Week 41: 10 Reasons NOT to read Infinite Jest

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10 Reasons NOT to Read Infinite Jest

It’s never a good sign, it seems to me, when you’d rather unload the dishwasher than continue reading a particular book. Or make that dentist appointment you’ve been putting off. Or cut your toenails. Which, by the way, happens a lot in Infinite Jest, the 1996 novel by the American writer David Foster Wallace. It was a best-seller when it came out and continues to be, having sold more than a million copies. “Sold” being the operative word here. I’m inclined to think that it hasn’t been read, all the way through, by more than a million readers. But I could be wrong.

Wallace is a genius. That is, he was. In 2008, he hanged himself from a rafter of his house. He’s been called “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last twenty years”. His writings have influenced Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and George Saunders, to name just a few. He has a passionate, devoted, and diverse following that includes The International David Foster Wallace Society, “founded to promote and sustain the long-term scholarly and independent study of David Foster Wallace’s writing”. There are David Foster Wallace conferences and websites devoted to Infinite Jest. To say his fans are legion is almost an understatement.

What I’m saying is if you’re not already one of them – if you haven’t already read Infinite Jest – here are 10 reasons not to start:

1.The book is a joke: I like to think I have a fairly well-developed sense of humour. I like a good joke as much as the next person. But a joke that takes up 1079 pages – 96 of which are footnotes – tends to wear a little thin. To give an example, let’s talk about Eschaton, a game Wallace created for the purposes of the novel. It has a ridiculously over-complicated set of rules. The chapter in which it is played takes up 21 pages. There are people – real people, I mean – Wallace fans – who have played this game, or a version of it. You can Google it. I cannot imagine that anyone with anything else happening in their life, e.g. work, family, a mortgage, toenails that need clipping, would have the time or inclination to attempt it.

And pardon me for sounding like a rube, but shouldn’t a joke have a punch line? Infinite Jest has no punch line. No conclusion. It just . . . ends.

2.Lists: The author is addicted to them. At one point he devotes approximately 600 words (I’m guessing, I didn’t count them) to the hospitals, utility companies, waste displacement facilities and liquor stores located in the town of Enfield, MA. Which is not actually Enfield at all but a fictional stand-in for Brighton, MA. This is nothing, however, compared to the gloomy radio host known as Madame Psychosis reading from a circular distributed by the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed:

“The morbidly diaphoretic with a hankie in every pocket. The chronically granulomatous. The ones it says here the ones the cruel call Two-Baggers – one bag for your head, one bag for the observer’s head in case your bag falls off. The hated and dateless and shunned, who keep to the shadows. Those who undress only in front of their pets. The quote aesthetically challenged.”

3. The Canadian factor: I can find nothing in the literature that alludes to Wallace having a grudge against Canadians. But there are constant, gratuitous references to his northern neighbours, all of them unflattering. “Cultured Canadians tend to think vertical digestion makes the mind unkeen.” “The Moms . . . has a rather spectacular thumb, plant-wise, for a Canadian.” “[S]ome suicidal idiot or Canadian”.

He’s especially hard on Quebec, especially those living in “the blighted bowels of southern Quebec”. Moncerf, Quebec, is “an asbestos-mining town ten clicks or so from the infamously rupture-prone Mercier Dam”. The villainous Antitoi brothers, Lucien and Bertraund, are “Canadians of the Quebec subgenus, sinister and duplicitous but when it came down to it rather hapless political insurgents”. Quebecois is a “gurgly, glotteal language that seems to require a perpetually sour facial expression to pronounce”. “Sour” Saskatchewanites and “far-rightist” Albertans are also mentioned but Quebec bears the brunt of the venom. I’m assuming it’s part of the ongoing joke but, like everything in this novel, it’s over the top.

4. Chronology: Numbering years from 1 to 100, 1900 to 2000 and so on has worked pretty well for most us for quite some time. If you’re writing a piece set in the future, maybe just avoid the year altogether – or choose one that will come to have some significance: 1984, 2001, etc. In the near future of Infinite Jest, the Gregorian calendar has been supplanted by a sponsorship arrangement – years are known by the name of the sponsoring company. The years before this practice are called “before subsidization”, or BS (ha ha). Most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (YDAU); the other years are as follows, in what I think is chronological order:

Year of the Whopper; Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad; Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar (YTSDB); Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken; Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishwasher; Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems for Home, Office or Mobile; Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland; Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and Year of Glad.

