by Joshua Potter
I believe three things about this novel: (1) it is a work of genius, (2) anyone who reads it with at least a middling level of attention/engagement will benefit from having done so, but (3) the time investment is so large that one must think creatively about scheduling its consumption.
David Foster Wallace / American / 1996 / 980 pages + 100 pages of footnotes
I had not intended to write a review upon my completion of this book. Infinite Jest is one of the more widely read books that I’ve featured on this blog (at least, widely read in the demographic which I suspect stumbles upon this blog from time to time) and online analyses of the text are both multitudinous and, in general, rather well composed. For example, my friend The Book Walrus has written a passionate take on the book that he drafted in the immediate aftermath of his finishing it and, by and large, I find myself agreeing with his reactions. If you’ve finished the novel and are looking for a hard-hitting (and bare bones) theory of how the more obscure plot elements unfold, you can check out this post from Aaron Swartz; I pretty much buy most of what he’s laid out and the attendant commentary by other contributors raises a number of additional (and fascinating) points. By contrast, if you’re on the market for a more high-theoretical take on the novel’s construction and narrative techniques (and don’t mind a nontrivial amount of bookish pretension), you can head over to the Howling Fantods website and gear up for an academic thesis by Chris Hager. There are also a number of other (slightly less good, but decent enough) reviews here, here, and here.
Point being, obviously, that the marginal utility of my investing any time in another set of comments on this topic is, in a word, low. I can state this fact even more humbly: I seriously doubt that I have anything at all novel to say about DFW’s project.
But once you scale the mountain, you fall subject to a strong inclination to leave your mark. The fact remains that struggling all the way through Infinite Jest — much like reading a novel by Pynchon, Joyce, Bolaño, or Tolstoy — is a major literary landmark in any serious reader’s life. On a fundamental level, DFW has tweaked the margins of my understanding of the novelistic form; he has shed light on a world of which I previously knew very little (i.e. drug addiction and rehabilitation); he has poignantly and pointedly summed up the dangers that I have always believed were inherent in American consumerism; he has rejiggered the contours of nonlinear storytelling in a way that I found entirely unique and pleasantly surprising; and he has, at various points, made me laugh, retch, pout, and applaud. The termination of Infinite Jest will surely go down as one of the greatest (and bravest) literary gambles in the history of fiction and, as I read it, I found that I was both irked and impressed, both speechless and breathless. All this by way of saying that the profundity of this moment demands of me a written reaction. It’s just how I’m made. My apologies to web users the world over.
I think there’s always existed for readers a great deal of trepidation surrounding truly enormous works of literature and this trepidation gets exponentiated when we’re talking about a postmodern enormous work of literature. DFW (and others) have asserted that Infinite Jest is not postmodernism, strictly speaking, but it does make for (at times) difficult reading. The big question, then, especially for readers who are attempting to read broadly, is whether or not struggling through this book is worth the effort. After all, you could read 5 or 6 other books (or maybe the total tonnage of everything Hemingway ever penned) in the amount of time it would take you to digest this one megabook. As I have found very few online articles related to this topic, in particular, I thought I might try to lay out a case for why many people (and by this, I mean many more than you might initially suspect) would derive sufficient utility from Infinite Jest to warrant its reading. My main argument here is that the book really successfully accomplishes three things and I think that any one of these three reasons is enough for a reader to dive right in. As a counterweight, though, and as an honest broker, I also present what I consider to be the book’s three main shortcomings.
(1) The book’s substance and satirical thrust make for a seriously damning indictment of American culture (specifically in the 1990s, but, scarily enough, I think DFW’s critiques would be even more salient in our current environment). By “American culture” I mean, in particular, consumer culture, but even more generally, the broader milieu of dynamics that feed Americans’ acquisitive dispositions: a hyper-selfish desire for personal gain, a deep-seated preference for simpler pleasures, and, in the end, a near-universal disappointment when, later in life, we gradually realize that many of the ideas we were sold on were either practically unattainable or ultimately unrewarding. To this effect, DFW satirizes a system of electronic-based entertainment that has become so pervasive, quick, and easy to use that entire swathes of the population content themselves with endless hours of television, movies, and sports broadcasts. He also delves deep into the effects of drug abuse and addition which are, in a way, no less insidious than the addictions many people harbor for entertainment. Finally, DFW takes us on a tour of a teenage tennis academy where students are intensely bred to become professional tennis stars. But even here, the proposition is simply lose-lose: if you can’t make it as a tennis pro, then you’ve failed in your ambition; if, however, you get to the “big game” of professional tennis competition, then you’re just going to be another cog in the entertainment machine that feeds millions of people whom you’ll never meet. The adults in Infinite Jest (at least those who are not strung out on fringe political radicalisms) are almost uniformly despondent and exhausted. The children, who cry themselves to sleep and oftentimes dabble in prepubescent drug use, seem destined to end up much like their mentors. One might say that Infinite Jest is a Swiftian swift boat that’s been sent to gun down all the components of American culture that I dislike.
