Infinite Jest gets a second look by Stephen J. Burn

By | April 9, 2012

I’ll admit to never having read Infinite Jest[1], but I will admit to having read the first edition of Stephen J Burn’s book “Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide.” This work allowed me to act as if I had read the text and in fact, on more than one occasion, realize that the other phonies in the room or across the table at dinner hadn’t read Infinite Jest either. Now, with this second edition, Stephen J. Burn goes beyond the work itself to examine Wallace’s influence on his contemporaries and those of the next generation of post-modernists (If you’ll be so kind as to permit me to call them that). You can find sample material from the book by clicking the widget below:

Praise the book has received so far:

"Burn does a fantastic job of showing how the novel is put together without succumbing to the temptation of overexplaining things." — Matt Kavanagh, The Globe and Mail


"Stephen Burn's pioneering book on Wallace's masterpiece is even more valuable in this revised form. Retaining the best parts of the first edition, Burn brings a decade of fresh thinking to bear on Infinite Jest and the larger role it now plays in literary culture. Written to appeal both to fans and scholars, Burn's guide provides both an excellent introduction to Infinite Jest and (as he puts it) 'a reformulation of the coordinates of David Foster Wallace's fiction.'" — Steven Moore, author of The Novel: An Alternative History.


“Burn does a terrific job of placing Infinite Jest in the tradition of the encyclopedic novel, explaining the novel’s chronology, and demonstrating the subtle points of intersection and narrative intertwining among the many plots.” — Robert L. McLaughlin, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


"Stephen J. Burn has a better handle on Infinite Jest than almost anyone else I've read—he spots every allusion, every handhold, and helps the reader on the lovely, thrilling, high-altitude climb up the face — and in the new book that grip is even firmer.  It's essential gear for any first time reader, and for the veteran, it's a guide to some of the wonderful meadows and views you missed.  A wonderful book." — David Lipsky, author of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.


"Although Stephen Burn's original 2003 guide to Infinite Jest instantly established itself as the indispensable Bloomsday book for the Ulysses of our era, this second edition considerably ups the ante, with two new bravura chapters that trace the rich and often overlooked literary sources of Wallace's achievement as well as the vast impact his work has had, and will continue to have, on the work of his contemporaries.  In the process Burn simultaneously maps out Wallace's novel and the direction Wallace studies will pursue in the future." — Marshall Boswell, Professor and Chair of the Department of English, Rhodes College, USA, and author of Understanding David Foster Wallace

An excerpt from the new introduction:

The first edition of this book offered, in essence, a modernist reading of a post-postmodern novel—concentrating on the treatment of time, identity, mythic parallels, the existence of order beneath apparent disorder—and as such it was informed by a series of assumptions, in part, about the suprahistorical nature of encyclopedic texts such as Infinite Jest. In a book I published in 2008—Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism, which is to some extent a companion volume to this Wallace guide—I tried to reverse my approach, and studied Wallace and several other major members of his generation (Franzen, Richard Powers) from the opposite direction, concentrating on the emergence of post-postmodernism in the mid-1990s. In the two new chapters I have added to this revised edition I have tried to bring both perspectives to bear on Wallace’s work. While this longer book does not pretend to offer a comprehensive reading of Wallace’s total body of work, by adding new material I have—while remaining focused on Infinite Jest—consciously tried to counter certain strands of Wallace criticism that tend toward too narrow a view of both Wallace’s fiction and the complex literary field that his work reciprocally drew upon and impacted. As early as 2000, Frank Cioffi had noted that the novel inspired “obsessive behavior” in its readers (180n7), and perhaps because of this tendency Wallace criticism, for all its insights to date, has (understandably) often focused quite narrowly upon a single Wallace work—nearly always Infinite Jest—and rarely engaged sufficiently with more than a single ancestor text or contemporary work. The counterargument that underlies the new material in this volume is that a reader can gain a richer sense of Wallace’s achievement in Infinite Jest by sidestepping the atomistic tendency of many studies in favor of putting the novel back into a larger literary and cultural matrix. The tendency of the first two chapters, then, is largely centrifugal: the first chapter works from the assumption that in the longer view a full measure of a writer’s significance is not solely bound between the covers of his novels; it also lies in the way that writer’s influence becomes entwined in the contemporary novel’s DNA. Working from this principle, I try to assess Wallace’s influence upon his post-postmodern contemporaries in a fashion that simultaneously feeds back into and enriches our understanding of Wallace’s work itself. Moving from the opposite direction, the second chapter outlines part of Wallace’s novelistic genealogy, but it does so by first articulating—through a reading of the microfiction “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”—the layered aesthetic that underlies much of his work. A common thread running through both chapters is the need for Wallace criticism to grow beyond—without necessarily entirely rejecting—its early entanglement in the indisputably important essay “E Unibus Pluram” through a more nuanced sense of Wallace’s work and the literary past. The evidence of Wallace conferences such as Toon Staes’s “Work in Process” suggest that this growth is already underway.” –Stephen J. Burn  

[1] I have at one time or another purchased “Infinite Jest” in paperback form. But for one reason or another have misplaced these copies along the way. One friend even suggested that I purchase it on my kindle or iphone so I wouldn’t have to tote it around…but that just seemed utterly ridiculous.

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