Thoughts on Infinite Jest (Part 2)

If you haven’t read it, here’s part 1.

  • The footnotes at the end are a pain in the butt to read but Infinite Summer’s brilliant suggestion of using multiple bookmarks (one for footnote, one for main text for example) made it easier. Given that some footnotes run into pages, the publishers wouldn’t have had a choice.
  • You can read IJ even if you are not literary minded. (I find it hard to read literary books actually.) But, you have to trust DFW and he makes you wonder where he’s taking you sometimes and you realize that it’s the journey that makes the book incredible.
  • Clearly not everyone will read or will even want to read IJ and those that don’t will have missed out on something great.
  • If you are a writer, IJ will make you want to jump off the nearest building, preferably a very tall one. When you read writers like DFW, you realize that there are lots of good writers, some really good ones, but there are very few great ones. He was one of the greats. In Stephen King’s On Writing, he says that the great writers are at a different level and when I read IJ, I realized what King meant.
  • The character that I liked least in IJ was Orin Incandenza. Somehow his way of thinking and acting didn’t endear him to me.
  • I don’t know how DFW dreamed up Mario Incandenza, but he’s a beautiful character. He’s physically challenged in the most grotesque way but has a spirit that makes your heart ache when you read about him.
  • After reading IJ, I think most people feel like they want to be better versions of themselves. It’s hard to explain because IJ isn’t an inspirational or a motivational book — parts of it are horribly dark — but that’s the feeling you get when you read the book.
  • I don’t know how good The Pale King (DFW’s next novel, to be published posthumously obviously) will be but I’m pretty certain that I will read the book. Not a chance that I’ll pass up something he’d been working on for such a long time.
  • IJ affected my reading style. My reading list has become more diverse, especially in the fiction area. I’ve always found literary work hard to read but in the months after finishing IJ, I read Dracula and 1984. I’ve got Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in the to-read pile and I will look at the classics that I’ve missed out.
  • DFW’s writing makes you want to be more earnest in your writing. Also, only after reading a book like IJ would you want to write such a long review. I hope it was as interesting reading for you as it was writing for me.

End of part 2. Series concluded.

Thoughts on Infinite Jest – Part 1

It’s been a while since I finished reading Inifinite Jest and I wrote down my thoughts about the book down the old fashioned way — stylus and papyrus. This is part one.

  • Infinite Jest (IJ) is unlike any novel I have ever read because it is simply one of those books that defies classification. If someone asked or asks me what IJ is about, I’ll have a hard time answering that question. IJ has themes, stories, characters but try to slot it into the standard body of fiction and you’ll find it won’t fit. Seriously, this novel defies pigeon-holing in a good way. There’s no nice way to wrap things up in a box and tie it with a lovely bow. At least I couldn’t do it.
  • David Foster Wallace (DFW hereafter) somehow makes you care about his characters, even the ones that you don’t like, in the sense that you want to know what’s going to happen to them.
  • DFW had a wicked – and I mean that in a good way – sense of humour. In IJ, the humour is sometimes dark, sometimes a play on language, sometimes juvenile, or sometimes situational but it’s almost always funny.
  • DFW was a genius. He could’ve been a mathematics professor or anything else I guess but his readers are lucky that he chose writing. Also, there are parts of IJ that would not have been out of place in a philosophy book.
  • DFW’s take on addiction and Alcoholics Anonymous is brilliant as is his description of what it feels like to be depressed and/or suicidal. DFW explains the two in a way that you can’t help but empathize.
  • The chapter where Erdedy waits for pot is one of the most brilliant pieces of fiction that I have ever read. It can be read as a standalone story. So read it already.
  • In the same vein, the essay – Why the video phone never took off (or something similarly titled) – is pure DFW – funny, insightful, and a tad neurotic.
  • IJ has some of the most horrifying scenes that I have ever read and it’s not just the explicit stuff that is scary but what is implied.
  • After I finished IJ, I went back to the beginning of the book to read it again. There is a circular kind of narrative and because the beginning is the end, it’s almost like you’re pulled into going back again. I’d like to call it a vicious circle except that it’s not vicious – in some ways, the book itself is like the movie cartridge that people are trying to find, you can’t tear yourself away from the book and you want to keep reading. At some level, maybe DFW intended this to be an effect for the reader. Just maybe.
  • I read IJ after DFW had passed away and I felt incredibly sad throughout the book knowing that he was no longer alive to create more works of fiction. (Greedy I know.) DFW’s writing is powerful and the connection he makes is at a deep, primal, human level. I could even say that there’s a connection at a subconscious level because the book really affects you.
  • I didn’t like the ending of IJ except that the ending is not the ending. I should say that I didn’t like where the book stopped. You kinda got the feeling that it would end in a way that wouldn’t give you the resolution that you hoped but still you could not stop reading. Also, because DFW doesn’t bring things together in the traditional sense, you are forced to think about the characters that you spent time with, make assumptions, and figure out the ending. It’s somewhat like proving a theorem in mathematics, for the geeks among you.
  • IJ should not be the first work of DFW that you read. His essays are far more accessible – as a reader – and should be the appetizer before the IJ main course. His writing style takes some getting used to and you’re better off doing that with the essays.
  • There are very few works of fiction that have blown me away. Lord of the Rings is one book that comes to mind, Infinite Jest is another. Some writers are on a different plane, rarefied atmosphere so to speak.
  • Dave Eggers’ introduction to IJ explains why reading literary or serious fiction has its rewards. (If you have this particular edition or chance upon it, read the introduction. It’s great stuff from another very talented writer.) I’m one of those who used to shy away from literary stuff because most of the time I found stuff hard to read and even if I read the stuff, it didn’t necessarily seem all that good. There is a great deal of effort involved in reading IJ but it’s worth it. After reading IJ, I realize that some literary works are just authors trying to show you how smart they are. This is not the case with DFW or IJ.
  • More thoughts in part 2, when that happens.