(2) The book’s narrative voice is a unique amalgamation of distinct character viewpoints and a strangely distant / vague authorial viewpoint that effectively calls into question the very nature of communication itself. Occasionally, the narration comes from a first-person perspectives, but generally the “entity” who is describing the actions narrates in a third-person omniscient voice. Strangely, however, this voice subtly adopts the slang and outlook of whomever he/she/it is talking about. Every once in a while, DFW will throw down one of his ridiculous $20 words and then mark it with a footnote that says something to the effect of: “Of course, the person we’re talking about right now would have never actually used this word.” This is a rather disconcerting experience for the reader, because it’s often unclear whether what we’re reading is supposed to be a paraphrased account or a literal one. What are quotation marks supposed to mean, then? When we’re privy to a character’s internal thoughts and history how can we know whether or not the portrayal is filtered? The footnotes are also famous for presenting important plot details and, in many cases, their placement in the text is odd. For example, a lengthy scholastic footnote about the history of a Canadian game or the evolution of a film director’s lighting techniques gets pasted into a section that relies heavily on a child’s memories of his parents’ home. Intellectually, I have a hard time trying to figure out where this narrative “entity” collected and arranged the first-person accounts or why he/she/it is continually making excuses for the rhetoric in footnotes. Also, why is there so little connective tissue linking together the plot elements? Is the narrator insane or just irresponsible? What I’ll settle for is the verdict that the narrator is a bastard god against whom I’m literally waging some sort of metaphysical battle as I plow through the book’s contents. In a way, this is totally cool.
(3) The book’s narrative structure is about as daring and innovative an approach as I’ve ever encountered. It’s not new news that Infinite Jest opens with what is, from a chronological standpoint, the last event of the novel and, furthermore, that the final pages of the book contain one hell of a bewildering conclusion. This is a very disjointed novel and it’s up to the reader to (1) be patient and (2) speculate about the links (that hypothetically, at least, exist) between the disparate plot elements. The first chapter, quite simply, shows you the convergence of the various plot lines, but it makes no sense due to lack of context. The end of the book narrows the focus somewhat toward this convergence, but breaks off before anything resembling an epiphany sets in. I think it’s almost requisite that, upon finishing the novel, you immediately flip back and read the first chapter (which is only about 15 pages in length). Once you do that, you’re well on your way toward educated guesses about how we got from page 980 to page 1. Another interesting structural component to the novel is its symmetry around the dead middle (like, almost literally, at page 490) where a particularly violent murder takes place which sets the tone for the remainder of the text. You can entertain yourself a bit by examining how some occurrences and accounts in the second half of the novel mirror their counterparts in theme / style / content in the first half. To this extent, there is nothing resembling a traditional plot line in Infinite Jest; in fact, it’s fairly difficult to stick with the novel through the last 200 pages due to this fact. The novel doesn’t “end” so much as it just kind of spins itself out. When you return to the first chapter, however, it makes for a satisfyingly climatic conclusion.
(1) The book’s content is pretty rough and tumble in the sense that drug addition and childhood stress are not pretty things. Although I laughed out loud at several points in the first few hundred pages, I was dead silent throughout the rest of the book (and I eventually got to the point where I began to feel bad about my initial reactions). DFW’s somewhat jocular prose styling is a bit of a red herring when it comes to Infinite Jest‘s emotional content. Much like the violent clashes in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or the detailed descriptions of inhumane cruelty in Saramago’s Blindess, you will be beaten about the face with harrowing accounts of drug use, child abuse, and people generally hitting rock bottom as they destroy all of their personal relationships. There is a sense of inevitability underscoring all of this that makes it even more debilitating: DFW argues that these outcomes are straightforward symptoms of the system of mass consumerism we inhabit. If you enroll in a tennis academy at the age of 13, we know what will happen to you. If you are raised on a diet of cheap entertainment, then you’ll spend your whole life looking for quick hits. Welcome to America.
(2) DFW is longwinded and erudite in his writing, which is usually a plus, but fairly routinely becomes so obtuse as to detract from what it is he’s actually getting at. Reviewers have previously stated that his prose stylings are unpretentious and I generally agree with them; however, there does seem to be an explicit overture at virtuosity being made here. Unlike some reviewers, I don’t think that there’s too much extraneous material in terms of plot and setting; however, I concur in the analysis that what is there tends to be overwritten. If you like at least three paragraphs on each page, look elsewhere.
(3) Asininity abounds. DFW undercuts his own intellectual acrobatics often. There are countless scatological jokes, transvestite jokes, various other bathroom humors, and so on. There are also wheelchair-bound assassins, cannons that shoot huge containers of garbage miles into the air, completely implausible geopolitical problems, lounge singers turned presidents, societies for the preservation of obscure grammatical rules, and on and on and on. I think this detracts from some of the bigger points set forth in the novel, especially when one eventually realizes that you’re really not supposed to be laughing at any of it. After a certain point, when people have died and teeth have fallen out and grown men have broken down and cried like infants and children have committed suicide, I’ve had enough of the ridiculously fake transvestite undercover police officer, for example, and all of the attendant sex-based humor. This is perhaps a minor point, I know, but I could see how it might be mildly off-putting to some potential readers.
Lest these caveats seem too serious an indictment, let me again state that I think this novel is well worth your time and effort. Plus, there are many great online resources to aid one in the task. For example, check out this 11-point primer on how to gear up for DFW’s novel as well as this quick-check index of key terms and people who appear in the novel. You can also take a gander at this character-connection graphic, but it’s basically just visual gibberish, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in it.
There are no broad brushstrokes in this novel; everything will be assembled slowly in pointillistic precision and it will at times be painful. But this is a totally unique and bizarrely ingenious novel that I promise you’ll be mulling over well after you’ve finished reading it.