Infinite Jest reconsidered - maybe

Are you a David Foster Wallace fan? Most literary critics are it seems; most of his fellow writers, too. Whenever his name comes up, they wax rhapsodic about his prodigious talent and bemoan the tragic loss of that talent that occurred when Wallace was finally overcome by his depression and killed himself in 2008.

I admit that I totally missed out on the Wallace worship of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I was entirely ignorant of him. Obviously, my head was somewhere else at the time.

In fact the first time I really became aware of him was in late 2010 when I saw an article entitled "13 books that everyone says they have read - but haven't." I wrote a blog post about it in which I said that I had no intention of reading Infinite Jest, Wallace's book that was on the list. 

But I felt bad about cavalierly dismissing a book that so many people seemed to adore and the next year my conscience - and my curiosity - got the better of me and I committed to reading it. 

I didn't like it much.

Lately, I've been giving some thought to the book and wondering if perhaps I should give it another try. After all, all those very smart critics keep telling me what a wonderful, world-changing book it is. Did I utterly misjudge it?

Have you read Infinite Jest? If you have, I would be interested in your thoughts on it. Here's what I thought about it back in 2011.


June 28, 2011

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: A review

I will freely admit that I may just not be smart enough to understand this book. I've read a few reviews of it by people who obviously are more versed in modern literature than I, and, for the most part, those reviews have ranged from mildly positive to raves. Moreover, looking at Mr. Wallace's biography, one sees that he won multiple prizes for his writing and some of them were for this book. That biography also tells us that the themes and style which he used in his writing were metamodernism and hysterical realism. I would have to say that the emphasis was more on the hysterical than the realism.

The events of this book take place in the not-too-distant future, when Canada, Mexico and the United States have come together in an organization of North American states, abbreviated as O.N.A.N. (Wallace makes a fetish of using abbreviations, often without explaining what they mean.) It is a time when vast herds of rampaging feral hamsters overrun the wastelands of the Northeast.

There is no real protagonist here, no one that the reader can identify with and pull for. The action takes place at two main sites, the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House, a sanctuary for recovering addicts and the psychologically impaired.

Enfield was run by a genius named James O. Incandenza who ultimately ended it all by sticking his head in a microwave, but he is survived by three sons, one a pro-football punter, one a severely deformed child who is filming a documentary of his world, and one (Hal) who is a tennis prodigy who is also mentally gifted. To the extent that the book has a central character, it is Hal.

At Ennet, we see Joelle van Dyne, a recovering freebase habitue', and another addict named Gately. I could never really get a clear picture of either of them.

Tennis is an obsession of many who people these pages and long, tedious passages are devoted to the minutiae of the sport.

The action switches back and forth between the two main venues and sometimes veers off into the Arizona desert and introduces other characters who never develop or seem to have anything interesting to tell us.

More confusing still for the unwary reader is the fact that time is no longer measured in numerical years like 2011 or 1985. Now, the naming rights to years are bought by companies and products. Thus we have the Year of Depend Adult Undergarment or the Year of the Whopper or the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad.

Parts of this book are beautifully written with a clarity that makes the reader long for more, but typically those passages are followed by page after page after page of what I can only describe as incomprehensible dreck. The book is more than a thousand pages long. One gets the impression that the editors were so intimidated by Wallace's genius that they were reluctant to suggest removing a single word. They did the reader no favor with their shyness.

My overall impression of the book was that it was written by a terribly confused and unhappy author. Was my impression influenced by the fact that I knew that Wallace suffered from depression and later killed himself? Maybe. But it seems clear to me - hindsight is 20/20 after all - that the seeds of his obsession with suicide are discernible here.

As I was slogging through this book, sighing and cursing with just about every page, my husband asked me, "With all the good books out there that would give you pleasure, why are you reading one that you clearly don't enjoy?" Good question. I had challenged myself to read the book and I stubbornly perserved until I had met my challenge. Or at least until I had turned every page.


  1. I wouldn't have been so tolerant with a book this long, to tell you the truth. Judging by your review, I have no intention of reading this genius' masterpiece.

    1. No, it definitely isn't your cup of tea! Nor mine. But I had to give it a try. I've read essays of Wallace's that I've quite liked, but I just don't get his fiction. As I wrote, maybe I'm just not smart enough.

  2. I have not yet entered the DFW universe. I will but I have trepidations as well as expectations. In fact, first I will be reading Thomas Pynchon, whose debut novel came out in 1963. For some reason I conflate these two authors. If I were you, though obviously I am not, I would try a different DFW novel before rereading IJ. Also, I recommend the movie, The End of the Tour, which tells the story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter (and novelist) David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg)and the author (played by Jason Segal) during the author's last book tour.

    1. I may try reading some of his other fiction before returning (if indeed I do) to Infinite Jest - or not. The movie might be a better place to start. I've heard good things about it.


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