Just last week, I finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Infinite Jest is a book whose reputation preceded it, at least for me. As year 11 double major English students, my teacher, Mr. Bibbens, assigned us the novel to study for a whole semester, under the expectation that we didn’t have to finish it.
This is an understandable caveat considering the books length, (it totals a mighty 577,608 words, just 10,000 short of War and Peace) but now that I have finished it, also seems to be because you don’t need to have finished it to pick up the main point, because there is no ‘main point’. The way I saw Infinite Jest was as a collection of yarns, spun together around an ultimately arbitrary central thread, the cartridge itself. You could study any one of these yarns with a basic understanding of the premise, and you would not have to read the whole book to learn from it, or provide insight regarding it for the course.
The central thread of the plot is important for nothing other than structure, and simply provides DFW (for brevity I will refer to the author like this from now on) with a canvas on which he paints the real stories of the novel, his characters.
They are authentic, they have strengths and weaknesses, they interact with each other in believable ways
Hal, Mario and Gately especially taught me a lot. The time the reader spends in their minds provides interesting but not world shattering insight into the every day routines and struggles of frankly quite ordinary people. They are authentic, they have strengths and weaknesses, they interact with each other in believable ways, and most importantly to me, each of them is trapped seeing the events of the novel unfold from the tyranny of their own perspective, taking everything in in their own unique, and eventually predictable, way.
There are a few sequences between Hal and Mario in particular that I like. My favourite is on page 772, later in the novel, where they are talking over the phone about the urologist testing Hal and Pemulis, and how Pemulis ‘lied’ to the guy to get them 30 days. Hal, and therefore the reader, don’t yet know how Pemulis really got the 30 days, but it doesn’t matter for the sake of this dialogue. Crucially, Hal is frustrated that Mario seems to take everything on face value, and believe what he’s being told. He says,
“Maybe it just doesn’t occur to you. Even the possibility. Maybe it’s never once struck you that something’s being fabricated, misrepresented, skewed. Hidden.”
“And maybe that’s the key. Maybe then whatever’s said to you is so completely believed by you that, what, it becomes sort of true in transit.”
This is a great sequence.
Mario is a character who is repeatedly kind, unassuming, and mostly pretty normal, but even his own brother still manages to patronize him, all while reflecting on exactly the way every character seems to act, and importantly, what Hal is doing right fucking now.
Pemulis didn’t blag their way out of a urine test, there was a crucial element to that exchange that Hal almost purely by chance (or the control of another character, in this case Pemulis hasn’t told him yet) has no access to, and as a result, Pemulis’ ‘magnificent lie’ has done exactly what Hal accuses Mario of being susceptible, it has become “true” to Hal in transit, because it is so completely believed by him. To Hal, that’s just what happened. Importantly, this is through no fault of his own, it’s simply the tyranny of his perspective, and is ironically a great example of the phenomenon he’s describing to his brother.
Whatever is happening, the characters are consigned by their current opinions and perspectives, of each other and of their environment, when forming new ones. All is seen through purely the lens of the information they currently have. So many times in the novel we see characters come to rock solid conclusions about the situation around them, as with this moment with Hal and Pemulis, only to find that due to circumstances they cannot control they are missing a crucial piece of information about it all.
Avril could do anything for any reason, and Hal will send her actions through a pre-determined maze of his own logic
This can be seen in many of the novel’s relationships. No matter what Avril does, Hal will always see a kind action as some kind of deep motherly need to be as kind and understanding as possible, coming from her own desire to consider herself a good mother, rather than true genuine care (if that even exists under his parameters). Even when she knowingly or unknowingly compensates for this Hal lucidly notes that the compensation itself is simply part of the overall psycho-structural condition of her personality, still feeding her ownneed to feel like a good mother. Avril could do anything for any reason, and Hal will send her actions through a pre-determined maze of his own logic, preparing to come to a conclusion about her that he truly decided upon years ago. All the while, he seems oblivious to the fact that the main reason he thinks this is because Orin thought this, again showing that regardless of how well he seemed to think he knew it, Hal wasn’t exempt from these rules too. I loved this because it is so real, in real life, we are always trapped by the tyranny of what we can see. If you cannot see something, there is simply no way to know it, and in a way, that leaves people powerless, and they seek to regain that power by psycho-analysing each other into predictable boxes.
