INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace (First published 1996)

infinite_notesInfinite Jest was written over two decades ago but is still remarkably topical in an age where the line between entertainment and ‘real life’ is increasingly blurred.

It is, by any standards, a big novel and a daunting proposition to all but the most dedicated reader. 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 runs to 17 pages. This is not a novel you’d pick up lightly or cast aside easily (unless you wanted to do someone harm!).

It is engrossing, infuriating and confusing but makes you feel smarter just by reading it and in awe of the writer who created it.

With hindsight one can understand that the level of deep, unfiltered thinking that went into it requires the kind of intelligence that makes living an ‘normal’ existence a challenge.

DFW1David Foster Wallace suffered from depression, a condition that ultimately led to his tragic suicide. And you don’t have to look too hard to see that despite the humor and vitality of the prose there is also a deep sadness at the heart of this book.

Addiction is one of its key themes with the title being a reference to mysterious film which causes the viewers to become so absorbed that they must watch and re-watch it continually. It is literally an entertainment that is lethal.

The novel represents a definitive example of a genre of contemporary fiction that esteemed British critic James Wood called “hysterical realism”. In this category he also placed U.S. heavyweight writers Thomas Pynchon & Don Delillo and British post-colonialist authors Salman Rushdie & Zadie Smith.

In an essay about Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’ written for The New Republic in 2000, Wood observed: “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 common readers apparently want easy reads they can tweet about.

Why read difficult books anyway?

Many won’t bother but, in my view, this is their loss.


Infinite Jest was a book I had never at that time even seen in a bookshop so its arrival in Amazon’s familiar cardboard 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 partly a consequence and an ideal preparation for a book by the erudite David Foster Wallace. He is never one to pass up linguistic incongruities but, on the contrary, treats them as the meat on the bone.

Having just read this remarkable work for a second time I’m no closer to understanding it fully but I console myself with the thought that this is a book that you need to experience rather than explain.

Suffice to say that is a towering achievement and perhaps will be the last truly great American novel.