The Next Chapter·Book Report

Randy Boyagoda on Infinite Jest — a great Canadian novel, by an American writer

The columnist highlights the Canadian connections in David Foster Wallace's cult classic.
Writer and critic Randy Boyagoda recommends the Infinite Jest, a 1996 novel by David Foster Wallace. (University of Toronto/Little, Brown)

David Foster Wallace died 10 years ago, but his giant sprawling novel Infinite Jest, which was published in 1996, continues to influence and inspire. Some critics think it shook up the rules of fiction and many readers comment on how challenging a read it is.

Columnist Randy Boyagoda, who's read all 1,100 pages, argues that it's a great Canadian novel, albeit written by an American. This interview originally aired on Feb. 26, 2018.

A snapshot

"It's about a Quebec-born family of tennis prodigies and filmmakers, who have this strange relationship to Quebec separatists and to various people in the United States and Mexico, all because they have access to a tape that is so funny, so entertaining, that you die laughing. There is a great epic quest to obtain the tape from a tennis academy in Boston beside a rehab facility where the novel's hero is basically going through an extended effort to right-order his life. This is all happening against the backdrop of the United States, Canada and Mexico becoming a singular entity."

Canadian connection

"Wallace was this tortured genius who had a capacity to his imagination and his vision that was unparalleled in contemporary American writing. What he enjoyed most about human life is the quirkiness, the irreducible complexities of human beings. He locates these things in the Quebec separatist movement. He uses an at times humorous, at times impressive Quebecois English voice to convey something granular about their identity. So he's trying to delve into the depths of humanity and match rich interior lives with very complex exterior lives. For him, a nondescript American isn't interesting enough to sustain his imagination."

Revisiting a classic

"I have been trying to read this book since my second semester of university in 1996 at the University of Toronto. I can remember picking this up and going, 'Nah!' For 21 years, every couple of years, I thought, 'Wow, this is one of these books that you're supposed to read.' It's considered by many to be one of the great American novels. In summer 2017, I was sick of two things: the news and my phone. I discovered how weak my reading muscles had become. I could only read two or three pages, before stopping to check my phone. So I decided to put it down and start reading novels and I thought I should go to the most daunting project and read every single word; for me that was Infinite Jest."

Randy Boyagoda's comments have been edited and condensed.