Author: David Foster Wallace
Publisher: Bay Back Books
Publishing Date: February 2016
Number of Pages: 1,079 (982 pages of narrative, 96 pages of notes and errata)
Genre: Metafiction, Satire, Post-modernism
Set in an addicts’ halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring one of the most endearingly screwed-up families in modern fiction, Infinite Jest is an unforgettable, life-changing, and often hilarious novel about some of the saddest subjects imaginable. David Foster Wallace’s epic takes place in a near future so commercialized that the naming rights to each year are auctioned off (welcome to “the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar”) and explores essential questions about life in a land of plenty. The people in this novel can make themselves happy at any moment – with a pill, a drink, a smoke – and pleasure themselves with an unending stream of distractions and entertainments. But they have reached, over the years, stages of distress and pain extreme enough to make them consider changing their ways. They struggle now with the agony of living without their long-beloved substance, with the difficulties of making an ordinary life, and with questions like: What do the pleasures we choose say about who we are? What does easy pleasure do to the soul? Is it possible really to know even the people closest to us? Can we find happiness at all?
Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human, and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.
A Reality Distorted by A Myriad of Substances
I have long heard of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest through the grapevines. However, it was never enough to pique my interest in his works because then, I was fine reading linear and formulaic narratives that are simple and easy to digest. But when I started doing must-read challenges and started taking on the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, our paths are inevitably bound to collide somewhere along the road.
As I could no longer wait to have my hand in this modern classic, I endeavored to purchase a copy of the book. Luckily, I saw a 20th anniversary edition of the book which I readily bought without further ado. This was in spite of my friend’s caveat on how difficult a read this book was. Oh well, I am always up to the challenge, my mind said. But it was never that prepared to digest this colossal work. And colossal is an understatement.
“The thing about people who are truly and malignantly crazy: their real genius is for making the people around them think they themselves are crazy. In military science this is called Psy-Ops, for your info.” ~ David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Infinite Jest is just one of those books which can never be fully summarized into a single synopsis. It does not simply follow a linear distinguishable storyline. Although the story seemingly centers around the Incandenza family and their tennis academy, the Enfield Tennis Academy in Massachusetts, the narrative veers towards a bevy of different subplots that involve not only the Incandenza family but a whole set of other characters. Each subplot casts a net over and above the Indcandenza family’s tennis academy.
If there were two words I’d have to choose to describe this novel it would be difficult and complex. My friend wasn’t joking when she said that it took her months to complete Infinite Jest because of this. On the onset, I’ve already felt the vibrations that emanated from the book. The sheer length is enough to turn back even seasoned readers but I have always loved lengthy novels. Foreseeing the stumbling blocks I am to encounter, I have prepared myself before tackling this colossal modern classic.
The difficulty doesn’t arise from one single element in the novel, rather, it is the conglomeration of different facets that make up the novel. Let me walk you through the elements and the different facets of the novel that I was able to shift through – from the challenges I have encountered to the very fabric which defines this labyrinthine classic.
“It now lately sometimes seemed a black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe.” ~ David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Eccentric narrative structure. David Foster Wallace’s creativity can never be contained on a single line. He didn’t allow the norm to limit his work and he has proven this through the eccentric narrative structure of Infinite Jest. It is non-linear and non-formulaic, which can either make it or break it to readers; this approach added complexity to the narrative. On the other hand, Wallace gave the readers a puzzle to solve.
One can’t help but be astounded by the novel’s encyclopedic scope, incorporating different subjects and theories pertaining to linguistics, film studies, addiction, science, sports and even issues of national identity. Wallace’s knowledge is simply astounding and how he hemmed it into one cohesive postmodern novel is an art in itself. One can barely imagine the extent of research that the author had to conduct in order to come up with this gloomy but realistic forecast of the future. It is a satire wrapped in humor.
Excessive endnotes. Serving to compliment the narrative’s eccentric structure are endnotes; it is not possible getting through the narrative without the 388 endnotes, some even having their own footnotes. They are to be read as part and parcel of the narrative. The endnotes can either enhance one’s experience or disrupt one’s rhythm. Some chapters were removed from the main narrative but were inserted as part of the endnotes, hence, reading the endnotes is, to some extent, imperative, although not necessary. Some of the endnotes were unnecessary. Imagine leafing through four to six pages of an individual’s filmography (which I skipped). Because of its use of endnotes, I was reminded of Susanna Clarke’s Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange.
