on September 19, 2012
I feel like there's been so much written about this book, that it almost seems impossible to try to add anything new to this discussion. However, I will try to lay out reasons to buy/not buy this book as well as a few things people might want to know before jumping into this kind of commitment. INFINITE JEST isn't for everyone, and I don't mean that in a condescending or patronizing way: it will certainly appeal to some people's sensibilities much more than others.
###Here's What You Need to Know###
David Foster Wallace's INFINITE JEST is a postmodern novel with a premodern message. Wallace, who railed against irony, wanted to be sincere in his writing. So while this book does contain many postmodern conventions, its ideas about humanity aren't postmodern at all. I think many people were disappointed that the book is "about addiction, and that's all you need to know," but there is much more to this book, and there's much more that Wallace has to say. Some of these messages are delivered with a heavy hand, and that's fine: Wallace wanted to be sincere, and he wouldn't want to dull his insights by distancing himself from them via irony or whatever else.
This book is indeed incredibly long. INFINITE JEST is notoriously known for being a long book - it's just shy of 1100 pages. Stephen King's THE STAND (uncut edition) and George R.R. Martin's STORM OF SWORDS are longer this, but I was able to clear those books much quicker than David Foster Wallace's second novel. I'm a very slow reader, and I was able to read INFINITE JEST in about two months, without taking into account the time I spent reading two shorter novels by different authors.
This book is indeed incredibly verbose. As a way to rage against the rising popularity of minimalist writing in the 1980's, Wallace found himself moving towards a brand of writing that captured everything: every thought, every action, every detail. His maximalist writing can be hard to get through at time: there's an extended passage detailing a tennis academy's design that seems to go on forever. The discussion of an invented game that involves intermediate calculus to keep score reaches across dozens of pages. Wallace sought to capture everything.
Everything you heard about the endnotes is true. The narration of the book is frequented interrupted with endnotes (different from footnotes), some of which span a dozen pages and contain their own endnotes. These asides are not optional: plot details are frequently hinted at or exposed in these interludes.
READ THIS ON KINDLE IF YOU CAN. I want to stress this point: reading INFINITE JEST is much easier on an eReader for a few reasons. With Kindle, the hassle of flipping back to the endnotes is a burden made much lighter. Each note is hyperlinked to its corresponding section to the back. It's also really easy to highlight, bookmark, make notes of certain areas to revisit if you need. Some important plot elements are given only once in passing, so marking these areas is helpful, and Kindle makes the task really simple. The weight of this mammoth book is also erased with the electronic copy. There are two complaints about the Kindle version however: 1) it's not a real book, and I prefer handling most books (I think we all kind of do, right?) and 2) if you close the eReader while you are in the endnotes, your Kindle will recognize that page as being the further point you've read to. Remedying this situation isn't hard; you'll just need to log onto Amazon and clear your furthest-page-read, but it is a bit annoying.
###Here's Why You Should Buy This Book###
Some of the passages in this novel rank among my favorite all-time sections of writing. While Wallace can be verbose, it can lead to some of the most inventive and poetic turns of phrase. I found myself going back and re-reading many moments as soon as I finished them and highlighting them for later use (I rarely ever do this).
This book is funny, sad, smart, and silly. INFINITE JEST really runs the gamut in terms of emotions that it evokes. I've seen many readers talk about how funny it is, and others that focus on how tragic it is. There are moments in this book that I still reflect on and laugh out loud. There are moments that, when I think about them, make me want to cry. There are even moments in this that give me the goosebumps imagining how horrifying they would be.
INFINITE JEST is filled with tons of ideas and tons of characters. Readers will spend a lot of time with the characters here, and almost all of them are interesting. Some of them are fun, and some of them are despicable. Mario Incandenza ranks among one of my favorite characters in literature. Additionally, this book is full of ideas about addiction, entertainment, society, family, imperialism, Quebec separatism, and tennis. There's a lot of great insight spread out across the novel's length. There's not a ton of plotting to INFINITE JEST, but it's alright: these characters are often compelling enough that readers will want to spend their time with them.
It seems that half of the reason to read INFINITE JEST lies merely in the act of doing it. Most people bail on the book midway through, so finishing the novel is seen as a sort of accomplishment in some circles.
###Here's Why You Should Pass on This Book###
This book is too long. It surprised me to learn that INFINITE JEST had an editor and that sections of the book were excised. There are some stretches where not much seems to happen and no new insights are made. Most books leave me wanting the ending to go on and on forever, but there were times where I was just ready for this novel to be over (strangely enough, not at the ending though).
