David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

by Jess

So I finished Infinite Jest, some two weeks ago in fact, but I’ve been a bit busy. We’re moving, did I tell you? From Small Town, USA, to City, USA. It’s been a little crazy around here.

But back to Infinite Jest. My first piece of advice to you as a future IJ reader is to devote two bookmarks to the task: one for the page you’re reading and one for the end notes, which you will consult frequently. This is a 1,079-page endeavor, so make sure they’re hardy bookmarks. Cardstock or the like.

Secondly, take notes. Write down all the characters, because they all come back around later, the places and the dates to help keep track of what’s happening when. Read everything. Some of it just begs to be skipped, like the end note listing all of James Incandenza’s films, but it’s all important. Every word. And whatever you do, don’t Google the thing before you finish it, because you’ll stumble upon one of a million intriguing sites devoted to the book (like Infinite Summer, Infinite Detox, Infinite Jestations, Infinite Tasks, ad infinitum) and you don’t want to spoil anything. Oh, and the opening section is mysterious and kind of mind-blowingly confusing, but just push through; it’ll all make sense later.

And if all of that sort of turns you off the idea of reading it at all, let me tell you: it’s totally worth it. This is a game changer. You may never view books the same again. I’ve read many comments on online forums by people who said IJ made them want to be better people. That’s gotta count for something.

DFW, commenting on a question from Laura Miller regarding the book’s length, put it this way:

It’s a weird book. It doesn’t move the way normal books do. It’s
got a whole bunch of characters. I think it makes at least an
in-good-faith attempt to be fun and riveting enough on a
page-by-page level so I don’t feel like I’m hitting the reader
with a mallet, you know, “Hey, here’s this really hard impossibly
smart thing. Fuck you. See if you can read it.” I know books like
that and they piss me off.

IJ is about a lot of things, but one of its primary themes is addiction. Among the multifarious characters are hardcore substance abusers on the streets or living in a halfway house, and recreationally pill-popping but no less chemically dependent rich kids at a tennis academy. There is also a tremendous amount of attention paid to Americans’ addiction to entertainment in its many forms. DFW says he wanted to capture what it’s like to live in America around the millennium, which he views as having “something particularly sad about it, something that doesn’t have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It’s more like a stomach-level sadness. … It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether it’s unique to our generation I really don’t know.”

Sven Birkerts describes the book this way:

To say that the novel does not obey traditional norms is to miss the point. Wallace’s narrative structure should be seen instead as a response to an altered cultural sensibility. The book mimes, in its movements as well as in its dense loads of referential data, the distributed systems that are the new paradigm in communications. The book is not about electronic culture, but it has internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst. The plot is webbed, branched, rife with linkages.

This, to me, is the most poignant comment on the book. DFW does an incredible job of capturing the way that an entire culture really thinks and acts and interacts in the modern age. He excruciatingly describes the loneliness and neuroses and exhaustion that result from our almost infinite tendency to give ourselves away.

One thing that I particularly love about the book is DFW’s capacity for differentiating his characters’ voices. Many, many characters get at least one POV section, and each one sounds so richly and truly him or herself. My favorites are the ones, like Randy Lenz, a halfway house dropout, who kept trying to use big words and mangling them. Don Gately is my favorite character; I totally have a lit crush on Gately. David Gates’ Newsweek review has the best coverage of Gately that I’ve read, describing him as a

recovering drug addict and AA halfway-house staffer, whose brontosaurian placidity it’s best not to roil. Gately’s portions of Infinite Jest have some of the best writing ever done about Alcoholics Anonymous; Wallace does justice to the spiritual rigor beneath its tolerant anarchy, and to its distinctive, tough-minded brand of humor. We’re touched by Gately’s inner sweetness and solidity, and we root for him not to have to pay full freight for his former misbehavior.

And speaking of words, DFW’s prose is really something to be experienced (Birkerts speaks of “the incandescence of the writing”). I found some passages to be beautiful in a conventional sense, but his descriptions of loneliness and the intricacies of AA meetings are lovely, and all of it is captivating and energetic and smart. Erich Strom remarks:

Of Infinite Jest‘s pleasures the most intoxicating is the march and hum of words and sentences which form the environment, ambient noise, and very foundation of any novel. Here they sculpt a sensuous, irresistible terrain. It is no minor irony that the very thrill and rush of language in Wallace’s hands forms a serious habit.

The irony was not lost on me, either; I was completely addicted to this book for a solid two months. I’ve been a bit distraught since the ride ended, and in fact, the instant I came to the end, I flipped back to the beginning and reread the first section.

Someone has put together an incredible annotated list of reviews and interviews, which I highly recommend for helping process the novel after you’re done. After you’re done, I said. I’m still working through a lot of the particulars of the novel, trying to let them cohere in my brain, and all of the message boards and analyses have been helpful. The ending, for one thing, is peculiar in the sense that it doesn’t wrap everything up as neatly as we’re accustomed to in novels (though it’s very typical for short fiction). DFW said in an online chat with fans, “Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an ‘end’ can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occurred to you, then the book’s failed for you.”

I may have more to say on IJ later, but this is enough to get me started. I’d absolutely recommend this rewarding book to anyone who is willing to put in a little effort.  Birkerts says, “The novel is confusing, yes, and maddening in myriad ways. It is also resourceful, hilarious, intelligent, and unique. Those who stay with it will find the whole world lit up as though by black light.”