Three things prompted me to read and review Infinite Jest. First, today marks the fifteenth anniversary of its publication, and that seems worth more than a mention. Second, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King is forthcoming in April, which begs a look back at his previous work. Third, the jealousy conjured in me at the time of the novel’s release has diminished, allowing for a fairer assessment. Combine this passage of time with Wallace’s suicide over a year ago and all jealously now seems, at the very least, misplaced.

The best thing Infinite Jest can do for a reader is slow her down. Its length (981 pages) and its footnotes (388 of them) keep even the most ardent page-turner from burning through it. Just when you think you’ve knocked off a good chunk, along comes a footnote several pages long, postponing your sleep. The book takes control of you, makes you tolerate its abuse despite the easier reads piled up on your nightstand. But once you’ve borne Infinite Jest‘s yoke, it offers a perspective so unique and complex reading anything else feels like cheating.

Wallace’s greatest feat with IJ is creating art in the Faulknerian sense of “something which did not exist before.” There is nothing else in the world quite like this book. I was tempted throughout my reading to call it an heir to Ulysses. IJ shares with Joyce’s masterpiece a glacial pace, and there’s something of a Leopold Bloom-Stephen Dedalus combo in IJ‘s pot-smoking tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza and recovering drug addict Don Gately. But IJ is more obviously dramatic and striking than Ulysses. Here are a few very un-Joyce-like elements within it: a gang of wheelchair assassins, a giant crater where the northeastern United States used to be, a gun-and-knife fight between halfway house occupants and floral-shirted French-Canadians, and one young man’s unfortunate defacement (literally) at the hands of a cold window. No matter how slowly, IJ always feels like it’s going somewhere, and even if it Fellinis-out at the end, its sense of forward motion trumps that of Ulysses.

A little plot is all you need with prose as penetrating as Wallace’s. The author not only wants to puncture the skin with his insights, he wants to burrow down to the tender meat in the middle, where all the nutrients lie. Take his spot-on rendering of an addict’s backward thinking:

…he’d smoke his way through thirty-eight grams a day…averaging 200 or 300 bong-hits per day, and insane and deliberately unpleasant amount, and he’d make it a mission to smoke continuously, even though if the marijuana was as good as the woman claimed he’d do five hits and then not want to take the trouble to load and one-hit anymore for at least an hour. But he would force himself to do it anyway. He would smoke it all even if he didn’t want it. Even if it started to make him dizzy and ill. He would use discipline and persistence and will and make the whole experience so unpleasant, so debased and debauched and unpleasant, that his behavior would henceforward be modified…

Some of the best moments in IJ are when Wallace gives us a window into the world of competitive tennis. Below he describes a match between top amateurs John “No Relation” Wayne and one from a rival school Port Washington:

Way up on [court] #1, Schacht sees John Wayne just plaster a backhand cross-court. Wayne hits it so hard a little mushroom cloud of green fuzz hangs in the air where the ball met the strings. Their [scoring] cards were too far to read in the sour-apple light, but you could tell by the way Port Washington’s best boy walked back to the baseline to take the next serve that his ass had already been presented to him. In a lot of junior matches everything past the fourth game or so is kind of a formality. Both players tend to know the overall score by then. The big picture. They’ll have decided who’s going to lose.

Those are merely two excerpts from a nearly 500,000-word novel in which the author clearly agonized over every sentence. Not only is IJ big, it’s dense with writerly attention.

Still, it’s hardly a perfect work. I never got the sense, even with all that attention, that Wallace got to the heart of Hal, the closest thing to a protagonist the novel has. And the dialog, while stunning in much of the book, feels less than fully realized when the students at the tennis academy talk amongst themselves. I caught myself wanting to delete portions of quotes, making the conversations less stilted. A lover of Pride and Prejudice might wonder the point of all this wordsmithing and footnoting, and despite loving IJ, I’m not inclined to argue with him.

