A gargantuan, mind-altering comedy about the Pursuit of Happiness in America Set in an addicts' halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction, Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are. Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human - and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.
Another option is a note or two about the themes, if such is relevant to the type of novel at hand. Yeah, well, see my previous point. And, even if I were inclined to spoiler-ize the themes, it would be hard to put a cap on that particular fire hydrant short of ten or so pages of text.
So, since there's not much I'm willing to say about the content of the book, I can talk about the experience of reading the book. Unfortunately, that, itself, isn't an easy thing to sum up either. I liked it; in fact, some of it moved me so much that I couldn't help but think about my favorite reads list for 2013. I hated it; in fact, some of it had me screaming, "WTF?!?" and not in a good way.
See, I don't like books where I spend inordinate amounts of time saying, "Pat, I'd like to buy a clue about what is going on." A little obscurity can be mysterious and exciting, but the word 'little' is not appropriate in this regard in this book.
Neither do I enjoy surreal fiction…as in, really don't enjoy it. Elite armies of legless assassins in wheelchairs; top-ranked junior tennis players who are blind or drag IV stands around the court while they play; packs of dangerous, feral hamsters: all these things leave me cold.
Nothing changed with respect to these as a result of reading Infinite Jest; I still dislike them and did so while reading. And, yet, it is almost accurate to say that it didn't really matter a lot of the time because Wallace writes of obsession and depression and fear and so much more in characters so unbelievably real that I could not help but love them or hate them or simply react to them. For all I kicked and screamed, this book engrossed me, sucked me into it and didn't let me divert myself to anything else. I normally read two or three books simultaneously, but it didn't matter how many longing glances I cast at my pile of unread books (some by favorite authors); when there was free time, I went back to Wallace.
I say almost didn't matter because I found myself asking over and over whether we really needed drag queen federal agents and whether it was really necessary that I coin myself a neologism of acischronological. In the end, I have to say, "I don't know." Would it be the same book, would Kate Gompert absolutely showing me crippling depression have stood out so starkly if it hadn't been surrounded by the other? Maybe not. Probably not.
And so, I can't really say I loved it or hated it. I can say it consumed me for the last month. I can say I'll read it again someday. Probably.
Neither can I recommend or discourage it for other readers; you have to make your own decision. I can only offer some advice.
If you don't have the energy for a marathon read, think twice. 980 pages of story. 99 pages of endnotes that should be read. 16+ pages of almost mandatory re-read of the first chapter. Multi-page sentences. Endnotes that have endnotes of their own. Effort Required.
If you are a firm believer in the 50 Page Rule, think twice. You won't even get an hors d'oeuvre of payoff for about 68 pages (in my opinion) and have to be willing to endure a couple hundred before it starts to come together or even make real sense.
If you Need To Know What Is Going On, think twice. You won't. Not for a while. At the end, you still may not be sure about some things.
If you absolutely require closure, think many times. Still trying not to provide spoilers, let me just say that Wallace doesn't give it to you. You have to create it if you can.
If you do decide to embark on this journey: have a good dictionary handy, maybe re-read Hamlet first (copious references), understand that feeling frustrated and depressed at times, and occasionally even bored, is par.
It's an experience I'm very glad I didn't miss.
I don’t think I can review this book. Among other reasons I feel overwhelmed, feel I missed too much of the fundamental storyline, and I feel like I need to re-start and re-read it again to get a defensible familiarity with it. Saying all that gives me the kind of disappointed feeling that makes me wonder whether I even liked the book. And this is confusing because I felt none of this while I was reading. I was loving it while I read it, then it just ended, and suddenly it sunk it how much I missed, and then the doubt crept in, and I’ve lost some of the sense of what I really enjoyed about the book. And the only way to solve that is to read it again… but it took nine weeks, I can’t just simply read it again! Sigh….
So, this is the non-review, the response from an incomplete reading when I know it’s going to be awhile before I give it another go; and one point being that Infinite Jest is the kind of major major work that deserves multiple long readings.
