I’ve thought long and hard about what to say about Infinite Jest. Reading it was supposed to be a summer project — I took it up as an online challenge with a couple of other people, although most of them seemed to have dropped out along the way. Small wonder — it’s no easy read. That said, it turned out to be just a July challenge rather than an all-summer challenge — I finished it much more quickly than I expected to, once I got into it. But “getting into it” took till about page 500, and with most books, that’s just too late.
I can’t really tell you what Infinite Jest is about. It’s about everything and nothing. It’s a post-modern American classic, the magnum opus of the late and much-lamented David Foster Wallace. It’s a book that people who’ve read it and loved it swear by and treat like their bible. In fact, it has a lot of similarities to the Bible: it’s extremely long, written in a number of different literary styles, it jumps around from character to character, topic to topic seemingly with no discernible plan, it contains long passages that make you shake your head and go, “What did I just read?” and short segments that make you go, “Wow, this is brilliant! This contains all the wisdom of the ages!”, statements you’d like to have on a poster on your wall. And its devotees have a fanatical attachment to the book and its author. So yeah, quite like the Bible in many ways.
Infinite Jest is not really a postapocalyptic futuristic novel, but it was set in the near future when Wallace released it in 1996 — which means that its vision of the future is our immediate past and our present. No matter how hard Wallace tried not to be too sci-fi, there are some jarring things when you’re reading about your own present as someone else’s futuristic vision. I mean, I’m still not over the fact that it’ll soon be 2015 and we don’t yet have those flying skateboards from Back to the Future II, but it’s just as jarring to note the technological advances writers don’t manage to predict. In the futuristic early 2000s of Infinite Jest, everyone is just as obsessed with in-home entertainment as they are in our current reality, but they have to get it physically delivered on InterLace cartridges. I suppose if DFW could have predicted Netflix streaming he probably would have gone into a different line of work and gotten a lot richer.
But the future is not really the point of Infinite Jest: it’s a novel about the present, about things like the growing corporate sponsorship of everything in our world taken to only-slightly-ridiculous extensions (in IJ, each year is sponsored by a different company rather than having numbers, so that a sense of history is subordinated to a sense of corporate domination: most of the novel’s action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment). It’s about a society “amusing itself to death,” in Neil Postman’s words — quite literally, in some cases, since part of the plot includes the existence of a film cartridge so lethally entertaining that those who watch it are transported to an instant state of catatonia, unable to ever get up or turn off the video. It’s the perfect weapon.
All that, Wallace suggests, is only the logical extension of a society where millions of people already seek mental and emotional numbness through a variety of “entertainments.” Two institutions, located next to each other, dominate the story — a halfway house for recovering drug addicts, and an elite tennis academy. Both are populated by a colourful cast of bizarre characters and misfits (this book, again like the Bible, has a cast of literally thousands and you may find yourself reading five pages of loving, beautifully crafted prose about a character whose name will only be mentioned twice more, in passing, in the entire 1000 page book). Different as they are, the occupants of both institutions are driven, damaged, messed-up people — the inhabitants of the halfway house being, to me at least, the more appealing because at least they know how broken they are.
So yes — it’s sprawling, it’s weird, it’s frustrating, it’s brilliant. But by about page 500 I was starting to see the threads that held the story together, to understand who the main characters were, to care about what happened to them. I could already tell IJ was not going to be the kind of book where the writer tied everything up neatly for us at the end, but I was looking forward at least to seeing how the stories of two major characters, who had not interacted at all throughout the book, were going to intersect with each other, and how at least some of the more intense plot threads would be resolved.
And then. The ending. Oh my.
SPOILERS AHEAD, PEOPLE …
If you ever plan to read Infinite Jest, you need to be prepared for an ending that’s even more frustrating than the usual postmodern keep ’em guessing ending. It just … I mean, it doesn’t really have an ending, as such. It just sort of … stops.
Let me try to explain further without telling you too much. The book begins with one of the main characters experiencing a fairly traumatic moment for reasons we don’t understand, then jumps back about a year before that event for the bulk of the novel (although it also jumps back much further in time, at various points). About page 500, when I finally started getting that slow sense of where the book might be heading, I figured that all of these diverse storylines were eventually going to semi-converge to explain to us why that key thing happened to that important person, way back in the first chapter. But then … it doesn’t get there. The books stops several months before that event, not only leaving every major storyline unfinished but never connecting the dots to tell us why that weird thing happened back in Chapter One.
David Foster Wallace, before his untimely death, told people he thought he had left more than enough clues for smart readers to figure out how the story ended. Obviously I don’t fall into the “smart readers” category, although I think the people who’ve connected those clues and figured out what might have happened are probably more “obsessive” than “smart” — I think you’d have to read the novel more than once, perhaps several times, to get all the little hidden references that might give you a map to help you fill in what’s missing. I did it the lazy way and just read an obsessive person’s website. Who knows if the storyline they came up with is the one Wallace intended, but at least it gave me some closure.
Am I glad I read Infinite Jest? Yes. It’s one of those books I’ve very glad to have read, and often enjoyed and found insightful while I was reading it. It has some brilliant passages about addiction, about the nature of freedom and of happiness, as well as one passage about surviving depression that is absolutely heartbreaking to read in the aftermath of the author’s suicide. If you like tangling with long, complicated books that require a lot from their readers, by all means, go ahead and read Infinite Jest, and then tell me what you thought of it. I’d love to discuss it with people who’ve read it! Just don’t read it expecting all (or any, really) of your questions to be answered.