Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s sprawling postmodern 1,079-page tome, was the center of a summer-long project called Infinite Summer. I had been curious about this book for years, and this opportunity to read and discuss it with others motivated me to finally give it a try. It’s difficult to sum up such a complex book in a few paragraphs, and it’s the kind of book where advance knowledge of the story, such as it is, would actually detract from the reading experience. With that said, I’m going to limit most of my plot-related remarks to the first few pages, leaving any future IJ readers to untangle the plot threads as they go along.
In the opening chapter, we meet Hal Incandenza, a young tennis whiz in the midst of the college interview process. By the end of the interview, it becomes clear that Hal is unable to communicate in any understandable way. What isn’t clear is why. In the ensuing chapters, we meet Hal’s family and his fellow students at the Enfield Tennis Academy, a motley group of drug addicts and recovering addicts, and a pair of government spies. From the start, the time line is muddy; all we know is that we’re looking at some sort of alternate history of the U.S. and Canada. There are lots of unfamiliar slang terms and a maze of acronyms that readers are expected to just cope with. After about 200 pages, the setting and time line start to crystallize, but much about the story remains a mystery for many more pages, even as the narrative becomes slightly more traditional.
One of the many things Wallace is exploring in Infinite Jest is the difficulty of clear communication—how we can never really know what is in the mind of another. Characters often converse without hearing each other. One hilarious sequence involves two of Hal’s schoolmates, Mike Pemulis and Idris Arslanian, talking in the hallway. Pemulis is going on and on about annular fusion and toxic chemicals. Idris, who is blindfolded for reasons that make sense in the context of the story, wants Pemulis to help him find the bathroom. The sequence goes on and on, with Pemulis ranting about “rapacial feral hamsters and insects of Volkswagen size” and Idris politely interjecting with statements like, “I am standing first on one foot then upon another foot” and “Please do not necessitate begging from me.” It’s a strange, but all too accurate description of much human interaction.
The book’s structure and style add to the sense of miscommunication. Wallace is at times deliberately, obstinately opaque. His narrative style shows little interest in the reader’s perceptions and understanding, just as Pemulis doesn’t take an interest in Idris’s place in their conversation. Through the writing, the reader takes part in the characters’ experiences.
This technique also comes through in the interminable passages on recovery from addition. Wallace shares what seem to me to be some smart insights about how trite the sayings and rituals at 12-step groups seem at first but how the continual habit of participating in the program makes it work, no matter how ridiculous it seems. I couldn’t help but see parallels here to the life of faith, of going to church or praying, even when it seems preposterous to outsiders—and even to insiders at times. It is the doing—specifically the doing in community—that makes it work.
However, Wallace isn’t content to just share this insight and move on. He wants his readers to experience the drudgery of doing something over and over, hearing the same thing again and again, and over and over. At one point, about halfway through the book, these long passages had me fed up, and I nearly abandoned the book. I understood what Wallace was doing, and I even admired it, but I wasn’t sure I was getting much benefit from the experience, and I knew I wasn’t getting much enjoyment from it. Wallace’s devotees would say that’s the point; that life is not about our pleasure, and the benefit only comes from pushing through, but I’m not convinced that Wallace needed to go on quite so long to make his point.
This brings me to my primary problem with Infinite Jest. The excess. Wallace’s writing is amazing. It’s funny and insightful and rich with amusing references and even intentional, revealing mistakes. I loved his narrative voice, but it’s just too much. Too much story, too many characters, too many walls of text. Wallace himself seems aware of the excess. It’s obvious to me that this passage about the experimental films made by Hal’s father (usually called Himself) could easily be about Wallace’s own work:
is the puzzlement and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1/3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff?
I do believe Wallace had some theoretical-aesthetic end in mind, but I also think that end could have been achieved in 200 or so fewer pages. It’s intentional, sure, but is it necessary? Is it helpful?
Infinite Jest is an impressive work. There’s no doubt about that. Wallace has fun with language and character, and he has keen insights into how we relate to each other and to the pain we find in the world. The structure of the book is such that I defy anyone to finish it and not think about it for hours afterward. Wallace makes it impossible for the reader to put the book down at the end, call it done, and walk away. That said, unlike many other readers, I doubt I’ll read it again. For me, this kind of writing is more successful in smaller doses. I do think I’ll read some of his essay collections. Some of my favorite parts of IJ read like essays, and I can see how Wallace’s talents as a wordsmith would really shine in that form.