Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thoughts on Infinite Jest

My eyes are red and burny-feeling. My significant other has asked me to come to bed thrice. But I'm still so caught up in Infinite Jest that I have to write a review/debriefing/rant/diary-entry... like now.

Around noon yesterday I knew I was going to finish Infinite Jest before I next slept. At 2am I did finish it. It's 6am now, as I finally stop rereading passages, mentally cross-checking details and scouring the internet to compare thoughts and theories.

Also around noon yesterday, about 150 pages out from the end of the novel, I begin to guess, as any reader who is honest with themselves would have to guess, that David Foster Wallace was going to mug me: to punch me in the face and take something valuable out of me while I was still stunned. As the ending approached I realized there was less and less room for resolving things I so desperately wanted resolved and turning the last page I was filled with frustration, anger and a sense of betrayal that forced me into contemplating the novel, its plot, its implications and it's almost evil subtle genius that lurks beneath the occasionally obnoxiously overt genius of the prose and structural intricacy. This reaction is apparently quite common; I've been reading accounts online of readers who chucked the book across rooms, tore it apart, burned it, broke down in tears, sent Wallace hate mail, etc.

Even more common was the response I next indulged in: frantically rereading sections of the books and putting together the tantalizing hints, many of which are buried in footnotes, dream sequences, offhand dialog and seemingly irrelevant minor character subplots. I won't actually be spoiling anything by saying that I found the shocking (and daringly brilliant!) final episode of the plot hidden in a single sentence on page 17, because it is impossible to really understand it on the original pass. The first chapter is chronologically the last (don't worry, Wallace reworks the cliche quite well) and despite answering a few questions (with a little imagination) even it doesn't offer the type of satisfaction most readers would like. Much of the literature online complains that even piecing together all the known clues (many so subtly interwoven that I did not catch them) doesn't seem to give a complete picture, and of course they're right, and of course that partly the point. I'm reminded of Pale Fire, Icehedge, The Fifth Head of Cerebus and Gravity's Rainbow; novels that double as puzzle-boxes or enigmatic mind-games.

As everyone who tries eventually admits, the novel has too many characters and subplots to summarize coherently, but the main events focus on two people and their respective environments. The first is Hal Incandenza a tennis and prescriptive grammar prodigy at a prestigious tennis academy whose intellect far outpaces his emotional and spiritual ability to deal with his academic and athletic stresses, not mention his family, including a Machiavellian mother of downright creepy maternal flawlessness and a good-hearted brother with severe deformities. The second is Don Gately, a former house burglar and drug addict who works at a nearby half-way house and attends AA and NA meetings despite fears that he believes neither in himself, any "higher power" or the trite cliches of 12 step programs. The books also follows a radical Quebec separatist movement with a strategically complicated doomsday-ish scheme and the germophobic crooner-turned-president of a futuristic America obsessed by entertainment, advertisement and material consumption. There are so many other characters and relationships that this already-too-busy chart only laughably skims the surface.

Key to tying everything together is Hal's dead father, nicknamed Himself, a controversial semi-failed avant-garde filmmaker who killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave. Himself's (incomplete?) final project, which even the star has never seen, is titled Infinite Jest and is supposedly so entertaining it lethally consumes the life of any who watch it. It becomes pretty clear that Wallace's novel has something of a similar goal and that Himself is in many ways a Wallace surrogate, right down to the misunderstood works of self-indulgence and the eventual suicide. One of my favorite footnotes is a 8 page career summary of the works of Hal's father, which demonstrates a degree of cinematic knowledge on Wallace's part the dazzles me, and I am extremely hard to dazzle on that particular subject. Did I mention the footnotes? There are almost 400 and they span some 90 pages, with content ranging from the irrelevant and pedantic to the informative and revealing. Some of the most important events in the novel are stuck in "footnotes" that take an hour to read.

