I have this ambitious (probably crazy) plan of re-reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and making my own ‘reader’s guide’ to try to examine just why and how it is a masterpiece. Often I read novels carelessly and miss connections or subtleties. This novel represents the ultimate challenge for a more attentive study. It is something I started and set aside a few years back and this is the preamble I wrote at the time:
Infinite Jest was written in 1996 and is, by any standards, a big novel. It stretches to 981 pages with a further 96 pages of footnotes to push it beyond the 1000 mark. Footnote is probably a misnomer since many are more than just clarifications or references. One (110) runs to 17 pages. So, it’s not a novel you’d pick up lightly or cast aside easily (unless you wanted to do someone an injury!).
It is a definitive example of a genre of contemporary fiction that British critic James Wood memorably calls “hysterical realism”. In this category he also places U.S. heavyweight writers Thomas Pynchon & Don Delillo and British post-colonialist authors Salman Rushdie & Zadie Smith. Wood writes:
“Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked”
How and why did Wallace come to write such a huge work of fiction?
After all, it comes at a time when attention spans are supposed to be at an all time low and readers (the public) apparently want easy reads they can summarise quickly to friends.
Why read difficult books anyway? You surely want to know where you stand with your entertainment choices. How can you can respond appropriately to Wallace’s dense prose?
“Where did you start with the story?”, one interviewer asked Wallace.
The question is borne of an ncredulity that someone could keep a massive work of fiction alive in his brain and still function as a human being.
Wallace claims, not unreasonably, that he began with page one. Out of an equally rational locale, any guide to what this reader understood from the novel should also start at the aforesaid page 1 – or to be precise, and precision is a key Wallace trait – Page 3 of the white covered brick-like Abacus paperback edition reprinted in 2004.
I acquired this on February 8th 2005 some 9 years after it was written. It was a book I had never at that time even seen in a bookshop so its arrival in Amazon’s trademark buff-brown cardboard protected packaging was an event in itself. It looked important and impressive in the way that other thick bestsellers do not. A quote from The Guardian on the cover proclaims it as “extraordinary ……an astonishing and vast epic of contemporary American culture”.
This begs a question as to whether there could be an epic that was not vast. Epic surely denotes bigness so the adjective vast seems somewhat redundant. To be thinking in such terms is an ideal preparation for a book by David Foster Wallace for he is never one to pass up incongruities but , on the contrary, treats them as the meat on the bone.
What follows is my description of the novel’s plot with my thoughts, asides, doubts etc………………………………..
TO BE CONTINUED (maybe!)