Review – Infinite Jest

It’s ironic that my first blog review will be for a book that, for all intents and purposes, I have no right to review. David Foster Wallace’s behemoth of a novel, Infinite Jest, is certainly several wrungs above me intellectually, so utterly layered and complex that I imagine no one will truly ever fully pick apart the gamut of motifs, motives, and shrewd references that make up his opus[1].

I would preface this review by emphatically stressing that IJ is not for everyone: even a large portion of the minority who deem themselves exempt from this statement will quickly deduce that it’s not for them either. In order to save the reader from the obligatory digressions w/r/t the size and length of IJ (both of the novel + subsequent footnotes), I will merely point out that while I consider myself to be a reader of voracious appetite, the novel still took me ~3 months to complete[2].

That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy reading Infinite Jest. I loved it. Infinite Jest managed to procure emotional response like no book I’ve read before. I laughed[3] and cried, all the while empathizing with the characters’ struggles with acceptance, achievement, and addiction.

My interest in conquering the opus was largely platonic, and I could have easily put down the book for good at any time, as many before me have. Unlike many whom I’ve spoken to in relation to the book, at no point did I experience a “crisis of faith” requiring perseverance, although I will concede that the book picks up dramatically following page 200. The novel spent 3 months at my side, and amassed a bevy of nicks, coffee stains, and page rips in the process that will no doubt prompt future reminiscence. Finishing the novel, as I did last week, was an extremely barren feeling which I’ve only experienced several times in my life, traditionally at the end of a beloved series[4]. I immediately began conducting extensive research[5] on Infinite Jest and David Foster Wallace, as any fan of mine on delicious is all too aware.

While Infinite Jest is coined a “postmodern novel” by literary scholars, I find it exponentially more cohesive than many other renowned contemporary novels. My experience reading the work of DFW’s postmodern contemporary, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, was a much more disjointed and difficult experience, despite the fact that it checks in almost 300 pages fewer than IJ. Incidentally, both novels manage to freely travel back and forth through time, utilizing and incorporating a small army of main characters, narrators, and settings across each time period.

The largely inescapable fact is that Infinite Jest is inherently experience driven. Self indulgence permeates both the overarching themes and minute details[6] of the book. In Kottke’s guide for reading Infinite Jest, he suggests creating a dichotomy between the fiction of Infinite Jest and the life of David Foster Wallace. He argues that despite the obvious parallels between the two, correlating one with another would do a “disservice to its [IJ’s] thematic richness.” The question I’ve been struggling with deals with Infinite Jest as a self-indulgent piece of literature, and whether or not there’s anything wrong with that.

Infinite Jest-detractors contend that Infinite Jest’s self indulgence created an extremely uninviting novel. This self-indulgence, they argue, makes the barrage of seemingly unimportant events, digressions, and N.B.s that make up a significant portion of the novel “unreadable.” In turn, the readers develop no emotional attachment for the characters whom lend these tidbits to the reader. In fact, DFW detractors often hold more contempt for David Foster Wallace’s editor than for DFW himself.

Infinite Jest would lose a significant portion of its humor and charm without DFW’s unadulterated transparency. In reading Infinite Jest, I feel as if DFW has personally invited me into the inner sanctum of his brain, the cerebrum of a genius, no less. DFW’s depiction of addiction throughout the novel presents itself as some of the most affecting and visceral prose in the novel, prose that, had DFW not actually experienced first person, would not be as effective.

My admiration for David Foster Wallace is certainly no secret. In my eyes, DFW was truly a monster at his craft, reaching a truly “zen-like” synergy with the pen, as Hendrix with his guitar or Michael Jordan with a basketball. While I am often reticent to shell out the title of genius, I have no doubt that DFW fits the bill. I liken DFW’s penultimate decision of suicide with that of tortured geniuses such as Poe and Beethoven: men struggling to hone immense potential and talent.  DFW’s obsessive tendencies of grammar, attention to detail, and perfecting his craft, coupled with life-long depression and a buffet of powerful antidepressants, created an equation with a linear solution, one that led to his early and untimely demise.

David Foster Wallace is certainly not the first artist to impart his collective experience, to the point of self-indulgence, in his work[7]. Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, a film almost universally acknowledged as one of the greatest films of all time, is about a “fictional” internationally-renowned director and his struggle to cope with his creativity. The film often segues into dream-like sequences of the director’s childhood, which effectively acts as transparent catharticism for Fellini. While critical analysis ofoften spurs similar criticism, Fellini’s legacy lives on.

While the impact of Infinite Jest on contemporary American literature is subject to debate [8], I can unequivocally state that the novel created a personal, complex, and enriching three month experience. As I graduate onto DFW’s essays and non-fiction, I do so with the omnipresent knowledge that “DFW called himself a novelist, wanted to be remembered as a novelist, corresponded with novelists about the craft, labored for years over the 2.75 novels he managed to finish.” Though only 36.4%[9] through his fictional oeuvre, I can see why.


[1] Don’t believe me? Check out this interview with DFW done by Michael Silverblatt, in which DFW divulges that IJ was structured as a Sierpinski Gasket, which he goes on to explain is “very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal. a

a sic

[2] My reading habits only allow me to read one “novel” at a time. Blogs, Op-eds, and articles are exempt from Hirsch’s Law. (i.e. for three months, the only non-curricula, bound piece of literature I carried around with me was Infinite Jest.)

[3] Explaining my oft-leered-upon chuckles and spontaneous laughter reading alone at many a coffee shop. If I distracted you, I’m sorry.

[4] Harry Potter and The Wire (which apparently, DFW loved) automatically come to mind.

[5] No book reviews, however, which I’ve found cloud my judgment as time passes.

[6] Some of which are still being periodically unearthed as I continue my research. For example, Avril “the Moms” Incandenza of Infinite Jest, is the founder of the “Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts,” while DFW’s mother, a composition professor, was coined “a SNOOT a of the most rabid and intractable sort.” b

a SNOOT = “Grammar Nazi, Usage Nerd, Syntax Snobs, the Grammar Battalion, the Language Police”

b “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.

[7] Chinese Democracy? Maybe another time.

[8] One, of many, criticisms of Infinite Jest. I chose this one because it’s one of the few that manages to create an argument without mentioning the book’s length.

[9] (1 / 2.75)

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