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Infinite Jest Paperback – November 13, 2006
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From the Back Cover
About the Author
- Publisher : Back Bay Books; Tenth Anniversary ed. edition (November 13, 2006)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 1079 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0316066524
- ISBN-13 : 978-0316066525
- Item Weight : 2.42 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.88 x 9.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #4,798 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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I had a full blown migraine by the second chapter. By the third I wanted to blow my brains out.
Pretentious garbage. Do not fall for it. I can't wait to pulp this waste of a forest--it'll make fantastic paper mache for my next sculpture.
The only virtue possed by this sham "novel", which is amply spiced with both homophobia and misogyny, is that it provides well nigh "infinite" fodder for tenure-producing critical essays and pat-oneself-on-the-back literary reviews. It's telling that the critics who originally panned the work have since followed the stampede toward literary canonization of the book: they know their buttered side from the dry.
Possibly the most damning aspect of the book is the disrespect the author shows the reader. He was obvoiusly of the opinion that he could write anything, and with the help of a lexically dazzled publisher and an intensive PR campaign, produce a "classic". It's a classic, all right. But not the kind the author (perhaps I should best term him a "typist"), critics, and English professors would have you believe it is.
David Foster Wallace's magnum opus is definitely one of the most polarizing popular novels in recent memory. It is rare to find a reader who is lukewarm about this book -- one tends to either love it or loathe it enormously.
The main problem the loathers seem to have with IJ is that, to them, there is either no plot or the plot is too hard to follow. I disagree as it actually has a very tightly constructed narrative that opens with a series of vignettes that orient the reader to the universe (in dystopias I believe this is called "universe"-or-"world building") through the perspective of various characters, some more consequential than others. The seemingly scattered opening does not, however, mean that Infinite Jest is another one of those somewhat plotless postmodern academic tomes... the category that "Gravity's Rainbow" or "The Recognitions" could fit into, which is not a knock on those works.
On the contrary IJ contains a wonderful (and obviously allegorical) narrative that carries the reader through a not so distant North America completely consumed by its relentless desire to entertain itself... and corporations' eagerness to provide avenues to fulfill those desires. Yes, this is an idea-heavy novel with many strong philosophical, technical, intellectual, and meditative passages -- many of which are dazzlingly well written, such as the AA meetings, Hal's depression battle, the nature of celebrity envy, etc. etc. -- but they are woven into a fun and tragic plot that with a little trust and patience with the author are not hard to follow.
If you are thinking about buying and reading this novel, don't be afraid you won't be able to "get it"... that's so overblown by its reputation as a classic literary masterpiece... ironically a label Wallace himself hated because it changes how readers approach books.
Here's a loose outline of the plot, in the order it's presented narratologically.
-- 17 y/o tennis star and lexical genius Hal Incandenza (Protagonist A) has a nervous breakdown during a college interview at Arizona. This is in first person and is the "last" event in the book's chronology.
-- Switch to third person and back to an earlier times. The years can be tricky because they're named after corporate products rather than numbered. There is a reference key early on. Other characters are introduced, including a white collar pot addict (who doesn't return till far later), Hal's older brothers Orin and Mario and their mother Avril, an unnamed black girl from Boston, Hal's late-father James, and Hal's friends and tennis teammates from his athletic boarding school, Enfield Tennis Academy in Massachusetts. Certain chapters are entirely dialogue or entirely inside the mind and voice of a character. Others are more conventionally narrated in Wallace's patented tragicomic style.
-- Oral narcotics addict Don Gatley (protagonist B) is introduced. He is at rock bottom and kills a man on accident who turns out to be a Canadian terrorist leader stationed in Brookline.
-- We learn more about ETA. Hal's father James founded it and his mother and uncle now run it together.
-- Remy Marathe and Hugh/Helen Steeply are introduced. They are secret agents on opposing sides (Canada/US) in a convoluted triple-cross, ultimately trying to locate "Infinite Jest" (aka The Entertainment), a film cartridge so entertaining that one cannot stop watching it and dies. Quebecois assassins want it as a weapon. Hal's dad was the filmmaker, and he wanted to be buried with the master copy after his suicide. Many of the details surrounding the film itself, including how it leaked, are open to speculation. The search for this film is what winds the two narrative halves together... even if they don't meet exactly in the text itself. :)
-- We learn about Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic], just across the street from ETA, where Don is now a live in staffer and on 400-something days of full sobriety. Many characters are introduced here.
