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 NRTYGJ 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.


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From: james.hoskins@sellesmedical.co.uk (Sep 21 2009, at 04:02)

You're absolutely right, it is a whale of a book. I read it shortly after the birth of our first child and my wife got so sick of me lugging that monster around that she tore out the last hundred pages or so; making the book's non-ending physical as well as literary.


From: Greg Borenstein (Sep 21 2009, at 09:23)

Myself, I'm near finishing the book, also inspired by the Infinite Summer project and Wallace's death. While I agree with many of your words of warning, I think I enjoyed the overall reading experience more than you did. For every passage that immerses you in the darkest most brackish ponds of human experience, there's a soaring, hilarious playful bit that shines with beauty (for every suicide description there's an Eschaton).

I agree with you somewhat more about the length and the format. My main thought all along has been: this is two books. There should be the Incandenza book and then the AA book. They should be separate 400ish page novels that happen to occupy the same universe. Putting those two stories within the same cover seems mostly designed to make a point about the scale of the world. And it does so in a manner that is extremely dated. One of the hallmarks of the last 20 years has been the transition from epic novel to serial television show the ultimate medium for world-creation.

Finally on the form factor: get thee to a Kindle! After despairing of ever reading the thing out of an impossibility to carry it around, I tried the iPhone Kindle app and have loved it. Especially for the footnotes which it renders as hyperlinks (something Wallace, foolishly, opposed).


From: piers (Sep 21 2009, at 11:17)

The Eschaton section is easily the most stunning prose I have ever read; but yes, I've reread Broom of the System twice for sheer pleasure, and can not say the same of IJ. That's funny about the kindle. metafictionists like Wallace and Joyce appear to have a love/hate relationship with the confinements of the novel. Forcing your reader to flip to the back of the book every few pages is just plain funnier than hyper-linking.


From: Eric Promislow (Sep 21 2009, at 11:37)

I read a library copy the year it was published, which meant I had to plow through it relatively quickly. I found IJ a fascinating study on culture, addiction, and language. But I wouldn't hold it against anyone who chose not to read it. I have a paperback copy, and once in a while consider rereading it, but the opportunity cost is too high given everything else I can do with that time.

I forget which chapter consists only of one three-digit number in small type, but I remember using that as an example of flexible markup language design at a talk I gave that year.


From: Paul Bouzide (Sep 21 2009, at 11:46)

I read IJ a few years before DFW's suicide, so the "suicide porn" critique is pretty context-dependent I think (but when I read his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech a couple weeks ago it did fit that description for me). I do concur with the "size" critiques (including the physical size of the paperback tome), but I'm not sure the AA and Incandenza narratives (and doesn't Wallace equal only maybe Pynchon for creative surnaming?) don't reinforce each other, I think either separate 400 page book would be impoverished somehow (if it's not too silly to use that phrase for this book). I have to agree with the commenter that there's as much beauty as ugliness there though. Same for his shorter (and thus more "approachable") work too I think. And I would've preferred to read on the Kindle for the hyperlinked footnotes, themselves as worthy as the body they digress upon IMHO. But despite my disagreements, thanks for the thoughtful words Tim, nice to see we share another passion besides tech.


From: Attila Szegedi (Sep 21 2009, at 16:00)

I started reading it this summer, partly because of Infinite Summer - I had the book in my evergroving "unread" pile for at least a year then. I think I slightly masochistically got attracted to huge novels, „Quicksilver” acting as a gateway drug here. Yes, I have „The Gravity's Rainbow” in the pile too. That said, I only read about 150 pages of IJ so far. I enjoy it, but it seems I require a specific mood in order to do so, and it happens on me infrequently. So it's not a „can't put it down” book, more of a „I feel like having few pages of mental delicacy today” for me. Currently satisfying my corpuscular book fetish more readily with „The Confusion” instead.

Too bad comments won't be open by the time I finished IJ, as I'm not able to say much relevant about it this far in the book. Except to say, yeah, it's a mental delicacy of the kind I love in small portions


From: Mahlen Morris (Sep 21 2009, at 22:45)

I loved that book, but yes, as someone said to me, there are very few people to whom I could recommend it to. I'm glad I was one of them.

If you do decide to take it on, the dual bookmarks are essential. Skipping the end notes would be a crime. In fact, I can't imagine the book making even a lick of sense without reading them.

It's been ten years since I read it, and there are still scenes I vividly recall.



From: Mike (Sep 29 2009, at 07:58)

You just can't bring yourself to say it's a load of crap, can you? Reminds me of the Neal Stephenson apologists.

If so many internet hepcats say it's great, you'd be revealing yourself as a cultureless old fuddy duddy if you gave it a negative review, so you need to hedge your bets, right?


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