Infinite Jest—All Too Finite

imagesReaders may recall my recent post about hunting for David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, finally snagged at a used book sale. I have now attempted to read it. I read about 100 pages before making a decision that the remaining thousand or so would not be a good use of my time.

Here is a sample sentence taken more or less at random (pp. 63-64):

“His strategic value, during the Federal Interval G. Ford – early G. Bush, as more or less the top applied-geometrical-optics man in the O.N.R. and S.A.C., designing neutron-scattering reflectors for thermo-strategic weapons systems, then in the Atomic Energy Commission – where his development of gamma-refractive indices for lithium-anodized lenses and panels is commonly regarded as one of the big half-dozen discoveries that made possible cold annular fusion and approximate energy-independence for the U.S., and its various allies and protectorates – his optical acumen translated, after an early retirement from the public sector, into a patented fortune in rearview mirrors, light-sensitive eyewear, holographic birthday and Xmas greeting cartridges, videophonic Tableaux, homolosine-cartography software, nonfluorescent public-lighting systems and film-equipment; then, in the optative retirement from hard science that building and opening a U.S.T.A.-accredited and pedagogically experimental tennis academy apparently represented for him, into ‘apres-garde’ experimental- and conceptual-film work too far either ahead of or behind its time, possibly, to be much appreciated at the time of his death in the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar – although a lot of it (the experimental- and conceptual-film work) was admittedly just plain pretentious and unengaging and bad . . . “

Those last words can serve as my review of the book: just plain pretentious and unengaging and bad.

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

Actually, I didn’t even quote the full sentence, it went on a bit further. Now, Wallace has been compared to Proust, who also wrote some very long sentences. But (apologies to Lloyd Bentsen), I’ve read Marcel Proust. I’ve studied Marcel Proust. Marcel Proust was a friend of mine. Wallace, you’re no Marcel Proust.

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

The book has been called clever. And there are indeed some droll linguistic and imaginative touches. But the kind of stuff quoted above I don’t find clever. It’s just sophomoric logorrhea. A little like this might be mildly amusing, but 100 pages of it became insufferable.

What is the book actually about? It’s set in a near-term future wherein America has been subsumed into some larger geopolitical union, and corporate sponsors now buy naming rights to calendar years. (That sort of satire on “corporate culture” I find tendentious and lame.) Infinite Jest is the title of a film created by a character, the late James Incandenza, that’s so infinitely entertaining that viewers are literally entertained to death. images-1Again, a passingly clever conceit, though perhaps derivative of the classic Monte Python bit about WWII’s joke warfare (which itself had antecedents), and in any case a thin pillar to support a 1000+ page novel. There are efforts by some Quebec separatist quasi-terrorists and others to get hold of the original film. Also, a private tennis high school run by the Incandenza family, with their teenaged Hal a disturbed genius. (Some of this I frankly cribbed from Wikipedia, as the book itself is somewhat opaque about these matters, at least in the 100 pages I read.)

images-2A big book should have a big theme. “A profound study of the postmodern condition,” said Steven Moore in Review of Contemporary Fiction. “Postmodern” evokes a mindset of effete cynical detachment, and frankly I consider anyone who uses the word seriously to be an intellectually unserious poseur. I might be interested in the modern condition, but what the “postmodern condition” actually might refer to, I haven’t a clue. This book certainly didn’t provide one. Meantime, the back of my copy says it’s “about the pursuit of happiness in America.” I didn’t see that either. Maybe my reading comprehension isn’t up to snuff.

One theme, at least, was pretty evident: substance abuse. Perhaps that’s the “pursuit of happiness” in question. And Wallace seems to speak from intimate knowledge of this subject, I’ll give him that. However, as I’ve said before, I’ve pretty much had it with the bottomless pit of substance abuse literature. And, speaking of substance abuse – regarding all those critics who label this book a great landmark of American fiction: what are they smoking? If they’re right, it’s a sad commentary on the state of said fiction. But I don’t think they’re right; rather, a bunch of postmodern poseurs whose ululations Wallace himself must have laughed at.

images-1In sum, the book doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a plot, let alone dramatic tension, nor any characters that remotely resemble human beings, or possess any other aspects that engage the reader’s concern (mine anyway). But it is certainly a masterpiece of verbiage of the kind I’ve quoted above, and if you have an inexhaustible appetite for such, then Infinite Jest is definitely the book for you.

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18 Responses to “Infinite Jest—All Too Finite”

  1. muggleinconverse Says:

    I’ve heard it compared to Ulysses. Do you have any thoughts on that comparison?

  2. Kurt Carson Says:

    Very enjoyable. ‘Postmodernism’ is an absurdity! Just plain illogical.

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    Muggle: Ulysses? I’ve actually read it. Didn’t get much of it. But there is no comparison, the books are entirely different.

  4. Catherine Broderick Says:

    Yikes, I hadn’t read him before, but that’s just a mess.

  5. tamirplatzmann Says:

    Reblogged this on tamirplatzmann.

