Jay Loves A Book #4 - Infinite Jest

I want to move away from the YA for a minute, lest people get the impression that I've never read a book for adults in my life. I have. I do. I think that's one of the impressions a lot of people have about YA writers, is that we only read the stuff we write. Not true (at least not for me). Authors of "adult literature" (by which I mean books for people over the age of 17, not the other kind of "adult" literature), are some of my favorite writers.

And my most favorite of all of them is David Foster Wallace. I'm going to talk about "Infinite Jest" here, because that's my favorite of all of his fiction and is sort of the apex of his career (to this point - I expect great things) and is the type of thing I'm most qualified (by my own reading and thinking) to evaluate, but his nonfiction is some of the most entertaining stuff I've ever read. A good place to start with Wallace is his collection of essays called "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," which makes me laugh every time I re-read it and has ruined cruises for me forever. Thanks a LOT, DFW. Really.

But anyway, on to "Infinite Jest." First of all, this is not a book for the faint of heart. If you're looking for a novel to read on the beach or to idle away an afternoon, this is not the book for you. This book is huge. It is complicated. It contains words that this perfect scorer on SAT, English major and tier one law school graduate had to look up. Several of them. There are footnotes that go on for days. In fact, some of the reviews took Wallace to task for the inaccessibility of the book, both in style and in form. To which I say - cowards!

But since I'm a former Victorian novelist specialist, I don't scare easily. I read all of Dickens. (ALL of it. Even "The Old Curiousity Shop".) I like "Clarissa" by Samuel Richardson (aka, the Longest Novel In the English Language). If it's not 400 pages long in fine print, then I ain't interested, honey!

(Okay, obviously that last part is a lie, since I write YA, most of which is, like 250 pages at most, but I wasn't kidding about Dickens. Or "Clarissa".)

Some people will say "if I have to put that much work into a book, then the story had better be damn well worth it." In which case, they are lucky, because the story of "Infinite Jest" really is worth it. What you'll get in the book's 4 billion pages (the edition I have is actually 1104 pages, but who's counting?), is a really affecting story in a funny and scary and complicated and fully imagined world.

Basically, and at it's simplest level, "Infinite Jest" is the story of Hal Incandenza, the third son of his seriously demanding and messed up parents. We follow Hal through his breakout year as a star tennis player at the Enfield Tennis Academy, during which he starts a downward spiral that ends, appropriately, at the beginning of the book.

But there are other stories, too, stories about a halfway house down the hill from the tennis academy. And a group of Quebecois terrorists who seek to destroy the Organization of North American Nations. And Hal's older brother, a truly reprehensible lizard of a guy who refers to women as "specimens." And a truly awesome game played with tennis balls, but that is emphatically NOT tennis, but something called "Eschaton", a game so real in its imagining that people have actually started designing programs so that they can play it.

That's the thing about this book--it feels real. There are parts of it that are obviously parody, parts of it that are laugh out loud funny--but most of it just feels REAL, like if you slipped forward in time to the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment (the year the book takes place), you would be able to walk around and see the sights and meet the people that Wallace describes. Wallace's world is Total Immersion.

I read it once every couple of years, and there are always things I come across and think "OMG, that's awesome, why didn't I remember that?" (Because the book is a ZILLION pages long and I have limited space in my brain is why.) Obviously, you have to like (a) Wallace (who some people find annoying), and (b) loooong books, to enjoy "Infinite Jest," but if (a) and (b) are true for you, it's definitely worth the work.


Hmmm...I think I'm too much of a coward to take on this book. And I too am a YA writer who occasionally strays into other genres but just your description scared me! If you haven't read Bryson's A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING, you probably would like it (and there's nothing short about it!). It was fascinating in only the way Bryson can make things that everyone else finds pretty dense fascinating. I read the British version which was an extra special challenge for me because while I live in Canada now, I was raised in the USA and metrics are not my strongest point (you know-that crash course in third grade didn't really stick -although I'm learning). All his measurements and things are in metrics in the British version, of course!

Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 2:05:00 AM EDT  

Thanks, Joelle--I put A Short History on my list. I may skip the metrics though...I wouldn't have any idea how big anything was. "Three meters, hmm? I could probably fit that in my hand." whoops.

As for "Infinite Jest", yeah, it's a commitment (as in you will be committed if you try it. :) ). I can't recommend Wallace's essays enough, though. He makes things I'm not interested in interesting. He's got one online (google "David Foster Wallace article" and it's the entry about Roger Federer) that you can take a look at it and see if he's for you. (And you don't have to know anything about tennis...I certainly don't, unless badminton counts.)

Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 9:29:00 AM EDT  

I'm simultaneously intrigued and intimidated. Just the initials ONAN make me nervous!

We invented our own tennis game in high school. It involved hitting the balls toward the fence instead of over the net. Simple but fun. Elegant, you might even say. ;-)

Monday, June 2, 2008 at 11:56:00 AM EDT  

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