Book Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest puts me in a weird position. On one hand, it's among the most rewarding, thoughtful, immersive, human and overtly life-altering I've read. Corner me with a sudden life-or-death demand for a favourite novel, and "Infinite Jest" may very well be my instinctive panicked reply.

On the other hand, 1079 pages is a hard sell, especially when the first 200 are full of motivational obstacles, the last 200 are teeny tiny footnotes, and even the basic premise in between defies a quick elevator pitch description. 

My Infinite Jest experience - which spanned a half year abroad - was far from smooth.  In fact, it completely halted any momentum I'd built up as a reader.  As such, it's not a commitment I can comfortably recommend to most time-pressed friends. Not, at least, as a novel.

No: think of it more as a months-spanning literary course, with the effort and reward the very best of such courses would demand. A book that benefits from multiple bookmarks, dog ears and excessive notational pencil vandalism. It doesn't become a distraction from life so much as a stalwart part of it.

It's incredibly readable, I should add. Wallace might strip-mine the obscurest corners of the dictionary, but you won't need exact definitions of "pernicious", "detumescence" and "prognathous" on hand to follow along. The early challenge instead comes mainly from a lack of flow from section to section. With a cast of thousands, many early individual scenes feel more like standalone short stories or vignettes; components often outright brilliant on their own merits, but with no momentum to carry one into the next section.

The story broadly alternates between two parties: the students/staff of a wealthy tennis academy, and the downhill residents of a halfway house for recovering addicts. Buried somewhere is this tangled knot of narrative threads is the master copy to Infinite Jest: a movie so entertaining it reduces the viewer to a permanent vegetable state of brain-dead happiness.

Wallace made the deliberate (and honestly, very debatable) choice to massively spread out proper introductions to his character ensemble. We spend an awfully long time with the tennis academy students before actually get to know them. Whereas the various addicts of the halfway house are immediately and compellingly introduced, but don't reappear until several hundred pages into the story. 

(Also: it's out of sequence.) 

(Also: it's set in the near future, when calendar years are confusingly sponsored - "Year of the Whopper", "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" - rather than chronologically numbered.) 

(Oh, and the ordering of these years is not clarified until about the one-quarter mark.)

Happily, it balances out. Every name gets an eventful history. Disjointed threads connect. Once-impenetrably-odd details make sense. A world takes shape. 200 odd pages in, the fear you're just not getting it will evaporate. Your thoughts begin to sync up with DFW's. Your eyes stop glazing over. What starts as a chore (and lingers on the sensation of starting to stop feeling like a chore without quite crossing that threshold; kind of the literary equivalent of being on the verge of a sneeze) actually stops being a chore. Reading it takes on an eager, almost unnecessarily frantic urgency. 

The winning combination of a blunt pencil, plane turbulence and fanboyish enthusiasm. If I'm ever a bomb suspect, this will be Exhibit A.

The winning combination of a blunt pencil, plane turbulence and fanboyish enthusiasm. If I'm ever a bomb suspect, this will be Exhibit A.

Enter the halfway house sections: among the most breathtaking pieces of empathetic writing I have ever had the joy of reading. Addiction, AA, depression, sobriety, anxiety, suicide, abuse, withdrawal, recovery; these heavy concepts are explored from every feasible angle through dozens of eyes. Drawn from a place somewhere between uncomfortable life experience and incredible empathy, it rings all kinds of true. It's eye-opening. It's heartbreaking. It will massively broaden your understanding and sympathy of anyone who draws life's short straws.

It is also, somehow, hilarious. DFW spans the full jocular spectrum: laugh-out-loud funny, cathartic black humour, sharp comic dialogue and ambiguous formatting gags (meandering page-long chapter titles; endnotes with footnotes that refer to other endnotes) scattered generously in between.

With massive tonal shifts from gutting realism to cartoon absurdity, Infinite Jest is somehow simultaneously sloppy and cohesive; formal and casual. Its syntax litters painstakingly-honed wordplay with "like"s and "but so anyway"s. Its narrator is happy to trust you with words like "tendentiously", yet somehow can't be bothered spelling out "w/r/t". This twisted casual/academic style feels less like drafted prose and more like an unfiltered stream of thoughts from DFW's magnificent and dearly-missed brain.  Which, I suppose, was the whole point.

Then it ends.  The world ejects you as disorientingly as it pulled you in, leaving you simultaneously itching for a climax (the finer points of which are largely left to the imagination), yet paradoxically satisfied that the author has said absolutely everything he has to say, and not one word more.

As a budding writer, I expected to find this literary achievement intimidating. (It is. Staggeringly so.) But the process of analysing and internalising this has left me with something more profound: a vague, oh-so-very-vague idea of the type of novel I would one day like to write.   Nothing this ambitious; nothing this good; nothing, really, like this at all.  But I take heart knowing it's there: a battered, well-travelled, messily blunt-pencil-annotated tome on how to do long-form right.

Six months ago, I never would have dreamed of vandalising a book with my own notes. Now, I barely dare touch a book without a pencil in hand.  My months with Infinite Jest have left me a more attentive reader, a better long-form writer, and hopefully, in a small but important way, a more empathetic human being. Certainly a more exhausted one. 

As a conventional novel, I cannot realistically recommend it.
As an experience, I cannot recommend it enough.

Now to read a whole lot of really short books.