Read: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace


After 981 pages, 388 footnotes, and almost 2 years of on-again-off-again reading, I have finished David Foster Wallace most famous work, Infinite Jest. That’s another off the Times’ Best Books of All-Time, but that list will have to wait for my 2014 reading, if I get through, finally, my bookshelf this year.

Hard to believe that a little over a year ago I was on page 84. For some reason, I thought I had been much further along then. That means just shy of 900 pages over the past year, for DFW alone. There’s commitment to a writer, and a novel for you! Throughout 2013, I noted at the bottom of each completed book review my progress of Infinite Jest, which I finally stopped since my bookmark had gotten stuck. At the beginning of this year, a Tweet with my first blog post claimed that I would finish the book this year, and my friend who had read the novel encouraged me again to persevere. I’m glad I did.

Infinite Jest reads like a 5000-piece puzzle. Starting out, it seems like a jumble of dates and years, characters, and situations that don’t fit together at all. Then a couple of pieces snap in place, perhaps even link up to someone or something already introduced, but then more seemingly random pieces crop up. However, like a puzzle, if you work at it long enough, patterns and sections emerge and fill-in. Not always neatly but a picture begins to take shape, or rather several pictures. The puzzle analog fit perfectly because DFW writes with such specificity and depth that the passages feel like mosaic puzzle pieces that make up a field of flowers or intricate rug detailing as part of the larger work. At the end, almost everything connects and converges to form the novel, though I feel there are still gaps missing–whether that’s from my 2 meandering years it took to read this, or if it’s part of DFW’s choice, I’ll will need time and outside resources to help figure out.

Online resources to supplement the reading help keep track of characters (via Way Back Machine), summarize scene by scene, and give tips for those just starting out on this epic undertaking. There’s even an Infinite Jest wiki, complete with page-by-page annotations and many external links for tangential reading. And an infographic diagraming all of the characters and their connections. In digging up these links, I’ve gotten lost in the sea of websites and reviews, commentary and derivative works that Infinite Jest inspired. However, one final one is worth sharing, a portion of an interview with David Foster Wallace (3 minutes).

My advice? Though the scene-by-scene would have helped sometimes, I read the novel without any outside resources. I like staying true to the experience the author set forth. That said, use two bookmarks–one to keep your place and the other for the footnotes at the back. Seriously, read every and all footnotes–the longest are usually the most fruitful and relevant to current action, even if it is just backstory filling in; many contain a nugget of fact or insight that help illuminate a passage. Also, if you’ve clicked the tip links above or have heard about page 223–it’s nothing mythical, just a list of all the named years in order, which Wikipedia provides in their article even, and whether you read it ahead of time, you’ll still be confused. I believe that DFW wants the reader to be bombarded, overwhelmed, and usually confused. The point is to interrupt the linear reading of the novel, be it through frequent scene and character changes or forcing the reader to crucial footnotes time and again at the back of the book. (He must be a fan of Italo Calvino, though it’s not pointing out to the reader that you are reading what I am typing right this very second, but rather just breaking up the flow of the story for the reader.)

To this point, I have yet to describe what the book is about. Simply, it’s about a tennis academy/boarding school, and addicts living in a halfway house. The story focuses on Hal Incandenza and his family, who run the academy, as well as a few key addicts staying clean and attending AA/NA… meetings. The novel’s world, though, is very populated and expansive, hard to pin down without diluting the robustness. Complexly, it’s about mortality, need, drive, family, loneliness, addiction, motivation, and living. Death plays a part of the book, with a few suicides included, and one particular portion that dwells and steeps in reasons of suicide that was eerily chilling for me, perhaps because it rings as truth, such candid comments; while written a decade before committing suicide himself, this is not likely an indication of where he was personally during writing this, but rather as he touches on in the video clip I linked to above, DFW explains that the desire to write this story came from a few of his friends committing suicide and his grappling with why. Time and again, like many of my favorite writers, he packages a sentiment into a sentence that gives me pause as I am forced to marvel at its craft and beauty, sometimes a haunting beauty. It’s as if human experience, in those passages, truly is universal, a share pot of feelings and moments, that if given the right words make sense to anyone who reads them. Transcendental. However, before I get too carried away, there are many gritty and tough portions of the novel to get through–bad trip, brutal fight or robbery, even a sadistic porn segment. Sadness and struggle rule much of the novel. Infinite Jest is certainly an adult novel, especially with it’s occasionally hard-to-read format (that even my precocious pre-teen/teenage self would have been turned off my anyway).

After this review, are you intrigued? Turned off? Confused further? This is not a book that I would recommend lightly, mainly because if you aren’t in the least bit interested or curious by now then it’s going to be a frustrating undertaking that wouldn’t be worth it. Why the Times put it on their list is a mystery to me–sure it breaks the mold for reading linearly (but surely this isn’t the first?)–but aren’t those lists usually readable books that everyone can aspire to read and enjoy?

Recommended?: Only for those who want to take on the challenge of this literary feat, are a fan of DFW or want to know why he gets so much praise for Infinite Jest and his style, feel their literature muscles and vocab need a rugged workout, or yearn for a critique about technology, entertainment, and American culture that is decades advanced for its time (written in 1996, DFW waxes on about videochat and the ramifications–i.e. what my iPhone does with FaceTime and Skype in 2013!).

P.S. My head is still buzzing from the story. I feel like I need an English lit lecture to help dissect and digest it, or an in-depth analysis paper assignment complete with research. Perhaps I’ll pick up one of the published supplement books that someone has written as a response. Later in the year, of course.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace


6 responses »

      • Unlike my previous reply, 20 pages in is a difference from 300. Sounds like you have it a try and it didn’t speak to you. Fair enough. At least you’ve had a taste of what DFW is like and can do. Have you read other works of his? He has another novel, short story collections, and non-fiction too.

      • I have not read anything else by him. I think I assumed his other works would be too similar and therefore not really my style. What are his short stories like?

    • Infinite Jest requires perseverance, a grit-and-bear it through some passages until ones come along that have more flow. If you made it that far, keep going. It really fills in nicely. Let me know if you do!

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