Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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Don’t mind if I do!

This post will be almost as long as the book itself.

ABOUT THE BOOK:

“Set in an addicts’ halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction,Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are.

Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human—and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.”

This does not do this novel justice in any way whatsoever.

  • The plot jumps around a bit, not just in time, but from character to character, most of whom aren’t directly relevant.
  • The style is…well to quote George Saunders: “When I’m explaining something to you, if I’m being long-winded, and twisty in a non-productive way, I could make you feel vaguely insulted. And you’d have a right to be.”
  • The content is mostly hysterical, sometimes borderline depressing emotionally.

MY JOURNEY TO BECOMING A DFW FANATIC (SKIP DOWN to “the post” IF PERSONAL STORIES BORE YOU):

I’ve read his Rolling Stone articles or heard his This is Water commencement speech. The average book reader has heard of Infinite Jest, but most don’t own it. Or if they do, haven’t read it, opting instead to use it as an impressive bookshelf accessory or maybe a doorstop, that thing is so heavy.

I became a DFW fan by accident. During my time at college it was actually kind of cool not to like him. He’d been canonized by reviewers & his death sort of cemented this in a way where not being a fan was considered even more hipster than being a fan. I never really had an opinion either way. One day I was semester book shopping at the Strand where we’d get discounts because our professor often gave reading talks there. They were having a big sale on Infinite Jest. All the paperback copies lined the display like a giant sky with bold, lime green skywriting. I figured, why not? I’ll probably never read it, but maybe one of these days I’d be a doer instead of procrastinating. So I bought one, along with a roll up water bottle & God knows how many penguin classics for my classes.

I didn’t quite believe that I was the type of person who would have the patience for this thing. I wasn’t confident about my ability to sit there & look up words I didn’t know. I preferred fantasies or escapist fiction during the summer when I hardly had the drive to keep up with my reading already because I’d rather be out with friends. Online sites advised reading some of his other shorter stuff first to see if you liked his style. I tried that, but I don’t agree. Infinite Jest is it’s own breed & his short stories, while intensely similar, don’t match the vibe of the book entirely.

Eventually I just pulled it off my shelf late at night & thought, I’ll just read the intro.  Dave Egger’s intro was simple, if not a little ironic given his previous comments on the novel. It got me excited, but it was also a little intimidating. Was this thing really that great? Was it going to change the very way I view life & humanity? I became curious. The first chapter wasn’t bad. I somehow thought it would be so obscure that there would be no story or plot, but there was a clear story. It was actually kind of funny in a comical, cartoony sort of way. The plot was even a little mysterious, what happened to our main character, Hal? Why was he like this? I felt hooked already.

During the next few chapters I started to realize why people gave up. There were really interesting parts, but there were also ridiculously boring bits that seemed to hold no relevance whatsoever. Or characters that you had little interest in. Or a writing style that you had to read word by word in order to properly understand the unique voice or spelling. It was a little like life. Dealing with different people, different situations, some you care about more than others, some sad, some funny.

I was told by page 300 you’re supposed to be really invested, but I was still hesitant. I’d been pretty good at reading a bit each day so far, but I knew my track record with large novels. I tend to need a break from them about halfway through to read something else. I was worried I’d lose interest, or drive. The constant footnote flipping was discouraging because when you spent a day or two reading a footnote, your page count didn’t change. I normally feed off that progress. But I stuck with it.

But then I fell in love with it! I had favorite characters & favorite scenes & flew through the rest of the book in less than a few weeks. When it was over I experienced the same reaction as many. That’s it?! I immediately wanted to reread it though. I even signed up for an Aspects of Fiction class for next semester at my college that explored only DFW’s fiction writing.

I googled the shit out of DFW. Watched videos of him, read his articles, articles about him, bought a few more of his books. He’s the type of author whose work is so intertwined with his life that reading about him was an extension of reading Infinite Jest. He was intelligent, but he cared about people. I felt personally affected by his death. Like he had the ability to come back as a ghost & see each of his readers or possibly haunt them.

Infinite Jest is still my favorite thing I’ve ever read by him. I haven’t read everything he’s written yet though, but I’m pretty confident it’ll remain my favorite. There’s something YA about it. Something sort of fangirl-ish. Or I guess fanboy-ish since the majority of its fans tend to be male. Probably because of the content, a very bromance, boys boarding school type vibe in certain scenes.

