Author David Foster Wallace committed suicide September 15, 2008 at the age of forty-six after writing the gargantuan novel Infinite Jest as he attempted to complete another book (The Pale King) which he believed would be even greater. Part post-modern literature masterpiece, part satire of our own culture, part philosophical, mind-changing novel, Infinite Jest exists as a challenge to anyone who attempts to wrestle it, but as a veteran reader myself I can say that the commitment you put into this book will not go unrewarded. Depending on what you want to take out of it, Infinite Jest has something for everyone, so long as you give it a decent chance.
Written in 1996, Infinite Jest presents a parody of the future of America in 2009. With Canadian wheelchair terrorists abound, a boarding school in Enfield, MA for academic prodigy, tennis-playing teenagers and a halfway house in Boston, David Foster Wallace builds a world based on the model of the Sierpinski triangle. The novel’s size is colossal with 981 pages of text and nearly 100 pages of footnotes, written in smaller font, that are not only a detour from the main story but include information that is crucial to understanding plot points. At times greatly entertaining and other times a frustrating chore, reading Wallace’s great novel involves making a commitment to be an active reader: not just going through the motions of reading, but taking notes, making connections and flipping back and forth between sections. In essence, Wallace expects the reader is willing to work as hard as Wallace himself worked to write it and will not give handouts. The language is thick (“Loach’s own soul began to sprout little fungal patches of necrotic rot” (Wallace 970)) and the sentences are tedious (sometimes a page long) which often detours readers from the very beginning.
On ListVerse.com, Infinite Jest is considered the number one postmodern novel as of 2009, on a list with Gravity’s Rainbow, American Psycho and Catch 22. The fact that Wallace’s novel is considered postmodern simply means it takes generally accepted writing styles and does something completely new with them, often pushing the limits of writing. “Among the modernist devices which postmodernism pushes to a new extreme are: the rejection of mimetic representation in favour of a self-referential ‘playing’ with the forms, conventions and icons of ‘high art’ and literature; the rejection of the cult of originality in recognition of the inevitable loss of origin in the age of mass production; the rejection of plot and character as meaningful artistic conventions; and the rejection of meaning itself as delusory” (“Postmodernism and the Postmodern Novel” by Christopher Keep and Tim McLaughlin). This is what makes reading Infinite Jest such a challenge. The vocabulary is elaborate and difficult. There are no chapters and no sense of order; sections are written from many characters’ perspectives, are all out of order and seem to be haphazardly placed except that clearly, the author structured the novel the way he did for a reason. The plot may be hidden deep beneath the muck, but it is not secondary or irrelevant. It simply takes a long time and a great deal of patience to weed out what information is important and worth remembering.
“Isn’t that usually a pejorative clause?” one character says on page 29 in a section, for example, that is all dialogue and no narration. A scene may be written in a recognizable style like “Marathe’s drowsy smile continued upward to become a wince,” (Wallace 105) or be full of sentences like: “Say Wardine momma man Roy Tony be want to lie down with Wardine. Be give Wardine candy and 5s. Be stand in her way in Wardine face and he aint let her pass without he all the time touching her” (37) or even “And we promote the newspaper of skeet and Wo promotes our $ and very politely outwego and I admit it yrstruly wanted we should burn Poor Tony and rickytick the fuck out of Chinatown but we go over down more by the China Pear Place and Poor Tony is sortof hunched behind a lightpoal with his gray teeth chatting in his dress and thin coat trying to be low profile in his red coat and heels around a million+ slopes that are all subservants of Wo” (133).
This is all within the first hundred pages; several dialect shifts, character shifts and time shifts. Wallace plays with acronyms such as C and DMZ and PT as a stand-in for full words, unlike most stories in which the author doesn’t see a reason to abbreviate $ for the word “money,” who doesn’t see a reason to write in the style that his/her character is thinking or at their literary level (reread the passage from page 133, and you can tell “yrstruly” isn’t an MIT student). Most authors, further, do not see it as necessary to abbreviate their characters’ names or to refer to them by nickname, such as when Wallace on page 292 says “Orin” did something and then refers to him as simply “O.” To make it more complicated, many of Wallace’s words and acronyms such as “map,” “lurid” and “DMZ” also stand in for other words in different contexts. For example, “map” often refers to a person’s face as often as it refers to a literal or hypothetical map. And there are, of course, many slips of humor David Foster Wallace includes in otherwise normal and tedious narration. In order to compare one character to another, Wallace says that “the cheerful smiling foster father actually made the wacko foster mother look like a Doric column of stability by comparison” (371) and that “a certain big-haired sophomore baton-twirler…danced the same way she twirled and invoked mass Pep” (289).