5. The acronyms: Wallace never met an acronym he didn’t love. Joelle Van Dyne, a.k.a. Madame Psychosis, was the PGOAT (Prettiest Girl of All Time) before she was (possibly) disfigured by acid and joined the UHID (Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed). The USA, Canada and Mexico have joined to form the Organisation of North American Nations, or ONAN (ha ha get it?). Les Assassins des Fauteils Rollents (the AFR) are a subversive group of legless French-Canadian “wheelchair assassins”. E.T.A. is the Enfield Tennis Academy, the setting for most of the action; P.W.T.A. is the rival school, the Port Washington Tennis Academy; the I.B.P.W.D.W. is the International Brotherhood of Pier, Wharf and Dock Workers. I personally feel if Wallace could have gotten away with writing the entire book in acronyms, he would have done so.

6. Dissing other writers: Elizabeth Harper Neeld’s Seven Choices: Taking the steps to new life after losing someone you love was, according to Wallace, “352 pages of sheer goo”. Harold Bloom writes “stupefyingly turgid-sounding shit”. Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano is “depressing”. John Updike, who Wallace once referred to as “a penis with a thesaurus” is parodied in a film called Fun With Teeth. Bret Easton Ellis is the “ghastly” author of American Psycho. (To be fair, the loathing is mutual – Ellis has called Wallace “the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation”.)

7. Tennis: As Wallace writes, during one of the many, many passages discussing the intricacies of the game, “It all tends to get complicated, and probably not all that interesting – unless you play.” I don’t and it’s not.

8. Suicide: Wallace was obsessed with “eliminating your map”, as he refers to it in the book. When not actually killing themselves, many of the characters are at least thinking about it. Dr. James Incandenza, father of Orin, Hal and Mario, otherwise known as Himself, killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave oven. (Wallace explains that yes, it can be done, in theory.) Kate Gompert, a psychotically depressed young woman, opts for suicide as a way to lessen her inner pain. Joelle Van Dyne, a.k.a. Madame Psychosis, plans her suicide meticulously; in spite of cooking up a lethal amount of cocaine, however, she’s found in time and recovers. A young Czech tennis player killed himself after retiring. A successful junior tennis player decides he’ll kill himself if he ever loses a match. He does, and he does.

9. Notes and errata: I have a theory – untested but firmly held – that if you can’t tell a fictional story in the body of the work, you’re probably not telling it properly. To the text of his narrative, which is 981 dense, single-spaced pages, Wallace adds another 388 footnotes, covering 96 pages, most of which are irrelevant, uninteresting or both. As an example, footnote 95 refers to c:\Pink2: “Pink being Microsoft’s first post-Windows DOS, quickly upgraded to Pink2 when InterLace took everything 100% interactive and digital; by Y.D.A.U. it’s kind of a dinosaur, but it’s still the only DOS that’ll run a Mathpak\EndStar tree without having to stop and recompile every few seconds.”

“Turgid-sounding shit”, you say? Yes, I think so.

10. You have, as far as we know, only one life. There are better ways to spend it.

 

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If you’re sick to death of hearing that 40 is the new 30, 50 is the new 40, and so on – that life for the boomers just gets better and better – that growing old means getting fitter, richer, and having more sex – welcome! We are as one, as they say.

It’s time, I think, for a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek look at the boomers by one of their own. I try not to complain about getting older – I mean, consider the alternative, right? But, as Leonard Cohen so aptly put it, “I ache in the places where I used to play.”

At the risk of sounding like a whiner, most of us aren’t as rich as we thought we’d be – well, who is? But still, didn’t those old Freedom 55 ads make you think you’d at least own a sailboat by now? Even if, like me, you’re terrified of the open sea??

And what about those of us who are still supporting our (practically) grown-up kids? Come to think of it, there’s almost no way to talk about these things without sounding like a whiner – but I’ll try.

By | 2018-09-08T01:46:36+00:00 March 27th, 2018|Uncategorized|13 Comments

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13 Comments

  1. Karin Turkington March 27, 2018 at 9:27 pm - Reply

    I’m amazed you stuck it through to the end. It sounds dreadful.

    I’ve just started reading The Gathering, one of your previous recommendations.

    • margietaylor March 28, 2018 at 2:36 am - Reply

      It took me 2 months to get to page 444, at which point I gave up. Life is short, too short to be wading your way through something like this, even if it is considered one of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005, according to Time magazine.

      Let me know what you think of The Gathering. It wasn’t what I expected, but I liked it.

  2. Joan Baril March 28, 2018 at 1:21 am - Reply

    This book sounds like a steaming pile of nothing.

    • margietaylor March 28, 2018 at 2:36 am - Reply

      You said it, Joan!!

  3. Laura Atkinson March 29, 2018 at 5:02 am - Reply

    Thank you for saving me from feeling bad that I never felt like reading it!

