Infinite Jest (1996) | virtual book

Infinite Jest (1996)

by David Foster Wallace

#reviews #books #fiction #literature Mentioned in what I'm doing now, Sing Backwards and Weep (2020), what I'm doing now

My first attempt to review a book while I read it instead of waiting until I finish it.


Main character: (new) Hal Incandenza, reading savant and tennis prodigy.

I’d actually listened to this chapter on audiobook years ago. My friend Jon told me about this book long ago, before I knew of its literary renown (or its notoriety as a status symbol for intellect-signalers.) I remembered it being funny and very absurd. Indeed it is.

Wallace’s descriptions are inventive.

..the air of the room, the bits of dust and sportcoat-lint stirred around by the AC’s vents dancing jaggedly in the slanted plane of windowlight, the air over the table like the sparkling space just above a fresh-poured seltzer.

Another bit stuck in my mind is his description of the conference room being “double-windowed against the November heat.” It’s late fall in the US, but it’s hot? This is said in the third sentence of the first chapter, laying down the first brick of mounting absurdity. Or maybe I just don’t know US climate that well.

My only problem with this chapter is that it’s hard to keep track of all the characters and names. I prefer being able to picture the correct number of people. I don’t think quantity is the problem though, because I am quite content, for example, keeping track of the dozens of characters in The Sopranos. I am much more comfortable doing it with visuals.


Main character: (new) Erdedy, isolated man with marijuana addiction.

I enjoyed this chapter more, I think because it was much easier to follow, but also probably because I read it when I had a lot of mental energy.

I assume Wallace’s obsessive personality and problems with addiction helped him create this very vivid scene where Erdedy meticulously arranges another “final” binge of marijuana, junk food, action movies, and masturbation. Wallace uses

transparent narration

how to narrate transparently

#essays #writing #narration #point-of-view #norman-mailer #new-journalism Mentioned in how to tell a story, The Executioner's Song (1979), Infinite Jest (1996)

I read half of

The Executioner’s Song

– Norman Mailer’s gargantuan, Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction novel about Gary Gilmore – and figured I could put it down and move on. I knew how the story would end and had read enough of the book to appreciate Mailer as a writer. And yet, despite my skepticism of

the value of finishing books

, a few months on I found myself drawn back in. And in my second session with the book I noticed a technique that Mailer uses throughout it.

I don’t know if the technique has a name. A good name might be transparent narrator. Its purpose is to convey a character’s point of view without quoting them or otherwise indicating that you are speaking for them.

Here’s a passage from Mailer’s book, concerning Tamera, a cub reporter who began working on Gary’s story before it became world-famous:

Tamera had gone to work at 5 A.M. and spent six hours Xeroxing Gary’s letters. She knew some of the reporters were raising their eyebrows at how she protected the stuff, but Tamera didn’t want anyone reading over her shoulder, and making the sort of cynical nonchalant comments newspaper people could make. Still, nobody seemed that excited.

In fact, at the Friday afternoon meeting, the Executive Editor said, “I don’t think we’re interested in love letters.” Just brushed it off like that.

The narrator gives us a sense of Tamera’s personality and attitude towards the situation without quoting her or breaking the third person narrative. The narrator is not pretending to be Tamera, and yet we hear her through him, most clearly in the brief sentences that punctuate both paragraphs:

Still, nobody seemed that excited.

Just brushed it off like that.

These phrases are said by the narrator in Tamera’s voice. We feel like she is telling us her part of the story over a cup of coffee.

Mailer achieves this effect by embedding many little phrases along the away. Notice the casualness of this phrase:

reporters were raising their eyebrows at how she protected the stuff

The stuff, in particular.

Notice the casualness here too:

the sort of cynical nonchalant comments newspaper people could make

Newspaper people.

These are consistent, subtle choices that change how the reader perceives the story. This technique is crucial to keeping Mailer’s 1,000+ page book fresh. If the whole thing was written from his perspective, it would be much harder to get through. Instead, he narrates transparently, allowing us to hear the story from the perspective of the many people who lived it.

and stream-of-consciousness to put us inside Erdedy’s head. It feels like we have access to the character’s thoughts because they flit between subjects without transition:

He had not sat down and outright bold-faced lied to her, it had been more of an impression he’d conveyed and nurtured and allowed to gather its own life and force. The insect was now entirely visible. It was on the shelf that held his digital equalizer. What looked like its reemergence might just have been a change in his attention or the two windows’ light or the visual context of his surroundings. The girder protruded from the wall and was a triangle of dull steel with holes for shelves to fit into. The metal shelves that held his audio equipment were painted a dark industrial green and were originally made for holding canned goods. They were designed to be extra kitchen shelves. The insect sat inside its dark shiny case with an immobility that seemed like the gathering of a force, it sat like the hull of a vehicle from which the engine had been for the moment removed. It was dark and had a shiny case and antennae that protruded but did not move. He had to use the bathroom. His last piece of contact from the appropriation artist, with whom he had had intercourse, and who during intercourse had sprayed some sort of perfume up into the air from a mister she held in her left hand as she lay beneath him making a wide variety of sounds and spraying perfume up into the air, so that he felt the cold mist of it settling on his back and shoulders and was chilled and repelled, his last piece of contact after he’d gone into hiding with the marijuana she’d gotten for him had been a card she’d mailed that was a pastiche photo of a doormat of coarse green plastic grass with WELCOME on it and next to it a flattering publicity photo of the appropriation artist from her Back Bay gallery, and between them an unequal sign, which was an equal sign with a diagonal slash across it, and also an obscenity he has assumed was directed at him magisculed in red grease pencil along the bottom, with multiple exclamation points.

