I finished re-reading Infinite Jest this week. I’m a few weeks ahead of the Infinite Summer crowd, which is a little frustrating, because I really want to see what they say about the later bits, but they won’t get there for a while yet.
Anyway, this is a tough book to summarize, because it’s both a very large book, and a very expansive one. You could write elevator pitches about it that would put it in a bunch of different genres– thriller (terrorists and government agents search for a movie that destroys the brain of anybody who watches it), school story (dope-smoking tennis prodigies try to figure out their place in the world), (anti-)drug novel (various drug addicts bottom out and seek redemption through AA). It’s got elements of all of those and more (satire both political and academic, supernatural elements, “Hamlet,” etc.).
One thing it doesn’t have is a conventional ending, something that anyone reading it should probably know going in. It stops before what would be the climax of a more conventional book, but you can see where everything is headed, particularly if you go back to the prologue. A lot of the details remain unexplained, but you can figure out a lot of what happened. Re-reading it knowing what was coming in terms of the ending, I wasn’t as bothered by it as I was the first time around. It’s still abrupt, but it makes more sense than I initially thought.
This immediately became one of my favorite books when I read it back in 1997, and the re-read hasn’t changed my opinion. I’m not likely to re-read it annually, or anything like that– I do have a day job, you know– but it’s a fantastic book, and if you haven’t read it, you should give it a try.
Somewhat spoiler-ish comments and questions are behind the cut, along with a bonus SteelyKid picture.
— The one thing that bugs me about the non-ending is not knowing what happened to Pemulis. He’s my favorite supporting character, and the main story leaves him in a bad spot, with no hint of what became of him after that. What did he do after the day of the Fundraiser, and how did he end up leaving footnotes on the semi-omniscient narration?
— The narrative voice thing continues to be maddening. At some point, the ETA sections switch to being explicitly narrated by Hal, and then on page 964 you get a section narrated by some other ETA person, though who it is is not clear. And who’s leaving the footnotes?
— Does John “N. R.” Wayne have any on-camera dialogue in the book? His meltdown on-air is described second-hand, and other than that, I can’t think of a section where he actually speaks.
— On the second read, I really noticed the way the Hal and Gately sections parallel one another down the stretch. The stuff the goes through Hal’s mind as he unravels is very similar to the stuff Gately is thinking about.
— What became of the DMZ?
— The first time through, I didn’t recognize the people in the Gately/ Fackelmann meltdown scene, but I caught the references this time.
— There’s a certain slapstick element to all of the political-satire bits of the book (Steeply’s cover ID; the Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner bits; the Interdependence Day puppet movie; the pitch meeting about the anti-Entertainment PSA). This is clearly deliberate, but I’m not sure what the point is.
— I really enjoyed the technical interview of Molly Notkin (starting p. 787). “… to cut to a chase which the interviewers’ hands-on-hips attitudes and replacement of the lamp’s bulb with a much higher wattage signified they’d very much like to see cut to…” It might be my favorite of the minor-character scenes.
— Finally, as promised, the ever-helpful SteelyKid offers to illustrate an important scene:
“I ate this.”
(That won’t make any sense if you haven’t read it, but it’s still a cute picture…)