on 26 May 1999
The proverbial Book-That-All-The-Fuss-Is-About in America, Infinite Jest hasn't made a big splash in England for some reason. Set in the near-future, the story zips back and forth between a dope-addicted teenage lexical genius in a Tennis academy in the suburbs of Boston, a recovering demerol addict at a half-way house down the road, a gang of murderous Quebec separatist terrorists in wheel chairs, and a film that is so addictively entertaining that once you've been exposed to it you lose all will to do anything else in life except watch it again and again until you die. You also get the experialist evil of ONANism (referring here to the Organization of North American Nations), the death of the TV industry at the hand of tongue-scraper ads, giant feral rats in New England, hyper-obsequious mothers, filmakers killing themselves by putting their heads in a microwave and a girl so devastatingly beautiful she's forced to wear a veil at all times. What's not to like?
But never fear: beneath all the whimsical plot-digressions and flippant deployment of words you don't understand, DFW has a big heart, and IJ never degenerates into the standard I'm-so-postmodern-I-can-just-sneer-and-not-care posture that makes so much contemporary prose detestable.
If the book has a theme, it's addiction...in the broad sense...not just to various drugs but also to entertainment, to sport, to sex, to nationalism. The neat thing is that the book itself is addictive...although it's not a plot-driven page turner in any traditional sense, once you get into it it's hard to put down.
You should know the book is very very long, has 200+ pages worth of bizarre footnotes, 3 dozen subplots, and a whole lot of generally fascinating characters. The pace can be sloooooooow, but you won't mind. Like I said, it became VERY trendy in America a few years back...it's now required reading for the terminally hip 20/30something intelligentsia. For once, the hype was warranted...if you trudge through the (admittedly impenetrable) first 200 pages, you'll be hooked.
Oh and, I don't care how lexically gifted you think you are, you have to read IJ with a dictionary at your side.
on 8 January 2015
DFW is just what he decries endlessly in essays and interviews, each of them no less painful than this work -- upper middle class individualism, for thousands of pages. Conjunct with this is a completely over the top and terribly uninteresting self-consciousness that seems to believe it is the end all be all of a journey inside. A writer is a writer because he chooses what to record, and he chooses how to record and order it, in which sense DFW is often not a writer. After pages of sheer boredom the dazzling collective `mania' of the first part with its accompanying reveries and finale at the hospital is absolutely beautiful; it's prose magic, and we see therefore that David is capable of true writing. However, the section that follows about the addict is unreadable -- dozens of pages of excruciating and depressing rumination with zero to lift it out of the miasma of upper class self-loathing: David at his worst.
The sentence where I first almost put down the book was '62.5% of the room's faces are directed my way.' It was the punchline of a joke-load of details that was long in the waiting, and that made me decide -- prematurely -- that the whole thing was trash. But that upper class addict kid had me absolutely raging.
Put yourself through it for a bit longer than I have if you can. I've tried, and knowing the overall premise as well I doubt the excruciating effort will pay off. David is a lost talent, and I sincerely believe under different circumstances -- personal and social -- he may have flourished as an artist. What we have instead is a shell, a lost pean to a lost generation that had its other voices. But for me not in literature. Just as poetry had its rock, punk and post-punk for the Boomers -- with the verse and books that inspired and learned from it -- for Wallace's Gen X there was maybe Nirvana; a white phenomenon that at least transcended its time's masks of decadence, three plus years before the publication of this. Most of the writing from this time, as I am aware, is garbage. Maybe, as the best living Chilean poet says of all poetry (and we can extend this to literature), there are honorable exceptions.
on 20 May 2013
American culture, or rather, as it seems to be now, western culture, the whole of western society, is not the nurturing medium that humans think it is. And here, David Foster Wallace seems to be telling us an intertwining series of stories that describe in each case how 'the culture' has failed the individual. How the culture has failed to provide the food they need.
The characters: Some have nothing but sport, some drugs, some alcohol, some a desperate drive to right political wrongs, but beneath each story there can can be heard the desperate cries for meaning. A want of something more. Something they are not getting, something we are not getting.
