David Foster Wallace and the novel that escapes category–or, my experience reading “Infinite Jest”

There are books you read, books you quote, and books you live with.  Among the books I read, I would include lots of things I read merely out of curiosity and then was dissatisfied with later, dissatisfied enough to “diss” them publicly or just to ignore them completely when it came time to comment here on my site.  Then, there are the books you quote, those which speak to some inner part of you and which have certain resonances in some of their lines or chapters which you want to hug to you especially, and to let others know of your appreciation, you make a big production out of memorizing some of their parts.  Those are the books that stay with you the longest, even though later you may revise your notion of their importance and quit dragging them into every conversation at every cocktail party you go to.  Finally, there are the books you live with, and these form a special category of books, books which you find may not have been entirely sympathetic to your particular world view, but which you started and so feel you should finish, out of some obligation to some real or imaginary world court of opinion; these books are mostly long, long books, which take a long time to finish, and which you perhaps read only in small dribs and drabs on a regular basis, and which you therefore live with, willy-nilly.  Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time was such a book sequence for me, and now, having finished the much shorter but still very long book Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, I can safely say that it too is one of the books one lives with.  I read about 5-10 pages a night for several months until I had finished the 1079 pages (inclusive of notes), and just last night I finally finished reading, with that deflated feeling that you get when you realize that now you’re done and will have to get used to a new cast of characters.  You can’t help but feel that letdown, said to be mimetically similar to the letdown authors themselves often feel when they finish writing a book and must turn their attention to something else, some other project.

Infinite Jest, a book at least one critic insists defies category, was my nighttime reading propped up in my bed, and I laughed out loud in the still night many times while reading it, but resisted tearful behavior until the very end last night, when I wanted to say, in the words of the song, “Is That All There Is?”.  This was not only in response to having reached the end of the book and knowing that another book would have to take its place, however, but also in response to the expression of futility with which the book ends, or so it seemed to me.  I have no plans to discuss this in terms of what took place in the events of the book, not only to avoid having to issue a “spoiler alert,” but also because I feel everyone has the right to be disappointed in his or her own way, and I want those who are interested in this book to have their own experience of it.  Perhaps I’m mistaken, and the final vision is one of heavenly light on earth, and if so, I wouldn’t deprive anyone of that experience.  But the book ended too soon and with the wrong protagonist for my money, and left a lot of loose ends and too many balls still in motion to suit me.

It’s quite possible that I was looking for the wrong sort of reading experience, not a contemporary one at all, and one thing Wallace’s book is definitely is contemporary fiction.  It gets compared to Gaddis and Pynchon and even Beckett, though it’s different, very different, from all three, less literarially inclined than Gaddis, less technically inclined than Pynchon, and somehow younger and more hopeful than Beckett until the end at least.  But that younger quality with all its smarts and dreams lying disappointed while the rest of the action remains off-stage somewhere else (in another novel, perhaps) is so very sharp and beautiful and bright-minded throughout most of the novel that when the end of the novel came (set in a scene that’s a flashback) I wanted to scream “But what happens to —?” and “What about those —?”  “What’s going to happen when —?”  Yes, there’s no denying that Wallace did what every good entertainer does, and left his audience wanting more.  And as all the critics tell us, one of the main subjects of the book is the nature of entertainment in North America, particularly in the United States (though for some reason, possibly the very polite and inoffensive nature of our neighbor to the North, Wallace has made Canada the whipping-boy for some of his most cutting satirical lashes).  Then again, maybe I haven’t understood him correctly.  If the futility of our forms of entertainment is the true subject of his book, then tickling us up with the recurrent situational joke, or adolescent fart quip, or dose of black humor, or Feydeau scene and then deserting us where he does at the end is the way to make the point.  But then, this moves the entire novel, which seems sunny in parts, a youthful world in which someone is destined to be the hero, a lot closer to Beckett and farther away from Pynchon and perhaps even Gaddis, though those authors too have their portrayed moments of futility.

Basically, I lived with this book and was intrigued and amused enough to finish the whole thing, though I occasionally tired of the obsession with various drugs, recreational and abused-prescription, which was one of the necessary sub-topics of the given subjects of entertainment and pastime.  And I was sorry when it ended, and I had to tear myself away from at least two of the protagonists, if not more.  And, I found that it continued a tradition begun even as long ago as James Joyce, with the prose speaking the voices of the protagonists with stutters of bad English and negligent phrasing and incorrect vocabulary items when necessary and with perfectly groomed English phrasing when needed elsewhere.  That this book belongs to the contemporary world is nothing against it, in fact it reinforces the prerequisite quality of my recommendation of it as a vade mecum of what not to do if one wants to lead a placid, legal life (jest though one might term it).  It has passion, for a jest, and even its own kind of poetic justice and poetry, which I guarantee will keep the open-minded reader going (but generally in hopes of a resolution, I would think, which doesn’t come in easily recognizable terms).  The ending of the book, though apparently a flashback, is also possibly a simultaneous flash forward into the ending of a character, and has heightened language such as is used of enlightened states and sad upheavals, and which is the language of tragedy.

Be all this as it may, my post must be as seemingly inconclusive as the book is, though not nearly as long.  The book is a work of art, but like all works of art, it will have its admirers and its detractors.  As to my perspective vis- à-vis Infinite Jest, I think I understood it, I know I admire it, I lived with it for several months, but I don’t want to marry it: but that’s okay, it’s got many another critic vying for its attentions and willing to re-read over and over again in order to lock down what he or she feels is a definitive reading.  I’ll just be getting on with another long book at bedtime, and leaving my own readers to make up their minds to read it or not, love it or not, quote it or not.  And, of course, I hope anyone who has something to add to my knowledge or experience of reading the book will comment here:  I purposely did not attempt the gargantuan task of naming characters’ names and detailing their actions, but anyone who wants to do so is welcome, and I’ll do my best to respond.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “David Foster Wallace and the novel that escapes category–or, my experience reading “Infinite Jest”

  1. Richard Gilbert

    What a delightful post, Victoria. I have failed to read this novel once, I think because I was on vacation. Methinks it takes a settled and possibly cozily winter habitus! Anyway, loved your thoughts on it.

    • Thanks, Richard. Actually, I feel kind of bad about not having gone into the book in more detail, but there simply isn’t space for so much. And it doesn’t have anything like a conventional plot line to follow, and the characters I consider the two main characters (Hal Incandenza and Don Gately) have so many interesting subsidiary characters clustered up around them that it’s really very dificult to pick and choose moments to talk about. There are very many hysterically funny events in it, things which support the old adage “Comedy is for those who think, tragedy is for those who feel.” And then, just as you’re laughing your head off at the ridiculousness of it, the tragic episode comes along and slaps you in the face. Wallace changes pace frequently. Do read it if you get a chance. Even if it’s just a little at a time, and it takes forever, while you’re reading other things too. I’d be interested to read what you have to say about it.

      • Richard Gilbert

        Thanks, Victoria; I plan to. If I can get through Anna Karenina, I should be able to read it.

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