What Am I Missing?: Infinite Jest and Its Cult Following

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.

infinite-jestThat 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.

27 Comments

  1. Hi – I’m responding to your shout out. First off, your mileage may vary. But I guess if you’re going to be advising on the book, it’s probably worth while to read up a bit on what DFW may have been up to, deliberately not bringing the plots together but having them resolve, “somewhere off to the right of the last page,”his aim to get the book to “hum and project” as he said. The Max biography might be a good place to start, but definitely dip a bit into the scholarly literature. Studies in the Novel devoted an issue to IJ a year or so back, with some good pieces. (Especially the one linking IJ to Kierkegaard). There are some dissertations online, including one I happened to read today, Toon Theuwis’s on IJ as a hybrid: a postmodern-encyclopedic novel.

    http://www.thehowlingfantods.com/toon.html

    And of course, there’s the scholarly books that are out there.

    Whether you find the strategy DFW adopted a success or failure — either in concept or execution — it’s probably best that you know where he’s coming from. Up here in Boston, I know of three classes on IJ about to commence. Chris Boucher’s at Boston College; Andew Warren’s at Harvard, and mine at the humble Cambridge School for Adult Ed. You can read an account of a walking tour I led for DFW scholar Adam Kelly’s Harvard class last spring here.
    http://www.themillions.com/2013/08/the-map-and-the-territory-infinite-boston.html

    Cheers,
    Bill

    • It’s fun. Pure fun. Like Lynch, at his best, is just fun. Why look for something that isn’t there? Instead, just enjoy what is there. A feast.

  2. Hi, John. I read your post and only later saw that you teach at UNC, from which I graduated about 15 years ago.

    I think this is maybe mostly just a matter of personal preference. I’ve had trouble stomaching even the first 30 pages or so of Tristram Shandy just recently, for example, and though I find a lot of Barth kind of tiring and not to my personal taste, I admire a lot of what he does even if I don’t always admire the particular details of how he does it. Lots of people love Henry James but I think he’s a real snooze. Ulysses was a really hard read for me and I didn’t love it a bit, but I can see its greatness. Don Juan gets a bit old, though there’s much to love in (what I’ve managed to read of) it. These’re great books, just not all to my taste.

    The audacity of Infinite Jest is a big part of what initially turned me on about it. I also happened to read it at a time when its ideas and even some of its situations mapped well to my own experience. This may seem to suggest that the book is therefore of only situational appeal or that it necessarily has a pretty limited audience, and that’s not at all what I mean to say. I just think I may have been especially well primed to receive the book graciously, and that perhaps a harried and busy professor being made to slog through the ponderous thing may be primed to receive it with more irritation than grace.

    Perhaps it’ll help to note that Wallace described the book as structured like a Sierpinski gasket, which is to say a triangular fractal with triangles missing in infinite recursion. Through the editing process, he says it basically got a big dent put in it, but the idea is that there are themes in the book that are, yes, repeated and elaborated on at different scales, but that there is a framework, however mangled it wound up in the end. Of course, it’s also possible he made all of that up. Greg Carlisle’s book Elegant Complexity is a great help in grokking some of the themes and some of the structure.

    Part of what clicks in a lot of Wallace’s work is that he writes in a way that maps to the way (at least some) people think. At its best, his voice mimics the infolding, obsessive, self-conscious, reflective brain voice that we think belongs only to ourselves but that most people have in some degree or another. And to my mind, one of the central theses of IJ is that to live with that voice only, to fail to escape your own head, is toxic. It’s why Hal, early on in the text (though late in the timeline) says “I am in here” while clearly manifesting to the deans as anywhere but in there.

    For me, the pleasure of reading IJ includes much of what you ask about in your parting question. Yes, its audacity and ambition and toughness make it a very satisfying book to complete, though for me it wasn’t so much an “I did it” satisfaction when I first read it as an “I can’t believe this guy did it, and boy don’t I admire him for it” satisfaction. Some of the individual pieces in the book are wonderful even without broader context: the Erdeddy section and JOI’s essay on his introduction to annulation to name a couple of my most memorable favorites. For all the absurdity in the book, there’s also a lot of sincerity in characters like Marathe and Mario (some of poor Mario’s conversations and thoughts are downright lovely), and embracing sincerity in a maelstrom of literary irony was very much part of Wallace’s project. Of course it’s easy to say that if you’ve read the Dalkey Archive interview, but I think that even as a kid reading the book for the first time 16 years ago without the benefit of that interview, I found something resonant about Wallace’s dealing with vulnerability and insecurity and earnest human interaction.

