INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace

Book Quote:

“How do trite things get to be trite. Why is the truth usually not just un-but anti-interesting?”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (MAY 12, 2010)

I’ve thought a great deal about this review, since beginning the book, in fact. (I wonder if even the word “review” is the right one. A review implies more than I think I can deliver.) This is no ordinary book and writing about it is not a normal experience. This book is big and thick and juicy and full of complexities, ripe with humor and allusion, digressions and insights. For this reader, it is the book of a dream. I mean that in two ways. First, if one were to conjure up in a dream-state, a book perfect in balance of challenge and entertainment (a loaded word, entertainment, applied to this book, as I will demonstrate in a bit), pleasure and frustration, this is the book. An exact yin yang (reading) experience. (I say reading parenthetically because this book and the universe it describes turns on the reader such that the reader inhabits it, not so much reads it.) And second, if one wants to dream of the perfect experience one can dream with a book, this is it, at least for this reader. That is, in a search for the book to inhabit, this reader dreams of challenge, humor, weight and reach. Here it is, and so very much more. So, all that noted and affirmed. Onward we somehow must march.

Here are a few particulars you might want to know. Including footnotes (essential to the book and the reading thereof) Infinite Jest has 1079 pages and weighs almost 3 pounds in the paperback edition. There is no fluff, big spaces, wide margins, pictures or spaces. The font is small and the font for the 388 footnotes smaller still. David Foster Wallace wrote it when he was thirty-three. Thirteen years later he took his own life. There is no “essence” of the book, no Platonic IJ-ness. That is to say, it is like spilling mercury onto a tile floor. The book spreads out and rolls in a million self-contained little drops, all born from the same container, each perfectly formed and independent, yet containing part of the whole. But that is silly talk. And I should be serious. I’m trying to give you a sense, and not be too breathless about it. (But I am, I confess, rather breathless at even finishing the thing, not to mention, I think, “getting it” just ever so little bit.)

This was my second go at IJ. I took a swing at the book about a year ago and walked away from it. I am in a lot of company in this regard. (Famously, Lisa Schwarzbaum was assigned to review it for Entertainment Weekly and didn’t, or couldn’t. Regardless, she did not review it, but instead wrote about not reviewing it, even wondering if it was readable.) With the help and insight of a web resource, Infinite Summer, I outlined a sensible reading schedule of only ten pages a day. The web site, Infinite Summer, a sort of internet IJ book club, is filled with comments and information for the reader. The site got me off on the right foot, however, ultimately, I found it–the site–confusing and too littered with spoilers. The value I gleaned, though, was the pace, the ten pages a day, minimum, that and the net-peer ground postings.

Every reader is different, and I think I can be a pretty solid guy with a book in my hands, able to get through most anything, but not so with this book. With this book, I had to be careful. It required a structure and a commitment, gaming that the effort would be worthwhile. I needed a pace, which I could maintain. And I needed insight. Early on, in that regard, I picked up a reader’s companion, specifically, A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest by Robert Bell and William Dowling. There are lots of resources to assist the serious IJ reader. Mainly, I was seeking a source that would help me keep the characters straight, provide a dictionary of acronyms (there are about 450 sort-of-recognized slash known and totally-fabricated acronyms underlying the narration like a grid upon which a foundation is poured) and a plot outline. With Bell and Dowling at my side I set sail upon the deep waters of Infinite Jest. (I should mention too, Bell and Dowling were much more important at the beginning of the effort. As the themes developed, the characters fleshed out and the style absorbed, their guide became an infrequent resource.)