The author is also sure to create voluptuous and imaginative characters. There is Harold “Hal” Incandenza, arguably the protagonist, who is a 17-year-old student at Enfield Tennis Academy. “At lunchtime,” Wallace writes on page 560, “Hal Incandenza was lying on his bunk in bright sunlight through the window with his hands laced over his chest, and Jim Troeltsch poked his head in and asked Hal what he was doing, and Hal told him photosynthesizing and then didn’t say anything else until Troeltsch went away.” Along with his friends, who are not only extraordinary athletes but are also gifted students, Hal smokes pot and writes papers such as: “The Toothless Predator: Breast-Feeding as Sexual Assault” (307) in an age in which time is subsidized and advertising rampant. Even minor characters cannot be considered minor. The reader will end the novel knowing Hal’s brother Orin as well as he/she will know Hal’s friends, coaches and father. At Ennet halfway house, supervisor Don Gately represents the honorable and philosophical veteran of addiction, while just as important are his counterparts: the residents of Ennet house. The mysterious woman Joelle Van Dyne is important throughout the book as a whole, as is Hal’s late father and filmmaker James Incandenza Wallace in creating his character made sure to master each’s mannerisms, way of speech, personality and hobbies. And while there are fifty or so characters interacting in the novel as a whole (just a rough estimate), the reader will be familiar with them all and the author treats each as the individual he/she is. There are no “flat” characters. And everything in the novel, in some way, is interconnected.
The plot, meanwhile, fits together gradually and is information-driven rather than action-driven. Instead of actions leading to consequences which reward the reader with answers, Infinite Jest forces a reader to find the answers himself in a sea of interesting events that seem unrelated but are complexly entwined, just as Sierbinski’s triangle is order within chaos. What most readers struggle with when reading the novel is the ending–there is no concrete ending. The ending is all within the collective information you get from reading it in its entirety. Is that frustrating? Of course it is. A lot of readers end the book by saying they didn’t get what happened. “Get it? I’m not sure ‘get it’ is the point here, really,” Svit Birkerts wrote in The Atlantic Monthly as she reviewed Wallace’s novel. “I could lay out a full half dozen other major plot elements and the big picture would still not begin to come clear. You see, in this young writer’s vision the big picture, if we can even speak of such a thing, does not have a ‘clear’ to come to: that is part of what the whole, the sum of the parts, is saying about the world, about reality.” David Foster Wallace, meanwhile, once said that “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” In writing Infinite Jest,Wallace hoped to write a novel metaphorical of life and the experience and vastness of it.
Any of Wallace’s work is extraordinary no matter what you decide to read by him. If you choose to ignore his lengthy footnotes and overlook his complicated writing style, Wallace is an unprecedented achiever. “So my admiration of him is not as a genius,” blogger Reeves Wiedeman says. It’s as a writer with an incredible ability to turn a phrase – some a few words, some full paragraphs-long – in so many different ways. They foster laughs; slight smiles; fear; depression; claustrophobia; delight. But my most common reaction, by far, was, ‘Gee, that was clever.’ And I think that means more than it might seem.” David Lipsky wrote in an NPR article that “to read David Foster Wallace was to feel your eyelids pulled open. Some writers specialize in the away-from-home experience — they’ve safaried, eaten across Italy, covered a war. Wallace offered his alive self cutting through our sleepy aquarium — our standard TV, stores, political campaigns” (“Wallace Invented ‘New Style, New Comedy’). The son of a philosophy professor and English professor, a champion tennis player and sufferer of depression, Wallace was born in 1962.
Wallace also stated in an interview that he didn’t consider himself a journalist, but the work he’s completed is unlike anything you’ve ever read. “Consider the Lobster” is a Gourmet piece about the Lobster Festival in Maine, but Wallace decided to include the specifics about cooking lobster–i.e., boiling them alive, and without ever saying “this is wrong,” simply reveals the flaws in mainstream culture. Likewise, “Big Red Son” is an essay about the Academy Awards, if you will, of the pornography industry, and an excellent observational piece about the ins and outs of the porn industry as a whole, all the while leaving social commentary out, but inferences in about how immoral such a long-accepted practice is. Along with other journalistic pieces, Wallace is an accomplished short story writer, and even authored a commencement speech entitled “This is Water” which changes the way the reader (and college graduates) should think less about how the environment affects them and more about how perhaps, our subjectivity is completely flawed. Perhaps we should pay more attention instead of getting frustrated that things are not going our way. Perhaps we should not be so self-centered.
Do not be deterred by Infinite Jest’s seeming impossiblity. It’s a daunting task similar to running a marathon–to train, you read. In fact, it’s easier than a marathon because you get to keep a dictionary alongside the novel. But the feeling of accomplishment and inspiration you feel after finishing such a difficult novel is similar to that of finishing a marathon. The first thing you must know, if you plan on reading this book, is that you are not alone. In fact, there are actually websites dedicated to helping readers get through Infinite Jest as well as there are sites that help marathon runners train. “Infinite Summer” is one such site, as well as “The Howling Fantods” and yes–there is even an Infinite Jest online encyclopedia, or “Wiki,” but beware of **SPOILERS** on the Wiki’s character descriptions, though the page-by-page annotations help with unknown phrases and words but do not contain spoilers.
