David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide. Stephen Burn.

Burn, Stephen. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide. Continuum, New York 2003. Crit 12/12

I have a very bad habit: I start books and don’t finish them. But I never completely quit once I start. The result is as many as six or seven books lying around with bookmarks. So much easier to start things than to finish them. Current confession: a philosophy of science book by Ian Hacking, Pragmatism by William James, Kolakowski’s enormous Main Currents of Marxism. You may be able to understand why I don’t breeze through some of these.

In the process of trying to reduce the backlog, I fell victim to recidivism thanks to my persistent curiosity about Infinite Jest (IJ). Burn is I think one of the leading Wallace experts, a hardworking university English prof who seems good at what is unquestionably a difficult task. This short review (96 pages all in) predates Wallace’s suicide in 2008 by 5 years; I understand more comprehensive critical work co-authored with another expert is on its way.

I learned a lot from reading this clear exposition. It contains a straightforward catalogue of Burn’s understanding of what-all is in IJ, quite eye-opening to the naïve initiate.

For example: Detail and encyclopedic information is there for everyone to see. Irony is everywhere and Gately’s stepfather listing and cataloging his alcoholic drinking and regularly scheduled beatings of his wife put the encyclopedia in perspective. One can become addicted to data storage as to any of the other substances involved here. Representation is dealt with at multiple levels. Pemulis corrects eschaton player’s confusion: “It’s snowing on the map, not the territory.” Borges is invoked for his story about mapmakers who make their trade extinct when the map expands so in detail that it actually is the Empire and therefore redundant. My comment: thus proceeds science? The carefully worked-out rehash of the plot, characters, and trajectory of the film Infinite Jest is tremendously helpful to confused first-time reader. There is reference to Greek and other mythology that does seem to be rooted in the text.

The self, and the self television and entertainment represent or encourage is a major theme. Hal is flat and empty like the two-dimensional TV screen and the appearance-perfect characters on it, and the thrust appears to be the futility of a human perfectibility. I’m reminded of DH Lawrence, in Studies in Classic American Literature, saying of Benjamin Franklin’s preoccupation with the perfectibility of man that it is a dreary theme. It isn’t I think so much that man isn’t perfectible but that it isn’t interesting. Why would anyone bother? American versus European or German versus French approach. I take from my notes on the diet book:

It was Kant’s merit to see that this compulsion for the mechanistic impersonal explanation is in us, not in things. … And it was Weber’s to see that it is historically a specific kind of mind, not human mind as such, that is subject to this compulsion.’ (Ernest Gellner, The Legitimation of Belief, Cambridge, 1975, p.206-7)

There is drawing-together of Hal and Gately in a “lost” year between Gately in the hospital and Hal applying for university. They dig up James Incandenza’s head and presumably the fatal film he produced. But we are left to fill in a lot of blanks. The tennis academy and the halfway house are flip-sides of a troubled America.

One of the unflattering reviews by a Dale Peck entitled “Well, duh” however says of Wallace’s “faux sloppiness” that it lets him discuss all sorts of things he may not entirely grasp, to the point where it “can actually allow Wallace to tell his readers things he doesn’t know”. I’ve read a lot of difficult complicated books, but never one quite as beguilingly funny and colloquial. Entertaining people and focusing their attention and lead them to things you can’t find yourself.

A quick look at my review of IJ, below, would convince anyone how badly I needed to read this helpful little book. 9.0/6.5

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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