Book Review: Elegant Complexity by Greg Carlisle

Posted September 1, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 4 Comments

Book Review:  Elegant Complexity by Greg CarlisleElegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest by Greg Carlisle
Published by SSMG Press on November 2007
Genres: Nonfiction, Literary Study
Format: Paperback
Pages: 524
Source: my shelves

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Before I began reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (or IJ), I did some research.  I did some blog/website hopping and found that when it comes to Infinite Jest, people either love it or they hate it; there doesn’t seem to be any in-between.  For those people who finished Infinite Jest and really enjoyed it, the majority of them agreed that Elegant Complexity was big help during their IJ journey.  I probably would have been fine without it, but I’m really glad that I used it; I found a lot of reviews and comments from folks who said that they got much more out of IJ the second time they read it, and I knew that my second reading of IJ (if I even decided to read it a second time) wouldn’t be possible for at least another year, if not longer.  I wanted to read Infinite Jest and get the most out of it the first time around, and in my case, Elegant Complexity was definitely invaluable.

In the Introduction, Carlisle states:

Infinite Jest holds a mirror up to our vulnerable natures and illuminates the necessity of making hard choices if we are to navigate successfully the ambiguities, missing information, multiple perspectives, temptations, obstacles, fears, and obsessions that make up our experience.  The reader of Infinite Jest is rewarded not by passive acceptance of easy answers or tidy resolutions, but by an active engagement with ongoing narratives.  The ‘elegant complexity’ of the novel makes it ‘almost addictively compelling’ (Infinite Jest, p. 322).

Carlisle is absolutely right, and his study was a huge help in keeping up with that “elegant complexity.”  Also included in the Introduction is a breakdown of the basic structure of IJ, and explanations of the structure and scope of the study itself.

In the first few pages after the Introduction, we are given a list of the 16 plot and character categories and the 16 theme categories that continuously show up throughout IJ, along with diagrams showing the relationships between each of those categories.

The main text of the study is broken down into major units, chapters and smaller subchapters/sections within each chapter which correspond directly to the chapters and smaller sections within Infinite Jest.  Each of the chapters in the study is given a name that describes the broad theme of that chapter in IJ, and each smaller section within the chapter is labeled with the chapter number, the section number, the corresponding page numbers of that section in IJ, and the year in which the section takes place in the novel.  Each section then gives us a brief overview of what went on in the corresponding section of Infinite Jest, a list of the characters that were involved in the section, and an explanation of the themes that were used for that section.  This helps us to keep track of the many characters that come and go throughout the novel, and it also helps to spotlight the major recurring themes and their importance.  At the end of each major unit, Carlisle gives a broad summarization of that unit’s plot, characters, and themes.

The last 38 pages of the study include Carlisle’s speculations on the questions that remain unanswered within IJ, a thematic outline of IJ, a chronology of IJ by subchapter (as well as basic chronologies for two of the main characters), and a chronology of the year in which the bulk of the story takes place.  There is also a basic map of the Enfield Tennis Academy, an Incandenza family tree, lists of all of the characters (broken down by category), and a Reference section at the back of the study.

The study claims to be 99.9% spoiler free, and it is if you read a section of Infinite Jest first and then it’s corresponding section in the study.  The .1% of the study that Carlisle deems spoiler-ish really isn’t, in my opinion.  I would read a section of Infinite Jest, then a section of Elegant Complexity, and no part of the novel I hadn’t yet read was ever spoiled for me.  I found two or three small (although obvious) errors in Carlisle’s plot summaries over the course of the study, but aside from those, the study was a tremendous help.  It did wonders for keeping track of the many characters and themes within the novel, as well as references within Wallace’s writing that I may not have noticed or understood otherwise.

If you are planning to read Infinite Jest, I highly recommend reading Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity along with it.  I found it to be an invaluable resource during my journey through Wallace’s novel.


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