Ok: the first thing is you don’t have to read this book. If you want to undertake a flashy reading project, there are plenty of weighty tomes that offer more intertextual bang for their buck (Ulysses, Middlemarch, Proust, w/e.). If you have tried and failed to read Infinite Jest, your map of the canon will be just as well served by reading another (shorter) (better?) postmodern novel, like maybe White Noise or some Thomas Pynchon bullshit or something. Wallace, as a writer, looms large over early-21st century writing, but it isn’t like the actual plot of Infinite Jest is some crucial cultural touchstone. You can get by just as well (and more enjoyably) by reading his nonfiction stuff.
The reasons to read Infinite Jest are: 1) you want to, 2) you want to say you did, and 3) you are trying to be a DFW completist. I am probably a combo of 2+3. I’m also in a post-depressive life phase where I remain shocked that I can sit and read with focused attention for two+ hours at a time. Back in college, when I was really depressed, I tried several times to finish this book. I would not recommend trying to read IJ if you are depressed. I would also skip it for now if you are bothered by detailed descriptions of drugs, or are the kind of reader who needs a good thrustin’ plot. (For a great thrustin’ plot, try The Secret History by Donna Tartt.) Wallace is really bad at plot, which brings me to my first tip:
You have to read the footnotes. There are 388 footnotes, which is annoying. The pre-footnote novel is 981 pages, and these pages contain almost no plot. Things happen in the main text, but the footnote section is where such happenings are ascribed meaning. The best way to use the footnote section is via Post-It note, for easy flipping. I do not think I would have finished the book without realizing the Post-It thing.
Sidebar on: Why are there even footnotes anyway? Why is this book so annoying/obstinate?
Basically a good way to think about this book is to forget normal books with linear plots. Well, don’t forget them, but imagine this book as like “riffing on”/“roasting” that concept. The first ~500 pages of Infinite Jest mostly serve to get you acclimatized to walking around in its universe. A lot of random scenes happen with no explanation. You see a lot of characters, but you don’t get anything to understand their role in the book. People/Wikipedia sometimes call this novel an encyclopedic novel, meaning like, a book that tries to encompass the full knowledge of a culture. The footnotes kind of enforce the walking-around-in-a-culture feeling. In the beginning of the book, think of it like you are wandering around and building a sufficient grammar to understand its world.
In order to get past 500 pages, you have to have faith that this random information will accrete into something meaningful/satisfying (if not a plot precisely). I would say this eventually does happen (but even that could be a matter of debate). I think it helps to know that this book is essentially a mystery. Here is a spoiler-free plot summary:
Infinite Jest takes place in a lightly-dystopian near future. (The book was published in 1997; the plot takes place in ~2009… so at this point, actually the past. For this reason, the book feels sorta dated.) A mysterious entertainment-related epidemic is sweeping the nation. (The nation is like, a slightly-reconfigured version of America. The story of this reconfiguration is a big part of the book.) The plot focuses on three seemingly-disconnected groups: the Incandenza family and their tennis school, a radical group of Canadian wheelchair users, and the residents of drug recovery house. The bulk of your reading will be spent uncovering how these three groups are related, and what they have to do with the mysterious entertainment epidemic.
It took me about a month to finish reading, at my normal pace of like one or two hours per day. I’m a slow reader, but I read a lot. According to my boyfriend quoting Phillip Roth, “If you read a novel in more than two weeks, you don’t read the novel, really.” I think that is a dumb idea, but I do think you have to read at least a little every day in order to finish to some satisfying end. A lot of the reading is fun, but it is never relaxing or not strenuous. It is not the kind of book where you ever forget that you are reading a book. If you lose momentum you probably won’t finish.
What else? Stray thoughts:
-This book suffers from the Fight Club/Tarantino problem, in which the book itself is great, but the people who enjoy it and want to discuss it are often horrible. (Myself not exempt?)
-Maybe don’t tell anyone you are reading it until you are halfway through. If you cash in on your base urge for intellectual glory too soon, then you might lose the thrust of the praise incentive. Nobody really cares if you read this book, but it is impossible to resist the thought that you will be congratulated for finishing. Dangle that carrot for as long as you can!!!
-I read Pale King first, which definitely acclimatized me to this weird kind of reading. A good writing professor (Dan Raeburn) told me a long time ago that “Infinite Jest is about entertaining yourself to death, and The Pale King is about boring yourself to death.” I am not sure if I agree, but it’s a fun framework to keep in mind.
-Thinking about the fact that Wallace killed himself both undermines and reinforces the major themes of the book. I don’t think this is a fair way to assess the book, but it is sort of inevitable.
-A comfortable way to read a fat book is to lay on your stomach, propped up on a pillow, and then lay the book in front of you, itself upon pillow. Or, you can sit with your back against a wall, and prop the book open on your knees. This might seem obvious, but it took me ~200 pages to realize.
I guess those are my general thoughts. If you want to discuss the book in the specific, feel free to reply. Would be excited to hear any of your thoughts, even the bad/half-formed ones.