David Foster Wallace writes with a cannon, or maybe a fire hose. He starts describing a scene or a description and he doesn’t stop to catch his breath until it’s all there, complete, formal grammar be damned. There aren’t any paragraphs or periods in there, it just comes out, goes all over the place, intersects itself bringing in several interrelated elements at once leaving a complexly interwoven series of images or ideas all present at the same time, and leaving his reader exhausted, satiated, wowed and completely rapt. The tone is causal, the vocabulary is outstanding, the slang is familiar, the word ‘like’ clangs in there repeatedly, although not unpleasantly. Reading him is an experience. You need to slow down just to keep up. When he has tension going Infinite Jest can be hard to put down, but it still doesn’t speed up; at least not much for me.
The plot is too complicated to summarize and not sound bland. No one is going to rush out to pick up a book on an athletic/academic tennis academy, but that’s half the book and 1/3 of its plot. The other half and 1/3 is Ennet House, a drug rehab where residents, if they stay clean, can also hide from law enforcement during their stay, delaying their jail time or whatnot. And the other 1/3 of plot, and very limited part of the book, involves a unified Mexico, USA and Canada, and toxic waste dump that covers most of northern New England and from its shape is called the Great Concavity (in the US; in Canada it’s the Great Convexity), and a French Quebec separatist group all in wheelchairs thanks to a popular adolescent game involving jumping in front of trains, known as the AFR. OK, so the AFR is trying to get a hold of a film called “Infinite Jest” which is so pleasurable to watch that it renders viewers almost catatonic, unwilling to do anything, including eat or move, other than watch the movie over and over, and the AFR wants to distribute this around the USA in an effort to make a major terrorist strike, which obsessively hygienic USA President Gentle, a one-time Las Vegas crooner, is trying desperately to stop. Right…
Thematically this is a brilliant look at the obsessive drive to become a top athlete, the psychological responses and consequences, and how this parallels with drug addiction and recovery and whatever it is that underlies this all. Drugs and sports, with a terrorist to stop as the background - this is America, no? DFW gives us ample opportunity to weave this all together creating a brilliant assortment of characters – adolescent tennis prospects, single-goal focused coaches, rich and poor drug addicts with various entertaining dark histories and a wide ranging validity in their hopes of recovery, and one very messed up family, the Incandenzas who link this all together. The tennis academy provides many of our most beautiful characters, and the most of the tragedies – the young prospects have nowhere to go but down. The Ennet House is the opposite, the residents are already at bottom, and they provide us with the books main hero.
I think, looking back, the most impressive accomplishment in IJ, the one thing that makes you know DFW was in love with this creation, is the incredible compilation of details, and especially all those wonderful and brilliantly terrible characters. By details I mean the ten page footnotes (with footnotes), the entire filmography of James Orin Incandenza, the tennis philosophies, the drugs (endless stuff on drugs), the key hidden but barely constructable plot twists, etc. But his characters are the most beautiful part of the book. Hal, Mario, Don Gately, Madame Psychosis, Pemulis – these are characters you fall in love with, that leave colorful lasting imprints on your reader mind, and make you cringe and wince as they fall.
Don Gately specifically provides us with an incredible insight into drug addiction and recovery and with an unparalleled and amazing look at Alcoholics Anonymous. In explicit detail we see how alcohol addiction tears people so far down they reach an absolute bottom, a fundamental point of find self-control or die, and then see how they respond, how it forces and bares people to a raw truth we otherwise simply don’t encounter. And further how it makes them experts at detecting truth from falseness to such an instinctual and precise degree – to a level most of us never come near reaching. I’ve heard DFW described as in search of the truth, and here he finds it and reports it vividly and powerfully. And it works in reverse, as an exposé of our falsehoods.
Unfortunately I can’t say how much of this, or whether any of this really touches DFW’s main points. I missed too much. There does seem to be an overall theme that looks for the horrors underlying the shallow consumerist, pleasure obsessed, soulless, deranged modern USA. DFW was, I think, looking for the bottom and maybe that is the point of it all, that culturally we’re at the bottom, the jest being elaborate lengths we go to not see this.
