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?