[Content warning: long and with pretention, much like David Foster Wallace’s book. This isn’t a review as such (because I don’t feel qualified giving one after only one reading), but a disordered collection of thoughts about literature, storytelling and personal taste I had upon finishing the book. It might not make much sense if you haven’t read or are considering reading it.]
A few weeks ago the bag I use to lug my laptop to and from work lost half its weight over night. For the first time in half a year it did not also contain my copy of the 20-year anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. At over a thousand pages and at least as many grams, getting through it took more of my valuable bi-daily, semi-hour train trips than any other book has done or is likely to do. So I’d like to think it was worth it.
I read it because I kept bumping into it. About a year and a half ago I decided to start engaging with some Serious Literature after having consumed almost exclusively nonfiction for fifteen years and nothing but humor and science fiction/fantasy before that. I’d long found literature interesting as a topic without actually consuming any of it because I felt it demanded too much time and effort for the payoff. I’d rather just read about great books.
But I got tired of absorbing knowledge for no particular reason and wanted a different kind of reading experience. I started to hang out at Reddit’s book forum r/books looking for clues on what to read. If I was going to spend time on fiction I wanted it to be good, and because of disappointments in the past I knew I needed to vet my candidates thoroughly.
As I browsed, a book I’d never heard of before kept popping up. ”Infinite Jest” was a mammoth work held up as the highest of high-brow literature as well as a potentially life-changing experience, but difficult to get through and many gave up early, describing it as incomprehensible and pretentious. *Yawn* Pass. Instead I read other things while going back to r/books regularly to find out what to put next in my queue.
And there it was, over and over again, that Mount Everest of Books. The greatest amount of work for the greatest prospect of reward. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I read about its themes, about entertainment addiction, customized media channels as a source of fragmentation, self-absorption, depression and loss of connection and community — things I care about and have thought about myself. I read Wallace’s essays E Unibus Pluram and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll never Do Again and enjoyed them. So I bought the book, thinking I’d read it ”eventually”.
But I couldn’t help myself. I started right away, skipping over other books in my queue. With a reading guide and dictionary in neighboring tabs on my phone I sat down in a café one late afternoon, full of enthusiasm. Many give up on this difficult book, I thought, but not me. Nope, no way. People who’d finished it said it was totally worth it, and I trusted them. There was also ego involved: I Wasn’t Going To Be Defeated By This Thing.
Six months later I put it down in front of me, the low-frequency *thud* making it a few meters through a crowded post-workday train carriage. Finished.
Verdict: I did not care for it very much.
Fans adore this book and idolize Wallace, and I didn’t see it. I pushed through the (im)famous first 200 pages, waiting for the point where things were supposed to start making sense and draw me in. It never happened. It did get less disorienting by the one-third mark, but it never became compelling.
I didn’t care about the various happenings taking place at Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (the two main storylines). They illustrated certain themes, okay. The inner emptiness that comes from chasing worldly success while giving up your inner life and everything else, okay. How we use addictive substances to treat our depression resulting from the loneliness, desperation and alienation we feel in a modern, disconnected world. Okay. Those are good themes, but they weren’t explored in nearly enough detail to warrant several hundred pages each.
Sadly, it seemed to confirm the prejudice against fiction I wanted to overcome: literary fiction is too vague and particularist to deal with it’s themes with enough detail and complexity to offer a decent insight-to-length ratio. Its message isn’t worked out in any great detail as far as I can tell and could be summed up in a few sentences; most of the book is illustration, not elaboration or explication.
The most interesting theme — how entertainment fuels isolation and solipsism resulting in self-medication with more entertainment and further isolation etc. — didn’t get much airtime. Instead it was mostly about plain old drug addiction and how terrible it is. Over and over again.
While it has a plot, the moving parts of this plot occurs mostly between and behind the pages. It’s like watching a movie but scenes driving the story are missing and instead you see characters brushing their teeth, shopping, and talking about what they’ve done. Important things are not presented as such, and things that aren’t (?) important to the plot take turns on center stage (or maybe “center court” considering how much tennis there is).
Figuring out what happens is like doing research: wading through partially relevant information and trying to piece things together. Fine, that can be neat but I get enough of it in my job. In reality. To me an important purpose of fiction is to cater to our psychological needs the way reality doesn’t: to present a world that does work the way we mistakenly believe the real world to work. To quote Jerry Seinfeld: “If I want a long, boring story with no point to it, I have my life.”