Infinite Jest was a revelatory, revolutionary reading experience for me. Think "the British are coming!" as I turned each page; think the Bolsheviks. What a liberating read, opening new wormholes in fiction. Once I'd read IJ, the landscape of contemporary literature was irrevocably transformed for me, and I could never be content again (or so I thought) with what I saw as constant mediocrity in serious fiction. However, here's the downside: Wallace raised for me in contemporary literature such an Everest expectation of any new work, that I couldn't help have the nagging, always anti-climactic sense when thereafter approaching other author's works (and Wallace's, unfortunately, too) that what I was reading was somehow "less than" or "could've been better" or "just wasn't rich enough". In other words, once I'd conquered Everest, Mounts Kilimanjaro or Fuji -- world class summits in their own rights with fantastic views-- didn't satisfy. How could they--I'd been to the HIGHEST summit too many times. But then I realized over time that most writers don't aspire for Everest with every creative effort and, more importantly, if they do not aim for Everest, they should not be read nor critiqued as if they were aiming for Everest. Maybe they were summitting Rainier or Pikes Peak. Maybe they were happy with hills (and their readers too). Could it not, in fact, be argued that creating interesting, readable "hills" might demonstrate a talent requiring more nuance, subtlety and skill than Wallace demonstrated in IJ? Nah, not really, Wallace is still the best. But hey, there's nothing innately wrong with literary hills in the first place. Wildflowers, after all, bloom brilliantly in the hills here in So. CA every spring, don't they?
True, wildflowers bloom, they do, but Wallace, premiere mountaineer, almost ruined me for fiction, I just can't shake his overarching influence and legacy. He put me, anonymous reader, on his genius back and lugged me to the top of Everest. And I just can't see the point in bowling again.
Let's put it this way--IJ is the 20th century American literary masterpiece of masterpieces. Over the last let's say 2 and a half months of reading this I cannot say I was ever bored--which is not to say there aren't some difficult stretches (the subtitled rundown of J. O. Incandenza's film productions leads the way for me) but Wallace managed always to maintain a balance using humor and psychological and intellectual insight. In terms of ambition and execution thereof--it ranks right up there with Joyce's Ulysses.
The plot mainly hinges upon two groups--1) teenage students in an exclusive tennis academy (founded by J. O. Incandenza before he became a filmmaker and also before some time later when he commits suicide)--2) adult alcoholics and drug users connected to a halfway house. Both are located in Boston in the not very distant future--the academy high up on a hill looking down on the halfway house. The interactions between the two are minimal but not altogether unrelated. There is a third subgroup--a separatist Quebecois group of wheelchaired bound terrorists seeking the master copy of Incandenza's film 'Infinite Jest'--a film that when seen is believed to paralyze the will(s) of any and all of its unlucky audience. They believe that by getting their hands on the master copy they will be in the proverbial catbird seat and be able to attain their goal of a Quebecois autonomy.
The book is as well about obsession and addiction. It juxtaposes the mostly well to do teenage tennis players obsessions with sex and drugs against the more hard core realities of the working (sometimes criminal) class membership of the halfway house down the hill. Wallace makes it work because he is adept at dialoguing believably in all kinds of disparate voices and his knowledge of substance abuse at least seems to me encyclopedic. The often harrowing and at the same time often hilarious admissions of the substance abusers at their AA and NA meetings have the ring of truth about them. There are a lot of desperate souls living there.
All in all this is a huge book. 981 pages and then almost another 100 pages of footnotes. Paragraphs sometimes go on for a number of pages. It demands a lot of its readers but is filled with insight and humor about the modern human condition. A writer can have huge ambition and sometimes fall short of realizing it--and there is something glorious in that. Even better--though it does not happen often--that a writer has that creative ambition for something great and then does realize it. IMO Wallace climbs that mountain with his Infinite Jest and stands above some very fine American writers in doing it.
There is much here to occupy, amuse and challenge the reader. What makes it all hold together and say something at least interesting about the world of which it is barely a part? About the world from which the work has become disassociated? Addiction. It is a book about addictions to things which help us to create worlds apart, and an exploration of worlds apart with or without addiction, from Shakespeare to Sports to Canada. These are things that drive us to an early grave. And those addictions teather it to the world it evades, distorts, and rejects.
A sad and awe-ful and wholly unnerving work, filled with Wallace mocking his own grin. Be warned afore. RIP DFW.
David Foster Wallace has a lot of great ideas and a facility with language, but in this novel the language and ideas do not seem to cohere and I found that frustrating (I did expand my vocabulary more than I do in the average book - advantage, Wallace). In the novel we meet a young tennis star, 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 seem to matter to the characters. The time period described, a few years into the world's future, includes several intriguing speculations, all of them going nowhere. 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. The footnotes are at times interesting, but they also are just so much excess.
