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Infinite Jest: A Novel -- 20th Anniversary Edition Paperback – Special Edition, Deckle Edge
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About the Author
David Foster Wallace wrote the novels Infinite Jest, The Broom of the System, and The Pale King, and the story collections Oblivion, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and Girl with Curious Hair. His nonfiction includes Consider the Lobster, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Everything and More, and This Is Water. He died in 2008.
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Unlike other unconventional novels, such as the works of the oft-mentioned Thomas Pynchon, this one seems to prefer nasty tricks to genuine communication - it implies it's going to tell a complete if complicated story and doesn't deliver. That's the sort of thing well-educated showoffs do. It's one thing to subvert expectations, quite another to waste someone's time. Infinite Jest is nothing more than a shaggy-dog story.
Consider this: At the beginning of this book we meet a gifted young tennis player at an admissions interview for a prestigious college. Something is seriously wrong with him - his handlers desperately try to keep him quiet, but it's no use, he tries to speak for himself and babbles insanely. Cut to Chapter 2, one year earlier, and this same young man functions beautifully, quite in his right mind. Clearly, the novel intends to explain what happened to him, right? Well, close to a thousand pages later we not only don't know what happened to him, we don't even have him in the narrative anymore. That's worse than a mistake, it's a cheat.
Don't get me wrong, David Foster Wallace has plenty of great ideas and a skillful way with the language, but it doesn't add up to anything - that's the frustration. For instance, in addition to the young tennis star, we meet dozens of other brilliantly-conceived characters and learn the fates of exactly none of them. The settings are elegantly detailed, from a tennis high school full of secret passages to the train-station restroom home of a dying junkie, and none of them have any impact on any character from the first page to the last. The time period described, a few years into the world's future, includes several intriguing postulations from our current society, all of them dead ends. There's a cult for ugly people, a cross-dressing federal agent, a group of terrorists in wheelchairs, a lost movie that captures the minds of all who view it, and couple hundred more ingenious devices, not one of which changes a damn thing. Wallace's famous footnotes are more engaging than his story.
In all fairness, this author probably set himself an impossible task; he has tried, like many another writer, to encompass an entire world in his pages. Unlike others, he doesn't know when to shut up. Infinite Jest reads as though he wrote until he got bored, then stopped and foisted the results off on the world. If he couldn't finish what he started, the least he could do is keep it to himself.
Some have said that those who don't like Infinite Jest should stick to pulp romances, but the issue is not comprehensibility; it's the covenant with the reader, which says that a book should deliver what it promises. Infinite Jest, I repeat, doesn't do that. I'm delighted that so many have gotten so much pleasure out of this doorstop of a book - at least all those trees died for some useful purpose - but that doesn't excuse David Foster Wallace, who by the evidence of this work seems to believe that mere cleverness is enough to produce good writing. He's wrong.
Benshlomo says, Don't make promises you can't keep.
So many of the readers who did not love this book from deep in their hearts (as I do) want to compare and categorize and throw off Wallace as being pretentious. How sad! Unlike pretentious referential authors like Joyce, everything you need to understand Infinite Jest is there on the page. Sure, maybe it helps if you have some basic knowledge of theoretical physics and mathematics, but any reading on any topic requires a different level of previous experience, and that experience is not even necessary to enjoy the beautiful, sensitive, funny, HUMAN stories in IJ. This is not a cold scientific something -- this is pure human compassion and frustration and reminds me of what it means to be an American at the turn of the new century. (This is, of course, to say nothing of Wallace's prose, which sends me, as a writer, into alternating fits of jealousy and lust.)
I'm not trying to sell this book to all people everywhere -- it is a fact that most people over a certain age will find this book philosophically and structurally incomprehensible. I am 20 years old, and this kind of writing and the themes it deals with are closer and more real to me than hundreds of years of historical fiction. Having grown up in an age when entertainment is fast and hard and omnipresent (a fact which, like Wallace, I am slow to comdemn harshly), a novel like this reaffirms my belief in the medium. We haven't outgrown our literary past, and, much as films are becoming less linear (making less sense to the old and so much more to the young -- see "Magnolia"), the novel itself is learning, through authors like Wallace, to become the new animal that the upcoming generation needs to allow the medium to survive. The old avant-garde is tired now and needs to be put to bed.
Thank God for David Foster Wallace. Its because of him that I haven't quit writing yet.