Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest BookIt’s been almost a month since my last post. I have not been ill – not physically at least. The last few weeks of my life have been consumed by completing and digesting one book – David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It’s safe to say that I have now recovered, but before I move on with the rest of my life, allow me to share with you my thoughts.

First, a brief plot summary. Some time in the near future (the book was published in 1996, and scholars agree that that future is more or less now), mostly in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (years are no longer numbered but offered up for corporate sponsorship), the Organization of North American Nations (a sort of NAFTA on steroids) is fighting a clandestine war with les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (the wheelchair assassin terrorist group pursuing Québécois independence), among others. Both parties are pursuing the original copy of a film made by James O. Incandenza, the mad genius physicist, film maker and founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy who killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave (sounds impossible but James the genius was able to figure out a way). The film, referred to as “the entertainment”, is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction because it is so good that anyone who views it falls into a state of catatonic bliss, out of which they can never recover. The viewers entertain themselves to death, shitting their pants and starving their bellies along the way. The terrorists are targeting America at its Achilles’ heel – our endless appetite for entertainment. The novel mainly takes place at the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House, a drug recovery center, where the main characters and their relationship to the entertainment emerge.

Had the story concerned itself with this overarching satirical story, the novel could have been the best read of my life. Wallace was a brilliant writer. There were countless instances in the book when I was simply in awe with his powerful wordplay.

“I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.”

‘What if sometimes there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed? What if you just love? without deciding? You just do: you see her and in that instant are lost to sober account-keeping and cannot choose but to love?’…Marathe’s sniff held disdain. ‘Then in such a case your temple is self and sentiment. Then in such an instance you are a fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self’s sentiment; a citizen of nothing. You become a citizen of nothing. You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself.’

Molly Notkin often confides on the phone to Joelle van Dyne about the one tormented love of Notkin’s life thus far, an erotically circumscribed G.W. Pabst scholar at New York University tortured by the neurotic conviction that there are only a finite number of erections possible in the world at any one time and that his tumescence means e.g. the detumescence of some perhaps more deserving or tortured Third World sorghum farmer or something…Molly still takes the high-speed rail down to visit him every couple of weeks, to be there for him in case by some selfish mischance he happens to harden, prompting black waves of self-disgust and an extreme neediness for understanding and nonjudgmental love.

The problem with his genius as a writer is that it is too often interrupted by the level of detail he wishes to employ. It’s almost as if he didn’t have an editor who was willing to stand up to the literary giant and tell him to chop sentences, pages, paragraphs and entire sections. Perhaps he had an editor who, like many, were unable to finish the book and just gave up and and approved it for publication. A 1996 review of the book in the New York Times stated “While there are many uninteresting pages in this novel, there are not many uninteresting sentences”. Infinite Jest is a lot like Melville’s Moby Dick – most readers agree on the quality of the work but lament the unnecessary tedium that connects the more meaningful parts of the narrative. 

The novel goes on for 981 pages and includes 388 end notes, some of which are dozens of pages long. A long story is not, in and of itself, bad. But when an author complicates the narrative in order to make the reader work harder, one can’t help but feel a sense of condescension that the reader is being treated like a child. The best parts of Infinite Jest were the simple ones. It reminds me of the feud between William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway in which Faulkner said of his rival “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary” to which Hemingway responded “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

The non-linearity that Wallace was hoping to achieve adds virtually nothing to the story. At best, it bestows a sense of satisfaction, as though one had just completed a literary boot camp. In short, the book is more complicated than it needs to be, and suffers as a result.

I was filled with excitement when I began reading/listening (I consumed the book through a combination of book and audiobook). I finished feeling cheated and angry, and maybe a little stupid¹. Wallace has an almost religious following in literary circles. Infinite Jest is the magnum opus of the man who is considered by many to have been the greatest American writer of his generation. His suicide only magnified his status as a deity. It’s easy to read online essays excusing the saint of the blatant and unnecessarily racism found throughout the book. Perhaps the most like annoying thing in like the book, like however, was like his incessant use of the word “like”.

