by John McGowan
I have just finished reading Infinite Jest, a book I tried and failed to finish about ten years ago. This time I willed myself through the whole thing—footnotes and all—because I am directing a senior honors thesis on the book. Infinite Jest, published in 1996, is a novel of over 1000 pages that clearly aspires to be the Ulysses of its time, written by a prodigy who committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46. The book features the same kind of fragmentation found in Joyce’s novel. To make any kind of sense of its unfolding events, the reader must hold onto a tiny piece of information found on page 25 and bring it to bear when given another piece of information on page 556. Readers of Ulysses had to wait for the publication of the Linati schema before being able to connect each of Joyce’s chapters to the appropriate incident in Homer’s Odyssey. Likewise, readers of Infinite Jest today have various “keys” to the novel available on the Web. A puzzle as daunting as Wallace’s novel is a thrilling challenge for a certain kind of reader, and the web sites devoted to solving the puzzle have proliferated.
That the book has acquired a cult status can be traced to various factors: its length and difficulty; its extended attention to drug use of every kind; its Coen brothers mixture of grotesque violence and absurdist comedy; its Pynchonesque quest plot for a fabled object that most likely does not exist; and the troubled life of its author. Set in an America slightly in the future (somewhere around our present, i.e. 2010, but, remember, the book was written in 1994-1996), Infinite Jest is partly a dystopian satire about addiction. It depicts a society in which most people are addicted to either drugs or “entertainment” (the DVD-like cartridges that have replaced TV in the novel’s world), all in the context of a world in which New England north of Boston and most of southern Ontario has been turned into an off-limits toxic waste dump to deal with the detritus created by a society addicted to consumerism.
The novel is also recognizably in the “manic” school of fiction, one of those novels that indulges the author’s every impulse toward digression and that serves as a platform for the author’s rants and pet theories on every topic that comes to his mind. Predecessors in the manic school include Norman Mailer and John Barth, two authors whose charm faded long before they stopped writing. Even earlier ancestors would include Laurence Sterne. (Admit it! For all its brilliance, Tristram Shandy gets quite tedious long before the end.) A more promising example is the Byron of Don Juan, which is delightful from start to finish. One fascinating thing about Byron’s poem is that, despite the intricacies of its form, the poet had obviously found a voice and structure that was endlessly generative. The poem could only end with Byron’s death because it had become the site where he could say everything he wanted to say. Infinite Jest must have been ripped from the hands of its author, who introduces new characters on page 970, and ends with an incident that not only begs for more explanation, but which does nothing at all to resolve the many lingering questions about the novel’s overall plot. Infinite Jest is potentially infinite, an endless shaggy dog tale with no punch line. Chockfull of brilliant riffs, it is also repetitive and boring. And, like Don Juan, it doesn’t add up. The pieces are far more than the whole, which never bothered me with Byron but does in this case probably because the novel is set up like a puzzle, with all those scattered bits of information, hinting that it can all be assembled into a coherent narrative. In other words, where Joyce has the plot of the Odyssey to ground his infinite details, Wallace lacks any such structure, and the result is chaotic.
So I felt more than a little ripped off at the end. I like to have a coherent “take” on a novel, a way of packaging what it is trying to do and say. Infinite Jest doesn’t hang together in that way. I am left to wonder if my aesthetic tastes (and demands?) are too narrow, about what flaw it is in me that I can’t go with the flow, enjoy the riffs, and be satisfied with incoherence and non-closure. Is it hopelessly consumerist to ask for some return, some take-away, for my three months of slogging through the book? And it was a slog, a duty more than a pleasure, as Samuel Johnson would say. So here’s the shout out to you Wallace fans out there: describe the pleasure that I am missing. Is it the mastery of a tough book, the digging of the details, the hipness of the vision, the insights of the portraits of addiction? Tell me what’s to like.
John McGowan is Ruel W. Tyson, Jr. Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also the Director of the Institute for Arts and Humanities. His scholarly work has focused on the meaning and practices of democracy, as described in both political theory and literature.