And so as a means to illustrate the extent to which 'the culture' provides us with distractions from the longing and nothingness we might well feel if ever we were to take a moment to step back and consider our own existential crises, David Foster Wallace creates 'the entertainment'. A piece of film so engulfing, so entertaining, that once seen the viewer can never escape the desire to do nothing but watch it over and over and over again; to be distracted by it forever. 'The entertainment', a source of distraction so perfect that its 'victims' become instantly and permanently catatonic.
Even if the novel hadn't managed to scale the heights of its vaulting ambitions(which in my mind it does in almost every respect), it is still full of the the most wonderfully hilarious, descriptive, moving and thoroughly post-modern prose I have read, a truly new brand of writing which seems simultaneously to be informal and conversational but which retains a rich complexity and eloquence, and which draws you almost longingly into the worlds of the characters, the rooms, the places, the people, the smells.
This is truly one of the greatest books I have ever read. In 1200 pages, almost nothing happens, and yet I remained gripped throughout. I was sad to say goodbye to the characters and the places, I feel I could have read on forever, but ultimately I left them feeling I knew so much more about myself and the failings of the society we live in; our own failings.
on 20 May 2012
I'm sorry to say I abandoned this part-way through. Don't be mad at me! I feel like I've given it a pretty good shot. I've stuck with it through almost 600 pages, through sickness and health, over approximately 4 months. I've neglected some of my very favourite handbags because this hefty tome just won't fit inside. It almost pains me to give up after investing so much time in it, but the fact is there are still 400-odd pages left to go and I just have no motivation to pick it up any more!
So you've read the official blurb. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately this fatally entertaining movie was referred to on approximately three occasions in the 60% of the story I finished. The narrative is more concerned with the daily lives and family histories of the drug addicts and tennis students mentioned above. It is chock full of lively characters who are all illustrated perfectly down to the last detail, and even minor players are incredibly engaging with likeable flaws.
There have been times when I've absolutely LOVED reading this - particularly the passages about the Ennet House residents and the Narcotics Anonymous meetings. I can honestly say that some of these chapters were 5 star quality for me, despite the fact that I chose not to continue reading the book in the end. They ring very true to life (from my own experience working in similar environments) and I wonder whether David Foster Wallace has drawn on any personal experiences when writing these bits. However, the book is also interspersed with pages and pages of dry, excruciating detail about really mundane events. Some of the other reviews I've read have suggested that the monotony is kind of 'the point', and that it should prompt the reader to ask questions about the nature of entertainment etc. - well, my idea of entertainment is never going to be whiling away a whole morning reading about the technical intricacies of a tennis training session. It was these sections that felt really unrewarding and made me want to give up.
Not to mention the endnotes. I'm not the world's biggest fan of endnotes anyway so 100 pages of them is pushing it a bit.
I really enjoyed David Foster Wallace's style of writing and his inventive characters, and will definitely give something else of his a go (I've got Broom of the System waiting on my shelf to be read already). This was just too much for me though. I know it has quite the cult following and that there are plenty of people who rave about it, and as I said earlier, I didn't get to the end. Maybe had I persisted my opinion would have been different. But it got to the stage where I felt that life is just too short for me to spend any more time on this book...and the rest of my bookshelf is just too long!
on 12 September 2006
Cor! I would like to tell you that this book is all the things that these other reviewers say it is - amazing, brilliant, flabergasting etc. Well, it is. However, after pushing through David Foster Wallace's interminable digressions and massively complex clauses, sub clauses, sub sub clauses etc, the brilliance could be said to have been dulled somewhat. Nevertheless, It's still a top-notch piece of boundary-pushing fiction, a brain-pulsingly engaging read, and a mad piece of food for thought. It would've got five stars if I could have persuaded any of my friends to read it too. Those slackers!
Read it. It'll do your brain good.
on 24 March 2013
I bought this because a couple of people who had reviewed John Jeremiah Sullivan's excellent collection of articles, Pulphead, also liked Infinite Jest. It arrived, and I discovered I'd ordered a brick rather than a book. Bit daunting I thought. 1000+ pages, footnotes,tiny point size. I left it on the shelf for a couple of months. Like I say, daunted. Then I picked it up. By page 13 I was hooked.