    So, maybe the book’s just not for you. It gets better (certainly more coherent, though never tidy) with subsequent reads, though of course it is a big commitment if it’s not your particular flavor of literature. But then so are lots of things that turn out to be worthwhile if not all pleasure all the time. This too is one of the lessons of Infinite Jest.

  3. Its insights into the life of addiction certainly held my attention when I first read it. Although I wouldn’t call them portraits, but more of diagnoses, because I take the book to be more concerned with its psychoanalytical/philosophical dialogues—dialogues that follow in the tradition of those found in The Brother’s Karamazov, from which Infinite Jest borrows heavily—than satire in novel form. (Oddly, its dialogues have been adapted to the stage, where they were performed last year during a 24-hour-long, mobile play for DFW addicts and lit bingers: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2012/06/infinite_jest_on_stage_berlin_theater_adaptation_of_david_foster_wallace_s_novel_.html).

    The words spoken between the characters in recovery, particularly those between Don Gately and his AA home group, Joelle Van Dyne and Don Gately, even Hal Incandenza and Pat Montesian, often shine through as some of the most embarrassingly heartwarming of the book. We read these between all of those played up with ironic tone, verbal acrobatics, and political satire, and they seem to fall through the work’s dense, yet high-climbing rafters. Of course this makes the work like a top-heavy and unfinished structure (I would argue that by relying on the reader to hold it up and assemble it, it is) but it also makes the exchanges between the characters in recovery like sunbeams peeking in on its foundation, which is usually enshadowed by its literary concerns, which ultimately are with both tragicomedy and quest narrative.

    David Foster Wallace has been quoted in D.T. Max’s biography saying that he set out to write a sad book with Infinite Jest. I thus read it as being more concerned with the sadness and sincerity of its characters than the humor derived from whatever irony we find in their conditions. In fact, I read it as a quest to find verbal sincerity in a world saturated with verbal irony, or in other words, as an inversion of Don Juan—albeit one that is equally (if not more so) funny. If there is satire of Don Juan’s brazen kind (and there is, especially with the opening scene, the later “entertainment,” and my favorite, the ONANtiad) it is not about addiction, but rather about American popular/consumer culture, higher education, and politics, none of which help the addict characters along their roads to recovery. For someone who is in recovery, the dialogues (along with that very hilarious yet deeply true 119 item-list of unspoken recovery facts [pp. 200-205]) capture all of the self-conscious silliness and unselfconscious sincerity that come with that lifestyle.

  4. I am not a Wallace fan – and used to share a department with a creative writing teacher whose reverence for Wallace seemed to give some students excuses to skip the revision stage. (They were being “transgressive,” apparently.) But I can see why some readers like him because there are shaggy messes of novels that I love. For instance, James Malcolm Rymer’s serial VARNEY THE VAMPIRE and THE STRING OF PEARLS, both of which suffer a bit from Rymer’s need to keep a good thing going as long as possible. Julia Constance Fletcher’s MIRAGE is quite literally journeys to nowhere, featuring a heroine who doesn’t know what is the object of her quest, but that messiness says quite a bit about Fletcher’s politics of gender. She rages against the expectation that women must pursue the marriage-quest, then stay in place forever. However, because Fletcher is long-winded, I wouldn’t teach MIRAGE, and I have abridged Rymer for the classroom.

    That said, THANK YOU for reading such a long novel because a student wants to study it. There are so many teachers (albeit not necessarily at UNC) who would say “I don’t know that one” and make the student choose something else or move on.

  5. Here is my take:

    On the serious side, I love IJ because it made my mind work. The hard work and dedication it took to read it all the way through (after a couple false-starts) and to keep up with the characters and the plot(s); that work was to my brain what aerobic training is to the cardiovascular system: it enhanced my mind’s capacity, stamina, drive and focus… all while being exquisitely entertained.
    It also helps that the issues and themes in the novel (mental illness, loneliness, addiction, isolation, redemption, innocence, beauty, and the rest) are very personally relevant.

