Review: Infinite Jest

The best way I’ve found to describe David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is as the literary equivalent of Homestuck or Arrested Development (especially season four). It’s long and digressive and as it goes on it produces more and more material for self-reference and references that material in rich and unexpected ways. It’s humorous but never laugh-out-loud humorous, and at some points it’s just a slog to get through. It’s about a film called “Infinite Jest” that viewers can’t stop watching and rewatching, and the first thing the ending makes you want to do when you reach it is reread the beginning, which is suddenly rich with meaning that you couldn’t have seen at the start.

It’s often impressively clever but sometimes a little too clever and amused with its own cleverness. Much use is made of endnotes, many of which contain entire passages of story incidental to the part of the story in which they’re referred to (and this in a story that often digresses and ramble-segues into incidental events even within the main text) and that works well for the most part (having enjoyed House of Leaves, I’ve got a high tolerance for this sort of thing) but in the second half endnote references are often just dropped in in the space between paragraphs, making it seem like the only reason they weren’t included in the main text was for the sake of having more long endnotes.

Another example of this kind of showboating is how, in the earlier very long endnotes (which of course have their own endnotes), DFW will place an inner-endnote reference right near the beginning of the text so that you have to page through six or eight pages to find that note and think to yourself “How clever of DFW to write such a long endnote when I thought they were all just going to be short pharmaceutical descriptions!”

So, that’s all about the form of the story. If, like the movie Primer, all IJ had going for it was a clever and complex method of fractured puzzle plot dispensation, I wouldn’t have given it four stars. It certainly has those characteristics, but there’s a lot more to IJ than the immediate central-seeming plot about the titular film/entertainment and the continental political drama it stirs up.

It’s about former drug addicts struggling with sobriety and the philosophies of Alchoholics/Narcotics/etc Anonymous, and about the way we produce and consume entertainment, and about being talented at something and striving to achieve goals and what happens once you’ve achieved those goals, and about communication and about parents who damage their kids who grow up to be parents who damage their kids, and depression and self-consciousness and a whole lot of other things besides. There are essays and digressive anecdotes and jokes hidden in the rambling sprawl, and while it’s often repetitive and occasionally kind of numbing it’s constantly compelling and uses its great length and obsessive overdescription to build up a very detailed world and story that leads to some incredible payoffs down the line. And when it’s good, it’s really good.

An enjoyable obsession and a book I plan to reread if I ever get the time.

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