Infinite Jest Continued

Being not just a lover of literature, but a somewhat anal-retentive lover of literature, I decided to figure out roughly how many words per page Infinite Jest carries.

Some quick counts and estimation showed that there are 43 lines per page and that each line carries about 13 words. 559 words per page, on average. You can compare that to a regular-sized paperback, which is in the neighborhood of 300-350 words per page. Basically, each page of Infinite Jest carries about 1.5 times as many words as a normal book, making the page count of 1,088 more like 1,500. But, as they say, the more the merrier.

Infinite Jest continues to tell its story by description (which I described in my earlier post). Very little actually happens in the book, rather Wallace describes locations, characters, and most especially, thoughts, in extreme detail. The book feels like a massive agglomeration of almost purely descriptive vignettes and, 1/5th of the way through, I can only recall a handful of vignettes that actually have any narrative elements.

One thing this book is full of, like the day is full of sunlight, is satirical social commentary. If you find such commentary worthwhile, as I do, then you’ll like this book. If you’re looking for more of a normal story, then you’ll question the inclusion in a work of fiction of pieces such as the one I’m about to describe.

Wallace spends about 10 pages describing the rise and fall of the video-phone industry. Basically it works like this: First consumers flock to the technology. However, they soon notice the drawback — now the person you are talking to on the phone can see you. Consumers realize too late that the phone’s best illusion, that the person you are speaking with is paying attention to you and vice versa, is shattered. Even worse, consumers develop horrible complexes about appearing ugly on their video phones. Soon new technology enables users to "upgrade" their appearance, and this idea runs away until eventually there is an entire industry built around providing fake appearances to hardwire into video-phones. At this point people realize that for all intents and purposes they’re right back where they started, voice-only phone communication, and the bottom drops out of the video-phone market.

This is a hilarious, and brilliant, send-up of our infatuation with ourselves and the way the marketplace blindly feeds it. But is it appropriate to a novel? Especially when not one character is included in this section, and video-phones play little to no part in the book itself? At best, the only way you could make the case for including this is by saying that this helps describe the future America that Wallace’s novel takes place in, but this is a very weak justification.

Personally, I loved this part of the book and I’m glad Wallace included it, but I do realize that this kind of wandering, digressing writing is the reason why Infinite Jest is such a loose, bloated book. I don’t think very many writers could get away with doing this, but I’ll count Wallace as one of the few who can; these digressions are so compelling on their own that in this case I feel they are justified. Whether you like the digressions or not, though, they still raise significant questions about the boundries of what we can consider a story. This is appropriate because it is precisely these boundries that Wallace is testing in Infinite Jest.

But if things like Wallace’s vido phone industry don’t belong in a novel, then where do they do belong? They are like Borgesian stories carried to the farthest extreme — whereas Borges at least had some characters and plot, these bits of Infinite Jest lose any trace of characters and simply become pure descriptions of an invented time and place. They are fiction, but if they are not stories then what are they?

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Where do such things belong? In an essay or a non-fiction cultural critique where Wallace was at his best. I’m not that sure that Wallace really got away with it. Not only are narrative elements lacking, a deep novelistic intelligence is lacking–both in terms of his characters and his structure. It is not a free or creatively organic work–in the way the best art is. Structuralist work assigns it intellectual projects, its set pieces, baroque conceptual designs at the outset. Structuralists like Wallace also write their novels to literary theories based in linguistic philosophy and end up talking over their characters to impose a kind of complete artistic control. In this way there is little autonomy and in the end the work presents more ideas than human struggle. If you take away the essays, the expository riffs on obscure, arcane knowledge you have a very thin and repetitious human world with little movement or drama. How many addicts do we need to get what Wallace is saying about addiction? And how often have we yawned and blushed when we listen to the drivel adult athletes spew when interviewed, let alone the vacuouus world of the teen athlete. But what does Wallace give us–hundreds of pages of tennis teens. If he’d edited the book properly, I don’t think people would have been nearly as impressed with a 500 or 600 page book as they were with the 1000 + counting the end notes. Ultimately, he pushed the limits of the reader with demanding sentences and endless variations, repetition and narrative deconstruction, but at the expense of the novel’s rarest and most worthwhile treasure–believable human beings pushed to the limits of disintegration. Hal might disintegrate, but he’s so empty we aren’t compelled to care, and because Wallace places the end at the beginning and then lets Hal’s narrative trail off six months before his fateful college interview, Wallace cops out on what might have been a compelling process full of pathos. The way it is presented Hal’s melt down is not even the result of a consequential human choice. It just doesn’t work on a human level. ‘Call it something I ate?’ I’m sorry that’s not enough to rate comparisons with the great novelists.