My goal of this post is not to say that reading Infinite Jest will make you a better person. It won’t make you more intelligent. It might even make you feel lonely. There was a day where despite the perfect sunshine & being surrounded by friends, I couldn’t get the book off my mind & I honestly felt something close to depression. It might increase your patience a little. It might take away several hours from each day that you could’ve used to do something a lot more productive. But if you’re a reader & you have any interest at all in reading it, do it. I’m urging you to just pick it up & finally read it. It’s nowhere near as hard as people make it out to be. It’s nowhere near as boring as people make it sound. It’s just another book, that happens to be a little longer. It’s not a “hard” book at all. It’s just a long book. But it’s a long book that’s worth it. The world needs more Infinite Jest fans. I need more people to talk about this book with. This book deserves more than widespread popularity, it deserves widespread readership.

THe POST:

I’m adding this post to encourage others to read this post-modern, weird, big book. It’ll include links, advice, & a friendly venue to chat with others about your experience while reading or after you’ve read. I think I’ll also include some fun links & videos or graphics because what’s the point of nerding out about this stuff without GIFs? I’ll probably do another for House of Leaves once I finish it.

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SO YOU WANT TO START READING INFINITE JEST: HOW TO GUIDE

Maybe you’re the type of no bull shit person who just picks up a book & god damn reads it. It’s a book for godsakes. It doesn’t need instructions.

In which case I wish I were more like you.

But maybe you’re like me & big books intimidate you. Maybe it’s a time consuming thing or a confidence thing, but for whatever reason, you feel like you need preparation before starting a big book. You need a guide! You need information! What are you getting into?! How do you get the best experience possible out of this? We are the types of people who research every aspect of a book or venue or destination before diving in because we want to be prepared & we want things to run smoothly. & that’s okay!

I’m adding this section because I’ve had a lot of people ask me how to best go about reading some of the big books I’ve read. Some of them are pretty straight forward. For Anna Karenina, I suggest you do just what I stated earlier & just pick it up & read it. For books like the Iliad & the Odyssey I suggest reading them for a class. But for Infinite Jest, online guides actually help. There are many out there & mine will not be the best, but it will illustrate the exact way I went about reading it. So if you want to replicate my entire experience, read on. If not, then go check out some of the guides listed below.

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MY GUIDE:

Step one: Buy Infinite Jest! Get the paperback because it’s cheaper & you don’t feel as bad about cracking it’s spine & completely destroying it from repeated use. The wear & tear is ridiculous. Your dog will bite a quarter of the cover off. You will do much margin scribbling (such as writing “OSH” every other page to indicate when “Oedipal Shit is Happening” for a paper you’re going to write for your Aspects of Fiction class). You’ll also spill half a coffee between pages 500 & 700. This thing is going to get wrecked. If you somehow read Infinite Jest & manage to keep your copy pristine looking, you are probably a much less obsessive person than I am, & read this book like a levelheaded adult with some appreciation. If you read this book on a kindle, you are probably insane & not at all human. I admire you. I am not you. How the hell did you do that?

Step two: Ponder whether to read it or not. This step comes after step one, because even though you now own it, you still can’t bring yourself to read it. Now is the time for you to go online & search every short story DFW has ever written. You liked Consider the Lobster. You feel semi ready. You start the intro. It’s awful because it way overhypes the book & you think Dave Eggers seems a little jealous, but it gets you excited anyway. You’re probably ready. Right? Sure.

Step three: But wait no you’re not because you read somewhere you need multiple bookmarks. Who the hell spends money on bookmarks? Use old expired metrocards & a folded receipt instead. Place one on the “timeline page” (page 223), one at the start of the footnotes, & one to mark your place as you read. Yes you need to read the footnotes, that’s the one thing everybody agrees on, it must be pretty damn important or something.

Step four: Debate on buying a guidebook like Elegant Complexity by Greg Carlisle. Decide that that’s bullshit & don’t buy it. Then three months later when you’ve finished & are dying for more Infinite Jest, buy it & decide it’s actually not all crap. Instead use an online guide like this wiki page. Also do your best to avoid spoilers.

Step five: Fail at forgetting about DFW as a person. A lot of guides tell you to forget his death, but you need to forget about him as an author as well. Because what the hell, how is anybody this awesome? Become envious of his awesomeness & admire his dedication. & try really hard not to think about his suicide or his life as a tennis star wannabe, then give up because it’s a part of life & it’s a part of this story & just accept that the author will never be fully separate from his work & move on.