    On the frivolous side, I must admit: reading IJ fed into my vain, snobbish streak, as in: I read, understood, and most importantly, enjoyed, a huge book that many people I know (and who are dedicated readers themselves) find impenetrable… by the same token, I must also admit I actually enjoyed being seen reading it… say, in a coffee house, for instance.

    I hope this helps.

  6. What I want to know, John, is whether you’ve read DFW’s essays, and what you think of them. Gabriel Kahane and I were talking about this: the dispute over which is better, and some of the gendered and other divisions in his readership on this issue. I love his essays. I think he disciplines himself just the touch needed. But at the same time, I really like the mess of IJ, even if I don’t love it.

  7. Thanks for all the responses, which I have also passed on to my students. On the essays: instead of manic, I find them prissy and pedantic. (overstatement warning). I guess I am just an impatient reader. Once I am no longer learning anything, I begin to skim, or just put the book down. Wallace’s essays are exercises in overkill. He goes on for pages after I’ve gotten the point, continues to pile up arguments long after I’m convinced. I guess my final take is that he is a writer with no sense of proportion and little sense of audience. I like some of the manic novelists, if their energy, wit, and exuberant imagination carry the day. But their solipsism, their lack of regard for the reader, their inability to know when enough is enough, does constitute a huge barrier for me.

    • I remember hearing Heller on the old Larry King radio show and the tone of his voice when callers would bring up their favorite pieces. There were a lot of Catch-22 fans, of course, and the other novels, but occasionally someone would announce they’d read Something Happened. “Really?”, he’d say, almost incredulous. “Thank you.”

      I felt with IJ I was reading something the author knew was flawed and yet it was the best he could do. Like a notion he had and was struggling to get down, and no amount of tinkering would make it better. For me, it was worth reading because it was so clearly not a commodity, not written to be read or bought but must have seemed unavoidable to DFW–or else why not just abandon it? Leave it in the trunk? But there it is, whatever it is. It isn’t an ad or part of a series, surely. For that alone, I was grateful.

    • I am several years late to this, but would none-the-less add my two cents…
      Part of, or all of the reason to read IJ is to figure it out; where’s the story?
      It’s there, believe me… but to me, the most important parts are in the shortest, most banal lines, the things you skimmed are the things you missed. It’s a puzzle and it’s difficult, but well worth it.
      Ah fuck it, if in right it’s a spoiler if in wrong, oh well….
      I believe when one is holding the boom IN, one is holding the ultimate piece of found drama; a fully realized work of meta-experimental film making, by none other than Dr. James Incandenza. The explanations available are far beyond what my local high school prepared me for long ago, and having never went to college – let alone studied holography – I have trouble making it make any sense, but chapter 1: Hal’s essay titles: “the implications of post-fourier transformations for a holographically mimetic cinema.”
      “Montague grammar and the semantics of physical modality”
      And so on…
      Dr. Incandenza was an incredibly intelligent man, a maker of lenses and mirrors and also one of the people responsible for annulation (again, it’s hard to really explain; a person doing somersaults with one hand nailed to the floor)
      But, as with his movies, the Achilles heel of the book is ploy. According to everyone I’ve ever heard complain about it, all of them. But it’s another one of his movies.
      With, in my opinion a beautiful plot and perfect execution. Every complaint I’ve ever heard about the book is addressed inside the book, but the book is the movie, and I believe, though the writing style is surely Wallace, I think Wallace was writing I the style of Dr. Incandenza speaking through the mind voice of all the charcters…. which he explains to Gately when the wrath visits Gately…
      There’s more to what I think about the book and I can go on for hours with specific quotes and such, but I just came across this post and it made me want to say something…. if someone reads it: sorry if it doesn’t make sense…
      And if the end of the book doesn’t make you want to cry, you didn’t care enough about the charcters to begin with…
      Poor Don G. laying on that beach – four years before he gets sober – a feed years before he kills that Nuck in the robbery – before anything you just read even happens; poor Don Gately.

