So I finally finished it.
Yeah. It took that long.
Infinite Jest is, not including the footnotes, 981 pages. With footnotes it is 1079. Now, I’ve read books that are almost as big in a couple of days. Stephen King’s final volume of his amazing DARK TOWER series springs to mind at roughly 850 pages. Thing is though, I’d be willing to wager a leg that there’s close to twice the amount of text on any given page of David Foster Wallace’s behemoth than on King’s. IJ is sooo fucking dense that sometimes it was a veritable chore to read.
However, quite often if there was a slow and syrupy part, such as the insanely long bit that describes the characters’ at the Enfield Tennis Academy’s game Eschaton, it would soon be followed by a very languid, prosaic section of Wallace’s brilliant musings/reenactments of various psychological profiles, debauched drug rites or, at least in one magnificent case, just about the best goddamn street fight I’ve seen on the written page.
But don’t let me get you thinking that this is the kind of read that propels you through a page a minute. Quite the contrary, the entire book is essentially a very serious meditation on the things that run our heads, including but not limited to addiction, depression and obsession, all the little ticks that make people who they are and just exactly where those mannerisms may come from, regardless of how far back in a character’s life you may have to trek to find those roots.
Take for instance a character who grated on my very nerves yet now, a week after finishing the book* and probably three weeks and a couple hundred pages since he figured prominently in the story, Randy Lenz.
FOR THOSE THAT CARE, MILD SPOILER AHEAD
Randy Lenz is a coke dealer who checks into one of the story’s main two settings, Ennet House, a Boston, MA drug and alcohol recovery house. Lenz checks in not to aid his detox, but to hide from those who seek to collect their debts from him. Lenz hollows out a large volume he carries with him and stashes an emergency supply of blow there, picking at it only in emergencies in order that it last.
This of course creates some psychic trouble in ol’ Lenz.
Always on edge, Lenz goes about his days of faux recovery attending meetings and interacting the way the people around him do, in order to keep up appearances and bide his time. Wearing a fake white moustache and generally acting the way this abbreviated description of him may make you think he’d act – like a slimeball, Lenz plots constantly. Interesting thing about this character, like all the others in the book (even a lot of the minor ones) Wallace gives such a tedious report of his existence, habits and inner monologue that when Randy Lenz begins eschewing his fellow AA attendees by walking home in the night instead of accepting the ride and going out for the coffee and bullshit sessions that usually allow these people some semblance of a social life again we actually see the gears turn and the processes that led him to begin coping with his situation by first killing rats surrounding dumpsters in the alleys of the city, eventually escalating to stray cats, then finally graduating to the unthinkable – murdering in cold blood pets of all kinds safe and secure in their owners yards; dogs on leashes and kitties behind fences become his means by which to regain a modicum of power in a situation beyond his control that has left him, a drug addict/dealer and thus one obsessed with Power’s ebb and flow, effectively powerless over his own life.
The depiction is chilling, and an interesting counterpoint to some of the absolutely hysterical scenes that butt up against it. And this is Wallace’s style and his strength – he’s almost as neurotic as many of his characters in his attempt to burrow us into the psychoses of these people he creates. And create he does. It goes to Wallace’s credit that in the course of such a lengthy novel he is actually able to construct a near perfect microcosm of real life and all its minutiae – the Universe as beheld by a small collective of individuals from all walks of life, all shapes, sizes and upbringings. The students at the aforementioned Tennis Academy, the other main setting of the novel, being the younger and the Ennet House group being the older representations of urban life in the time we live in.
Most folks that I say this to aren’t listening to me, and god knows it’s understandable with its size and intimidating font size (it took me ten years and the event of the author’s death to finally saddle up) but INFINITE JEST is a modern masterpiece and well worth all of the often painful scrutiny it will require to complete it. Highest recommendations across the board.**
* That puts it at a little more than three months to conquer the fucker – and I explicitly denied myself from reading any other book or graphic novel while making the bid. This is something I do often, reading multiple books at once, and really, it’s just stupid. I’m kind of considering reading Infinite Jest as training for eventually reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, and if I don’t break this habit of mucking about with more than I can handle, that’s one I know I’ll never get through.
** And if you think I’ve given away even a smidge of the plot of this novel with my spoiler, believe me, I haven’t even nicked the blade.