-- We meet Joelle (aka Madam Psychosis), a radio host who tries killing herself with a crack OD. She ends up at Ennet House.
-- Now that the new world (its technologies, its politics, its culture, its characters from the 3 main settings) have been introduced, the narrative motion takes a backseat to Wallace's at times indulgent but always brilliant and entertaining scenes in which the characters really come alive and interact. We get some great tennis writing as well as the best addiction/sobriety writing in modern fiction.
-- The plot picks back up after a major catalyst event I won't spoil here. But the chances are if you made it through all the foregoing anchor points (which only scratch the surface and are strictly to prove the point that this novel is well plotted), there's a good chance you're not putting IJ down till the end.
I don't like authors who spend a lot of time showing me how smart they are. I want to forget they're even there. That never happened with this book.
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I have read a number of books of a similar length, so upwards of 500k words or 1300 pages, namely, Gravitys Rainbow by Pynchon (laugh out loud funny!), Ulysses by Joyce (awful and felt like a torture, took almost a year to read I hated it so much!), War and Peace (deep and profound and philosophical, I feel I was too young, at 16, to truly understand its real themes), Atlas Shrugged by Rand (read most recently in just 6 weeks and my god was it preachy and needed an editor, desperately!) and it was Infinite Jest (a direct quote from Hamlet, 'a fellow of infinite jest') which I read in 5 months which I enjoyed the most.
This is a thoroughly post-modern novel and books being a form of entertainment, is going full meta by being about the nature of entertainment itself.
It present a world of a tennis academy, the nature of addiction, a dystopian future in which Mexico and the States and Canada united together into what DFW calls ONAN (Organisation of North American Nations). Canada, in this vision of the future, is a nuclear wasteland, where there prowl giant feral mutant rats, while Quebecois separatists are assassinating their enemies via a very unique style - by giving them a copy of a film on a VHS tape called, appropriately, 'The Entertainment' which the person puts into their VCR player and watches on loop until they die of malnutrition/exhaustion imposed on them by their inability to stop watching such a compellingly, addictively, entertaining film.
DFW riffs on this theme in an earlier essay called 'De Unibus Pluram' (which you can find online for free) which was written on the back of the statistics, at the back-end of the 1980s, that the average American household spends 6 hours a day watching TV (it's probably considerably longer, 3 decades on!)
So if you like the essay, I'd suggest you get the book.
It is incredibly fresh and laugh out loud funny in an enormous amount of places. Once thing that will probably annoy people who buy the physical books are the endless footnotes and endnotes (some running for 10 pages and often having footnotes to the footnotes!) which are integral to the plot and for which you will probably require a separate bookmark at the back of the book to refer to. I read this book digitally and it very helpfully has hyperlinks allowing you to jump to the footnotes/endnotes and back to the main text at will. I suspect this book is a lot harder to read in physical form and there are some reviews that say they had to break the spice of the book to separate the final 150 pages - which is the footnotes, as otherwise, it is very difficult to read this novel.
This novel is broadly about the nature of modern entertainment, addiction, tennis, drugs and a whole lot else.
It is hilariously funny and self-aware. DFW is possibly the greatest fiction writer (and definitely THE greatest non-fiction writer) of his generation and he was a person who was both exceptionally smart and talented (at Amherst he was doing 2 dissertations simultaneously, one on philosophy and one on creative writing, the latter being published as The Broom of The System, his first novel, when most of his peers were struggling with just 1). He has written extensively on all sorts of topics, from AVN awards to lobsters in Maine, to tennis, Terminator 2, philosophy and mathematics (see his book Everything and More) and I am sure I am not doing justice to the sheer breadth of the things that he writes about with refreshing candour and incredible humour.