An Infinite Summer ends (at least for me)

I just finished reading Infinite Jest (IJ), David Foster Wallace’s monumental work of fiction. Regular readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of Wallace’s work and if you read the links section — over on the sidebar — you’d have noticed several links about him or his work from time to time.

Infinite Jest is a huge book and it took me months to finish it. The sole reason for being able to finish the book was a wonderful initiative called Infinite Summer. My thanks to the guys behind the website for doing this – I really don’t know when / if I would’ve read the book. It had been sitting on my to-read pile for a few months.

I will post more about the book and about reading the book later. I just wanted to share a few preliminary thoughts.

  • IJ is the longest work of literary fiction I’ve read (1000+ pages including footnotes).
  • It is not the toughest work of fiction I’ve ever read. Contrary to many people’s experiences, I’ve found other novels much harder to plough through. True History of the Kelly Gang is one book that comes to mind.
  • It is the most haunting book of fiction I’ve read. (And, No, it’s not a ghost story.)
  • It is the most non-linear work of fiction I’ve read. The book’s structure apparently has fractal-like qualities.
  • It is a book that, initially, I couldn’t wait for to get going but towards the end, I didn’t want it to end. (I have a sneaking suspicion that Wallace made the book harder to put down towards the end when you don’t want it to end. Think going down a hill on a bicycle with no brakes.)
  • It is the only book that I started re-reading (the first few pages) immediately after I had finished the book. Seriously.
  • It is a book that makes me want to try giving literary fiction a chance again. (I’m a notorious non-reader of all things literary.)
  • It is a brilliant, earnest, and an enriching piece of fiction. Every time I read pages in the book, I was always amazed by the sheer genius of David Foster Wallace. He was truly a great one.

I don’t know how to end this post.

Missing DFW a year later

Yesterday, September 12, was the 1-year-anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s death. Reading Infinite Jest this summer has only made the loss feel deeper. It’s strange to say this about someone you’ve never met or had any contact with, but it’s a feeling that most DFW fans will share – an overwhelming sense of loss.

DFW, you are still missed.

DFW 1962 – 2008

I just found out via Daring Fireball that David Foster Wallace died on Friday night. He was only 46. DFW was one of those rare writers that could write volumes about any topic and make it interesting. From the NYT Obit:

David Foster Wallace, the author best known for his 1996 novel ”Infinite Jest,” was found dead in his home, according to police. He was 46.

Wallace’s wife found her husband had hanged himself when she returned home about 9:30 p.m. Friday, said Jackie Morales, a records clerk with the Claremont Police Department.

Metafilter has a thread where people are talking about DFW’s death. I don’t know what sort of anguish Wallace was going through, but it must have been really terrible for him to take his life. Condolences to his wife, who found him, and to his family.

Though I’ve read only two books and a few articles of DFW, his writing left a deep impression on me and he was a writer I truly admired. His sense of humour, his ability to tell stories, and the skill of his writing blew me away. Just like you admired Jordan hanging in the air and executing an impossible shot, DFW made you feel that way with his writing.

To know that he’ll never write again makes me very sad. Rest in peace DFW.

PS: DFW’s piece about Federer for the NY Times is a classic, if you’ve never read him.

— Edited to add —

A colleague and friend, John Seery, reminisces about DFW. Well written and moving.