INFINITE JEST HOLY MOTHER OF SWEET MOSES UNBELIEVABLE OH MY GOD.
– A review by Keith Witty
That was the working title of this review, until I decided it was best to sleep on my thoughts for a night. After a month (fine, I will be technical. ‘Twas twenty-eight days), I finished David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest, last night around 1:00 a.m. I was beginning to piece it all together when the book suddenly and abruptly stopped (Literally stopped, for the word cannot be “ended”). If Infinite Jest was a car then I would have been 100 feet in the direction I thought I was going before the brakes were mysteriously hit without my wearing a seat-belt. The first thing that goes through a reader’s head when finishing the book is “Wait just a minute!” but this is after a few moments of white-hot anger at what feels, at first, like a twister mat being pulled out from under you when you were really just starting to get in touch with your inner pretzel. However, then you start to think and piece together what you were already piecing together before. Then you read the first thirty pages of the book again (ahem, forty-nine if you really want to get it) and then the paramedics come because you’ve pulled a James O. Incandenza.
Re-reading the first pages of Infinite Jest is probably one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. Fifteen minutes of nothing but a monstrous smile I thought would be permanently etched upon my face, saddled with continuous goosebumps. I will probably write another post that discusses the “end” of the book, but it will be one prodigious spoiler; and to be honest, I’m debating not doing it because I know that a couple people would read it even though they haven’t read the book, but are thinking of reading it. Well read this closely: Do not, under any circumstances, read spoilers for this book. You will regret it. It will suck from the book the enjoyment that was meant for you to have from a gargantuan wave of endorphins washing over your body as it “clicks” and you understand what just happened in Infinite Jest.
The plot of the book takes place in multiple settings, but mainly develops around two locations: Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House, a halfway house. Que a slew of characters, the narrative predominantly flowing through two: Hal Incandenza and Don Gately. Hal is a top-ranked junior tennis player whose family is the primary focus of the novel. Gately is a recovering drug addict and burglar. Their stories intersect through the people they interact with, which a reader must absolutely pay excruciating attention to in order to understand why the novel even follows Gately. These two characters are the axis on which the novel turns, but they orbit the main entree, namely a video cartridge (this book was written in the nineties) that is so entertaining that any individual who watches it will be unable to do anything except watch it. What is the name of this tape? It’s Infinite Jest IV or V, no one in the novel is sure. Hal’s father, James O. Incandenza, is a director, writer, and producer of his own films (an immense list of them is contained within an endnote), one of which turns out to be the most entertaining thing that has ever been created. The plot concerns a group of Quebecois Wheelchair-Assassins’ attempt to retrieve “the entertainment” so they can revolt against the U.S. president for his absorbing of Canada into the U.S. and forming O.N.A.N (The Organization of North American Nations). To explain how Hal and Don are deeply entwined within this arc is to reveal major spoilers.
The first 250 pages, give or take a few, are extraordinarily difficult to make sense of as a first time reader of IJ. I have not given up on a book in a long while, but I will readily admit that I considered dropping this novel after 200 pages of what-the-hell-is-happening. The foreword of IJ, by Dave Eggers, raves about the novel’s “approachability” and claims that, in summary, you don’t need a dictionary to understand every other word. Dave Eggers should remember that some of us aren’t geniuses. This was the first novel I’ve read this year that required me to get out a dictionary (app) to gather some of what was being said. Combine this fact with another: namely that there are pages upon pages of prose with absolutely no paragraph breaks, sometimes as one, single elephantine sentence, and you have a novel that is incredibly demanding of its reader. Once a reader breaks through this, though, and gets in the flow of the book then IJ is one of the most addictive books that could possibly be written down.
The novel is appropriately labeled as encyclopedic, though I think that scares some people away. It deals with identity, addiction, the place of entertainment in our daily lives, desire, the misguided ideals of the American Dream, politics, Canadian-U.S. Relations, film theory, tennis theory, mathematics, drug use, our tendency to revert people and ideas to commodities, and much more I am simply forgetting. What Foster Wallace is great at is writing a character whose thoughts are so like our own that it makes us realize just how human we all are. Even in characters that seem so different from how we imagine ourselves to be, Foster Wallace puts into them thoughts and observations that any reader understands and identifies, yet these do not feel out of place from any of the personas. One of the characters, Michael Pemulis, was described by Foster Wallace in an interview as “one of the antichrists” of Infinite Jest. Yet this character is impossible to not love. We tend to imagine “the bad guys” of life or history as totally consumed by evil. We imagine that it is as if they are constantly plotting to hurt others. That their dreams are unfamiliar to our own. That their life is one massive choice to be a villain. However this is not the case. Pemulis was probably not a good person, but it was obvious that this was not his idea of what he wanted to be like. With insights into his childhood we see what amounts to a usurping of any black and white worldview that could be placed upon him.
Infinite Jest is a tour de force. I’ve never read anything like it. I’m not sure any book could ever be as good as it is. One of my favorite booktubers on YouTube (The Bookchemist) said in one of his videos something along the lines of: “I read Infinite Jest and I really just had to slow down on reading anything else. It was so good. It was like, ‘Nothing will ever be this good.'” That is, in a way, how I feel about the book. I doubt I slow down reading anything else, but I must confess that Infinite Jest is worth the hype and cannot be regarded with enough positive and wonderful reviews.
Recommended to: Those looking for a challenge that rewards any who put in the effort, those bored by regular fiction at the moment, and those who find themselves thinking that a tennis match is something that should be talked about for pages at a time.
Avoid as if it was the bread aisle the day before a forecasted blizzard: Those who require their fiction to tied up with a neat ribbon, those who think a novel with endnotes that last as long as novella is an affront to God, and those who are prone to giving up on books.