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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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Review: Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace

In 1996, Dave Eggers wrote a review of the recently published Infinite Jest. Eggers called the novel “frustrating” and said it buckled “under the weight of its own excess.” “Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea,” Eggers wrote, “the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredible length.” Now, Eggers also extolled Infinite Jest for the potential rewards it offered a reader; further, Eggers praised Wallace for being “a consistently innovative, sensitive, and intelligent writer.” Nevertheless, the review largely painted the novel as a chore to get through.


Fast forward to 2006. The reaction to Infinite Jest went over pretty well. In ten years time, a cult of devout Wallace-loving fanatics has sprung up all over the map. Reviews are largely favorable and the fans have taken to guerrilla tactics, armed with a very thick book and a mission to convert the nonbelievers. Little, Brown and Company elects to publish a tenth-anniversary edition of Infinite Jest and invites none other than Eggers himself to write the introduction. Eggers' tone is different. “The book is 1,079 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence,” he writes. This new Eggers declares Infinite Jest is a pleasure to read and not one bit daunting.


Maybe Eggers had a change of heart. I mean, he wasn't completely snubbing the novel in '96, but to go from “lexical diarrhea” to “not only lazy sentence” is a drastic change. It's certainly possible that the text marinated in Eggers mind, he gave it another read, and he had a much different experience. It's also possible Eggers was influenced. For one, readers and academia had adopted Infinite Jest. The cult of Wallace was on the move. And I'm sure the publisher was offering a decent check for the five-page forward. And maybe Eggers just wasn't sure what he thought. It is a confusing work, unlike anything else. Maybe he read it and simultaneously loved it and hated it. Or perhaps I'm projecting my own reaction to Infinite Jest on Eggers. Such a grab bag of emotions possesses me. What did I think of Infinite Jest? Well, a little bit of everything.


⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆ - Though long and confusing, Infinite Jest is brilliant. Everything about it is wildly unique. The structure, the language, the methodology—it all comes together to make something original and untried. As Eggers' wrote in his foreword, “This book is like a spaceship with no recognizable components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no way to take it apart. … If you could somehow smash it into smaller pieces, there would certainly be no way to put it back together again.” And while other authors may emulate the style with varied success, the fact is Infinite Jest will probably always be the only book of its kind. Whether you love it or hate it, such a distinction is significant.


⋆⋆⋆⋆ - The characters and scenes are memorable. Sure, there are long gaps devoid of these wonderfully drawn scenes where characters ramble on and on about nothing of importance, but the accumulation of the many parts are unforgettable. Although Infinite Jest is the sort of book no one could ever make a film based on (I said the same about Cloud Atlas once), there are scenes which impossible not to imagine on the big screen. They're so wonderfully drawn and the characters are so uniquely styled, that I often imagined the moments in a detail few other books elicit from me.


⋆⋆⋆ - Infinite Jest is horribly wordy. Sometimes it works for it—it is part of the style that makes it unique—and sometimes it just drags. While some of the scenes are interesting in themselves, the detail in which they're described is both refreshing and excruciating. Could Infinite Jest have been shorted? Hell yes. But doing so would've robbed it of much of its uniqueness and allure. Does this justify its “lexical diarrhea”? That probably depends on the reader.


⋆⋆ - The end notes are ridiculous. I've read reviews or guides regarding Infinite Jest where the author stated every end note was vital and worth reading. 388 end notes spread out over 96 pages. How many were important in my opinion? Only a handful. Not only that, but I didn't understand why specific scenes (such as the phone conversation between Hal and Orin) were end notes in the first place. The text is already saturated with these long conversations. Why were some made into ten-page end notes? Why separate them from the text? If I ever find myself reading Infinite Jest again (unlikely, but I won't rule it out), I'm skipping the end notes. I really didn't need them.


⋆ - That's some racist bullshit. I see racism in literature for what it is. A work written at a much earlier time may be riddled with racism, and I can accept that without embracing it, because I realize it is a product of the time. A work written with racist characters or tones is also understandable if it is relevant to the story. Certainly, we should not simply cover up and ignore humanity's flaws. The problem here is, I don't think Infinite Jest qualifies for either of these conditions. Its setting is the near future and the characters have no obvious reason to be so incredibly bigoted. We're not dealing with a single narrator with a chip on his shoulder here. Infinite Jest is peopled with eccentric, but otherwise average, New Englanders and Canadians. Maybe I just missed something, but I don't think the rampant racism was relevant to the story. It's more than the name calling (ie, chinks, spics, ragheads, etc.), it's the stereotype. The black characters (rarely referred to as anything but the n-word) are a bunch of dumpster-diving, fighting, illiterate hoodlums. I'd be more forgiving if these were merely the thoughts of one ignorant character, but even the more intelligent, open-minded characters seem quite bigoted. For what aim? At least the honkies had their issues with substance abuse—I'd hate for them to seem too perfect. (Did someone say misogyny? Yeah, there's that too.)


So, yeah, I'm confused as to how I felt about Infinite Jest. It was good and it was bad. It seems I'm not alone in my confusion. I'm glad I read it if for no other reason than to know it. Maybe in another ten years my tune will change and I'll sing its praises with fervor and without hesitation. I hear it's happened before.