INFINITE JEST is wildly inconsistent. It probably comes with the territory of maximalist writing, but while some passages of writing are fantastic, some passages are equally dull. While I loved the book, I think it would be hard to argue that this novel is a solid, consistent work. Additionally, the novel frequently jumps (apropos of nothing) to different characters and different times and different settings. The narrative might be dealing with Hal Incandenza at a Boston tennis academy in the future only to suddenly (with, granted a line break) focus on a glimpse of his father in the 1970's. Even more additionally, the writing style changes frequently.
The use of styles can be jarring. I ended up liking this point, but I feel that I may be in the minority on this. Early in the book, an essay written by one of the characters (in high school) is recounted in full. Later, we are treated to stream-of-consciousness via a character we are not familiar with. Later, there are dozens of pages with nothing but dialog (literally, not figuratively), and some passages that are completely without dialog.
There's not much plot here. I haven't talked much about the plot in the above content because there's just not that much to talk about. The premise is: a filmmaker created a video that is so enjoyable, people can't turn away from it or think about anything else. Most of this book focuses in on its settings and characters to make its points.
Overall, I gotta say, even for all of its flaws, I really enjoyed INFINITE JEST. Some of the reviewers that rated this book poorly have good points to make, and I would recommend reading these reviews before making the plunge on buying this book. At the end of the day though, if you enjoy postmodern fiction, INFINITE JEST is definitely an experience worth trying.
Say farewell, at least for a month or so, to your family, friends, and other hobbies. Figure out a way to fortify your fingers, wrists, and arms so you can hold this book up for hours at a time over a period of weeks. Reconfigure the lighting arrangement in your reading area for maximum glow. Find two sturdy bookmarks. Take a deep breath, let it out real slow, and you are ready to begin the monumental task of reading David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest." It took me three solid weeks to navigate a path through the byzantine structures of Wallace's magnum opus, three weeks of reading at least twenty pages a day (often more than that, of course) to get through the nearly 1,000 pages of text and the ninety plus pages of endnotes that make up this novel. If you have heard of Wallace before, and you probably have if you are checking out reviews for the book, you know "Infinite Jest" has quite a reputation in the literary world. You will see stuffed shirts tossing around words like "post post-modernism" and other academic jargon while referring to Wallace's oeuvre. Don't let these old fogies get you down; "Infinite Jest" is an immensely readable, hypnotically fascinating novel chock full of great humor, great sadness, and thought provoking themes.
The novel takes place in Enfield, Massachusetts in the near future. In the story, Canada, the United States, and Mexico formed a federation called the Organization of North American Nations (known as O.N.A.N.). The citizens of this confederation spend their time watching entertainment cartridges playable on their "teleputers," devices that came about when broadcast television went bankrupt. Advertisers predictably had a cow over the loss of television, so the government allowed companies to purchase calendar years and rename them. Hence, we have years called "The Year of Glad," and "The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment." Not everyone is happy with the O.N.A.N. arrangement; Quebecois revolutionaries continue to seek an independent homeland from their Canadian masters, only now they have to deal with the United States as well. In a devious bid for independence, a group of terrorists known as "The Wheelchair Assassins" (!) are seeking a film cartridge that supposedly kills anyone who watches it by turning them into pleasure seeking zombies. Moreover, a new energy system called annular fusion requires the confederation to dump its toxic waste into a place called "The Great Concavity," an abandoned area encompassing most of Maine and other northeastern regions. The concavity borders Quebec, and the toxins flung there with giant catapults (!!) have leeched into surrounding areas, thus causing thousands of people to develop life-threatening deformities.
Wallace introduces dozens of oddball characters in the course of his narrative, with special emphasis placed on the students at the Enfield Tennis Academy and the addicts populating a drug rehab right down the hill called Ennet House. The primary character at Enfield is one Hal Incandenza, a genius and a tennis star with a growing addiction to marijuana. Living with Hal are his horribly disfigured brother Mario, his promiscuous but hyper intelligent mother Avril, and several fellow students who redefine our conceptions of the bizarre. Hal has difficulties dealing with his family due to, among other issues, the horrific suicide via microwave oven of his father James. Dad was a scientist who helped develop annular fusion before going into experimental filmmaking. It was, in fact, James Incandenza who made the fatal entertainment cartridge that is causing so many headaches. In opposition to the madhouse that is Enfield is the madhouse that is Ennet House, where drug addict Don Gately attempts to take things one day at a time. Gately lived a life of desperate abandon, burglarizing homes in order to pay for his addictions. The only thing harder than living on drugs is kicking the habit, and Wallace describes in minute detail the hard sought sobriety of Don Gately and his fellow addicts. I know this summary stinks, I know I'm leaving tons of stuff out, but place the blame on Wallace for constructing such a complex novel.
