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David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is the magnum opus of a writer widely considered to be one of the greatest in his generation, a writer who lost his struggle with depression and cut short his life in 2008. Enough has been written on the book to discourage an attempt at significant commentary in such a brief review, so I will focus on the particular qualities of the audiobook version. It would seem good to offer a brief synopsis for readers unfamiliar with the work, but Infinite Jest resists such attempts with its massive size, diverse plot lines, multitudinous voices, and the constantly interrupted and ultimately unresolved stories of its characters. The book features a post-unification North America where years have been subsidized by advertisers (e.g. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment), wheelchair-bound assassins from Canada, internal memo and email reports that mix farce with tragedy, elite junior tennis players at an academy that requires courses in prescriptive grammar, and a recovery house with addicts from a range of backgrounds, each more unlikely than the next. Perhaps most relevant for readers of this site, addiction, recovery, and depression are major themes, recurring in various characters in their otherwise disparate plotlines.
Coming to the audiobook, I was curious to see how the publisher had handled two major obstacles to making an audio version of a particularly difficult and enormous text: voice and footnotes. The first challenge is that not only are there a lot of characters, but Wallace mastered the subtleties of a range of dialects and was incredibly careful to recreate the way people actually speak. Simply delivering different intonations and regional accents would fail to capture the range of the characters personalities and ways of speaking. The successful narrator has to be able to handle a precious teenager who writes recondite essays on Byzantine erotica, memorizes pages of the dictionary, and gets high in the underground tunnels of his tennis academy as well as Quebecois separatists discussing espionage and counter-espionage, and illiterate Bostonians seeking fixes, among others. The reader in this case, Sean Pratt, does an admirable job, giving each character a distinct voice as well as matching his tone, pace, and inflection to the distinctive style of the various parts of the book. He is consistent across the book and consistently impressive.
The second challenge is that the narrative of the book is interrupted by numerous endnotes deliberately set to disrupt the reader's progress in order to bring attention to how the story is being told and what it means to engage with fiction as a conscious reader. The endnotes take up over one hundred pages at the end of the book. For the audio version, the publisher decided to avoid this challenge and simply has a female voice announce the number of the endnote so that those who wish to read along or consult the endnotes can do so. I was initially conflicted about the wisdom of this decision.
On the one hand, it would be pretty easy to end up with a disastrous result. Wallace asks a lot of his readers by putting these obstacles in the way and it might be an even greater disruption in the audio format. On the other, it is possible to offer such disruptions smoothly, as evidenced by the audiobook version of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Also, some parts of the endnotes add significantly to one's understanding of some characters and events, so it is a real loss not to have them.
On balance, it was probably the right move. I say this because there are parts of the main text that do not work well as an audiobook, such as when the text is in the form of an email and the narrator reads the letters and numbers of the email addresses or the full details of an inter-office memorandum. These conceits work better on paper where the reader can see what to pass over (the exact sequence of numbers in a corporate email surely do not enrich the story and the point must be to give it an air of authenticity) rather than in an audiobook where each bit is read out as if it had the same significance as the main plot. Given that a large portion of the endnotes are things like descriptions of medicines, DSM definitions of psychiatric conditions, or film titles with all the details of the film size, productions companies, etc. it is probably best not to have them disrupt the narration. One can easily get distracted and lost with an audiobook if attention wavers and having too many interruptions would make it that much easier to get lost.
Overall, I have been pleased with the audiobook. The experience is considerably different than reading Infinite Jest and each has their own pleasures and rewards. Listening has helped me appreciate the quality of the storytelling, an aspect that is sometimes lost when focusing on how Wallace turns a phrase or considering what the endnotes add to the story. Following along at the pace of the narrator makes the story vivid and enjoyable. It would hardly serve as a replacement for reading the book, but it is surely an easier way into the book and those who love the audiobook can surely then find their way into reading the print version to mine its depths. For those interested in mental health, the audiobook offers a gripping narration of the various characters suffering from depression, obsession, and addiction. I, for one, found I could not listen without also thinking about Wallace's own battles with depression. Though filtered through voices and histories that are not his own, it is difficult not to hear much of the work as a brilliant mind struggling to finding peace and wholeness as well as a way to make sense of the world. The struggles are common to so many of us, the voice distinctively Wallace's. Infinite Jest is not to be missed and this audio version offers us a welcome option for engaging it.
© 2013 Dennis Trinkle
Dennis Trinkle II is a Ph. D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. He specializes in philosophy of mind, psychology, and psychiatry. At present, he is working on a dissertation about the nature of mental disorders.