  8. I think Infinite Jest is a great book, but, like most books of its length, it is most certainly flawed and disjointed. Also, I’m not so certain it is a timeless book; it was born of a certain era, a pre-internet 90s, a sort of last gasp before our society charged full bore into the fractured, technology-obsessed, junk-culture-crazy circus it now feels like. At least that’s one way of looking at it. Also, for me, the more I knew about Wallace, the more the book made sense. He was a writer that, more than most writers, was at war with his own impulses; a sincere, heartfelt, generous writer who was almost pathologically suspicious of any type of art, writing, or entertainment that used sincerity and generosity as a way to manipulate its audience.

    Wallace felt that Hallmark-esque sincerity was a mode that had been co-opted by corporate advertising to sell people on products. He was suspicious of “easy” entertainment – passive entertainment that is in essence addictive – yet he also felt that fiction should be entertaining and enjoyable. So, in Infinite Jest, you have the work of an artist that is caught between two warring tendencies, a writer who is in thrall to the irony-heavy postmodern black humorists of the mid-century, e.g. Barth, Gaddis, Pynchon, et al., but is also desperately trying to break free from the chains of irony that postmodernism created. In Infinite Jest, you can literally feel this push and pull, almost on a sentence level. You have postmodern hijinks that go on for pages but ultimately invert themselves and bloom into deep pathos, especially in the halfway house sections.

    Ultimately he was trying to have his cake and eat it too, and perhaps this attempt was unsuccessful, which is why the book works for some people and fails for others. He was trying to make a compulsively readable, almost addicting piece of entertainment that was simultaneously an arduous, sad, fractured, difficult depiction of addiction – not just to drugs, but to all things that one can become addicted to – an “anti-entertainment”, if you will.

    I became more appreciative of Wallace the more I listened to and read interviews with him. I know this isn’t a defense of a work, because works must stand on their own, and be judged on their own, but the author is really on the page in Wallace’s work.

  9. Mr. McGowan: Glad you wrote in about this! I hope your students get a kick out of all the comments, a lot of them very smart and on point. Must say I can’t disagree in any way with your view of INFINITE JEST; oddly enough it’s on my top ten of all time anyhow. What originally attracted me to it was, and I did not know of Mr. Wallace’s work previous to same except for BROOM OF THE SYSTEM, was some wag in a review somewhere noting similarities to Tom Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, to Don DeLillo before he got serious in one way and after same in a different way, to (of course) Joyce’s ULYSSES, and upon seeing this I had no choice but to pick it up immediately. I did not breeze through IJ. You knocked it out in months? Try 6. I kept stopping and saying aloud, ‘WTH?’ or its longer equivalent — not recommended on the NYC subway — at the plethora of narrative 359-degree turns, I kept going back 200 pages (and yes, I was tempted to do that once or twice before I go to age 200) because I’d forgotten something, I had these star shells of vicious satire blowing up in my head (The Year of the DEPEND Adult Undergarment?! How very like that was the ancient Romans naming their years after whoever was Consul?)… and, well, this sentence has run on long enough. The author’s viewing his characters through angles he appeared to have to hack out of standard narrative masonry, his Pied Piper insouciance, his very untypical refusal to signal in any way that an explanation was forthcoming, all kept dragging me from page 314 to 315, page 562 to 563, and so forth, just to see how long he could keep it up. Sorry, that was another run-on sentence. But I found all your caveats about IJ to be strengths. So yes, IJ is very ‘si vous voulez.’ Unlike other correspondents’ opinions here, the plight of the characters and their situation only made a major impression on me the second time I read it (which was basically in order to make certain I didn’t hallucinate the entire thing… score one more for the detox and _____ Anonymous sections here). The first time around, my enjoyment had been on a completely intellectual level (like the first time I heard John Adams’ foxtrot for millipedes THE CHAIRMAN DANCES). The second reading, in which I noticed, ‘gee whiz, there are PEOPLE in here!’ cemented for me what a masterpiece this was and is. I doubt that any of my frothing helps you much. Mr. Rondinelli’s observation of IJ’s unwitting ‘period piece’ status, or Mr. Houston’s referring to the book (via DFW) as a Sierpinski gasket (I’ll have to run that one past a fellow DFW maven, who has a Ph.D. in elementary particle physics; I am a mere engineer, regrettably) may be more helpful. It does just now come to mind, though — typical — that DFW’s famous Kenyon College address (to be found on Youtube, of course) mentions how each of us worships something, and how if one chooses the wrong object of adulation, it will eat one alive. Yeah. That’s a large part of IJ’s premise, writ microscopic. It also, oh now I’m getting it, makes great sense as Ms. Heidi Kim also says here, to look over his essays. The man was all of a piece. Often I think, as Frank Zappa once said of all his musical output, ‘It’s all one album,’ anything Mr. Wallace ever wrote could have ended up in INFINITE JEST. Excellent editing job, there! Really. Best regards to you and your students. Keep your seat belts on and your hands in the car. Sorry this took so long.

