Book Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Posted September 14, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 16 Comments

Book Review:  Infinite Jest by David Foster WallaceInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Published by Back Bay Books on November 2006
Genres: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 1104
Source: my shelves

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I finished reading this weeks ago and I’ve been putting off this review ever since. I am kind of afraid that no matter what I say about Infinite Jest, I will never be able to do it justice. I’m not even really sure where to start. I warn you ahead of time that this review may become quite verbose; entire blogs have been dedicated to the reading of this book, and I am going to try to fit it all into one post. I have a feeling that most of this post will be about my thoughts on the book, and not about the book itself. So many people who read Infinite Jest before me keep asking me, “How’d you like it? What did you think?” and those questions can’t be answered in 140 characters or less on Twitter. So I guess I will start by saying this:

I loved this book. EveryLastPage.

I don’t think I have ever been such an active participant while reading a book before. It has been a very long time since I have been so connected to a book that I willingly put a bunch of extra effort into my reading experience. Infinite Jest demands that one put some effort into reading it–which is exactly what David Foster Wallace was aiming for–but the extra time and effort that I put into this book was more than reciprocated by what I got out of its 1079 pages. It took me a little over a month to get through the whole thing, and I honestly wish it had taken me longer. In fact, when I knew I was nearing the end, I started putting it down for longer periods of time because I knew how sad I was going to be when it was over. This was one of those books that I got absolutely lost in; I felt like the characters were my friends. And sure enough, after turning that last page–and dealing with my initial you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me reaction–I wanted to start all over from the beginning. I already missed the majority of the characters. I wanted to know where they had gone and what they were doing with their lives after their stories came to an end in the book. At the very base of all my feelings about finishing this book was the desire to just keep reading DFW’s writing.

And so but let me back up a bit. Here is what DFW had to say about the book during his interview with David Lipsky (who was writing for Rolling Stone at the time). From Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself:

It’s not really a novel; it’s not supposed to be a novel. The definition of novel is…I never thought of this as a novel, I thought of it as a long story. […] The original title was A Failed Entertainment. The idea is that the book is structured as an entertainment that doesn’t work. Because what entertainment ultimately leads to, I think, is the movie Infinite Jest. I mean, that’s the star it’s steering by. Entertainment’s chief job is to make you so riveted by it that you can’t tear your eyes away, so the advertisers can advertise. And the tension of the book is try to make it at once extremely entertaining–and also sort of warped, and to sort of shake the reader awake about some of the things that are sinister in entertainment.

And:

The problem for me is in entertainment, it’s, at least in the book–God, if the book comes off as some kind of indictment of entertainment, then it fails. It’s sort of about our relationship to it. The book isn’t supposed to be about drugs, getting off drugs. Except as the fact that drugs are kind of a metaphor for the sort of addictive continuum that I think has to do with how we as a culture relate to things that are alive. So I think it’s got something to do with, that we’re just–we’re absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something. To run, to escape, somehow. And there’s some kind of escape–in a sort of Flannery O’Connerish way–that end up, in a twist, making you confront yourself even more. And then there are other kinds that say, “Give me seven dollars, and in return I will make you forget your name is David Wallace, that you have a pimple on your cheek, and that your gas bill is due.” And that that’s fine, in low doses. But that there’s something about the machinery of our relationship to it that makes low doses–we don’t stop at low doses.

So basically, Infinite Jest is about the different forms of entertainment we choose to partake in, and what our choices in entertainment say about us. In a nutshell. But it’s so much more than that, too. One of the biggest discussions in the book deals with the idea of every man for himself vs. the idea that we would feel better about ourselves if we saw ourselves as part of a community and made sacrifices for the greater good. DFW knew that this was a very complex discussion–he battled with it himself–and so he never tries to persuade his readers one way or the other; the question of which is the right choice goes unanswered. We must determine that for ourselves.

Poor Yorick Entertainment
Artwork: Chris Ayers / Poor Yorick Entertainment

The title of the book has three meanings, I think. I hope the long-time DFW fans will correct me if I’m wrong. First, it comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in Hamlet’s speech about Yorick (once his father’s jester) upon finding Yorick’s skull:  “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!” There are many references to Hamlet throughout DFW’s book. Second, Infinite Jest is also the name of the movie that is the book’s main focus of dangerous entertainment. And third, I realized that the title is actually a reference to the structure–or the intention–of the book itself. I got a funny feeling about halfway through the book that this last reference would prove to be true, and even said to my husband, “You know what?  I just realized that I have gotten so into this book that when I turn the last page, I am going to want to start all over from the beginning again. And that need is kind of what this book is all about.” Little did I know that after I turned the last page, I would understand that this is exactly what DFW had in mind.

