Having infinite amounts of free time has given me the chance to spend a good amount of time wandering the nooks and crannies of Wake County’s libraries. Somehow along the way I decided to bite the bullet and read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Now, after a month-long period of picking up/putting down the book it’s over. My never-ending slog through “oh my how clever” dialogue has finally ended - not with a bang, but with a squelchy plop and an eye-roll. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself and I’d love to hear from fans of the book why they think it’s one of the best books around. Here’s my little post-mortem.
What I loved about the book
1. The sheer complexity and world-building of it all
- As absurd and fanciful as the book is, Wallace throws everything he has into creating an intriguing world with a definite geography. I read the sections where he charts out the history and anthropology of Boston and Quebec multiple times. Most parts have little or no immediate resonance to the story (all of Himself’s other movies), but they give little insights into the characters.
2. Don Gately
- Gately is a wonderfully flawed man. He’s racist and homophobic because that’s the way he grew up but you can tell he doesn’t really believe the slurs he thinks. He’s a lower-class addict who never reaches the point of the self-parody other characters in the book turn into - a thug who grew up wrong, lived through a lot of awful stuff and is now trying to do better and help others. I sometimes felt exasperated and wanted to skip whole sections of the book, but that never happened with Gately’s parts.
Things I loathed
1. Every character (minus a few) is a bundle of quirks.
Parts of the book feel like an enormous awful improv session - the kind where “yes and…” turns each player into a jumble of pieces which only hurts the humor of the whole work. Every character has their own kooky/depressing past and when everyone is special there’s nothing that distinguishes them from everyone else around them. Character’s mom/dad was fat and got stuck in a bus bathroom and won a lot of money from the lawsuit/raped their brother while they pretended to sleep in the same room/was obsessed with time and forced them to know what time it was all hours of the day/died when a traffic helicopter fell on them/was the alcoholic spokesman for a food container company/had incestual feelings about the character which led to their mother killing herself in the garbage disposal and on and on. It gets more painful and groan-worthy with each new addition.
2. The “clever” dialogue
Not to put this book of par with the eye-rolling awfulness of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (I listened to that on audiobook and it was even worse), but David Foster Wallace has apparently never met a child and spawned as a spore in some strange Ivy-League greenhouse. His high-schoolers talk like parodies of Wes Anderson movies - twisting around multiple topics in precious ways. I wish I had taken notes, but just imagine every conversation between Orin and Hal, or Pemulis and Stice, or anyone and everyone who goes to the Tennis Academy.
I’m glad it’s over and I never had to think about maybe picking up the book again. To end on a positive note I would highly recommend The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, which I’m reading right now (I alternate between current and ancient literature). It’s shockingly progressive and downright bawdy for a 14th century novel and I’ve found myself laughing out loud at certain sections. Everyone should give it a try, especially if you like Chaucer.
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- alexrudolph said: You mention the characters sounding like parodies of Wes Anderson characters. My feeling is that Wes Anderson has been writing parodies of Wes Anderson characters for most of his career. Why do Anderson’s quirkballs work for you while Wallace’s don’t?
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