The truth is, people can do things for no reason, or any reason. Or, even when they do have a reason, that reason can be chosen on a whim, on years of careful thought, or a determined emotional response to an extraordinary situation. Even if you can read a person’s mind, it would give you almost no extra information as to why they’ve made a certain decision. Deciding Avril “just wants to feel like a good mother”, or that Joelle has “daddy issues”, or that Hal was “traumatised by his father’s suicide” and then running their actions through these interpretations is so much easier than taking all of their actions on a case by case basis, and the characters flock to characterisations like this about each other, just as real people do.
The extent to which the characters psycho-analyse each other, both openly and silently, is one of my favourite parts of DFW’s writing. Every character is judging, constantly, the others, each still doing so with only the information they have, when often the reader knows something they don’t. For me, this intermeshing of the very large cast is the true content of the novel.
I found them captivating. I read 100 pages a day for almost a week because I just liked being with the cast, who all exist within their own worlds, clash and mesh together, all while being subject to the tyranny of their own perspectives. Their minds were interesting places a lot of the time, and there are some really engaging scenes, even if they aren’t important to an especially satisfying overall story.
At the end of the novel, instead of a climax in plot, Infinite Jestoffers a climax in characters.
As for the plot, while it can seem like a book without an ending, it does have one. As mentioned in the first paragraph, the plot was merely a reason to be there, a central thing to hold the enormous cast together, and to give the reader a reason to march on through the author’s wonderful mess of character relationships and self contained scenes, each with their own standalone insights into his view of the world.
It was fascinating to see a book test the limits of the novel form, and use the ending for something other than the end. The end of the plot is in the first chapter, though the true plot climax is alluded to, rather than shown. At the end of the novel, instead of a climax in plot, Infinite Jest offers a climax in characters. We are taken through Hal ostensibly experiencing (accidentally? I have opted not to look up explanations, though it might have been part of a scheme) the symptoms of Pemulis’ DMT.
This became obvious to me when he is lying on the floor of one of the VR rooms, imagining all the food he would ever eat and all the shit he would ever excrete, and all the steps he’d ever taken in ETA, among other things. This is a passage which should be immediately reminiscent for anyone who has had their own experience with psychedelics. Hal, having earlier in the story seemingly struggled to feel much, begins reflecting on his father, his brothers, and his place on earth. He loses the ability to communicate, but in his own world his personality seems freed with vigour from the ho-hum cynicism he seemed to express earlier in the novel. He is suddenly passionate, desperate to tell others what he thinks, full of enthusiastic insight. This comes across too in the first chapter, which is the last chronologically.
Gately also offers us a climax of character at the book’s close, and brings us into the depths of his life as an addict. This was an excellent way to end the book. As anyone with their own lowest point knows, when you are there, and it is all so real, it doesn’t feel like there is ever a way out. It’s like you’re living outside of time in a world of absurd despair, and it doesn’t feel like tomorrow will ever come. You know that this may not even be the worst moment yet, and when you’re truly in the pits, the future really doesn’t exist to you, just the one moment. DFW captured the essence of a moment like that by leaving it to the end, the reader suspended in that moment, at the end of a 570,000-word book, with Gately on the floor, not knowing what quite to do next.
We never find out how Gately went from that piss soaked apartment to a functional human being, other than that he Came In and Surrendered and went to Ennet House. We just know at one point he was in that hellish shithole, and in another, he was 9 months clean and had some semblance of purpose.
DFW has some very funny and occasionally poignant moments along the way.
