Infinite Jest

Infinite JestInfinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s sprawling postmodern 1,079-page tome, was the center of a summer-long project called Infinite Summer. I had been curious about this book for years, and this opportunity to read and discuss it with others motivated me to finally give it a try. It’s difficult to sum up such a complex book in a few paragraphs, and it’s the kind of book where advance knowledge of the story, such as it is, would actually detract from the reading experience. With that said, I’m going to limit most of my plot-related remarks to the first few pages, leaving any future IJ readers to untangle the plot threads as they go along.

In the opening chapter, we meet Hal Incandenza, a young tennis whiz in the midst of the college interview process. By the end of the interview, it becomes clear that Hal is unable to communicate in any understandable way. What isn’t clear is why. In the ensuing chapters, we meet Hal’s family and his fellow students at the Enfield Tennis Academy, a motley group of drug addicts and recovering addicts, and a pair of government spies. From the start, the time line is muddy; all we know is that we’re looking at some sort of alternate history of the U.S. and Canada. There are lots of unfamiliar slang terms and a maze of acronyms that readers are expected to just cope with. After about 200 pages, the setting and time line start to crystallize, but much about the story remains a mystery for many more pages, even as the narrative becomes slightly more traditional.

One of the many things Wallace is exploring in Infinite Jest is the difficulty of clear communication—how we can never really know what is in the mind of another. Characters often converse without hearing each other. One hilarious sequence involves two of Hal’s schoolmates, Mike Pemulis and Idris Arslanian, talking in the hallway. Pemulis is going on and on about annular fusion and toxic chemicals. Idris, who is blindfolded for reasons that make sense in the context of the story, wants Pemulis to help him find the bathroom. The sequence goes on and on, with Pemulis ranting about “rapacial feral hamsters and insects of Volkswagen size” and Idris politely interjecting with statements like, “I am standing first on one foot then upon another foot” and “Please do not necessitate begging from me.” It’s a strange, but all too accurate description of much human interaction.

The book’s structure and style add to the sense of miscommunication. Wallace is at times deliberately, obstinately opaque. His narrative style shows little interest in the reader’s perceptions and understanding, just as Pemulis doesn’t take an interest in Idris’s place in their conversation. Through the writing, the reader takes part in the characters’ experiences.

This technique also comes through in the interminable passages on recovery from addition. Wallace shares what seem to me to be some smart insights about how trite the sayings and rituals at 12-step groups seem at first but how the continual habit of participating in the program makes it work, no matter how ridiculous it seems. I couldn’t help but see parallels here to the life of faith, of going to church or praying, even when it seems preposterous to outsiders—and even to insiders at times. It is the doing—specifically the doing in community—that makes it work.

However, Wallace isn’t content to just share this insight and move on. He wants his readers to experience the drudgery of doing something over and over, hearing the same thing again and again, and over and over. At one point, about halfway through the book, these long passages had me fed up, and I nearly abandoned the book. I understood what Wallace was doing, and I even admired it, but I wasn’t sure I was getting much benefit from the experience, and I knew I wasn’t getting much enjoyment from it. Wallace’s devotees would say that’s the point; that life is not about our pleasure, and the benefit only comes from pushing through, but I’m not convinced that Wallace needed to go on quite so long to make his point.

This brings me to my primary problem with Infinite Jest. The excess. Wallace’s writing is amazing. It’s funny and insightful and rich with amusing references and even intentional, revealing mistakes. I loved his narrative voice, but it’s just too much. Too much story, too many characters, too many walls of text. Wallace himself seems aware of the excess. It’s obvious to me that this passage about the experimental films made by Hal’s father (usually called Himself) could easily be about Wallace’s own work:

is the puzzlement and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1/3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff?

I do believe Wallace had some theoretical-aesthetic end in mind, but I also think that end could have been achieved in 200 or so fewer pages. It’s intentional, sure, but is it necessary? Is it helpful?

Infinite Jest is an impressive work. There’s no doubt about that. Wallace has fun with language and character, and he has keen insights into how we relate to each other and to the pain we find in the world. The structure of the book is such that I defy anyone to finish it and not think about it for hours afterward. Wallace makes it impossible for the reader to put the book down at the end, call it done, and walk away. That said, unlike many other readers, I doubt I’ll read it again. For me, this kind of writing is more successful in smaller doses. I do think I’ll read some of his essay collections. Some of my favorite parts of IJ read like essays, and I can see how Wallace’s talents as a wordsmith would really shine in that form.

See more thoughts from others who have finished at Magnificent Octopus and Of Books and Bicycles.

