Infinite Jest – first impressions

I’m only about 280 pages into this 1000+ page behemoth of a novel (and they’re not smaller, wide-margin pages, or even pages with a lot of dialogue to help the pages turn by generating a lot of white space)… I wanted to share my first impressions of this book.

I might regret such an overstatement later – but –

This just might be the best novel I have ever read.  I’ll try to explain why.

Imagine a grand synthesis of Joyce’s Ulysses and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In other words, a linguistically and stylistically adventurous (massive understatement), but also extremely emotionally attuned, maniacal focus on family, group and individual dysfunction – now throw in what I think is probably David Foster Wallace’s unique contribution to the novel even vis-a-vis Joyce an Dostoevsky – an acute ability to map the depths of American subcultures: in this case, avant-garde film-making and film-study, competitive youth tennis, and AA-style drug and alcohol abuse recovery culture.

Maybe that doesn’t make it sound like the best book you’d ever want to read, but with most great novels (at least to me) the question “what is this book about?” always seems so secondary.  And I don’t say this from the perspective of a naif who’s never read any books, or is just sort of a fan/devotee of certain authors.  I’ve read wide swathes of the usual 19th and 20th century western canon (admittedly, focusing on Anglo-American  and Russian greats), and I really think this book gives all the rest of those a run for their money.

This book is impressive at both the micro- and macro-structural levels.  At the micro-level, at the level of syntax, DFW’s sentences have this fascinating facility for complexity and efficiency at once, which somehow become both sophisticated and strikingly informal.  Sometimes the attention to detail is so astounding you have to conclude it must just be a typo.  Viz: the AA-center worker’s claim that he hasn’t seen one “iona of evidence” that such-and-such a claim is true.  A few pages later, he talks about how someone’s trying to use “Morris code.”  His insistence in using “which” as a conjunction, rather than properly as a relative pronoun, as in: “That car which, it has new headlights, is due for an oil change.”  There’s whole clusters of diction and syntax mistakes (albeit only at about the rate of one per 2 pages) that add up to such intense vividness of character you’re left fatigued just in reading.  Really, it’s possible only Joyce rivals this acuity, and in a head-to-head match-up, Joyce might lose.

And at the macro-level, there is a depth of thematic meditation upon addiction, death, entertainment, education, talent, politics, nihilism, etc. that you’re left with the feeling I got from the greatest of Dostoevsky’s later works.  I imagine I’ll have more to say about this when I’m done.

I wonder if anyone out there reading this has read any/all of this novel, or other of DFW’s novels or essays, and has similar (or totally different) thoughts about them?

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8 Responses to Infinite Jest – first impressions

  1. Nates says:

    This is very motivating! I’ve been staring at this book on my shelf for a long time — the vivid blue cover catches the eye! I’m certainly not bringing it with me to Italy, but perhaps this will be my big summer reading project in what’s left of the summer.

  2. David says:

    –“This just might be the best novel I have ever read.”

    YES!!!!!!!!!! I’ll have more to say later, but DFW is the writer I would want to be if I could be ANY writer (w/o the debilitating depression and suicide, anyway). Looking forward to reading your remarks on Infinite Jest.

  3. Josh says:

    David – “(w/o the debilitating depression and suicide, anyway).” – that’s quite a caveat, almost DFW-worthy in itself. Considering a lot of the book is about that very sense of debilitating depression, it seems a tough caveat to live as well.

    How long did it take you to read? I’m sort of amazed that anyone has actually read this book!

    • David says:

      Hey Josh–

      Actually, I’ve only read 200 or so pages of Infinite Jest, but I’ve read three collections of DFW’s stories, as well as a lot of his nonfiction–so I feel like I know him as a writer pretty well. So, why have I not finished–or even reached the halfway point–of Infinite Jest? In my defense, it has quite a bit to do with some of what you mentioned in your original post.

      Mainly, as you mentioned, the prose is as exhausting as it is exhilarating. Reading DFW when he hits his stride is like being on a roller coaster–thrilling, but hard to sustain. Also–and you mentioned this as well–plot seems somewhat irrelevant in Infinite Jest (though, for what it’s worth, DFW would have completely rejected that claim, insisting in interviews that the plot of Infinite Jest was painstakingly constructed to achieve some very definite aims that I cannot at the moment recall). I think the novel (at least the part I’ve read) can be read as a series of exquisitely written vignettes–I’m thinking right now of the guy waiting to hear from his drug dealer, or the description of the other guy’s first experience with the mysterious entertainment cassette. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not like I finish the chapters (or sections) and think to myself on ANY level–“I wonder what happens next!” Finally–for some reason it’s important to me that I justify not finishing the book–Carolyn and I decided to read it together, and such collaborative reading projects are always slow going, as so many other things get in the way. We were actually taking turns reading it aloud, which makes the process even slower but with DFW is well worth it. He’s so funny, and the language is so amazingly fresh and peculiar and vivid and precise–just pure genius–it’s great writing to read aloud with a receptive audience.

      If you’re like me, you’ll want to learn as much as you can about the mind behind the novel. A biography was recently published–“Every Love Story is a Ghost Story–that I highly recommend.