Some further thoughts on my comments about Wallace’s formalism in Infinite Jest. Many have noted references to Hamlet, in another place the Brothers Karamosov is mentioned as a model, and in another post on Conversational Reading a structural similarity to Joyce’s Ulysses is noted. I would propose that the most compelling of these are the Hamlet references. The obvious reference in the title aside, the idea of the video having been buried in James O’s skull intrigues, but it never amounts to more than a conveniently planted literary road sign. I never heard an explanation of how Infinite Jest was a reworking of the Brother’s Karamosov but somebody put that out there (if not Wallace, does anybody know who?). The structural similarity with Ulysses has a little more weight. There seems to be a demonstrable structural link in the shifting away from Hal toward Don Gately. The question that must be asked about these apparent references is what do they achieve, other than to imply greatness by association? It is clear that all writers of Wallace’s stripe (Pynchon, DeLillo et al) have been goaded and intimidated by the long shadow of Joyce. No doubt while Wallace was engaged in writing his magnum opus, Joyce was never far from his mind. Unfortunately this contemplation (of competition) pushed Wallace toward false aesthetic and structural choices. For what compelling interest is there to imitate Joyce’s structure other than to draw a comparison? What is the justification in this story that demands it?
It strikes me as opportunistic, and it points again to the formalist habit of attempting to impose something from without, rather than discovering this from within through a creative process. As James Wood so insightfully points out in an online discussion on Nabokov, a writer like Wallace never knows how to surrender to the creative process, but always tries to impose a strict artistic control that makes his characters little more than moveable parts in his grand system. Like Wood I believe that a writer ultimately achieves greater artisitic control, by giving some up to his creations during the creative process. Having been through the process of writing a novel I know this is the key to making genuine discoveries. Wallace’s style and structure suggests just that–everything he knows he knew from the outset. Even the dialogics of Addiction and Alcoholics Anonymous are basically static arguments. Hamlet has trouble deciding what to do and how he should act. When he finally does it leads to tragic consequences, but at least Hamlet makes a choice. IJ’s greatest resonance with Hamlet is a deep concern with free will and to what degree it exists. If Wallace’s treatment of Hal and Don Gately is the answer than it seems he didn’t think much of human choice–not enough to present it. Wallace had a right to his view–and given the way the deck was stacked against him in his own battle with depression one can sympathize deeply–but in his novel Infinite Jest he did not explore and dramatize human possibility enough (despite the novel’s profusion of characters and situations) to earn the apparent outlook that genuine communication isn’t possible, and that choice is an illusion–an infinite jest. What many, who uncritically hail this novel because of its brilliant conceits and its mind-boggling displays of surface erudition, fail to recognize is that readers who are turned off by the ending, the apparent lack of one (the so called temporal gap in the narrative) is not what Wallace left his readers with, or the lack thereof, it is that he merely imposed it on them without a narrative structure to support a very important statement about the human condition. It can justly be argued that the very structure he imposed on the novel, also imposed a kind of sentimental fatalism on it as well.
What Wallace fails to communicate through his formal working out of this problem is the inevitability of his conclusion.

So often defenders of the ending of IJ site Wallace’s express intent and offer various explanations. One expressed by the Coversational Reader blogger is that Wallace wanted us to feel what the addict feels; that the withdrawal from narrative closure is an overarching metaphor for addiction and this was Wallace’s way of translating this experience to the reader. One of the IJ theses on The Howling Fantods website may be the popular genesis for this idea. The point being that everybody is addicted; nobody is free from some form of fealty. Either to the disease or the cure. Either to low culture or high art. We all have our drugs.
A novel cannot come to a wrong conclusion if it is organically committed to it and so convinces the reader that it must be so. Why IJ’s conclusion feels wrong is not because Wallace couldn’t be right, but that he has had to build his conclusion in the most heavy-handed way into the narrative structure like a didactic roadblock of our consciousness and conscious desire for climax. The claim that the ending is not bad writing but masterful intent, is irrefutable proof that Wallace’s had arrived at his moral conclusion very early on and brought it with him to his very deliberate structure, designed the structure to make its blunt point.
But this kind of moralism, couched in a structural roadblock, is antithetical to the spirit of art. The very sense of ambiguity that many praise, the open-endedness, the love of contingency and speculation in IJ is only a consequence of an absolute moral point of view imposed by structure. That is, he sacrificed narrative freedom for moral certainty. Despite the infinite speculations that can be made about what might have happened to the characters, Wallace may have limited the profound possibilities of his novel in ways he may not have foreseen.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

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5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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