Book review: Infinite Jest

Infinite JestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

So I finally read it.

You know, the brick. The thing. The book. The enormous tome. The encyclopaedic novel of encyclopaedic novels. The objet d’enthousiasme I’ve been lugging across the world since 1999, a brick-sized chunk of narrative excess that I’d promised my then-partner – a DFW army footsoldier for life – that I would read, such was their enthusiasm for the wordy luggage-filler.

So, this.

Secondly, the secret.

It’s not really that difficult.

Like Ulysses, this book has a big rep. That it eats people alive, that it’s impossible to read, and that it should be called Infinite Footnotes instead. That it represents literature at its most polymath, or that it’s an indulgent bag of shit. That you’ll never finish it.

All of which could, in the right light, be true. Yep, there’s a lot of French and Latin, a lot of scientific, sporting, pharmacological and geographical knowledge. There’s a lot of stuff you’ll have to look up to understand, unless, of course, it’s a kertwang and then you’ll be shit outta luck. There’s intentional mistakes, there’s a made-up future that has, by this point, become past. There’s a lot of stuff to keep track of, and a sponsorship-based calendar to help confound that. There’s footnotes longer than chapters, and then there’s footnotes with their own footnotes, a kind of literary Xzibit meme.

(This is why I read the thing on Kindle, eventually. Sorry, big lump of paper that I’ve moved across countries apparently needlessly: you’re going to blow some other kid’s mind when I drop you in the community book exchange near the station.)

But herein lies the key: it’s just an overwritten book about being nicer to people who you probably don’t give a fuck about, written by a guy who I suspect was too enmeshed in the problems he was writing about to try and moderate his output for those of us who prefer brevity. If you ignore the ten-buck words – though savouring the level of thesaurus-handling here, usually unseen in works that aren’t And The Ass Saw The Angel is some of the appeal – you’ll find that though it’s unwieldy, what this is is portraiture, with a hint of the mirror.

It’s also a lot funnier than you’d expect, and not in a PhD-requiring kind of way. There’s enough farting for every level of sophistication.

Presented in those terms, it’s not intimidating at all. So often, people discuss the length of the thing as off-putting. Length? Eh, both King and Martin write longer books, and people inhale those. The physical length of this one didn’t bother me. It was the loose editing that brought on my own particular fantods, though not of the howling variety.

I can see the problem with editing this book, though, so I’m relatively forgiving after the fact. This page details some of the editing process, and there’s word the novel could’ve been 250 pages longer. It’s difficult, because some of the setups and choices do only pay off with the benefit of hindsight – a bunch of what initially tweaked me turned out to be running gags rather than inadvertent irritations – but there’s a certain amount of time you need to invest to hit that point.

The book is (mostly) the story of a Bostonian tennis academy, resting cheek-by-jowl with a rehab facility, a halfway house. It focuses on one family (again, mostly) and also a bunch of Québécois wheeled assassins. It’s set in what was a near-future when it was written, but a kinda-sorta past now, in an enormous redrawn-map version of the Americas, where garbage is rocketed into what used to be Canada, and where years are sponsored by products. If I were pushed, I’d say it’s about tennis and drugs, though really it’s about maintaining: maintaining in the Hunter S. Thompson way followed by maintaining sobriety, maintaining a family, maintaining a grip on things. And maintaining some kind of dignity, no matter how reduced your circumstances are. It’s kind of like The Inner Game of Tennis with a Dilaudid chaser.

Seeing that the book’s listed as hysterical realism over on Wikipedia puts things in a bit more perspective: it ameliorates (though not completely) some of the choices in its writing, in its presentation. It ploughs a lot of the same furrows as someone like Thomas Pynchon or (bleh) Robert Anton Wilson. There’s that hopped-up, techno-future methamphetamine buzz in the book, a sense that the author wants to convey everything at once.

The link to those authors is certainly there, as is their love of detail, detail, detail. Infinte Jest features meticulous descriptions of games, of drug experiences, of being stuck in a bed. It can be overwhelming, yes, but I found the biggest problem of the book was that the focus on this kind of bravura descriptiveness often overshadowed the moments when the text dialed it back a little to focus on a little pocket of humanity. The description of a childhood party kindness, visited upon Don Gately by a neighbourhood-maligned older neighbour, Mrs Waite, is something so heartbreaking in its simplicity that I wondered what things would’ve been like had that approach stuck.

So that’s the thing that made the book for me: the little moments in the sea of detail.

It’s impossible, though, to read the book these days without knowing that its author is dead. Suicide is discussed in the work, and though much of the text is hopeful in the face of trial, I found myself wondering how much of the sadness I felt while reading a lot of it was from knowing that DFW wasn’t around. That he couldn’t exist in the momentary ability he afforded even the most lugheaded of his characters:

He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering.

Make no mistake, for all its humour and intellectual choppery, this is a lonely book. It’s about the prisons that we make for ourselves, and how it can be hard to see those in others, not unless you’ve been at rock bottom. The author had, quite plainly, and the writing here about drugs is some of the best you’ll see: not about the whole pupil-blasting joy of consumption, the braggadocio of snorting, but about the aftermath. About reassembling yourself. About realising that getting by and getting off become entwined so easily. And that we’re all chasing something, drugs or not.

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip — and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger.

I’m glad I read Infinite Jest. I’ve ticked it off: something which, as a lit student I’m supposed to have done. But more because I know how important it is to people whose thoughts I respect. I just wish that I had followed the recommendations and read it when I first laid hands on it in a Canadian bookstore, almost 20 years ago, because I feel that a younger version of myself would’ve been amazed. It might have provided some short-cuts, some short-circuits.

In short that 99% of the head’s thinking activity consists of trying to scare the everliving shit out of itself.

As I am now, it’s a little like hearing a new album from a favourite band from my early 20s: I can dig it, I can appreciate it. But in the back of my mind there’s a little voice that niggles that there’s a time when this might have meant the world to me – but that that time has gone.

My Goodreads profile is here.


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