Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace
My favorite book in the world is Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.
I am a DFW fanboy through and through, and I have not felt such great unstinting admiration for an author and a person in a super long time, maybe ever. I loved Consider the Lobster, I loved his speeches, and I loved his interviews, so I decided to pick up Infinite Jest earlier in September, which was a way bigger commitment than I thought it would be. I usually clip through books in a few days, maybe a week if it's an especially long read, but I spent 2 months, at least 30 minutes every day, beating my way through Infinite Jest.
This blog post is my review of Infinite Jest, and it is organized along the two dimensions that I think are the most important to the book: how brilliant and amazing and phenomenal and mind-blowingly addictive and great the book is, and looming equally large, how fucking insanely difficult it is to read. But before I get into that,
What is Infinite Jest about?
In an alternate world, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have merged into a unified superstate known as the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. for short (lol). On orders of U.S. president Johnny Gentle, a star turned politician (lol) and a clean freak who campaigned on the platform of cleaning up the U.S., toxic waste is literally catapulted into the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, rendering it an uninhabitable wasteland either devoid of all life or terrorized by herds of giant feral hamsters.
The book mainly takes place in two locations, both in Boston: Enfield Tennis Academy, where students train in tennis and compete to attend The Show, and Ennet Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, where residents try to kick their drug addiction. Most of the characters in the book are either students in the academy or people living in the house.
There are four primary plot lines in the book, eventually interwoven:
- The students that train and study at Enfield Tennis Academy
- The addicts at Ennet Drug and Alcohol Recovery House
- A fringe group of Quebecois terrorists, Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (The Wheelchair Assassins; A.F.R.) and their violent geopolitical coup, opposed by high level US operatives
- The history of the Incandenza family, especially Hal, a brilliant student and tennis player
The thread that connects these four narratives is a film made by James Incandenza, founder of Enfield Tennis Academy and the main character Hal's dad. The eponymous Infinite Jest (also referred to in the novel as "The Entertainment" and the "samizdat"), the film is so entertaining to its viewers that they lose interest in everything but viewing the film until they eventually die.
Why is Infinite Jest Hard?
DFW has an immense mental dictionary at his disposal, and somehow his fiction has even denser vocabulary than his non fiction. I'm not sure how much it adds to the book itself, but based on his speeches and his other works I think he actually does use words like "avuncular" and "uremic" in his everyday vocabulary. The vocabulary in this book is so ridiculous that someone compiled definitions for all of these words, page by page here.
The book is long, like hard to carry around and dangerous if dropped long. Infinite Jest is over 1000 pages, including footnotes, and the book is so unwieldy to read that some readers actually recommend cutting the book in three parts. Amazon sent me two copies of the book, so with an exacto knife I actually cut the book into three: one at page 531, the other at the start of the footnotes.
The organization of this book is best described as "aggressive." Eschewing chronological plot development, Infinite Jest is atemporal and jumps around from date to date seemingly randomly (although apparently it models the Sierpinski triangle) and his endnotes are insane. At one point in the book he puts entire chapters in the footnotes, and early on in an endnote (24), he details the complete filmography of one of the characters, James Incandenza. Each entry looks something like this:
“Fun With Teeth” - B.S. Latrodectus Mactans Productions. Herbert G. Birch, Billy Tolan, Pam Heath; 35 mm; 73 minutes; black and white; silent w/ non-human screams and howls. Kosinski/Updike/Peckinpah parody, a dentist (Birch) performs sixteen unanesthetized root-canal procedures on an academic (Tolan) he suspects of involvement with his wife. MAGNETIC VIDEO, PRIVATELY RELEASED BY LATRODECTUS MACTANS PRODUCTIONS
and this goes on for almost 20 pages, in tiny footnote font. This filmography is packed with references and details and several films directly foreshadow and mirror future events in the book, but the endnote is literally almost incomprehensible and painfully boring to read the first time you read it.
The individual sections:
The chapters/ sections of the book are individually really hard to consume. Part of it is definitely because of the vocabulary, but mostly I think it is because as a fiction author, DFW feels no qualms about hosing you down. You know how the first time you go to class, the teacher usually spends some time going over the basics? The professor doesn't start a modern algebra class by immediately talking about groups and rings; he/she generally spends some time going over some basic set theory and easing you into the subject. DFW is completely not about that. Infinite Jest covers a million different topics, from media theory to optics to mathematics to tennis to complicated North American politics to drugs, and for each of these DFW just starts talking, with seemingly no regard for how much you know. On the first read, you have to grip desperate at every bit of knowledge DFW throws at you, hoping that you retain enough of it for any of it to make any fucking sense.