Several themes thread their way through the novel. The most notable is the theme of addiction and recovery represented by Hal Incandenza and Don Gately. Another theme is the role of entertainment in American society, something Wallace sees as a calamity of epic proportions that will only end in death. If you tire of looking for deeper meaning in "Infinite Jest," don't worry. You can laugh yourself sick over the humorous aspects of the book or stare in open-mouthed awe at the numerous digressions from the main story. Wallace is a powerful writer, capable of infusing seemingly banal situations like filmmaking and sports with amazing energy. Check out the story about Hal's brother Orin punting in his first football game, or the Eschaton disaster at the academy, or James Incandenza's filmography in one of the endnotes for proof of this assertion. I especially loved the filmography and the endnote explaining the origins of the Wheelchair Assassins, two of the funniest, most wildly inventive things I have ever read. Most of the book is as equally brilliant even as it veers off in a dozen different directions.
"Infinite Jest" is intricate, with its multitude of subplots, OED inspired vocabulary, and tragic characters, yet the book still entertains because Wallace knows how to drape a compelling, easily understood story over all of the complexities. I'm under no illusions that I picked up on more than a fraction of the many things Wallace was attempting to say, but who cares? I had a heckuva a ride through this book, and hopefully you will too. Remember, take your time, breathe easy, and don't worry too much about carpal tunnel syndrome.
P.S. Allston Rules.
on December 12, 2001
David Foster Wallace is a genius, and he knows it. But unlike other geniuses that you might know, he never tries to make you feel dumb. He just wants you to understand the same things that he does, so occasionally you'll feel out of your depth. But he's also a gifted writer, so odds are that you *will* come out understanding him. And what he's saying is brilliant, so you'll feel like a better person for it.
Wallace has been described as ``postmodern", a word that seems to get smacked onto anything written after World War II. I don't see it. To me, postmodernism involves a few things: 1) irony, in liberal doses (e.g., DeLillo's _White Noise_); 2) a continuous awareness that we're *reading a book* and that there's an author talking to us, and that the characters are under his control (e.g., anything by Kurt Vonnegut); 3) self-reference, sometimes to the point of disorienting involution (e.g., Wallace's story ``Westward The Course Of Empire Makes Its Way" from his book _Girl With Curious Hair_ - and that story is, notably, a spoof of postmodernism). This may be an overly conservative definition of postmodernism, but the word's overapplication justifies some conservatism.
_Infinite Jest_ is not postmodern; it's just a great story with beautifully constructed characters. It is a book about a movie that is so addictive that anyone who starts watching it has no choice but to keep watching it forever - foregoing food, water, and sleep, and suffering as much pain as is necessary to keep watching. The movie itself is, to paraphrase a friend, an uber-McGuffin (I'm never sure whether I've spelled that right) - an object that never gets clearly explained, but around which the plot coheres.
The movie itself is not the main point of the book. _Infinite Jest_ is a novel about American addictions: television, drugs, sex, fame, and indeed the American need to be addicted to something. An addiction to addictions. Wallace summarizes the book's mood well when he says,
``There's something particularly sad about it, something that doesn't have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It's more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether it's unique to our generation I really don't know."
The main sign of Wallace's genius - and yes, I mean that word with all it entails, content in the knowledge that it is overused but that it fits here - is that he can make us feel this gut-level sadness without even appearing to work at it. Heavy use of irony can make you feel that there's some deeper, unseen, lurking gloominess about the world, and for that reason it's the easy way out. Ditto self-reference, which after a while is dizzying and confusing. Wallace is too brilliant a writer to take any of the easy postmodern routes. He's just written a great story with an unpleasant underlying mood. It's been a long time since I've read a book of such masterful subtlety.
It has all the classic aspects of a great novel: characters whom the reader *understands*, a compelling story that edges inexorably toward an uncertain ending, a gut-level mood, and a habit of dispensing brilliant toss-offs so suddenly that the reader can't help but gasp. For instance, see the attached text file containing Wallace's future-retrospective explanation of why videophones failed.