That was four months ago. I finished it yesterday and, having been immersed in the skewed but horribly recognisable world of David Foster Wallace for so long, I feel bereft.
It's one of those novels that is part of a long tradition of fiction that includes Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, then travelled down the centuries to include Joyce's Ullyses, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow... If you're looking for a beginning, a middle and an end, you won't find it here.
What you will find is one of the most explosively imaginative novels ever written. It's funny. Political. Satirical. Years are sponsored by big business. The President is a schmaltzy crooner. The US has taken over vast areas of Mexico and Canada to form the Organization of North American Nations. ONAN. Haha! It's prescient. Waste dumping has lead to swathes of the local population being born with no skulls and multi-eyed. It's wise. '... you do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it.' '... logical validity is not a guarantee of truth.' 'Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.' And on and on and on. I kept stopping to go over things I'd read. Musings. Throwaway ideas. And the descriptions, always so singular; always just right. 'His heart sounded like a shoe in the Ennet House basement's dryer.' 'The sobbing man's hand lies over his face like a spider...' 'The smile widens steadily without seeming to run out of new teeth to expose.'
The cast list is vast. Characters range from the grotesque to the pitiable to the weirdly endearing, each of them depicted with such an eye for detail that they come alive on the page. Hal Incandenza, a cold genius, who learns to feel emotion, but at the cost of communication; Don Gately, the recovering drug addict who relives his moment of rock bottom having been shot in the shoulder while doing the right thing; Remy Marathe, the amputee Quebec separatist terrorist. Lenz with his evil hobby. Himself, with his film-making career - films like Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell, Poultry In Motion, and, of course, Infinite Jest itself - a film so addictive the viewer cannot stop watching it, ever. A fact which, in the wrong hands, makes it a deadly weapon...
What's it about then? Addiction, I suppose. To drugs, alcohol, fame and success, knowledge, the media, sex, killing, repeating mistakes of the past. It's about being alive in the West, now.
I've banged on about the imbalance I perceive between the quality of fiction coming from the two sides of the Atlantic in other reviews. Amis, McEwan and Self versus Richard Yates, Thomas Pynchon, James Ellroy, Dave Eggars, Jonathan Safron Foer, Anne Tyler, Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell... But here, with this novel, a new level of excellence has been reached. Infinite Jest is formidable. And yet...
This is not a recommendation as such. Read those first 13 pages, and you'll know whether or not Infinite Jest does it for you. All I can do is repeat that, for me, Infinite Jest is the best book I have read, ever.
on 4 March 2016
A book for young men, I think. The book contains a lot of amusing invention and powerful writing, enough to give it cult status. Years bearing a sponsor's name rather than a number could happen, given the insane 'privatisation' of everything. But I found it overlong and too prolix. I couldn't help feeling that Irving Welsh does it better and in far fewer pages. Another reminder, perhaps, that addiction to narcotics and literary discipline don't go together. The scenes of squalor and sickening sadistic violence I found extremely unpleasant.
The novel uses footnotes to break up the narrative flow. I confess I cheerfully skipped most of them.
It is quite possible on a single reading (and I have no intention of re-reading this novel) that I have missed the metaphors somewhere along the line and I'm happy to be corrected. I'm sure there are reasons why this novel is seminal. But I found it a feat of endurance and I laboured to finish it.
on 4 June 1996
The seemingly infinite length of this book makes it difficult for even the most patient of readers. However, a little work does indeed pay off. The depth of the characters is limitless, and the reader is treated to delightful romp through the minds of the author's subjects. Every thought, every action, every memory is captured in technicolor detail and gives the novel its phenomenal heft. Though this detail is oftentimes fruitful, it can grow tedious and discourage the less painstaking reader. I do not believe, however, that this is the book's greatest fault.