  6. Rusty Shackleford Says:

    You’ve studied proust? evidently outside the studies of literature. At least I assume since you cannot differentiate “modern” in terms of a literary era and “modern” in terms of the present day. And though post-modern literature is and has been for a long time in a sad state, it is, unfortunately for you, something that actually exists. Fair enough, you didn’t like what you read, but every single statement you make after that is unsubstantiated, given your admission of reading 100 pages, just 1/10 of the book. People like you are why the state of literature, and especially literary criticism, is so bad.

  7. Rusty Shackleford Says:

    Marcel Proust is a writer of the Modernist literary era, by the way…

  8. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thank you for your comments, Mr. Shackleford. Evidently I am not the literary sophisticate that you are. But what I found in reading Proust (in translation) was high literary quality on many levels; what I found in reading 100 pages of Wallace was mostly puerile juvenilia that hardly merits the term “literature,” let alone good (not to mention great) literature, and did not justify my reading any further. If you judge differently, fine, you are entitled to your opinion.
    But perhaps you can patiently explain to this philistine why the passage I quoted (entirely typical of the book) does not deserve my harsh judgment of it.
    By the way, Infinite Jest is usually termed “postmodern,” not “modern.” Not that it makes any difference to my evaluation.
    People like me are why the state of literature is so bad? What an arrogant thing to say — both with respect to me, AND with respect to literature! In fact, books are being published today that leave me (an author of 6 books myself) awestruck at the prodigious literary talent displayed.

  9. Kurt Carson Says:

    You must eat every single bit of the rotten apple to understand it? No.

  10. Rusty Shackleford Says:

    “‘Postmodern’ evokes a mindset of effete cynical detachment, and frankly I consider anyone who uses the word seriously to be an intellectually unserious poseur.”

    Pleas explain how the passage I’ve quoted above indicates any sort of integrity of criticism
    Said nothing of sophistication, but them big words you use do sound rather sophisticated so you got me there
    If you’ve read 100 pages can you say one passage is “entirely typical of the book”?
    In regards to the current state of literature discussion: point taken and noted, out of respect I’ll neglect to comment further.
    And also a book is not an apple. You might call me a scientist as well.

    Good day.

  11. rationaloptimist Says:

    Well, the passage you quote is my view of what goes by the name “postmodernism.” There is actually more extended discussion of the subject in my book, The Case for Rational Optimism. I believe my criticism of postmodernism entails more critical integrity than is exhibited by postmodernists themselves, who after all would say that any one opinion is as valid as any other!! (Which certainly should apply to my criticism of postmodernism.)
    OK, I cannot actually say the Wallace passage I quoted is “typical of the book” since I did not read the entire book. So I will amend my statement to say it is typical of the 100 pages I did read.
    And I do agree with Kurt that one doesn’t have to eat the whole apple to judge it’s rotten. A good analogy I think.

  12. stefanodoc Says:

    Yes, but…there must be a reason (and more than one, I guess) why Mr. DFW is considered one of the biggest literary genius of his time. I think it’s too easy to say “I don’t like it” or “I like it”. That’s not criticism, it’s just a self-opinion. Who matters?

  13. rationaloptimist Says:

    Who matters? I don’t claim to “matter” as a literary critic. But clearly my review amounts to more than merely saying “I don’t like it.” I stated quite clearly the specific ways in which the book falls short in literary quality (especially in the last paragraph). If you feel the book does have literary quality, then it is equally incumbent upon you to specify how.

  14. hwestiii Says:

    Dude, it definitely could have used an editor, but stopping at 100 pages doesn’t give you the right to shit all over it. I can definitely see the positive comparison to Proust, and while I haven’t “studied” him, I have read every word in all 7 volumes of In Search of Lost Time (in translation). As with Wallace, Proust goes in for maximal navel gazing for unconcoscienably long intervals, but also punctuates them with unbelievably compelling narrative and razor sharp observation and characterization. I found that muddling through the former (navel gazing), was simply the price I had to pay to earn the gift of the latter. So it is with Wallace. He makes you work at it, but also rewards you, sometimes disproportionately, for the effort.

    Really, did you need to use all those words just to say “I didn’t like it, and I didn’t have the patience to finish it”?

  15. Mike Says:

    It’s not a surprise you don’t know what the book’s about or what themes it wrestles with… you didn’t read it. Your impressive vocab belies a pretty simpleminded look at the book. The plot and its structure alone make it a worthy read, but the characters are incredible. For your own sake, I hope you put down the thesaurus and try reading Infinite Jest again. You may still have criticisms, but at least you won’t look foolish criticizing it for ridiculous reasons.

  16. Eric J Hodge Says:

    This is the first book review I’ve read that said, “I read the first 10% of this book and then decided I didn’t like it, and but so it sucks and so does the author.”

    The themes in this book are so powerful – addiction, how to decide what to pay attention to, the sincere life and what that looks like, how we communicate our realities to each other. And the characters are staggering in their complexity and visceral relatability (at least to me). This is the most rewarding book I ever read – I would say I have probably thought about some part of it every day for the last 15 years of my life.

    I feel bad for the reviewer that he couldn’t hang with it. But I also feel a little angry at him for slamming something he was unwilling to try to get to know.

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