What IJ lacks in character depth it makes up for in humor, which is the real heart of the book. Great quips abound. For example, Gately, the recovering drug addict, refers to his Quaalude period as “The Attack of the Killer Sidewalks.” “You didn’t have to be brainy…to figure out the equation (Quaaludes) + (not even that many beers) = getting whapped by the nearest sidewalk.” And there’s plenty of fun at the halfway house: “Gately knows for sure it was McDade and Minty that put the HELP WANTED sign under the window of the lady in #4 that shouts for Help.” Hal’s brother, NFL punter Orin, once kicked a football so high “the hang-time the Special Teams Asst. said you could have tender and sensitive intercourse during.” And on the darker side, when Hal’s dad kills himself by cooking his head in a microwave, Hal admits his first thought upon entering the house that fateful night was “That something smelled delicious!” Wallace knew his Vonnegut, and this dark and funny sensibility pops up frequently enough to make those long paragraphs and endless footnotes a bit more manageable.

I suspect Infinite Jest is no easier to nail down today than it was fifteen years ago, and that its complexity will keep it from being nailed down in the near future. It’s everything I suggest above–the heir apparent to Ulysses, a window into drug addiction and competitive tennis, a funny book that goes nowhere, a sad book that never quite embraces its sadness–and plenty more I haven’t even mentioned. Perhaps most of all it’s Wallacian, which didn’t exist before, and therein lies its value.

Read more about my IJ journey at The Rumpus.

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ART EDWARDS's third novel, Badge (2014), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's Literary Contest for 2011. His second novel, Ghost Notes, released on his own imprint Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, has been made into a feature film. His writing has or will appear in The Writer, Writers' Journal and Pear Noir!, and online at Salon, The Los Angeles Review, Word Riot, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, Bartleby Snopes, The Rumpus and The Weeklings. In the 1990s he was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments.

31 responses to “Infinite Jest in Time:  
A Belated Assessment”

  1. pixy says:

    i have 2 things to say:

    1. it took me a year to read this book. after 3 months, it was just stubbornness and an unwillingness to let a book “win” that kept me reading. i feel very neutral about that year of reading and, surprisingly, not sad about the books left unread. hm.

    2. why is a lover of Pride and Prejudice female? i know a lot… uhm, well, some… no. someONE who has a penis that loves that book. really.

    • Art Edwards says:

      P & P is not only not “female,” it’s probably the greatest novel ever written and a personal fav of mine.

      In my writing, when needing the singular possessive of either “he” or “she,” I make a point of switching off. You’ll notice a earlier instance in the review where I use “he.” At the P & P reference, it was simply time for a “she,” but it stands for “he or she,” which is too clunky to write every time.

      I would switch the two around but I suspect it would look just as weird the other way. The limits of the language, I guess.

      • pixy says:

        i guess that’s why i needed clarification. that particular jump in that particular spot seemed… fortuitous?

        i read too close.

        • Art Edwards says:

          You know, I think you have a point.

          I’m going to switch the two around. The love of IJ will be female, the lover of P&P male. I kind of like that better.

          Art

        • Amanda says:

          Funny… you two are discussing exactly the conversation i had in my head when i got to that pronoun. exactly. pleasantly, in my reading it and in listening to my own internal discourse, i took the side of using “she” for “s/he”… maybe it finally is a woman’s world.

          as an aside, i am now actually more tempted to attempt IJ than i have been to date.
          thanks for a good review/op-ed, Art.

          and as a final footnote (heh) it was lovely to meet you in person the other evening, and loved hearing you read your piece. long live, TNB.

        • Art Edwards says:

          Amanda! A pleasure to meet you too. What a great crew we had there, eh? Thanks for making the effort to say hello.

          Every way of dealing with that possessive thing is inadequate, so I just switch back and forth. I do hear from reader a lot about my choices that way. I say, why not stand the assumptions about IJ and P&P on their ears if given the chance?

  2. Ashley Menchaca (N.O.Lady) says:

    IJ has been on my ‘Must Read’ list for longer than I care to mention. When I’m in the market for a new read I decide on 5 to 10 other books instead. I have A.D.D. so the thought of reading almost 1000 pages in ONE book makes me a little anxious. Even now, I have 3 books going. I’m a mess!

