I finished David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest yesterday. If I could write like that, I wouldn’t write that. I’m glad I read it. I would never dream of recommending it to anyone.
I admit it, I was influenced by the Infinite Summer project; not that I ever (before tonight) actually read that site. Which brief visit suggests that one could enjoy reading and writing about Infinite Jest at almost infinite length. It’s a whale of a book; a white whale.
There is no X for which one can say “Infinite Jest is an instance of X.” It’s not a novel because a novel is supposed to tell a significant part of a story, and IJ makes it clear that its thousand or so pages are just a sample of a sample of a sample; nothing is resolved. It’s not fiction because a huge part of it comes out of the lives of real live alcoholics and junkies as narrated at AA and other Twelve-Step meetings (this gleaned from a radio interview with Wallace that’s out there online somewhere.) It’s not a Tolstoyan “Unhappy families are all different” thing, because while there’s a family near the center of the story, their doings involve somewhat less than half of half the book. There are a lot of things it isn’t. There is no formal fabric you can wrap around it ex post facto without stubbing your mental toe on a pointy counterexample.
It is involving. It has people in it, most of them extreme in some or another of their behaviors, whom you’ll come to care about if you start reading (which, remember, I’m not recommending).
I’ll almost certainly re-read it; the first pass is just skimming the surface of a pretty deep pond, and now that I’ve learned (mixing metaphors here) the geography, I’ll want a another closer look.
So... it’s compelling. It’s intense. It’s big, so you’re getting a lot of literature for your bookstore dollar. Why wouldn’t I recommend it then?
Because it’s full of revolting white-hot ugliness; what’s at the bottom of addiction’s downward slope, brutal violence up to and including death by torture, incestuous sexual abuse; name anything that it makes you nauseous to think about and chances are IJ has some. There is nakedly intimate writing about what clinical depression feels like and the temptation of escape through the door marked “suicide”; one particular 13-page sequence can only be called suicide porn, and, well, yeah, David Foster Wallace did.
That New Yorker piece says “He never published a word about his own mental illness” which is stupid bullshit, because I just finished reading thousands of them scattered here and there around this book, everywhere you care to look.
Also the book is way too long. My copy is a paperback and I experienced pretty severe pain in the wrists and the neck trying to contrive comfortable positions to balance this floppily-bloated agglomeration of dead trees for comfortable reading. Which is aggravated by Mr. Wallace’s egregious abuse of end-notes, which means that you need two separate bookmarks to facilitate your progress; I thought it was rather stylish, at one point, that I was using boarding passes for NRT⇒YGJ and IZO⇒NRT; but then I lost them.
I can think of edits which in my irrelevant opinion would subtract a few hundred pages without much loss of value but hey, the book’s written and the author’s dead, so what we got is what we got.
And the writing is very beautiful.