Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Infinite Jest Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: David Foster Wallace
Publisher: Brown
Genre: Literary Science Fiction, Humor
Series: Standalone
Pages: 1,087

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This is one of the most challenging works of fiction out there, and that includes books outside the fantasy and science fiction realm. It’s a rewarding read to the people who are willing to brave the immense length and post modern diatribes that come with it.

If you pick up Infinite Jest you will either love this book or hate it. This book isn’t for everyone. Taking a look at the Amazon reviews, you can see the masses would agree with that statement as the two highest star ratings are one and five. Personally, I believe this is a brilliant story – especially at the conceptual level. For ye brave souls who pick up this book, get ready to be sucked into endless conversation with those who have read it, and get ready for some blank stares from people who haven’t read it and are wondering why anyone would spend their time reading a book like this. In my personal opinion Infinite Jest is brilliant, simply put.

What’s a modern literary classic like Infinite Jest doing on a fantasy and science fiction website?
Spoiler Alert: It’s a science fiction novel. Although that’s not obvious in the early going, there’s no real doubting it at the end. Infinite Jest is a book that’s usually best read knowing very little about the plot, before you read it, so I’m giving two plot summaries: the first one is vague and the recommended summary I suggest you read if you’re thinking about picking up Infinite Jest The second summary actually highlights the central plot, which is recommended to people who have to know a little something about the story before they decide to read a book.
Infinite Jest Plot Summary One (Vague)
Set in a Boston suburb, Infinite Jest explores the life of a family that owns a tennis academy as well as the lives people in drug recovery at a nearby halfway house.
Infinite Jest Plot Summary Two (A Little More Elaborate)
James Orin Incandenza is the owner of a tennis academy and an amateur filmmaker who’s reputation grew after he created a video that kills people by putting them in a state of overwhelming bliss. Members of James’ family and students at his tennis academy, residents of a nearby by halfway house, and a terrorist organization all begin to search for the tape in earnest after James’ death.

Besides being long, readers should immediately notice two things about this book: it has an extensive set (100 plus pages) of footnotes at the end, and each of the chapter headings begins telling the reader the time that the chapter is taking place.  However, time in Infinite Jest, is given to the reader in what’s called subsidized time. For example a chapter heading may read: Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and the next one may read Year of the Whopper … etc., etc.  What this does is it sets all of the events in the story out of chronological order, and it makes it somewhat vague as to when these events are occurring.

The chronological order of things isn’t the only thing that makes reading Infinite Jest difficult.  There are lengthy sentences without breaks, not unlike the sentences you would read in some of William Faulkner’s books.  Plenty of obscure references and inside art jokes are inserted into the story; many of these are funny if you’re able to visualize the references. Oftentimes the book switches between a more advanced academic vocabulary, pseudonyms for street and prescription drugs, and lengthy abbreviations for organizations or even people’s names and nicknames. There are also a lot of characters that come in and out of the story, many of whom are called by different names by different characters.

At 1,087 pages, and with all of these machinations, you are going to have to be a committed reader to make it to the end. I have a few reading recommendations that I’ll bullet point below which could help make things easier reading this book.

  • Familiarize or re-familiarize yourself with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
  • Take notes on all the narrating and frequently recurring characters – what they’re doing and when.
  • Bookmark page 223 – this is where the order of subsidized time is explained. Do not skip ahead and read this first.
  • Bookmark page 983 – this is where the footnotes begin, and where you’ll be coming back to often.
  • After finishing the story, return to the beginning and re-read the first 17 pages.

Infinite Jest also has a way of keeping things funny, while also keeping things deep and ambiguous.  In the quote below is a funny story about a bricklayer’s claim for insurance over an accident he recently had. The humor here is pretty much in line with everything else written by Wallace throughout the novel. However, it should be noted in this case, the story below is actually a real urban legend, which some people may actually recognize.  The question then becomes, why does the bricklayer use an urban legend on his insurance sheet? Jokes within jokes, questions within questions basically sums up everything you read in Infinite Jest.
“Dear Sir:
I am writing in response to your request for additional information. In block #3 of the accident reporting form, I put “trying to do the job alone”, as the cause of my accident. You said in your letter that I should explain more fully and I trust that the following details will be sufficient.
I am a bricklayer by trade. On the day of the accident, March 27, I was working alone on the roof of a new six story building. When I completed my work, I discovered that I had about 900 kg. of brick left over. Rather than laboriously carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to lower them in a barrel by using a pulley which fortunately was attached to the side of the building at the sixth floor. Securing the rope at ground level, I went up to the roof, swung the barrel out and loaded the brick into it. Then I went back to the ground and untied the rope, holding it tightly to insure a slow descent of the 900 kg of bricks. You will note in block #11 of the accident reporting form that I weigh 75 kg.
Due to my surprise at being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Needless to say, I proceeded at a rapid rate up the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor I met the barrel coming down. This explains the fractured skull and the broken collar bone.
Slowed only slightly, I continued my rapid ascent not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were two knuckles deep into the pulleys. Fortunately, by this time, I had regained my presence of mind, and was able to hold tightly to the rope in spite of considerable pain. At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel from the force of hitting the ground.
Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel now weighed approximately 30 kg. I refer you again to my weight of 75 kg in block #11. As you could imagine, still holding the rope, I began a rather rapid descent from the pulley down the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming up. This accounts for the two fractured ankles and the laceration of my legs and lower body.
The encounter with the barrel slowed me enough to lessen my impact with the brick-strewn ground below. I am sorry to report, however, that as I lay there on the bricks in considerable pain, unable to stand or move and watching the empty barrel six stories above me, I again lost my presence of mind and unfortunately let go of the rope, causing the barrel to begin a… endtranslNTCOM626″

There may be some serious slapstick moments, like the one above, but a lot of dark humor suicide, animal murders, drug abuse, and various other dark subject matter makes its way into the story. At times it’s funny and it will have you laughing along while your conscience fills itself with the heavy feeling of guilt for laughing at the misfortune of others. Other times, particularly with the animal murders, the book becomes disturbing.

There is a lot to be said about the characters in this story, however going into detail really spoils the fun of reading this book. I will say this though, almost all of the characters in Infinite Jest, especially all of the members of the Incandenza family, are thoroughly messed up individuals.

Despite being set in the nearby future, Infinite Jest has a distinct 90’s feel to it. There are some technological innovations that we have presently passed in Wallace’s story … cartridge films for example. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a hard science fiction book look elsewhere, Infinite Jest is more literary than anything.  Although there are dated references, personally, I felt like I was reading something that will be considered timeless in the centuries to come. If that’s going to be the case, then Infinite Jest and it’s growing reputation is certainly well on it’s way.

Score: 10

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