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 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 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 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 1999
(I don't know if I can say it better than the very brief "tyranny of the English department" review below, but after choking down 1000+ pages I feel entitled to my two bits, dammit.)
I bought this book when it first came out and just now got around to reading it. Well, I can't believe I ate the whole thing. After just three years it seems pretty dated with all the self-referential hijinks and loving/sarcastic pop culture references and all. It's not that the book was too tough. I have no problem with nonlinearity or meta-meta-meta-metaphysics, and the footnotes annoyed me but I was willing to give them a chance. And I like heavy-handed social commentary in sci-fi form as much as the next gal. Yes and but then a lot of sentences begin with two or three conjunctions. Nice, very nice. If you like these things, you will like Infinite Jest.
If, on the other hand, you care about characters or beauty or any of those stupid corny things, you should stay away from this book. The postindustrial, posturban landscape is SO bleak. And the characters, especially the Incandenza family - I mean, Harold Incandenza and his mom Avril?! Please! - and the rest of the gang at the tennis academy were so howlingly vacant, I wasn't sure I could stand to finish reading about them without breaking into demented, nostril-flaring hysterical giggles and ending up in a padded cell. I looked forward to the junkies-in-and-out-of-rehab bits for desperately needed warm fuzzies. And for what it's worth, if this book is any indication Mr. Wallace doesn't know jack about women, or like them much. No amount of po-mo cleverness can make up for pain like this.
Maybe it's art, maybe it's a big hoax. I don't care -- I just want to put it behind me. Let's call it A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.
on 11 July 1999
I came in expecting to hate it. Comparisons to Pynchon; "genius" shown on the cover to be what seemed a twerp in a baseball cap; footnotes... but this turned out to be a darned good book. Why? Everything seemed to be against it. The Science Fictional element was very weak; the story had no beginning or end; there were endless digressions... but the author really IS brilliant; the characters are terrific; there is wit, (human)realism, pithy commentary on today, and humour --and unlike Pynchon, it's honest humour. (Pynchon rips you off consciously. Wallace on the other hand is genuine. He really has things to say and he honestly says them.) I put down the book (after days of not being able to put it down much) and said, "well that was really worth reading."
on 19 July 2012
A book like 'Infinite Jest' comes with a certain set of expectations. Huge book - signifies 'the great American novel'. The title hints at a weighty Shakespearean allusion: those of us in the know receive the pleasure of recognition: this is a book immersed in the weighty matter of life and death (the famous grave scene from 'Hamlet'), but also a comedy - (Yorick). 'Infinite Jest' is itself a pretty bold boast - this is a book that purports to be endlessly amusing.
A brief read of the blurb lends us the signifiers of a 'cult' novel: this is a drug book in some way. Think 'Naked Lunch' perhaps? Think 'Under the Volcano'? On the web there are whispers about Pynchon, the book is set in an imagined near-future North America in which the calendar itself is commodified - years are owned by advertising sponsors. So yes - cult again - the marrying of the high and the low - the last hoorah of the post-modern?
So yes, we have expectations - are they necessarily fulfilled?
David Foster Wallace was a prodigiously talented writer- the first (and for me, the major) pleasure of 'Infinite Jest' is simply the spectacle of watching words work in a myriad different ways. He was a novelist in the truest sense of the word - because he creates a fully immersive, believable world. His facility for capturing the different registers of language is simply gobsmacking. 'Infinite Jest' positively bubbles with a babel of different voices- from the paranoid ramblings of the dope-head to the forensic autism of the tennis-prodigy.
This verbal exuberance is matched, if not exceeded by a torrent of ideas. The book itself is wedged behind a block of frighteningly detailed footnotes -as if the pages of the narrative itself could not contain everything the author felt he needed to tell us. Ironically, for a book about a country that has long forgotten what 'too much' is, 'Infinite Jest' revels in its own 'too-muchness' Like Pynchon, Wallace can happily switch between Dickensian realism to the wild and wacky- one set of pages find us sat on the back row of an AA meeting, another at the feet of a tennis academy's steam-room guru, who kindly offers advice to the teenage scholars in exchange for licking the sweat off their bodies. Opiate addicts slump into a pool of their own excrement, while wheel-chair bound terrorists circulate menacingly - their double-agent leader holds court to a transvestite FBI agent. And that's barely scratching the surface.
The Pynchon comparison is perhaps a little unfair - but it's little accident that the Pynchon fan sites on the web are often linked to 'Infinite Jest' wikis. There's a certain male, nerdy appeal in something that is so intricate, so vast and so puzzling. However, it could also be argued that Pynchon's vision (even now his star has wained a little) is altogether more coherent and weightier than Wallace's. Pynchon's territory is history. Wallace has perhaps created the most elaborate extended metaphor in literature: addiction as a metaphor for existence itself. Elaborate it may be, but it's not an amazing idea. Sure, capital feeds on creating artificial, even life-threatening needs (think sugar, cigarettes, 3d tvs) - addictive drugs are capitalism rendered pure and simple. But I don't necessarily need a 900 page novel to tell me this. Wallace takes a Monty Python style premise (the video that is so entertaining you die watching it - rather like the 'World's funniest Joke' routine) and runs with it, and runs with it, and runs with it. You get the feeling that he'd have kept on going, only paperbacks tend to fall apart after the 900+ pages mark.
In essence - despite it's seemingly forbidding complexity - this is essentially a dual narrative - partly a family melodrama centered around a tennis academy, partly a redemption narrative centered around a recovering alcoholics halfway house. The second narrative is more compelling. I await 'Infinite Jest' lite - the 200 page version.
Ok - enough of the bad stuff. The fact is, that if you like this sort of stuff - you will love, no, adore - bow down and worship 'Infinite Jest'. It's a whole heap of fun. Get lost in it for a couple of months. It ain't 'Gravity's Rainbow', but it is big and it is very, very clever.
on 24 December 2013
I guess this is how it feels to climb a mountain. Just finished 'Infinite Jest' today (some unsettling final pages) and yes I'm glad it's over but YES I'm glad I committed to its completion. Ok so the over-verbosity begins to grate after a while and I began to glaze over at some of the incredibly detailed pharmo/addiction descriptions, and yes, even, I have to say that I really didn't care that much for any of the characters - yet still I come away from it with the impression of having been immersed in and exposed to a book like any other I've ever read nor will ever read again. My abiding memories - and the reason I am happy to lavish a five star review - are of six or seven extended set pieces that had me laughing out loud (and at length). Wallace so often excels at presenting his own sense of the absurdity of existence via a sort of slow motion tragi-slapstick, and in this respect (as in others) the guy was a genius and very, very funny.
on 28 June 2015
I can honestly say I'm not sure what to make of this book. It's a well written 3 strand book. One strand focuses on Hal Incandenza, his family, and associates at the Enfield Tennis Academy. Another strand focuses on the Ennett House residents, a collection of drug and alcohol abusers trying to straighten themselves up, while the third focuses on Quebec separatists trying to track down a tape so addictive you'll watch it to the exclusion of everything else.
It's set in the near future, just after the assassination of President Limbaugh, when the moral majority has a new president, and a sort of new country to run can ONAN (the Organisation of North American Nations), where America has partially sort of integrated Mexico and Canada as satellite states of the US. Wallace jumps between this story, and the 3 strands of the actual story.
I can see this a good book. I can see it's well written, and funny in places, but it seems to be saying, no matter what you do to pursue happiness, or a dream, or something, life gets in the way, and will screw you over anyway. So all in all, I'm left sort of feeling "Ummmm.... what've I just read?"
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.