My first inclination was that this book - weighing in at over a thousand pages, including hundreds of footnotes (some of which have their own footnotes) - needed an editor. And it may, at points. But there's very little chaff amongst the wheat: the book's heft serves at least three purposes:
1) To build characters, slowly and methodically. One of Wallace's flaws is that his characters' dialogue - particularly that of his youthful protagonist and tennis prodigy, Hal Incandenza - doesn't sound genuine. It sounds like Wallace talking through 17-year-olds, not 17-year-olds who've been transcribed. I think Wallace realizes this, which is why most of his character development comes through narration.
2) To dump out the contents of Wallace's swirling brain. He has so much to say, and he seems to want to get it all down on paper in this one book. Less profound thoughts from a less talented author might have left me screaming for an editor, but they didn't do so here.
3) To structure the book as a conversation. Reading this book, one feels as though one is talking directly with Wallace. More often than not, his sentences will contain heavy Latinate words like ``epicanthic" just a short distance from the conversational stammerings ``like" and ``and so but". Again, had a lesser writer written these words, I would have edited the book myself, filling the margins with red pen.
The book's length will discourage all but a few readers, but it handsomely rewards the patient.
on June 1, 2000
When I picked up this book, I intended to read just the first few pages to see what it was about, and maybe finish some other time. 1100 pages later, I finally put it down. OK, I didn't read it all in one sitting, but the single mindedness you could call an addiction. Which is appropriate, because this book is about addiction in all sorts of forms: drugs, alcohol, athletics, entertainment, and so forth. The scope DFW attempts (and succeeds) is amazing: every page, every chapter is a constant surpise. DFW sets up his own kind of reality, and then stretches that reality to the breaking point. To try to summarize or encapsulate in a 1000 words is impossible. INFINITE JEST is comic and tragic, science fiction and mystery, socio-political commentary and literary fiction. Now for the bad news. Sometimes, the writing is....pretentious. The footnotes get to be a little much. It is as if DFW is showing off his virtuosity at wordplay for the sake of showing off. He actually addresses this criticism in a very good interview ................. INFINITE JEST is not an "easy read," but it is well worth the effort.
on August 26, 2011
I don't want to try to summarize what I love about this novel. This is my favorite novel and so that would take a while and probably waste your time rehashing what other people have said better. Instead I'll try to address a few of the more common complaints I see here:
The first is that there is no closure. This is correct to some degree, since many of the storylines in the novel - Hal's addiction, Gately's and Pemulis' fates, the Quebecois insurgency, etc. - aren't explicitly resolved. There are hints of what happens if you'd like to sleuth these out (I was lucky enough to read it shortly before Infinite Summer, a sort of online book club for this, started, and luckily got to see the theories of cleverer people), but I'd argue that even those are unnecessary. The way I like to describe it is that Infinite Jest is too good to be constrained by a plot. Instead, these storylines are really just avenues for exploring some very interesting concepts: addiction, achievement, depression, loneliness. Moreover, these avenues are populated by some very well-drawn characters, some of whom are pretty repulsive but most of whom are so deftly fleshed-out that you can somehow empathize with them anyway. And momentarily inhabiting such realistic characters (narration is often limited-omniscient, albeit confined to a variety of different characters at different times) is such a rich experience that, to me at least, it more than makes up for a scant plot.
The second is that the book is hard to read. This is true in parts, and there are more than a few words in here whose meanings I still don't know. There are a lot of footnotes, a common theme in DFW's work, which can be bothersome but not horribly so. The beginning is especially slow going because the characters are unfamiliar and confusing and, especially if you haven't read any of DFW's work (I strongly suggest reading some of his essays before this), you may not have the reservoir of goodwill to get you through. But once you find your footing about a hundred pages almost all of the remainder is very readable. Sure, there are portions that can be pretty technical. There's an exposition of a Risk-like children's game that involves a jargon-packed discussion of nuclear warfare, for one, but I enjoy taking these digressions to learn a bit about the subject, and at any rate they're often skimmable if you so choose. More prevalent, to me, were sections of wicked humor. Infinite Jest has a lot of hilarious exchanges, events and descriptions. As an experiment, I looked for the funniest thing I could find in 10 seconds, and here that is: someone is selling sterile urine to beat a drug test, urine that's described as "warm pale innocent childish urine that's produced in needly little streams and the only G/M scan that it couldn't pass would be like an Ovaltine scan or something", and this sort of thing is all over the book (though it's a little more scarce toward the end). Real, laugh-out-loud humor. Sometimes broad, sometimes subtle. There's also a lot of exploration of how people think and behave, which is much more realistically felt and appreciated than I can describe, and which draws more empathy from me than any other novel I've read. At any rate, I think the best thing I can say about this book's readability is that I still pull it off the shelf occasionally, just to read a random section and either laugh or savor its ideas and prose, or all of those things. Not because I want to impress anyone; not because it's some book-medicine, required but unpleasant; but because it's really pleasurable to read.