  4. Lynda Burke October 28, 2018 at 8:00 pm - Reply

    IJ requires re- and rereading. Your dismissiveness is superficial. Add to that the fact that since IJ many works by superb writers of literature and film are indebted to – often derivative of and/or homage to – Infinite Jest.

    • margietaylor October 29, 2018 at 3:40 am - Reply

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Lynda. In the end, though, Infinite Jest is one of those books, like Ulysses, that more people praise than actually read. And in this case it’s because it is, for the most part, unreadable.

  5. Kaylea V May 15, 2019 at 12:03 am - Reply

    I know that I am about a year late for this post, but I just had to give my two cents about Infinite Jest.
    First of all, I highly disagree that it is “for the most part, unreadable” because several people, including myself, have read it. Difficult isn’t synonymous with unreadable. The novel is very difficult, and I completely understand why someone would not be willing to put the time in to read something that is more than a little challenging… I don’t think I would’ve ever undertaken the commitment of reading it if it wasn’t (in my opinion) crucial for its role in the transition from postmodern literature into whatever literary epoch we are in now. It is certainly not something I would have ever kicked back and read for fun.
    Secondly, Wallace intentionally made Infinite Jest difficult to bring readers out the state of passive speculation that entertainment these days has made comfortable for us. It’s completely fair for someone to not be into the elitist vibes that gives off (which DFW acknowledges himself), but oftentimes I find myself personally being offended by criticism with an element of truth to it. If someone calls me a pink hedgehog, I probably won’t care. However, someone telling me that I need to stop passively consuming information and actually make an effort to actively engage myself, I get offended, but mostly because I know it’s the truth.
    I found IJ hilarious, and I also think that its portrayal of what it’s like to be depressed/addicted is the most realistic I have ever read.So it wasn’t your thing. That’s fine. There is, however, a lot to be gained from it for those who think that a novel that demands engagement from its reader would be beneficial to them.

    • margietaylor May 20, 2019 at 5:52 pm - Reply

      Thanks for taking the time to write, Kaylea. I appreciate your thoughts. To be honest, I expected more responses like yours from this particular post as I know the book and the author have a huge following, and I respect that. Good to hear from you and please continue to follow me when you can.

  6. Mehdi Azizian May 30, 2019 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    My first experience of reading this novel was nightmarish. It was almost impossible to understand anything. I was totally disappointed. But since I started reading it for the second time I have discovered that no one but a genius could have created this masterpiece. The novel is highly demanding. Sometimes I spend 10 hours a day reading it and I end up finishing like just 15 pages but what I get out of these 15 pages is equal if not superior to many typical traditional novels I’ve read. It certainly eludes and doesn’t obey customary rules of characterisation and narration. It doesn’t end on the last page as it doesn’t start on the first page. When you embark on taking the nourney of reading Infinite Jest, you must put aside your usual expectations of novels. It is like completing an intricate puzzle: an arduous task, but as you complete it, you become more satisfied with your experience.

    • margietaylor May 31, 2019 at 6:59 pm - Reply

      A thoughtful response, Mehdi. Thank you for writing. I appreciate that it’s the kind of book that takes work to appreciate. I feel, though, that with so many beautiful, readable books out there – and more appearing daily – one shouldn’t have to work this hard in order to get through a work of fiction. But that’s my opinion, and there are as many opinions as there are readers. Again, thank you.

  7. J.A. Carter-Winward June 1, 2019 at 4:42 pm - Reply

    Ms. Taylor–

    I’m glad Kaylea V. spoke her mind, I hope it’s all right I do the same here. (BTW, it’s interesting you used the example of a DDS appt. w/r/t IJ because I do the same thing in my review above on my writing blog! Funny, that. 🙂

    I’m not a DFW groupie nor am I a cult member of his fanatical (fan) hysteria and I’m quite certain IJ gave many post-grad instructors reasons to hate the book without even cracking it open based on reading their students’ attempts to capture the voice of Wallace using his…creative-ish vocabulary and malapropisms. (Ha)

    I agree with you (I really do–why would you waste time on something you don’t enjoy reading? My review of the books says as much) I suppose my question is, who are you to tell anyone WHY they should not read a book and also, who are you to say it’s categorically “unreadable?” That statement-as-fact is categorically false because I, personally, find it more readable than most of the sh*t on the NYT best seller’s list.

    The tenor of your post and comments belie an undercurrent of resentment that isn’t for me to speculate on, nor judge, but as an FYI–it’s showing through your words. Reading is such a subjective experience.

    As for his “obsessions” in the book is it possible the book wasn’t about drug-addiction, drugs, tennis, Canada, suicide, lists, films, or acronyms? Is it possible the Bible should maybe not be taken at face value? Just tossing it out there.

