Infinite Jest

May 15th, 2008 by Editor B

Title: Infinite Jest
Author: David Foster Wallace
Published: 1996

David Foster Wallace, you’ve gotten the better of me.

I started reading Infinite Jest shortly before my daughter was born. I’ve continued to plug away at it for three months.

Infinite Jest

Now I’m at page 499, and I’ve decided I’m going to put it down for a while, and to be perfectly frank I can’t imagine when I’ll ever be motivated to pick it back up again.

I’m only halfway through the damn book! It’s a monster. It’s got almost a hundred pages of footnotes. Some of the footnotes actually have their own footnotes.

This is a huge (some might say epic) tour de farce concerning competitive tennis, avant-garde filmmaking, radical Canadian separatism, substance abuse and twelve-step recovery programs.

It’s written in a post-modern style which apparently turns some people on, but which I find indicative of an utter contempt for the reader. He likes to use the word “like” a lot. He likes to start sentences with strings of conjunctions. And but so what really bugs me are the parts that seem like purposefully convoluted, almost aggressively so. Consider this gem from page 228:

Joelle’s never seen the completed assembly of what she’d appeared in, or seen anyone who’s seen it, and doubts that any sum of scenes as pathologic as he’d stuck that long quartzy auto-wobbling lens on the camera and filmed her for could have been as entertaining as he’d said the thing he’d always wanted to make had broken his heart by ending up.

It hurt me to type that.

Which is not to say it’s all dreck. Certain passages I’ve found very rewarding, such as the diagnosis of medical mannerisms, a speculative future history of video telephony, an account of the great tongue-scraper craze, a debunking of some myths surrounding fame, and so on. Probably the most consistently interesting thread has been the exploration of what recovery programs like AA feel like from the inside.

But it’s not enough. I found myself staring down yet another five-page paragraph, and I realized I just can’t take it anymore. I don’t care about the characters or situations depicted in the book, and I’ve got a stack of other things to read that all look ten times more interesting.

I hate giving up on a book halfway through, but I can’t see spending another three months on this.

(I usually render a verdict on books I write about here, but I don’t feel it’s fair to do that for a book I haven’t finished. If you’re at all intrigued, and you’re in New Orleans, you can get your own copy at Octavia Books.)

Update: On September 12, 2008, David Foster Wallace killed himself. I hope it wasn’t because of the disparaging comments made here.

7 Responses to “Infinite Jest”

  1. chrissieroux Says:

    I can relate. I lugged that damned book around for almost a year before quitting, about halfway through. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to like it, for some reason, but just kept getting pissed off.

  2. David Says:

    Joke’s on you! I got it for Christmas years ago and had the good sense (if I may say so myself) to never open it. Any piece of literature that looks like a phone book is not a good idea. And really, your criticisms could be applied to most literary fiction today.

  3. Kami Says:

    Hmm, I was considering starting it for my “annual summer giant book extravaganza” but maybe I should go for something easier, like Gravity’s Rainbow.

    The picture is cute! Which weighs more, the book or the babe?

  4. liprap Says:

    If you’re gonna go for a book you’ve got to bench press, I highly recommend Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy”. I actually read the sucker twice, it’s that good.

  5. Jon Konrath Says:

    Dude, I read that in the original hardcover, and the only weights I lift are twelve (fluid) ounces each. The secret is to get one of those plastic wrist braces bowlers use to hold the book up.

    It did take a lot of work, though. I had to force myself to read 50 pages a night. I probably couldn’t do it a second time. And I haven’t found any of his shorter work anywhere near as interesting.

  6. Block Says:

    Good book, but not for a new parent. I read it, and then re-read it more thoroughly while incapacitated by a spinal injury… I just smoked pot and read Jest all day every day for weeks, and it was a real joy. As far as not finishing it goes, if it’s any consolation, the (non)-ending is a frustrating letdown & the book’s low point. Rather than conclude the narrative, Wallace just sort of gestures toward what the climax and resolution might be, and leaves them unwritten; not a satisfying payoff.

    If you find the book earnest and funny, as I did, it is a pleasure. If you find Wallace’s tone and games annoying then I’d imagine the book would be legitimately unreadable.

    Proust, Joyce, and Sterne (to name a few) wrote long and sometimes obtuse works that inarguably reward the challenge of reading them. Wallace has potential, but Jest is not a great enough novel to be worth having to force oneself through it. I also agree with Konrath that Wallace’s other work is inferior. Give him a decade or two… he may yet deliver.

  7. julesj66 Says:

    I’m late to commenting on this post that I just found I suppose, but I’m about 300 pages in, having spent the 2nd part of the summer reading this book and I could just care less. I just finished reading Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol (500 pages) in 4 days. I don’t think I could read 10 pages of IJ in a week. I am so close to just giving up, something I don’t like to do with book. I almost never read more than one book at a time, but I will have to in order to finish this book in the next few years!

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