I finally read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
I have mixed opinions.
I love Wallace’s short stories and essays, but I’m not sure Infinite Jest holds up. It’s a book written by a young man, and it shows. At times it feels a little cartoonish, as though the writing is disconnected from real experience, or from the perspective on experience that time and age brings.
On the other hand, I’m glad I read this book because it’s hugely influential, and you can see direct lines from it to many other novels and films. But do I think this is a classic book that people should force themselves to grapple with the way they should grapple with Melville’s Moby-Dick or Joyce’s Ulysses? No, unfortunately not. Infinite Jest feels like a cultural relic of the 1990s. I’ll be curious to see if it’s still around in 50 years.
Here’s my review from Goodreads:
Reading this novel is like hanging out with a smart person at a party. At first, you’re disoriented by his language, but then you get used to it, and you’re like, “Hey, this guy is pretty clever. This is a pretty effervescent dialogue we’re having.” But after awhile, it becomes clear the dude is showing off. He’ll do things like make a pun and then look at you to see if you got it. He uses so many acronyms, it’s like he’s speaking in code. And the worst is when he tries to be funny. You smile politely and chuckle, but you’re thinking, “You’re not funny dude. Don’t try to be funny.”
But just when you’re about to try to get away from him, he says something so perfectly depicted and lifelike that you’re bowled over. You think, “Okay, this conversation is worth my time after all.” And that carries you along for a while. But then he starts telling you these horrible stories, one after another, of abuse and animal mutilation and death. It all feel a trifle cartoonish and unrealistic. You start thinking that this guy’s worldview is a little melodramatic. Maybe he’s too wrapped up in imagining people doing awful things, and that has skewed his view of humanity. In which case, does this person have anything to say that has meaning beyond being clever?
“Watch me do an imitation of a poor person!” he chortles. Then he does an imitation that sounds nothing like a poor person. You say, “Wait, why don’t you tell me more about that interesting person you mentioned awhile back?” He ignores you. “Let me tell you about my dreams,” he says instead. Then he goes on about a dream about a wraith. You’re like, “Holy cripes, is he ever going to stop with the wraith dream?” He says, “It’s a metaphor.” You try not to roll your eyes.
By now, you’ve been listening so long that you feel obligated to let him get to the point. At the same time you’re fearful that there won’t be a point and you’ve been listening for nothing. You whisper, “Please let there be a point. Please let there be a point.” The party is almost over, and there are so many people you could have been talking to in the same amount of time that you’ve been talking to him. Truly, you’ve had smaller conversations with him in the past and they helped teach you what a conversation could be, as in they actually redefined the possibilities of small conversations for you. So you wait, fingers crossed as he winds down, for the point.
And, yes, he does connect the dots and tell you what happened to this and that person, but he does it so subtly that it’s anticlimactic. You start shrugging, as in, “Oh, okay, so that happened.” Or: “Hm, okay, that’s why you mentioned that earlier.” And then, suddenly, he’s done. You say goodbye and head for the door. You know you’re supposed to be a better person for having had the conversation, but in reality, you’re relieved it’s over. All you want to do now is talk about something fun, like sparkly vampires or swamp monsters, as a kind of palate cleanser.