On finishing Infinite Jest

Wow, people. Infinite Jest is a great book, and it’s going on my list of favorite novels ever. I don’t know if it would be on my top 10 or top 20 or top 50 or what, but it’s up there somewhere. Many people on the Infinite Summer forums and other places talk about rereading this book, in some cases many times, and in some cases rereading it pretty much immediately after finishing it for the first time, and while I’m not ready to reread it right away, I think I probably will someday. It’s a book that would reward rereading, without a doubt. And it’s a book worth spending lots of time with.

I appreciated having the Infinite Summer blog and forums available to help me sort out the plot events and to help me remember things I would otherwise have forgotten, but as far as I’m concerned the chief pleasure in this book is not piecing together its intricate structure or following the plot. The book is so enjoyable because of the narrative voice. The trick to enjoying the book for me was not to get caught up in figuring out all the details, and instead to just let it all wash over me. I picked up on the major events, but mostly I came to understand, eventually, that I would be able to figure out enough not to get lost and so I could relax and not worry about details. And not worrying about the details freed me up to enjoy the intelligence, the cleverness, the humor, and the wisdom of that voice. It’s a voice that varies from section to section with each new situation and narrator, but the truth is, it’s mostly the same voice throughout, or maybe more accurately it’s the same sensibility. It’s a similar voice to what Wallace creates in his nonfiction, and if you like that voice, I’m guessing, you’ll like whatever Wallace writes.

I was surprised to find so much wisdom in this book, and so much heart. Before I began reading I thought it was going to be a dry, detached, ironic kind of book, the kind that’s all about thinking and not about feeling. I’ve heard people criticize this book for being cold, and I’m pretty sure we didn’t read the same book, because that’s just not true. The book is incredibly funny, it’s overflowing with linguistic inventiveness, it has so much energy it feels like it’s bursting at the seams, it’s hyperactive and show-offy, its sentences can go on and on, and it has odd quirks like Wallace’s use of the word “like” throughout the whole book pretty much no matter who the narrator is or what the level of formality is. But it also made me tear up, and I cared about the characters, more than I usually care about characters in fact.

So, I’ll try to get more specific. I thought it was wise about how difficult it is to live in one’s own head and how hard it is to communicate genuinely with other people. And it was wise about how easily we get into the habit of running away from everything that is difficult and painful and instead turn to diversions, whether they be drugs or alcohol or sports or sex or endlessly-entertaining movies or whatever. In this novel, it’s mostly drugs and alcohol. And it was wise about just how hard it is to overcome addictions and that overcoming addictions means facing those difficult things we were running from in the first place. And also about the incredible variety of ways people are hurting and hurt and damaged and deformed, so much so that pretty much nobody is whole and perfect, and everybody is trying to recover from something.

So what is the book about? I don’t think I’ll spend much time describing that because what it’s about is just so random and, frankly, doesn’t sound all that interesting. It’s got one set of characters who are students at an elite tennis academy, and another set of characters who are residents of a drug and alcohol addiction halfway house, and another set of characters who are involved in political intrigue. It’s set in our time, roughly, but in a world different from our own, with slightly different technology and wildly different political structures. You’ll recognize the world, but it’s not ours.

I’m afraid that people may be too easily intimidated by this book. Yes, it’s long and challenging, but it’s very readable, and while it does throw a whole bunch of characters and scenes at you right at the beginning and you have to orient yourself a bunch of times to new situations, it does settle down eventually and you begin to sort out who is who and what the main storylines are. I think if you are at all tempted to read this book, you should, and if you aren’t sure, then you might try Wallace’s nonfiction and see if you like that. You might try Wallace’s 2005 graduation speech given to Kenyon College, which I think is really wonderful and which gives you an idea of why I think he’s a wise writer.

And now I’m glad I have more of Wallace’s writing available to read; at this point I’ve only read one novel and one nonfiction collection and a couple things online, so there is much more to look forward to.

22 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

22 responses to “On finishing Infinite Jest

  1. Well, after reading your wonderful review, I would definitely like to try Foster Wallace, who I’m afraid to say isn’t even represented on my shelves yet. I think I’ll begin with his essays – Consider the Lobster has been on my wish list for a while. And who knows, maybe I’ll make it to Infinite Jest one day. It’s fantastic when a book really makes a life-long impact, and I loved reading about it happening to you, Dorothy.

  2. I’m about 100 pages from the end now, so I’m definitely going to finish. Although I haven’t enjoyed it nearly as much as you have, I whole-heartedly agree with you that it is filled with wisdom about relating to people and pushing through the hard things, and getting to know ourselves and the true source of our struggles.

    Even though I don’t see myself ever rereading this book, I am keen to read his essays, so while the book didn’t win me over, DFW did.

  3. How helpful to focus on what you got out of the book rather than plot elements. Very intelligent review; thanks!

  4. Wow, you make me want to run out and start reading the book right now! Unfortunately I have found as I progress through school, short books work best so I will have to put this on the top of my list of books to read when I am done with school. Maybe summer after next I will have my own infinite summer :)

  5. It sounds like reading this book is an epic experience, maybe because of the length. I’ll follow Litlove’s example and continue searching for a copy of Consider the Lobster. That title really intrigues me!

  6. You sum it up so well! I finished a couple weeks ago, and it’s also climbed into the ranks of my all-time favourites. I can’t imagine anyone reading it through and calling it cold. The last 400 pages had me on the edge of my seat, and brought me to tears more than once. I think this book is incredibly sad.

    I’ve read some of Wallace’s short stories and essays, but there’s plenty of material for me yet to read. But more than anything, I’m looking forward to rereading IJ from another vantage point in life.

