Not To Be Trusted With Knives

{July 5, 2008}   Unending Jest Finally Ends

I never thought I’d live to see this day. But I have, in fact, finished Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. A book that I started A YEAR AGO. I mean, it’s not like I was reading it non-stop – I read a few other books during the past year and during the time that I was teaching, I spent all my reading time with textbooks, not novels – but still. And it’s not like I didn’t enjoy reading it – I really, really did. But it was so very, very long1. And the print was very, very small. And many of the words were very, very big. And thus, it seemed like the book that would never end, explaining why my blog is #1 when you search Google for “Unending Jest.”

Infinite Jest is a very hard book to explain. Wikipedia lists it as being in the genre of hysterical realism, and the Howling Fantods2 describes it thusly:

… the story of this addictive entertainment, and in particular how it affects a Boston halfway house for recovering addicts and a nearby tennis academy, whose students have many budding addictions of their own. as the novel unfolds, various individuals, organisations [sic], and governments vie to obtain the master copy of Infinite Jest for their own ends, and the denizens of the tennis school and halfway house are caught up in increasingly desperate efforts to control the movie -as is a cast including burglars, transvestite muggers, scam artists, medical professionals, pro football stars, bookies, drug addicts both active and recovering, film students, political assassins, and one of the most edearingly [sic] messed-up families ever captured in a novel.

If pressed to describe it, I’d say it’s a novel, set in a dystopic future, about addiction, tennis, entertainment, and Quebec separatism. Also, the book is not written in chronological order and, to further complicate things, years are subsidized by, and named after, products rather than being numbered3, and you don’t find out until page 223 what order the years come in. Also, there are a ridiculous number of endnotes5, meaning that on top of the sections being all out of order, you are also jumping back and forth to and from the endnote section of the book, which comprises 97 of the 1079 pages in the book.

Given all that, this seems like the type of book I’m going to have to read again4. And I think that is part of the point of this book. Many of the characters are dealing with addictions of some sort and the main plot revolves around this movie, called Infinite Jest, that is so addictive that anyone who sees it becomes instantly and irrevocably addicted to it, ceasing to want to do anything but watch the movie over and over again, to the point of death6. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say to say that the book is literally addictive, I’d say that one is compelled to continue reading it. And to want to read it again7 as (a) there are still many questions left unanswered when you finish the book, and (b) things early in the book will probably make a lot more sense the second time through, once you know the whole story.

All in all, I totally recommend the book, but be forewarned that it will require a significant investment of time, effort and looking up words in the dictionary. And now I leave you with the words of DFW himself, in an interview about IJ:

The sadness that the book is about, and that I was going through, was a real American type of sadness. I was white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated, had had way more career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and was sort of adrift. A lot of my friends were the same way. Some of them were deeply into drugs, others were unbelievable workaholics. Some were going to singles bars every night. You could see it played out in 20 different ways, but it’s the same thing. […]

Some of my friends got into AA. I didn’t start out wanting to write a lot of AA stuff, but I knew I wanted to do drug addicts and I knew I wanted to have a halfway house. I went to a couple of meetings with these guys and thought that it was tremendously powerful. That part of the book is supposed to be living enough to be realistic, but it’s also supposed to stand for a response to lostness and what you do when the things you thought were going to make you OK, don’t. The bottoming out with drugs and the AA response to that was the starkest thing that I could find to talk about that.

I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably the AA model isn’t the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be one of the more vigorous. [Source: DFW Interview, on]

11079 pages, to be exact.
2Which appears to be a DFWa fansite, although they don’t have an “About” page to give me their backstory.
aDavid Foster Wallace.
3So, instead of it being 2008 right now, it would be the “Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland.”
4Although not for a while, as I really need to read some of these other books first!
5In fact, the friend who recommended this book to me assumed I was a big DFW fan because I use so many footnotes on my blog. As it turns out, I’d never read any DFW before and just use a lot of footnotes out of my own pure genius.
6One of the defining characteristics of addiction is the compulsion to continue to use your substance despite catastrophic consequences. I think ceasing to eat or drink and being willing to cut off your own fingers to get to watch the movie again qualifies.
7and probably again.


Kalev says:

Nothing about the book as described above interested me at all until the bit the author himself mentioned. (Well okay, maybe the super-addictiveness of the movie in the book sounded somewhat interesting.) But still not enough to make me invest the time.

[…] – well, insisted really – that I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  The book that took me a year to get through.  Not only because of its enormous length, but because of how intense and emotional it was.  Not […]

[…] Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace […]

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