Infinite Jest Will Set You Free….But Not Until It’s Finished With You

On December 22nd, the first day of winter, I set out to resolve some “unfinished business.”  I decided it was time to finally read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest from cover to cover. I had attempted this feat twice prior, once in high school and again in college. Foray # 2 concluded with me hurling a hardbound copy of the book across a living room in Eugene, Oregon.

This time around, I was determined to make it all the way to the end. I approached the book with the bloodthirsty determination of the vengeful Bride in Kill Bill…or at least the titular heroes in Revenge of the Nerds. To make things more interesting, I decided to tweet about the experience over on Twitter with the username “infinite_winter.” I also tried to keep myself on a strict, 12-pages-a-day schedule to ensure that I would complete the book by the first day of spring (I didn’t always stick with it though). I called this whole thing “The Infinite Winter Project.”

1,079 pages, 388 footnotes, 828 tweets and 89 days later, I accomplished my goal which, in hindsight, was hardly a jaunt up Everest. I didn’t expect anyone on Twitter to actually follow the account. This whole thing was entirely too silly and pretentious, right? Nevertheless, I wound up with 99 followers, some of whom even responded to what I had to say about the book and/or were tackling it themselves. So at least some of them weren’t spambots.

What resulted was a sort of social media book club that spanned three continents. It was both weird and wonderful to find myself discussing subtext, themes, confusing plot threads and things like “Randy Lenz sure is a turd, isn’t he?” with readers in the United States and in places as far away as New Zealand. A quick shout-out, in no particular order, to “Reqbat,” “Sytra,” “MsHarkin,” “Peajayar,” “ThatRobCharlton,” “lilisolomon74” and “TradePaperbacks.” Thanks for your thoughts, encouragement and for helping to make this project a fun and memorable one, guys.

Some of the people I tweeted with grew so frustrated with the book that they gave up, wishing me well as they cast it aside. Others blew past me, finishing Infinite Jest in 30 days or less. I also drew the attention of die-hard Wallace fans, a few of whom didn’t approve of my snarky running commentary, blasting my tweets with phrases like “nothing Wallace did was unintentional,” “everything you need to know about life and everything else is in Infinite Jest” and a few good ol’ “you just don’t get it.”

But enough about all that. What did I actually think of Infinite Jest? Looking back, it’s not the impenetrable/pompous beast I had always written it off as , nor is it the impossibly brilliant masterpiece that many have claimed over the years. It’s not as smart as it thinks it is or as many Wallace fans think it is.

Once you get past the footnotes, the rampant digressions, the odd timeline, and the mixed-up narrative, Infinite Jest is a book that is, ultimately, about three things: addiction, recovery and tennis. Some of its passages flow like water across the page— incredibly readable and impossibly witty, but these gems are mixed up in a murky manuscript that’s completely unconcerned with its readership. Like a rabid Great Dane on a leash, Infinite Jest is a book that goes where it wants and it doesn’t give a damn about you. It will happily drag you through all sorts of mud and muck, right into the literary equivalent of a freeway, in its mad quest to quench its own desires.

Wallace knew this as he was writing. The book is as self-indulgent as it is self-conscious and self-effacing, with quirky asides and gags that poke fun at its obvious shortcomings. The plot itself is definitely extraordinary. In a dystopic America, where a large part of New England has been turned into a gigantic garbage dump and even years receive corporate sponsorship, a part-time filmmaker and founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy cobbles together the most entertaining short movie of all time.

Titled “Infinite Jest V,” the film is so captivating that it instantly turns anyone who merely gazes a moment of it into a hopeless, catatonic addict. Recognizing the awesome, destructive power of something like this, government agents madly scramble to track down every copy they can find as a Canadian separatist group struggles to locate the master copy for its own devious purposes. Along the way, a group of students at Enfield and the residents of a drug and alcohol recovery house get shoehorned into the plot.

Imagine what a masterful satirist like Kurt Vonnegut could have done with a premise like this. Unfortunately, Wallace was no Vonnegut. In interviews after Infinite Jest‘s publication, the author talked about his time in a recovery program, his addiction to marijuana and problems with alcohol. These experiences must have weighed incredibly heavily on Wallace, especially as he dived into the manuscript. As one reads Infinite Jest, it’s impossibly not to get the feeling that its author was battling some very personal demons…and that he had a humongous ax to grind with both recovery clinics and Alcohol/Narcotics Anonymous.

A huge chunk of the book is devoted to exploring every nuance of these programs and ranting about them. Wallace sends his characters to numerous recovery meetings and  clinics, describing them all in excruciating detail while forsaking his larger, and much more interesting, narrative. Worse yet, the book has what must be the most unsatisfying conclusion of any book that has ever appeared on the New York Times‘ Bestsellers List.  I can only assume that he wasn’t entirely in control of his facilities as a writer while he was working on Infinite Jest. He just couldn’t resist the pull of these digressions, leaving me to wonder why he didn’t split this project into multiple novels or why his editor didn’t force him to do so.

Infinite Jest would work much better as three books instead of one. It’s a shame Wallace didn’t exorcise his demons in a book solely about Boston recovery programs before working on a second, influenced by the works of JD Salinger, about the students and staff at Enfield. Then, with those out of the way, he could have plunged into a third, a sci-fi tome about the film and the forces scrambling to get a hold of it.