  4. Josh says:

    I did read _Consider the Lobster_ before, and his book about infinity (_Everything and More_). The latter was maddening just because I didn’t have the math to follow what he was saying, and so I could get this enthusiasm and complexity but I didn’t know what was being said. The former was awesome – before I read that book, I always thought of non-fiction essay reading as perhaps edifying but never possibly *fun* (maybe how you think of Sonic Youth?) The essay about the AVN Awards was painfully hilarious. Also that book’s essay about Joseph Frank’s _Dostoevsky_ is what led me towards that reading project (a project DFW suggests he accomplished in just a few months – sometimes I wish I were bipolar!).

    As for Infinite Jest – reading that aloud sounds like it would be awesome, on the one hand, but totally never-ending on the other. Also I’d have trouble reading it aloud for fear of laughing too hard. Brooke and I tried something similar with _Ulysses_ but only really got about halfway. That book actually seemed to be better to read on the page than aloud, since so much of its language gains its power from tricks and novelties in the printing, and also since it’s meant to simulate non-spoken thoughts so much of the time.

    I’m not sure _Infinite Jest_ is really best seen as a series of vignettes (or merely as such a series – I don’t think that’s what you meant, but just in case). If you’ve only read 200 pages, then it might feel like that – but think about great novels you’ve read, and what’s happened after their only 1/5 of the way over? In _The Sun Also Rises_, they’re still in Paris I think; in _Moby Dick_ the boat hasn’t even set out yet. I’ve read about 350 pages now, and while obviously the vignette is a bit rhetorical/narrative strategy, I can’t help but thinking it’s in service of something greater.

    It’s like those great sentences of his – so often, they’re complex, or compound-complex, not merely compound. Which is just an English-teachery way of saying the vignettes all depend on one another, and I think probably add up to something that might be lost if you didn’t read it, manic-phase-style, in one fell swoop. At least that’s the premise I’m working off of.

  5. Josh says:

    Regarding the question of plot – it seems to me DFW uses Hal Incandenza’s father James (an “apres-garde” filmmaker – yes “apres-garde”) as a stand-in to whom he can preemptively apply criticism meant for Infinite Jest itself (Joyce pulls the same trick every few pages in Finnegans Wake as well as in Ulysses where memorably, he narratves Leopold Bloom taking a dump in his outhouse while Bloom is reading a trashy novel, leading him to the internal-monologue expostulation “they’ll print anything nowadays!”)

    Here’s from p. 375: “[James Incandenza] emerged from the sauna and came to Lyle all sloppy-blotto and depressed over the fact that even the bastards in the avant-garde journals were complaining that even in his commercially entertaining stuff Incandenza’s fatal Achilles’ heel was plot, that Incandenza’s efforts had no sort of engaging plot, no movement that sucked you in and drew you along [footnote following] e.g. see Ursula Emrich-Levine (University of California-Irving), ‘Watchcng Grass Grow While Being Hit Repeatedly Over the Head With a Blunt Object: Fragmentation and Stasis in James O. O Incandenza’s Widower, Fun with Teeth, Zero-Gravity Tea Ceremony, and Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell,” Art Cartridge Quarterly, vol. III, nos. 1-3, Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken.

  6. David says:

    I’m sure you’re right about the plot–DFW himself battled quite a bit with editors over plot in Infinite Jest (this according to that biography I mentioned). DFW, as I recall, quickly grew impatient with editors who kept harping about cutting the novel down a few hundred pages, the clear implication being that there was a lot of unnecessary stuff in the novel as submitted. DFW saw this as a simple failure on the part of his editors to realize and/or appreciate the complexity and referential looping that DFW was very deliberately aiming for in Infinite Jest–I think he also suspected, probably rightly, that the editors were just afraid of trying to sell a Really Big Book.

    So I shouldn’t have described it as a ‘series of vignettes.’ THAT SAID, you’re right that it can SEEM that way if you don’t get beyond the first couple hundred pages, which is a strange thing to say about any literary work!

    “Year of the Purdue Wonderchicken”–classic. Now that complaints about the commercialization of America are becoming old hat, it’s easy to forget that DFW was railing about this before it had become second nature for a certain kind of smart person.

  7. Josh says:

    I’m almost finished (about 150 pages to go) – then I’ll write something more. I’ll just say now that there continue to be moments of hilarity juxtaposed with moments of just utter despair and pathos, and somehow the length seems necessary for all of that to work. Dostoevsky is another author who often had to deal with accusations of prolixity, but the overall effect feels similar. Neither Wallace’s nor Dostoevksy’s prose would benefit from being made more “efficient.” The digressions make it work.

    Three vignettes so far have really captivated my attention (no real spoilers here, but if you want to look away, you can):

    1) The extended description of the younger children’s “eschaton” game, and its chaotic denouement.

    2) The crisis at Ennet House as Lenz returns from late-night shenanigans and Gately has to re-establish order (this one produces a really striking blend of sympathy and hilarity)

    3) one character’s attempt to attend an NA meeting and instead discovering some sort of upper-middle-class-male-feelings workshop involving teddy bears).

    I’m also particularly fond of the footnote enumerating James Incandenza’s filmography, as well as the footnote about “les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents” and the “jeu de prochain train.”

    Another way I might describe the book overall is – imagine if Thomas Pynchon actually wanted to explore real emotions and used all his trickery to that end, and not just as an end in itself.

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