Page Turners

I Finally Conquered Infinite Jest

I try to read a lot of books. The last couple of years I shoot for at least forty a year. That’s not counting any of the comics or graphic novels I read, because that would be a ridiculously high number, nope, just 40 books, either fiction or non-fiction. I plan on writing up my thoughts on each of the books I read, and even though the blog just started, even if it hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been an entry like this in a while. Earlier this year, I made the decision to read David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest.


Now, Infinite Jest is kind of an infamous book. It’s frequently on list of “greatest novels” and also on “most confusing novels” lists. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no Finnegan’s Wake, but it’s not exactly a walk in the park either. It’s an incredibly dense book, racking in almost a thousand pages, capped off with 388 endnotes. That’s right, this book has a crazy amount of endnotes. I can’t think of any other novel I’ve ever read with endnotes, seems like something that’s usually reserved for non-fiction. It was a slow journey to make it through this book, usually I can get through a novel pretty easy, even long ones. I tend to breeze through Stephen King’s longer affairs, and have a pretty good track record with George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, which are also beastly long. But this book was dense. I sometimes had to go through passages more than once, just to make sure I got everything out of it I needed. The closest thing I can compare it to is probably a Thomas Pynchon novel, the type of book where a sentence can sometimes have as much detail as a paragraph, and a chapter as much as a whole book.

So, I guess I should try to explain what it’s about. And really, it’s not super complicated plot-wise. There’s two primary locations, both outside Boston, which each have a primary protagonist. I guess you need to start off by mentioning that it’s kind of a dystopia, taking place in a world where after the year 2000 the United State, Canada, and Mexico joined together to form the Organization of North American Nations, or ONAN, a new country that’s being run by an OCD lounge singer, and where the years can now be bought by sponsers. The first location is the Enfield Tennis Academy, a snoorty private school that focusing on training the students to be professional tennis players, that was founded by a crazy guy named James Incandenza, who was a tennis player, a scientist specializing in glass, lenses, and mirrors, and an avant-garde film maker. His third son, Hal, is one of the primary protagonists, a smart but lazy kid whose pretty gifted at tennis, but is pretty apathetic to life. The plot about the tennis academy really is just about Hal struggling with his dependence on marijuana, and grappling with the fact that even though he’s good at tennis, he doesn’t really care about it anymore. Not far from the Tennis Academy is the Ennet House Druge and Alcohol Recovery House, a sort of halfway house/rehab facility for people with chemical dependencies. The main character there is Don Gately, a former opiate addict and criminal who is now a counselor and resident of the facility. Don keeps the oddballs who live at the House in line while dealing with keeping his own addiction in check. Eventually a member of the House’s actions brings some violent Canadians to the house, and in defense of the other residents, Gately is shot, and spends the rest of the book in a hospital, struggling to survive.

And that’s basically the plot of the book, with one crazy thing thrown in. Apparently Hal’s dad created a movie that’s so captivating and brilliant that when someone sees it, they want to do nothing else but watch it, until it eventually kills them. And there’s two groups of people who want it, the ONAN government whose representative, Hugh Steeply, a transgender woman who tries to infiltrate the Tennis Academy to see if Hal or his family know where a copy of the movie is, and Remy Marathe, a wheelchair-bound Quebecoise member of a group of Quebec seperatists who all are in wheelchairs, who tries to infiltrate the Rehab facility in hopes of finding the star of the movie, Joelle Van Dyne, whose cocaine addiction has led her to becoming a resident.

Now, I feel like that plot description, could lead to a pretty short book, but Wallace packs so much in, and gives you so much detail about all sorts of ancillary characters. We learn all about Hal’s Dad, his mom, his older brother Orin who left tennis to become a professional football punter, his other brother Mario whose a strange deformed eternal optimist, and pretty much every other kid in the whole academy. We learn the intricate workings of the academy, meet the staff, and learn so much about tennis, way more than I ever knew, or really wanted to know. And the same is for the Rehab house. We learn about pretty much every resident, all about Gately’s past, and all about Joelle. I also learned a lot about AA and other rehab programs, because just like tennis, this book dives head first into rehab programs.

And then the book just kind of ends. Right in the middle of a flashback. Now, throughout the book, you get a feeling of how things are going to end, what the ultimate goal will be, and there’s some flash forwards that do explain the outcome, but it’s a little strange that it’s not written. I guess since we all know where it’s going, there’s no point to spell it all out for us, but it’s a weird move. I’ve read lots of books that I figure out the ending halfway through, but I’ve never read one that pretty much says “eh, you get it, why bother telling you the end.”

But that’s not to say I didn’t like the book. I did. Quite a bit actually. And I think I get the literary significance of the ending, but I feel like my experience with Infinite Jest isn’t over. It took a couple of months to get through, but I feel like it’s going to be one that lingers with me, and I won’t truly understand it for months to come as my brain continues to puzzle it out during idle moments. If you have the time and initiative, I recommend it. And no judgement if you have to bail. It’s certainly not for everyone.

Infinite Jest was written by David Foster Wallace.

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