Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: Infinite Jest

This is a book that runs the gamut of fan types: you'll get your hipster who read it in a week and thinks it's hilarious and "ironic."; you'll get your Pynchon, post modernist snob who thinks Wallace is a hack because his prose isn't confusing or artistic enough; you'll get scholarly types who describe attributes of it, that may or may not even exist, in complex academic wankery; you'll get passive readers who've gone through some classic lit and think Wallace was just a showy pedant who wrote a boring, narcissistic book. And lastly, you'll get people like me. And really, I'm just in awe of the genius involved. I'm going to do my best to explain why because it really isn't apparent to everyone, even though it should be.

You'll notice how it's easy to spot the different types of people by how they've interpreted it. That's because the book is more like a mirror. Depending on the type of person you are, you'll read a different story. And while this is true for more than just this book, I've never seen the effect this powerful.

For starters, Wallace introduces you to his characters and world in a very surrealistic, intellectual way. And as you progress through this story, you'll be tempted to feel normal and boring. You'll start to accept all the insanity going on as no big deal. You'll see a lot of characters you might even hate. And yet all of them serve a purpose. Some are huge to the plot and hiding in plain sight. Others are put there to misdirect you. And this is where his genius really lies.

Wallace believed that entertainment would continue to get better and better. And for the majority of people, this is true. He believed that humans would be so content with this that they'd eventually prefer a fascist type state to just tell them what to do and think — bearing they got their daily dose of entertainment. And this is proven in his own work. He wanted to see if he could tell you how to think and what to think while reading it. And he's so good at it that you can easily wind up missing some huge plot points and being completely lost by the end. And if you should recognize his masterful misdirection and manipulation, you'll want to re-read it — which is why the ending is the way it is.

Not ironically, the book has lost more of its entertainment value in contemporary culture. And when Wallace wrote Infinite Jest, it resonated much better with an audience who hadn't been exposed to the type of distractions we have today. Also, the information presented isn't as impressive to us, now, because we have an Internet that is faster, more saturated with information, and has better search engines to look up anything we want. I remember surfing the web back in 96, and it was all about Webcrawler and Netscape. And if I remember right, encyclopedias on CDs were "all the rage." If you really look at him in the context of his time, he undeniably did his research and put a monumental effort into it.

After I finished it, I had so many light bulb type moments. Quite simply when you're done, you're not done. You'll go back and see things you've missed and piece together its mysteries. And on top of that, there is a ton of very clever allegory here. It's a lot to take in.

In conclusion, don't let anyone hype this book for you. It's not some comedy piece or thriller. This isn't even for the typical, avid reader. It took me half a year to read it. Although, I wasn't reading it daily and probably read 20 books in the meanwhile. Also, don't be fooled by its page count: It's somewhere around 480,000 words and is the third largest, single volume book ever written in the history of literature — sixth compared to novels in multiple volume format.

Some Tips on How to Read It

1. Read slowly. I'm not saying you have to sub vocalize every single word. But some of those seemingly unimportant details are very important.
2. Pay attention to how characters interact with each other. Don't be afraid to question weird actions. They are in there on purpose and indicate important things.
3. Take a break if it gets to be too much. Set it down and go back to it later. It's OK. This isn't a race. Take as long as you need. Don't be a "hero."
4. Ditch your ego. You may be a very smart person but so was Wallace. And if you've ever read his essays or watched his videos, he's not an ego maniac. He has to stay consistent and excessive or else you'd catch on easily to things he wanted you to not think about. Plus it's needed for its multiple philosophical and stylistic effects.
5. Get it in E-book. Yes, I read it in both hard copy (first edition, first print even!) and on Kindle. Easily being able to click on an unfamiliar word and get an instant definition helped a lot. You can also click on the notes, and it will go right to it and give you a link back to your exact place. This made it a lot less frustrating. Plus, it's a large book and sort of uncomfortable to read while laying down in bed.
6. Read the notes. Some of them are extremely important. There is even actual plot in them and many clues to everything.
7. Stay away from listening to music with lyrics. I found a lot of Jazz instrumentals and some classical helped me enjoy it far more.
8. Don't get a guide to it until you're done. Half of the fun is after you've read it and start to realize things about the story. And I really loved having the wool pulled over my eyes. It made me appreciate him and the book so much more.

1 comment:

  1. But parts of it are funny. It's the best kind of humor, the kind that is, at heart, serious.