So to summarize, if you want a novel that will introduce a problem, detail its solution, and tie up any loose ends (in other words, a conventional story), you may want to look elsewhere. But if you want descriptive prose, sharp humor and emotion, and a thoughtful exploration of a very wide variety of subjects and experiences and characters, give this a try.
on February 13, 2001
When I first heard about Infinite Jest, way back in early 1996, I thought to myself: "This sounds like my kind of book" as I have a taste for science fiction and satire. Being in Australia I found the book difficult to locate, and eventually bought it on a trip to the USA later that year. I didn't start reading it until I had finished my high school finals in 1997. It took me a year to read, which means I finished it late 1998-1999. During that period, and immediately after, I found myself buying a copy for all my friends' birthdays - I wanted to discuss all its complexities.
To be sure Infinite Jest is an imperfect novel - but it is also an imperfect masterpiece. Its flaws are an essential component in its character; and yes, a large part of them can be attributed to its magnanimity.
In the end its not the size that has left me so stunned.
Its that two years after reading Infinite Jest I felt compelled to write a review. I still talk about the book with friends, I still think about it, I still find myself flicking through pages. I remember how a friend explained to me how Infinite Jest's chaotic structure was based upon the Eschaton differation that Wallace detailed in one of his footnotes [#123 to be precise] - at least that was his theory. I even thought about the novel when watching the recent Australian Open, and couldn't help but laugh.
There is so much that is memorable within Infinite Jest: Wallace's linguistic gymnastics, his caricatures-come-characters, his wise observation of human folly, his maniacal sense of humour and irony, and his sheer intellectual ferocity. However, all these characteristics are present in varying degrees in his first novel, the Broom of the System. Infinite Jest I think is the better work for one reason - it has humanity. Somehow, despite the lurking misanthropy within its pages, Infinite Jest also has a heart. Its not content to merely condemn addiction, instead portraying addicts with empathy and sympathy. Afterall, addiction is a central human trait - at least in this modern age. Some scenes still make me cry after all this time.
Infinite Jest is a hard slog, and not for everyone. For those who persevere it is amazingly rewarding. You will feel and think and talk and argue about it for a long time after reading.
In an age of disposable culture Wallace has crafted an artwork that is nigh impossible to forget. That is Infinite Jest's genius.
on February 20, 2003
It is a daunting task to review this novel. The text is 981 pages long and the end notes close to 100 pages long. The book is also quite heavy. My almost continuous need to check these notes kept interrupting the flow of the novel, but necessarily filled in lots of the details of its characters' family backgrounds, historical facts and fictions, and Mr. Wallace's infinite knowledge of myriad pharmaceutical products mentioned in the novel. _Infinite Jest_ is as complex and dense as it is entertaining, funny, horrifying, painful, bizarre, and at times graphically nauseating and hallucinatory.
It is the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment. By the beginning of the 21st century time ceased to be designated chronologically, but began being named for well-known products on the market, e.g. Trial Size Dove Bar, etc. The setting is the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N. [ha, ha, ha]), no longer the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The big annual holiday celebration is Interdependence Day. From time to time the book is populated by wheelchair bound, legless Quebecois terrorists who want Quebec to break away from O.N.A.N. Their story, told in some detail, is extremely odd and mind boggling to say the least.
The cornerstone of the novel concerns the characters associated with Enfield Tennis Academy, a training school for young tennis prodigies. The head was formerly the late James O. Incandenza (called "Himself" and "The Stork" by his sons), who also dabbled in experimental film making, his wife Avril (called "The Moms" by her sons), and their three sons, Orin (football star), Mario (a gentle dwarf and like his father, a film maker), and Hal (the youngest, but extraordinarily brilliant and drug addicted). Some of Hal's descriptions of his late father's story are bizarre but incredibly funny!
