Goodbye Infinite Jest

2009-01-29-David-Foster-WallaceI’ve been thinking about what I was going to write in this post for (almost) the entire time I have been reading Infinite Jest. I knew that I was going to have to come up with some assessment of the book. Even after thinking about it for that length of time, and having 5 days to reflect since finishing the book – I’ve got bupkiss.

I guess there are really three questions to answer:

  1. Did I enjoy this book?
  2. Was this a good book?
  3. Am I happy I read it?

So let’s get #1 over with: NO! That’s a simplified answer to a complex book. I enjoyed parts of the book, but I will say that I think a large percent of the book is unreadable. The verbal diarrhea, the seemingly disparate story lines, the ragged narrative style, and let’s not forget the footnotes (there are over 388, btw). Beyond that stuff, this was a pretty depressing and at times graphically gross book which also made it a difficult read.

On to #2: that is a difficult question to answer. And this is probably the question that I have thought most about during this entire project. I can say with no hesitation that David Foster Wallace is a brilliant writer. He is extraordinarily insightful into the human condition. His vocabulary is unreal. Sometimes his writing is just so perfect. The problem is, on the next page, or even in the next sentence I am shaking my head not understanding a word that he is saying.

My conclusion is: DFW = good writer. But, he is not a good novelist. I think that in small doses, he is brilliant. You know, he’s like that friend you have – you like to hang out and have a few drinks or dinner, but if you spent the weekend together you would have to punch them in the face. Reading infinite Jest is like that.

So no, I don’t think that Infinite Jest is a good book. There I said it.

And #3: you know, having said all of that, I am glad I read it. It was on my to-read list for a long time. I do feel like it’s an accomplishment. Also, there is 0% chance I would have finished it, or even got past page 100, if we didn’t do it as a project.

Would I recommend this to other people? Probably not. Here is the thing, if it’s on your list to read someday, go for it. Just know it’s a slog and somewhat painful and you really do have to commit to it. But if you are a casual reader and are looking for something to read: pick something else.

I struggled on what to rate this on Goodreads. Using my system – I gave it 3 out of 5 stars. That is what I give books that I wasn’t mad that I read them, but I would definitely not recommend to my friends and family. I toyed with a 2 star rating – but I thought that was a bit harsh.

So our second reading project is in the “books” (see what I did there?) We are still debating on what next year’s book will be.

Infinite Jest: WTF?

Ok, so we’re done.  Let no one ever doubt.  I read every word of Infinite Jest.  So, the question, ultimately, is what is this book, in reality?  Not in some hipster imagination from people who very well might not have read the thing…and not in some gel-lens filter of DFW’s suicide…and not with the assumption that it’s so big that it must be important…what if you stripped away all that?

Look, there are unquestionable qualities to the book.  DFW is a literary stylist of the first order.  DFW uses detail and vocabulary as well as anyone I’ve ever read.  His imagination and insight into the world is just electric.  Who else describes snow as having “non-sound”?

The book is also prescient.  Reading it 20+ years on, he was ahead of the curve on the pleasure-train of the Internet, the corporate sponsorship.  All of it.

He describes the pain of addiction and depression with empathy and depth.  And the overall idea that people with unfettered access to pleasure cannot regulate themselves is resonant.  And the idea that the crutches (drugs, alcohol) you use to deal with life are nearly impossible to get rid of is timeless.

And it’s funny.  There are parts of it that are laugh out loud funny.

The question is whether this is a great book or not.  Are the literary stylings just “look ma no hands/hold my beer” showboating, or is there a larger purpose?  It is art or is it a street juggler?

And my verdict is that Infinite Jest is just an OK book.  The difficult read, the long digressions, the ridiculous footnotes, you endure all of it and ask yourself if it was worth it?

infinite jest book clubI don’t think it was.  Again, there were episodes of pleasurable reading, but overall the experience was not transcendent.

I read a novel for a story.  Maybe that’s on me.  The New York Times did a 20-year retrospective and noted that DFW didn’t think art had to be entertaining.  At the same time….something that isn’t entertaining isn’t automatically art, either.

Honestly, for the 1,000+ pages, I don’t think he gave any artistic insight that wasn’t in the This is Water speech at Kenyon, and that is probably 1,000 words.