Now you must want to know what Infinite Jest can do for you. What could possibly be the purpose of spending so much time and energy reading a volume when you can be reading something standard and familiar, such as Harry Potter or a John Grisham novel? The point is that Harry Potter and other novels are all written in a standard, easy-to-understand format for a reason, and any person can pick up any book, even at a different difficulty level, and read. Infinite Jest is written differently and it is that way for a reason. So of course there are readers that are deterred by its breadth and depth. The solution, simply, is to choose a different book if you feel that perhaps you can’t make the commitment to Wallace’s style and complexity. But the reason most people read Infinite Jest, besides curiosity, is to try something new and to have a new experience.
The thesis of the book, no spoilers, is about addictions and cultural conditioning. The title of the book refers to a quote from Hamlet and is possibly a reference to the book’s depth, meaning that you can reread it many times and still pick up new information which leaves you wanting to go back for more. Always a philosophical being, Wallace made sure to juxtapose wisdom and inspiration alongside tragedy and humor. The fact that InfJest includes all these elements adds to its grandeur and its status as a literary masterpiece for jostling many atmospheres at once. Read about a humorous portrayal of the futuristic U.S.: “NNYC’s harbor’s Liberty Island’s gigantic Lady has the sun for a crown and holds what looks like a huge photo album under one iron arm, and the other arm holds aloft a product” (Wallace 367). As he satirizes U.S. consumerism, Wallace also warns us of the dangers of free markets and free choice. “Not all compulsion comes from without,” a character called Remy Marathe says. “How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?” (320).
America is now a member of O.N.A.N. (Organization of North American Nations) whose seal is an eagle wearing a sombrero holding cleaning products and a maple leaf (the cleaning products because the winning presidential candidate was from the hygienic party) and headlines of newspapers look something like: “TOP AIDES HUDDLE AS WORRIES OVER GENTLE’S ‘PATHOLOGICAL INABILITY TO DEAL PROACTIVELY WITH ANY SORT OF REAL OR IMAGINED REJECTION’ MOUNT IN FACE OF CANADIAN SHOWDOWN” (406).
And there’s an entire section describing exactly what it is that you would learn if you spent some time at a halfway house in Boston, such as “that chronic alcoholics’ hearts are–for reasons no M.D. has been able to explain–swollen to nearly twice the size of civilians’ human hearts and they never again return to normal size” (200). Wallace continues: you will learn “that concentrating intently on anything is very hard work…that there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels. That it is permissible to want. That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you, That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness.” (205). And so on.
But the message is clear: conquer Infinite Jest and open a world. Meet a host of intriguing characters and learn more about the world than you ever thought you could. More importantly, confront topics shamelessly that are difficult to address: incest, drug addicts, the slums of Boston, what it’s really like to be in withdrawal and recovering from an addiction, what it’s like to play tennis, the lengths that advertising can go to, how athletics can seem orgasmic, suicide, smoking marijuana and what it’s like to make a film and be on a radio show. Infinite Jest is full of possibilities and the greatest part about it is that you learn, in Wallace’s own words, “what it is to be a fucking human being” while still engaging in the traditional art of hearing a story, no matter if it’s a thousand times more complex than Dr. Seuss. The fact that you can do all this at once is incredible. Infinite Jest is not just a book for your pastime pleasure; it’s an experience, and it will leave you breathless at the end. So take the advice of readers before you: keep the Oxford English Dictionary handy. Keep the relationships between Hamlet and his fellow characters in mind, because “It’s no coincidence that the first two words of Hamlet are “Who’s there?” and the first two words of Infinite Jest are “I am.” Trust that David Foster Wallace is an intelligent being and does not bring anything into the novel for no reason. You may be keeping track of more places, events and developed characters than ever before in your life. And finally, destroy your copy of the novel. Write on it, highlight, and flag pages. And finally, keep trekking, even when things go wrong, or seem daunting, boring or impossible (Matt Bucher, “How to Read Infinite Jest”).
Because that’s life. Wallace makes you work at it. And good things never come easily.
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salvation.” The Atlantic Monthly. February 1996. “Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and
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Bucher, Matt. “How to Read Infinite Jest.” Infinite Summer. 2009. Web. 8 November 2011.
Keep, Christopher, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar. “Postmodernism and the Postmodern Novel.”
The Electronic Labyrinth. University of Virginia. 1993-2000. Web. 8 November 2011.
Lipsky, David. “Wallace Invented ‘New Style, New Comedy’.” NPR. PBS. 15 September 2008.
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McClure, F. “Top 10 Works of Postmodern Literature.” Listverse. WordPress. 13 February, 2009.
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Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. New York, NY: Back Bay Books, 1996. Print.
Ware, Tim. David Foster Wallace Wiki: Infinite Jest. MediaWiki and HyperArts. February 2009.
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Wiedeman, Reeves. “Infinite Words.” WordPress. Web. Accessed 11 November 2011.