Large Novel of the Year (LNY) for 2013: Infinite Jest

As part of my good friend Zach Mueller’s #EspressYaShelf group, I am reading David Foster Wallace’s massive Infinite Jest. I tend to be a slow reader, so it is like some sort of literary pilgrimage for me to get through something with 600+ pages (previous LNY’s have been Don Quixote, Gravity’s Rainbow, Moby Dick, Ulysses, and, my original back in high school, The Stand.

I have heard it said by at least one person that he does not respect anyone’s brain who has not read the Jest. That man respects about 38% of my brain right now.

The novel’s world is massive and detailed, yet the focus is mainly on small players unconnected (except by mysterious means) to the larger political and cultural conflicts. Wallace’s InterLace is enough like the current Internet to be evocative, yet it is alien too in a weird sort of ’90’s nostalgic way. The credibility of all the varied topics in the novel, from tennis to recovery programs to film, is staggering. 

But what I respect most so far is the genuine compassion for these characters. Someone has said that the novel is a primarily empathetic art form. Another said that, despite the hell she put them through, Flannery O’Connor really loved all her characters. Having read Wallace, and McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, I don’t think I can believe that about O’Connor anymore. It’s one thing to wreak judgment on defenseless characters, forcing them into one’s ideas of right and wrong. Another thing entirely is to lock a reader into empathy with characters who, if we met them in real life, we might well hate them.

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One Response to Large Novel of the Year (LNY) for 2013: Infinite Jest

  1. Robbie says:

    Hey old friend,

    I am rounding the 9/10th mark of the book, strolling through the 900s at this point. Make that the 9.5/10 mark, since I’ve consumed all but a handful of “Notes & Errata.” Close enough?

    I have read this book excruciatingly slowly. It is forever connected with riding BART to & from work; with that sick-sweet, pre-post-work feeling; with the utter banality and absolute horrorshow duality to SF’s city-and-environs train system. That’s exactly where it should be. That utter banality paired with that dripping rusted syringe beneath a man’s leg, dead-eyed work staggers with ringing styrofoam cup, suits and matted hair. The worlds within and without the book synergize. I really feel like DFW between the two, the book in my lap. I am horrified, bored, empty, and certain I understand *something* not quite clear.

    I really do not know what to think about the book in the offhand way one is first and most often asked about this or that book, film, sandwich. It is quite a feat. Moments are breathtaking (and not always in the positive sense). There is a pretty great scene that I am not sure you have met yet but is pretty great and you will know when you get there. I know I will be glad to be done with it in a way I have never felt about a book, however long it is. I believe the longest book I read before this was 2666? I do not know if I would recommend Jest to anyone.

    To your point on empathy. I see where you are coming from. DFW was oft-quoted on that very topic and there are moments — eidetic is the word, I believe — that point to the real-world dude and his real-world thoughts, even directly. One character, for example, tells another the story of two young fish who pass an older fish, which, if you are familiar, is the driving situation of DFW’s well-know commencement address. The narrator approaches almost word-for-word DFW thoughts on ‘escaping one’s head’ as the end-all be-all interpersonal (to still a Jest term) moment that may be in fact impossible but is the only thing that makes life worth living (DFW’s thoughts here, not mine). In fact, the head in all its metonymic extensions is the most prevalent motif of this book.

    In the end, I distrust the compassion in this book. There is a fascination with banality and deformity, whether moral, physical, or spiritual, and there is a constant move toward finding compassion for these despicable people and their despicable actions. By despicable I do not mean, however, that I find the people and their actions despicable; far from it. What I mean is that again and again the book becomes an obsessed exercise with despicabilizing a character or her action (or her appearance) then exhibiting compassion *only at that moment.* Compassion otherwise is hard to come by.

    This obsessive exercise is, to me, an author forcing despicability to prove or force a point – that empathetic moment. But (to put you back with me as I read) I look around and am bombarded with these characters – the man in his chinos who is sniveling inside on his way to his office, the faceless girl-man in stained ripped jeans with a foot that is swollen and cracked and bright red at points and who may be dead, who knows?, she does not move from the piss puddle in the underground hallway plastered on all sides with a tunnel advertisement for summer blockbusters as many people fresh-dressed and washed shuffle toward work. No plea, no move for compassion changes that. It feels hollow, and this book does at times, despite the plea.

    Perhaps I’ve focused too narrowly on the play between finding grace, however scintillam, within contemptibility and all out cravenness. It is what will stick with me. As you may tell, though, the book has left an impression and it will be a long time before the aftershocks are settled.

    -Robbie

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