    Several people tell me that I would enjoy IJ’s humor, though. I like things that will make me think and laugh at the same time. Like the part you quote about addiction. That is funny to me. Reminds me of Bukowski and how he talks about the stamina it takes to be an alcoholic. Funny stuff.

    Maybe I’ll pick up IJ in August when my son starts school. I’ll be looking for something to occupy my mind and time other than house work.

    Great write up, Art.

    • Art Edwards says:

      There’s something a little sick about reading IJ. I’m not sure it’s entirely healthy to want to finish it–masochistic, maybe–but once it has you, you’re begging for your punishment.

  3. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    While some people have complained that this book is overrated or overexposed, I still say it’s only beginning to be explored. So I’m glad you’re carrying the torch here.

    There are few books, if any, that manage to pull off the trick of being as meta and at the same time as engrossing, funny and tragic as Infinite Jest. I remember reading it a year or so after it was published, and though it did take awhile, the prose and the characters were alive enough that its length became irrelevant. I think around the time I got to the realization of who the wraith of Don’s vision was, I could have gone another thousand pages.

    It’s interesting you say it doesn’t embrace its sadness fully. This is true, but also for me deliberate, where the tragedy lies in that the characters have sought entertainment to the degree that they’re incapable of measuring its sadness, that the story is left broken and blown wide open and that the storyteller might have fallen into his own trap, with only Don there to redeem us.

    But I could go, to borrow a phrase, “way out” on this. Anyway, thanks for the post.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Yes, and that’s what IJ has that Ulysses doesn’t, in my opinion. “Can you believe that Don’s Wraith turned out to be” blah blah blah. A nice through-story that keeps you reading. I’d guess Wallace learned this lesson from Ulysses. Just give them a little something to look forward to, a little mystery to unfold…

      I saw an interview with Wallace where he said he wanted IJ to be a sad book, and everybody who reviewed it kept talking about its humor. I guess it’s a sad book now.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    There are wheelchair assassins in the Nighttown chapter of Ulysses. Okay, fine there aren’t.

    This almost makes me want to give the DFW another go…but my running gag was always, “Infinite Jest is no longer funny.”

    Anyway, great review, Art.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Ha! There’s probably a wheelchair prostitute assassin in that section.

      The novel definitely has a cast over it now, but I guess most novels by novelists who commit suicide have a cast over them. Still, it doesn’t bother me much with Hemingway.

      DFW is much more of a contemporary, which makes us realize this malady isn’t going away any time soon, which is scarier.

  5. Joe Daly says:

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I bought IJ when it first came out, after reading a couple reviews in music magazines, of all places. Never one to keep up with current (or even modern) lit, the descriptions of the book and the fanatical praise it received, even as it was still in its first printing, was enough to propel me to a bookstore.

    I have lots of vivid memories from my experience reading that book. And make no mistake- it was, in all senses of the word, an experience. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I had a faint notion once I was about a quarter of the way into it.

    Not to date myself, but online resources were still in their relative infancy, so there were no online resources to help me read it (i.e. to tackle the task of putting the years in chronological order). But man, even where I was not 100% on where the plot was moving, the writing gripped me like a cop’s hand on the back of my neck. The act of reading was its own “infinite jest,” at least for me.

    I still have that copy upstairs, having carted it through 15 years of moving around the world (has it really been that long?). I keep telling myself I’m going to go back and re-read it, but that has yet to happen, save for a one week period in 2009 when I tried again. For me, it’s probably better left alone.

    Good stuff, Art. Enjoyed hearing your thoughts on a classic book.

  6. Tawni Freeland says:

    I have never read Infinite Jest. I think it’s time that I remedy this situation. As an ardent page-turner from way back, the description of it as a novel I won’t be able to burn through makes it especially appealing. Being a freakishly fast reader is helpful when studying in school, but when you speed read for pleasure, the pleasure never lasts very long. I always love a really densely written book that forces me to slow down.

    I really enjoyed reading this review, Art.

