So a bunch of people decided to make a Project out of reading Infinite Jest this summer. I cordially detest that sort of thing, and was highly irritated by it, but nevertheless that many people talking about the book drove me into reading it just out of self-preservation. Here are the things I think about it, in bullet point form:

  • So first and foremost, it’s extremely well-written. Not just stylistically (though definitely stylistically), but in its insight and characterization as well. It was trendy for a while to be dismissive of Infinite Jest as an overstuffed, immature novel, but that’s bullshit. It’s inarguably great.
  • Which, really, it’d have to be for me to have read it all the way through, because it is a book about addiction, dysfunctional families, free will, obsession, consumer culture, and Canada. Which means that nearly all the characters are broken, screwed-up, miserable people, often in squalid circumstances. I hate that subject material (I find the Grand Theft Auto games unplayable, and the 100 Bullets comics unreadable, for that reason), so for Wallace to keep me avidly reading for 1000 pages of that is damned impressive.
  • Which isn’t to say that it’s all bleak and squalid. There are plenty of moments in it that are genuinely funny, including a protracted scene that has enough narrative arc to be extractable as a great short story in its own right.
  • In my tags for this entry, I sort of reluctantly decided to include “sf”, because the book is set in Wallace’s future, and has definitely scientifictional political and technological situations. But this isn’t really SF in the genre sense — and I don’t mean that because it’s literary, or because it doesn’t have spaceships and robots. What I mean is that this has the same relationship to genuine SF that magical realism has to fantasy. Wallace isn’t trying to extrapolate a real, or even plausible, world; he’s creating technologies and politics that are there to serve his thematic purpose, and that have more to do with the psychology of the characters he’s writing about than any attempt at genuine subcreation.
  • So you know how people said Neal Stephenson sucked at endings, before Cryptonomicon and (especially) the Baroque Cycle had solid finishes? Well, David Foster Wallace sucks worse at endings than Stephenson could even dream of. I hear that he worked with his editor to remove 250 pages or so from the book; it might have been better not to take them all from the end.

So anyway, objectively great book, but one with enough unpleasantness that I’m glad to be done with it. I enjoyed reading it, but there’s no chance I’ll ever want to re-read it.


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