The Bookshelf: Reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Part 1

Infinite Jest

Why do we choose the books we read?  For me, that is rarely an easy question to answer.  Lately I have allowed mood to carry the decision more than anything else.  There are times I crave some comedy, other times non-fiction… I’ve found reading a comic or graphic novel in between larger more serious fare helps to clean the mental palette.  And of course, my favorite way to decide what to read is work of mouth.  If a friend suggests something, I am many-fold more likely to pick that up… depending on the friend.  I have also found myself simply wandering around a bookstore and reading staff picks and those “if you liked such and such, you will love…” end-caps and displays. 

Why do I even bring this up?  A friend and colleague told me about a website called “I Write Like” where you can submit your own writing samples and in return (within seconds) you get an author’s name for whom this program says your writing is most similar to.  Please note… similar to, not as good as.  A couple of months ago I finally decided to submit a few of my blog posts and was pleased and surprised by what came up for me.  I submitted three posts, and in return, my style was compared to Cory Doctorow, Douglas Adams and David Foster Wallace.  I was pleasantly surprised… yet I must admit to not recognizing or being familiar with Wallace.  Upon mentioning this to my aforementioned friend and colleague (who is a wonderfully geeky man who I adore having conversations with regarding trivia, history, books and pop culture and who would be aghast to hear me say such nice things about him) he laughed and pulled out his copy of Infinite Jest

He had already spent about a month and a half reading this monster of a novel and began telling me about it in the most general of terms… big, complex, amazing, confusing, weird, funny and written with such an amazing command of the English language that he continued to read this beast for another month and a half.  At just over 1,000 pages, and about 100 of those pages being notes, this is not what you would call light reading.  Recently he completed the book… and he has not been encouraging me to read it.  Although, the more he talked about it, the more I wanted to read it.  At the same time, this book began popping up in my life in odd ways… or at the very least, now that I am very aware of it, I began seeing how it is very much a part of our literary culture. 

For a while I allowed my fear of undertaking such a monumental task where so many have failed before (this is one of those novels that many people own yet have never read) get the better of me.  I have been spending my reading time either delving into more comics and rereading many other things… yet knowing I wanted to dive into something meaty.  So last week, I popped three more posts into “I Write Like” and in return I got Cory Doctorow and twice… David Foster Wallace.  My curiosity had finally piqued to the point I was compelled to head to the bookstore and pick up a copy of Infinite Jest.

That said… this is not a review… this is the first part of my sharing with you my experience of reading this monumental and influential novel with you, my readers.

What are my thoughts now that I’m about 60 pages in?  I was hooked in the first chapter.  The novels structure is odd to say the least.  There appear to be many characters for whom I don’t know who they are or where they fit into anything, but one family seems to be the main focus… the Incandeza’s.  Taking place in a rather near future (the book was written in 1996, but I think it takes place around now) the novel seems to have sci-fi elements but is ultimately about forms of entertainment, drugs, addiction, obsessive compulsive behavior… the narrative is scattered yet dense.  There is nothing linear about this.  From chapter to chapter we jump to the past from the present and back again.  The perspective used even changes throughout the book from first person to third and it takes you a while to realize why you are suddenly jarred and having to stop reading and understand what has happened.

As my friend warned me… not an easy read.  There are times however, when easy is not what you are looking for… but instead, something to exercise your brain.  Infinite Jest is like the Nordic Trak of novels… reading this will be difficult, but ultimately very rewarding.  I will try not to spoil anything while I share this experience with you… and I’m not even sure this could be spoiled.  Even the foreword by Dave Eggers was a treat to read.  He poses the question whether everyone should read Infinite Jest… his answer, “maybe”. 

Alas poor Yorick,
Cornelius J. Blahg

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