    DFW explored suicide as a theme because that is what literature does–it explores the human experience. Now, on a personal note about suicide, specifically his suicide.

    I’d like to say this as gently as I can–his suicide was the loss of a son, a brother, a friend, a partner, and a human being who was perhaps one of the most gifted writers to ever grace our century. And the loss of him as the latter alone is devastating to those of us who read him, and heard his voice in our heads because it was so familiar and so comforting.

    So you don’t know why he took his own life, but I’m fairly certain I do. He was in more pain than you can possibly imagine–and unless you’ve had the ‘flames licking your back,’ you would have no idea how terrifying that leap was for him. And no, it’s not some “first-world tortured-artist bullshit.” It was real pain from a real condition and it wasn’t a mental illness, either.

    https://www.facebook.com/missd.co/posts/450323358501337

    So, for the sake of those of us who are also suffering from the same condition as Mr.Wallace, please have some respect. His death was a very human reaction to untenable, unrelenting pain and it hurts to see people behave so callously to it, and him..

    Also, #6. Reject a book because he said his opinions about other writers, who likely have their opinions, and so on? Jesus. Google Gore Vidal and all the writers he demolished…this is not a reason to dismiss Wallace as a writer. And if it were, does that mean I ought to dismiss you?

    Now…I would be interested in hearing a review, and why you didn’t enjoy it–“This is why I hated IJ, personally” but to cherry-pick things you find banal and over-the-top-stupid is the same as the Literati Elite pooh-poohing John Grisham’s or Sue Grafton’s work as “mass-paperback pulp.” Frankly, I don’t think Wallace would have been capable of churning out a body of work like either of them, because writing genre fiction is a skill set and craft unto itself.

    I’m not sure how old you are, but the acronym TLTR has become a thorn in the side of good literature.

    The “Stephen King writing M.O.” (ie: “adverbs are lazy writing”) and the whole word economy thing… I can think of some pieces of literature that are some of the most beautiful in history, and I wold ask Mr. King how he purported to edit them down to a “readable, grocery-store-sold fiction length.” Let’s start with Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” or maybe Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

    So any good writer knows that they must keep their audience in mind while writing. If your audience is the TLTR crowd, then pardon my blunder. But you seem like a well-read, intelligent writer, so I’ll ask again: who is your audience?

    The ubiquitous “they” who decided Wallace’s opus was TLTR, THTR, and “shouldn’t be that much work to read fiction” are people who maybe don’t like Wallace’s work? So are you preaching to the choir, or are you doing what I did on my review of IJ and giving folks a decent reason to do something they are not inclined to do anyway? Because I get that.

    But what about people like me, who found it so compelling, so utterly beautiful and fun to read, I had tears streaming down my face during certain parts of the book–from laughter and deep emotion. Not that it’s your fault if someone doesn’t. I think we all seek out what we want to hear, and what we already believe. And the comments akin to “Oh good, I’m glad I’m not the only one who hated it” are great examples. But why do you need to have other people backing your inability to enjoy his writing? That doesn’t make you less-than or inferior. It makes you…just uniquely you, doesn’t it?

    So I don’t take issue with you or anyone disliking the book, but rather the presumption that you speak for anyone but you by saying “here are 10 reasons YOU should not read” even though the subject and imperatives aren’t in the title, they go unwritten/spoken, as it were. As a literary novelist, poet, writer, I personally don’t believe my books are for everyone.

    For example, I don’t know you, but if I knew you well enough to know that, say, you were a Franco-phobic, for example then I could give you 10 reasons why you should not visit Paris. I can give someone who is afraid of things that creep and crawl on the ground 10 reasons why they should maybe NOT move to the Amazon forest or Australia.

    So while I appreciate your POV, I can’t imagine a “should” and/or “should not” in terms of “what to read and what NOT to read” based on your criteria, above. For some people it took/takes zero work to appreciate the book. None. It was a read-gasm from start to finish to start to finish for me. And maybe it’s because I didn’t know how “cool” it would make me to read it (har har) but I read it for the pure, unadulterated pleasure of it.

    So it seems to me, as I think on it, you’re taking issue with something DFW had no hand in: the hype of IJ. ANd see…he was just a guy–a really smart guy–who wrote a book. The hype was the result. So go after that. Not him, not the work. That’s the honest and frankly right thing to do, in this writer’s opinion.

    Peace to you–

    J.A. Carter-Winward

    • margietaylor June 2, 2019 at 12:12 am - Reply

      My response is, to be honest, who am I to say what to read and what not to? No one in particular, just someone with a blog. Glad it got you responding; my suggestion is, if you feel strongly about this (and you seem to), write about it. There are as many opinions about books as there are readers. That was mine. Thanks for writing.

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