In my opinion the hero of _Infinite Jest_ is Don Gately. He is a formerly heavily drug addicted, but currently seriously sober staff counselor at Ennet House, a residential home, near Boston, for individuals suffering from drug and alcohol problems. Here is a man who formerly financed his habit through robbery, burglary, and other illegal money making schemes, who is justly beloved by Ennet House occupants. Gately is the "Christ figure" of the book who suffers for the various transgressions of others. Toward the end of the book a "victim" of one of Gately's past shennanigans pays tribute to him.
_Infinite Jest_ can be a slow read (it took me several months to complete the book) because in addition to its length it is rarely told in a conventional narrative form. I also found myself at times zipping through all the strange, but delightfully recited situations and characterizations. To be enjoyed one must be patient with it and allow oneself to go with its relentless flow. If it is not already, _Infinite Jest_ is destined to become one of the world's great classics.
on February 27, 2001
Cleverness for it's own sake. Detail without depth. Literary onanism, as some other reviewers have pointed out. Still, Infinite Jest makes for a very good read, especially after you figure some things out. First, read the footnotes, as they advance and comment on the plot. Use two bookmarks. Second, have a dictionary handy at all times, the bigger the better. The OED would be optimal (Hal: "I'm an OED man, myself"), but a Webster's Unabridged will do in a pinch. This isn't one of those books where you can gloss over the big words or hope to pick them up from context. You need to know, for example, that "dipsomania" is another word for alcoholism. Third, be prepared for the lack of conclusion. Resign yourself to the fact that if you want to know what happens, you're going to have to read the book TWICE (or at least go back and read the first chapter again).
If I had known these things when I first read Infinite Jest three years ago, I would have been spared a great deal of anguish. After spending three weeks of my life night and day with this book, I felt personally betrayed that there was no conclusion. I was so angry I wanted to burn the book and send the ashes to the author accompanied by a nasty letter. It was months later when I finally found out that the beginning is the end. Of course, DFW gives the reader ample hints. I just didn't catch on the first time.
The footnote detailing JOI's (Hal's father's) filmography is really just a list of plot events in the main story; pretty much every subject that JOI makes a film about is really something that happens in the novel. This is a good place to go if you think that you missed something. Also important is the theoretical commentary on the nature of JOI's work. Don't forget that he pioneered a genre called "anticonfluential narrative" in which the separate strands of his subject's lives never converge into a satisfying conclusion (sound familiar?). Another hint to the book's structure is the prevalent discussion of annular fusion, a circular process that turns garbage into energy. The word annular (ring-shaped) is key.
The book gets four stars instead of five because the characters are mostly flat and because even though the book was written only five years ago, parts of it already seem dated (like "teleputers" and "film cartridges" - c'mon, we have the Internet and DVDs). But David Foster Wallace deserves credit for writing a thousand-page book on the themes of entertainment and addiction that itself manages to be very addictive and very entertaining. The hilariousness of the U.S. being at war with Canada is reason enough to read this book.
on November 18, 1997
Living in an nation where we all share the "inalienable" right and bear the legal burden of an unending "pursuit of happiness," I feel people have a responsibility to themselves (and others) to set aside 30-50 hours and give David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest a serious read. Despite the book's imposing girth, a vocabulary that sends the well-read scuttling for a dictionary, several hundred endnotes, a seemlingly endless disjointed catalog of outlandishly crippled and damaged characters, and the reader's final unsatisfying realizations of dissolution, I haven't felt this strongly about a book for years.
Infinite Jest's characters and plots at first seem foreign and hard to understand, but as the pages turn, they become friends whose dilemmas become more accessible than your own problems. Characters such as Hal Incandenza, the pot-addicted tennis player who memorizes dictionaries and trapped between the exploded legacy of a father and a terrifyingly pleasant mother; and Don Gately, a heroic square-headed Demerol addict, start out disjointed and at the periphery of the text become the two counterpoints in a story about something larger than their problems. The Quebecois terrorists in wheelchairs, numerous drug addictions and occasional perversions, feral hamsters, childhood flashbacks, apocalyptic tennis games, and cinema theory all start to come together clearly around page 200 to form a pattern of ideas much greater than the sum of the parts.
With a firm grasp of the innate absurdity of humanity, a ton of pomo irony, a sweeping dystopic vision of a future, and a keen understanding of psychological disorder, Wallace offers an insightful indictment of a society, our society. It is a place totally disconnected from itself, intrinsically damaged, forcing the inhabitants of this culture to escape into self-feeding forces of further disconnection. Wallace manages to make his point without actually saying it-nowhere in the book does he saddle a high horse and beat the reader over the head with his 1000+ pages of prose. Instead, he presents the complex perspectives of impossibly comedic and hurt characters vaguely intertwined in a struggle which is never fully explained and his point is made.