“What if sometimes there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed? What if you just love? without deciding? You just do: you see her and in that instant are lost to sober account-keeping and cannot choose but to love?” ~ David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Countless subplots. Keeping up with one complex plotline is challenging enough, but what about if we add three to five more of the same complexity and magnitude. As I have pointed out above, the novel isn’t just about the Incandenza family or tennis, rather it branches out to individual stories which can be standalone stories on their own. Although these subplots seem to go askew, they still complimented the narrative in a different way and gave the readers a different perspective.
Complex and dark subjects. Together with the different subplots the novel dealt with is the number of complex subjects it has highlighted. A significant part of the novel dealt about substance abuse, especially drugs, both recreational and sports drugs. Other forms of addiction were also portrayed, such as alcoholism and sexual addiction. It also dealt on more base and more humane subjects such as death, family relationships, mental health, suicide and moroseness. Moreover, it took a deep dive into the ideas of nationalism in its inclusion of Quebec separatism.
Obscured but profound message. The novel, like most dystopian works, offer a bleak view of the future. Just like the microcosms of the novel, Enfield and Ennet House, living has become too burdensome that we start depending on different substances to escape into a different world. Moreover, there is a whole lot of substances that one can use and explore. The book’s abstract painting of the future gives one the creeps. However, it did offer some hope though because, in spite of these substances’ stranglehold on us, we still fight through them.
P.S. The book is encyclopedic in its extent, and its use of words is no exception. There were several words used in the story that I have never encountered. I listed some of them and tried looking for their meaning in the dictionary. However, some of the words are not even defined in the dictionary. I’ve realized then that Wallace never intended to go by the dictionary, hence, conjuring his own words to fit the bigger puzzle.
“Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care.” ~ David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Writing a proper review for this colossal work is difficult because there is no superlative that will suffice in describing this book’s compelling qualities. Just simply being able to complete Infinite Jest is lofty accomplishment. This is one of those very rare books that you would be proud of completing even if you were not completely sure of you have just read. It is in the company of fellow difficult reads like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, to name a few. It is an overly complex and perplexing narrative that captures and confuses the imagination.
To date, it is the most difficult and the most challenging book that I have completed. It is one of the rare works that gave me several “what the eff” moments. It was humorous and satirical but at the same time deeply melancholic. While reading the novel, I did find myself in the same situation when I was reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book I never got to complete it. To fully appreciate the story, one must drink it in in a very unhurried manner. It is imperative to go through the motions in a very slow motion in order to appreciate the narrative.
Recommended for readers who are looking for a challenging, mind-boggling and very tall read, readers who are into metafiction, into dystopian fiction and into postmodern fiction, readers who want a book to literally breathe in, and readers who have a lot of time to spare.
Not recommended for readers who are looking for a simple and pleasurable read, readers who dislike dark and complex subjects, and readers who dislike endnotes.
About the Author
David Foster Wallace was born on February 21, 1962 in Ithaca, New York.
Wallace attended Yankee Ridge Elementary School and Urbana High School and was once a regionally ranked junior tennis player. In college, he majored in English and philosophy at Amherst College. He graduated a summa cum laude in 1985. Two years after graduating, he published his first novel, The Broom of the System, the original manuscript of which was submitted by Wallace as one of two undergraduate honors theses. It was then that he decided to be a writer.
After The Broom of the System, Wallace wrote two other novels – Infinite Jest (1996) and The Pale King (2011). The former was listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005 while the latter was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Wallace was also renowned for his short stories, collected in Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and Oblivion, as well as essays, gathered in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, and Both Flesh and Not.
Suffering from depression and substance addiction, Wallace eventually committed suicide on September 12, 2008.
This is by far the longest review I have written and for some reason. I have discerned that this prodigious masterpiece deserves more than just a couple of words in order for it to be totally appreciated. This is simply one of those works that will stay with a reader in spite of the difficulties.