What we get is a mosaic of short stories. Problem is, the tiles don’t come together into a big picture representing much not already there in each piece. They’re variations on the same theme: addiction, solipsism, selfishness and lack of human connection. A thousand tiles all slightly different shades of the same depressive black add up to just another black square. It illustrates the subtleties of that color quite well, but little more.
Wallace did describe the book as structured like a Sierpinski triangle, a type of fractal — where every part is identical to the whole. This suggests I criticize something that’s entirely on purpose, except I don’t quite buy that it’s a fractal in any but the vaguest of senses. There doesn’t seem to be a clear multistep hierarchy of story-scales, just a lot of little things illustrating the same ideas. Maybe I’m missing it.
I mentioned in my Black Mirror analysis that I like tight, focused plots, meticulously crafted to execute in a precise fashion where every detail, subplot and backstory plays an essential causal or thematic role. IJ isn’t like that. It isn’t clockwork. It’s closer to a garden overgrown by weeds: a wonder of biodiversity and small-scale interestingness but with no apparent intentionality beyond individual organisms living their lives.
I suppose I’m supposed to enjoy the little vignettes on their own terms, but mostly I didn’t. The descriptions of empty, broken people and their tragic and sometimes abusive ways to cope with their suffering did little but repeat that one hollow chord over and over again. Yes, there were lighter parts like the film theory jokes, the game of Eschaton, the history of video telephony and the origin of the wheelchair assassins. But even there I saw little reason for it all to be thrown together into the same book. Most of it doesn’t get particularly improved by being a part of the whole. It’s as if Wallace had written blog posts on whatever he’s thinking about and then decided to paste them together using a fairly thin story as glue.
I would have liked reading that blog (that way I could skip the stories and stories and stories about withdrawal, abuse and the minutiae of being in AA), but in book form it just made me impatient. I was expecting one work of fiction, not a loose bundle of texts. If small pieces of art are to come together into a single artwork greater than the sum of its parts they need to evoke the impression that they undeniably belong together, that they are first and foremost fragments of the whole and not works in their own right.
Maybe my long history reading non-fiction is making it difficult for me to appreciate the more ”impressionist” qualities of fiction, where you’re supposed to feel in the moment rather than interpret and follow over time. While I can appreciate texts whose main purpose is to induce a mood or feeling, such qualities alone can’t carry 1000 pages. No feeling is interesting enough to keep for so long. I can feel sad, terrified, elated, joyous or furious by a single para- or photograph. A novel this thick needs to do way more than make me feel.
A counterpoint is that expecting a typical story structure with clear intentionality, teleology, “fiction logic” etc. from a contemporary literary work is immature and unsophisticated. We’ve been moving away from archaic and oppressive traditional artistic forms and structures for a hundred years now, and expecting it from an avant-garde work is dumb; what makes cutting-edge art cutting-edge art is subverting our expectations.
I know. I get it. I just don’t find a near century-old family of rebellions interesting anymore. It’s not edgy to write a 1000 page subversion of traditional structures and forms when traditional structures and forms have been under attack for so long. Maybe I’m underestimating how much has happened in the last 20 years and subversion was still, well, subversive, when IJ was written.
Speaking of being subversive, the satirical parts are supposed to be funny, I heard. I don’t think I laughed even once. Jokes criticizing ubiquitous advertising, empty consumerism and slimy, short-sighted politicians felt a bit… blunt and tired? Easy targets, much? Maybe that too was fresher and wittier in the nineties.
Fans go on about how good his prose is, and it is skillful but I wouldn’t call it beautiful (which goes with the anti-pleasure theme, I suppose). Wallace was certainly great at capturing different styles, moods and personalities (I love the way Marathe talks, using English words with French-Canadian grammar), but much of his prose I found downright ugly, with lots of acronyms, brand names and jarring shifts in tone. Sentences so long and tortured you have to go back and read again to understand are perhaps skillfully engineered, but still ugly. I can’t bring myself to call it good writing.
Compared with the prose of Richard Powers whose The Gold-Bug Variations I read last spring, Wallace’s writing feels decidedly unfriendly. His multipage paragraphs ooze hostility like a massive concrete wall, making his prose a brutalist building while Powers writes Art Nouveau.
I expected the book to be difficult and I was ready to work hard, but I also expected the complexity of the substance to match the complexity of its presentation. The fragmented narrative structure and hard-to-digest writing style ought in my opinion reflect similarly complex ideas underneath, and I don’t think they did. I’m ok with doing work when absorbing difficult material but I’m less ok with having easily digestible material made challenging by an obtuse, confusing presentation. I.e. you can hide complexity under an accessible surface (like good popular science does) or you can hide simplicity under a complex surface, and I think there is too much of the latter in IJ.
