Book Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace (Back Bay Books, 2006)
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (Back Bay Books, 2006)

Where do I even start to talk about Infinite Jest? This book is over one thousand pages long. Almost two hundred of those pages are footnotes; extensive, detailed footnotes that you absolutely cannot skip reading. This book took me months to read and it probably wasn’t until I was halfway through that I felt like I knew what was going on. Initially, I started it as a night-time, up-with-baby read but the book was too physically large for me to read while also holding Pearl and it was too dense and complex for my middle-of-the-night baby brain to comprehend. So I read it in snatches, as often as I could, and I know there’s a lot more I could have gotten from it if I’d been able to focus more wholly.

Infinite Jest is strange, disorienting, sometimes hilarious, often disgusting, imaginative, and bizarre. I absolutely recommend it. But I would also suggest that the potential reader beware.

Set in the near future, during “subsidized time” (each year is sponsored by a consumer item; most of the book’s action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment), and set mostly in Boston but in a rather different version of the U.S.A. Instead we have the O.N.A.N, an amalgamation of Canada and the U.S. with some key differences. The main action of the story takes place at a Tennis Academy for gifted young athletes and a halfway house for recovering addicts. There’s also an NFL player with a gift for punting, a crooner turned politician, and a group of wheelchair assassins. Canadian (Quebecois, really) politics plays a surprisingly large role. The book is peopled with characters and Wallace goes deep into the backgrounds of many of them – often characters we never see again. These details and backstories are fascinating and emotive and create a world that feels large and authentic.

Written in 1996, DFW gets some things about the future spot-on. There’s a section where he details the progression of video phones and the way he predicts their development and then the backlash against them is stunning in how correct it is and how accurate it is to human nature. (Other things he gets wrong – like the scene where a character pulls out a container that holds film cartridges for a camera. When was the last time you saw one of those?) David Foster Wallace gets people. The actions of characters are often shocking, regularly deplorable, but always true to what we know about them and, somehow, always understandable. Even the really horrifying ones. I’ve never played tennis or done heroin in my life yet DFW shows these actions on the page in all their gritty, appealing reality.

It’s hard to know how to summarize the plot of Infinite Jest, partially because I’m not sure the plot is the most important part. As I said, I didn’t really start to understand and piece together the central story until halfway (or more) through the novel. Yet I was never tempted to give up. Even in the confusing, perhaps overly detailed sections, the book is so engaging that it was easy to press on. That said, there are definitely parts where my inner editor was writhing. While the book is mostly in third person (with some key exceptions) many sections are told in the voice of the character that chapter focuses on. These are uneducated drug addicts, French Canadian spies, and teenage jocks, among others, and the language reflects that. It’s grammatically incorrect and repetitive and sometimes it drove me crazy. At the same time, it also adds to the incredible world-building that DFW does and it always feels accurate to the character. Could a 1000+ page book use a little more editing? Probably. But less than you might think.

David Foster Wallace was incredibly talented and to read him now, eight years after his death is to realize what a loss that was to the literary community. We can just be thankful that we get to enjoy his contributions.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace”

  1. I just…cannot handle…DFW. Even his short stories. There is so much inside joke stuff going on that I can’t follow. he’s almost like Robin Williams in his cocaine days, but on paper. Williams was BRILLIANT — in his stand-up comedy he would jump from intelligent topic, to intelligent reference to the topic, to another brilliant topic, but it was all at break-neck speed and would lose anyone who didn’t get the references. I feel the same way about DFW.

    1. Before this I had only read a couple of his essays and had mostly enjoyed them. I definitely can understand where you’re coming from. I think with Infinite Jest, the book is so long and involved that, eventually, you start to feel like you’re in on it. Or you just kind of give up on expecting to understand everything. His whole world is so far removed from anything in my day-to-day life but I did enjoy the book overall. That said, I wouldn’t recommend it willy-nilly to everyone!

    2. I did an MFA at the University of Notre Dame, and many of the creative writing professors there are really into experimental works. I’ve read so many books that were hundreds of pages and pretty much meant nothing in the end. I once was assigned to watch a video of a performance artist that was over half an hour long. He was literally reading from a small city’s phone book. He would only say the first three letters of each last name as listed, but he was trying to do it at breakneck speed. This was supposed to be him (I think???) engaging with everyone in one city through his performance. That’s just ONE example. Maybe I’ve read too much of stuff that I can’t follow at all that I’ve grown too impatient for it.

    3. That sounds horrific…and strangely like one of the weird films made by a character in Infinite Jest. I can’t handle art that’s weird for weirdness sake without any real purpose behind it. I find DFW falls on the good side of weird for me but I can definitely see how he wouldn’t for everyone. And that said, I’m not rushing off to read everything by him. 🙂

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