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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Infinite Jest » User review

Not every picture tells a story

  • Jan 8, 2011
Rating:
+1
Some writers work like sculptors, starting with a block of raw material and paring everything away that isn't part of the finished art so that what remains is a tautly-drawn image with no wasted words.\

David Foster Wallace was not one of those writers. 

Infinite Jest is a massive outpouring of stream of consciousness that runs to over 1,000 pages, many with a single run-on sentence or unbroken paragraphs spanning pages.  There are even footnotes, some of which are essential to the story.

Or stories, I should say, such as they are.  There are three main threads to the plot, which sometimes interface loosely, and become more closely entwined as the story proceeds in jump-cut fashion forwards and backwards through time.  The setting is sometime in a near future where years have commercial sponsors (like bowl games; an inspired touch) and are no longer numbered.  There has been an environmental disaster along the northern New England tier of states, and there is now a no-man's-land between the US and its northern neighbor, and a continental governmental structure binding the US and Canada with Mexico.

The political implications of this US/Canadian DMZ makes up one of the three plot threads; suffice it to say here (lest my review rival the original in wordiness) that not all citizens of both countries are happy with the situation.

The second thread of the plot, and perhaps the most compelling, is that of a Boston-area Alcohols Anonymous residential recovery house.   Wallace introduces many of the addicts who live and work there, and provides an insider's view of the tortured lives and recoveries of truly addicted personalities.  The power of addiction and the pain of recovery is visceral in these sections, and they made the most powerful impression on me.

The final and longest  thread of the story is about a Boston tennis academy "just up the hill" from the AA halfway house.  This private residential academy for middle and high school age tennis phenoms was founded by Jim Incandenza, a scientist and failed art-film director (one of the footnotes--yes, there are footnotes--is a filmography of his works) , and is now run by his wife after he has committed suicide, and attended by two of his three sons (a third has already graduated but plays a key role).  While there is some inside-tennis stuff here, I don't think it is necessarily reliable, or really the point of Infinite Jest--which is also the title of one of Incandenza's never-seen movies that is rumored to have amazing power over its audience.  

So there's the setup , but this novel isn't about the plot.  Its about the thoughts, the ideas, the stream-of-consciousness of the characters.  If I had to pin down a single theme for Jest, I'd say it is about handicaps and how we deal with them.  Some handicaps are emotional, some physical, some medical, some pharmacological--but every character has them.   Sometimes the handicaps and how we handle them are funny, sometimes they are painful, sometimes they are deadly.

As I worked my way through this book over the last three weeks (a very long time for me to spend on one book--this is not easy reading) I found my rating for the book sinking under the weight of too many words, and perhaps a just plain proletarian view that a novel even (or especially) a great one, even one of such vast scope and (literal) weight, must tell a story.  That's never the point of Jest, and perhaps rightly so.  By the end, my rating was somewhere in the negatives on the Lunch scale, but in retrospect I'll err on the side of a +1 rating to credit Wallace for the power of the mirror his writing holds up to our handicaps--even if it doesn't tell a coherent story.

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More Infinite Jest reviews
Quick Tip by . July 23, 2010
This intricate novel explores a futuristic society, drugs, and tennis.
review by . July 08, 2010
This is a great novel comprised of entries from different characters with very different backgrounds and narrative styles that all weave in and out of each other to make some sort of wild mish-mash of information revolving around the themes of entertainment, addiction, responsibility, and what it is to live a satisfying human life.      At around 1100 pages, this heavyweight might be intimidating, but for no reason. It shouldn't be intimidating because it reads so well that …
Quick Tip by . July 03, 2010
very witty. shame about the author
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #37
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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