Now there is nothing wrong with excess, the novel as a form of literature began with the excesses of Cervantes and Rabelais and Sterne. But each of those writers had stories and above-all were able to communicate ideas in ways that led to their works becoming classics that we still read today. Infinite Jest seems, by the end, to be close to sinking into a black hole of nothingness - at the edge of postmodern nothingness, the prose descending into loggorrhea. I do not believe this is the direction the novel should or will take. I applaud those who can relate to this form of writing, I do not relate to it, but will continue to read with the goal of finding those authors to whom I can relate. In the meantime there are always Dostoevsky, Mann, Faulkner and others on which to fall back upon.
Infinite Jest then, Is it? Is it infinite? Well then, when you get to around page 666 and know that you aren't two thirds of the way through this heavy1 tome you kind of think it might just be. Is it at least a jest then? That sort of depends I guess as to whether you think that a tale is a comedy2 if you laugh now and then but that's not my take. So it's neither infinite nor jesting? Got it.
So it's long and a bit of a downer then? You could say that. And I'd tend to agree with you. But is it him or is it the material do you think? Let me take that sideways on. Take it via Beckett3 maybe, now he, Beckett, deals in some pretty gloomy views of what life is and is capable of being but leaves you laughing and ready to " ... go on" no matter how bleak it is. With DFW you get the feeling that he not only sees the absurd bleakness of life but subscribes wholeheartedly to it. Enters the spirit of it so to say. Becomes one with it.
He takes 3 slight stories of gross inadequacy4 and plaits them into a rope thick enough to hang himself with. He takes 2 schoolboy jokes5 and stretches them into ever thinner territories until he has made a scaffold. He takes a view of a near future that looks now almost laughable6 (retract that almost - it IS laughable) and fashions the drop. Not as inventive as modifying the microwave oven so that you can cook your brain but just as effective.
So you're none too impressed with his material but what about his style? His structures and such? I liked a lot of it, it's a curate's egg of a book. I wish he'd had Gordon Lish instead of Michael Pietsch (whose job I wouldn't have wanted but hey if you step up to the mark you'd better be prepared to do it well and he didn't). DFW turns a good sentence maybe every ten or so. He drops in a lot of esoteric words. I don't know - feels more like a journalist than a novellist and yeah I guess I love a lot of his journalistic pieces - the Federer article is sublime. Maybe that is the basic inadequacy that he is addressing - his own inadequacy as a novelist. Round about page 666 I got to remembering Ellmann's biography of Joyce, or maybe it was from the Joyce Letters, where we find that in one of his last moves (it might be the move to Switzerland or Trieste) he took 17 packing cases full of material for The Work in Progress. Luckily for us he didn't put it all in to The Wake directly7 - seems to me that DFW dug up around 3 trunksfull of stuff and put it all straight into IJ. But what about the footnotes? The famous footnotes? There are 388 of them (and they're footnotes printed as endnotes) feller, what else can I say? About 200 of them seem to have been sponsored by pharmaceutical companies in much the same way the years in the book are sponsored by retailers (is that my insight or his?). Don't get me wrong I like to know about drugs - as a kid I used to read the British Pharmacopoeia, which I just discovered is available online these day for the price of a subscription) for fun and the Extra Pharmacopoeia for research but flipping anywhere up to 900 pages back and forth for a couple of months and using 3 and at times 4 bookmarks does not make for fun. According to Wikipedia (where did the diphtong go?) "Wallace claimed that the notes were used to disrupt the linearity of the narrative, to reflect his perception of reality without jumbling the entire structure". Apparently Pietsch got him to ditch a lot more of them but but they still run out to 100 pages. Maybe what was called for was a book designer and typographer who was familiar with B S Johnson's work8. Anyway whatever there they are - my wrists are stronger now.
I understand that lots of people find IJ better and deeper in every reading. Will you be reading it again? That's a no feller. Life is short and there's plenty of Sorrentino left for me to get. I'll reread Ulysses regularly. There are maybe 1500 books in my library that are marked for possible rereading but IJ isn't joining them. As the man once said - nice try but no coconut.
