I finished Infinite Jest in February of 2017 after reading it for almost 6 months, and in that time it changed how I viewed the world, viewed myself, and how I wanted to tackle life.
To say that reading Infinite Jest was one of the most impactful things I’ve done would then be an understatement. I’ve thought about it daily since finishing it, and for the last few months of reading it, it was all that I wanted to talk about. It didn’t matter if those I spoke with had read it, tried reading it, heard about it, were aware of its existence, or even cared to hear me talk about it. It consumed me in a way I hadn’t experienced anything else in a long time. It related to every facet of my life despite my best efforts to distract myself from it. Here is my attempt to explain why it hit me as hard as it did and why I continue to think about it day after day.
“I’d done some funny stuff and some heavy, intellectual stuff, but I’d never done anything sad. And I wanted it not to have a single main character. The other banality would be: I wanted to do something real American, about what it’s like to live in America around the millennium.” – David Foster Wallace
Infinite Jest is an epic novel that almost defies summation – which is part of the appeal. It is a complexly structured nonlinear narrative that bounces between a tennis academy for child prodigies, a halfway house for resisting and recovering addicts, an outcropping in the desert of Arizona, a transformed rural Quebec, and the back alleys of Boston. There are over 200 characters that continue to be added and introduced up until the last few pages, and all knowingly or unknowingly, are but one degree of separation from a film that is lethally entertaining. The film, the fifth revision of the titular Infinite Jest, is the cultural atom bomb that terrorists wish to use to sway the political levers toward Quebec independence, and leaves the defenders of that culture to do all that they can to prevent its release.
But to say all of that is to say it is 577,608 words, 1,079 pages, 388 footnotes, in neat, tiny 8 point font. The plot is not what the book is about. Its length and complexity is a proxy for all that it contains within its pages and beneath its layers. A dedicated dictionary is almost necessary as an accompaniment to decipher the real, obscure words and phrases from those DFW creates to fill the void in language. It is deeply funny and sad, hopeless and prescient, and culturally incisive in a way that a book 25 years old should not still be. I have never met eloquent, well-spoken, literate people be reduced to gushing emotion – online or in person – and only able to say, “you need to read it.”
There are those who love Infinite Jest and those that hate it. There are some that hate it almost solely because of the type of people who love it, but those that hate it often have very good and valid reasons. It is galling to ask someone to read over 1,000 pages of dense text that doesn’t form into a sensible plot until 200 pages in. Paragraph breaks are rare and some sentences are as much as 800 words. Words and terms and slang and jargon are created out of Greek and Latin roots and the reader is expected to figure out what is meant by their invention, if they don’t already have an Infinite Jest dictionary loaded up in a browser next to them. It even ends abruptly, forcing the reader to piece together what happened in the end from clues throughout. These criticisms are valid, and are often the exact same things that those who love the book will point to as one of the many reasons they love it.
Reading Infinite Jest is work. I tried to read it and failed twice before finally making my way through it. My last and ultimately successful attempt consisted of a stack of multicoloured sticky notes as a bookmark, used liberally to help me keep track of the different characters, themes, symbolism, foreshadowing, references, and the nonlinear timeline. Even before the halfway point I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to read the book more than once to grasp it, and that there was a great deal that was still going over my head despite my detailed note system.
“But now realize that TV and popular film and most kinds of “low” art—which just means art whose primary aim is to make money—is lucrative precisely because it recognizes that audiences prefer 100 percent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 percent pleasure and 51 percent pain. Whereas “serious” art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort. So it’s hard for an art audience, especially a young one that’s been raised to expect art to be 100 percent pleasurable and to make that pleasure effortless, to read and appreciate serious fiction. That’s not good. The problem isn’t that today’s readership is “dumb,” I don’t think. Just that TV and the commercial-art culture’s trained it to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations. But it makes trying to engage today’s readers both imaginatively and intellectually unprecedentedly hard.” – David Foster Wallace
The process and work of reading Infinite Jest, divorced from the themes and subject matter, reminded me of how to work toward a big goal. I couldn’t read it quickly and take in all of it at the same time like I had with other books. I was often limited to reading less than 30 pages a day before I was mentally tired and unable to take in more of what I was reading. It made difficulties I had devoting my focus to one specific task clear, but it also helped me reframe success in my life. Allowing myself to become discouraged by the hundreds of pages between my bookmark and completion would have left me never finishing it. I had to learn to see each page completed as one page closer to my goal, focusing on the small achievements and not the lack of immediate success. It had been too long since I was last forced to slowly work toward a large goal, without feedback along the way to signal I was getting there. It could have been many books that reminded me of this lesson, but it was Infinite Jest that did.
Working through Infinite Jest and its themes in a year I numbed myself with steady dopamine hits of Netflix binge-watching, notifications lighting up my phone screen, and pints of beer was eye opening. Little of my behaviour was excessive compared to those around me. But excess is relative and my reference point wasn’t healthy. I would frequently swap stories of the latest show I was marathoning over beers with friends after returning from the bathroom to check what messages came into my phone since I last sat down. Steeply and Marathe’s conversation in the desert struck a chord.
“Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice. (pause) You, M. Hugh Steeply: would die without thinking for what?”
AFR’s extensive file on Steeply included mention of his recent divorce. Marathe had already informed Steeply of the existence of this file… Steeply did not respond. His expression of boredom could be real, or tactical, either of these.
