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Sunday, 20 May 2012

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

There has been an interesting discussion going on over on the ReadItSwapIt forums over the past few days about writing reviews of books that you haven't finished. It seems opinion is divided on this topic. Personally, when reading reviews of books I am considering buying, I find it really helpful and interesting to learn that somebody has found the thing so awful they couldn't even get to the end of it! As long as they state that fact honestly and clearly in the review, I'm in favour of it. Others disagree, though, and feel that posting negative reviews of novels you haven't finished is inappropriate and disrespectful to the author. What do you think?

It is with slight trepidation, then (!), that I kick off this whole blog with a review of a story that I'm sorry to say I abandoned part-way through. Don't be mad at me! I feel like I've given it a pretty good shot. I've stuck with it through almost 600 pages, through sickness and health, over approximately 4 months. I've neglected some of my very favourite handbags because this hefty tome just won't fit inside. It almost pains me to give up after investing so much time in it, but the fact is there are still 400-odd pages left to go and I just have no motivation to pick it up any more!

So let's have a bit of background. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is, according to the official blurb:

"Infinite Jest is the name of a movie said to be so entertaining that anyone who watches it loses all desire to do anything but watch. People die happily, viewing it in endless repetition. The novel Infinite Jest is the story of this addictive entertainment, and in particular how it affects a Boston halfway house for recovering addicts and a nearby tennis academy, whose students have many budding addictions of their own. As the novel unfolds, various individuals, organisations, and governments vie to obtain the master copy of Infinite Jest for their own ends"

Sounds great, right? Unfortunately this fatally entertaining movie was referred to on approximately three occasions in the 60% of the story I finished. The narrative is more concerned with the daily lives and family histories of the drug addicts and tennis students mentioned above. As you've probably gathered by now, it's a gargantuan volume and is full of lively characters who are all perfectly described down to the last detail. The major drawback to this for me was that it could be really difficult to remember who was who and keep track of what was going on, particularly since a character could be referred to once and then not appear again for 300 pages or so. I have since found this handy character map which attempts to illustrate things a bit more clearly!

There have been times when I've absolutely LOVED reading this - particularly the passages about the Ennet House residents and the Narcotics Anonymous meetings. I can honestly say that some of these chapters were 5 star quality for me, despite the fact that I chose not to continue reading the book in the end. They ring very true to life (from my own experience working in similar environments) and I wonder whether David Foster Wallace has drawn on any personal experiences when writing these bits. However, the book is also interspersed with pages and pages of dry, excruciating detail about really mundane events. Some of the other reviews I've read have suggested that the monotony is kind of 'the point', and that it should prompt the reader to ask questions about the nature of entertainment etc. - well, my idea of entertainment is never going to be whiling away a whole morning reading about the technical intricacies of a tennis training session. It was these sections that felt really unrewarding and made me want to give up.

Not to mention the endnotes. I'm not the world's biggest fan of endnotes anyway so 100 pages of them is pushing it a bit.

I really enjoyed David Foster Wallace's style of writing and his inventive characters, and will definitely give something else of his a go (I've got Broom of the System waiting on my shelf to be read already). This was just too much for me though. I know it has quite the cult following and that there are plenty of people who rave about it, and as I said earlier, I didn't get to the end. Maybe had I persisted my opinion would have been different. But it got to the stage where I felt that life is just too short for me to spend any more time on this book...and the rest of my bookshelf is just too long!

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