Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Infinite Jest: Was it Worth It?

After starting Infinite Jest on January 1st, I finished reading it this past Sunday. That's not to say that it took me almost 7 solid months to read. I took my time with it and read several other books simultaneously. I would read parts of IJ, then put it down for a few days. Gave myself time to digest it small chunks at a time. I was in no hurry and had no real deadline other than the self-imposed, "I will finish this book before January 1st of next year." So success!

I went into reading Infinite Jest with very little knowledge aside from basically what's on the back of the book. I also avoided reading any reviews, blog posts, message boards etc. to keep from inadvertently coming across any spoilers and to avoid starting the book with pre-concieved notions. I had only ever read one other thing by David Foster Wallace before this: His 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. (Side note: Whether you loved, hated or haven't read Infinite Jest, please read this commencement address. It's outstanding.) All I really knew was that a lot of people considered this book "important" and also "difficult." I'd heard from countless people stories of determined-yet-ultimately-failed attempts to read it. 

Since finishing IJ, I've had more than one person ask me, "Was it worth it?" Which, to paraphrase President Clinton, it all depends on what you mean by "it."

For me, "it" was simply completing the book. No skimming, no subtitle skipping, no reader's guide help. What got me interested in the first place was how intimidated people were by this book. I thought, "If this was written by the guy who gave that commencement address, I'm sure I can find something to like in it." And I did like it. Loved parts of it, in fact. But there's an added level of satisfaction because I no longer wonder if I "can make it though" IJ. Because I did. If it's the literary equivalent of running a marathon, than I ran that mofo. Bring on Thomas Pynchon. Well, after my wrists heal from holding this goddamn book up for so long. 

Of course, now that I've finished reading it, I've been (along with letting the book sink in) reading reviews, critiques, blogs etc. I've found it especially interesting to look at the most glowingly positive reviews and the absolute most negative. I sometimes like trying to get a feel for something based on the most extreme views. Plus, middle-of-the-road "it was ok" reviews are boring.  

Let's look at some of the more prevalent themes!

Frequent themes of negative reviews:
  • "The title of the book tells you everything you need to know and David Foster Wallace is basically playing a joke on you."
love the frequently repeated accusation that the book is some kind of 1,000 page joke. That David Foster Wallace wrote it to trick intellectual types into immersing themselves in and pontificating breathlessly about a work he created precisely to fool them into doing so. Some of the more hyperbolic, glowing reviews of Infinite Jest are written with such painfully self-conscious high-brow superiority that you want the book to be a joke on those people. This arrogant, "Well, if you didn't finish it or didn't love it, you obviously don't get it" sentiment reeks of pretentious supremacy that is dismissive and intimidating. Far from making me feel like these people are smart, it just adds to my feeling that self-proclaimed intellectuals are often insecure and petty. However, there is just too much emotion, heart and complexity in this book for this "it's a joke" assertion to be true. 
  • "There is no resolution! No ending!"
As a person with a low tolerance for ambiguity, I feel you on this one. I was somewhat disappointed that so much was left unanswered. Initially. But a couple days later, I'm ok with it. For one thing, that's how life is. There is really no such thing as endings. IJ is a slice of life. A crazy, chopped up, dense and at times infuriating slice, but a slice nonetheless. It's not like Wallace is the first person ever to write a book that left the reader wanting. And this wanting has only kept the book buzzing around in my brain. I keep going over things in my head, revisiting sections, characters, seeking out the interpretations of others to see how they gel with mine. To me, this is the most basic sign of a good book. One you think about long after you've finished reading it.
  • "I quit."
A lot of people start Infinite Jest and never finish. I've talked to several people who have started it and stopped - some of them many times. Frequently reviews that state they quit the book also include some version of, "I wanted to like it!" and I get that. But if it's not resonating with you, it's not resonating with you. It's not a failure. Even if so many of those glowing reviews very much want you to think you failed by not reading "the most important book of all time." The only way not finishing Infinite Jest could be considered a failure is if you said, "I wanted to like it, but I couldn't finish it. And now I will never read a book again. Other than 50 Shades of Grey." Plus, there's still time. Maybe you'll go back to it in a few years and decide to try it again. Or maybe you find something you do like (and feel challenged by) and read that instead. See? You've avoided failure!
  • "It's navel gazing, intellectual tripe."

I guess I have a harder time labeling a work of fiction as "navel gazing." I associate the phrase with first person accounts by authors who think they're amazing and deep and that every word they utter is a gift to their readers. And I do hate books like that. But I think it takes a lot more talent for an author to separate themselves from the audience with fictional characters. A lot of the book takes place inside various character's heads. The reader is basically in their brain, along for the ride as they process and experience things. You're also along for a lot of "flashbacks" and memories. I happen to really like to be in the brain of a character. I like to see their personal philosophies and drives develop and to know what occurred that may have shaped those views. Sure these cerebral insights are too "navel-gazy" for some people. It's clear early on that you're in for a ton of this with IJ, so if it's not something you dig, it will be a stumbling block to your enjoyment for sure.

Frequent themes of positive reviews

  • "Does Infinite Jest qualify as post-modern?"
This is easy: I do not care. The key to understanding this book isn't in how to classify it. When reviewers and critics get caught up in academic circle jerks of author name dropping and dry text dissections I just stop reading. Just because a book is long and complex doesn't mean you have to write about it like you're writing a dissertation. There is far too much absurdity, humanity and humor in the book to get bogged down with this stuff.

  • "Infinite Jest is complex, amazing, etc. and now I will summarize it."
I get that you loved the book. But what compels you to reiterate the plot summary? It's been done. A lot. Maybe you forget you were posting on Goodreads, Amazon etc. and went into a trance-like state where you thought you were writing a term paper?
  • "This book was so amazing, I will now try to say something equally as deep and amazing to attempt to adequately describe how much I loved it."
Although sometimes embarrassing to read (in cases where the writer seems to think they're amazingly profound), these reviews are fascinating. Because Infinite Jest absolutely stirs something in you. That urge to open up, to create, to be heard, to share. I think this is because the part of the brain that loves this book the most is the part that says, "You are capable of so much more than you know!" It's inspiring to read something this huge.
  • "When I finished the book I immediately started reading it again! I'm obsessed!"
Oh, the irony. I hope it is not lost on the people who say this. However, the book is very much written in a way that compels an immediate re-read. I suspect Wallace did this intentionally. Toward the end, lots of things happen that tie in with some of the earliest parts of the book. I did go back and reread some sections and skim some parts, but I think one time through is enough for me. I don't think I will live long enough to finish all the titles on my always-growing "books to read" list. But I do consider it a small, personal triumph that Infinite Jest is now on my "books I've read" list. 

So was it worth it? For me, yes. If you consider mental challenges (however you define them) fun and rewarding, it will be worth it for you as well.

And for the people out there who still feel intimidated or unsure, I leave you with this: No book that mentions farts and farting this much is beyond your ability to read and conquer. You can do this.


Filmi Girl said...

I have no interest in post-modern (or "post-modern") fiction and I find that whole crew (Dave Eggers, etc.) pretty tedious BUT I will always love DFW for writing the first essay I ever loved:

(Laura) said...

I've heard great things about that essay and have been wanting to read it. Thanks for the link! :)

Filmi Girl said...

It is pretty great - I think I got my love of footnotes from it.

Well, either him or Nicholson Baker. ;P

Christine said...

Thanks for the round up and commencement speech link. This book is on my list, but all the self-loving intellectual reviews made me nervous that I would need an ironic mustache to get it. Thank you for giving me hope.

(Laura) said...

No ironic mustache required. Thank goodness.