Books for Geeks: Infinite Jest

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The problem with a novel like Infinite Jest is that two years later, you're ready for another novel. Clocking in at just over a thousand pages and 483,994 words of extreme idiomatic English, decorated with sprawling tenements of obscure-but-crucial footnotes, this weighty tome is as much jigsaw puzzle as work of fiction.

The vocabulary alone has been the subject of numerous articles. If you enjoy ten-dollar words like psychodysleptic, Brockengespenst, or mucronate, prepare for a steady influx of endorphins into your Huffington Post-Newspeak-atrophied brain because few if any modern writers flout Strunk and White as successfully, or coin new words as frequently, or stitch together run-on sentences like this one as convingly, or use tired adverbs as refreshingly, as David Foster Wallace.

We're still waiting for somebody to manufacture a line of DFW-inspired refridgerator poetry:

But the heart of a novel isn't the vocabulary or the diction, it's the characters; and Infinite Jest has hundreds of them, from tennis prodigies to Boston halfway house refugees to wheelchair-bound Canadian terrorists, in such a bewildering array of bifurcated plotlines and layered interactions that you'll need an epic Character Chart to keep it all straight. An actual chart, like this one:

Before venturing into the wilderness of David Foster Wallace's prose, you might want to consult a survival guide (like Matt Bucher's How To Read Infinite Jest or Jason Kottke's identically-titled piece) for such pearls of wisdom as:

5. If you opt not to destroy your copy of IJ, you should use the three bookmark method. One bookmark for where you are in the main text, another for your current footnote location, and a third for page 223

Because in many ways Infinite Jest is an abomination: difficult, perverse, obscure, and stubborn to a fault (yes, a book can be stubborn). It will annoy you, exasperate you, occasionally bore you, and possibly give you repetitive wrist strain. If you're like me, halfway through the Wardine section you'll start contemplating things like:

How much energy it would take to launch a single copy of Infinite Jest into outer space?

But that would be a sad outcome not only due to the nature of atmospheric physics, but because, rough patches aside, this mad dash through a dystopic near-future just might be the next Great American Novel.

Tags: books, verbosity

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