I recommend everyone to read and enjoy Wallace’s other works, particularly, Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. As for Infinite Jest, acquaint yourself with the story, read excerpts, but don’t waste your time. If you do decide to read it, do so in a group – a collective effort is certainly required to find the random detail on p.38 that is essential for understanding what happens on p. 894. But this runs the risk of wasting the time of multiple people, so proceed with caution.  In between the encyclopedic descriptions of various drugs and mundane activities, there is an utterly brilliant, hilarious story that deserved to be cut down to 500 pages.

I was told that Infinite Jest is like a modern day Ulysses. I guess this means I won’t be reading Ulysses.


1. There is a strong possibility that I am, in fact, too stupid to have enjoyed this book. If you feel that you are exceptionally smart and capable of enjoying the jigsaw² puzzle that is this book, then by all means, give it a go!

2. When’s the last time you truly enjoyed completing³ a jigsaw puzzle by yourself?

3. And the story does not even complete itself, which isn’t even a problem. I merely wanted to clarify the usage of the term jigsaw puzzleso that I did not give the reader the wrong impression that Infinite Jest provides a complete narrative story. So much of the story is suggested and must be constructed as a projection into the future, following the completion of the novel’s last sentence.

4. Speaking of jigsaw puzzles, here’s a description of their history and development (now you can begin to see how annoying all the end notes are):

Most modern jigsaw puzzles are made out of cardboard, since they are easier and cheaper to mass-produce than the original wooden models. An enlarged photograph or printed reproduction of a painting or other two-dimensional artwork is glued onto the cardboard before cutting. This board is then fed into a press. The press forces a set of hardened steel blades of the desired shape through the board until it is fully cut. This procedure is similar to making shaped cookies with a cookie cutter. The forces involved, however, are tremendously greater and a typical 1000-piece puzzle requires a press that can generate upwards of 700 tons of force to push the knives of the puzzle die through the board. A puzzle die is a flat board, often made from plywood, which has slots cut or burned in the same shape as the knives that are used. These knives are set into the slots and covered in a compressible material, typically foam rubber, which serves to eject the cut puzzle pieces.

Beginning in the 1930s, jigsaw puzzles were cut using large hydraulic presses which now cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The cuts gave a very snug fit, but the cost limited jigsaw puzzle manufacture only to large corporations. Recent roller press design achieve the same effect, at a lower cost. By the early 1960s,Tower Press was the world’s largest maker of jigsaw puzzles, acquired by Waddingtons in 1969. New technology has enabled laser-cutting of wooden jigsaw puzzles, which is a growing segment of the high-end jigsaw puzzle market.

Many puzzles are termed “fully interlocking”. This means that adjacent pieces are connecting such that if you move one piece horizontally you move all, preserving the connection. Sometimes the connection is tight enough to pick up a solved part holding one piece.

Some fully interlocking puzzles have pieces all of a similar shape, with rounded tabs out on opposite ends, with corresponding blanks cut into the intervening sides to receive the tabs of adjacent pieces. Other fully interlocking puzzles may have tabs and blanks variously arranged on each piece, but they usually have four sides, and the numbers of tabs and blanks thus add up to four. The uniform-shaped fully interlocking puzzles are the most difficult, because the differences in shapes between pieces can be very subtle.

Some puzzles also have pieces with non-interlocking sides that are usually slightly curved in complex curves. These are actually the easiest puzzles to solve, since fewer other pieces are potential candidates for mating.

Most jigsaw puzzles are square, rectangular, or round, with edge pieces that have one side that is either straight or smoothly curved to create this shape, plus four corner pieces if the puzzle is square or rectangular. Some jigsaw puzzles have edge pieces that are cut just like all the rest of the interlocking pieces, with no smooth edge, to make them more challenging. Other puzzles are designed so the shape of the whole puzzle forms a figure, such as an animal. The edge pieces may vary more in these cases.

The world’s largest commercially-available jigsaw puzzle was released by Ravensburger AG (Germany) in September 2010. It consists of 32,256 pieces and measures 544 cm by 192 cm. The world’s largest-sized jigsaw puzzle measured 58,435.1 ft² (5,428.8 m²), with 21,600 pieces. It was assembled on November 3, 2002 by 777 people in Hong Kong.


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