Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

<em class="BookTitle">Infinite Jest</em>, David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown, 1996, 1078 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 0-316-92004-5 sept12

So, I finally made it through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.1

1. Since this is a novel that defies the notion of a novel, I can’t really review it.  But have a few notes instead:

  • For those who aren’t aware of Infinite Jest, here are a few essential pointers: It’s a 1078-pages novel with 388 endnotes (some of them with their own endnotes) spread over nearly 100 pages.  It’s dense and full of show-off moments: Pages without paragraph breaks are not uncommon, and Wallace seems determined to approach even the most ordinary scene with an oblique, ever-changing angle.  The novel takes place in a world that features “an entertainment” so compelling that it sucks viewers into compulsive re-viewing.  Still, the real point of Infinite Jest is a series of sequences about tennis players, addicts and separatists.  No plot summary will ever do it justice: there’s simply too much stuff in this novel.  It’s both elusive and verbose and fits just about every criteria that identifies experimental fiction.
  • It took me forever to get to it, and almost-forever to actually read it.  I had actually purchased the book years ago, thanks to its reputation, but kept pushing it aside for shorter reads.  It took the Infinite Summer online reading project to get me to finally get cracking on the book, and even then that wasn’t as smooth as I had hoped for: I ended up reading the first half of the book in early July (ironically, on a road trip from Ottawa to Montréal to Boston and back, which is pretty amusing given where Infinite Jest takes place) and the second half in a frantic week in September, just in time for the end of the Infinite Summer reading schedule.
  • A good chunk of Infinite Jest’s reputation is built upon an accumulation of intricate details about esoteric subjects that makes one reluctant to challenge the author’s authority.  Fortunately, the novel does deal a lot with French-Canadian themes, from French-language quotes in the text to frequent mentions of Québécois separatists as antagonists of the tale.  To anyone familiar with either separatism or the French language, however, it quickly becomes obvious that Wallace’s understanding of either subject is superficial at best: references to Quebec history are ludicrous, and about half of the French-language expressions in the text are simply wrong in ways that would be obvious to francophone grade-schoolers.  This, ironically, made the author seem more human and the novel consequently more accessible.
  • I rarely relate to novels as a writer of fiction, since my fiction output is infrequent, awful and thankfully unpublished.  But Infinite Jest made me realize how far one could go in the intricacies of writing fiction.  Much fiction writing is about finding a way to express world-building, character interaction, inner feelings or plot development.  Wallace goes so far in the direction of trivial overload (ie; putting meat around the bones of his plot, even if plot isn’t a primary force in his novel) that he ends up reassuring everyone unwilling to follow.  That revelation dawned on me during a ten-page endnote that appears to be a filmography but is really a chronology of some events in Wallace’s future history.  At some point, readers are bound to hit a wall of self-questioning and ask themselves not only why they’re reading Infinite Jest, but why they’re reading fiction at all.  What’s the point?  Why spend so much time and mental energy reading things that, to put it simply, don’t and will never exist?a
  • I didn’t like Infinite Jest as much as I admired its audacity and loved specific moments of it.  There are some terrific passages in this book (the history lesson on pages 391-410 is a tour de force, equal to the Eschaton wargame sequence and about a dozen other “good bits” as the highlights of the book), and its conceptual audacity has enough to warm the hardened heart of any jaded reader.  This being said, most of the time Infinite Jest seems to suffer from an acute case of verbiage.  My patience runs thin when I’m bored…
  • My confession: I invoked a good chunk of Daniel Pennac’s “Rights of the Reader” (PDF) while reading Infinite Jest, if only because they seemed essential to making it to the end of the novel.  I skimmed so many passages that it’s an open question as to whether I actually read most of the novel.  I re-read parts when something interesting started while I was reading diagonally.  I went on-line and memorized contextual material about the novel.  I read the novel anywhere I could carry it (which was limited by the book’s bulk).  I even read some of the good bits aloud to whoever was around.  I dipped in and out, and even began this review a hundred and fifty pages before the end.  In short, I read Infinite Jest my way, and don’t let anyone else try to tell you that there’s a right or wrong way to do it.  If you decide to spend time reading this novel (while you could read four or five others for the same amount of effort), be sure to make it yours.b

a. An answer to that question is to be found on page 200-211, a list of things learned in a halfway house that feels like a glimpse at the universal human condition.

b. But consider the advice of those who tell you that you’ll need more than one bookmark.

2 thoughts on “Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace”

  1. If you consider that the book is not only full of bad French but also of sloppy, funnily inaccurate German (the “Bröckengespenst”) and that the explanations given to the respective phenomena (e.g. “Bröckengespenst”) in the endnotes are usually slightly misguiding, it seems likely that DFW is very carefully playing with the limits of not only what the novel’s personae let go uncriticized in their conversations but also what the average complacent US-american reader might be willing to believe to be accurate. Thus, I think that the mistakes are deliberate and that it’s as a very funny if somewhat cheap critique of a widespread ignorance towards other languages/cultures etc.

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