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.


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.

Ghost in the machine

Ghost_of_HamletIt’s possible that the pages between 800 and 900 are the most interesting 100 pages in the entire novel. In DFW time the plot is careening along at breakneck speed. We are coming close (I would suspect) to closure on all of the intersecting plots. And having reached page 900, there are only 50 (or so) pages left to wrap this thing up.

The part I found most interesting is that the father of the ‘protaginist’, the maker of the film that is being sought, the dude who killed himself by putting his head in the microwave, shows up as a ghost (or more specifically as a wraith) to discourse with the bed-ridden-shot-full-of-holes-recovery-house-supervisor Don Gately. The ghost Incandenza can only communicate with the living through invading their mind, which in this case works, since Mr. Gately is basically incapacitated, and about half of the pages are devoted to his internal monologue. The ghost Incandenza sheds light on a few some interesting plot points, most interestingly, that he made the Infinite Jest film (the samizdat that is being sought) to try and communicate with his son, and bring comfort to him (since he wasn’t able to communicate with him, since the son was mute). I will give DFW props that this was a very crafty way to get that revealed.

Overall, this paints a different picture of what I had of the elder Incandenza throughout the book. And it gives clarification as to why exactly he produced this film that brings so much pleasure to people that they can’t stop watching it. The inception of it was innocent enough, but the result is basically utter chaos. People dying to either find the cartridge, or watching it. There is a (marginally) funny scene where politicians are getting together to make a PSA for children to warn them about the cartridge with the animated donkey Fully Functional Phil. (Seriously!)

Also, there is Hamlet. The book is pretty heavy handed in its ‘owning up’ to being either a nod, or VERY loosely based on the bard’s play. The title comes from the quote “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest.” There was a play within a play, and so on. The one big thing I was waiting for to confirm this for me was the appearance of a ghost, and voila! In this point, DFW did not disappoint me.

So, there are approximately 58 pages remaining – not that I am counting. I actually have no idea how this thing is going to end.

And Down the stretch we come…..

Can you believe it?  Page 900….less than 100 pages to go.  The end is in sight.  We are going to finish Infinite Jest.

Two specific things in this section that caught my eye.   Well, two-and-a-half.

The first was the acutely realistic story of Don Gately.  For as much blabbering stream of consciousness, as we have gotten in this book (e.g., moving a mattress), the Gately SOC is very effective writing.  The theme is one of the thickest threads in the last part of the book:  the difficulty (or impossibility) of getting rid of the crutches you have used to cope with life.  We see Hal trying to wean himself off pot.  And we see Gately, injured protecting Ennet House residents, lying in a hospital bed in severe pain but unable to take painkillers because painkillers were his Disease.

Here, in his fever, Gately has a revelation that I believe is one place DFW has been pointing us all along.

What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen; he could treat his head like G. Day or R. Lenz: clueless noise. He hadn’t quite gotten this before now, how it wasn’t just the matter of riding out the cravings for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed.

Now, that’s a pretty incisive piece of prose…”everything unendurable was in the head.”  To be sure, nowhere does he say that it is an easy way to live–in fact, Gately’s extreme pain and temptation and a Pakistani physician (read:  The World) pressuring him to take another way out reveal this as an extended metaphor of that exact struggle.   But there’s the insight, memorably unveiled.

The second thing is a hilarious meeting where the national leaders are brainstorming how to run an ad campaign to prevent children from viewing the Entertainment…particularly if they walk in the room while their parents are already zombified–in which case they are supposed to find someone to shut the power off to the house.

Anyway, the discussion is a satire of the “War on Drugs” as practiced during DFW’s youth by Nancy Reagan, where people were given bumper sticker slogans as opposed to methods of coping with whatever feelings drove them to hard core substance abuse in the first place.

This was not something that was easy to satirize, simply because it was so fucking stupid in the first place.  Note this description of the Joe Camel-ish character they are considering.

He stands for the attraction of capacity, agency, choice. As versus the spot’s animated adult who we see in a recliner ostensibly watching the Canadian cartridge, little spirals going around and around in his eyes….

Really?  He stands for the attraction of capacity?  Honestly, this is not only an eerie characterization of the moronic thinking behind JUST SAY NO but also sounds a lot like a meeting I have been in too many times.