Step six: Start during the beginning of the summer when you’re not bogged with classwork (unless you’re an actual adult with an actual job like I am now. In that case reminisce about how you used to have summers off. Remember that? Ahh, so blissful). Read it at home because it’s heavy. Read a little every day. Even if it’s just a few pages. Realize that if you keep up this habit, it’s a lot easier than trying to handle huge chunks in intense binge sessions, at least for you. Become discourage by the footnotes because they make you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. Then realize the footnotes are actually really interesting & funny.

Step seven: Hate this book. Get bored with the side characters. Get annoyed with Poor Tony’s annoying way of talking. Get existential. What is the point of reading this anyway? What are you even trying to prove to yourself? What’s the point of reading fiction in general? Or reading at all? What is art? What is life? Stare into space. Go back to reading.

Step eight: Love this book. Become obsessed. Realize that Hal & Orin’s phone conversations are some of the funniest dialogue you’ve ever read in your life. Feel like you’re watching some type of weird social sci-fi cartoon. Give up on researching every single word you don’t know. Stop using the online wiki page. Give up on only reading it at home. Take it everywhere.

Step nine: Finish the book. Become outraged. What the hell?! How could it end this way!? Immediately reread the beginning. Oh wait! It makes sense. Check online. Become obsessed with online theories & reread every section of the book mentioned. Realize you’re now an obsessive weirdo. Search Infinite Jest on Google, Tumblr, Pinterest, & YouTube. Buy DFW’s other books.

Step ten: Talk about it with others! Realize your friends would never read this thing, so you’ll be forced to talk in online forums, something you never do. Sign up for a class dedicated to reading it.

LINKS!

Helpful Stuff:

Somebody else’s How To Guide

Yet another How To Guide

One last How To Guide

Infinite Jest Wikipedia!

Infinite Jest Scene by Scene Guide

If you want to read IJ chronologically ←This site also has a ton of other fun IJ related content

Somebody’s theory of what happens at the end (SPOILERS OBVIOUSLY), I recommend looking at forums instead because it’s more fun to hear a bit of debate

Fun Stuff:

Buzzfeed Gives you 1088 Reasons to Read IJ! (or twenty reasons)

If you’re still not convinced you can always pretend you’ve read it with this guide

Maybe you want to see IJ built out of legos

Do you like Mental Floss? Who doesn’t? 

There are tons of cool photos like this one

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But I’m going to be posting more & more daily to my Pinboard! Which is filled with fun quotes & infographics

Parks & Rec is a big IJ supporter if you don’t have enough reasons yet to love this book

Here’s why this book will kill your book club & is best read on your own time:

& finally (for now), here is The Decemberists video of The Calamity Song which relates to the ESCHATON scene.

MERCH (FOR AFTER YOU BECOME OBSESSED):

Zazzle

CafePress

Redbubble

BookRiot’s List

PoorYorickEntertainment

If you’ve read Infinite Jest please comment! I can’t stress this enough. I’m dying to talk to fellow bloggers who have read it. It’s been a year since I first finished Infinite Jest, but I’ve read it in full about three times now, it’s a lot more interesting when you’re reading it along with others & it has become my ideal discussion topic.

For those of you who haven’t read it, but want to, please do. I’m planning on doing a big similar post like this once I finish House of Leaves. Let me know if you have any suggestions! 🙂

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8 thoughts on “Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

  1. Don’t bookmark p. 223 until you get to it! Hey, you yourself said to avoid spoilers, right? It doesn’t appear before then for a reason. You’ll know what’s going on just by realizing that different years obviously have different names, and there are enough clues to get all the sense of a timeline you need as well, such as Hal’s telling a professional conversationalist that he’ll be eleven in June, while his father thought he was fourteen, and in fact he’s only ten. You’ll certainly learn to pay attention. Knowing the specificity of the timeline before it’s revealed only leads to trying to perceive everything being read into a chronological plot, which it is not, and would not only be detrimental to understanding what’s really being described, but would undoubtedly end in uncontrollable and dismissive rage & befuddlement.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s definitely a great way to go about it! It adds to the fun of figuring it out. That’s why I don’t recommend reading it chronologically the first time around. I bookmarked the page because I was able to envision certain scenes as flashforwards & flashbacks, a feature I love in most literature. I definitely wouldn’t say it changed my understanding of what’s being described, I think that just comes with being an attentive, close reader. It helps for some people, but I agree, it may improve your experience to wait till you reach it!

