1996, Books, Fiction

Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace

Take that David Chang!

SPOILERS: The end of this review contains a relatively massive spoiler.

This, Infinite Jest, is a sprawling, hilarious, moving, poorly edited monster of a book which, at times, both lives up to and fails to live up to its reputation as “The Great American Novel” of the 1990s. I can’t get there on account of two specific problems with it, the novel, and some other nit picks, but there’s more good here than bad. I don’t know if that’s enough to recommend it to you, the fact that there is more good than bad in the book, given that it, the novel, is nearly 1100 pages (including endnotes) of rather small print, but I will say I don’t regret reading it.

So let’s start with the positive stuff: the book is funny. At times it, the novel, is laugh-out-loud funny, at other times it’s just mildly amusing, but it’s regularly funny. It’s also clever; one might say too clever for its own good, but that, the unrestrained cleverness, is part of the appeal of something like this, an “encyclopedic novel”. I can imagine a world in which I was much more devoted to trying to get everything – or at least a majority of it, the novel – and read it, Infinite Jest, again, with some kind of guide to the allusions. (The word for it, the type of guide to a dense novel, is escaping me now.) There’s a lot going on here. I don’t know if it all works together, the mountains of literary allusions and wordplay, but there’s a lot going on.

I’m a bit of an AA skeptic – I want to see more evidence beyond testimonials that it, AA, is better than, say, medication – but this book, Infinite Jest, nearly converted me. The parts of this book that deal with AA feel so real and true, they feel like nonfiction. The Don Gately storyline on its own is one of the best things I’ve ever things I’ve ever read about addiction. (At least until he, Gately, starts seeing things.) His ability to convey the nature of addition, and his ability to describe mental health problems in a way the reader can both empathize with and “enjoy” is pretty damn incredible. If this, the novel, was just the Gately story, my rating would be higher.

It’s a fully realized world. And he, Wallace, was right or almost right about so many things. Reading this novel in 2020 is really interesting because he, Wallace almost nailed some of his predictions. (If you didn’t know, this, the novel, is science fiction.) There’s an entertainer in the White House. His characters watch what is essentially Netflix. There are numerous details of this world, the world of the novel, that feel so close to our own even though Wallace didn’t quite get the technology right.

All the speaking characters feel fully realized. Sure, most of them are too precocious for real life, but one thing you cannot criticize Wallace for is his attention to his characters.

And it’s far less inaccessible than most novels like this one. Yes, there’s the odd unusual word. (If they were longer, I’d call them “big” words, but they’re usually more less known words.) But one reason the infamous endnotes exist is because he, Wallace, is defining the various drugs and compounds he, Wallace, mentions. Besides, we have the internet, we can look up things we don’t know. I’ve read a number of these massive tomes now and I’d say this, Infinite Jest, is on the more accessible side. The reason I think most people don’t get into it, the novel, is because it, Infinite Jest, takes a really long time – hundreds of pages – for the plot to get in motion.

And now, to the reasons why I do not think it’s “the Great American Novel”.
Well it’s far too damn long and unnecessarily so. You can’t tell me Bruce Green’s backstory is necessary. You can’t tell me Mikey’s monologue at the end is necessary. You can’t tell me the thing with Pemulis’ older brother is necessary. There are so many things which could have been excised with no harm to the novel, as far as I can tell. There’s always discussion about the endnotes, but one thing they reveal to me is that Wallace couldn’t kill his babies. One endnote is Himself’s filmography, and many of them are explanatory in the way of a nonfiction text, but some of them are just extra chapters, more backstory in a novel with way too much backstory. (My theory is this type of endnote, the additional chapter type, is a compromise between author and editor but I don’t have any proof.)

There were so many other nits to pick along the way but, by the end of nearly 1100 pages I forgot more of them than I remembered. The one I’ll highlight before I move on to my second major problem with the novel is the Pynchon-worship. Yes, Wallace is his own novelist with his own concerns and influences – Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, probably a whole lot of other things I didn’t detect – and style. But it’s impossible to imagine this book, Infinite Jest, existing in a world without Thomas Pynchon (and James Joyce). I can’t point you to a passage that imitates Pynchon – in part because I haven’t read Pynchon in a while – but the world-construction, the obsession with technology, the storytelling, all of these things feel deeply indebted to Pynchon more than any other writer. (I have not read Ulysses though I understand its also a massive influence.) So I think it’s fair that some people have written this, the novel, off as sub-Pynchon.

And the reason why I say I understand why people might write off this massive, ambitious and mostly impressive novel is the ending. And here is where the SPOILERS come in though, as usual, I will try to make them as mild as possible. Somebody, maybe Ebert, once said that an ending can make or break a movie. And I feel that way about novels too. What is perhaps my favourite novel of all time is so in part because of its devastating final page(s). I love a great ending, it can redeem a lot, the ending. On the other hand, a band ending can make you feel as though you wasted your time, and it, the ending, can cause your mind to emphasize flaws you saw earlier in the film/read earlier in the book. (Conversely a good ending lets you forgive them, the flaws.) Well, the ending isn’t really here. Seriously. It doesn’t happen, the ending.

Wallace’s defense of this, his bad ending, is that he, Wallace, claims he, Wallace, has left clues in the book which tell you what did happen. I agree, to an extent, but I feel like to fully analyze that, the claim about the clues, I would have to re-read this book, Infinite Jest, and there is not world in which that is happening. What I will say is that I love ambiguous, unresolved endings, when they’re done well. This isn’t. (The novel.) It just ends, the novel. It, the novel, ends without the suspense that many a good ambiguous ending needs. (The alternative is some kind of emotional catharsis, albeit ambiguous catharsis and this is missing too, the ambiguous emotional catharsis.) Jonathan Franzen has apparently claimed that Wallace confessed to him that he, Wallace, didn’t actually try to resolve the plot, which strikes me as possibly a worse defense than his, Wallace’s, claim that it, the plot, resolves just out of frame. Either way, this, the ending, is the worst thing about the book for me. A better ending and my rating would be at least 1 point higher, if not 2.

But, despite greatly disliking the ending, I must say I don’t regret reading the book and I don’t think the book is bad. And that’s mostly because of Don Gately’s storyline, but it’s also because of the endless jokes and good lines, and fully realized world the characters inhabit. Though it, the novel, is flawed, it, the novel, is still one of the more impressive fictional books I’ve tackled. On sum, the good outweighs the bad even though, do to those 1100 pages, there is rather a lot of mediocre stuff. If only I had an editor that indulged my worst impulses like this editor did. (I don’t actually want an editor like that!)


PS Why hasn’t someone turned this into a TV show already?

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