  7. David Breithaupt says:

    After finishing IJ about a year ago, I find that it haunts me still and I refer to it often in relation to other books and events in my everyday life. On top of that, I feel as though I should read it again as I’m sure I missed numerous nuggets here and there. In his afterward to Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann suggests the reader immediately start over and read the book again! His theory was that like a top ten radio song, the more you read a book, the more it would lodge in your psyche like a Beatles tune. I don’t know, maybe someday when the sunlight slants just the right way, the right bottle of wine is on the table and the scent of falling maple leaves is in the air, I may tackle them both…again. Maybe. Jesus. Anyway, I enjoyed your thoughts on IJ.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Thanks, D.

      Sure, I could see reading it again someday–or thinking I’d read it again someday–but I can’t imagine starting it over as I finished it. Too many good books, too little time.

      Art

  8. I’ve been meaning to read IJ. I at least need a copy on the shelf, if for no other reason than self defense.

    But before that I’ve promised to read William Gaddis’s The Recognitions.

    And oh hell yes I use the New York Times apostrophe style!

  9. Quenby Moone says:

    I loved IJ, but I’ll admit that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t read his essays about tennis first. It helped so much to get a greater depth of insight into Wallace’s truly strange brain pan. He’s a nutter, but a brilliant one, and his tennis essays are some of my favorite things he’s ever written.

    I think IJ is one of the best books I’ve read, but also one of the most painful. I don’t know if I can revisit it for the next, oh, fifteen years. I read his footnotes as essays after I was done with the book, and then tried to find the point of relevance in the book. It was like a treasure hunt.

    What a great experience, but like many great experiences, I’m not going to try to relive the magic for while but savor what it was in the past.

    • Art Edwards says:

      He is such a great writer of tennis. Like Hem with bulls, or Updike with golf. He will be remembered for that alone, if that’s what it comes down to.

      I loved reading IJ, but I have to admit I love having read it too.

  10. Gloria says:

    Oh my god. That’s the best gravatar ever.

    I haven’t commented on this piece because I’ve never read Infinite Jest and likely never will. DFW is one of those people who I **get** is a genius and a master. But I can’t read his stuff. I did, however, very very recently read his commencement speech and I absolutely loved it. So maybe I will dig in one day. But probably not.

    • Art Edwards says:

      It’s a great book, but I’m not sure it’s worth reading a second time. I definitely feel like I could connect up a few things with a second read, but I could also read, like, ten other completely different books.

      Like West of Here, for example!

  11. I still haven’t tackled Jest yet. At first I was just being contrary, and then later it felt like I was too late to the party.

    Okay, you’ve convinced me. I’m picking up a copy.

    • Art Edwards says:

      It occupied weirdly negative space in our culture when it came out. I think DFW contributed greatly to that by being kind of contrary himself. The attention the book got bugged him to no end. It was the same reaction Franzen had at the Oprah enshining in 2001. Just really not comfortable with being read and popular. Gaddis wasn’t popular; I don’t want to be popular either.” I think Franzen figured out, at least internally, with his new one. Oh, the tragedy of being so well read, if not read well!

      Thanks for reading, Sean.

  12. Matt says:

    I haven’t had the courage to take on Infinite Jest yet. I’ve read both Broom of the System and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, and while I loved them both, they each gave me what I can only describe as the reader’s version of shell shock. Plus, I know I’d never finish it in the six weeks (including one renewal) that the library would allow me to check it out for, so I’d have to buy my own copy. Which means, in the off chance I don’t enjoy it, that I’m stuck with this enormous bludgeon of a book.

    One day, though. One day.

  13. […] is the mastermind behind Infinite Jest. Anderson is the mastermind behind an infinite number of ABBA’s […]

  14. Thanks so much for an interesting article about an enormously complex book, when you have so little work space to feed us. I was really thrilled to see so many lovely folk saying they want to read this book now. I also appreciated your connection to Joyce – if DFW isn’t successfully answering modernism, then no one is.

    I love everything of DFW that I read, and I am currently making my way through The Pale King. I loved IJ, and adore his short stories. Girl with the Curious Hair is one of the most insightful things I have ever read, and provides an incredible perspective on the burst of eighties obsessions with media, capitalism and the timeless search for what it means to be human. He brought post modernism alive for me, and I truly believe was (is) way ahead of his time.

    This was a great read. Thanks again.

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