A totally self-indulgent waste of time which uses sophomoric humor to get over the issue that it doesn't have a plot and pretends it doesn't need one. Felt like a pretentious teenager who uses big words you know already and then tells you what they mean in hopes of impressing you.

No, seriously. David Foster Wallace's ego is responsible for most of this story: the parts about Hal Incandenza and the Tennis academy are totally useless to the plot, and should have been edited out in favor of Greenly's story of redemption. The footnotes are not only useless, they are only there to give the impression of importance. You could skip every other page of the book without missing anything.

Greenly's story is good. AA is good. The story about addiction is good. But the terrorists, the Infinite Jest movie (a lame ripoff of Monty Python's "fatal joke") itself, and the mystery of what happens to Hal and Ms. Psychosis are boring, useless and left my mouth tasting of the ashes of futility. If you really want to read a book which can fuck with your expectations of plot and reality, read Gene Wolfe, especially Peace.

Alas, poor Yorick! Is there any 1700-some-page book that one wouldn't consider self-indulgent? And anyway, what the hell's wrong with self-indulgence? What is the act of writing a novel except exactly that? The only necessary justification for the self-indulgence is the fact that the book got published, and for that matter receives rave reviews from almost anybody with the patience to plow through it (and yes the endnotes are well worth it!).

As far as there being no central plot, so what? A novel of this length is supposed to be somewhat meandering and all-inclusive. Check out Dickens' Bleak House (or most of his other work) for the primer from which DFW learned the fine art of manageable complexity. I mean you just have to be impressed with the level of detail DFW conjures -- right down to a complete filmography for one of his characters (J.O. Incandenza) in the endnotes (including full synopses of such instant classics as Blood Sister: One Tough Nun).

Probably the single funniest chapter in any novel I've ever read -- or perhaps a close second to the Elvis chapter in Mostly Harmless -- is the Eschaton debacle at the Enfield Tennis Academy. Sophomoric? Not in the slightest. Keep in mind he's writing about high school kids half the time!

IJ is an addictive story of addiction, an entertaining chronicle about the ultimate entertainment. It's well worth as much time as you put into it.

I just finished reading IJ tonight, and I feel some combination of rage and disapointment over it. To say that the book lacks plot is an oversimplification, JOI's theories on film (particularly anticonfluentialism) help rationalize the end of the book.

In a way, the book actually parallels my own experience with addiction. For the last 100 pages, I knew how the book would end and how it would affect me, yet I kept plowing along, turning page after page, and then being cut off at the height of my interest.

Of course, pouring coffee down my gullet while reading the last 150 pages didn't help much. By the time I finally slammed the book down on the table in disgust at the end, I had definately had too much coffee, the dawn had broken and mild paranoia had set in. The strange man in my all night diner, who looked suspiciously like DFW, who was looking at me strangely as I paid my bill was another bonus. The car who was annoyingly trying to sit in my blind spot as I drove down the deserted 6a Saturday mainstreet with a license plate reading "JOKE" was another nice gesture.

The only positive thing I can say about this tome at the moment is that it will force you to think by the time you finish. Perhaps it sounds trite and cliche, but your experience of the book can't help but be shaped by all of your previous life experiences.

I've realized how difficult being a book critic must be; trying to talk about the work without giving anything away. Of all the reviews on the cover, the only one that really comes close to how I feel is the comparison to Naked Lunch, which in a way throws the whole book itself into a different light.

I can't help but approach the task of trying to do justice to David Foster Wallace's mammoth Infinite Jest (hereafter "IJ") with trepidation. My copy spans 1079 pages, 96 of which are endnotes. According to the back, Esquire magazine says "it shows signs... of being a genuine work of genius." Probably every review of it ever written refers to it as "postmodern", as intimidating and perplexing an adjective as any which has ever been applied to a work of literature. The book is so intricate that it contains characters ruminating on the artistic merit of completely fabricated movies (whose creator has a complete filmography as one of the endnotes). And Wallace's style is so fascinating that it's spawned two nodes on E2 which have attempted to parody it: Your radical ideas about this being like David Foster Wallace have already occurred to others and, to a lesser extent (and cross-inspired by Dave Eggers), A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Hubris.

