Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

It took bloody ages to read this. I’ve not finished any other books this long (it’s about a thousand pages plus a hundred of small print notes) that I haven’t absolutely loved – 1001 Nights, Les Miserables and A La Recherche are three of my favourite ‘books’ (they don’t tend to be in single volumes, but they are pretty much single stories). There was enough here to keep me going – lots of intelligence (though he falls flat on his face when he talks about something being as fast as a quantum, and there is some very poor maths in one part) and good sentences, some very funny moments, and some powerfully horrible ones too. But the ending was deeply unsatisfying on several levels. The biggest is that he gives us a terrific tour de force opening chapter, and then flashes back, and the extraordinary state of the main character in that opening chapter remains a complete mystery to the end.

That’s a common literary structure, starting with something extraordinary and then leading up to an explanation. It occurred to me that although in any kind of conventional plot terms the book just stops without sorting any of its several major plot strands out, in thematic terms its structure does work, so I started thinking about how you might structure a non-traditional arealist novel that is discussing addiction, mostly to drugs. Perhaps you’d structure it as an overarching metaphor, teasing the reader with excitement, promising lots, but then not delivering. You might get obsessive about all kinds of detail, to no real end. You might try to leave them unsatisfied, wanting to know more, frustrated. All that sounds like a pretty good image of drug addiction, and it’s very much how this book is composed. As a Postmodernist, you might enjoy basing a structure that way instead of delivering a conventional story, so I guess that’s what this is.

That doesn’t make it very much fun. I don’t know that I could really recommend this to anyone, but it’s a mightily impressive book, and I regard it more highly than Underworld, with which it shares many similarities (overlapping themes, fairly similar structure, tour de force opening section, even misunderstanding quanta!). But it’s a hell of an effort, and if you aren’t keenly interested in addiction, on which I think it’s excellent, there may not be enough here to make it worthwhile.