But did you enjoy it? Would I? Should I read it? Yeah, I enjoyed it plenty. If you like this review you'll like the book. Who am I to tell you what you should read? There are no oughts only coulds. You could.
1) Heavy in the sense of having a large gravitational force acting on the mass of the volume as opposed to having a large amount of gravity working on the text itself.
2) WS did comedies, tragedies, histories and if WSa is good enough for DFW he's good enough for this review.
a: DFW's choice of title tells you enough of what to expect. Taken from a Hamlet soliloquy (the mighty and complex "Alas poor Yorrick" spiel)i beware of tragedy to come.
i: That's the one, so you don't have to look it up, set in the graveyard (a laugh a minute it ain't) where Hamlet's holding the skull of the dead jester of his youth "a man of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy" and is being revolted by the memory of touching him. Still thinking it might be a jest?
3) DFW is most often compared to Pynchon andor Gaddis and simply on the density of the text they are kin but on the material and the treatment which drive this thing you've gotta look at Beckett IMHO. If DFW had taken "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." as his mantra he might not have topped himself. If you're looking for an American progenitor Gass or even Vollmann might be your best choices.
4) Story One: First and most compoundly inadequate is the tale of "recovering" addicts in a fundamentally inadequate "treatment plan" that makes them all feel inadequate, and in fact to be inadequate, in wholly related and equally inadequate ways.
Story Two: Just up the hill from the addict centre is the tennis academy where children overadequate in one or two overly specific skills and physically, asynmetrically overdeveloped but socially inadequate and most of them destined to fail to achieve The Tour. An academy dedicated to inadequacy.
Story Three: A bunch of doomed and infiltrated secessionist terrorists in wheelchairs because they are legless due to an inadequacy to get out of the way of oncoming trains (how big a pile of inadequacy do we need to have?) wage a doomed quest for an entertainment that itself dooms anyone who watches it to an apathetic death.
5) 2 jokes: a major world state that has O.N.A.N as its acronym and the idea of cripples as assassins.See what I mean about schoolboy humour? DFW has north american government designated as wankers and terrorists as cripples. Self reference back to the author here is not impossible of course. Likely even.
6) DFW's view of the future has the US and Canada in an uneasy alliance to create his seed spilling state and sees some clunky and proprietary extension of the VHS film cartridge as the delivery mechanism for the dominant entertainment. True he has an ecological disaster driving the US and Canada into their alliance but not to see an interactive future and the rise of computer gaming? Lame.
7) JJ took 17 years working on FW - probably 16 on Ulysses (8 according to some) - and the effort paid off -each work flows along like a riverrun where IJ is punctuated by gear changes and nearly stalled moments, hand brake turns and emergency stops.
8) B S Johnson was another suicidal author. An experimentalist in the sixties he constantly reimagined the structure of the book trying to challenge the linearity, the serialness, the imposition imposed on the writer by the hardcopy. BSJ did not know about hypertext and hyperlinks - DFW did.
9) This one is just hanging here signifying nothing, full of wind and piss.
I first took notice of Wallace when I read an essay on cruise lines he wrote for The New Yorker (it’s now the title piece in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again). I was bowled over by this obviously huge comic talent. It was the Marx Brothers meet Royal Caribbean.
When I picked up Infinite Jest at the bookstore, I expected more of the same. What I got was a large piece of literature that defies any attempt to categorize it or even explain its meaning. With his zest for satire and long-winded jokes, Wallace takes an obvious bow to the likes of Vonnegut, Pynchon and, yes, Groucho Marx.
It’s as hard to summarize the novel as it is to hang it on a peg. The novel sprawls with characters, places, ideas and footnotes. Yes, a novel with footnotes. Some of the best humor can be found here, tucked away at the back of the book.
Infinite Jest takes place in the indefinite future, a time when years are subsidized by major corporations so that we get The Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad and The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. It’s set at the Enfield Tennis Academy, a Boston-area institution founded by James O. Incandenza, whose offspring, athletic and academic prodigies, still reside there. Then there’s Ennet House, a residence for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics just down the hill whose residents suffer from infinite torpor. James O., a former tennis prodigy, physicist specializing in optics and avant-garde film maker, has by the time the story opens killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave oven. In a footnoted filmography, Wallace gives us an idea of what kind of filmmaker he was: "Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators," "Dial C for Concupiscence" and "Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell" are just a few of the titles Incandenza filmed. And, of course, "Infinite Jest," the movie he was working on when he microwaved himself to death. Only problem is, no one’s seen it because it’s so mesmerizing that anyone viewing it is rendered helpless and insensible to everything except the desire to keep watching it. No one survives "Infinite Jest," the movie. The same could also be said for the novel.
