"Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace (1996)
I first heard of this book through my friend Andy1. Andy was a classmate at Seattle University2, a few years older than myself, and during one of our first conversations he pointed out another classmate, a strikingly attractive woman3 sitting across the room.
"She likes Infinite Jest," he said quietly. "People who like that book are idiots."
Having never heard of Infinite Jest, I could only shrug my shoulders and say ok, but I must admit that his extremely negative reaction4 to another person's reading choices had me puzzled. What was so bad about Infinite Jest? And why was anyone who liked it an idiot? Andy, being the cryptic sort of person he was, never went on to explain either his hatred for Infinite Jest or those who liked it, and since I had no time for fiction between the onerous texts foisted upon us by various professors, I eventually forgot about Infinite Jest until a much later date.
Two years later I was going through a "difficult book phase." I managed to read (and enjoy) Moby Dick5, and this opened the floodgates to a slew of "difficult" novels. I read War and Peace6. I read Ulysses7 and (part of) Finnegan's Wake8. I read Gravity's Rainbow9. I read the Illuminatus! Trilogy10. I read (a lot of) Faulkner11. I read 266612. A book only needed a reputation for difficulty and I was more than ready to read it - the bigger and more difficult the better.
Yet at that time, for whatever reason, I failed to remember Infinite Jest. Perhaps it was because I had no Internet at home back then. Perhaps Infinite Jest just hadn't been out long enough to draw my attention. This was 2005, after all, and it had only been published 9 years before. It could also be that I was too "classically-minded" in the books I was seeking out, especially given that older books 1) had more of a reputation, and b) were much cheaper to acquire13.
I was reminded of Infinite Jest much later, however. It was when I visited a thrift store last summer14, and when I came across a collection of David Foster Wallace's essays15. I didn't buy the book, but I remember thinking that his thoughts on certain "great men of Literature" were quite funny, and were, moreover, similar to my own opinions. As much as I like certain things that Philip Roth, Hemingway, or Saul Bellow have done, you have to admit there are certain masculine tropes in all of their fiction, and that their books often read like works of self-appreciation16.
So it was that I remembered David Foster Wallace's most famous work, and that much earlier conversation with Andy. A book for idiots? A book famous for being difficult? A book for the ages? A book to despise - above all others? I decided then and there that I had to read it, if for no other reason than to know what all the hubbub was about.
So I did.
Just don't ask me about the plot.17
Or if I liked it.
Because I'm still not sure about either.18
Other Difficult Books:
"Permutation City" by Greg Egan (1994)
"The Island of the Day Before" by Umberto Eco (1995)
"The Flounder" by Gunter Grass (1977)
"Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy (1985)
1. Whatever happened to Andy? Last I heard he was living on Vashon somewhere, in a house where he planned on living some kind of alternative lifestyle. We kept in touch via Facebook for a few years, but after my "fake name" account got deleted I lost track of him. He could be a pretentious asshole at times, but he was one of the more likable (and memorable) of my classmates at Seattle U.
2. Seattle University, a Jesuit institution of higher learning located in the Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, Washington, U.S.A. I attended the Master in Teaching program there from 2003 to 2004. It was expensive, but at least it was over quickly.
3. By far the most attractive of my classmates, even if she was more than a little bit in love with herself. We later learned that she was having an affair with another classmate, this Hunter S. Thompson type who was already married, and quit the program very early on.
4. But then again, Andy had extremely negative reactions to a lot of things. He was one of the most opinionated people I've ever met.
5. I still think that Melville might be the greatest and most inventive author that America has ever produced. He was so far ahead of his time it was ridiculous. I picked Moby Dick because I tried to get through it in high school and failed. My second attempt, over a decade later, was much more successful, and I loved that book from the first page. If you're looking for something to read, I highly recommend the two travelogues he wrote before penning Moby Dick.
6. It has its good points, but the historical deterministic aspects of it wore on me after a while. I still think Dostoyevsky was a great writer, but he's best taken in small doses.
7. Still one of my favorite books. It casts a long, long shadow over 20th and 21st century fiction.
8. I say "part of" because I couldn't get through it. Finnegan's Wake makes Infinite Jest look relatively straightforward. Sure, it's a lot shorter, but is most of it even written in English?
9. Couldn't stand this book. One of the most pretentious, unbearable things I've ever read. Also a lot more mathematical than Infinite Jest. Parts of this book consist of equations.1
10. Really great book by two guys who faded into obscurity after its publication. Also very emblematic of the time in which it was produced. Delightfully weird, even if it veers too close to Ulysses at times.
11. Faulkner's great. THE author of the Southern United States. I liked The Sound and the Fury, but Go Down, Moses has to be my favorite. If you're looking for an easy point of entry into his bibliography I recommend Sanctuary.
12. Written by Roberto Bolano, a South American author who lived in Mexico for many years. One could make the case that this is the Spanish/Central and South American version of Infinite Jest.
13. I was living in Taichung, a large city on the west coast of Taiwan. I bought most of my books from a handful of bookstores located near the Taichung Train Station. Needless to say, the selection in any one of those bookstores wasn't awesome.
14. I was visiting my parents. I was also looking for books. Strangely enough, I couldn't locate a copy of Infinite Jest in any used or new bookstore I visited, and there wasn't time to order one online. I eventually located a copy in a Taipei bookstore after I returned from Seattle.
15. I now wish I'd bought that book. Oh well, I'll be back in Seattle next month and I can probably buy it then.
16. Older men facing the prospect of their own death, older men in destructive relationships with much younger women, the erosion of personal relationships by time, the burden of fame and previous successes, physical or psychological impotence, you get the picture.
17. There's a synopsis on Wikipedia of course. It makes more sense than the actual book does. I'm undecided as to whether one should admire or feel sorry for those with enough time on their hands to derive so much structure from a novel that may or may not have a structure to begin with. An even more concise description/synopsis might be: "tennis and substance abuse."
18. To be honest, reading Infinite Jest is like running a marathon. You know ahead of time that parts of it are going to be unpleasant, but you also know that you'll be glad when it's done.
19. To the best of my knowledge, there is no 19th footnote above. Why are you reading this? You're wasting your own time!2
"Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace (1996)3
"Humboldt's Gift" by Saul Bellow (1975)
"2666" by Roberto Bolano (2004)
"Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
1. My #2 most hated book, ranked just behind the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom.
2. Footnotes to footnotes! Check and mate, Mr. Wallace! The only thing this entry is missing is some long, involved, technical discussion of a subject almost no one cares about.1
3. And a footnote to a link! Bet you never thought of that in 1996, Mr. Wallace!
"The 120 Days of Sodom" by the Marquis de Sade
1. This is the last of the footnotes, really. I promise. There will be no more footnotes after this. What, are you still here? Are you still reading this? Really, I'm done. I have no more to say on the subject of Infinite Jest! Leave me in peace, will you? Away! Away!