Ultimately, what we have here is an incredibly frustrating novel, probably the most frustrating one I’ve ever read. The premise is soooooo brilliant and Wallace’s prose is engaging but Infinite Jest remains an out-of-control train. To borrow a line from Hamlet, which inspired the title and many of the novel’s pathos, there was a method to Wallace’s madness but it’s a shame that he lost it somewhere along the way.

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10 Responses to Infinite Jest Will Set You Free….But Not Until It’s Finished With You

  1. Rob Charlton says:

    Coupla things that came to mind reading this:

    Infinite Jest is my favourite book – but I’m very aware that just because something fits into my particular tastes and prejudices, that doesn’t make it genius (though I always think IJ is genius, obvs).

    I always like to think that the brilliant comic thriller promised by the premise is the stuff that must have happened in between the end of the book and the one year later style first chapter – like IJ is a novel set in the space around the actual story.

    The other big thing I think it’s about (apart from tennis & addiction) is the tension between the desirability of openness & authenticity and the fear that these things make us repellant and awful (which is why I really like the structure where DFW seems to keep trying to tell the story but, despite brushing up against and recoiling from earnestness multiple times, ultimately fails to do so – so yes, incredibly self indulgent to make his own struggle to be open and honest one of the back bones of the thing).

    Or that’s what it’s about to me at least.

    I’ve really enjoyed your project – because I know the book quite well, I usually knew what you were talking about & I think it’s really interesting to see someone else’s processing and interpreting of a big novel as they read it: it’s something you don’t usually get to see.

    I might steal your idea for reading Gravity’s Rainbow (but probly not as I am super lazy).

    Thanks for the hat tip.

    • Brandon says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the book. I would encourage you to do something similar with Gravity’s Rainbow. What made writing about Infinite Jest on Twitter an unexpected pleasure was to discover other people were also running into the same probs with the narrative and we exchanged info along the way. The group effort aspect made getting to the end a lot less of a pain.

  2. Salvar says:

    My take on the whole thing is that he wrote a book as a piece of art, not as a story. The crazy digressions and time skips in the narrative took skill to execute, and probably a hell of a lot of planning. Setting the ending outside of the frame of the book was an interesting technique, and offers essayistic critics a ripe subject for theorizing about the nature of storytelling in novels. Expressing every character’s every thought was a commentary on what it means to tell a story, and on all the little stories we leave out in our focus on a single coherent “plot”. It was 100% deliberate, and 101% self-aware. Too much so. The whole way through, once I realized what he was doing, I just felt like I was reading the words “You are reading a terribly clever book.” over and over again. I don’t want to stare at a book all day–I want the book to get out of the way, and let me be immersed in the *story*.

    • Brandon says:

      There was a certain level of smugness to the book, definitely. I also got that sense of “you are reading a terribly clever book” but I appreciated Wallace’s efforts to acknowledge it and apologize for it. It served as a sort of “bear with me here…”

  3. Reading Infinite Jest was my roller-coaster ride. (I can’t do actual roller-coasters on account of acute motion sickness.) I went with the ride, going oooh and aaah and holding my head in my hands in despair and revelling in the language and being glad DFW was not my son. (Being of an age where he could have been.) I surfed on its waves and troughs. I don’t care whether it’s brilliant or rubblish or self-conscious or coherent or any of those things, I had a wonderful wallow in it and still think about bits of it a lot, weeks after I finished it. I finished it before iInfinite_winter but enjoyed the posts and kept following to his end.

    I just got word that the paperback of The Pale King has arrived at my local independent bookstore, so here I go again. In the meantime there’s been Jenny Erpenbeck (thoroughly recommend and her books are more or less novellas, ie SHORT)

    • Brandon says:

      Thanks for keeping up with the tweets and good luck with The Pale King. I’ve thought about giving that one a go but the premise just isn’t very appealing to me. I spent a number of years trapped in a mind-numbing cubicle job. Reading Wallace dissect that environment might only further increase my flashbacks.

  4. Ghosty says:

    Read this:

    Then think about how much of a lazy reader this review shows you may have been…

    • Brandon says:

      Devoting three months to the book, reading a startlingly amount of background material about Wallace and Infinite Jest and cobbling together 828 tweets about it is hardly what I would call lazy reading, Ghosty. I followed the link you’ve provided here, if only to prove to myself that there was nothing there that my Twitter colleagues and I didn’t figure out. Sure enough, my suspicions were correct. Ultimately, the only mystery that I wasn’t able to solve was whether or not Hal ingested the DMZ and if it caused his mental breakdown. The author of that post couldn’t figure that one out either.I think Hal’s impossibly screwed-up family, autistic-like knack for vocab and withdrawal from marijuana were more than enough to cause him to snap.

  5. I enjoyed your review. I haven’t read Infinite Jest. I’m reading Hopscotch now, which is very challenging and engaging. I watched an interview with David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose and I liked what he had to say about his favorite films. He definitely seemed like a tortured intense individual. Maybe I’ll give Infinite Jest a try. Thanks

    • Brandon says:

      It’s a challenge but I think you’d dig it. If you go for it, just be sure to use 3 bookmarks and give the book until page 200 to win you over. Those are the standard precautions to employ when entering this weird world.

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