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30th August
2010
written by Steph

Infinite Jest
by David Foster Wallace is one of those books that I guess you could say is on my bucket list; last year when the Infinite Summer readalong was taking place, I was sorely tempted to give it a try, but I know that massively long doorstop books are just not my style. And yes, I was woefully intimidated. While I wanted to read Wallace, I wondered if Infinite Jest was really the best place for me to start... I decided it wasn’t and instead decided I’d try Wallace’s first, and much shorter, novel, The Broom of the System, on for size and see how it fit. Rather than cannonballing (or bellyflopping, let’s be honest) into the deep end, I figured I’d spend some time wading about in the paddling pool instead. If Infinite Jest is a full marathon, I’d say Broom is a half-marathon. It may look considerably slimmer than its successor, but you’d be foolish to consider this a trifling 5K. It starts off simply enough, with a fun chapter involving college party shenanigans, and while the novel certainly has a healthy dose of the absurd coursing through it, this is not a light or flippant novel. The heroine of Broom of the System is 24-year-old Lenore Beadsman, an intelligent and articulate long woman who has some rather intense boundary issues. Obsessed with personal hygiene and the notion that words define us and the world, we the readers follow Lenore as she attempts to track down her missing grandmother who has mysterious escaped from her nursing home despite needing to have a constant ambient temperature of 98.6ºF, deals with a wildly jealous boyfriend battling feelings of impotence, and tries to figure out why her pet cockatiel, Vlad the Impaler, has suddenly started on a loquacious streak. It sounds like a wild and frenetic romp, and to some extent it is, but what a basic summary of Wallace’s plot leaves out is the actual prose he uses to convey his story. His writing can be incredibly dense at time, and Wallace is clearly a man who knew his way around a dictionary, and well. His writing is witty and clever, and his light-hearted blasé approach often masks many of the deeper, trickier, rather abstruse philosophical ideas that are woven into the text. I believe Wallace was a philosophy major at school (and incidentally, this book started out as his senior thesis), so I’m sure a lot of the ideas he was playing with about the link between textuality and identity were old hat for him, but there are a lot of heavy thoughts going on in this book. It was a very cerebral book, though I felt at times it was slyly so, lulling you into thinking it was light and fun because of the punchy language, but really, sometimes just keeping up with what was going on plot-wise was mentally exhausting. And don’t even get me started on the parts that were told via transcripts from Lenore and Rick’s (her boyfriend) therapy sessions. Those parts were like sifting through barely lucid dreams written in triple speak… large portions of them made my eyes cross and my brain hurt. Reading this book was mentally exhausting. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book, nor is it to say I didn’t find it interesting. I did and it was, it’s just that it’s a challenging read. Nothing wrong with that, but be warned. I was particularly interested in the somewhat meta aspects of the book, that is the different means/formats Wallace uses to tell his story, and the way he uses this the emphasize and explore the concept of the difference between reality and fiction. Lenore’s boyfriend, Rick Vigorous, owns a publishing company where he is editor of a literary journal. As a result he frequently recounts some of the stories he receives to Lenore, some which he’s written himself. More often than not, these stories reflect the characters and enlarge the space in which their identities and fears are explored. Much like Infinite Jest, I suspect this is one of those books where you simply can’t grasp everything it has to offer on the first read through. Sometimes I felt I was so desperately invested in trying to keep track of all the plot-threads and seeing how things would turn out, I simply didn’t have the energy or breadth of attention to dig deeper into the text, even though I knew there was tons of stuff to ruminate on. As for where this leaves me in terms of future DFW reading, I’m not entirely sure. Reading this book made me feel that Wallace can be a rewarding author to read, but even with something that was a fraction of the size of Infinite Jest, I wondered as to whether all of it was entirely necessarily. Forgive me for saying so, but it felt a bit bloated and unfocused at times. As much as I got from this novel, I did struggle with it and I don’t know how I’d fare with something three times its size. Perhaps I should give his essays or short stories a try next? I’ve heard tell that some people feel this is where he really shines. Thankfully, Dawn at She Is Too Fond of Books graciously sent me the audio version of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men a while back, so that just may be what I try next when I feel like getting more than my feet wet. Still not ready for the high dive though. Infinite Jest waits for another day. Rating: 4 out 5

12 Comments

  1. Kathleen
    08/30/2010

    I have Infinite Jest glaring at me from my bookshelf at home and I am so darn scared to read it. I just know it will be a lot of work and not sure when I will feel like taking that challenge on.

  2. 08/30/2010

    I went to the library not too long ago, all geared up to check out Infinite Jest, but as soon as I saw the size of that beast, I said No! Though I love reading, I usually start fidgeting around page 172 of books. Perhaps when I’m prepared to be mentally exhausted, I’ll give The Broom of the System a try, and see if I can push on to Infinite Jest.