Infinite Jest opens with a burst of comedy that immediately got me in the mood for a 1,079-page laugh-fest. Yes, I said 1,079 pages! As it turns out, I had a good chuckle while reading about 179 of those pages, but then energy (either mine or Wallace’s) started to fizzle and sputter. The subsidized-years joke can only go so far.
By the time I reached the final footnote on the final page, I was just barely hanging on to Wallace’s coattails. I was grateful to make it all the way to the end of the book, but I was left asking myself things like, "What’s it all about, Alfie?" and "Where’s the payoff?" and "Huh?"
I can’t deny there’s genius at work here. Heck, anyone who can use footnotes in a novel for comic effect deserves a round of applause. But if I’m going to invest this much of my attention in a work that turns out to be the Godzilla of novels, then I want a little more satisfaction than I get here. This is certainly one of those 10-pound novels where thought overwhelms plot. There's a lot to think about in Wallace's condensed prose and my brain was firing on all circuits during the time I spent with it. Eventually, however, I blew a fuse.
I suppose Infinite Jest begs for a second reading—something for which I don’t think I have the strength or time...unless I take that Marx Brothers cruise.
I liked this book, kind of a lot, but I can't think of another single living human being that I would recommend it to, at least not without a heaping spoonful of qualifications. It's a rewarding read, but so dense and - probably more to the point - narratively broken that I can't imagine sending someone into it without letting them know what they're in for. And that could be a problem. At this point, I don't really even know how or what to think about it, let alone write or talk about it. It's a book that deserved and probably requires at least a second reading, but I honestly don't know if I can put myself through it again.
See what I mean? This is a book I liked, and yet I'm talking about it like it was some sort of cross to bear. No doubt it was a challenge, but I feel I must reiterate that it was worth it, at the end as well as throughout.
So what did I like about it? I liked that it was complex and challenging. I liked that I had to go to the dictionary from time to time. I liked the language, especially as used by the grammatically precise Hal Incandenza. I liked the imagery. I liked the characters. I liked the outlandish premise and the ridiculous situations; I also liked the infusion of gritty realism and the minute detail. I even liked (yes, liked) how Wallace set up all these dots and, in the end, didn't connect all of them. I can't pretend that I fully understand the book as a whole, but it's definitely a lot to think about, and I like that too.
This is the most difficult, interesting book I've read in probably the last ten years, at least. I'm glad I read it, and I hope I can convince myself to do it again, at least once more, at some point. But not soon.
Scattered amongst the 1,100 pages (including, by the way, about 100 pages of footnotes, which was a fictional first for me), the late author does quite a bit of showing off; he was smarter than you and me and he seemed to want us to know it. However, those pages also contain some of the most hilarious scenes I have ever read and that is what ultimately redeemed the experience for me. It is hard to recommend this book without reservation—how can anyone in good conscience compel you to surrender at least a month of your life, which is what it will take to absorb this magnum opus?—but I can say that it was thirty days well spent on my part.
But here's the thing: I really wanted to like this. My girlfriend bought it for me and I was really excited (and slightly intimidated) when I opened it but it just dragged on. Wallace is a good/great writer, for sure, but the plot was not as interesting as it should have been, given the material he gave himself to work with.
It really is too long, and I'm not really talking about page length. Long books are fine, but this one seems slow and needlessly difficult at times. Mix that in with the subpar plot (I'm also fine with plotless books but this clearly has one and just doesn't do it that well), and you have a book that doesn't live up to my expectations.
Fast forward to 2006. The reaction to Infinite Jest went over pretty well. In ten years time, a cult of devout Wallace-loving fanatics has sprung up all over the map. Reviews are largely favorable and the fans have taken to guerrilla tactics, armed with a very thick book and a mission to convert the nonbelievers. Little, Brown and Company elects to publish a tenth-anniversary edition of Infinite Jest and invites none other than Eggers himself to write the introduction. Eggers' tone is different. “The book is 1,079 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence,” he writes. This new Eggers declares Infinite Jest is a pleasure to read and not one bit daunting.
