Infinite Jest — David Foster Wallace

From what I’ve seen and what I’ve read online, Infinite Jest incites vehement opinion like few other books. Some love it: so much that there are websites dedicated to picking apart its every last neologism and allusion. Some hate it, considering it a waste of space. A waste of a lot of space.

When I finished reading Infinite Jest, I threw the book at the wall. I was furious. After three months and 1087 pages, I couldn’t believe David would fucking do this to me. I’d stuck it out, endured endless pages extrapolating the minutiae of junior tennis and neuroses, and found hints — minute diamonds — of genius. Gradually, a series of unexplained and inexplicable plot threads began to tie together into a coherent story, as ambitious as it was bonkers. The central characters are given words enough to fill standard size novels, and through the sheer word-weight, I began to know them. I understood the dysfunctional interrelationships of the fractured Incandenza family: I believed Don Gately and Joelle Van Dyne’s burgeoning love. And then the book ended, and it was all snatched away.

I understand the effect of a lack of resolution. As a literary device, prompting reader dissatisfaction is one of the most effective ways to convey an unsettling, frustrating theme. But when this irresolution is so universal, after 1000 pages, it’s maddening. Imagine stretching the fourth act of a Shakespeare play into a 1000 page novel, and calling it complete. Imagine listening to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, but starting from the third minute, and only to have your headphones rudely wrenched out of your ears by David Foster Wallace, who then grabs your iPod and stamps on it.

I get it. Infinite Jest is often brilliant. In 1996, when it was first published, it was as original as contemporary literature gets. At times, it’s hilarious.

I’ll say God seems to have a kind of laid-back management style I’m not crazy about. I’m pretty much anti-death. God looks by all accounts to be pro-death. I’m not seeing how we can get together on this issue.

At times, it’s moving and truthful. It dissects mental illness as only someone who has lived it can.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul […] a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.

Many claim the book is about “addiction.” An oversimplification: if we define addiction as an overwhelming and constant desire for something, then a solid half of all literature can claim it’s “about addiction.” In a book which so often deconstructs our reasons for caring about anything, those obsessive desires are of course anatomized:

You are, as they say, Finished. You cannot get drunk and you cannot get sober; you cannot get high and you cannot get straight. You are behind bars; you are in a cage and can see only bars in every direction. You are in the kind of a hell of a mess that either ends lives or turns them around.

Nevertheless, I think Infinite Jest sets its sights higher, and lower, than addiction. Higher, in that it tries to make bold statements about future American culture and society: these are mostly anodyne. Lower, in that it’s as fascinated in the mundane and the ordinary as it is with addiction and illness. There were even a few sections which hit home for your average privileged white boy:

What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.

So in many respects, it’s a mixed bag. I’ve certainly never read a book which I’ve loved so much at times and hated so much at others. If the above quotations impress you, let me emphasize: they are hidden amidst hundreds of pages of the most verbose, rambling, tedious prose imaginable. I understand that this is sort of the point. But it doesn’t make reading it any more engaging. Reading Infinite Jest, you do not reap what you sow. Unless you’re really fascinated, and have near-unlimited free time, reading Infinite Jest is unlikely to be a rewarding experience. Instead, I’d recommend reading summaries, character descriptions, or quotes. Of course, that’s kind of cheating, but Wallace breaks every rule in the writer’s book, so it’s not a huge deal to bend the rules and skim through some quotations. I’ll end with my personal favourite, which I feel comes closest to summarizing the world of Infinite Jest:

Life’s endless war against the self you can’t live without.