  7. Rachel

    Thanks for this review. I’ve been seeing Infinite Summer forums all over the place, and thought about joining in, but I was right in the middle of another summer challenge and couldn’t do both. I’ve always been intrigued by Wallace and this behemouth of a book, always picked it up in book stores and put it back. Just way too intimidated by the size of it, and the reputation it has as being a hard book to jump into certainly doesn’t help. Maybe the next time I pick it up, I won’t put it back down.

  8. I’ve avoided this book – not because of the length or difficulty (I love me a long, challenging book), but because I have personal trauma with drug and alcohol issues, and I’m leery of diving back into that whole can of worms. But I’ve been reading so many lovely, thoughtful reviews of it this summer – yours definitely among them – that I’m considering giving it a try. In particular, your stress on a wise, consistent narrative voice is extremely appealing; a strong narrative voice is among my chief joys in life. So anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Emily– Two of the regular bloggers, Infinite Detox and Repat Blues (you can find the links on the Infinite Summer main site) have addiction issues and address IJ in that context. I love their work, and they find IJ to be incredibly helpful in their own struggles.

  9. Just the sheer size of this book makes it look a little overwhelming. It’s nice to hear it’s very readable, and from the few reviews I’ve come across a very memorable read as well. If I see any of his work at my next library sale (which is tomorrow) I will definitely snap it up (though I doubt I’d be so lucky). You make it sound so appealing, though perhaps I’d do well to start with his essays!

  10. Glad to hear how impressed you were by the book. It is daunting, but along with Underworld, I think it is probably the best novel of the last couple of decades. It’s a shame Wallace left us so soon.

  11. Litlove — oh, I’d really love to hear what you have to say about Wallace’s work, the essays or IJ. He’s someone I’m not entirely sure other people will love as much as I do, even considering how popular he is, so I rave about his writing, but I do wonder what people who haven’t read him yet would think.

    Teresa — well, if DFW won you over even if IJ didn’t, I think you’ll like his essays a lot. You have the voice and the insights and the humor without the length and the occasional tediousness (although I never found IJ tedious, I know other people did, and it really is long!). Congrats on getting so close to the end.

    Rhapsody — thank you! There’s just not much point in focusing on plot with IJ, as the plot doesn’t really capture the feeling of reading it.

    Stefanie — yes, with a really busy schedule, this book would seem to go on forever. But when you have time, do consider picking it up! And there are always essays if you want a taste of what his writing is like.

    Debby — yes, it really was an epic experience. That’s a great way of putting it. But his essays are really great too; his essay on dictionaries in Consider the Lobster is just fabulous.

    Isabella — I’m so glad you had the same response I did! Yes, the ending was a real emotional roller-coaster. Now I’m trying to decide if a reread would make more sense relatively soon, while the first reading is still fresh and I haven’t forgotten details, or if it makes more sense to wait for a new stage in life, as you say.

    Rachel — I do hope you give this one a chance! There’s really no need to be intimidated by it, and its reputation makes it seem much harder than it is. Maybe they will do Infinite Summer again next year?

    Emily — yes, I can see the difficulty. I’ve got a friend with alcoholism in his background, and I’m curious what he would say about it and I can also see it would be difficult. But if you do read it ever, I’m sure you would have great things to say about it. And I know just what you mean about a strong narrative voice — wonderful!

    Danielle — yes, his essays are just great, and they will help you figure out if you would like his fiction or not. It is daunting to take on the book, but so worth it!

    Robert — I’m glad you agree with my assessment, and I’d agree with you about Underworld as well. Yes, the anniversary of Wallace’s death is Saturday, and it’s such a sad thing.

  12. Ann

    Should I go out and shoot myself now? I’ve not heard of either book or author and clearly I should have done. I knew there was a reason why I should never have started blogging; it was because posts like this would come along and do terrible things to my tbr pile, which was mountainous enough as it was:)

  13. I haven’t finished “Infinite Jest” yet–I’m still stranded around page 600–but it’s also one of my favorite books already. I think it’s hilarious. I was was getting funny looks at work when I’d burst out laughing. An intimidating book, to be sure, but I think most people can tackle it, understand it (with a little patience), and enjoy it. I’m very glad I picked it up, though I admit I wouldn’t have done so without Infinite Summer.

  14. I’m so glad you enjoyed it so much–I read it several years ago, and your post more than most of what I’ve read recently makes me want to pick it up right now and re-read it. But like Stefanie, I’ll have to wait for a less chaotic time.

    For my money, incidentally, the later stories, in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and a few in Oblivion are his most interesting work, though I know it’s a minority opinion. I could stand to re-read all of his stuff.

  15. Ann — definitely don’t go out and shoot yourself now :) The same thing has happened to me over and over again, so you are definitely not alone!

    Brandon — I agree that the book is very funny. I don’t usually laugh out loud at books, but I did with Infinite Jest. And it’s also true that it’s much more accessible than people think. It does require patience, although more so because it takes a while for the strands to come together, not because it’s slow or boring.

    Richard — I’m certainly glad to make you want to read the book again. I’m looking forward to reading more of his essays and stories, and will keep your recommendation of the later work in mind.

  16. ted

    You have enticed me. I have been so tempted to read more than the couple of short pieces of his I have read.

  17. Ted — excellent! My work is done :)

  18. I’m like the others who have avoided this book. But you make a compelling case.

    I am pleased to have found your blog. I am working my way through the blogroll on Wuthering Expectations, looking for bloggers who share similar reading tastes with me. Looks like I found one!

  19. Wow, I’m amazed at all the comments from people who haven’t read IJ. Folks, it doesn’t get any better than this.

  20. Pingback: Infinite Summer » Blog Archive » Roundup

  21. I got about 400 pages into it then stalled. That was a year ago. And yet the book still haunts me. I mean, here I am googling “finishing Infinite Jest” after all! I will finish it though. One day. I hope.

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