For my money, novels are stories.  If they make a point, it is through the story and the characters.  Infinite Jest doesn’t work as a story.  If he was trying to make an anti-story just to prove that he didn’t have to please me, he succeeded.

The book is wildly undisciplined.  It is way too long.  The same story could have been told in 300 pages.  I know that the book’s editor has said it was even longer when the manuscript showed up, but there’s no evidence to me that anyone attempted to make every sentence contribute to the whole.  There are whole sections which are nothing more than self-indulgent (yet stylized) jabbering, done because he can, and that’s not art. Brilliance is where every brush stroke matters.  Elegance is genius.

When I think about the truly great books I have read, they are books that you are sorry when they end.  They can still be inventive–see Catch-22–but you are sorry when they end.  There’s a void in your day.

I was glad to finish this book.  I don’t regret reading it.  If finishing it wasn’t the thing, I never would have.  But I would not recommend it to my friends and family.  There is just so much to read–some of it equally dense and difficult–and I’d recommend spending my time elsewhere.

It is nowhere near the book War and Peace is, for example.

So we’re onto the next challenge for 2018.

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And…we are done.

download (1) My time with Infinite Jest is done. Can I get a hallelujah and an amen?!

I will do a separate post on my overall book impressions later. But right now let’s talk about the last < 100 pages.

These last pages were basically stream of consciousness from both Hal and Don Gately (the two “main” characters of the book).

Don Gately mainly was ‘talking’ about a huge bender that he and a pal had. The friend scored a bunch of money – through an actual amusing story about a bet on a basketball game that was placed and misunderstood by both parties – the friend buys a ‘mountain’ of drugs and they basically sit and ingest them. The story is kind of like a car crash – horrifying (at times one or both of them craps their pants, urinates on the floor, vomits…you get the picture), but also intriguing to get a peek at this life.

The other ‘narrative’ is Hal. There is a whole thing about a dude who gets his face stuck to a window and the resulting horror in trying to get it removed (a la tongue stuck to a frozen pole). It was pretty graphic and also horrifying. We find Hal basically lying prone on the floor recounting how he got to the place he is in. He is (for the most part) trapped – both physically (there has been a huge snow storm that has made travel impossible) and mentally.

I did find the mirrored characters – both trapped, supine and stream of consciousness – very interesting. They are both battling their own demons and trying to resist drugs. One young with lots of promise, one older who has (seemingly) wasted his time. If I was more interested in the narrative I would spend some time investigating this trope. I’m not.

If I thought that this was going to be neatly tied up in a bow, I obviously had not been paying attention to the previous 800 pages. The story lines got as resolved as they were going to get, obviously. I guess what I mean is, there is a vague sense of completion of the story. I surmise that it’s like an addicts feeling of completion after a score. A sense of completion in the moment, but will always be unsatiated and unresolved.

More on my overall impressions of the book later, but for now, it’s time to celebrate that I actually finished it!

That’s it. There’s no more.

Well, we did it.  The final evaluation will come soon…where we answer the question of “whether it was worth it” or not.  For now, let’s just pause and reflect….we got to the end of the book.  This is a crazy, difficult book, one I never would have finished if I hadn’t have this challenge.

Toward the end, I started to get rebellious.  I was starting to feel like Hart at the end of SVOD-L-Paper-ChasePaper Chase, at the ocean, when the six-million dollar woman hands him his grades (gently) and instead of looking at them he throws them into the ocean.

I was like…the only cooler thing than reading Infinite Jest would be to hit page 970 and saying, “I do not choose to finish.”  That would be awesome.

Yeah, right?  No way.  Also would not have thrown my grades into the ocean.  Either.

Anyway, just went the previous 200 pages had started to look like there might be an actual climax, an actual culmination of the various plot lines, of The Entertainment.  Instead, well, it ends with a whimper.  Don Gately, in the sick bed, kind of expiring into a whirlpool of drug cocktails.

Oh, and the last 100 pages saw 3-4 new characters introduced, as only DFW could do.

The last section–the end–had a lot of stuff that continued the theme of how hard it is to give up the crutches you rely on to survive, i.e,s substances.  Madame Psychosis, for examples, relates that Himself died because he quit drinking all the time.

Anyway, that’s it.  A final review is coming.

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