"What Wallace wanted to share most was a way out. But he would start with his readers, in the middle. The maze of contemporary thinking would have to be dismantled from within."
That quote came from an essay discussing Wallace's legacy as a writer, but it is particularly pertinent in the case of Infinite Jest. Its 1,079 pages represent just such a maze of contemporary thinking, a phalanx of ideas that its protagonists stumble through in search of that elusive way out.
The novel’s girth perhaps unfairly detracts from the contents therein (one critic famously reviewed the novel by refusing to read the book at all). There’s a lot going on between the book’s covers: some sections are hard work; there are moments of self-consciousness and self-indulgence; and there will be several points where the reader will wearily slam it shut and try to calculate how many man hours the remaining pages will consume.
Yes, yes, yes, but is it worth it? The verbose, drawn-out sentences? The 97 pages of Endnotes? The hand cramp and eyestrain and papercuts? One answer is yes – I read it and enjoyed it, and so I am wont to espouse its virtues. Another answer is maybe – it depends on whether the reader has the patience to decode the whys and wherefores.
The last option, no, would be a misguided choice. There is much method to the madness, and the flaws can be explained. Infinite Jest is a novel that you catch with her legs akimbo, receiving another man groin-first; and yet when she screams ‘I can explain!’ you believe her, but only when you listen to what she has to say. And Infinite Jest has a lot to say.
"In a time of unprecedented comfort and pleasure and ease,” wrote Wallace at the time of the book's release, “there was a real sort of sadness about the country. I wanted to do something about it, about America and what our children might think of us.” What they might think is that the world of this novel was one of addiction: to drugs, alcohol, entertainment, fame, sports – all of which are explored via a sprawling cast list.
Stylistically, Wallace seamlessly interweaves the highfalutin with the low-brow, emerging with a heaving, hyperlexical labyrinth pulsing with ideas. That is exactly how it should be. The intimidating size is indicative of the abundance of choices that need to be made daily in the ever-more commercially-driven society of the novel. The seam of accessible pop culture is the velvet glove that warms the iron fist of high-concept philosophy and existentialism.
The constant rummaging through footnotes explaining the names of obscure drugs is perfectly in keeping with the chemical-addled minds of the Ennet House addicts. Wallace’s intention for the endnotes was to disrupt the linearity of the story, reflecting the lives of the characters, and it works like a charm, though an infuriating one that necessitates the use of at least two bookmarks.
The first 100 pages or so rattle past at pace, as we begin at the end. Wallace plays a beautiful trick here, as many people are left cold by the flat, anti-climactic ending. To think that is to miss the point somewhat. There is an ending, albeit one that requires an element of interpretation and strand-gathering from the reader – it just comes at the start, if you like. In a bookmark I explain the significance of the Sierpinski Triangle (p.213), a structure of triangles-within-triangles, which Wallace uses as the basis for the novel’s structure. If you were to magnify such a triangle, it would replicate endlessly. In a similar style, Infinite Jest is constructed of a number of shifting narratives so that wherever you begin reading in the loop, it will still repeat itself.
Hal is the protagonist, and his introduction is instantly engaging and curious. On the cusp of graduating from the Enfield Tennis Academy, he is interviewing for a position at the University of Arizona with three nameless men. His uncle and tennis coach do the talking for him while he sits there, unmoved, unspeaking. They are sent out of the room to encourage Hal to speak: "I am not just a boy who plays tennis. I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I'm complex. I read. I study and read. I bet I've read everything you've read. Don't think I haven't. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, 'The library, and step on it.'" This is followed by a seizure, for which the specifics and cause are not immediately clear.
The freewheeling linguistic confidence of Hal is the perfect conduit through which the naturally prolix Wallace can express himself, but there is also a rich texture to the language. He calls upon many dialects – street slang, psychobabble, high-tech jargon – and gives them voice to create a well-observed tapestry of contemporary language. This patchwork has the same effect as setting an iPod to shuffle and hearing hip-hop and jazz and classical music, with constantly changing rhythms and vocabularies.
The post-modern tricks and the diverse language are tools used to re-tell a story that should be accessible to anyone – a search for identity and meaning. This is the thing that binds every character in Infinite Jest. People are variously searching for meaning in its many guises: sobriety, clarity of mind, fame, love, success, death, life. They are all looking for their way out.
Dave Eggers, in the foreword to the 2009 edition, says that reading this book will make you a better person. It's hard to disagree with that. At the very least, you will learn some new words and develop slightly stronger forearms. But if you truly immerse yourself in Infinite Jest, you will learn about things you barely knew existed and gain a better understanding of things you did. Important things. And it might just make you a better person.
Newsday: 'An exhilarating, breathtaking experience [...] rarely does one read such audaciously inventive prose [...] something unmistakably,brilliantly new [...] Wallace lets loose with a triumphant,high-energy linguistic rush worthy of a Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo'
New York Times: '[Wallace is] one of the big talents of his generation, a writer of virtuosic skills who can seemingly do anything, someone who can write funny, write sad, write serious, write satiric'
Esquire: 'Massive, unflagging, ingenious, an eccentric portrait of America in decline, a study in addiction, a raucous comedy of manners and mania"
Independent on Sunday: 'The most relevant portrayal of American culture to appear in recent years, Infinite Jest is fascinating, ridiculous and excruciating, and a stimulating injection into contemporary American culture'
The Times: 'Wallace's prose, ebullient and complex, transmits at once the vitality and absurd decadence of his culture...as an assessment of America, the novel is both powerful and troubling'
Sunday Times: 'One of the best books about addiction and recovery to appear in recent memory...a dystopian fantasy of the near future, a meditation about avant-garde cinema, a burlesque of North American politics and a critique of sports culture...positively sings with lyrical insight and wry humour'
Observer: 'Funny, smart and perceptively written'
Jeffrey Eugenides: Infinite Jest seems to fulfil every promise that David Foster Wallace displayed in his precocious and stunning The Broom of the System. If you want to know who's upholding the high comic tradition - passed down from Sterne to Swift to Pynchon - it's Wallace'
Infinite Summer – In Summer 2009, a group of readers spanning the globe gathered to read Infinite Jest, forming one of the largest book clubs ever formed.
Infinite Jest – Reviews, articles and miscellany
Infinite Jest sound project – A musician has compiled a soundtrack inspired by the novel.