Infinite Jest: Brilliant and Hilarious, Tedious and Self-Indulgent. Five Stars

Finishing reading books stops feeling like an accomplishment sometime in your early twenties but there are exceptions. Infinite Jest is a project book. According to the foreword, David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest in three years. I clipped that by about four months. I read an opening chunk on Christmas morning 2013, as I.J. was a requested gift from my mom.(1) I chugged through the last three hundred pages while on a long train trip.

Great books teach you how to read them. Early on I.J. taught me it wasn’t going anywhere, so I didn’t rush. I read other books and picked at it. What I found is that everything about it was dense, too dense at times, but when he was onto an idea that connected, you loved that he got everything out of it, so you can’t read a book like that and wish the claustrophobic portions not to your interest were edited out.(2) It isn’t so much that I.J. is good, then it wouldn’t be tedious, it’s that bits of it are so good, you know you’ll read it again even though portions of it are tedious. It’s called Infinite Jest because it takes so long to read that by the time you finish, you’re ready for a reread because you want to experience again the great parts, and on and on.(3) My favorite parts include the guy who describes the chill dusk,(4) the long bit about how being on the phone is this weird yet firm conviction that even while your attention is shared with ten other things while talking you’re convinced the person on the other side of the line is doing nothing but paying full attention to what you’re saying, and the five pages of Thats.(5) An interesting mark of the kind of book it is is that while portions of the main text feel tedious, some comic gold is to be found in the end notes. There are about 100 pages of end notes and for the most part the longer end notes were especially good. Fiction with end notes? I know, I know.(6)

Most memorable are the profound insights sprinkled in of characters suffering from depression and suicidal thinking, all the more potent given the author’s suicide.(7) Hard not to speculate that he might have drawn from his own experiences when he describes through a character the two forms depression takes: one where joy in life is utterly elusive, sufferers who rarely commit suicide, and the other group who are driven by acute emotional pain to end their lives, who do act on their suicidal thoughts. The analogy in the book is that people don’t jump from buildings to die, they jump from buildings to escape from the fire the building they’re in is engulfed in and then die.

I’m way late onto the D.F.W. bus. I caught wind of him, years ago, but got the impression that he wrote to impress, a common criticism of him, which isn’t exactly unwarranted. I finally decided to check him out after reading an essay by Jonathan Franzen discussing his friend’s death. I got Brief Interviews with Hideous Men out of the library on audio, read by the author. The first story seemed to confirm the bias I had of him. As I recall it was a long heavily descriptive story about a guy in a lawn chair and nothing else happened. The second was a heavily descriptive story, “Forever Overhead,” about a boy jumping off the high dive at a pool on his birthday and nothing else happened and that story instantly became and remains my favorite short story. I felt, after reading that story, that D.F.W. is a writer who covers territory with a certain obsessive compulsive style but he demonstrated, to me, with “Forever Overhead” that he’s capable of perfectly ordering words with absolute sincerity.(8) Once I knew that, I was able to feel like portions of his books weren’t tedious and self-indulgent but just that those portions didn’t speak to me and if I held out and kept reading other portions would in a profound way. I approached I.J. with that in mind and was able to appreciate it and even love it.

End Notes

(1) I.J. would have been an expensive library book.

(2) Of course you can; what I’m really suggesting is that you don’t.

(3) I’ve waited two and a half years to make that joke.

(4) He doesn’t actually use the phrase “chill dusk.”

(5) The Thats are exotic facts you’ll acquire if you spend time at Ennett House, a Substance-recovery halfway facility that features in the book, one of my favorites was “That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.”

(6) Who reads end notes?

(7) David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. He had recently stopped taking medication he’d been on for most of his life to control his severe depression. According to author friend Jonathan Franzen for a variety of reasons, one a worry the meds were stifling his creativity but another one was worry over the long term effects of the level of medication he was on, which was advisement straight from his doctor.

(8) Anyone who reads this blog regularly might recall an older entry about “Forever Overhead,” which can be found here: Within that blog is a link to the youtube video of D.F.W. reading the story, which I recommend as a wonderful way to spend around fifteen minutes.


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