Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Infinite Jest

I finished Infinite Jest tonight, three and a half years after I first started reading it. I have a lot of thoughts about the book (and how could I not? I've had a long time to think about it!), many of which I will post in this space in the coming weeks. I read about 450 pages of it three years ago, put it aside until this past summer, and have been reading it consistently - but not exclusively - ever since. In this sense, it breaks most of the conventions of good fiction writing, but, ultimately, the cumulative effect of so many good scenes and epigrams gives the novel the weight of sincerity - even a jester must really believe in something in order to spend so much time crafting it.

Its almost impossible to distill my thoughts about this book into a short review or recommendation. It is a brilliant book, with some of the best-written set pieces, funniest jokes, and most moving sequences I have ever seen committed to paper. It is one of the most ambitious novels I have ever read, and one of the most successful at creating its own little world in which one can easily lose oneself. On the other hand, its diverse narrative threads barely connect, to the extent they connect at all, so many characters have grotesque deformities, infirmities, and/or scarring childhoods that the reader gets exhausted reading about them all, and a lot of time is spent (I won't say wasted) on very minor characters, with seemingly little point, other than to give the novel's Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns a little time in the spotlight, and give Wallace the opportunity to make a few good jokes he would otherwise not be able to make.

In her review, New York Times critic Michiko Kukatani, aptly borrowing from Henry James, referred to it as a "loose, baggy monster" of a novel. That is one very good way of putting it. Another is to say that there are simply "too many notes." Think of it like Professor Grady Tripp's lost novel from Wonder Boys - entire passages read as if they've always existed, up in Style Heaven, just waiting for Wallace to reach up and pluck them down. But Wallace didn't make enough choices - no character was too minor not to feature in a scene of his own, no soliloquy too wordy, no joke insufficiently funny to justify a five-page build-up.

Infinite Jest is 981 pages long, and includes an enormous number of words per page. One representantive page - pg. 82 of the paperback edition - contains exactly 500 words. By comparison, pg. 82 of Joshua Ferris' The Unnamed, by no means a lightweight novel, contains 340. Thus, there are approximately 50% more words in Infinite Jest than you would expect a 981-page novel to have, bringing its effective length to 1482 pages. But we're not done yet - there are 388 end notes, which take up another 98 pages of non-optional footnotes, many of which contain medical, scientific, or film-production jargon (with all of the abbreviations and acronyms and foreign-language phrases you would expect them to contain) and the font on those pages is even smaller. One of my favorite jokes int he entire novel occurs in one of these footnotes, on a page with 719 words on it. All of which is to say that, as intimidatingly long as this novel looks, that is nowhere near as long as this novel reads. Its worth the time and effort. But it takes a LOT of time and effort.

1 comment:

SKOHR said...

Ugh! I really want to read this book but even reading about this book is exhausting. Just hearing about all the WORDS tires me out.

Should I do it?