  3. 08/30/2010

    As you may remember, I loved parts of Infinite Jest, but also found it excessive–and I do love a good tome! I’m not overly keen now even to read his shorter fiction. I do, however, think his essays would be brilliant. I haven’t read any, but I keep hearing good things about them, and some of the more tightly focused parts of IJ were brilliant.

  4. 08/31/2010

    Oh gosh, I have been toying with the idea of reading Infinite Jest for a long, long time. Sometimes I go over to Amazon and check out the first few chapters with their look inside feature, and then get so intimidated that I put it out of my mind for a few months. I keep going back to it though, because I think it would be so rewarding to actually finish a book by Wallace. I am intrigued by the summary of this book, but also think it’s probably just as weighty as Infinite Jest. I might try this one. I have never actually heard of anyone finishing Infinite Jest (except the people that have reviewed it on Amazon), so your real life success with this book inspires me to give it a try. I know it won’t be easy!! Great review, Steph!

  5. 08/31/2010

    @ Kathleen: “Glaring” seems like exactly the right word for what IJ might do if it were on my bookshelf! I have thus far avoided adding it to my home library because I don’t want to have the pressure and guilt of having it in my house!
     
    @ charley: Yes, I’m just like you – it’s a rare book that doesn’t start to tire me out around the 200 – 250 pp mark, so something as long as IJ? I just don’t think I would have the stamina!
     
    @ Teresa: I do remember your foray into IJ, and I think I wound up feeling very similar to you – some parts were wonderful, but other parts dragged and went well over my head. I think for the time being, I’m going to stick to his shorter stuff, because I just can’t think of giving myself over completely to IJ for however long it would take for me to read it! I might wind up insane at the end!
     
    @ zibilee: I’ve done the same thing! I page through the beginning at Amazon and think “this isn’t so bad!” and then WHAM! It gets bad! I kind of felt like this was my way of cheating my way around IJ – I can now say I’ve read a book by Wallace, but don’t have to read that hulking beast! Maybe give this one a try first and see if you like it? It’s only 500 pages, instead of 1200!

  6. 08/31/2010

    I am so going to read this book, eventually. I’m going to read everything DFW wrote when I can. Right now I’ve got his collection of stories Oblivion on my shelves. I think you would do fine with Infinite Jest, but expect more of what you describe here. I would highly recommend his essays — they have a similar style to the fiction, but are more tightly focused and lighter in tone and ideas.

  7. 09/01/2010

    That sounds like a difficult read – the transcripts of the therapy sessions particularly! I like books that use different formats throughout though – at least when it gets heavy you get a change of pace. An interesting review – but of a book I probably won’t bother with!

  8. 09/01/2010

    A friend who’s a big Wallace fan told me to actually start with his non-fiction. I have Consider the Lobster, an essay collection, and actually tried to start it a few weeks ago. But I quickly realised that thought his style was funny, it was also a bit too demanding for a period when I’m preparing for an international move and etc. I think Wallace will be worth my time and my full attention, but I need to make sure I try him at the right time.

  9. 09/01/2010

    @ Dorothy: Thanks for the vote of confidence re: Infinite Jest. It just doesn’t seem like the kind of book you can dip in and out of, and I’m so worried that if I immerse myself in it head on, I might drown!
     
    @ Tom: Yes, the different formats in this book were really interesting, and I felt they worked on many levels, apart from simply breaking up the novel into different chunks. I always like authors who play with the medium and challenge our notions of what makes a novel.
     
    @ Nymeth: Yes, I’ve definitely heard that Wallace truly shines with his non-fic. But I completely agree that even then, he demands your complete focus. I started browsing Consider the Lobster on Amazon, and swiftly realized that I needed to be in a quiet, attentive reading space if I hoped to get anything out of the first essay!

  10. 09/06/2010

    I like your approach to David Foster Wallace, and I may try the same tactic when I finally read him. I’d like to read all of his stuff, just like Dorothy, but I’ll probably do a project and start from the beginning and go to the end. Which means I need to set aside a few months…and you know how that goes!

  11. 09/06/2010

    @ verbivore: Well, if you wind up reading DFW chronologically, I think this will wind up being one of the first things you read, and I suppose it’s probably a good introduction. I don’t think I’d have the mental stamina to make it through all of his writing in one shot… I think it would take far more brain power than I currently have! I wish you luck! 😀

  12. […] and writing can blend, kind of tie in rather eerily well with previous books I’ve read like The Broom of the System, and even more recently, Moon Tiger. I feel like each one of these books grapple with these ideas […]

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