Infinite Jest- David Foster Wallace

infinite-jestI had heard for a long time that this was one of the best books in the post-modernist movement of literature so I decided eventually to check it out. Websites and reviews toted it as life changing, inspirational and tragic so I figured that I might like it. Unfortunately I was disappointed by this book and would probably even call it overrated.

Infinite Jest kind of tells the story of boys at a tennis academy, addicts at a half way house and Quebec separatists trying to destroy America with the most entertaining film ever made (named Infinite Jest). My biggest problem with Infinite Jest is that you can only use the term story really lightly. There really isn’t much of a story in the book. Rather it is a snapshot of a few days in the lives of the tennis academy folk and the addicts at the half way house. The whole idea of the separatists is really only a small portion of this book, which was really disappointing to me. That was the most interesting material from a narrative point of view. Throughout the book, Wallace goes into detail to describe the lives of people at the two locations, but it doesn’t really have any narrative structure. I got the distinct impression that Wallace wasn’t using his characters to tell a story, rather just putting them in situations that would let him expound on his ideas of life. That’s fine to an extent, but it gets really tedious when nothing ever seems to be happening to the characters. When I reached the end, it did not feel like an ending, just where Wallace ran out of things to say. Now I understand that this is post-modernism, so the rules can be bent, but I really would have liked to see a more cohesive story line or at least a little bit of structure instead of the disorganized chaos of Infinite Jest

That being said, Wallace can write beautifully. The individual portions of the book were really good. They were enjoyable and filled with humor and wit. The problem was that the individual portions of the book never got tied together by the narrative, they were just left floating free in Wallace-metaspace. Because of this, I imagine that Wallace’s non-fiction is a lot better. He doesn’t seem as confident in fiction. He has a hard time with dialogue and a hard time developing his characters. This book is filled with so much information that you know a lot about the characters and the locations but you never really feel connected to them. Wallace never really takes the time to endear the characters to the readers.

As I think about Infinite Jest I wonder if I missed something, which might be the case. The problem is that the book is huge. In fact it is one of the longest novels ever written, so it is not exactly easy to go back and do a re-study. If the book was cut down to about 500 pages (which it very well could have) then I think that I would have enjoyed it more. What  Infinite Jest  needed was a little more focus. Instead we get a huge brain dump from Wallace that feels overly pretentious and ultimately frustrating, despite the wonderful ideas and beautiful writing captured within.

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2 responses to “Infinite Jest- David Foster Wallace

  1. Since I started reading “Infinite Jest” three weeks ago and am roughly through 1100 pages, I was looking for some statement that mirrors my own impressions of the book. And gladly I found your review. Your words describe almost exactly how I feel about this whole thing. And I just wanted to thank you for sharing this.

    Although I don’t think Wallace’s work is pretentious nor frustrating, with
    “I got the distinct impression that Wallace wasn’t using his characters to tell a story, rather just putting them in situations that would let him expound on his ideas of life. That’s fine to an extent, but it gets really tedious when nothing ever seems to be happening to the characters.”
    you nailed it. What I feel, what’s wrong with the book (for me, anyway).

    I really love Thomas Pynchons body of work and that was the reason why I started reading “Infinite Jest” in the first place (because so many wrote something like “If you like Pynchon, you will like/love Wallace as well). But while Pynchon can be frustrating at times, his characters are more than just stand-ins. And there’s always a narrative in his works, although sometimes kind of labyrinthine and/or difficult to follow.

    Anyway, just wanted to thank you. And by the way, I read the book in German, and based on what I know of the English version, the translator did a tremendous job (took him six years).

    Regards from Hamburg, Germany,
    Christian

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