Book Review: Infinite Jest
If there is one point of agreement among all reviewers of David Foster Wallace’s preeminent novel, Infinite Jest, it is that the book is long. Indeed, the book is over one thousand pages in length, inclusive of nearly four hundred endnotes, some of which run multiple pages, and some of which themselves have endnotes.
For such a lengthy work, it is at least somewhat surprising that what would appear from the title and a not-insignificant portion of the plot development to be the central conceit of the book is revealed within the first hundred pages to be a technologically updated Monty Python sketch.
Fiction not being my recent specialty, and a below-the-surface understanding of Infinite Jest being beyond the grasp of my present faculties, I have only a few observations to offer.
The first thing I noticed about this book is that, unlike most fiction writers, who tend to provide only those background, environmental, atmospherical, and ancillary details necessary to explain, understand, contextualize, and advance the plot, Wallace presents an extreme depth of detail at times seemingly irrespective of whether it contributes to the advancement of a plot line or the development of a character. While I suspect the number of people who have both read this book and taken a bar examination is small, those individuals will be able to appreciate the analogy I could not avoid between this aspect of the book and the Multistate Performance Test (“MPT”), which now is a component of the bar exam in a majority of United States jurisdictions. MPT examinees are asked to write concise answers to legal questions and are provided a “library” of legal authority and wide-ranging factual information upon which to draw in formulating their answers. There is a clear line to cut through this voluminous information, which varies widely in its relevance to the precise question presented, to reach an answer. Most novelists seem to make like the successful MPT examinee, who discards information at best remotely relevant and addresses the question (or advances the plot) with pinpoint accuracy. Wallace, on the other hand, would work every piece of information provided, apparently relevant or not, into his answer, and then supplement it with even more details.
Second, I cannot remember being more actively conscious that I was reading a literary work, as such, than I was with this novel. The story frequently is absorbing, and the vast world offered is deep and inviting. Still, I periodically found myself considering, as a primary matter, the purpose and efficacy of various aspects of the content and its organization as literary tools, building blocks of a novel. That inartfully described experience may have arisen as a result of my preexisting awareness of the book’s general reputation as a masterwork, but Infinite Jest seemed to me different enough from other works of fiction I have read to make me pay attention both to the characters and stories in the usual absorptive way and to the book itself as a literary work or vehicle for the delivery of a concept of some sort or sorts. Towards the end, Wallace suggests a disagreement between two central characters, brothers and sons of a filmmaker, over their father’s preference for using nonprofessional actors in his films. The idea was that “the stilted, wooden quality of nonprofessionals helped to strip away the pernicious illusion of realism and to remind the audience that they were in reality watching actors acting and not people behaving. . . . [T]he real truth was that [the father] hadn’t wanted skilled or believable acting to get in the way of the abstract ideas and technical innovations in the [films].” David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest 944 (Back Bay Books, Nov. 2006) (1996). I wonder whether Wallace felt the same way; in other words, that the purpose of Infinite Jest was to demonstrate the qualities of the novel as art form and Wallace’s abilities as a novel artist. On some level, of course, all novelists see themselves as creating art. Here, though, there seems to be something more deliberate and more total, novel-craft as art versus storytelling as art.
Third, one of Wallace’s most effective techniques is his use of timing, often to delay revealing information, either in the context of a single scene or over the course of the entire book, until it can be introduced with maximum effect. While this approach makes much of the book feel as though it is unfolding slowly and magnanimously, Wallace also demonstrates the ability to rapidly create rising action. Both applications of his use of timing leave the reader equally emotionally drained.
Infinite Jest is about tennis, television, drugs, dependencies, politics, and poltergeists. First published in 1996, it is a prediction of, and therefore a commentary upon, today’s world. Beyond that, I am not very certain of what I just read. It may simply be about the search for meaning, which, for me, continues.