I found the messages of Infinite Jest reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's dystopic observations in his Brave New World. That future of scientific predetermined mindless pleasure, addresses one of today's pressing problems of the role of meaning, truth, and pleasure, in a society continually engaging in acts of diversionary mental masturbation. It is about freedom gone awry as individuals have lost control. In writing about the point of Brave New World, Huxley notes:
"The early advocates of [...] a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened [...] the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main with neither the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." [Brave New World Revisited (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 28-29.]
Both Infinite Jest and Brave New World lack the convenient and centralized evil of Orwell's 1984, only the undefined evil of individual consumers who lose themselves and others as they blindly attempt a futile escape from their culture. Wallace's vision is much more terrifying, insightful, less preachy, and more believable than Huxley's; delivered as a form of hilarious entertainment; and is worth a serious read.
on August 8, 2013
Early on during my attendance at the University of Montana in Missoula, I attempted to read this book. I had been impressed by the phonebook-esque length, the tiny, crimped font, and enticing plot described on the back ever since I spotted it on a shelf at Hastings during my high school years. My copy had been purchased in 2006, the ten-year anniversary of the book's publication, and it had been marked down to $10 versus the typical $16 price tag; it had also been stamped as a special "anniversary copy."
Sadly, a few pages in, I just didn't get it and resigned, eventually giving away that particular edition to a local used bookstore. The narrative described a plethora of details that seemed unnecessary to the plot (what plot? har-har) and I stopped reading once I encountered a sentence that made zero sense to me: "I would yield to the urge to bolt for the door ahead of them if I could know that bolting for the door is what the men in this room would see." Like, huh? What else would they see, Dave? I just couldn't bring myself to read another word. The book had already stopped playing by one of my cardinal rules, which was to always make sense to the reader, always.
In a couple of years, things changed. Because of my college English lit classes, I was soon subjected to a barrage of mind-melting literature capable of completely changing the way I looked at fiction, especially the one-two punch of massive prose bricks Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow, both of which had been paired with separate books written by scholars just devoted to explain the avalanche of random references and symbols. It soon became apparent to me that just because a book didn't always make sense or hit the usual narrative notes, it didn't always mean that it was an inferior work. Both Ulysses and GR equally frustrated and astounded me depending on which section I was reading, and they both eventually made their way onto my "favorite books" list due to their complexity and inimitable composition.
And but so I went ahead and gave IJ another chance. For a college graduation gift, I had received my requested present of a 2nd-generation Kindle. I downloaded a free sample of IJ and found that it was the longest sample Amazon had (and still has) ever sent me - it hit close the 70-page mark in the physical book. I started reading and kept on reading until the end of the sample. Like a spaceship gravitating toward a gaping black hole, unable to turn itself away from the hole's crushing pull, I was compelled to outright buy the book and read the rest of it.
I won't bother to waste my words here on the peculiar and sprawling plot, as it frequently defies description (and can be summarized in other reviews here). Same goes for the unconventional structure: most people know about the voluminous collection of footnotes, but there's far more intricacy to it than that. Instead, I will keep it brief and to the absolute essential of what you should know about this book: It is amazing. It really is. Ever since I read it, it still remains the best novel I've ever read. And a lot of people (including those who choose to read it as a part of "Infinite Summer") feel or will feel the same way.
A lot of times, when I read a book for a certain length of time, I start feeling the itch to just hurry up and finish it as soon as possible so I can get onto the next book. It must be an addiction to novelty and newness or something, but it happens with almost every book I read: a desire to read every last word so I can soon stand in front of my bookshelf, twiddling my fingers with glee whilst weighing the options of what I'll read next. With IJ, that never happened. During the three months that it took me to read it, I had the sensation of feeling like 1100 pages were just not enough. With characters and concepts this unique and compelling, I needed at least another 2200 pages, minimum.
Oddly enough, even though this is my favorite book as yet, it is by no means perfect. As hinted at by the "bolting for the door" line above, DFW does not always make complete sense and sometimes leaves you scratching your noggin, wondering what he meant. Nor is every single passage golden and hallowed: some sections go on and on to your detriment and consternation (I'm thinking specifically between the long-winded, philosophical conversations in the desert shared between Marathe and Steeply, easily the worst and most boring sections of the book).