Maybe Eggers had a change of heart. I mean, he wasn't completely snubbing the novel in '96, but to go from “lexical diarrhea” to “not only lazy sentence” is a drastic change. It's certainly possible that the text marinated in Eggers mind, he gave it another read, and he had a much different experience. It's also possible Eggers was influenced. For one, readers and academia had adopted Infinite Jest. The cult of Wallace was on the move. And I'm sure the publisher was offering a decent check for the five-page forward. And maybe Eggers just wasn't sure what he thought. It is a confusing work, unlike anything else. Maybe he read it and simultaneously loved it and hated it. Or perhaps I'm projecting my own reaction to Infinite Jest on Eggers. Such a grab bag of emotions possesses me. What did I think of Infinite Jest? Well, a little bit of everything.
⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆ - Though long and confusing, Infinite Jest is brilliant. Everything about it is wildly unique. The structure, the language, the methodology—it all comes together to make something original and untried. As Eggers' wrote in his foreword, “This book is like a spaceship with no recognizable components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no way to take it apart. … If you could somehow smash it into smaller pieces, there would certainly be no way to put it back together again.” And while other authors may emulate the style with varied success, the fact is Infinite Jest will probably always be the only book of its kind. Whether you love it or hate it, such a distinction is significant.
⋆⋆⋆⋆ - The characters and scenes are memorable. Sure, there are long gaps devoid of these wonderfully drawn scenes where characters ramble on and on about nothing of importance, but the accumulation of the many parts are unforgettable. Although Infinite Jest is the sort of book no one could ever make a film based on (I said the same about Cloud Atlas once), there are scenes which impossible not to imagine on the big screen. They're so wonderfully drawn and the characters are so uniquely styled, that I often imagined the moments in a detail few other books elicit from me.
⋆⋆⋆ - Infinite Jest is horribly wordy. Sometimes it works for it—it is part of the style that makes it unique—and sometimes it just drags. While some of the scenes are interesting in themselves, the detail in which they're described is both refreshing and excruciating. Could Infinite Jest have been shorted? Hell yes. But doing so would've robbed it of much of its uniqueness and allure. Does this justify its “lexical diarrhea”? That probably depends on the reader.
⋆⋆ - The end notes are ridiculous. I've read reviews or guides regarding Infinite Jest where the author stated every end note was vital and worth reading. 388 end notes spread out over 96 pages. How many were important in my opinion? Only a handful. Not only that, but I didn't understand why specific scenes (such as the phone conversation between Hal and Orin) were end notes in the first place. The text is already saturated with these long conversations. Why were some made into ten-page end notes? Why separate them from the text? If I ever find myself reading Infinite Jest again (unlikely, but I won't rule it out), I'm skipping the end notes. I really didn't need them.
⋆ - That's some racist bullshit. I see racism in literature for what it is. A work written at a much earlier time may be riddled with racism, and I can accept that without embracing it, because I realize it is a product of the time. A work written with racist characters or tones is also understandable if it is relevant to the story. Certainly, we should not simply cover up and ignore humanity's flaws. The problem here is, I don't think Infinite Jest qualifies for either of these conditions. Its setting is the near future and the characters have no obvious reason to be so incredibly bigoted. We're not dealing with a single narrator with a chip on his shoulder here. Infinite Jest is peopled with eccentric, but otherwise average, New Englanders and Canadians. Maybe I just missed something, but I don't think the rampant racism was relevant to the story. It's more than the name calling (ie, chinks, spics, ragheads, etc.), it's the stereotype. The black characters (rarely referred to as anything but the n-word) are a bunch of dumpster-diving, fighting, illiterate hoodlums. I'd be more forgiving if these were merely the thoughts of one ignorant character, but even the more intelligent, open-minded characters seem quite bigoted. For what aim? At least the honkies had their issues with substance abuse—I'd hate for them to seem too perfect. (Did someone say misogyny? Yeah, there's that too.)
So, yeah, I'm confused as to how I felt about Infinite Jest. It was good and it was bad. It seems I'm not alone in my confusion. I'm glad I read it if for no other reason than to know it. Maybe in another ten years my tune will change and I'll sing its praises with fervor and without hesitation. I hear it's happened before.