Infinite Jest is about many things, addiction, relationships, parenthood, coming of age, fear, and suicide among them, and they are all in the realm of the characters. In my honest view, it’s not the piece of literary genius that DFW wanted. It’s a very good book that does its best to bend the rules of a novel, and tells some truly amazing yarns along the way. The plot tells you as much by what it leaves out as what it includes, but it’s the experience with the characters that form its core. Along with that, DFW creates some very funny and occasionally poignant moments.
One of my favourite scenes is close to the end, the story of the trainer guy at ETA whose brother became a priest and then a nihilist, and who tries to prove to his brother people have humanity by acting homeless and asking to people to touch him. For weeks nobody does, and DFW meanders and rants and meanders and rants like always, detailing how slowly more and more real homeless guys join him wailing to be touched and everyone refuses to, and then after like 2 full pages of yarn it’s revealed that none other than “ETA’s own Mario Incandenza” came around a corner and touched like 15 homeless guys hands who were begging to be touched, only because “nobody had ever told him he wasn’t supposed to”.
This scene is a good example of the kind of thing I liked about Infinite Jest. It was clever, and it was really lovely to read. DFW used your familiarity with the characters on word number 490,000 or so to crack great jokes (at this point basically in-jokes), build memorable scenes, and spin some quality yarns. But, to be candid, it wasn’t a world changer for me, or really, even a world challenger.
DFW will not be remembered in years to come as one of the great thinkers of his generation, but he should certainly be counted among the great writers.
I say this because I have heard a few people, including the aforementioned English teacher; tell me that this novel changed their view on the world, but it just wasn’t quite so for me.
Honestly, there were only a couple of moments in the book that made me think about things I hadn’t previously considered, or consider old things in a new way. I think most of what DFW is trying to say is very well expressed, but as much as I love and Identify with it, “No one moment is in and of itself unendurable”, the idea that abstinence from an addiction is simply a new addiction in itself, and his many others, are not world-class genius insights, regardless of how captivating the characters he built to express it could be. They were very good, but they were not greatness, and they didn’t drip with the originality of my all-time favourites. DFW will not be remembered in years to come as one of the great original thinkers of his generation, but among the very good. However, he should certainly be counted among the great writers.
I would definitely recommend Infinite Jest for a week in a summer when you’re taking time off work, but don’t expect it to change your world, I think, and am not alone in thinking, that it has a slightly warped reputation.
For me, the best way to describe Infinite Jest is as a collection of really good yarns. The story itself was kind of arbitrary; the novel’s plot meandered at times, and was not, in itself, an especially good yarn. However, it contained within a trove of excellent yarns, many of which will stick with me. Even though when I first read them I assumed they were secondary to the ‘true’ story of the novel, in the end to me they were the story of the novel. When I first finished reading the chapter with the game of Eschaton for instance, where all the careful rules and planning put together by Pemulis fall apart because some kid gets beaned in the head with a tennis ball, I thought it could easily have been removed and the book would be the same. I thought the same about the Clipperton yarn, or the weird time Hal accidentally goes to a meeting with a bunch of guys holding teddy bears and talking about their inner infant, or the story of Matty Pemulis being raped by his Da, or Joelle’s recollection of Thanksgiving with the Incandenzas, which seemed to yield no crucial exposition. I thought “Why is he subjecting me to this? Can’t we just get to the point?”
Well, that was the point.
By the time I finished, I realised those yarns were the book, without them, there is no Infinite Jest. And boy, were some of them memorable. If anyone ever asks for a few really good yarns, recommend them this book, but try not to tell them anything about the way it’s been received. I expect they’ll be glad they read it. I certainly am, many of its tidbits have been rolling around my mind since I finished it last week, and I’m sure they will for some time to come.
2 responses to “Infinite Jest, my thoughts”
Ah, I read this book quite some time ago. Highly recommended. I’m glad you got something out of it 🙂
Thanks! I really enjoyed it.
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