For instance, I was underwhelmed by the famous Eschaton chapter. I’d read about it beforehand and expected an extended discussion in allegorical form about the relationship between map and territory, symbol and referent (which has been a big part of 20th-century postmodern thought), ultimately making some statement about how to resolve these issues. Instead it came off like little more than a reference joke: ”haha look, they have a conflict about the relationship between map and territory, just like cultural theorists!”. Funny and clever, sure, but I expected more than a nudge-and-a-wink from something labeled a work of genius.
I whine. I complain about how the book wasn’t compelling, how it didn’t grab me, how flipping back and forth to read the hundreds of endnotes made the experience disjointed and exhausting, and how there wasn’t much of a plot to follow, making you do the work to piece everything together yourself. But that’s dumb, since I understand that this is all on purpose. A core component of the story is a movie (referred to as ”The Entertainment”) so enjoyable that people never want to do anything else in their life but watch it over and over again. This and the overlong treatment of addiction makes it clear that IJ is a screed against the easy and the unearned; against superficial ”compellingness”, page-turnerism, and all kinds of empty pleasure. It’s been called “anti-entertainment” and it is; it’s dense, difficult and emotionally distressing, packed with stories of sexual abuse, desperation and cruelty. Plus boring.
The anti-entertainment sends a clear message and that message is partly a criticism of some of my views and tastes, so in the end I guess the joke is on me for reading it. I knew what I was getting into and I got more or less what I thought I’d get.
Those who give up on it probably make the right decision more often than not, as I suspect it’s hard to finish mostly because it’s boring and the tough part is to stay interested, i.e. if you give up it’s probably not because you couldn’t finish it but because you didn’t care to. The fans claiming it’s totally worth it probably liked it most of the way through, and their satisfaction doesn’t mean those who quit would’ve found it worthwhile to read on to the end.
As a result opinions tend to fall into two camps: ”it was a long but sooooo worth it!” or ”pretentious crap, chucked it after 100 pages”. Part of the reason I wanted to write this is that my reaction is decidedly in the middle: ”interesting and impressive but not necessarily worth the time and effort in terms of large-scale payoff if you don’t like it on a page-by-page basis.” If I hadn’t finished it I couldn’t have said that.
Disappointment stems mostly from it not doing for me anything like what it did for many others. Sucks you in? No. Life changing? No. Couldn’t put it down? No. It was a slog all the way to the end. I wanted to fall in love with it. I wanted something good enough to worship and I had high hopes for IJ. The only book I’ve ever felt exists at a different plane above others is Gödel, Escher, Bach, and I thought “Infinite Jest” might be number 2 on the list and the first work of fiction. It wasn’t, and now I don’t know where to look for the next candidate.
They say the prerequisite to reading Infinite Jest is to have read Infinite Jest, meaning you need to read it a second time to understand it. Or possibly and third and a fourth time. I don’t mind this; I actually kind of like it. In theory, and for shorter works. I’m not confident it’s worth pushing myself through this kilopage monstrosity again, spending another six months I could be spending on several other books.
To make this kind of demands on a reader you need to really be able to deliver, and what I’ve read in reviews suggests there are plenty of things I didn’t get but not an order of magnitude more meaning to take from it. But I could be wrong, and the weird thing is I’m still sort of open to rereading it at some undetermined future date. While it’s not ”compelling” in an ordinary sense, the allure of the challenge remains — when you’ve successfully read it the next step is to learn to like it.
It reminds me of my relationship with Bäsk, a wormwood-flavored spirit beloved by my seasoned student friends but typically hated by newcomers. I tried to get used to the taste for ten years, downing one once about every six months in hope of progress. But no, I still hate the stuff.
Am I going to try Infinite Jest again because I can’t let things be? It doesn’t feel like that now, but I don’t entirely trust my future self. That a book about addiction (with a movie you just want to watch over and over again until you die) elicits this kind of reaction is of course fitting and a point in favor of the ”genius” thesis.
While not perfect for me, I understand why it can be such a fantastic experience for different minds. It’s unique, and reading it is an experience without a true substitute. So, despite all my complaints I’d recommend it tentatively. You may like it, but even if you don’t you might want to read it for the ego boost, the mental workout or the community it makes you a part of (nothing builds community like going through an ordeal together).
