Infinite Jest: A Confused Look Back

Today I’m going to be talking about Infinite Jest, so buckle-up, Buttercup. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Infinite Jest? I think I’ve heard of that!

Yeah, you probably have. Infinite Jest is one of those books that it seems like everyone has heard of, but nobody has actually read. At least, that was certainly my experience. I kept hearing about it in various places, but nobody I talked to had ever given it a shot.

After picking it up from the library, it was easy to see why more people haven’t given Infinite Jest a shot. It’s huge. HUGE. Big books usually hold no intimidation for me, but this one made me pause. Then I shrugged it off, because I am a Reader, damn it! No book is too large and/or complicated for me.

Super-Duper Complicated

Ok, so putting my pride aside, Infinite Jest may have been too complicated for me. It has so many plot threads and storylines that may or may not have much to do with each other that I had trouble keeping everything straight. Even with my copious notetaking habits, I struggled to make heads or tails of this one.

The confusion mostly stems from the lack of clear-cut relationships between events. Usually in a story, A happens, and then B happens afterwards, with a clear relationship visible between the two. But not so with Infinite Jest. Instead, A happens; then W happens; then C, T, and B all happen at the same time. And all this time you’re flipping between the story and the endnotes, which sometimes don’t seem to fit with everything else that’s going on. Trying to keep everything straight while resisting the urge to force arbitrary meaning on meaningless things is hard.

Post-Modernism Is Strange

Though it’s hard down to pin down a movement that is determined to destroy definition and expectation, I’d say it’s pretty clear that Infinite Jest  is about as post-modern as you get. All the things you expect in a reader/author/text relationship are turned on their head and made strange. The structure and writing techniques employed tell just as much of a story as the story itself, since they force you to examine the work in a way that is unfamiliar.

Lets take, for example, Wallace’s copious endnotes. They make up a significant portion of the story, and aren’t a strange technique in themselves. Lots of books have endnotes. But these endnotes often go off on total tangents, telling stories of their own, leading the reader away from the “original” subject matter, only to drop them back in the middle of the action, dazed and confused. Infinite Jest  is not a book that can be read passively. It’s active, and the reader has to work for comprehension.

So, should I read it or not?

I don’t know. It’s not an easy read by any means, and it didn’t really blow my mind or add a whole lot to my understanding of the world, but it is interesting. The format is interesting, and there’s no question that Wallace is a great writer. It’s dark and gritty, but frequently humorous as well. It paints life in an absurd light, highlighting just how weird the world is through fairly common occurrences, as well as extraordinary circumstance.

Give it a shot if you’re looking for a challenge and/or want to have your idea of story stretched. Skip it if you’re not willing to put a lot of time and energy into the reading.

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image from DavidFosterWallaceBooks.com
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