Revisiting 2011: Book #16: Infinite Jest, Part 1
This week, I’m revisiting some of my favorite posts from 2011 while I take a one-week break from writing and simply focus on reading and spending time with my family. This post was originally published on May 11, 2011. 101 Books will return live on Monday January 2. See you then!
What just happened?
That’s the first question I asked myself after reading the final word of Infinite Jest. And while that might seem like a bad question to be asking oneself at the end of a 1,000 page book, it wasn’t unexpected.
I’m not sure I could count how many times I asked myself “What just happened?” while reading David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece over the last six weeks. It happened, like, a bunch of times–enough to be qualified as a recurring theme in my head.
It happened enough for me to say Infinite Jest is supremely frustrating at times–the loose, non-linear plot, the $10 words, the pure effort that the book takes to read.
But is that the point? Is that what David Foster Wallace was after? Did he want to make you work your butt off to read this book?
Because that’s what you’ll do. Whether or not you like Infinite Jest, I can promise you this: You’ve never had a reading experience quite like it. At first read, you’re probably going to hate it at times and love it at times. You’re definitely going to laugh. You might even cry. You’ll probably get annoyed with all the end notes and be tempted to skip them. Don’t.
And let’s be honest: David Foster Wallace is much smarter than us. His writing and, sometimes, word choice illustrate that fact, which makes Infinite Jest a difficult read in spots.
Many characters in the novel are participants in Alcoholics Anonymous. At the end of each AA meeting, group participants support each other by saying, “keep coming back.” And, essentially, that’s the same thing David Foster Wallace is telling you, the reader. “Keep coming back. Don’t quit. This book will be worth it.”
So what’s the book about, you ask? Ah, great question. Even though I just completed this gargantuan book, I feel ill-equipped to answer this most basic question. But I’ll take a shot.
Infinite Jest is about our faulty, natural tendency to worship ourselves and our own desire for pleasure and entertainment. It’s about our tendency to put ourselves first, above anything or anyone else, even to the point of our own detriment.
In the novel, this shows up in the form of junior tennis players at a tennis academy who are bred, almost from birth, to make it to the professional tour, “The Show.” It shows up in numerous drug addicts in rehab who are constantly fighting the temptation to seek pleasure in substances.
And it shows up in the willingness of groups of people to be literally entertained to death by watching a film cartridge—known as “the entertainment”—that leaves the viewer in a blissful daze, forgoing food, water, and restrooms until nature takes its course.
The book is set in the near future, a dystopian society in which the names of years are up for corporate sponsor. It opens in the Year of Glad (as in the trash bag), but most of the novel takes place in The Year of The Adult Depend Undergarment. Marketing and entertainment is out of control, and the big four television networks are no more, overtaken by one large corporation known as Interlace.
The United States and Canada are at political odds, and a splinter Canadian faction known as “The Wheelchair Assassins” (who are just that) are out to gain control of “the entertainment” and disseminate it throughout the U.S. to unsuspecting, pleasure-starved U.S. citizens.
In this world lives Hal Incandenza, an aspiring junior tennis player, and Don Gately, a recovering drug addict who is now on staff at a recovery house. The majority of Infinite Jest centers on these two characters and their struggles.
But the book is filled with dozens of other characters—so many that it’s painfully difficult to keep up with who did what and when, reminiscent of some of the problems I had reading I, Claudius. One guy even created a flow chart to help with all the characters.
As I’ve mentioned many times, Infinite Jest is not a linear novel. There is no A to B to C progression here. It’s more like B to A to C to A to C to B to A. In other words, keeping up with the order of events can be mentally taxing. But page 223 will help with that.
One interesting technique about Infinite Jest is that David Foster Wallace writes around some of the critical moments. Typically, when you read a book or watch a movie—there’s a tension that builds and builds until a key moment of conflict.
With Infinite Jest, you’ll be reading along, waiting for that tension to finally break, to witness a critical moment, but you’ll never see that resolution. Most of it happens outside the scope of the book.
All of the sudden you’ll be on the other side of it wondering what exactly happened. If it’s something that DFW wants to include, it will probably be a brief one-liner that you could easily read over without noticing.
In that way, DFW really wrote the anti-novel. This isn’t a story filled with dramatic car crashes and explosions. It’s not packaged into nice, neat chapters with clear breaks in subject matter. The novel doesn’t even have a true beginning and ending—hence the word “infinite” in the title.
Maybe David Foster Wallace was inspired by Mark Twain, who said, “Ideally a book would have no order to it, and the reader would have to discover his own.” Fact is, you’re going to have to discover a lot of things on your own because DFW didn’t make it easy for you, the reader—and that’s not a criticism of him at all.
I’ll say that one of DFW’s greatest strengths—his ability to articulate detail—was also a weakness at times during Infinite Jest. The sheer amount of detail, the sheer amount of information he gives you, is overwhelming.
It’s like watching a movie with all the deleted scenes—everything including the kitchen sink is in there. Is it all that relevant? Could we possibly have worked this novel down to, say, 700 or even 800 pages?
And, good Lord, the big blocks of text without paragraph breaks. We’re talking about four or five pages of nonstop copy, no paragraph breaks, just one long wall of words. Let me breathe, David Foster Wallace. For the love, let me breathe.
But, oh, the bright spots of Infinite Jest. They are so beautiful, so lovely. The amazing thing about David Foster Wallace is that his writing is so natural in its descriptiveness. His writing doesn’t feel like the writing of an author who is trying too hard to use imagery.
Take the passage about Joelle Van Dyne’s suicide attempt, for instance. To me, that passage reads so natural, so unassuming and understated. And that’s what makes it so powerful. Nothing flowery.
So, ultimately, where do I place this book? Do I believe it’s worthy of all the praise?