We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give ourselves away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms, blandly filled with excrement and heat? To what purpose?
By David Foster Wallace
Set in an addicts’ halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction, Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are.
Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human—and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.
I finished David Foster Wallace’s monstrous novel more than a week ago, making the gap between completion and review one of the longest periods I’ve had so far. I’m still not sure if it was long enough. Probably not.
I don’t know how to best review this book, because I barely know how to describe it in a way that makes accessible sense. The blurb above, taken from Goodreads, does not even begin to give the narrative and the message justice. Infinite Jest has no genre, it has no singular main character, it has no grand plot that neatly concludes at the end. What it does have is an intricate web of stories and people united by their Bostonian setting, their addictions, their responses to success, tragedy, loneliness, depression. It has a message about the nature of entertainment, how we strive to be entertained as an addiction in and of itself, and the lengths people will go to feel something. It has musings, revelations, and secrets to be unlocked.
Infinite Jest is a genre bending cacophony of voices and moods. It made me laugh out loud on dozens of occasions. The ETA side of things, for example, is frequently silly in the way a tennis academy founded by eccentrics and filled with scheming teenagers should be. At the same time it forced me to set it down at several points as well, due to topics heavy and painful to read about at length. Wallace shifts perspective numerous times, getting inside the heads and speaking either towards or through the voices of characters from all walks- the addicts, the recovering former criminals, the scheming government agents, the tennis prodigies, the hopeful filmmakers, the depressed residents, the punter isolating himself from his family and childhood. It is all at one brilliantly hilarious, deeply moving, and painfully sad.
Infinite Jest is a challenge- one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read, and that was with taking it slow (at a 75 page a week pace) and frequenting the Infinite Winter forums. That said, if you are down for a challenge, it is 100% worth the effort.
I started and stopped twice before finally finishing it on my third go-around. The changes in character, in narrative voice, and even in time are incredibly jarring at first. However, once the characters begin to strike some familiarly, and once you begin to figure out the grander themes, the payoff is all the more rewarding. Wallace does not hold your hand, in fact, you don’t even get a bigger picture timeline until more than 200 pages in. He trusts you to get there on your own, resulting in revelations that feel valuable and earned.
It is also worthy to note the importance of the footnotes to this novel. There are around 100 pages filled with them, and entire stories and relations take place within their tiny text. I’m sure there are many who skip them altogether, but they provide access to more connections, more insights into the strange world of Subsidized Time, and I personally feel like I would’ve gotten substantially less out of the book had I ignored them. Acronyms, for one, are littered throughout the book, with rarely an explanation outside of the footnotes as to what they stand for. Read the footnotes!
Should You Read This?
If you’ve read my possibly disjointed ramblings thus far, and are still intrigued, please grab a copy of this book (I would recommend a physical copy that you can post-it note with ease. Kindle bookmarks were just too putzy for all the footnotes).
It is strange and frustrating to be sure, but it is also one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever read, and wholly unlike most of the novels that we generally experience.
If you do decide to take the plunge, I would further recommend doing either a readalong, or making use of materials put together by past readalongs (Infinite Summer and Winter have great schedules and discussions, for example). It is wonderful to see that you are not alone in being confused by a certain passage, or not the only one delighted to decipher a specific connection. After all, it’s always more fun to read in groups!
I plan on reading it again at some point. Not this year. Probably not next year, but at some point in the future. I’ve completed it, yes, but I left with a feeling that there is still so much more to unlock and understand, and I look forward to eventually coming back to it with experienced eyes.
Until then… I’m just going to watch this video over and over.
Summary from Goodreads