There are three main story lines to IJ. Each offers mini theme-within-the-theme story lines, and occasionally they crisscross, making things a bit more than interesting. The main story lines involve a tortured tennis prodigy, Hal Incandenza; a former Demerol addict, Don Gately, who works at The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House; and a bunch of wheel-chair bound Canadian terrorists who are trying to get their hands on a movie reputed to be so entertaining it renders the viewer interested in nothing but viewing it. Eventually the viewer grows listless, loses all interest in eating, sleeping, in life then dies. This movie, incidentally, was made by Hal’s father, James Orin Incandenza (referred to by many monikers, including JOI–which some take as a nod to James JOIce.) James Orin Incandenza is dead as the book takes place, having committed suicide by jurry-rigging a microwave oven and inserting his head. The backdrop to the novel, North America, a few years hence, is a depressing place, toxic and so commercialized that even the years have been sponsored, or more properly, subsidized, as in “Subsidized Time.” This is why sections of the book take place in the “Year of the Whopper” or the “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad.” There are nine Subsidized Times, plus a smattering of BS (Before Subsidization) time events. The novel opens during the “Year of Glad” (as in bag) and ends, completing a loop, the same year.

It is worth noting too, that the movie referred to above, called the “entertainment,” carries a logical argument to its extreme. That is, a culture so intent on being entertained, that if it gorges itself it will perish–at least its soul perishes. The movie, by the way, is produced by Poor Yorick Entertainment Unlimited, in one of many nods to Shakespeare (Prince Hamlet: “Alas, poor Yorick…a fellow of infinite jest…”). Here is this reader’s suggestion: Brush up on your Hamlet.

I’ve wondered quite a lot about the lasting nature of this book–or lack thereof. David Eggers says this in his introductory essay: “…this is his extraordinary, and irregular, and not-normal achievement, a thing that will outlast him and you and me, but will help future people understand us–how we felt, how we lived, what we gave to each other and why.” I hope that is true. But I’m not so sure. I’m not sure Wallace would agree either. In a letter to his friend Jonathan Franzen he wrote of the book, “I don’t think it’s very good–some clipping called a published excerpt feverish and not entirely satisfying, which goes a long way toward describing the experience of writing the thing.” Time magazine called it one of the most important books of the last one hundred years. I don’t argue with that. There are lots of things, however, that are important but are ignored, or worse, forgotten.

When something of consequence is accomplished one hopes–one who notices, that is–that something will come of it. But one of the themes present in this book is the progression of culture to a cliff and documenting the falling off of that cliff by said culture. It is part of the humor found here. I mean, who doesn’t laugh at a well choreographed pratfall? That doesn’t mean it will last, the book, that is. Ultimately, it is a question that cannot be answered from this distance, only guessed at. I guess it is less than fifty percent. I don’t say that because I don’t believe in the text, I do. I doubt we have the capacity to embrace something like this and bless it with immortality (as if we had such a capacity, go figure), even if it were worthy. Look at our culture so acutely defined in this book.

(I am talking here about the big arena. There is, in this big arena, present tonight, Beethoven and Bach, Picasso and Matisse (you get the idea), Hemingway and Joyce, Proust and Tolstoy. Yes, yes, I know I am missing a lot. But the room is dark. Oh, there’s Homer and back there, at the bar, I think I see Sibelius. Yes, that’s him, having a tottie with Bill Shakespeare. Those two, they’re a hoot. At the ticket gate are any number of others elbowing one another to get in. Ginny Woolf and Nabokov and, geezz, so many. But if you take a moment and look across the street you’ll see, standing there under the street light Mr. David Foster Wallace, wearing his bandana and taking notes. He is very deliberate that way. I have him in my sights and it seems he is making his way through the crowd. But who knows? It’s a rowdy bunch, that’s for sure. Not sure if he’ll make his way in…)

Jocularity aside, this is an important work. Seriously important and worthy. Maybe even lasting. That should entice one enough. Take a swing at it, but don’t force it. It took a few hundred pages to find a rhythm and then it was like a glider finding an updraft. You soar and the view below you is both frightening and exhilarating. Regardless, it’s a hell of a experience.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 575 readers
PUBLISHER: Back Bay Books; 10 Anv edition (November 13, 2006)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:




May 12, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Allegory/Fable, Classic, Contemporary, Humorous, Reading Guide, Scifi, Unique Narrative

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.