Modern Classics: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

There are certain books that people like to pretend they have read, although very few actually have. Ulysses is one of them, and I never got my head around that one. With Infinite Jest, I persevered, and it was worth it.

Cover of Infinite Jest by David Foster WallaceNever having taken an American Literature class, the only thing that I knew about David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece was that my translation guru from university spent six years translating it into German. Yes, that’s SIX YEARS. Ever since I met Ulrich Blumenbach, he’d been preoccupied with “The Big Book.” In 2009, his translation was finally published, and he has since become the most famous literary translator in my home country. (Not that that’s saying much, but that’s a different matter. Let’s just say that Unendlicher Spaß might well be the most talked-about translation since, well… Harry Potter. Har.) So because of his slaving away for years and probably going a bit potty in the process I added all 1545 pages and estimated 2.5 kg of Unendlicher Spaß to my reading list and bookshelf (and then got the English original as well). It took me the best part of two months to finish the bloody thing, because if there’s one thing you can say about this novel, it’s that it’s no good for a quick read while the ads are on during some TV show. That isn’t to say that it’s heavy, unreadable stuff, it’s just that Wallace (and his translator) have an almost sadistic love for language and all its possibilities. If you are, like me, a sucker for the pure joy of language, you’ll love this book. There are sentences that run over whole pages. There are philosophical musings right next to the crazed streams of consciousness of drug addicts on their way to detox hell. It’s hysterically funny in its sheer over-the-top-ness.

As for the story… The fact that there is not only a ton of different narrative positions, but also no clear chronological order, makes it hard to follow the plot, but the gist is this:

In an unspecified but not-too-distant future, the U.S. have formed the Organization of North American Nations (yep, O.N.A.N.) with Mexico and Canada, technically making those two nothing more than provinces. Catastrophic environmental developments due to the U.S. threatening to drown in their own waste have led to the formation of an apocalyptic, uninhabitable wasteland called the Great Concavity, “north of the horizontal line between Buffalo and Northeastern Massachusetts”, which is given to Canada by the U.S. Québecois Nationalists are not too happy about this hell in their neighbourhood and do their best to terrorize the U.S. Their deadliest weapon is a movie made by James O. Incandenza, a director known for his notoriously arty and hard-to-grasp work. This “entertainment” is said to induce feelings of sheer pleasure in its audience, so much that they’ll soon die from not desiring anything other than watching the movie again and again. The Québecois have got hold of a copy and are testing it for future destructive use on the ever pleasure-seeking American public. Soon intelligence services on both sides are looking for the master copy. All roads lead to Incandenza’s family, living on the grounds of the Tennis Academy he founded prior to his directing days, and the patients of a rehab centre next door.

All this only becomes clear in the course of the novel, in which Wallace paints the picture of a ridiculous but slightly scary America where all morals have seem to gone down the drain. What seems funny at first is soon qualified by the reader’s feeling that maybe it’s not so ridiculous after all, and just a few steps away from the state of society today. It’s a bleak picture that’s forming here: a striking example is the fact that every single protagonist, and there are a lot, is burdened with a physical disability, a traumatic past, a dysfunctional family, an addiction, or all of the above. There is not a single person in Infinite Jest who has not been majorly scarred by life.

Towards the end of the book, the former playfulness and madness of the story give way to the sadness that has been brewing from the onset. We see a new generation of addicts trying to come to terms with their world, just as their predecessors realize that there is no escaping the clutches of their illness. It’s a bleak, bleak end to a novel that really never pretended to be anything but from the beginning. It’s the reader who has to assemble all the puzzle pieces – the funny ones as well as the sad ones – to see the world as Wallace meant it to be seen. It’s a big task, but it’s worth it.

I did lay off the books for a while to properly digest this one. And although this review might have suggested otherwise, I found a new Favourite Book Of All Times. That’s how great it is.

(This review originally appeared on my blog, … and then I read some more.)

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Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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