ONAN symbol
Artwork: Chris Ayers / Poor Yorick Entertainment

Infinite Jest was published in 1996, and takes place in the future (which turns out to be 2009). The majority of the story takes place in two locations: at the Enfield Tennis Academy and at Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, both in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. The United States, Canada and Mexico have joined to form the Organization of North American Nations, and years are being subsidized by major corporations, doing away with numerical ordering and leaving us with names such as The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Although a large portion of Infinite Jest focuses on two characters–Hal Incandenza and Don Gately–the book contains a slew of interesting people: there is the once-Vegas-entertainer-turned-POTUS; there are wheelchair assassins from Québec, cross-dressers, and a guru named Lyle who licks the tennis academy’s students’ sweaty foreheads; and there are addicts… many, many addicts.

Visit Tucson poster
Artwork: Chris Ayers / Poor Yorick Entertainment

Ok, so how to keep this relatively short? The main plot concerns a movie largely referred to as “the entertainment” or “the samizdat,” a piece of entertainment made by Hal’s father that is so addictive/compelling that it reduces those who watch it back to an infantile state of utter selfishness and mindlessness: all a person desires after watching the film is to watch it over and over again. No eating, no sleeping, no desire for anything else at all. The government’s Office of Unspecified Services is trying to track the video down before it is disseminated to a larger audience. Within that larger narrative are the personal narratives of the characters who inhabit the tennis academy and the recovery house, and how they are connected to that film and to each other. The vein of addiction and the ways in which the characters deal with those addictions–whether it be drugs, sports, movies, television, or whatever–runs through all of it. One of my favorite parts of the book is the section on addiction and what a person will learn from spending some time around a substance-abuse recovery facility. It really gave me a better look at what it means to be addicted to something and how it affects a person’s life.

The characters in Infinite Jest are so well written. Though part of DFW’s goal was (I think) to show us that as humans we all have these similar, very human desires, he really did a good job of making each character stand out, no matter how inconsequential a character seemed to be in the larger scheme of things. I want to use the word meticulous in describing the work DFW obviously put into coming up with each character’s personality traits, quirks, stories and everything else that goes into making a person who he/she is.

I’d also like to say that DFW did a pretty amazing job of speculating on what the future of technology would be like. Remember, this book was published in 1996 and the story takes place in 2009. The entertainment industry has been taken over by one large conglomerate made up of the four biggest TV networks. The industry for videophone technology (Skype or Facetime, anyone?) has already boomed… and mostly died out. I loved the section explaining the rise and fall of the videophone craze; it makes perfect sense. The one thing I found interesting, though, is that with all of the future technology DFW got right–videophone, home entertainment, etc.–he didn’t foresee digitized music and mp3 players; everyone is still using walkmans. That was a pretty glaring omission, in my opinion.

Let’s talk about the endnotes for a minute, since they are a source of major strife in the discussion about whether Infinite Jest is a great book or just a pretentious piece of crap. Let me start by saying that IJ is definitely not a pretentious piece of crap. It is a great book if you give it a chance. Under normal circumstances, I can’t stand endnotes. I have ranted about them many, many times on Twitter. Yes, there are a lot of endnotes in this book (388, to be exact). They take up almost 100 pages, and some of the endnotes are pages long themselves. The question is: are they necessary? I would say they are quite necessary. If it weren’t for the endnotes, this book would have been hundreds of pages longer than it already is. The information contained in the endnotes kind of stands outside of the main story, but I think it is information worthy of being a part of the book. Not only that, but the endnotes were put there as a way to break up the text and make readers go looking for further information. In Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, DFW talks about art and how true art demands that we put some work into it in order to really get anything out of it. One of the ways in which DFW did this with Infinite Jest was through the multitude of endnotes. He didn’t want his readers to be passive consumers of the book; he wanted us to be willing to put some extra work into it. I didn’t mind the endnotes at all once I really got going, and some of the best conversations take place there.

Oh, and let me say something about the conversations in this book. I believe that one of the main things that can make or break a book is how well the author writes conversations. One of two things happens: either the author is really good at it and can make conversations sound like they do in real life (almost like you’re overhearing the conversation instead of reading it)…or the author just doesn’t have the knack for it and the conversations fall flat and sound fake and/or forced. I will tell you: DFW has the knack for writing great conversations.  I could actually picture two people having the conversations that take place in this book, and they sounded perfectly natural.

I know I’ve left a bunch of stuff out that I wanted to say, but this review is over 2000 words already. You can find a bunch of great reviews and blogs about Infinite Jest all over the internet, though, and they all add something to the discussion. I would suggest reading Robert’s two-part review on 101 Books (Part 1 here, Part 2 here); and check out Choad vs. Infinite Jest, Greg’s blog which is dedicated to his experience reading the book.

If you are going to tackle Infinite Jest, I would suggest checking out the following resources which will make your reading experience more enjoyable and give you further insight into the book and its many references:

Those were the three main outside references I used, and they served me well. By using those three sources, I got much more out of my first reading of Infinite Jest than I would have gotten otherwise.

