(Warning may contain spoilers – although, personally, I doubt it; because (a) the odds on a person, even a really committed reader, actually making it through Infinite Jest are really slim; and (b) once you’ve actually made it through, you realise that it’s not the sort book that you can spoil, which ironically is a spoiler in itself)
So, did you read my spoiler alert? It’s too long isn’t it? Way too long. Like, seriously, not just a few words beyond what’s usually required, but loads more. Like when Bruce Bogtrotter is forced by The Trunchball to keep eating that huge chocolate cake in Matilda.
Yeah, we get it. It’s a big cake – now stop forcing us to eat it – [spoiler alert] – You can stop now. No, really stop. Please. That’s quite enough. We’ve had a enough cake. Next Scene.
So, the question faced, as I try to write a review of Infinite Jest is:- how do you write a review of Infinite Jest, without writing a book about Infinite Jest?
And you really can’t. Certainly not if you hope to in anyway to do justice to what you devoted so much time and effort into reading. And, even then, if you were to write that book, you’d be brought face to face with the fact that, when compared with David Foster Wallace, you’re not a great writer.
Don’t take it to heart. I don’t, David Foster Wallace was just that good. While you can question the choices he made, when deciding what to write about, you can’t question the skill he used when bringing his ideas to the page.
The painfully obvious thing about Infinite Jest is it’s length. It’s very long, even when compared with very long books (and I say that as a person who’s read several readers shares of very, very long books). You don’t even need to take from the shelf to be put off by the page count, because where ever you shop, it’s going to be the biggest brick you see (unless it’s been shelved by some lunatic in the epic fantasy-section, and even then it’s size is going to mark it out in some very rare company).
Books this long (800-1000+ pages) are naturally inaccessible. The page count is daunting. There’s more going on than the average reader wants to deal with (not a jibe, most people who read fiction, read to relax), and the vocab used is so far beyond the normal range, that if you don’t need to consult a dictionary at least once on your read through, then you probably weren’t paying enough attention.
Translating the Infinite Jest reading experience into a pop culture reference… think of Quentin Tarantino movies (I’m sure he wouldn’t mind, he loves a reference) . Reservoir Dogs is awesome, low budget, guerrilla, and great writing. Sure, maybe could have done with a bit more financing, perhaps a little more run time, and a little extra tweak in post-production – but it’s a great movie nonetheless.
Then QT makes Pulp Fiction, and nails its – one of those movies that everyone has heard of, and will always be remembered.
A few years later, Kill Bill comes along. Still has all the stuff you love, but gets so out of hand that it has to be split into two movies. No one honestly gets all of the in-references, nods and homages that are going on – yes, you know something is going on above your head, and you’re OK with that; it’s just that you’re not really sure it’s really worth sitting through an entire second movie for.
I’ll cite one example form Infinite Jest of what I mean…
Tennis. I’ve not bothered trying to find out if David Foster Wallace played Tennis, or wished he played Tennis, or had something really, really bad happen to him while he was playing – but David Foster Wallace really wanted to write about Tennis.
If you’ve read I.J. and are thinking something along the lines of, “No Lee,” because naturally we’re on first named terms, after both reading the book, “you’re missing the point there mate, that’s not what the Tennis stuff is all about.”
You’re right, of course, but rather than missing the point, I’m avoiding it (witnessing it from the other-side of the net perhaps) because I’m trying write without spoilers, and if you’re out there with the fortitude to read with a book that tops a thousand pages, then you’re well capable of making up your own mind about the Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA) threads.
All i’m saying is, there’s too much tennis. Way too much. What is achieved with all the ETA stuff could be with done with the fraction of the word count. It’s not necessary. Not required. It’s a incredible writer, demonstrating his incredible skill and command of the English language to the point of fault.
David Foster Wallace’s skill as a writer is up there with the very best (from my own perspective, I write as an Ant would, staring up at the Moon, trying to phantom how it makes the tides move) and it’s evident on every single page. Infinite Jest is a master craftsman, working at the pinnacle of his skill. Really, it’s breathtaking. You find yourself reading the same page over, and over, each time picking up another layer of understanding.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Infinite Jest is the best 600-700 page book I’ve ever read (or even heard of). But it’s a 1000+page, and too many of those are unnecessary.
Gosh though, when it’s good, it is so good. So utterly, unspeakably brilliant. How David Foster Wallace writes about addiction / mental illness is unparalleled. There’s one particular section where he manages to exactly capture the difference between wanting to kill yourself and wanting to stop living. I read that particular section over many, many times; because you’re not just reading the words on the page, you are feeling them within yourself. More even than that, you’re feeling the emotions, and actually understanding them.
I know quite a lot about mental illness (which has nothing to do with any book, so I’ll spare you my insights), and I know how DFW sadly came to end his days; and I can’t think another piece of writing that so perfectly captures these really deep issues.
Mental illness / addiction / depression / abuse – they’re all such subjective experiences. You can’t define them with words in a dictionary; they’re personal, evolving perspectives, not just dependant on the person, but on the place and time as well.
Infinite Jest manages to capture some of those overly complicated thoughts in a way I’ve never experienced before (I’m also holding that against non-fiction works that I’ve read on the subject). It doesn’t explain anything, rather it captures the emotion of the thoughts/feelings and transmits them to the reader (or, perhaps, just their shadow – an even more impressive achievement in a way, because who really wants to read a book that causes them mental anguish).
Infinite Jest, for all it’s faults (and there are plenty), is a work of truly astounding genius. I could write page after page about it (and I’ve seen plenty of people online who have) and never really capture exactly what I want to say. But then, I’m not David Foster Wallace.
If I had to sum my thoughts on Infinite Jest up in a single line: Of all the great books I’ve read, Infinite Jest is the only one that I will never recommend to anyone.
[I always say this, because I love talking about books with people, but if you have read Infinite Jest and have any thoughts you’d like to share, I’d honestly love to hear them. There’s no doubt in my mind that I missed several things on my own read through, and I would love discussing the novel. You can reach on twitter @LCross137 or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org]