The Bookshelf: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

yep... again...Infinite Jest...again...and again...guess who!

After over two and a half months… after hours of discussion with my co-worker/friend… after four blog posts on the “reading of”… after 1079 pages… I completed my first read of David Foster Wallace’s great American novel, Infinite Jest.  Yes, first read… because upon completion of this masterwork it became abundantly clear that this beast was intended to be read multiple times.  If there is any joke w/r/t Infinite Jest is that it never ends… both figuratively and literally… it simply does not end.

I will try to avoid spoilers in this… but there may be a few wee ones.  And I’ll start with what could be considered a spoiler… the first chapter of this novel is the end.  When you reach the final page of main text (I specify this because the main text ends at pg. 981… but the “Notes and Errata” ends on pg. 1079), you would be remiss if you did not go back and begin at pg. 1 (pg. 3 really… but you get my drift)… and may I say, go to Note #61 if you want to understand what exactly this book really is.  Not only is there no end… it is in its most basic form, a closed loop.  A world apart from our world… yet a world nonetheless.

Focusing mainly on one dysfunctional family, the Incandenzas, and the tennis academy they have founded and a halfway house for recovering addicts, Ennet House. The novel explores obsession, addiction, entertainment and what we do in life to distract ourselves from the horror that is living.  It takes the form of high level athletes, drug addicts, alcoholics, film, physics and sex… and if that isn’t enough, sprinkle some politics and terrorism to spice it up a bit.

At times you will want to pull your hair out from frustration.  There are paragraphs that go on for a few pages… there are notes within notes, which at times are longer than the original text it’s notating… you are introduced to characters without names or time-frames given… you are forced to extrapolate much of the action going on based on what would be considered throwaway lines in any normal situation… but this novel is about the farthest away from normal, and still manage to be coherent (I’m thinking Burroughs here), that I’ve had the pleasure of immersing myself in.  And for all the negative aspects the story points our w/r/t pleasure, immersion and obsession… I was all of the above.  Pleased, immersed and obsessed.

Fortunately I had purchased Elegant Complexity, a study guide for Infinite Jest a couple of weeks prior to completion… and in that book the author lays out some fantastic thematic and character diagrams as well as asking about the further questions raised at the end of the novel.  Furthermore, there is also an IJ wiki available online with links to fantastic discussion boards where people are debating the meaning of just about every word… and I’m amazed at how 15 years after the original release of the novel… and almost three years following the author’s suicide by hanging… the novel has many of us in its obsessive grip.

Another aspect of this novel, and one added touch of genius, is the parallels between IJ and Hamlet.  There is the obvious title reference… but also the (quasi) main character, Hal Incandenza, can be seen as a young prince who fails to act… there is a graveyard scene very reminiscent of Shakespeare’s graveyard scene, two clowns and skull included… and even the “ghost” of the dead father more or less.  In addition to Hamlet, Wallace managed to add other touches to this work… from 1984 references to Gilligan’s IslandIJ may reside in our world, but only marginally.

I imagine I could go on for ages and spoil all sorts of aspects of this beautiful and at times horrific novel… but I would be doing you, a potential new reader, an immense disservice.  In the foreword written by Dave Eggers, he asks the question of whether or not everyone should read Infinite Jest.  His answer was maybe… and I would have to agree.  Maybe, everyone should read this book.  I don’t think everyone would enjoy it… fewer would understand it… but the reward in the end is immeasurable.  I am not sure when I will begin reading this the second time… I know I need a mental break for a bit and am already devouring lesser works like a starving man… but it will be soon.  I’m now also digging into interviews with DFW and have posted a couple of them from YouTube below.  Enjoy… and really… consider reading Infinite Jest, it’s not easy, but it is rewarding… if only for the fact that you can brag about having read it.  The few, the proud, the literary elite!

… a man of Infinite Jest,
Cornelius J. Blahg

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