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16 Responses to Infinite Jest

  1. Kristen M. says:

    I may get to reading this one day but it’s not a priority for me. I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not reading it.

  2. Ann says:

    This is the second review I’ve read of this book recently and although, as someone whose research area is narrative structure, I think I ought to read it Given my current commitments I think it’s going to have to stay in the pile – too much at the moment!

  3. Annabel says:

    I will read it one day, but for now I think it’ll stay on the shelf where I can just look at it and wonder how many years go into writing a 1000+ page novel!

  4. Steph says:

    Thanks for the great review, Teresa. Many of the reviews I’ve stumbled across thus far have all suggested that IJ is unparalleled genius and that while parts of it are difficult, we all owe it to ourselves to push through. I really appreciated that part where you discussed your thoughts of dropping the book, because it really annoys me when authors purposefully hinder their readers, as if the sign of a “Great” book is for it to be one we struggle with, rather than having unmitigated enjoyment. I have always felt that the problem with hammering home to your readers how dull or uninspired or boring a person or place is is that you wind up evoking those same feelings in your reader; this isn’t bad per se, but if the author drags these exercises out too long, I find it problematic since I just want to yell, “I get it! He/she is bored! So am I!!!”

    As for the line about life not being about our pleasure… oy. That may well be true, but should we not find pleasure where we can, and must books necessarily be devoid of pleasure in order for them to be relevant? I think this is one of those instances where people don’t want to admit that they suffered for no reason and so they overcompensate (it’s a well established psychological principle that we value things more if we have to work harder for them than if we don’t… which is why fraternities haze pledges – the pledges will feel a greater sense of pride and duty in the establishment afterwards, because the alternative is to realize they suffered for no matter of importance). Sorry, it’s just really bothers me, this idea that there is value in repeated and continued suffering! It reminds me of the old Calvin & Hobbes cartoons where Calvin’s dad would justify getting Calvin to do all these horrible things by claiming they build character.

    So in the end, I’m kind of torn about whether I should read this book. I think I would like to try it, but I also fear that in the end it will frustrate and annoy me (also, I tend to shy away from long novels). I have thought of simply throwing Wallace some attention by reading his much shorter novel, The Broom of the System. We shall see…

  5. Teresa says:

    Kristen: I do admire this book, but I wouldn’t say you’re missing anything by not reading it. It’s not, for me, the life-changing book its admirers make it out to be.

    Ann: If you’re studying narrative structure, this book would give you lots of material! It feels chaotic, but I think he was very intentional about the way he built the story.

    Annabel: What I wonder about is how long it took too edit. (I believe the original manuscript was much longer.)

    Steph: Thanks. I’ll confess that I got exasperated with some of the “this is the most important book ever” talk on the IJ boards and some of the blogs dedicated to the project. I had to step away from that part of it, because, although I agree that this is a work of genius, but it’s not perfect. And I did wonder a few times how much of the gushing on the forums was coming from peer pressure or from the overcompensation you mention. I know some people genuinely loved this book. (Dorothy at On Books and Bicycles, for example, has posted eloquently on the reawards of reading it.) But there was hardly a nay-sayer to be found on the Infinite Summer boards. I don’t know if they dropped out early, or if they were, like me, to timid to mention that maybe there are some good reasons not to be crazy about this book. (And it’s not because it’s difficult or long, which many seemed to assume were the only complaints out there.) Now I’m in love with Wallace’s voice, but this kind of writing works best for me in small doses. The experience there was such that I’ll be reluctant to join in on a mass readalong like this again. Maybe something smaller, that’s mostly within my current circle of bloggy friends. (In other words, I should have read 2666 with you and Claire and Frances.)

  6. JaneGS says:

    So is Infinite Jest our generation’s Rembrance of Things Past, or our Ulysses, or our Light in August?

  7. Steph says:

    I can’t say that 2666 has been a completely rewarding book for me, because I am having a hard time getting a handle on it and to be honest, it doesn’t do that much for me. It would seem that I am the person who likes it the least (perhaps the only one who isn’t thrilled by it), but that being said, I’ve found the read-along experience rewarding and certainly have no regrets there. It’s been nice to really discuss the book with others, even if it is to express my bewilderment!

    Not sure if I’m going to take part in the Kristin Lavransdatter read-along that will be occurring, as I need to do some legwork to see if the book seems like a good fit for me (also, I freely admit that I like to be subject to no one’s reading whims but my own). But regardless, I think a smaller read-along with a group of fellow readers you feel you can have open and informed discourse with is the way to go!