As a condemnation of the wastes of modern America, Infinite Jest makes its point extremely well. Every page is filled with the consumptive lust for pleasure today's America suffers. The characters destroy themselves, their environs, and their society with reckless disregard for anything besides a few moments of stimulation to the pleasure centers of the brain. In the post-modern setting of the novel, entertainment and pleasure are exaggerated to such frightful extremes they become deadly. Brilliantly, Mr. Wallace makes it clear that the problems of this hypothetical future exist today. Ironically, Infinite Jest becomes an object of its own scorn -- addictively compelling and entertaining, it forces the reader to enjoy it, no matter the cost.
Unfortunately, the main detriment to this novel is the plot, which, after 900 pages, seems poised to make a new leap into the meat of the story, but instead turns to a rapid conclusion. Issues raised throughout the book are never resolved, and the reader is left without any real fulfillment. The characters, each of which is immaculately crafted and endearing, are only presented with the conflict at the end of the novel; they run out of pages before they have the chance to respond. It is almost as if the author was under some pressure from the publisher to end the book, and, indeed, the book does not seem to end they way Mr. Wallace intended: two chapters are remanded to the endnotes, appearing only as numerals in the text; some of the voices seem artificial and modified; and the story in general is clipped and unremarkable. This is a great disappointment after 900 pages of a superior epic. I suspect, and almost wish, that the author is working on the rest of the novel as I type.
All in all, Infinite Jest is a masterpiece of literally epic proportions. Its critique of America is amazingly brilliant and scaldingly poignant. The characters and voices will remain with the reader long after he or she turns the final leaf. However, so will the sense of let down and "fizzleing" that the end of the tome invokes.
on 26 June 1997
Wanted desperately to like it, but brevity, alas, remains the soul of wit.
on 30 November 2014
This is a vast, slow, arduous, wonderful book. It has occupied my reading time and imagination to the exclusion of all else for the best part of three months. This despite the fact that, in many ways, it can seem perversely determined to be challenging or off-putting to the reader.
The sheer size of the thing makes it daunting. (I would never have got through it if I had not been reading on Kindle.) The descriptions run on for ever, and are filled with annoying stylistic twitches and ticks which can produce and almost phobic reaction when encountered for the fiftieth or one hundredth time.
The spatial, temporal, causal and emotional connections between its many, many plot lines are far from obvious, and the book demands / assumes that the reader will be trusting enough to stick with the text until these connections start to be revealed and hard-working enough to keep the various strands alive until they do.
Two of its major plot elements, the training of competitive tennis players and the effects of drug and alcohol addiction, are not things I previously thought I had any interest in it, and it talks about them in vast and extensive detail.
It is not a book which ever does anything to make life easy for the reader. It introduces a whole new calendar and a whole range of scientific, political, technological and cultural inventions which are only explained hundreds of pages after they are first encountered. Critical elements of plot and exposition get tucked away in the vast and extensive footnotes, forcing each and every one to be turned to and read, for fear of missing something which will later prove to be vital, or else embedded in sentences which stretch over whole pages laced with words and phrases sufficiently esoteric that they make Stephen Donaldson look like Dr Seuss.
There are few if any heroic or obviously sympathetic characters. Or maybe it would be better to say that there are few characters who viewed through the simplistic lens of merely being one thing to everyone. There is a huge cast of characters and, in many cases, the readers understanding of one character is filtered through the eyes of another, so it's often hard to be sure that we really know what a given character is like or even what they have done.
In essence, it is a book which seems to give you any number of reasons not merely to give up but to physically throw it across the room... and then forces you to carry on reading in spite of them.
There are books which you read with pleasure and then put down and never pick up again. There are books which you fall in love with and come back to again and again, revealing something new on each re-reading. And there are books which get inside you head, re-wire your soul and make you into a different person when you are done with them. Infinite Jest, to my mind, is the this third and rarest kind.
As well as lacing its deep and genuine horrors with moments of laugh out loud comedy, on page after page, it offers a profoundly human understanding of the souls of damaged human beings, which is as complex and honest as anything I have ever read. It did not merely tell me about whole aspects of the world which I had not previously known about but allowed me to feel them, to feel them, to understand (at least to a very small extent) what it would be like to live in them. I would not, I think, want to meet many of the people who populate the pages of Infinite Jest. But I was deeply grateful for the chance which Wallace afforded me to spend time in their hearts.