  10. For me, the attraction to this work is how something so fractured, sprawling, thematic, and rife with allusions can also be so entertaining-lacking the pretension you often find in such heady books. The broad range of emotions it elicits necessarily draws you in.

    One of its biggest challenges to the reader is to stay present. To not get bogged down by the ominous (and maybe impossible) task of fitting everything together-but rather to just enjoy and live within each single moment/passage.

    Another unique phenomena is that reading this book can make you feel lonely and confused in your excitement/frustration/lack of resolution. It makes you want to seek out others who have ‘been through’ the same thing, just to gather their thoughts and impressions. This fits right in line with themes of solopsism/isolation/addiction.

    The great prose, social commentary, and humor are awesome as well–but for me what made it really stand out is how the reader is forced to experience these themes 1st hand.

  11. I’m less than a 100 pages into IJ, so maybe unqualified to comment but I will because I want to keep after it. But what is most striking to me at this juncture is the intentional obscurification going on, which reminds one of the toxic atmosphere Lessing postulated in Briefing for a Decent into Hell. Only the reader is never allowed out it so it cannot be detected by comparison. Additionally, for an author who associated himself with drugs, IJ comes off as mostly hallucinatory, while Kesey’s Sometime a Great Notion is focused for the reader to the point where the wet, surrounding Forest has its own clear narrative. Kesey was a larger-than-writer pioneer of psychedelics, yet his work, however minimal, was infinitely coherent by comparison to DFW. They must have abused different drugs.

  12. Writing as a psychologist, not a “man [or woman] of letters”, I found Infinite Jest largely the product of someone not connected, nor particularly desiring, to be connected to others. And if there was to be any connection, it would be completely up to others, not DFW, to effect the connection. Contrast this to Knausgård’s “My Struggle”- a man struggling to connect and meeting us more than half-way. I’ll take Knausgård over DFW any day.

  13. I’m not a literature geek, but have read and appreciated many of the great classics and novels from Dickens to Orwell, Dostoevsky, Fante and Bukowski. Infinite Jest is a ponderous and pretentious piece that is impenetrable by design, as if to serve the snobbery of those who claim to be intelligent enough to comprehend the incomprehensible.

    • It’s not incomprehensible, and while it may seem pretentious, it has a lot of things worth taking home in it. If you feel like getting past your first impression of the book and giving it a try, it’s surprisingly rewarding, and not nearly as impenetrable or incomprehensible as advertised. I felt the same as you, but finally read it and really loved it.

  14. Kurt Vonnegt says do not punish the reader–Wallace, Joyce, Pynchon and Beckett certainly do–that’s why I will no longer try to read them.

  15. I consider my self an avid reader, reading things not so enjoyable to me, Dostoevsky, all the way to neuroscience theory and, admittedly, a lot of Stephen King. So I feel like a well rounded reader, not a scholar or literary professional in the slightest.

    As someone who just picked up this book I can basically define my position as “medium” (like a steak) on this book. I look at it and think “why did i even start this book? It’s so dense, so chopped up and requires so much focus. I don’t even know what’s going on!” but then realize I’ve downed 40 pages and enjoyed every minute of it. I think that, since reading these comments, I am inline with the ‘conquer it’ feeling. I snagged IJ on a whim, knowing absolutely nothing about it or its following but simply because I’d seen this cover somewhere before and wanted a heavy read…I found it and think that by completing it, whether an avid IJ fan at the end or not, I will feel accomplished in some sense.

    I also like the feeling that there are other readers out there that are just as aimless as me in understand it, but read it and have some sense of enjoyment from it. Almost as there is a secret community of people reading it, as selfish as it sounds.

