I finished Infinite Jest this morning on the floor of my grandmother’s bedroom in Florida. It’s over. Done. Completed. 1088 pages in a cover with the exact same colors as my second demo cd, starting while marooned in a hospital bed and finished while marooned in an retirement condo.
Somehow finishing it only seems like half as much an accomplishment as starting it. Starting a 1k+ page book, especially this particular 1k+ book, you need motivation, interest, and all of your wits about you as you are introduced to a seemingly endless cast of characters in no specific order, chronological or otherwise. You also should probably keep a notepad and several bookmarks handy. And make sure to rotate your reading posture every few dozen pages so that you don’t lose any limbs.
The great failing of Infinite Jest – and, believe me, it definitely fails – is two-fold. The first problem i (inevitably) had with it is that it featured a total lack of editing. Yes, everything was spelt as it should have been, and the grammar and syntax was impeccable where applicable. In fact, the writing was nearly perfect. The problem was that there was too damned much nearly perfect writing … too good to want to skim over, but absolutely non-vital to the story. Endless footnotes regarding the manufacturers of the umpteen prescription drugs each character is addicted to. Lengthy passages in ebonic street-slang to introduce a minor character who has no cumulative effect on the story at large. A complex subplot about the pursuit of happiness that is basically never resolved. David Foster Wallace is a great master of prose, but that’s all he seems to be … his plot doesn’t resolve it’s three major thrusts — my second major problem with the novel: the entire latter two hundred pages feel like a digression rather than a progression and the damned book ends with a wholly irrelevant flashback that would have been better suited as an introduction of Don Gately rather than an end to the book. I’m all for novels that leave readers with questions, but we are left in the dark about Hal, Orin, Pemulis, Stice, Wayne, Gately, Joelle, Marathe, Steeply, and all of the rest of our favourites; a re-read of the opening passage will give you an idea of where they all wound up, but not how they got there.
Essentially, Wallace set up a Jest too Infinite to follow through on; namely, a riveting and perfect novel so grand in scope and scheme that he is unable (or unwilling) to end it in any way in keeping with the rest of the novel. Yes, this is part of the jest, but it is also the mark of a sloppy conceptualist who should have had an editor take a hatchet to revisionist US history, endlessly tepid passages about Himself’s youth, the 20+ little buddies introduced in one lump sum, Hal’s sidebar trip to teddy-bear-land, and what turns out to be a novel in itself about Gately. Yes to the hilariously unnarrated conversations within the Incandenza clan. Yes to the laugh-out-loud Estachon game that makes Quidditch look like bumper-bowling. Yes to Pemulis and his hat full of narcotic wonders. Yes to Marathe and Steeply’s debate on the pursuit of happiness. In fact, yes to the entire world-weary tone of a society that is addicted to everything, including entertainment, and doesn’t know when to stop.
In a way the end of the novel is the perfect allegory for the the film that is the perfect allegory for the novel, but in failing to deliver the goods on any of the nearly dozen major plot threads he had been weaving together the entire time, David Foster Wallace ultimately proves himself an inept cock-tease of a writer who couldn’t help but throw all of his many tricks at the reader without every taking the time to bring anything quite to a climax.. Because, frankly, despite every indication that you’re headed there, you aren’t.