Book reviews · Pop culture · Reading

Infinite Jest

Massive. Sprawling. Elaborate.

At times hilarious, at times insightful, at times hard to put down, and at times almost impossible to follow.

Moving in its depiction of human relationships and personal struggles, prescient in its portrayal of an American society amusing itself to death under the hapless eye of a befuddled former media star turned president.

David Foster Wallace’s vast novel Infinite Jest focuses on a wealthy tennis academy and the substance abuse recovery center down the hill from it.  There are dozens of central characters and intricate portrayals of numerous other tangential characters – many of whom intersect in ways that become apparent to the reader (if not the characters themselves) over the course of the book’s nearly 1000 pages.  Squarely set in the Boston area with ample details to bring the city to life, Wallace spends most of the book weaving the tale of the Incandenza family and the people who have impacted them.

I’ve spent much of this year making my way through this novel and I’m glad that I did.  Its themes are interesting – substance addiction and recovery, family relationships and love, competition and personal growth, the role of the media and corporations in modern life, violence and entertainment, and the reality (or not) of spiritual forces.  There were parts of the book I found deeply moving and insightful as well as sections that were uproariously funny.

Wallace employs a myriad of styles in the book, sometimes reflecting the accents or esoteric interests of certain characters and at other times seemingly just to play with language and convention.  For the most part I felt these choices contributed to the overall flavor of the book, though at times I found them laborious to slog through (admittedly that might have been the point in some cases).

Ultimately, I found the book unsatisfying.  Such an elaborate project is tough to bring off well, but the bigger issue I had with the book is that it both starts and ends in the middle of the story – or really of the set of stories it tells.  The book begins with one of the main characters experiencing something highly unusual, but we are never given sufficient explanation of how this circumstance came about.  Very few of the intricately interwoven character arcs reach conclusion and we are left to wonder where any of these people will end up.  Sometimes that works well, but after investing close to 1000 pages with these people I wanted a bit more resolution than we are left with.

Then again, maybe that’s the point.  All of our stories are still in the middle somewhere, and whether they end up as meaningful tales or simply an infinite jest remains an open question.  I’d rather have a clearer ending to such a long book, but I guess in truth it’s not that simple.

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