Marathe said: “This, is it not the choice of the most supreme importance? Who teaches your USA children how to choose their temple? What to love enough not to think two times?”
“This from a man who-” Steeply tried to retort. But Marathe was willing that his voice not rise.
“For this choice determines all else. No? All other of our, you say, free choices, follow from this: what is our temple. What is the temple, thus, for USA’s? What is it, when you fear that you must protect them from themselves, if wicked Quebecers conspire to bring the Entertainment into their warm homes?”
My temple was built on weak foundation with pillars of self-image and pleasurable escapes barely holding it up. The things that I would have died for, without thinking twice, were shallow and pitiful. Being seen as smart, clever, successful, entertaining, attractive, all-knowing and – most of all – beyond it all were (and continue to be) not worth it. Living a life without access to pleasurable distractions seemed unthinkable. I didn’t really choose these temples. They were chosen for me by basic needs of belonging and the simulacrum of success. By taking part in rituals of adding acquaintances to a list of friends, exchanging clicks on heart-shaped buttons for feelings of love and acceptance, and comments for a sense of genuine care, I propped up the illusion that these habits were worthwhile. My participation gave it legitimacy.
There are those who genuinely believe that the choice to opt out is false. That fighting the march of progress is Ludditical and progress should be adopted simply because of that, or that there isn’t a choice at all the time for choice has come and gone long ago. But I can’t help but fall back to that conversation in the desert of Arizona.
Steeply: “But you assume it’s always choice, conscious, decision. This isn’t just a little naive, Remy. You sit down with your little accountant’s ledger and soberly decide what to love? Always?”
Marathe: “The alternatives are —”
Steeply interrupted. “What if sometimes, there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed? What if you just love? without deciding? You just do: you see her and in that instant, are lost to sober account-keeping and cannot choose but to love?”
Marathe’s sniff held disdain. “Then in such a case, your temple is Self, and Sentiment. In such an instance, you are a fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self’s sentiments; a citizen of Nothing. You become a citizen of nothing. You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself.”
A silence ensued. Marathe shifted in his chair.
“In a case such as this, you become the slave who believes he is free. The most pathetic of bondage. Not tragic. No songs. You believe you would die twice for another but in truth would die only for your self alone, its sentiment.”
Another silence. Marathe felt the ironies of his position… He eventually said:
“You in such a case have nothing. You stand on nothing. Nothing of ground or rock beneath your feet. You fall; you blow here and there. How does one say: ‘tragically, unvoluntarily, lost.’”
“We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.” – David Foster Wallace
In being forced to tackle Infinite Jest slowly I was reminded of why novels are important. They are consumed over a longer period of time than TV, film, videos, or blog posts. You think about the characters, the plot, and the message of the book while you’re walking down the street or falling asleep. A good novel brings them to life and makes you engaged in the outcome. You exercise empathy and value experiences of others in ways that rival your own, in ways that we often fail to in our everyday lives. They live with you in your mind, over long periods of time, that other forms of entertainment simply don’t. Most importantly, they make us take stock and process how we are creating and destroying our lives.
The depictions of addiction in Infinite Jest felt real and ridiculous at the same time. There are street gangs searching for their next score, snatching purses and dealing with physical withdrawal. There are young well-to-do yuppies popping benzos and craving canabanoids. There are young tennis prodigy’s addicted to improving their game and raising their rank, escaping the pains of their undistracted mind or life at home. There are even those who are so addicted to entertainment on their InterLace machines (a foreshadow of Netflix streaming), they will dismember themselves. Wallace’s point, it seems, is that to be human is to be addicted to something, but the key is choosing our addiction.
“What if — according to InterLace — what if a viewer could more or less 100% choose what’s on at any given time? Choose and rent, over PC and modem and fiber-optic line, from tens of thousands of second-run films, documentaries, the occasional sport, old beloved non-‘Happy Days’ programs, wholly new programs, cultural stuff, and c., all prepared by the time-tested, newly lean Big Four’s mammoth vaults and production facilities and packaged and disseminated by InterLace TelEnt.”
Reflecting on what my addictions were, psychological or physical, made me aware of the ways that I was building – and simultaneously – destroying my life. I was trading off a life of doing hard personal work, the things that I wanted to someday complete, for the fleeting pleasures of the modern age. Saying that I had watched all of The Office to compare favourite lines and scenes wasn’t worth the tradeoff. If I was to one day write a book, compose music I could be proud of, gain insights that others hadn’t, or develop hard but worthwhile skills, I would need to choose habits that rewarded delayed gratification over the immediate. If I wanted to see things others don’t, I needed to do things other’s weren’t. We all like to think that if we were in the shoes of those children in the Stanford marshmallow experiment, we would choose two marshmallows at a later time than the immediate one sitting in front of us. Our actions often say otherwise. It could have been many books that reminded me of this lesson, but it was Infinite Jest that did.
Infinite Jest took my ego hostage and left it with Stockholm syndrome. You don’t start a book with the reputation of Infinite Jest without feeling that you are capable of completing it, and more importantly, understanding it. Like many hostages, I loved my captor by the end of our time together and didn’t want it to be over. It taught me a great deal about myself, the world I live in, and what values I should be holding in high regard. And while there is always more I can say about it and the ways it’s impacted me, I can never say enough.