Brian Whitney
Retro Read

Infinite Jest

By - Jul 24th, 2011 04:00 am
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Most readers balk at the prospect of parsing through something like Infinite Jest based on size alone, and it’s hard to blame them. 1,088 pages is an intimidating sum, not to mention the mountain of endnotes.

That being said, it is impossible for me to even understand, let alone explain, how important this book has been to me and the way in which I see the world. I’ll say this: we have seen ambitious novelists write works of great length before and since Infinite Jest, but there is no single piece of literature that captures the minute details of the human experience as well. It’s hard to believe there ever will be again.

The kind of hyper-awareness to detail that David Foster Wallace employs is probably a large contributing factor to what took him out of the world, but it’s also a central part of what makes his most important literary contribution so compelling. The act of describing someone as they wait for a large delivery of pot, or as young tennis phenom Hal Incandenza clips his toenails and talks to his brother on the phone doesn’t sound very exciting or life-affirming, but it is.

Wallace is a rarity, in that he’s a very intelligent writer who doesn’t feel the need to constantly point out how smart he is.

For all its density, Infinite Jest is surprisingly accessible, in a way that many of Wallace’s literary predecessors (Pynchon, Gaddis) had difficulty achieving. It’s hard to imagine a sprawling, ambitious work such as this to be so enjoyable to read, but the book’s greatest strength is that it is.

It is not a conventional novel, in many senses. There are those pesky end notes, an entertaining reference for those who want to dive in deeper, but also a potential source of annoyance for casual readers. The plot doesn’t move in a linear way, nor does it resolve itself in the way a conventional plot does. Here, as in life, there are going to be loose ends. Put plainly, this book is what it means to be human, and for a very specific subset of the general population (myself included) that is fascinated with the idea of humanity, this book is borderline narcotic.

Considering that the book’s title comes from a fictional movie within the narrative — said to be “entertaining to the point that anyone who starts watching it will lose the desire to do anything else — this is funny. There are very few books that live up to the promise of that much entertainment, but this is surely one of them.

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