The title, Infinite Jest, is a reference to Hamlet and works on a lot of levels. Not only is Hamlet an interesting parallel to many elements of the story, but recognizing the scene it is borrowed from is an important clue in solving the largest plot gap. It is also a jab at the novels 1079 page length. Like much of Wallace's humor, it is almost too sophisticated of a jest to get a laugh even if it is slyly funny. Another good example is the future's NATO-esque successor the Organization of North American Nations. Wallace is passionate about abbreviations (there are several thousand in the novel) and so the entertainment/free-choice/individuality obsessed settings being referred to exclusively as O.N.A.N. is the type of the joke that will either lead to head-shaking amusement or head-scratching confusion. Wallace is also not above more obvious pratfalls and situation comedy when he feels the inclination, demonstrating the type of anything-goes eclecticism that writers wear as a badge of post-modernity these days. But he's at his best when he lets his humor take a backseat to an underlying need, almost a desperation, for civilization's lost sincerity, a sincerity even Wallace finds uncomfortable bringing out in the open without protective defense systems of irony, intellectualization and disillusionment.

The most disappointing thing for me, however, is that Wallace's prose never really won me over. His vocabulary is impressive; there is a blog online called "Words I Learned From Reading David Foster Wallace" and a page-by-page, line-by-line, often word-by-word annotation the likes of which only Joyce, Pynchon and Gaddis usually inspire. Yet its sometimes obnoxiously and improbably impressive. At the same time he also moves in and out of the linguistic style and range of various characters comfortably using slang, accents, malapropisms and conversational English in a shifting display that is admittedly masterful, but too showy and chaotic for my taste. There are times I wanted to slap Wallace: to make him stop saying stelliform instead of star-shaped, or having characters say "fantods," or showing off his encyclopedic knowledge of recreational drugs, or repeating the same minor character observations or harping on abuse and addiction interminably, or reveling in the immaturity and ignorance of some of his cast.

The always witty David Eggers writes a wonderful introduction that captures the mixture of excitement and skepticism that runs through any potential readers mind. He compares the book to Shoah and Vollmann's 3,300 page treatise on violence, which, knowing Eggers, might be ironic facetiousness or might not. But he does address one of the central issues that always comes up in discussing Infinite Jest: rather it is worthwhile to read something so long. I think the answer will vary for various readers. Eggers claims there is not any extraneous fat in the novel. This is, of course, a lie. There are whole chapters that I would have cut, long passages that drag, subplots that add little and don't fit terribly well. And yet one can tell that Wallace's first draft was 1700 pages long and that he had to cut many more things he wanted to say and show. Even at its worst, the books is still entertaining and interesting and for each of his dips there are at least two counterbalancing moments that soar and sweep by. At its best, it is full of insight, imagination and verbal dexterity.

As a whole I found it significantly more relevant and compelling than, say, Ulysses (which shares the Hamlet fixation), but I could easily assemble a set of 8 shorter novels totaling less than Infinite Jest's word count that give a much higher per-page-payoff. And yet, despite that project unarguably being a better sustained return on your investment of time than spending a month (pretty much bare minimum) in Infinite Jest, it wouldn't achieve the same sensation. Infinite Jest builds up an indescribably sensation of not just scope and scale, but of accumulated detail and hard-earned realism and the multi-variable complexity and richness of real life. It's something I've only felt a few times: Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. I am exhausted with Infinite Jest, rather glad to be done with it, still fairly frustrated with his kertwang of an ending, and yet I find, defying even my own expectations, that I consider it fully worthwhile to read.

Some quotes from various sources which I liked:

Because, yeah, this is the great nightmare when you're doing something long and hard, is you're terrified that it will be perceived as gratuitously hard and difficult, that this is some, you know, avant-garde for its own sake sort of exercise. And having done some of that stuff, I think, earlier in my career, I was really scared about it: That the trick of this -- (you know, I've got this whole rant about I think a lot of avant-garde fiction and serious literary fiction that bitches and moans about, you know, readers defection and, you know, and blaming it all on T.V., is to a certain extent bullshit) -- [is] that I think a lot of the avant-garde has forgotten that part of its job is to seduce the reader into being willing to do the hard work. And so doing something like this, there were a lot of fears and one of them was "Oh no, this doesn't make any sense." Another was, "Oh no, this is going to come off as gratuitously long or gratuitously hard." And I don't know, it makes me happy you said that because, yeah, I worked harder on this than anything I've ever done in my life and there's nothing in there by accident and there have already been some readers and reviewers that see it as kind of a mess, and as kind of random, and I just have to sort of shrug my shoulders.