  8. Dorothy W. says:

    If you’re in love with Wallace’s voice, I think the essays will be perfect for you. It’s interesting to me that you found the AA stuff to be repetitive, because I didn’t respond that way at all. I’m not saying you’re wrong, of course, just that I didn’t experience it that way. I wonder if it’s because I was so fascinated by the spirituality connection I was writing about. At times reading IJ felt meditative to me, and in that situation, repetition didn’t really register. I totally loved this book, as you know, but I can understand feeling uncomfortable with all the gushing on the forums. I stopped reading them in detail after a while, partly because I wasn’t interested in figuring out all the tiny details of the book, which is what a lot of people there focused on. I did continue to enjoy the blog posts though.

  9. Teresa says:

    JaneGS: Having been intimidated by all of those in the past, I suppose it could be any of them. (But A Light in August is at least not audacioulsy long.)

    Steph: I’ve been on the fence regarding whether I’ll read 2666, but what I liked about your readalong was that it felt like it was between friends, rather than being filled with evangelists for the book. I probably won’t do the Kristin Lavrandatter readalong, as tempting as it is, just because of timing. Jenny did review the books a while back, and they sound wonderful (and very accessible).

    Dorothy: I get what you’re saying about the AA sections as meditative, and the spiritual connection there is fascinating. I think I was just ready to move on once I got that connection, and there was no moving on. I felt that way through much of the middle section of the book–not just in the AA sections. The beginning and end held my interest more.

  10. Nymeth says:

    I agree with Steph’s first comment. The reasons she mentioned are also why I’ve always shied away from this book. Having said that, you made it sound like something I would like to read someday. It seems that I just need to find a) some courage, b) a good dose of patience, and c) massive amounts of time to dedicate to it.

  11. Teresa says:

    Nymeth: I’m glad I didn’t turn you off this book entirely. I feel like a bit of a nay-sayer because there’s so much “this is the greatest book ever” talk out there. It does have its fair share of rewards. And after the first 200 pages, it’s not particularly difficult to follow, especially if you don’t worry about picking up on every detail.

  12. litlove says:

    I’ve been very interested to read several posts about this book. I know in my heart I couldn’t read it (and knew that before I read your thoughts, Teresa, even if they reinforced my feelings). I have trouble with any book longer than 500 pages (I can’t imagine what story could possibly need so many words) and then I find it difficult to read experimental work at great length. I studied, and indeed have taught, all the French experimentalists – Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Perec, Queneau, Beckett, but they all write mercifully short books. They also manage the trick of being quite readable (well, except RG some days) as well as unusual, so I could cope. But I still read them in an intellectual way, thinking out what they were doing with every page. It’s a certain kind of pleasure, but I couldn’t stick with it for 1,000 pages, and not if they were repetitive.

  13. Most of the concerns you express here have been rebutted by folks on the blogroll over at the Infinite Summer site. Everybody needs a little help getting through such a multi-faceted book. There’s no reason to assume that your own struggle reading it is a pox on the author. I’m sorry that people now experience the very name “Infinite Jest” with a certain trepidation. It isn’t warranted. There are no tricks in the novel, no cynicism, no putting anything over on the reader. It is sophisticated and lengthy and challenging, that’s all.

  14. Teresa says:

    litlove: I wouldn’t say Wallace is unreadable, quite the contrary. For me, the length was a large part of the trouble. This kind of writing only works for me for a few hundred pages.

    infinitetasks: Hmm…I’m not sure when saying a novel is brilliant but sometimes excessive became the equivalent of calling a pox on the author. Seriously. I have read the posts on many of the blogs at the Infinite Summer site, and they were at times helpful but did not always convince me that the excess was warranted. In fact, the tendency for some to only accept unqualified praise as valid can be, well, off-putting. For me, the book is a mixed success.

  15. Well put, Teresa. As you wrote, IJ is in part about “the difficulty of clear communication—how we can never really know what is in the mind of another.” I mis-aimed my worries, really. I see posts like this that arouse in the respondents an anti-readerly trepidation. I’d rather show folks what help is available rather than confirm feelings they may already have about why it is, as is often said, not worth the effort. But that’s why I have my blog, and apologies for imposing that view here. After all, I love the way you write: “I defy anyone to finish it and not think about it for hours afterward. Wallace makes it impossible for the reader to put the book down at the end, call it done, and walk away.” I couldn’t, either.

  16. Teresa says:

    infinitetasks: Thanks! As I mentioned in my comment to Nymeth, I wouldn’t want the fact that this book was a mixed success for me to put all potential readers off from reading the book. It does have plenty of rewards. Whether the rewards outweigh the struggles is for the individual reader to decide. My aim is to give an honest account of my experience and impressions, and my hope is that by doing so, my readers can better determine whether a book is a good match for them.

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