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Book #16: Infinite Jest, Part 1

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.

That'll make you strain those eyes. One of the many "walls of text" throughout Infinite Jest.

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?

Read Part Two.

86 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ben #

    Err. I’m excited to read the Part 2.


    May 11, 2011
  2. Tyler #

    I love the passage you linked to. I had forgot about that post.


    May 11, 2011
  3. Kudos to you. It seems like a beast of a novel, I don’t think I’m brave enough to attempt something that huge, in size, length or concept.


    May 11, 2011
    • Thanks. You’d be surprised. I felt the same way but the book grows on you.


      May 11, 2011
  4. Patti #

    What you point out about him writing around major events – that’s helpful. I’m not that far along, but I can see that happening.


    May 11, 2011
    • I’ve never experienced that in a novel. And I didn’t really catch on to it until I was almost finished.


      May 11, 2011
      • Patti #

        Kind of makes me think about perspective – looking at major events of someone else’s life, if we don’t take part in the event itself, all we might see are the peripheral things leading up to or resulting from them. It will give me food for thought as I read.


        May 11, 2011
  5. 2blu2btru #

    Oh, no! The random structure and not being linear reminds me too much of Toni Morrison’s Jazz for me to chance so much of my life on trying to read this book. I’ve done the “I need cliff notes, spark notes, foot notes, a dictionary and a timeline” thing too much with William Faulkner and the aforementioned Jazz to voluntarily go down that road again. Oy! My head hurts just thinking of it.


    May 11, 2011
    • Yep, it will make your head hurt. But I guess I like the pain! I think it’s worth it.


      May 11, 2011
  6. I am looking forward to reading this more and more. Your reviews will make me want to scrap the reading order I have set up and read Infinite Jest next. Although, I think I want to read that biography I found at the bookstore first. Hmmm…


    May 11, 2011
    • Tough call. Maybe the biography would help you understand him better before you read IJ. I definitely went in cold.


      May 11, 2011
  7. Teresa #

    Thanks for the interesting review. I am on page 740 of Infinite Jest and thinking of quitting. I love the book’s structure, the premise, the themes of addiction, choice, freedom, (and too many others to mention). I understood the challenge that DFW set for us to see if we would wade through 10-20 pages of description for the occasional ort of plot. How far will the addict (or book reader) go to get pleasure? But I hit my limit when I was forced to read section after section of very intense graphic violence, torture and abuse to get plot information. I think that this work of true genius would be a better book if it navigated those waters more skillfully.


    May 30, 2011
  8. OK so almost two and a half years later, I have dived into Infinite Jest. I’m on page 130-something and… I want to throw it out a window? But I don’t want to throw it out a window? I just feel like holy crap this is a lot of brain work and it better be worth it but I’m not even sure what I would consider to be worth it at this point. The end notes! What the ever loving fudge is up with the end notes? Seriously I read a three page filmography!? OH MY GOD. And I am end note dumb because sometimes an end note points me to another end note and I get lost and have no idea what’s going on and where in the other end note I am supposed to start reading. I have TWO bookmarks- one for the novel and one for the end note! That’s crazy. You seriously have this thing at #7?! Is it seriously SERIOUSLY that good?


    September 6, 2013
    • Robert #

      I have it at #7? I kind of forgot about that! Seriously, it’s more of an accomplishment thing. It’s beautiful at times and infuriating at times. I don’t know what to tell you except that I probably wanted to quit at the point you’re at too, but I’m so glad I didn’t. Just proud to have read it.


      September 6, 2013
      • Yup, #7 I was surprised! I am going to keep at it. For the same reason. I feel like I HAVE to read this. It’s me vs the book and I must win!


        September 6, 2013
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    November 12, 2013
  10. Ignacio #

    Thank for your time in write down your opinions about Infinite Jest. I began my lecture two months ago, and now 2 of November I have overcome the middle of the story. Hal, Mario, Orin, Pemulis, Gately, and lot of personages have become part of my life, that’s what I look for when I read, I’m sure I will miss them all and not so sure I have either much desire of end it. I have laugh from the beginning, when they have the interview in the Uni and I have cry when a I’ve read about AA. Thank you again, and I beg your pardon for my hideous English. I was searching for that flow chart you have collect.
    I bought the book in paper but I read when I awake soon with my paperlight ebook. Gob bless I can read in bed, my mate didn´t let me, now I don’t disturb her rest. It´s true I only think in search pleasure, we are a tribe too much hedonist. We should change a little.


    November 2, 2015
  11. Thinking of reading it on summer, 16′. Should i go hardback or paperback ? What’s the best edition ?


    January 9, 2016

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