One day I'll tell you how I really feel. ;)
Let the trolls go to it.
Not sure I'd go so far as to say it's one of the most powerful books of the past 25 years, but powerful? Yes.
But first, a brief and necessarily confusing plot summary: Several plot strands are running here. We have an elite tennis academy with its privileged players, all of whom are driven and many of whom are addicted, to sports, to the sound of their own voice, to substances. We have a halfway house for substance abusers in recovery, many of whom are hiding out from the law. We have a Quebec wheelchair-based (long, footnoted story) separatist group that's seeking a particular film that's so potent in content that it renders its viewers paralyzed and unable to focus on anything else.
What these people have in common is drive and single-mindedness of pursuit of Factor X, something they'll go to any lengths to obtain. Whether you're a tennis player or an addict desperately seeking recovery from just such a (still-present) drive or an assassin out to obtain a lethal entertainment for political means, what people have in common is this overriding ambition to satisfy personal needs and/or goals. It's a portrait (and not in minature; this is full-blown epic scale, with a full epic cast of characters and a diversit of situations) of what society has become, grasping to the point of shutting down all other functions in life for the pursuit of a single aim or objective. We see a society with blinders on, completely unaware of its own tunnel vision.
Is the novel unwieldly? At times, perhaps, yes. Footnotes refer you to other footnotes that are themselves footnoted. Yes, Wallace is having a little fun with you, but it can feel a little mocking at times. But again I say, it's an epic. Don't expect anything on the small scale. Just as society has gotten wildly and massively out of control, so has the text. If it's hard to get a handle on the book, it's hard to get a handle on postmodern life. Why should art reflect, in its written form, anything different from the densely-woven fabric of everyday experience? Postmodern life is not linear; neither is the text. Postmodern life is full of peculiar coincidences and unexpected happenings; so is the novel. Life is unpredictable; so is the plot. If life today can even be said to have a "plot" at all, that is-- and if Infinite Jest can be said to have any sort of traditional plot. Wallace may not be the first person to all this, but he says it well.
Did I ultimately understand this book? No. I'm not making any claims that I did. It required substantial time and thought investment, and I didn't get a full return. But I'd be a liar if I said I was up to the task of obtaining a full return on a first-- or second, or third-- read. It's not fair to demand a full return, and I don't fault the book in any way for its complexities; I just want to point out that extreme complexity is part and parcel of the bargin you undertake in reading this novel.
So. Verdict? Settle in for the long haul and read it. Expect moments when you feel like saying "enough about tennis already, for crying out loud." Expect to bond with some of the motely crew of characters, like recovering addict Don Gately. Realize that some of the frustration you feel reading it-- and there will be frustration-- is also the frustration of your own life, and that it's in moments like these that Wallace has really hit his mark.
This book is full of funny witticisms but highly disjointed. I definitely enjoyed Wallace's sense of humour and timing, but if a reader is looking for a better *story* this might not be the one.
It’s been four(ish) days since I’ve finished reading this book, four days which I’ve spent trying to put at least some of my impressions into words which would hopefully form at least somewhat coherent sentences. Well, I give up. It is simply impossible to sum up my impressions, mostly because, apparently, there aren’t any impressions to sum up, or – somewhat more likely – there are far too many impressions than I’m prepared (and equipped) to deal with at the moment. To put it in a less annoying manner – just thinking about my thoughts about this book is just so dashed overwhelming.
That’s not to say I don't have any opinion whatsoever about whatever the thing that I read is this novel – it’s just that all my current opinions/impressions tend to be rather contradictory. For example, at the moment, I’m utterly unable to figure out whether I actually loved it or hated it... or, not impossibly and far more likely – both. I’m not even sure whether I enjoyed reading it at all – I have a rather vague impressions I sort of did, but not in the traditionally accepted meaning of the word.
The only thing I’m certain of is that I utterly loved/hated the ending... mostly because it was so spectacularly inconclusive and unsatisfying on so many levels that it still irks me to no end, albeit in a possibly pleasant-ish way.
In any case, five stars are for the overall feat or whatsit – it made my brain ache at various stages... and any book capable of doing that deserves five stars... and a biscuit.