quit, according to Wallace's descriptions. Think of a more perfect Isla Fisher in this role, or maybe a flawless Amy Adams. Oddly enough, the PGOAT is hidden under veil for most of the book.
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