David Foster Wallace Continues to Astound Me: A Review of Infinite Jest

Infinite JestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is, absolutely, the best book I have ever read in my life. The best. I say that without hyperbole or irony, acknowledging that it makes me sound like a mindless Wallace drone, that there are plenty of people out there and amongst us who pick the most pretentious, reader-hostile books to fawn over because of the very fact of their pretension and hostility to the reader. I accept their association, because it is worth it.

This book is as hard to read as people say it is. It is famously difficult for a reason. It is long; it is dense; and Wallace is actively challenging you but not out of hostility. I came to the book knowing what it was, already loving Wallace, and wanting very much to read this book, and even still it took more than one heroic exercise of will to keep reading. But I did, because sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is something your body very much doesn’t want to do.

Why should you read it? Let’s consider it’s difficulty. Let’s consider the most famous aspect of its difficult: the endnotes. Over a hundred pages of endnotes. Is there anything more tedious and inconvenient than having to flip back and forth to read what are at times trivial medical definitions and at other times major plot points? It is tedious. And it is inconvenient. It’s a gimmick, and one that makes an already cumbersome book more difficult to stay focused on. But let’s also consider that this is a book about entertainment and that David Foster Wallace’s greatest dread was that we go through life unengaged, passive, only looking to satisfy easy pleasures. And let’s consider that the book is about addiction, both narcotic and alcoholic, and that Wallace felt a deep and personal connection with the people he met whilst researching it and that their daily lives are one tedious and inconvenient thing after another, that if they relax for even one moment they could slip past the event horizon of a black hole so hideously and unthinkably deep that it takes the constant threat of death and ruin to make anyone endure the kind of program and withdrawal and humbling misery that is necessary to convince them to claw away from its edge. But they do. Let’s consider them and then think again about how difficult it is to flip back and forth in a book.

I’m almost afraid to say anything more, afraid of coming off way too strong, of sounding like an over-aggressive salesman. I probably already do, probably after the first sentence. But, as much as this sounds like just a rhetorical posture, and as much of a rhetorical posture it is to say that this sounds like just a rhetorical posture, this isn’t just a rhetorical posture. Maybe you have to already know me to believe me. I already loved David Foster Wallace before this book, and this book exceeded my outlandish expectations. Which isn’t to say that it was easy or that I totally get every facet of it or that you even have to. I encourage you to buy a reader’s guide; I did (Elegant Complexity, by Greg Carlisle), and I’m glad I did, because it doesn’t make me stupid and it isn’t a defeat to ask for help. And I encourage you to read it. But you have to want to read it, because there will be plenty of times whilst reading it that you will not want to read it, especially in the first two hundred pages, which are chaotic and jump around in time and place and perspective and throw so many characters and plots at you that your mind will recoil and beg you just to put in a movie. But it’s worth it. It is. I guarantee you it is worth it.

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5 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace Continues to Astound Me: A Review of Infinite Jest

  1. Well, less of a review and more of a doting on his enactment of post-modernist devices. I venture as far as to say he is unfortunately the first famous American to employ the endnotes as you have detailed, but if that’s what the critics want to call avant-garde then so be it, we’re stuck in pomo then.

    If you’re afraid of coming off as an over-aggressive salesman then I suggest you critically analyze specific portions of the book instead of a generalist paragraph of body for your “review” (bait-n-switch title, Death to you, Salesman!)

    What did you think of his outlook on America as a dystopia?

    • Ha ha ha, well met, sir! Part of the problem, for me at least, with reviewing a book as huge and complex as this is that there’s just way too much to say. So I settled on trying to communicate his earnestness, his commitment the reader and his characters. That earnestness is decidedly un-postmodernist. This book grabbed me, hard, and shook me. I was trying to communicate my enthusiasm.

      I think, having not really thought about it at all, I would say that his earnestness is actually the most avant-garde shtick. Most books read as unfortunately naive and gushy why they try to be truly earnest (Twilight springs to mind), but Wallace manages to acknowledge and pierce our armor of irony and hit something really human.

      But none of that really addresses your question, which is a good one. There’s a lot to talk about with this book, and at the urging of my girlfriend (who perhaps wants to dodge my in-person ramblings and fawnings over this book) I’ve decided to write a few more posts about it, and one that will definitely deal with the US’s status and its relationship to Quebec, Canada, and ONAN. Now I just have to get all my thoughts in order….

  2. I hate the idea of endnotes, but OK, I’ll do it. Thanks for the tip about getting a guide. I will.

    I grudgingly read Franzen’s FREEDOM a few months ago and was glad I did.

    It might take me a while to hunker down in earnest, but I’ll get back to you once I do.

    • Yeah, I have yet to meet someone who actually likes the endnotes. And I think it’s telling that this is his only book that uses them; the others use footnotes, and I legitimately like the footnotes, or at least how he uses them. It’s kind of incredible to me how much of an obstacle the endnotes turn out to be, when you think about that all it really takes is a second bookmark. But they really are one of the biggest hurdles to the book, and I totally acknowledge that that applies for me as well.

      I have never read anything by Franzen. I bought, on a whim, a $1.50 copy of The Corrections from a used bookstore a couple months ago (whilst still Jesting). Which, be warned: when you get about 100 pages in, you will find roughly 50 other books that are smaller and that you’re interested in, but stay the course. My cousin, whose opinion on literature I greatly respect, read that, I believe. He didn’t care for it, his primary reason being Franzen’s perceived pretension. One of the things I love most about Wallace is (was?) his ability to write really cerebral, really challenging stuff, with vocabulary that can send you weeping through a dictionary, but he still gives you the sense that he’s talking right to you, that he really is trying to connect. My cousin said Franzen wasn’t able to do that (or at least not as well).

      I do, however, have another friend whose opinion I also really respect who read … one of those books, I can’t remember which, but he said that he really, really liked it. Though he did couch that by saying he hated what everyone else said about it. Something to the effect of “Yeah, it’s completely the ‘American’ experience, so long as your white and male and very educated and grew up in a suburb.” Even still, he recommended it.

      I’m excited for you to read Infinite Jest, and recommend Elegant Complexity as a guide. It keeps you grounded and contains no spoilers. All it really does is summarize each section/chapter/unit, noting repeated motifs or character references (of which there are … many) and ponders briefly the building themes. It’s amazing what a difference this makes. And a lot of his way of “pondering” themes is just to point out something, like Wallace is using the color blue here again or these characters are orbiting each other here or this character’s head is described as very big, etc. so it’s still up to you to figure out its significance. I guess, Carlisle helps you pick out what’s significant; you still have to figure out why. I picked it up when I was roughly halfway, caught up to myself, and alternated a Jest chapter then the corresponding guide chapter. By the last chapter, which is 172 pages, I didn’t need the guide to make my way through it anymore.

      Anyway, I can’t seem to write or say anything brief about it, so I’ll just stop. I’m glad you’re going to give it a shot, though. Anyone who knows as much as you do about Russian literature won’t have any problem with it. And it really is worth it.

  3. Pingback: Coming Projects | The Brain Dump

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