And then there was this.


Now, for the half observation…Canada is a long-term theme in the book since the Quebec characters are as close to the story’s antagonist as you are going to get.  Here is their thinking about portraying Canada…

That’s why the plaid cap in the traumatic graphic. Response data indicates a plaid cap with earflaps signifies the Big C[anda] to over 70% of the spot’s target. The overalls drive the association home.

This is another great satire of advertising “metrics” and popular culture, this time the view most Americans have of Canada.  To wit, the President of the United States.

“Canada is no problem,” Trump replied, according to the leaked transcript. “Do not worry about Canada, do not even think about them.”

And, of course, my wife is Canadian.

See you at the finish line kids.

canada finish line

Oh, hello there plot!


Appropriately, I am sitting here watching the Wimbledon men’s final match and writing my blog post. Since about 70% of Infinite Jest is about tennis.

So at 800 pages in we have finally seen the actual plot of the novel. Nice of you to show up.

First, the picture you see here can be found in a larger version here. It shows all of the plot lines and how and where they converge. I think it’s pretty cool.

As you can see from the image, there have been the seeds of multiple stories being sown during the previous 700 pages. The big one is the video of what is being referred to as ‘The Entertainment’ – the video that when anyone watches it, basically is mesmerized with pleasure and dies from it. The original version of the video is being sought. More importantly, we know that the title of said cartridge is Infinite Jest. (No surprise there.)

Basically all the characters that we have been following are now in the general vicinity of the Ennet House (recovery for addicts) and the Enfield Tennis Academy. We have the backstory of Madame Psychosis/Joelle Van Dyne – we know why she is deformed and what her relationship is with the Incandenza clan. We have a much clearer picture of the matriarch of the Incandenza clan and her possible incest with her oldest son. And we have another gruesome suicide by kitchen appliance.

I will say that for the first time during this process I am actually enjoying the book. It’s interesting and readable. I am not convinced that it is the proper payoff for dealing with the jumble of the previous 700 pages, but time will tell.

I found this particular passage very interesting. It is describing James Incandenza’s films:

Technically gorgeous, the Work, with lighting and angles planned out to the frame. But oddly hollow, empty, no sense of dramatic towardness – no narrative movement toward a real story; no emotional movement toward and audience. Like conversing with a  prisoner through that plastic screen using phones, the upperclassman Molly Notkin had said of Incandenza’s early oeuvre. Joelle thought them more like a very smart person conversing with himself.

This exactly describes Infinite Jest.

We have less than 200 pages to go in this journey. We are taking our final break – since we are on vacation and will be back in August to wind this thing up.

Page 800….Infinite Jest

Don'tStopNow_Installation34So, somewhere in the end of the last section, about page 670, this book decided to turn into a story.  If you are considering reading Infinite Jest and you decide to quit sometime in the first 500 pages I can certainly see that but if you have gutted it out to where the page numbers start with a “6” I’d recommend NOT QUITTING because something’s going to happen and you’ve invested this much in it so it doesn’t make any sense to quit now.

All the plot lines begin to converge.  The story does turn into something.  Whether all that preamble–essentially 600 pages of exposition–was necessary is another question and one I guess we should finish the book before answering.

Lots happens in this section.  The focus, as you would expect, is “The Entertainment,” that piece of video that would make a person literally stop doing anything else, give up food and even chop digits off to watch.  In DFW’s world, where people cannot control their desire for pleasure.

So, you know, you’d have to think the author might have put some meaning into what the entertainment is…which we learn from Molly Natkin who (obviously), has not seen it up who was told by her friend, Madame Psychosis, the star of the film.

it features Madame Psychosis as some kind of maternal instantiation of the archetypal figure Death, sitting naked, corporeally gorgeous, ravishing, hugely pregnant, her hideously deformed face either veiled or blanked out by undulating computer-generated squares of color or anamorphosized into unrecognizability as any kind of face by the camera’s apparently very strange and novel lens, sitting there nude, explaining in very simple childlike language to whomever the film’s camera represents that Death is always female, and that the female is always maternal. I.e. that the woman who kills you is always your next life’s mother. This, which Molly Notkin said didn’t make too much sense to her either, when she heard it, was the alleged substance of the Death-cosmology Madame Psychosis was supposed to deliver in a lalating monologue to the viewer, mediated by the very special lens. She may or may not have been holding a knife during this monologue, and the film’s big technical hook (the Auteur’s films always involved some sort of technical hook) involved some very unusual kind of single lens on the Bolex H32’s turret, 327 and it was unquestionably an f/x that Madame Psychosis looked pregnant, because the real Madame Psychosis had never been visibly pregnant,

OK, so let’s look at what we have here.  We have Madame Psychosis, nude, disfigured (bypsychosis her mother) and veiled…that “death is always female and that the female is always maternal.”

