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Customer Review

645 of 692 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Genius rewards the patient, December 12, 2001
This review is from: Infinite Jest: A Novel (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-10 of 14 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 27, 2009 1:17:32 PM PDT
Simply one of the best Customer Reviews I've thus far read on The loose, open definition of "postmodern" (one word? hyphen? I confess I'm too lazy to consult a dictionary) was especially helpful -- a fine attempt to define a term tossed out and about so often and so haphardly it's become a nearly useless label applied to whatever its user apparently can't quite understand.

Posted on Dec 15, 2010 10:25:59 PM PST
_porterhouse says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 17, 2010 6:19:43 PM PST initials. a seconding of my review? why not just note that i've added to the discussion. unless that's not what you mean...i'm curious, porterhouse.

Posted on Feb 28, 2011 8:51:54 PM PST
Marc Gelfo says:
I enjoyed your review - thanks for writing it - and just wanted to point out that Infinite Jest was heavily edited. About 500 pages were trimmed from the original manuscript. See, e.g., the 3rd-to-last question on his Salon interview:

Or his editor's comments on the process:

Posted on Apr 19, 2011 7:24:25 PM PDT
Michael says:
Non-linear storytelling is a huge aspect of post-modernism. The footnotes disrupt the story telling and force the reader to flip between pages of the book.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 20, 2011 9:51:57 AM PDT
I think that the way in which the reader is forced to flip back-and-forth is a fine way to break-up the experience of 'experience.' It's similar to the way Burroughs was able to do just such a thing with his 'cut-ups,' but Wallace's manner is far more accessible, which is to say far more appealing to a general audience. It's a smart and original move.
I'm curious as to the opinions of others - Do you feel that reading this book as quickly as possible is the best way to experience it? Roth said, in an interview with Tina Brown, that if a reader takes more than two weeks with a book, than that reader hasn't "experienced" the book. I don't agree. I usually read books slowly, though this is primarily because books that I've read quickly tend to disappear from memory - something is always left, but its something more like a feeling - this is a wonderful compliment to a book, of course, but I'm a student of Literature, so I like to be able to recall specific sections and passages. While this often breaks up the reading experience, it's never made anything less pleasurable.
I read three long books after a second go at them - all of the texts were well over 1000-pages, but my first attempts at them were awful, as I had to put them down after about 170-200 pp. in, and that experience is a terrible one.

I'm just curious as to the opinions of others.

In reply to an earlier post on May 20, 2011 12:18:28 PM PDT
anonymous says:
Your initials. yes. But meh also means when spoken "no big deal" or maybe "I could do better if I was willing to try" perhaps even "yeah I saw all that too, no big deal" -- something of a finite jest, and possibly complimentary in some sense. Certainly a lot packed into three letters. If I were you, I would imagine that it came from Wallace and take it as a compliment. I also liked your review. I note that some people are born complete, like Hal, and though they might not have the words to say what they know, their thought is already formed. I suspect Wallace was a bit like that. This may be his way of reclaiming his own past by overwriting his own early meditations?

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 5, 2011 2:31:37 PM PDT
dudesimon says:
Sorry, but there's nothing cryptic and meaningful about "meh." It's what lazy people say rather than form an argument. I did like the rest of your comment, though.

Posted on Jan 17, 2013 4:31:10 AM PST
Regarding Hal's dialogue sounding more like DFW than a real 17-year old:

Remember that Hal is a sort of linguistic savant who has read the entire OED. And he has been heavily influenced by his mother Avril, who is a first-order grammar "snoot" (much like DFW's own mother).

Orin's way of speaking feels similar to Hal's too, which shouldn't be surprising given their common background.

Posted on Jul 12, 2013 11:03:27 AM PDT
Mudkip says:
Postmodernism may have themes and stylistic choices relating to how you define it, but Postmodernism is merely just literature written after WWII and relating to the after-effects of the war. What makes Postmodernism is the relation to the decline of culture, and the ongoing absence of true-art. Where Modernism concerns itself with nature and high art, Postmodernism focuses on the destruction of that. It relies heavily on pastiche, where it draws from past genres by imitating the style rather than the purpose. If you are going to make a list of what defines Postmodernism, make sure you know what you are talking about first.
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