by Haran X MD MA (Cantab) BA (Baracus)
The first thing that is noticeable about this book is its sheer heft. Epic, gargantuan, massive – these are just some words that David Foster Wallace would eschew in favour of something more pretentious when describing the size of Infinite Jest. At a staggering 1079 pages (96 of which are footnotes largely containing the names of various pharmaceutical manufacturers), the book’s corpulence comes in handy for its many non-literary roles: a door stop, a tofu press, a sinking device for lying witches during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. This last use strikes me as odd; I would much rather be burned at the stake for witchcraft than be in any way connected to this turgid wankfest of a book. It is thoroughly unreadable. As you may know, alongside Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, Infinite Jest is renowned for sitting unfinished on a bookshelf, collecting dust and contributing to an increased incidence of potentially-fatal asthma attacks. Why on earth would you purchase this book then? Well, it does make you look clever at dinner parties, doesn’t it?
Of course, unlike the philistine masses with their porn-addled brains and their Vines and their The Hives and their inability to delay gratification, we at Faking Lit are committed to reading books from start to finish. Even the rubbish ones. And, trust me, this one was rubbish. Regardless of its girth, my copy of Infinite Jest lies on my bookshelf finished, a lugubrious monument to the 10,000 hours I wasted reading this tome. According to pseudoscientist and ‘America’s Best-Paid Fairy-Tale Writer’, Malcolm Gladwell, by investing a total of 10,000 hours in an activity, one is transformed into a world-class exponent of that activity. A concert pianist, a chess Grandmaster, an academic expert who has caused Michael Gove to feel fed-up – they’ve all put in the requisite hours. After finishing Infinite Jest, I too achieved world-class status – I became expert at crying at the massive opportunity cost of having invested so long reading this fucking book. To think, in a parallel universe where I hadn’t read this book, I could instead be at Carnegie Hall or rubbing Gary Kasparov’s nose in it. Alas, here I am writing this review.
The book opens with a cloyingly sycophantic foreword by David Eggers. Unsurprisingly, Eggers is gushing about Wallace, describing the book as “clever,” “verbose” but nevertheless ”approachable.” Despite the book containing words such as “egregulous” and “(C2H5CO)2O2”, Eggers boasts that the book “uses familiar enough vocabulary” and “doesn’t include complex scientific or historical content.” Well then, for a man of such vast intellect (as is to be expected of a man who seemingly unironically calls his own work ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’), I guess David Eggers will understand me when I say that he’s a massive C4H4AsH.[i]
At one point, Eggers interrupts his posthumous arse-licking of Wallace, to ask, “Is it our duty to read Infinite Jest?” I suppose it is, in the same way Kamikaze pilots and Salafist suicide bombers have to fulfil duties of some sort. Even the character names are annoying: Pemulis, Lamont Chu, Medical attaché – what is wrong with a good old-fashioned name such as John, Mohammed, or Joey Jo-Jo Junior Shabadoo?
Throughout the book, it is difficult to discern whether or not DFW has some insight into what he is doing. Is he some Andy Kaufman type character, deliberately trying to irk his audience? A literary anti-comedian, perhaps? Or is he more like Kanye West? That is, is he simply impervious to the harm he inflicts upon the audience with his grating self-indulgence, like a person blissfully unaware of the fart they have just imposed on the rest of the train carriage? I would put money on the latter theory – the author has his head so far up his own arse, that the only audience he probably had in mind when writing this book were the cilia of his own small intestine.
Having read the book (which I definitely have), it soon becomes apparent that David Foster Wallace likes tennis. He really likes tennis. While a smug, ‘literary’ type taking a rare interest in sport is to be applauded, there is a difference between an intense passion for something and what can only be described as Idiot Savant Syndrome – the fruits of the latter do not make for good reading. Here’s just one sentence from page 243 to illustrate my point:
“After the six singles tennis matches there are three doubles tennis, with a team’s best two singles tennis players usually turning around and also playing #1 doubles tennis – with occasional exceptions, e.g. the Vaught twins, or the fact that Schacht and Troeltsch, way down on the B tennis squad in 18’s singles tennis, play #2 doubles tennis on E.T.A.’s 18’s A tennis team, because they’ve been a doubles tennis team since they were incontinent toddlers back in Philly, and they’re so experienced and smooth together they can wipe surfaces with the 18’s A team’s #3 and #4 singles tennis guys, Coyle and Axford, who prefer to skip doubles tennis altogether tennis tennis.”
Yes, DFW actually expects us to wade through this shite. Infinite Jest is littered with tonnes of these overly analytical, obsessive and stiflingly long, passages about what – let’s face it- is just a glorified, human version of Pong. On reading such lengthy passages, the reader is again posed with a dilemma. Are we supposed to pity the author for his stunning lack of self-awareness? Should we feel the same mix of sadness and vicarious embarrassment that we experience when seeing that stoic open mic comedian die at yet another gig? Maybe we should. Yet, after the above one-sentence passage about singles and doubles tennis, DFW admits that it (i.e. the passage about tennis) is:
“…probably not at all that interesting…”
Fuck me, has he finally got it? Does this brief moment of lucidity suggest he is actually aware of the utter tedium he is committing to paper? In which case, rather than pity the man, should we admire DFW for his sheer audacity?
Luckily the book isn’t just about tennis. Infinite Jest has four separate narratives, which are interwoven into one, whole story. The effect of this however, much to the detriment of the reader, is the opposite of that demonstrated by the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: the whole is significantly less than the sum of its parts.
Without wanting to give too much away, the other non-tennis narratives include: the terrorist plot of a differently-abled Quebec separatist group, the life and times of a bloke called Hal Incandenza and the troubles of various drug addicts in the Boston area.
As embodied by the latter group, addiction is the central theme of this book. Craving. Dependence. Fixation. Peversely, readers of this book suffer from the complete opposite of addiction, finding themselves with every word wanting to put the book down and abscond to a preliterate society. Actually, on second thought, maybe one does indeed experience something of the process of addiction on reading this book – but exclusively the unbearable comedown and withdrawal part. Reading Infinite Jest, then, is to experience 1079 pages of the dead-baby-crawling-the-ceiling scene in Trainspotting. One could subsequently not blame the reader for choosing life or a fucking big television over reading this book.
If the book is so dreadful, you may ask, then why the 2 stars? Infinite Jest is not without its merits. Shamelessly displaying the book while sitting on the London Underground is a good way to broadcast your culturedness and hipster credentials to fellow passengers. Who knows, it may even lead to a copulatory opportunity with the kind of god-awful person who puts the word “sapiosexual” on their Tinder Profile. (Just be sure to abort any ensuing children. Perhaps by getting the foetus to read Infinite Jest too).
[i] C4H4AsH is an organoarsenic compound more commonly known as ‘arsole’.