If you’re willing to put some time and work into it, Infinite Jest is a great read. I feel like every bit of my time–and then some–was reciprocated and I will definitely be re-reading it in the future.

********************

(I would like to thank Chris Ayers for allowing me to use his artwork here.  Take some time and check out Chris’ website, Poor Yorick Entertainment:  A Visual Exploration of the Filmography of James O. Incandenza and the World of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”)

**If you choose to purchase this title using the links below, I will receive a small percentage of the sale (to be used toward site maintenance and buying more books).

Amazon | Powell’s Books | IndieBound

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  • 1) I did read your whole review, but I’m not going to comment on it too much because it’s been over a year since I read IJ, and the second half was a sort of blur for me. (See: reading IJ on a kindle, things that don’t work.) Maybe I’ll return after I reread, one of my goals for the next couple years, so I can actually interact with your thoughts on the book.

    2) But, I loved that description of videophone technology too.

    3) And Don Gately.

    4) I’m impressed that you managed to sum up your thoughts on the whole of IJ in one post. I just finished Beloved, which may pack a wallop but is a quarter as long as IJ, and am seriously considering the thought of devoting a whole week of posts to the book because I don’t know how to limit myself on this one. I know no one but me would be interested by the end of that week – but some books, it’s hard to find a way to have a concise discussion. Kudos on managing it here.

    • Thank you, Ellen. I didn’t really manage to say everything I wanted to, and I think I might come back to it later and post some thoughts about it in a different format. There is just so much to that book.

      I think devoting an entire week to Beloved is a great idea. I, for one, would stay interested for the whole week. I love Toni Morrison. I say go for it.

  • I haven’t read anything by David Foster Wallace yet, but one of my best friends has just developed a giant Man Writer Crush on him, so he has acquired a good deal of his books (and in doing so, has not been able to stop talking about him/quoting him/mentioning him in every aspect of everything we do)… I am definitely planning on borrowing some of his books though, and when I do, I should be able to give you a much more intelligible comment. Have you read other books by DFW?

    • I have done a large amount of reading about him, but this is the first book I’ve read that was written by him. I just bought four of his books with a gift card I received for my birthday, so I’ll be reading more by him very soon.

      I totally understand the Man Crush here–I have a literary crush on him, myself.

  • I’ve never read any David Foster Wallace because I sort of get irked by young genius (or people other people dub as young genius). But that’s just my weird hangup, and I need to get over it. I remember you talking about this book on Twitter, too, and your enthusiasm may just push me over the edge!

    • I think the thing to remember is that DFW did not see himself as a genius. Not at all. He was very humble and self-deprecating. Sometimes that makes all the difference.

  • Mike

    I didn’t think I could do it all in one post either, so I’m trying this: http://tradepaperbacks.wordpress.com/wordswordswords/

    But I’ll be back to read your review once I’m done.

  • I had to laugh at your “And but so” line. I was just thinking the other day in fact, how many pages would be cut out of the book if every instance of those three words together was removed. You have to love that sort of stream of consciousness thing he has going.

    Ditto on the wanting to re-read it. Maybe after graduate school when I can get back into reading for pleasure.

    If you find the time you should pick up Lit by Mary Karr. She actually spent time with DFW in the addicts house that served for inspiration for IJ. It’s eerie how similar the two are. Plus, Lit is just a great book.

    • Those three words strung together are so unnatural, but by the end of the book I wasn’t even noticing it anymore. Hahaha!

      Thank you for the book suggestion. I will definitely check that out soon.

  • Blue88journal

    I’m going to look for this book…right now.
    Thanks for the revue!

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  • tomwaitsripoff

    I really enjoyed that review. I like the DFW quotes you chose because they help understanding his intention while writing this novel. Wallace is an intriguing character, and I want to read more books of him now.
    I also like your explanation of the title. I think it’s a perfect title for a great novel. I also realised that David Foster Wallace acts as our jester, making up these horrifying yet somehow funny exaggerated stories of accidents and deformities; he is poor Yorick with infinite jest. And it’s clever that the entertainment is called Infinite Jest as well. I think for many readers the novel really serves as this addictive entertainment which they can’t get enough of. And but so although the novel is in many ways “a failed entertainment”, it is also a masterpiece. The ending was quite a shock in its abruptness. I’ve never felt like this with a novel while reading the last pages. I thought the pages were slipping through my fingers, and I felt like something would be missing, which was a last cruel joke by David Foster Wallace I guess.

  • Yes, like overhearing the conversations. Exactly.

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  • Mikko Silliman

    The jest, or the joke, of the title is that we can keep looking infinitely deeper in the book for its inner meaning, while in fact the meaning is in plain sight. This is precisely the point of the problem of other minds, explicit from the first page of the text, that Wallace inherits from Wittgenstein and Cavell.