    The fact that the book is almost fractal in writing is, in itself, a different type of fun. I am so accustomed to reading straight story or thought process that the reading of IJ provides a challenge of focus for me that I appreciate. Having read some Heller (Catch-22 and Something Happened) I remember really enjoying them and this is just a headier version in my mind – so maybe by the time I can power through IJ to my satisfaction I’ll enjoy it the same. Thanks for all the prior comments input- all around.

    I also like the idea of

  16. @Erica – talk about secret community. I just picked up IJ, fueled by similar motivations, a few weeks ago and can say my experience has been like yours. Always reminded and made awe struck by how large the world is, and how much more similar than different to others we are, in moments like this when I see someone recently post on a old thread on an activity I’m also engaged in.

  17. I finished IJ over breakfast this morning, having read it in three weeks. I had been wanting to read it for at least ten years, but waited until I knew I would have the time to devote to it. Has it been worth the wait and the concentrated effort? Not for me, no it has not.

    I have read many long books over the years – War and Peace (twice), Proust, The Luminaries (Booker winner by the New Zealand author Eleanor Catton), as examples. And here is the difference. War and Peace was written almost 150 years ago, about events that took place 200 years ago, in a society very different to my own (I’m Australian). Yet I cared about the central characters. What happened to them meant something to me, fictional though they are. IJ is of my time in a society very, very similar to mine. And I felt no connection to the central characters. None at all. I finished IJ not caring what became of Hal, or Joelle van D, or Don G, or any of them at all. I simply felt nothing for them. I think the only other work of serious fiction I have read that left me with no feelings for the central characters is the Gormenghast trilogy, but that is redeemed in other ways.

    Am I pleased to have finally read IJ? Perhaps, just, but I know I will never revisit it.

  18. I just finished it as well and I’m a bit astounded that there isn’t more comment on the mans command of the English language. It’s levels above anything I have ever read. “He was so cross eyed he could stand in the middle of the week and see both Sundays.” Find me a writer that performs a the gymnastic equivalent of a 5 minute iron cross on. Early every page.

    • Joyce. Read Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Not to make this a competition but they blow out of the water anything you’ll find in Infinite Jest. If you love language you’re in for a treat with those.

      Finnegans Wake especially, Joyce manages the near impossible task of atomizing language while retaining lyrical and rhythmic beauty. The sheer level of linguistic expertise is so baffling critics just assumed he’d lost his mind. Also has more entertainment value per page than most books can boast in a whole chapter.

  19. John and Rebecca (Nesvet): choosing books for students’ dissertations or letting them choose themselves? My experience: the student proposes a well-regarded novel to which he has some commitment. It’s my job now to establish what kind of book it is and what kind of person the student is, to ensure a good fit. If I haven’t read the book, I’ll go and do so – or try. I’ll then either (a) approve it wholeheartedly and start a dialogue with the student on lines of approach; (b) argue over the likely difficulties in studying this text (thinks: ‘twould be better left alone); or (c) explain why this is not a good choice and turn it down.

    With “Infinite Jest” I would come in at (c). I have a pastoral, as well as an intellectual, duty to the student – and to his/her parents as well, and to society. Immersing yourself in this novel is likely to be bad for your health! Novels take you to other places: this one takes you DOWN to sad, squalid places. I wouldn’t willingly allow a student to wallow there – and probably have to fish him/her (and myself) out on a regular basis.

  20. years late—
    I’m not all that mindful of the content but rather with the manner of the writing. It is the outpouring of a neurotic, without a buffer between mind and world. I can feel the exact nature of Wallace’s inner experience. When the chatter of reading it stops, I feel very content with the relative inner quiet of my own mind. In a nutshell, I enjoy reading it because it makes me feel very grateful that I don’t have a mind like Wallace.

  21. I just finished Infinite Jest and it seems to me like you’ve made up a harder-to-read than it is version of the novel and then complained about that version. I am a lit student but I’m a 21 year old undergrad and granted I wasn’t reading for academic purposes, but its easy enough to follow. I’m sure re-reading it or reading journal essays on it would reveal more to me, but it’s not this impossible to wrestle with behemoth which hipsters and academics alike seem to like to pretend. It’s entertaining, and witty , and to me this plus compelling characterization made it intensely readable. If you buy into the ‘myth’ then your not going to get it; what your ‘missing’ is right there in front of you.

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