I'm not going to attempt to summarize IJ's plot; that way lies madness. Besides, the book is really better described in terms of its theme than its plot. The book is an epic, cacophonous fugue on the concept of entertainment, which is examined from many different angles through many different people. Every character and every storyline ties back into the central concept of entertainment, often via the secondary theme of addiction (a.k.a. "Too Much Fun), and David Foster Wallace (hereafter, occasionally, "DFW") apparently has a lot to say about it and its effects on us.

What he has to say involves: a fatally fascinating video (unreleased, entitled "Infinite Jest" but referred to by its creator as "the Entertainment" because occasionally Wallace does lay it on with a trowel); the Prettiest Girl Of All Time (P.G.O.A.T.) and her entry into the veil-wearing Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed and also an Alcoholics Anonymous program; a guru who lives in the weight room of a prestigious tennis institution and lives off Caffeine Free Diet Coke and the sweat of the students; and a "lounge singer turned teenybopper throb turned B-movie mainstay" turned President of the United States. All of this, somehow, makes some kind of outrageous sense in the Wallace's world.

Speaking of which: What a world it is. IJ is set sometime in the not-too-distant future, perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of when Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash, if you've read it, might take place. America has given a huge chunk of land away to Canada, which gets way more attention in this book than it does in America in real life. The Quebecois seperatists are at it again and more than ever. The U.S. President won on the platform of "Let's Shoot Our Wastes Into Space." Years are now sponsored by companies, so that we have references to the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar and the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment and you have to use even more than the two bookmarks you need for the text and the endnotes, since you need to bookmark the page with the timeline on it so you can tell what happened first.

Mere breadth and wildness of setting and story, though, would not be enough to carry this book, and that's where Wallace's inimitable style comes in. Despite all the comparisons to Gaddis and Pynchon and Barth, and as mentioned in Your radical ideas about this being like David Foster Wallace have already occurred to others, Wallace's prose technique is like no other. Setting aside for the moment the really big superficial things like the endnotes and huge chunks of text without paragraph breaks, closer inspection also reveals the time-division multiplexing kind of layout of the narrative, with different plotlines all jostling and elbowing each other out of the way so they can progress. The attention to detail is exquisite; the best way I can describe it is that Wallace describes all the things you might notice if you were there and happened to be able to read the characters' minds, and nothing else. You get an amazingly clear sense of what's going on, but nothing is filler. It's devilishly effective. And the frequent use of words like "fulgurant" and "amanuensis" and "micturate" (which means "pee") does little to detract from this even if (like probably about 99% of the English-speaking population of the world) you don't know what they mean. Look them up or save them for later, you'll still be able to follow well enough.

Appropriately for a book about entertainment whose author flirts frequently with metafiction, Infinite Jest is itself remarkably entertaining. Seth Stephenson of Salon.com perhaps said it best:

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.

I had to cite that quote, because upon reading it I said: Same here. That may be the most amazing thing: for all its amazingly long sentences, apocryphal endnotes, apparent non sequiturs and pointlessly extravagant erudition, IJ is readable and, once you get into the groove of it (for me, around page 200), even gripping and hilarious and touching. This isn't to say that it's easy though. Not a bit. But it's like taking a really hard class in school where your teacher was great and engaging even if he knew the subject like the back of his hand and you didn't even follow half the time. There is enough juvenile cleverness and emotional appeal in this novel to keep you going even through the pages-long run-on sentences.

To avoid going down the impossible road of attempting to summarize Infinite Jest's plot, I'll just say that it revolves around a teenage guy who attends a prestigious tennis academy and a man living in an Alcoholics Anonymous halfway house, but you have to understand that in order to involve all the things and people I mentioned above, it really meanders a whole lot.

