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September 20, 2013 - 2:31pm

Contemporary Circuses: Timelessly entertaining jest


The goal of every entertainer is for their audience to be completely enthralled by their work for some length of time. That may make “Infinite Jest” producer-director James Incandenza the most skilled entertainer in history — but it would also make him a murderer. He has succeeded in engaging his audience to the point where they have become unable to do anything other than watch the film repeatedly. When they can’t see the movie, they plead not for food or water, but for a screen, making IJ entirely unwatchable for anyone without a death wish. To the government and Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, — a Québécois terrorist cell known elsewhere as the AFR — IJ is known simply as “the Entertainment,” and its elusive, copy-capable master cartridge is the most sought-after item in North America. Should the AFR manage to get their hands on it, dooming millions of civilians to an incredibly enjoyable death by playing the tape on television would be a simple task.

Now if you haven’t already guessed, this film isn’t real. It exists only in the eponymous 1996 New York Times bestselling novel “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace — and while the book is set in the early 21st century, the future we live in has yet again failed to live up to its prior depictions. Entertainment has evolved in the 17 years since IJ was published. Wallace’s idea of the “Infinite Jest” film’s master cartridge being the only copy-capable version of the film is laughably dated in today’s Information Age, where anyone with a computer and some time on their hands can crack virtually every kind of copy protection for free. Even the bound-pages book format has been portrayed as out of touch, thanks to e-readers and pirated PDF versions of books available online. “Infinite Jest” itself may seem especially outdated; its 1,079-page length and 388 endnotes make its paper version feel more like a brick than a book.

But entertainment hasn’t changed that much. IJ (the book) may have taken me a month and a half to read, but it’s one of the most compelling pieces of entertainment I’ve ever encountered. While the author, Wallace, is dead — he committed suicide in 2008 after a long struggle with depression — IJ puts forth so many reasons why entertainers, well, entertain. They do it to tell stories, to teach, to express themselves, to interact with other people through time and space. And the products that entertainers display on a page, turn into an MP3 or upload to YouTube — these things fit into the rest of the world like water. They make their way into the cracks in people, filling up places we didn’t know were empty and places we never knew existed. They are so common, but absolutely essential. They often let us forget the world, or laugh at it — but at other times bring all of its feeling to us in that searing rush.

Over two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Juvenal suggested that the Roman mob desired only two things: “bread and circuses,” implying the simplicity of the Roman citizens. To a point, he’s completely correct — and that didn’t bode well for Rome. And judging by the often-satirical ruminations on the American condition in IJ, there might even be a contemporary parallel for that point.

But let’s not worry about that right now. For now, let’s just focus on those circuses.