Cultural importance also matters a great deal. I often don’t find it meaningful to read something I’d probably enjoy if it isn’t well known, historically influential or has some kind of special status. Meaning is a social phenomenon, created and maintained by communities (it has to be to remain sturdy against our whims), and if a book isn’t part of our collective consciousness then reading it doesn’t help me connect with the world-spirit. Instead it risks reinforcing that media-induced solipsism I wanted the book to discuss more.
In the end, IJ:s unique status makes reading it a meaningful experience even if you don’t like it.
This is similar to my attitude to games: I like to play games but much prefer constructing them and theorizing about them.
I did enjoy the parts discussing addiction behavior more generally, like Steeply’s and Marathe’s conversations and the story about how Steeply’s father became obsessed with M*A*S*H.
Apparently Wallace is first and foremost a short story writer. That doesn’t surprise me at all, since he is so much stronger on the chapter level than on the book level.
I think you need to enjoy IJ like you enjoy impressionistic music. That is, by treating it as a sequence of sensations and moods rather than as an exercise in pattern-recognition, a quasi-narrative, or an actual narrative. Personally, I find it difficult to appreciate impressionist music.
Absurd elements like wheelchair assassins, skull-less infants and garbage-throwing catapults also fell flat. IJ failed to be funny to me much the way the supposedly hilarious A Confederacy of Dunces did. Both books describe ”funny” things more than they are funny themselves, giving them a “you really had to be there” vibe. And it’s often as sad as it’s funny, which ruins it for me. Like virtually everyone in ”Infinite Jest”, Ignatius J. Reilly (the protagonist of ”A Confederacy of Dunces”) is sad. Too sad to be funny.
It’s hard to read IJ without thinking about Wallace’s suicide in 2008. He struggled with mental illness for much of his life and the book obviously comes from a place of pain and depression. I can’t help but wonder if seeing so much of what he’d feared come true with the internet (which he apparently was unaware of when writing) made him feel even worse.
From what I can see, “The Gold-Bug Variations” has besides gorgeous prose greater depth of ideas (how complexity emerges from iteration and elaboration of the simple — simultaneously expressed in music, genetics and computing) and is more elegantly crafted. How its two decades-separated love stories follow each other in a canon (sometimes in ”inversion”) is lovely. Wallace, on the other hand, prefers stark ugliness and a grandiose mess to harmonious order, which is a valid aesthetic but nothing I personally appreciate.
On the other hand, a simple or ordinary idea can pass through our mind so quickly and easily that we don’t comprehend its subtleties as well as we should. We might have heard something in passing so many times it’s become a platitude, or thought about it shallowly so many times it feels more familiar than it really is. To couch such an idea (one that clearly and simply expressed is met by shrugs) in an obfuscatory format can give it new life: if we must do work to get at what a text is trying to say, we get a little dopamine kick of “insight happiness” when succeeding. I suspect we sometimes confuse the insight-happiness we get from successfully parsing a diffcult presentation with the insight-happiness we get from reading something new and true about the world. This effect can be used for good and evil, good if it helps us better understand deceptively simple truths, and evil if it makes us mistake obscurantist nonsense for profundity.
There may be an implied argument there, but implying an argument isn’t the hard or admirable part — it’s actually working it out. This attitude might be close to the core of what separates me from “literary types”.
This is a great strategy is you want your work highly regarded: make it such a chore to read that only those who truly love it make it to the end. If someone isn’t going to like it, make them give up early so they won’t have a leg to stand on when criticizing it. I don’t mean that Wallace did that on purpose, just that it’s a dynamic that affects the emerging consensus on a book.
Tellingly, I don’t remember struggling to make it through “GEB”, even tough it’s also thick and difficult. I can see myself telling others who have a though time with it: ”Go on! It’s so worth it!”. But I shouldn’t do that. Since I liked it all the way though I’m not qualified to give advice to those who struggle. If you didn’t have a difficult time with something, you shouldn’t tell others the difficulty is worth it.
I can’t help being suspicious of myself. I have all these complaints about what I didn’t like about the book, but part of me knows I would gladly excuse them if I had just liked it. But I didn’t and I look for reasons why, bringing up far-mode abstractions about what fiction is for and what makes a great work of art when the real reason might be as simple as “I couldn’t identify with the characters”. Not only am I not a traumatized drug addict or a single-minded athlete, I’m very far from both and that’s perhaps why it bored me to hear lots and lots and lots about their particular problems. I’m a terrible person.