Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest
By David Foster Wallace

There is something (slightly) wrong with the title of David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel, Infinite Jest. It is not infinite, though there were parts of this book that felt as if they were. This, of course, is a tongue-in-cheek comment. The title itself has very definitive purpose on the narrative of this novel and I'm not implying that I dislike it. It just makes me laugh a little, is all. What I can say with a degree of assurance, however, is that if ever you wish to read a novel whereby you can confirm that you are witness to genius, Infinite Jest is your huckleberry.

Infinite Jest is, admittedly, a major undertaking for any reader, whether casual, academic or accidental. I suggest quitting your job, booking a room at a hotel for a couple of weeks and blasting through. This behemoth of a novel should not be taken lightly by anyone (how could you? if you read it in its original printed version, it's the size of a telephone book from a mid-sized American city... Say... Toledo. Mercifully, I read it on my Kindle which offered another set of problems. (I'm still only 23% done? I was on 23% three days ago!)) It's the sort of book that would scare off most readers by its sheer size and reputation. I can only imagine the physical and psychological toll this novel would have taken on DFW. 1

Now, I'm going to be honest here. I read this book over the span of two weeks. At this point in my life, I'm a casual reader. I may like to read hefty, weighty novels, but I'm reading them in the informal sense. I'm not in a position to give this novel the academic treatment. There are thousands of pages of PhD and seminar presentations on the nature of subjectivity vs. objectivity in Infinite Jest floating out there. There are perhaps dozens of thesis papers discussing the feminine archetype in the works of David Foster Wallace or psychological deconstruction of Don Gately and Joelle Van Dynne. If you want an critical analysis of the Incandenza family, O.N.A.N. and Quebec separatism please go somewhere else (especially for Quebec Separatism).

See, here's the thing... Infinite Jest, for all its reputation as a scholarly read, for all its comparisons to Gravity's Rainbow and Ulysses and such, for all of it's 1000+ pages of carefully (and weirdly) constructed sentences, Infinite Jest is a surprisingly easy read. Enjoyable too. Downright entertaining if I may be so bold. Which is quite the left turn for those in the habit of writing scholarly fiction (are you listening, Zombie Thomas Pynchon?).2  At no point in my reading (which was certainly not an accredited academic combing) was I furrowing my brow in consternation, banging my head against the wall, drooling on the page or lamenting the deficiencies of my costly education. So don't let this book give you a case of the howling fantods or anything. It's accessible.

At its heart, Infinite Jest is a novel about a video (called an entertainment cartridge in the novel). This video is so entertaining that anyone who watches it will become infinitely, hopelessly and addictively entertained. They will remain comatose in from of said video so long as it continues to play (it loops) and if it is taken away, the remainder of the viewers life is spent begging, pleading and screaming for more. Even a single glimpse. It reminded me of the Monty Python bit from ...And Now For Something Completely Different where a joke writer writes the funniest joke ever and immediately dies laughing. His wife, thinking it's a suicide note, reads the joke and also dies, as does the first policeman on the scene... and the second. It turns out that the joke is so funny that anyone who reads it dies laughing. Naturally, the military takes notice, translates it and uses it as a weapon of war.


Infinite Jest is about locating the master copy of this lethal entertainment (also referred to as the samizdat) in order to maintain the precarious stability of O.N.A.N. (Organization of North American Nations) and the precepts of Onanism. In the process it's about the Incandenza family with all its tremendous dysfunction. It's about James Incandenza, the maker of the film and his struggles with alcohol and his ultimate (grizzly) suicide (it's also about his ghost). It's about his wife Avril with all her proclivities toward hygiene. It's about Orin Incandenza, punter for the Arizona Cardinals. It's about Hal Incandenza, a highly ranked junior tennis player at an elite tennis academy and a closet marijuana addict (I never though that was even possible, but apparently it is). It's about a cast of dozens of other characters who are painted in shades and tones so vivid that even now I have a hard time understanding that these people are simply constructs of DFWs imagination.

The story is also one of addiction and all its dimensions. It's about America's addictions and America's addiction to addictions. It's about obsessions and compulsions and depression and psychological disorders. Crippling, debilitating depressions. Life-altering compulsions. I'll never watch another MASH episode in the same way. Infinite Jest made me realize that neither I nor anyone that I have ever known has ever, ever really had substance abuse problems. Not in any real, meaningful way. Not in the way in which Wallace portrays substance abuse. Not even close. Lucky me.

The story is essentially written in reverse with the ending at the beginning and doesn't come together until the very end. Be forewarned. The novel also has almost 400 endnotes (many of which have endnotes of their own). Casual readers may be inclined to skip the endnotes. Don't. They are infinitely (pun intended) important to the novel. A lot of character development occurs in the endnotes as well as the handy filmography of James O. Incandenza. If you read this, do not skip them.

Infinite Jest is indeed a very readable novel and so but it is still a major undertaking. David Foster Wallace is renowned for his use of arcane, obscure and invented vocabulary as well as jargon and massive, multi-clause sentences, so come into this book armed with a good dictionary and an open mind. I promise that if you enjoy reading and expect that, as Wallace is quoted as saying, that fiction is "about what it is to be a fucking human," well sir/madam/doctor you owe it to yourself to read Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace shows use exactly what it means to be a writer. An open, honest, humanized writer whose heart and soul are splattered and smeared and spread across the page (or the 1000s of pages) and if one or two things come out wrong who cares because it's all about how it feels coming out rather what it looks like going in so just go with the flow and accept that while reading Infinite Jest you will be in the presence of absolute literary genius.

If you were to ask me: If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could only have one book in which to read forever, what would it be? Infinite Jest with all its wonderful layers of text and subtext and sub-subtext would be as good a choice as any.


1. It is easy to fall into the trap of reading Infinite Jest as an insight into the emotional and psychological problems of David Foster Wallace, especially in lieu of his suicide in 2008. The novel explores substance abuse, depression and competitive tennis, all of which were important aspects of Wallace's troubled existence. But to read this novel as a microcosm for DFW's life is to sell this book short. It is quite a bit more than that.

2. Apparently Thomas Pynchon isn't dead. Who knew?


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Brian Joseph said...

I have thought of tackling this one. It is good to know that after all is said and done it is really not difficult to read.

I loved "Gravity's Rainbow'. However, evan with a companion guidebook, it was no easy task!

Ryan said...

Yes, this was sort of a warm up toward Gravity's Rainbow and Ulysses, both of which are coming down the pipe.

bookspersonally said...

Great review. I had a lot of trouble getting into this one in the first few chapters and, daunted perhaps by the prospect of continuing on for another gazillion pages, DNFed it. Perhaps I was too hasty!

Anonymous said...

I'm 20% through Infinite Jest. I'm surprised how accessible it is! I psyched myself up for the most challenging read ever, but I think the size is the most intimidating thing about the book.

I am finding it a little slow starting. I'm still waiting for that "OMG this guy's a genius" moment, but I have a feeling I won't be disappointed.

Marie said...

No, T Pynch is alive and well!

Anonymous said...

Thomas Pynchon has a book coming out this year!

So I'm done IJ now.. and I feel like it's both accessable and inaccessable at the same time. I didn't bang my head against the wall while reading, and thought "Oh I understand what's going on here"... until I was done... and THEN I was like "WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?!" And I'm still trying to work that out.

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