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      • I’d totally bookmarked it also, and read a little bit about it before starting too, but I kind of think I wish I hadn’t done either because it did create expectations based on what other people thought before I even had a chance to think about it myself. I suppose there’s really no way to avoid that though!
        Being an attentive, close reader (as you obviously are) is certainly enough to understand WHAT’s being described, but a plot advancing or time based perspective (caused by knowing that there is a looming chronology to be followed) could possibly obscure the WHY it’s being described. I admit I was tormented for hundreds of pages after reading the ten pages of Ken Erdedy’s excruciating wait for the woman who said she’d come, desperately needing to find out how on Earth he became like that in the first place and of course what he was going to do when it ended, i.e. the before and the after, basically missing the relevant point that he’d simply been left in a state of paralyzing stasis, unable to make a decision. Does that make sense?
        I also admit I read through the whole Interdependence Day goings on at ETA too quickly at first because it all seemed very obtuse at the time, with little relevance to a plot that was becoming quite engrossing. Oops. I went back sooner than later after discovering that there were way too many details hidden in there that couldn’t be more important. In hindsight, the Eschaton section and Mario’s movie of his puppet show of J.O.I.’s film The ONANtiad are wonderful to read, and just plain hilarious in their own right.
        I’m going through it again now with Elegant Complexity which is very helpful at illuminating the occasional things I’d missed the first time, particularly the themes that link each section of each chapter. As many people who have read it keep saying, just read it. It does need widespread readership!

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      • Erdedy actually became one of my favorites. It definitely makes sense. & yes! I didn’t bother with elegant complexity the first time, but that book is amazing in its own right. It’s a hilarious book! Definitely love when I meet others who have read it 🙂

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  2. Well I haven’t read Infinite Jest yet so, sadly, we can’t have book discussion yet. BUT I do want to take up the Infinite Summer challenge and plan to read this next summer, so maybe we can talk about this someday after I’ve read it. 😉 And I love how well loved your copy is, Alysyn!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I just stopped back in to see what anyone else has said about your lovely post, but they haven’t! Bah! Anyway, I’m currently considering the probability that JOI is not Hal’s actual father, just like Mario, since Hal is described as the only remotely ethnic looking Incandenza – sleek, radiantly dark, otterish, black hair, eyes blue but dark, & unburnable with untanned feet the color of weak tea, while also sharing an interest in Byzantine erotica with a certain half-Arab but Canadian by birth & residence Near Eastern medical attache, one of many whom we suspect Avil of having affairs with. What are the implications of THIS!?!? I do hope you’ve been able to get a few folks to talk about Infinite Jest with. Ask them what they think!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I know! Thank you so much for commenting. I’ll have to bring it up to somebody from my class who has read it. Besides the physical appearance & Byzantine erotica, they both seem to have a lack of libido. So do you think that both Mario & Hal aren’t JOI’s, or one or the other? I’ve always thought Mario wasn’t, but after trying to find out more about the theory that Hal isn’t, I’ve seen some people comment that perhaps then Mario is. I think if Hal isn’t it’d be particularly interesting because of all the Hamlet references & how the story centers around that father/son relationship. But I’m not entirely sold yet.

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  5. You’re welcome! Well at this point in my understanding I do think it’s both as there’s sufficient direct evidence to identify CT as Mario’s father, from the description of his own thoughts (p.341), the matching descriptions of weird hair & skin, & CT’s mom’s identical specific deformities. The indirect implications I’ve seen that Orin’s the father are just drawn from other characters projecting their own issues rather than any actual observable evidence, plus he wouldn’t have been old enough anyway. Orin actually seems to have gotten his rapacious libido from Avril, perhaps blaming her for what it’s done to both him & his father (prompting JOI’s descent into madness), then seeking an only-son’s revenge for them both? I’m not sure that inferring a lack of libido from it just not being brought up has any attributable meaning though, & the attache’s conscious suppression of “impure thoughts” could even be due to his knowing Hal was the unintentional result of them! But the specific description of Hal as practically middle eastern in contrast to the rest of his family, the detailing of the attache’s convenient access & proximity to Avril, combined with the otherwise inexplicable proclivity for a thing as obscure & specific as Byzantine erotica just can’t be written that way for coincidence, can it? No way. I only came across the idea that JOI wasn’t Hal’s father from a single unsubstantiated comment while reading through a discussion of Mario’s possible parentage. I’ve found next to no other mention of it, which blows my mind given how nakedly it’s presented & how profound the (Hamletarian) ramifications. In light of this discovery I think I’m going to have to read it again. How about you? 😉

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