Infinite Jest

Yeah, I know. I'm not sure what possessed me to write this up, really. We've had 22 years of literary reviews and irritated takes and responses and re-responses since Infinite Jest's splashdown. There's not much left unsaid, certainly nothing I can say that won't invite armchair psychoanalysis.

I started feeling the weight of all that before I was even halfway through the book. I've been reading for forty years and never seen anyone give this much of a damn about whatever book I was in the middle of. People asked me why I was reading it, a question I've never been asked before. I got eyerolls and smirks.

It became a sort of self-conscious reflex, watching for the drive-by comment or look whenever I sat down to read it in my office or at my kids' afterschool activities. I learned that Infinite Jest isn't just a book, and hasn't been for a long time now. It's become an opportunity for judgment the way Twitter and Facebook are now, a focal point for egos and frustrations and resentments and hurt.

These are the straits you may have to navigate, if you decide that you're curious enough to read it: On the left is a response spectrum that runs from LOL-hipster-affectation to what I can only term a bone-deep resentment of the book's very existence. On the right is this guy:


Oh, that guy. The world's female English-speaking population is littered with stories of ex-boyfriends who thumped down this literary doorstop and actually said "You need to read this if you want to understand me." Which, first, ladies, I'm sorry about all the bad oral sex. But good on you for leaving. Hal Incandenza is my generation's Holden Caulfield, a beautiful and tragic character who maybe never had a chance, but also a pretty good dipstick for measuring dipsticks.

And so the book is tainted by what I think of as the Boston Red Sox Effect, wherein the thing itself might well be pretty great, but enough of the fans are just so damned insufferable that few right-thinking people outside of New England would be caught dead in a cap, much less a jersey.

Those insufferables account for probably half of the hatred. The other half looks to be a simple formula: Readers will put in the work for a difficult book, and they will put in the work for a long book, but if you give them both and they don't feel like you rewarded them enough for the effort, they will hate you for it. Not just the book. You.

And Infinite Jest is long. And it ain't Finnegans Wake, but Infinite Jest is difficult. So, reading it, most of what I felt was a mix of a sometimes dogged determination, an abiding fondness for the love and pain and empathy underpinning what David Foster Wallace built, and a cringing sympathy for the cultural quagmire his biggest work has gotten schlorped down into.

Or, at least, that's where I ended up. Starting out, I was unsure if I'd finish. The first 200 pages are, frankly, kind of a slog. There's beautiful writing and well-drawn characters and wit and insight, but you're scaling a wall of text, text that often offers only outcroppings of minutiae and tedium, and you have no idea what this book even is or where it's going. Are the plot lines going to converge? What is the point of this? What the hell with the endnotes, man?

But as I read those 200 pages, I could hear Wallace encouraging me to hang in. There's a point to all this, he seemed to say. You're going to need to, as Tom Waits once said about his music, let it chase you around a few times. I hung in and read those 200 pages mostly on faith. And that's when it started to open up.

The turning point for me was a chapter that could and probably should be published as a standalone essay. It's a rundown of the things you learn when spending time in a sober living facility or treatment center. And it's sad and beautiful and funny. Here's a bit:

That boring activities become, perversely, much less boring if you concentrate intently on them. That if enough people in a silent room are drinking coffee it is possible to make out the sound of steam coming off the coffee. That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned about what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack.

That concentrating intently on anything is very hard work.

That was when it started to click for me, why he was telling parallel stories about privileged athletes and blownout addicts and a home video that kills people, stories that were clearly connected but never seemed to come together. It was where I found the book's heart.

I wish you could meet Johnny. Johnny's a hell of a guy. He's a kind man and a talented man, a man who has gone through some stuff and is now determined to be more, to be good. There's a decent chance he'll become a household name one day. But if you ever do meet him, Johnny will tell you that Infinite Jest is the reason he got sober before his life got intractably kertwanged. So Johnny's one of a very few with whom I've found I can really talk about it, who sees it less as a literary moment or reason for GRAR than the outflooding of love and sadness and worry and illness and absurdity that it is.

Because, look: There is not a more honest, thorough, and thoughtful portrait of what it is to be addicted to something and to try to recover from that addiction anywhere in storytelling that I'm aware of. Nothing more keenly but lovingly focused on what it's like to try to become more whole by repeatedly slamming your face against your own precious intelligence until both eyes blacken and your nose is pulped. That stuff bulges from the seams of this book, and it's only half the picture.

The rest is, in a word, entertainment. Entertainment as analgesic then anaesthetic then addiction. How we've come to depend on it the way some people depend on hydrocodone or at-least-daily orgasms or ecstatic revival experiences. How it's affecting our minds and time and relationships. How we're killing ourselves with it.

To that end, he deliberately builds everything in the book—its structures, its narratives, its displaced jumps through time, even and perhaps especially its ending—to withhold those things we instinctively crave from stories. He seems almost taunting at times. I'd find myself preparing giddily for dramatic scenes he'd spent chapters building to, only to be dragged around them to witness the quiet aftermath. I'd get really excited for what had to be an inevitable and beautiful romance, only to be given reasons why it shouldn't happen.

And I would get angry. And I would argue with the book for not giving me the thing that I wanted. And the book would ask me why it should. And I would try to compare what the book gave me to what I demanded. And I always found that what the book gave me was more honest, more true, and certainly more profound than the momentary change of my emotions I was chasing.

And then the ending came. And I will not spoil the ending. But it came, and it went, and I was looking at the first page of the endnotes nearly telling the book out loud that it couldn't fucking end there, I need to know, and I turned back to read the first chapter again, and then I understood, and the brilliance of that abrupt stop's timing just about floored me.

But I'm still pissed off about it.

It isn't for everyone. I get the hatred. Hell, I get the feeling that some of its fans hate it. It starves you of most of what you want, and kind of does a neener-neener dance about it. It is gavaged full of moments and insights that should be on posters and in pamphlets in every 12-step meeting room on the planet, but then wraps those gems in layers of dense and confusing and sometimes deliberately tedious story pacing. Points ground down to microscopic precision. Sentences you can't hear the echo from the far side of. Paragraphs that chew up pages.

It is, in short, a fucker. But it's a brilliant fucker. It's built in ways nobody dreamed of making a book before. The experience of reading it was for me what any recovering addict will tell you they went through, once they started Doing the Work. A period of drudgery undertaken on faith, an a-ha moment, a honeymoon, a more laborious but joyful plunge into continuing on and mining the depths even when the pink clouds dissipate, and a journey whose one consistent theme is that you'll never be given what you want, because what you want isn't good enough, what you want is about your feelings. And your feelings don't matter. Your feelings are at the whims of tides and currents. Acceptance of and presence in the facts of the moment are, by contrast, a filigree you can set a house on.

I love this book in the way I love my life. That love is occasionally studded with warm feelings of happiness and ecstasy, but the love itself is not a feeling. It is a promise to roll up my sleeves and get to work. It is a lifetime of care. So I am left with what I need. Things to think about, people to care about, and a well of gratitude that I was alive to witness it.