And the hell of it is, the plot, such as it is, is never really resolved; if you've read basically any review of the book, I won't be spoiling anything to tell you that rather than rolling gently to a satisfying conclusion, the end is basically hacked off in a brutal and, to the casual observer, unsatisfying way. But in an online chat with DFW, sponsored by Word e-zine in 1996, Wallace said to a confused reader:

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.1

That's all well and good, but most people are not as intimately familiar with the book as DFW must be. Several efforts have been made to locate those "kind of parallel lines" and their point of convergence2. You can seek them out if you'd like3, but it's certainly possible to enjoy IJ tremendously without knowing exactly what goes on in it.

I'm no literary critic, but as a person who likes to read I can tell you that Infinite Jest is an amazing book. It is huge and self-indulgent and idiosyncratic and at times thoroughly tiresome and irritating. But if you get through it, you will not forget it, and you will keep going back to it.


  1. In that same chat, when asked about his "worst character trait," DFW responded:

    My worst character flaw that I'm conscious of is that I tend to think my way into circles instead of resolving anything. It's paralyzing and boring for people around me.

    This quote interested me because of its resonance with three things: Infinite Jest's ending or lack thereof, the play to which the title of the book alludes (and that play's title character's tragic flaw), and DFW's description of one of the main characters in IJ as "the purely inactive one." Was this intentional? I don't know. But to me, it clearly illustrates that as a literary mind, David Foster Wallace has got his shit together even on IRC.

  2. I can't say what "kind of parallel lines" means; all I know is that parallel lines don't converge in Euclidean geometry. Certainly appropriate for the warped space of IJ, but it's anyone's guess if that's what Wallace, with his occasionally dodgy math, meant.

  3. You can find information of this kind at the following sites:

    • http://www.thehowlingfantods.com/notes2.htm - "Infinite Jest Notes and Speculations," compiled from a Wallace mailing list.
    • http://www.dfan.org/jest.txt - Dan Schmidt's "Notes on David Foster Wallace's INFINITE JEST [sic]" plain-text, nicely detailed, with some overlap with the contents of the previous link.

Source

Stephenson, Seth. "David Foster Wallace's Hideous Men." http://slate.msn.com/id/2000082/entry/1002896/

I must have read the preceeding write-ups many a time, and must have assumed that I had nothing more to add on the subject of infinite jest. But, reading the above descriptions, and for that matter, most other descriptions and discussions of the book elsewhere, I notice that one thing is not commonly mentioned: the plot.

Much like some other famously complex 20th century novels, such as Finnegan's Wake and Gravity's Rainbow, plot is not the first thing that is usually discussed about infinite jest. The first things mentioned are usually the endnotes, David Foster Wallace's vocabulary, and perhaps a comment about what a smart ass David Foster Wallace is. If the content of the book is mentioned, it usually centers around one character, often peripheral, or else it features on an artifact or incident in the book, which is also often quite peripheral. Sometimes, the serious themes of the book, such as addiction, are discussed. All of which is very well and good, but we are still reading a novel, no matter how different of one.

And this novel has a plot. The plot begins in media res, or perhaps post media res, if such a thing exists. One of the two protagonists of the story, Hal Incandenza is attending a college interview. Because he was an athletic protege in an institution ran by his mother, the college is curious if his academic record has not been somehow biased. They don't want to acquire a tennis star who is hiding his illiteracy behind a doctored academic record. So Hal stands up and makes an articulate, heartfelt statement that shows his academic ability and interest. That is what we hear: what the people in the room hear is Hal going into an animalistic seizure of some sort. After the chapter ends, the book begins in the past. The entire plot of the book is based around how the seemingly intelligent, if troubled Hal, turns into what is seemingly (at least to others) a monster. The many disparate elements of the book, which seem to include enigmas, mystery and probably many Red Herrings, are not just the curiosities and in-jokes that many have accused Wallace of heaping on the reader. They all, in some way or another, point to the basic plot of the book, of how, why (and perhaps whether) Hal Incandenza lost his sanity. This is not to say that any, or even most people, would say that the plot is especially well-handled. The plot is never resolved cleanly, and it is possible that the book is a gigantic shaggy dog story. However, for the most part, no matter what stylistic elements or weird objects David Foster Wallace is throwing into his story, it is somewhat safe to assume that they are actually meant to be relevant to the book's central plot.

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