Infinite Jest

I read a solid 100 pages of Infinite Jest with no idea what I was reading. The novel requires the most assiduous of readers, if they are to put the big pieces together in those first hundred pages. I had to work hard to shrug the sense that I was woefully inadequate as I leapt into Infinite Jest. Instead of searching stubbornly for a “plot,” I allowed DFW to pull me along for the ride. A week’s worth of reading and I both loved and hated the book. I fought through the tougher chapters to get through great ones. At one point, I submitted to Wikipedia for help, and finally discovered the key plot points. Further reading uncovered subtle references to the samizdat, previously glossed-over major characters. Now that I knew where to look, I began to piece things together.

The facts about David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece are these:

  • it is 1,300 pages, but only if you’re stingy on the margins and printing in a particularly small font.
  • the 1,300 pages of text is, it seems to me, roughly 1,100 pages of primary story and 200 pages of footnotes ranging from the terse “Ibid.” to lengthy 28-page dialogs between brothers on the state of Quebecois separatism in the O.N.A.N.
  • though DFW throws out an initial explanation for what O.N.A.N. or E.T.A. and other abbreviations might stand for, he never again lingers on the full names. Snooze at your peril, he expects you to keep up.
  • the footnotes themselves have footnotes. I did not realize this for the first couple weeks of reading.
  • even after weeks of reading Infinite Jest, your bookmark will have moved no discernible distance towards the back cover of the book. You’ll creep along a millimeter at a time, each page just a drop in the bucket, a toothy grin at your attempts to cut through the novel with your typical reader’s pace.
  • I am only a third of the way through the book, having made enough progress to believe myself enough of an authority to write about it.

Now, I shouldn’t say that nothing was accomplished in those first couple of weeks of reading. Even the early pages were sustained by little chunks of wonderful eidetic descriptions of monotony, pointlessness, struggle, and frivolity. There are concentrated phrases of elegant humor buried within descriptions that go on for pages and pages. The novel has paragraphs as long as 18th-century political treatises and chapters as long as Goosebumps novels, though the two share no words in common. A favorite footnote of mine is a 28-page account of a phone conversation between brothers. While one brother presses hard on his intellectually gifted younger sibling for details on Quebecois separatism (I know), the other describes the manner in which he is launching toenail clippings into a wastebasket across the room. The conversation on the phone darts in and out of family dynamics and complex future-fiction politics, and all the while nail clippings fly at the wastebasket with a 70% rate of accuracy.

The footnote carries on and on, and the point at which you begin to flip ahead to see how much further you’ve actually got to read is also the point at which the younger brother begins to try and disconnect himself from the phone call. Despite his best efforts, the conversation drags on and you, the reader, feel a frustration eerily similar to Hal’s frustration at having to listen his brother on the other end of the receiver. The footnote mercifully ends mid-sentence, as the phone jack is yanked from the wall by the younger brother’s roommate. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so simultaneously frustrated and entertained by a reading experience.

The novel is filled with aperçus buried deep within mountains upon mountains of complicated diction. Wallace has a particular talent for describing buildings and rooms with what appears to me to be the most obscure vocabulary imaginable–he seems a man with fourteen synonyms for “doorjamb,” eight possible replacements for “shingles,” more than a handful of ways to describe the trim at the base of the wall, and a gift for constructing settings you will never see elsewhere in literature, for who else has the tools? Frustratingly, you get the sense that Wallace is playing with you, that despite the fact that you need to stop every five sentences to consult a dictionary, the use of these words is, for him, perfunctory and puerile. You begin to realize that focusing on these moments of the novel–giving them the same credence you might bestow on other, more wonderful and more power sections–is to miss the point. You connect with the novel through the rich and rewarding development of characters, descriptions of people who are defined as much by their relationships with each other, as they are by their relationships with tennis, or alcohol, or drugs, or family, or romance and youth. To read Wallace, you must fashion yourself into a dirigible reader; you can’t allow yourself to struggle against the pieces that seem to be tedious, for that would attenuate the power of the impending section.

I’ve found two significant and frustrating realities in reading Infinite Jest.

First, the isolation of this reading experience stifles my ability to share passages, remarks, chapters, with others around me. Buried beneath pages and pages of well-crafted context is a poignancy that is very much worth sharing, and yet impossible to recount to friends. I couldn’t tell you the story of the order Irish immigrant, speaking at AA about his first solid turd in years, and the way that Wallace wrote the passage to convey more than just a subtly charming Irish lilt. I can’t share the out-of-control game of Eschaton that launched eleven and twelve year olds into bouts of uncontrolled violence. You’d need the 10 drudging pages that describe Eschaton to know just why this was so funny. The fact of this critical contextualization in Infinite Jest puts it among the lonelier reading experiences of my life–and because I know it’s a Sisyphean task to get a friend or family member to read it, I know I’ll never have occasion to create these discussions.

The second–and perhaps more difficult–reality of reading Infinite Jest is in the subconscious understanding that I’ll likely never read it again. Each chapter, each paragraph, each moment, is like a breathtaking view at the end of a thirty mile hike. I want to capture the moment and experience it fully, because I can feel the impossibility of summoning that level of commitment for a second and equally arduous trip to see that view one more time. Reading Infinite Jest makes me linger longer than I’d typically like, and I’m constantly wondering what I’ve missed and how to get it back–the complexity is such that I know I’d love to read it again. The difficulty is in knowing that I probably never will.

In all, reading this book has been a new experience for me. I never thought I’d read a book on an iPad. I’d always categorized myself as a die-hard for books in print, with the smell of a freshly opened volume, the whisper of the turning pages, and the slowly relenting bend of a once-firm cover. But along came Infinite Jest, and the iPad version was essentially foisted upon me. I can click easily to footnotes and back instead of flipping between two bookmarks. The built-in dictionary helps me keep track of new words (there are hundreds), a handful of which I’ve included in this post. I’m still a paper-book supporter, but I can see the value in having the on-screen version in hand.

After a blistering pace of reading this summer and fall, it’s somewhat nice to measure my reading not in books I’ve finished or pages I’ve read, but in the things that I’ve learned and the ideas and stories that I’ve found to be unlike other reading experiences. The book is compelling enough for me to have already written a blog entry about it, despite having read only a third of its pages. Maybe I’ll return with updates at the next two mileposts. See you in a few months.

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