--David Foster Wallace

There is an ending as far as I'm concerned. Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an "end" can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occured to you, then the book's failed for you.

-- DFW

I wanted to do something sad. I'd done some funny stuff and some heavy, intellectual stuff, but I'd never done anything sad. And I wanted it not to have a single main character. The other banality would be: I wanted to do something real American, about what it's like to live in America around the millennium.

-- DFW

That's one of the things, structurally, that's going on. It's actually structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal...

-- DFW

This creative tension between professions of sincerity and the performance of irony is a big part of what makes Infinite Jest Infinite Jest. And look, plot-wise the book is a failure. The non-conclusiveness of it, the deliberate withholding of essential plot information, is too much of a reader-hostile kick in the nuts to justify whatever formalistic/thematic/ideological points Wallace wanted to make by it. But, it’s a failure on the magnitude of the endless whale anatomy lessons in Moby Dick, which is to say the kind of failure that marks the work of an original mind dedicated to the pursuit of its ideas in full, at whatever cost. It’s a failure that I love and hate at the same time.

--Infinite Detox

It’s the ultimate literary cock-tease. And ultimately, to this reader at least, it comes across as just one more gag in a long list of cute post-modern jokes stretching all the way back to Finnegans Wake.

--Infinite Detox

Rarely does one read such audaciously inventive prose. The author assembles his initially jarring style from the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary language - high-tech jargon, underclass street argot, bureaucratese, the arcana of drugs and sports, the psychobabble of 12-step recovery. However improbable this patchwork, it all coheres into something unmistakably, brilliantly new.

Despite the long sentences, the long paragraphs, the long soliloquies, the long asides - despite the fearless use of the likes of "erumpent" and "treillage" and "apotropaic" - Wallace lets loose with a triumphant, high-energy linguistic rush worthy of a Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo. Wallace is not merely showing off. Nor is he squandering words, using two or three where a well-chosen one would do. He is fighting, fiercely and usually successfully, to capture the ineffable with the only weapon at our disposal, language.


But my enjoyment of the book is not outpacing my growing frustration with it. I ignore most of the footnotes. If you want to know why I ignore most of the footnotes, check out footnote 216. Yeah, fuck you too, David.

--A Supposedly Fun Blog

AAAAAARRRRRGGGHHHH. I was expecting that. But not that.

-- A Supposedly Fun Blog

In short, big, sprawling books are dead. But somebody forgot to tell David Foster Wallace. The poor schmuck! While everyone else was downscaling, he was working on Infinite Jest.

--The New Canon

Yet David Foster Wallace's marathon send-up of humanism at the end of its tether is worth the effort. There is generous intelligence and authentic passion on every page, even the overwritten ones in which the author seems to have had a fit of graphomania. Wallace is definitely out to show his stuff, a virtuoso display of styles and themes reminiscent of William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. Like those writers, Wallace can play it high or low, a sort of Beavis-and-Egghead approach that should spell cult following at the nation's brainier colleges.

--Time Magazine

The book's arrogant conceit is to suggest that it itself (like the movie mentioned above) is infinitely entertaining--a work absorbing its reader so fully as to force repeated and uninterrupted readings until death. And it's remarkably close to true; I started rereading Jest immediately after finishing it.



Walrus said...

Hard to say whether it was better than Gravities Rainbow. GR is more wild, audacious, offensive and exciting. I'm tempted to say smarter, too. However Infinite Jest is deeper, funnier, smoother and more accessible. Both can be rather annoying at times!

