A couple of years ago I did a couple of posts on Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. The idea was that I’d read it over the summer of 2011, and people who read the blog would read it along with me. This didn’t work out: I made it about 300 pages into the book and then gave up, and I was always kind of embarrassed about that. And now every time I blog about a book someone jumps into the comments thread and demands to know: ‘What happened with Infinite Jest?’
Short answer: I stopped reading it. Slightly longer answer: I found it entertaining at first, but increasingly boring and unrewarding.
A bit longer still: basically I didn’t have any confidence in the author. I wrote at the time:
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?
And that lack of confidence got worse the more I read. A twenty page unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness section about a character who has nothing to do with the rest of the book? Followed by a dozen pages describing the air-conditioning beneath a tennis academy? At some point I just decided the author was wasting my time. But, paradoxically, I always thought I’d go back and finish it off at some stage, because it’s an important book, and it must be ultimately rewarding, right?
Then earlier this year I read D T Max’s biography of David Foster-Wallace. The point of Inifinite Jest, it explained, is that DFW thought that the problem with contemporary western society is that we’re addicted to entertainment. We’re ‘amusing ourselves to death.’ His solution to that problem was Infinite Jest which he described as ‘anti-entertainment’. Hence thousands of footnotes so you have to keep flipping back and forth through the book to read it. Hence unpunctuated stream-of-conciousness; hence the lack of a narrative, and so on.
And I have two questions here: is DFW’s ‘addicted to entertainment’ thesis even remotely valid? Is that really the big problem confronting post-industrial capitalist democracies in the late 20th, early 21st century? And even if it is, even if you give him that, is a very long, deliberately unreadable book the solution to that problem?
I like a lot of DFW’s journalism, and his short stories (although I can’t read or listen to ‘This is Water’ and take it seriously.) Maybe Infinite Jest seemed more relevant during the long boom of the 1990s? I don’t know. I do know I don’t intend to revisit it.