Regular readers will not be surprised to learn I cheated and started reading Infinite Jest a week ago. I’m around 100 pages in. So. First impressions and general observations:
Is Infinite Jest a difficult book? Yes and no, but mostly no. Some books are difficult to read because the individual sentences are hard to comprehend: Gravity’s Rainbow and Finnegans Wake (which is written in its own dream language) are the classic examples. War and Peace is easy to read but hard to follow – there are hundreds of characters, they all have four or five different names and titles and you can go for fifty thousand words at at time without encountering one of them, and then when you do you’re expected to remember everything about their background and families and social standing.
Infinite Jest is (so far) well written, in English, and the characters are distinct and memorable and only have two names. And it’s funny and sad and intriguing. It’s difficult in the way that Kafka is difficult: you know what’s going on but the intentions of the author (David Foster Wallace, henceforth for the rest of the winter, DFW) seem very mysterious. What’s he trying to say? What’s the book actually about? These things are not yet clear.
What does it seem to be about? It’s a series of mostly comic scenes each ranging in length from a paragraph to a couple of pages long, set in the near future (many critics think it’s set in 2011, but in the book corporations sponsor each year, so instead of 2010 you have the Year of the Trial Sized Dove Bar, most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment) The plot is loosely structured around a film called Infinite Jest, which is so entertaining to viewers that they become lifeless addicts who exist only to watch the film over and over again. The themes are, famously: addiction, amusement and fragmentation.
So, like, specifically, what do I like? I like the way his writing style mimics and parodies late 20th, early 21st century conversational English. Also, too, I like the odd little style choices in almost every paragraph. Like, for example, when he describes a room and one of the objects in it is ‘green or yellow’ which is, I assume, a commentary on color-blindness and the way novelists describe objects or places in an objective and concrete way even though actual living humans perceive them very differently from each other.
He also takes you inside the heads of his characters with a vividness that is occasionaly unbearable – I am thinking about the guy suffocating while tied up, for anyone reading along. That’s something only fiction can do, and he’s really nailed it.
What don’t I like? I’m always disappointed when writers turn to the therapist-patient trope to reveal character, especially if the patient’s mental illness manifests as being young and brilliant and perceptive and just feeling too much, and the therapist is just baffled by their case and really ‘what is sanity, if you follow me?’ . There’s a bit of that going on here.
The technical jargon is also, frankly, tedious. Especially the endnotes filled with calculus and biochemistry. I know enough about the latter subject to understand what he’s saying and it adds nothing to the story, and is occasionally nonsensical. It’s just filler. Why is it there? To impress us?
Which brings me to my final point on the first hundred pages. When I’m reading this book I always have DFW’s suicide, and the subsequent revelation that he struggled with depression for most of his life lurking in the back of my mind. So when I come across pages of technical minutiae that hardly anyone reading the book can understand I wonder: is this a clever literary technique, or witty joke, or did he write this stuff because he was, basically, a mad genius and its presence in this book defies a sane explanation?
I’ll try to post about Infinite Jest roughly once a week. This is Day 1, so if you’re game you still have a chance to hit the library or online bookstores or, I suppose, if you feel like paying double the price for the exact same product, an actual bookshop.