Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Infinite Jest

by David Foster Wallace

Usually when I consider posting a book here, my main criterion is whether or not I'd recommend it to friends of mine, and I try to write the review as if I were trying to convince my friend(s) to read the book. In the case of Infinite Jest, I find this very difficult. To be honest, I wouldn't recommend the book to many people. The book is not only extremely long, but extremely unpleasant, full of broken, deformed, addicted, in some cases mentally ill people who do terrible things to each other while having extensive flashbacks to the unspeakable cruelties they've lived through. The plot, what there is of it, doesn't really kick in until about 500 pages in, and doesn't ever fully coalesce, though there are enough intriguing hints and clues that you feel like you WANT it to come together. What's more, the book is peppered with hundreds of endnotes, some of them several pages in length, requiring the reader to constantly flip back and forth, and necessitating a second bookmark. Not exactly a quick read.

Like many people, I had "Infinite Jest" sitting on my bookshelf for years, and kept feeling like I really should read it. Infinite Summer, an online Infinite Jest reading group, was a huge help. Here were people all over the world, many feeling the same combination of dread and anticipation, reading the book at the same time. I'm not sure I could've done it without my support group.

So. Why read it? I'm not sure you should. But if, after all my warnings, you're still intrigued, Infinite Jest certainly does have its rewards. One of Infinite Summer's guides described it as a plea for empathy and sincerity wrapped in a cynical, detached, post-modern disguise. Only by writing such a tough, nasty, over-the-top screed could David Foster Wallace bring in the audience to whom he most wanted to deliver his message of brotherly love, or so goes the theory. I think this rings true. Characters like Hal Incandenza, Don Gately, and Joelle Van Dyne won't soon leave my memory, and, like my very favorite books, they help me see the beauty at the core of the human beings around me, no matter how gnarly their lives may be. It's a brilliant and blinding work of art, and I do recommend taking up David Foster Wallace's challenge, if you feel you can.