When a joke goes too far: David Foster Wallace and the Infinite Jest

A little while ago, in my ongoing search for new ideas, I decided I was going to expand this blog to include discussion based around books I’d read; not reviews per se, but more an exploration of the ideas and thoughts they inspired in me. I began with a look at Herodotus and the birth of history as we know it, a somewhat ambitious read which I then followed up with…nothing. A good four  months of nothing, to be precise.

Despite what you might think, this wasn’t because the idea had been forgotten, or I hadn’t been reading. It’s just that my next reading project was perhaps even more ambitious than a two-and-a-half-centuries-old chronicle of the Greco-Persian wars. A modern leviathan of a book with prose so dense, one sometimes feels the need for a machete to cut through to the actual point. I refer, of course, to the late David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

I came about the book partly by accident – Foster Wallace came highly recommended to me as outstanding writer, and the morning after one particularly boozy night spent having his virtues extolled to me, I went ahead and ordered what seemed to be his most popular novel. It wasn’t until the package arrived that I realised the scale of the undertaking before me:

If this doesn’t put you off, proceed with caution – from here on in I’ll be dealing with the plot in more detail, so those averse to spoilers would be wise to turn away now.

Ostensibly, the plot is based around the search for an “après-garde” American film-maker’s final work, the titular “Infinite Jest”, a piece apparently so entertaining it induces in its viewers a catatonic stupor and, eventually, death. In a dystopian near future that probably equates roughly to our time (the book was first published in 1996), a group of hardline Québecois separatists wishes to find the film for use in a terrorist plot that will finally enable their homeland to withdraw from the Organization of North American Nations, under which Canada and Mexico are effectively run by the U.S. President, former crooner Johnny Gentle.

All in all, a relatively intriguing storyline, albeit one whose daunting complexity already begins to shine through from the brief outline above. From the outset, the book is filled with detailed observation, dark humour and a sharp linguistic awareness that allows the author to adopt a variety of styles and voices to suit different characters and situations. It is immediately and abundantly clear that David Foster Wallace is a skilled writer, and he wants us to know it.

Unfortunately, impressive though these attributes are, they do not – on this evidence, at least – make Foster Wallace a good storyteller. Though brilliant in parts, the text is filled with unnecessary asides and obsessive amounts of detail that detract frustratingly from the actual events taking place. It often lacks discernible structure; the associations between the different plot threads are so intangible that they come off less as a storyline and more as variations on a theme, often hinting at a deeper relationship to one another yet never truly coming to fruition.

About halfway through the tome, the reader does eventually begin to feel the various narrative lines start to drift closer to one another. Yet the final step of tying everything together is never taken, the book ending abruptly without even hinting at how the final conflict will pan out. No cliffhangers, no foreshadowing, nothing. The narrative simply stops, at the end of a section which brought me, as a reader, no closer to a feeling of dramatic climax than any other paragraph in the previous 980 pages.

Why would an author of such skill do this? Was it because he couldn’t think of an ending? At first glance this seems too simplistic a reason, but then when your story takes up nearly a thousand pages (plus another hundred of “endnotes and errata”) and covers such a vast array of themes and characters, it must be nearly impossible to come up with an ending that truly satisfies and makes the rest of the book worthwhile. However, Mr Foster Wallace didn’t seem short of confidence in his own writing skills, so it seems unlikely that such fears would have stopped him from trying.

The other – and to me, far more likely – solution is that the ending was deliberately abrupt; part of the eponymous joke. The much-vaunted film of the title is an allegory for the book itself: a new form of “entertainment” (a term often used ironically in the book) created with the express purpose of winding up critics by refusing to conform to their norms. It is not meant to be entertaining, at least not in any traditional sense. The lack of a conventional ending to the book, like the avant-garde approach to chaptering and coherent storylines, is all part of the ruse, an infinite loop of self-referential smugness.

Very metatextual, very clever, ingenious even…but it doesn’t make the story any better. Whether by accident or design, the result is the same: a book that contains some  brilliant writing, yet is anything but well-written. For such an acclaimed writer, David Foster Wallace published surprisingly few novels, and many consider his rambling musings more suited to short stories and free-form essays such as Consider the Lobster. Perhaps Infinite Jest would have shone more brightly in such a format. Then again, maybe I’m just smarting from the realisation that, having spent four months of my life struggling through what is meant to be a modern literary masterpiece only to find it has no ending, the joke is on me.



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3 Responses to When a joke goes too far: David Foster Wallace and the Infinite Jest

  1. Welcome to post-modern literature Ian! (And sorry)

  2. Pingback: Notes on Predator and the State of the Blog | Of Words and Worlds

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