Monday, March 16, 2015

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is justifiably listed as one of the most difficult novels in English literature.  And yet, underneath it all, the story is not very complicated.  There are three narrative threads:  a tennis academy focusing on Incandenza family, a rehabilitation facility dealing with the recovery of various characters, and a secret society seeking a mysterious video tape.  So if the narrative arch is really so simple, why so many pages?

I know I’m not the first to sit in utter awe of Wallace’s writing prowess.  He introduces a large number of characters throughout the book and it takes the first 100 pages or so for the characters to begin intersecting with one another.  It takes a lot of faith to trust that Wallace has the ability to bring so many disparate threads together and to leave nothing dangling.  And I know that a lot of people who finish the book are probably left feeling that the whole damn book is left dangling but I was told, and I tell you who may not have tried to read this book, if you reread the first “chapter,” so much will make sense you’ll wonder how you could not have seen it sooner.  (Albeit, by the time you’ve reached the end of the novel, you’ll have probably forgotten the specific details of the first chapter.  It took me 27 days to read so how could I not have forgotten the details?)

This novel literally has everything from the grotesque to the humorous.  There were so many subtle jokes that I found myself chuckling while a page or two later I would find myself cringing in disgust.  I was fascinated by the characters, even when they disturbed me, enough to stick through all sorts of things.  With allusions to everything from etymology to Shakespeare to pop-culture, I couldn’t help thinking that I was reading a post-modern Moby Dick, a novel encyclopedic in its scope. 

It’s tempting to skip the endnotes and, admittedly, some of them are unbelievably long.  Longer than long.  But you must read them because they add layers of meaning that would otherwise be missed.  And a few of them are sardonic.  I would also recommend keeping a dictionary handy.  I can’t remember the last time I read a book that forced me to look up more words.  Don’t assume your ereader will be able to define all of the words for you.  More often than not, when I wanted to look up a word, my kindle was useless.

I regret not reading this novel sooner.  It is inspired and brilliant and subversive.  It’s also impossible for me to recommend. I cannot think of anyone who would or could easily read it and might enjoy it.  Many of the characters are racist, some of their actions loathsome, and some of the paragraphs seemingly endless.  (I jokingly sent a text to the friend who recommended I read the novel that I wanted to know what is the longest chapter, endnote, paragraph, and sentence (by word count) as well as which endnote has the most footnotes (yes, the endnotes have footnotes!), which chapter has the most endnotes, etc.)   When I told my step-sister that I had just finished it she said she had been thinking about rereading it.  Yes.  Some people are gluttons for punishment.  I'll probably reread it someday too.

5 comments:

  1. Great review! If it wasn't for the page count of 1079 I might read it. I'm not a fan of chunksters.

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    1. I love them when the story needs a lot of pages to be told. In this case, it works brilliantly. So many layers and it takes time to get through them all. Just a brilliant book. But still not one I easily recommend.

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  2. I tip my hat off to you, Satia. I am always in awe of those who manage to finish this behemoth of a novel. I've tried so many times over the years but to no avail. I haven't made it past page 65 yet. It just takes up half my shelf space, mocking and taunting me. Maybe one day I'll try again...

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    1. Jason C, I gave my sons a bit of advice about reading this book. I told them to keep a dictionary handy, read all of the endnotes and the footnotes, and I warmed them not to read too slowly. I picked up the novel while Rob was out of town. Fewer distractions over all. I was still reading it when he got home but he knew I as determined to finish this beast of a book and he gave me the uninterrupted space to do it. (Don't tell him I read two other books while reading this one. Let's just keep that our little secret.)

      I think reading it quickly helped because I didn't have time to forget a lot of the different threads that are woven throughout and could more easily make connections between one chapter and the next, or at least one section and the next, as the case may be. Not saying that would work for everyone but it definitely worked for me.

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    2. Don't worry, your secret is safe with me. I will definitely keep these reading tidbits in mind if I ever attempt to tackle this novel again.

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