All throughout, ideas branch off in unorganized directions.

The redundant descriptions – like the insect’s dark, shiny case and the woman spraying perfume up into the air – suggest what the character is focusing on, in his head. Particular details like these make their corresponding images more vivid not only for the reader, but also for the character whose mind we are seeing them through.

The excerpt above is only a fragment of a paragraph four pages in length, which follows a paragraph almost five pages in length. These two uninterrupted streams of thought have the effect of submerging us in Erdedy’s neurotic consciousness as he waits for and obsesses over an expected delivery of marijuana.


Main character: (recurring) Hal Incandenza, reading savant and tennis prodigy.

Another funny and absurd scene featuring Hal. Confusingly, in this one, he is articulate and witty. There is reference but no evidence of his being nonverbal.

Following his dad’s instruction, Hal meets with a self-proclaimed “professional conversationalist”, who is obtuse and confrontational and who turns out to be Hal’s dad in poor disguise.

A slightly annoying aspect of this chapter is that it jumps between seemingly random topics with no apparent point.

Hal’s dad says something about his wife cheating with lots of people.

For some reason, Hal calls his dad ‘Himself’ and his mom ‘the Moms’.

In this chatper there is first mention of some topics that come up in later chapters, including a medical attaché and Byzantine erotica. There’s also mention of Quebec, which, unless I’m hallucinating, is also mentioned once, in a throwaway comment, in the first chapter.


Main character: (recurring) Hal Incandenza, reading savant and tennis prodigy.

Hal packs his tennis bag in the darkness of 6am. The phone rings and wakes Hal’s brother and roommate, Mario. A brief, mysterious phone call from Orin (new character). Hal seems unbothered.


Main character: (new) medical attaché, special ear-nose-throat consultant to the personal physician of Prince Q—-, the Saudi Minister of Home Entertainment.

Another funny and absurd chapter. Our anonymous main character’s job is tending to the yeasty sores that regularly break out on Prince Q—-‘s face due to his compulsive consumption of Toblerone. The doctor earned his post because he’s so skilled in dealing with the condition:

A veritable artist, possessed of a deftness nonpareil with cotton swab and evacuation-hypo, the medical attaché is known among the shrinking upper classes of petro-Arab nations as the DeBakey of maxillofacial yeast, his staggering fee-scale as wholly ad valorem

His work, however, is so exhausting that every night he follows the same decompression routine – an unsettling variation on the familiar TV dinner routine – that his servant-wife orchestrates.

He reclines before the viewer in his special electronic recliner, and his black-veiled, ethnically Arab wife wordlessly attends him, loosening any constrictive clothing, adjusting the room’s lighting, fitting the complexly molded dinner tray over his head so that his shoulders support the tray and allow it to project into space just below his chin, that he may enjoy his hot dinner without having to remove his eyes from whatever entertainment is up and playing.

This chapter and Erdedy’s earlier chapter are my favorites so far. (Maybe I enjoy detailed scenes that focus on a single character?)

PS – This man must be somehow relevant to Himself’s mention of medical attachés that the Moms supposedly had affairs with?


Main characters: (new) Wardine and (new) Bruce Green.

It consists of two, unrelated vignettes of unfortunate people living pitiful lives.

First vignette – Wardine is a teenage girl who is being horribly abused by her mother and uncle. The characters in this vignette are coded as being black and from a poor area. They talk in really basic pidgin English. It’s uncomfortable to read.

Second vignette – Bruce Green is a high school student who manages to attract the attention of a “fatally pretty” classmate, Mildred Bonk. He gets her pregnant and they drop out of school to live in a housetrailer with their baby and three other people, one of whom keeps “several large snakes in unclean unconvered aquaria.”

The most unexpected chapter so far. Inexplicable by itself.


Main character: (recurring) Hal Incandenza, reading savant and tennis prodigy.

Hal chats with his older brother Mario. Even though Hal is younger, the dynamic is palpably reverse. Mario asks lots of questions and Hal calls Mario Booboo. Mario asks Hal why he doesn’t believe in God if he is so good at tennis. Hal says:

God seems to have a kind of laid-back management style I’m not crazy about. I’m pretty much anti-death. God looks by all accounts to be pro-death. I’m not seeing how we can get together on this issue.

Mario then asks why the Moms didn’t get sad about Himself’s death. Hal tries to persuade Mario that she is sad, but Hal doesn’t seem sure of it either.

The chapter ends with reference to the medical attaché, who is watching an unmarked video that was delivered to him seemingly by mistake.


Orin. Perhaps he lives in the same condo complex as Erdedy?