Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

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As previously noted, I picked this up after reading a book of Wallace essays and enjoying them quite a lot. It’s an enormous book, 980 pages with a further 100 pages of end notes. I’ve been slogging through it for the past six weeks after borrowing it from the library, and finished it yesterday.

It’s a sprawling book. And yet, none of the dozens of characters end up being well-developed. There’s not a single character that I feel like I “know” them after reading this book, the way I do in character-based fiction like the Vorkosigan series or the Stephanie Plum series. There really isn’t a plot to speak of. The ending just kind of fizzled out without ever following up on events that are mentioned earlier. There’s some interesting digressions, but it’s hardly worth reading the entire novel for. Maybe I’m missing something, but it really seems like Wallace is an excellent short-form writer who strung together some brilliant observational essays interspersed with hundreds of pages of relatively uninteresting events. Wallace’s random one-liner observations about people are often far more interesting than the actual episode surrounding them. I was pretty disappointed by the experience, obviously.

The digressions I liked included:

  • The list of Incandenza’s films (endnote 24), the descriptions of which were just so perfect for a self-conscious auteur video artist (especially the one credited with “unwittingly sounding the death-knell of post-poststructural film in terms of sheer annoyance”).
  • The discussion of why videophones are doomed to failure (essentially because it destroys the illusion that the other person is actually paying attention to us when instead they’re staring off into space).
  • The meditations on the mental aspect of tennis. This appealed to me personally because I played tennis through high school, and was extremely solid on the practice court, where I could comfortably exchange groundstrokes with our #1 singles player, but I just fell apart in competitive situations, losing 6-0. People think that competitive sports is about the physical edge, and it is, but beyond that is a mental edge, which Wallace seems to understand.
  • The Eschaton episode, which I mentioned before, was the highlight of the novel. It wasn’t even close. Clever construction of philosophical ideas mapped into plot, written with a sense of humor that had me laughing out loud.
  • The idea of Found Drama (endnote 145).
  • His observations on advertising and networks and his narrative of how the future of media could proceed astutely capture the various power relationships between companies, media and the audience. In particular, the description of how an advertising campaign was so successful that it destroyed the networks: “It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase. It just did it way more well than wisely, given the vulnerable psyche of an increasingly hygiene-conscious USA in those times.”

Anyway. I think I might pick up some more of Wallace’s shorter works, fiction and essays, because I do like his writing and his sharp eye for absurdity. But I’m going to steer clear of the novels in the future.