He was also a tragic figure, hanging himself when changing anti-depressants in 2008. He did though, leave behind a hugely impressive body of work and Infinite Jest, in my opinion, having read everything he has written over the years, is his crowning glory. It is the most fun book of this length that I have ever read.
As somebody who had to give up alcohol through recovery, the sections of the book concerning itself with AA is absolutely 200% accurate and my understanding is that DFW in fact spent many hours/days sitting through AA meetings and absorbing the fellowship's take on addiction and its trigger factors. It really reads like he knows exactly what goes on there - as he really did, in real life.
DFW was a complex figure and there is a strong argument to be made that his best work, is, in fact, his NON-fiction (a supposedly funny thing I'll never do again, aboard a luxury cruise liner, will always remain the funniest bit of non-fiction I have ever read!). But in this humble reviewer's opinion, Infinite Jest, for its sheer scope, refreshing honestly, spot on observations and dialogue and just satire and humour - will push it close.
DFW is one of the greatest minds of his generation, yet he writes in such an accessible manner in all his work so as to become something much, much more than just another crusty intellectual, speaking down to us to, plebs, from his high horse. I believe what he really is - he is a voice of his generation (80s and 90s) - and Infinite Jest is a testament to that.
Of all the long, classic books, that people read (or more often take selfies with to show off their nauseating 'intellectualism' on Instagram - rather than actually read), think War and Peace, Atlas Shrugged, Capital In the 21st Century, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, Finnegan's Wake, Ulysses etc and so forth, this is BY FAR the most fun book of its length and type.
Infinite Jest is both sad, depressed and funny and even 25 years after it was published (in 1994) remains relevant to the modern age. In fact, its take on the very nature of entertainment itself perhaps foresaw the age of vanity and social media, as seen through the prisms of Tinder, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The end result is a triumph for a tragic figure who left us far too soon. His legacy, as both an acute observer and reader of people in his non fiction as he is in his fiction - is absolutely secure, and will remain so for a long time to come.
I don't know to what extent DFW can pass for 'one of us, a man of the people' given his fairly privileged upbringing of being the son of 2 university professors (one in philosophy, one in English, and hence being exposed to both subjects from birth, pretty much) but the way he writes certainly speaks to his audience in a way that few writers (fiction, non-fiction and every shade in between) every succeed in doing.
I would recommend it to a friend even though that carries a 50/50 chance they will get mad at me for doing so, it is a slog but on finishing it I can't wait to read it again - the surest sign of a great book. The exhaustive footnotes and overused slang was a little off putting at first, but I think it is warranted as Wallace wanted to try something new and ambitious here. While the form itself is post-modern, the message he carries is as old as can be, the main crux of D. Gately's struggle being accepting the no nonsense truths that are buried within cliche. Something that didn't quite work for me was reading characters like the endearing Gately, who are written as distinctly non academic types, yet tend to have an inner dialogue of an anxiety ridden intellectual, but perhaps like Joelle remarks in one conversation with him he was 'not as dumb as he pretends to be'.
Once I had warmed to it, the encyclopedic style was an enjoyable a part of the book, Wallace wants the reader to work a bit in order to encourage engagement - reading him in interviews with his not quite manifesto as an anti-ironist, you get the impression that his persona in IJ is not so much the younger Inc. Hal, but the elder James - and here again the entwined darkness of the novel and author's life sours my enjoyment... But there are strong allusions throughout to the Bros Karamazov (as well as Hamlet from which we get the title) - another book of my favourites that I am aware is just as dark. The non chronology and quirky satirical jab of subsidised time, have a disorientating effect on things, which like the footnotes and slang, once you get used to just seems normal, but I am not sure (with the exception of the first chapter) it ever justifies itself.
To make use of another cliché: we often critise in others what we dislike in ourselves. And it comes to mind towards the end of the book as the reader begins to realise Wallace will not be providing something so trite as an ending. Wallace was opposed to the detached cynicism and irony of his generation which is commendable, though his own addiction was tv rather than opiates - yet he writes a heavily ironical novel, was this a deliberate way to appeal to the people he wanted to reach, or simply something he could not escape from?
Having read the Pale King previously is why , because of the mainly good reviews of Infinite Jest, is why I was drawn to read it.