Quick aside…not hard to see why a lot of women hate this book, eh?

And she’s not really pregnant…it’s an effect.

Here is what I would view as the key phrase:

…”the woman who kills you is always your next life’s mother.”

And the film is called Infinite Jest (V or VI).

Add in, further, that the auteur kills himself (see the microwave) but perhaps he was driven to it by a woman.

And this does tie into the last, and perhaps more telling point.  Madame Psychosis had been in an odd platonic relationship with the auteur, and she had insisted he quit drinking.   When this is being revealed, Hal is having a similar challenge as he tries to quit smoking pot in order to pass a piss test before a big tournament.

In both cases, the lesson appeared to be the same.  What you lean on to survive in the world will eventually kill you.  What preserves your life…gives you life…will eventually kill you, either in reality or in terms of bringing about a more rhetorical “destruction.”  Infinite Jest.  See?

What if you don’t need drugs to cope with the world.  I think the point here is our “default setting” (see the Kenyon Commencement) is that we all rely on something to cope with a world in which suffering and death are necessary parts of the equation, and if you don’t pick the right thing, what you lean on will eventually take you down…there’s no quitting it, no getting out.

Infinite Jest.

We’re Back….Page 700

So, we’re back.  Nice little break.

So here was something interesting I found in this section….

The background is this…you cannot separate this book from the idea that its main fans are the types of people who are called hipsters….normally, I like to append the word “douchebag” to the phrase, but have it however you like.  Anyway, here’s what happens when you google “Infinite Jest Hipster.”

And the graphic is an example of what you find….FROM GOODREADS, of all places.  So, I’d say it is pretty well sunk into the consciousness that this is the book’s reputation.  (Also, tightly linked with “mansplaining” but that’s another topic.)

2012_11_30_hipsterlitflowchartSo wasn’t I surprised when I found this:

Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool.

So, let’s take this little section in parts.  The first is an absolutely accurate description of the so-called hipster mindset—“hip cynical transcendence of sentiment.”  In the ambivalence over this book, you should never lose sight of the fact the DFW has an incredibly sharp and observant eye.  He sees. Whether it gets turned into a good book…that’s another matter…but he sees everything.

And of course, the conclusion–banal but probably correct–is that they are afraid of the vulnerability of being human…vulnerability he then describes in terms that are as absurdly reductive as they can possibly be, in the second half of the quote.

I’m not sure where the hipsters fall on this paragraph.  My guess is they focus on the second half of the section, glossing over the first.  The whole purpose of being a hipster is to avoid true introspection, or so this line of thinking goes.  (I personally believe most outward, projected behavior is a protective shell, but I’m no psychologist).

There are a couple other parts of this section where DFW flexes his descriptive muscles.

One is a mercifully brief passage where DFW turns his eye for detail on the story of a young boy being sodomized by his Father….starting with the door creeping open, how the light looks, etc, and ending with…well…lube.  You cringe at every word.  It is an effective piece of writing, for sure.  We can be thankful that he didn’t accord it the space he accorded moving a mattress.

The other one is a description of what it feels like to be depressed.  This largely functions as an essay in the middle of the story, much like Tolstoy did in War and Peace.  It is also powerful stuff.  He takes you right to the heart of what true depression is by comparing it to minor depression.  Of course, we know something they didn’t know when the book came out, which is the end of the DFW story and the role of depression in it.  With that in mind, how about this?

The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.

Note the capitalization of “Its”.

In all, the section between pages 600-700 was among the more narratively easy to read in the book so far.  You have a few of long sections–a battle outside the rehab facility, a tennis match, and the younger boys in a tunnel under the tennis academy–all of which reads better than French-Canadian transvestites babbling endlessly.

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