I'd rank both below Kim Stanley Robinson's Mar's trilogy (probably the longest thing I've read at ~2000 pages and likely the most erudite and all-encompassing, though the prose is as dry as Martian soil) and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun (also well over 1000 pages especially if you include the coda book Urth), which similarly has that gratifying/frustrating afterglow as you realize how much intricate depth there was and how much of it you missed!

Interestingly a couple of online reviewers also made the comparison of Wallace to Wolfe, usually favoring Wolfe, which I'd have to agree. I think if Wallace had lived another few decades he would have matured into a Wolfe-level writer, better able to balance telling a monumentally dense work in high-level language without the sense of showing off or spreading himself thin. Wallace, in his defense, is definitely more relevant; more engaged with the human condition and the crisis of modern life or whatever you want to call it.

Patrick said...

I find something very attractive and simultaneously repellant about your comments, in the sense that the adventure seems exhilarating but intensely challenging, and considering the number of works of such depth waiting for my to read them, I can only say that this won't be a high priority. So many books, so little time, as it always seems. I'm glad that your dedication knows few bounds in this regard.

I'm currently about a third the way through Mr. Biswas, and I'm enjoying it but having definite mixed feelings. Funny story, though: I wasn't feeling well yesterday and had Shannon pick me up from work, and while I was waiting I was reading that book, only to have one of my coworkers, also named Brian, stop and ask me about it. (He'd read A Bend in the River.) I barely knew much about him before, but apparently he writes all the client-facing API documentation, was an English major, and is really into literature. I realized that I might have just found one of the coolest people in my office.

Walrus said...

I will say that Infinite Jest is one of the easiest long books to read in terms of comprehension. You rarely need to be at maximum focus and intensity to follow what is going on at any given time. Unlike Joyce, Pynchon or Fuentes, this is relatively accessible.

The difficulty is merely in the length and breadth of the work, occasionally in the vocabulary.

JDP said...


(1) Know anything else about / plan to read any of Wallace's other fiction books?

(2) I think I'm going to give Pynchon's V. an honest chance in a few weeks here and then use that as a basis to see whether or not I'm going to get further into this kind of literature. It is awesome, but it's also so weird/difficult/druggy that I have a hard time evaluating the merits of this type of writing.

(3) You brought up Tolstoy in the review. Any other similarities between Wallace and Tolstoy, or just on the one point you referenced? (something about total immersion in a completely constructed literary world) You know, of course, that Franzen keeps getting likened to Tolstoy in terms of being an old-school, small-scale realist. It's strange to see the old Russian getting flung around a bit more.

JDP said...

Also, what does this say about your interest in Gaddis? Moving him up in the queue at all?

Walrus said...


1) Though Wallace wrote other books, I've heard that none approaches Infinite Jest. I thought his two humorous SFTINDA essays for Harper were fantastic, and I might read more of those, but I can't see myself reading any of his early novels any year soon.

2) James Wood coined the term "hysterical realism" to describe this type of fiction ( I think that, like anything, it can be done well or done poorly. I tend to enjoy it, while admitting that it can be intermittently annoying and glib.

3) Similarities to Anna Karenina (I can't really judge for Tolstoy at large) would include: epic length and extremely level of detail focusing on character-driven narrative, a highly socially-conscious multi-disciplined worldview and an intricate structure of chapters that rotates through many character's perspectives. According to interviews, Wallace was a fan of the Russians (and an early Franzen).

4) I actually substituted Infinite Jest for The Recognitions at the very last minute. I plan to read The Recognitions (now pushed back quite a bit to give me a rest), the USA trilogy, and Underworld this year to complete what I've been mentally calling the "American Giants Circuit". To be fair, this should probably include Dreiser's American Tragedy, but that is pretty far back on my back-burner. I am also going to try and tackle the Australian big names: Peter Carey and Christina Stead.

That will clear my plate for War and Peace, In Search of Lost Time and The Betrothed for the following years. All plans subject to sudden change, of course.