The overall map:
But by far the most significant obstacle is the book's map is very unclear, meaning that it is very hard to build out a mental model for what the fuck is going on section by section, let alone character by character, let alone general plot. There are just so many seemingly completely divergent and random plot lines and character backgrounds that are traced in back and forth and up and down that I felt not only lost but actually assaulted when I was reading this book.
Why is Infinite Jest good?
So why is the book worth it? Hard things are only worth it if there is an equivalent or greater reward, but like yanking your teeth out one by one, there are a lot of difficult and painful things that yield pretty minimal reward. Infinite Jest is not one of them. The early pages are definitely rough, and up until page 150 or so the book is pretty much absolutely meaningless and profoundly confusing, and I can totally understand and respect the desire to give up before that. He remains pretty consistently abusive throughout the book, but it gets better around page 200ish and then progressively improves until it basically becomes your Entertainment, your samizdat. Even after spending 2 months on it, I feel like I've barely even scratched the surface of DFW's masterpiece and labor of love, and I barely understand the book or really appreciate its greatness.
The easy one to point out is his brilliant language and phenomenal style. He has a really unique way of writing, a really special DFW way of communicating that is clearly evident in his non fiction but shines through even greater in his fiction.
I love reading his endnotes. A lot of them are punchlines to jokes that I didn't even know he was setting up.
The individual sections:
Especially early on, Infinite Jest feels a lot like DFW just saying some random shit and telling you random stories, which is actually by itself great because DFW is a genius, so you get these individual sections that are just brilliant stand-alone short stories or phenomenally profound essays. The story of Steve Erdedy preparing for a marijuana binge or Hal's essay on the modern hero are just tiny sections of the book, but by themselves they are better than anything I could ever hope to write.
This isn't to say many of his sentences aren't painful to read, but in between long moments of deep confusion there are flashes of insane brilliance and insight. While I was reading the book, I would often read a sentence or a passage and stop to think: "man, this guy is really smart." Part of the greatness of the book is that he hits on so many topics in such a deeply thoughtful way, and what makes his writing so special is that he looks at a small but common element of modern American life and thinks very deeply about it and then writes very beautifully and incisively about it. I have never read a better description of hip irony than:
“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.”
or a better argument for the importance of what we worship than:
“Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.”
or a more compelling reason to not watch porn than:
"Himself felt his jaw and pushed his glasses up several times and shrugged and finally said he supposed he was afraid of [porn] giving Orin the wrong idea about having sex. He said he'd personally prefer that Orin wait until he'd found someone he loved enough to want to have sex with and had had sex with this person, that'd he'd wait until he'd experienced for himself what a profound and really quite moving thing sex could be, before he watched a film where sex was presented as nothing more than organs going in and out of other organs, emotionless, terribly lonely."
The book is full of this kind of stuff. He is an awe-inspiring writer and thinker.
A big source of pleasure from reading the book is figuring out how things connect, and DFW leaves plenty of satisfying hunts and clues. Separate sections constantly refer back to each other or connect in a surprising way, and the more you pay attention and remember details and people and events from earlier in the book, the more enjoyable reading the book becomes (for example, the Great Concavity/Great Convexity controversy). This becomes more clear as you read more of the book and start to see the references he litters liberally throughout the book, but this was most obvious to me when I was explaining a plot point that especially fucked me up to a friend. To set the context for that story, I had to explain a bunch of random stuff about inter Canada-US relations and tennis and filmography and geometry and addiction, and 10 minutes into my explanation I realized somehow I absorbed a lot more from his firehose than I realized.
My favorite part of the book is what I think the book is about, but I'm going to skip that in this review, because it took me up to around 850, 900 pages to really start to have an opinion on what the book is about. For me a large part of the brilliance and beauty of reading Infinite Jest is the process of coming up with your own ideas of what the book is about, and I would hate to spoil that experience for you if you haven't read the book. If you have and want to talk about the book, please let me know; I'd really love to hear what you think!
I didn't realize this until I wrote out reasons for why I think this book is both difficult and so good and found there was a lot of overlap, but in my opinion the two dimensions of the book are deeply intertwined in a very significant and meaningful way, and the book would be much less richer without its difficulty. I think he writes fiction very much for the reader, and despite a lot of evidence otherwise, I don't think Infinite Jest is intentionally written to be difficult to read just to fuck you up.
Should I read Infinite Jest?
The book is massive and takes a lot of time, but if you have the time and investment then yes, it is the greatest book I have ever read. The book gets a lot better around page 150 and picks up around page 200-300 ish when you pick up enough pieces to start understanding what the fuck is going on (it is no accident that page 233 is the "Chronology of Organizations of North American Nations' Revenue-Enhancing Subsidized Time, by Year"). It's like the folks in AA say in the book- it might not make any goddamn sense but Keep Coming Back, keep trying, keep paying attention, because by god, it works.
I am blessed by this book, and I am a different person after reading it. There are very few books that have so profoundly shown me new horizons.