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.