In addition, the book ends on an apparently random and unsatisfying note, leaving a lot of unresolved plot points and likely serving up a cold helping of dissatisfaction upon the first read-through -- the opposite of the warm and fuzzy feeling avid readers have of closing a book and thinking, "There was absolutely no better way that could have ended." (I'm planning on reading Chris Hager's lengthy and reference-laden undergrad thesis which defends and explains IJ's ending -- I just recently found it on DFW website "The Howling Fantods," but I haven't got the time right now to plow through it and underline important points with a pen.)
Despite these downsides, however, there is so much stuff that just works: the chilling, deadly methods of the Wheelchair Assassins; Poor Tony Krause's nightmarish drug detox in a public library bathroom; Joelle Van Dyne's attempted suicide in the bathroom of a party; the apocalyptic Eschaton match; a hilarious description of the rise and subsequent failure of video-phone technology; Gately's robbery and accidental murder of M. DuPlessis early on in the book; and so much more. Joelle, Orin, Mario, Pemulis, John "No Relation" Wayne, and especially my main man Gately are all ranked among my favorite fictional characters ever written.
One thing I dislike about some post-modern authors is their apparent clinical detachment from their own characters; while everything is beautifully and eloquently written, I often get a sense of coldness, as though the writers do not feel very much for or through their own characters. In this, there is a heavy lack of what I think of as "heart." (I sensed this frequently throughout Don Delillo's "White Noise," whose characters seemed kind of flat and emotionless.)
DFW, on the other hand, put so much heart in this particular work that it's sometimes too much to take. Whether it's addressing the pain of addiction, the heartbreak of losing a loved one, the horror of child abuse, or the pure inability to connect with others or experience happiness, it's clear that DFW surely channeled many of his own fears and insecurities through his fictional creations and put much of himself down on the page as a result.
In contrast, there are also many parts of the book that are simply and uproariously hilarious. DFW boasted a very sharp and immediate sense of humor along his skills of prosaic manipulation. The edifice of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House[sic], Don Gately's shrewd but uneducated observations & criminal upbringing, and the overall world of consumerism gone horrifically wrong as encouraged by the rampant rise of corporations are all fertile fields for the novel's more humorous sensibilities. There were many times that IJ brought on a spate of giggling in me so pronounced that I had to just put down the book and allow it to pass before I could continue.
Now, be advised that this book is not for everyone. Lord, no. Just because I and others enjoyed it so greatly does not mean that everybody will feel the same way. It's a very challenging and demanding work, and it seems designed for a very particular audience. Anyone hoping for a nicely-defined plot or simple themes will find him-or-herself quickly thwarted. Others looking for some kind of a point to the apparently pointless ramblings of admittedly inconsequential details or conversations that pack hundreds of pages, a lot of them enjoyable but ultimately unimportant to any overarching theme, will also go bananas with vexation.
IJ was never designed to nab a Pulitzer or a National Book Award, never designed to go down in the annals of literary greatness as one of those books that speak volumes to whoever reads it over the span of centuries. I think that it will connect most with collegiate types who grew up Gen-X and beyond, the ones who have, as children or young adults, especially experienced the constant bombardment of unconscious marketing by huge conglomerates, as well as the ubiquity of "the entertainment" whether through television and video cassettes or (later on) DVDs and the Internet. Anyone who has grown up in this age of easy access to non-stop stimulation will likely understand what DFW intended to lambaste with this particular book.
Now down to brass tacks: I own both the Kindle copy and the regular paperback edition (obtained at a used book sale along with a copy of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union for a $1, probably the best used book purchase I've ever made). Given the size of this beast, I would heartily recommend the Kindle format for a first-time reader if you've got the appropriate technology. The Kindle version makes flipping back and forth between the main text and the footnotes a breeze, and let's face it, do you really want to lug that huge book around? (Unless maybe you're trying to broadcast to other people what it is that you're reading so you can more easily strike up a conversation with someone who has parallel literary tastes to you, to which I say go right ahead and get the door-stopper, then.)
We lost a genius and heartfelt mind in 2008 when Wallace committed suicide, but at the very least, he has left behind this amazing and one-of-a-kind labor of love that continues to inspire and confound the people who read it long after he left us. Not sure if you'll enjoy the book or not? Try downloading the free sample. As far as I know, it's just as long as it was when I first began this massive undertaking, and it'll give you a very good sense of what you're about to experience for the next couple of months. If you're not the intended audience, you can always put the book down. But if you are, you'll find that you too can't stop reading, and your life will likely be as irrevocably changed as mine was by this extraordinary book. Welcome to Infinite Jest.