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Infinite Test

Well, I finally did it. All it took was a coronavirus pandemic spawning a global stay-at-home movement, but I did it. I finally read the David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest. I read it all – 981 pages, and then some. I read many of the 98 pages of endnotes. I went back and read all of the first chapter again. Yes, I have finally joined that exclusive club of people who have actually read, as opposed to having heard about or talked about, Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest is the critically acclaimed novel by DFW, the shorthand by which Mr. Wallace is known to much of the literary world. The 1996 publication of Infinite Jest catapulted him to the forefront of the author community. Lauded as a literary genius but haunted by severe depression, David Foster Wallace committed suicide (or as he would have said, eliminated his own map) at his Claremont, California home on September 12, 2008. After that, his already considerable reputation expanded to near legend.

Motivated by the news surrounding DFW’s demise, I purchased Infinite Jest on October 2, 2008. I flipped through the book and read the first few pages, but then sat it aside. I wasn’t ready for a reading project that large, preoccupied as I was that Fall with Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. In the ensuing years, I was consumed with writing and publishing my own book, Proving Ground: A Memoir, so I didn’t even consider revisiting DFW’s tome. Finally, in the summer of 2012, the Proving Ground project behind me, I resolved to tackle Infinite Jest. I approached the book with some diligence, but after reaching page 83, I put it down again. I found the prose so thick, the vocabulary so extensive, the story so convoluted, I just couldn’t go any further. Here is the review I posted to my Goodreads page on August 30, 2012:

“I must be missing something. Each page is like hand-to-hand combat. Extremely hard to digest. Like a meal of twigs and berries, it might be good for you, but you want to push it aside nevertheless.”

After typing that terse review, I relegated Infinite Jest to the bedside cubby currently populated by 1) books I aspire to read, and 2) my Amazon Echo puck. Just before Christmas 2019, I purchased a copy of Infinite Jest for my hard-to-shop-for daughter Stacy. I bought her that book as well as the other critically acclaimed book I’ve owned for a long time but never read: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. I convinced myself that reading one or both books along with Stacy would be an enriching father-daughter activity and that we would motivate each other to finish. I retrieved my paperback copy of Infinite Jest from the cubby. The pages had acquired a definite low-end sepia quality, but the book was otherwise in good condition, without torn pages or stains or dog ears. My New Year’s resolution: “I’m going to finish reading this damn book, once and for all.”

Stacy got to page 10 before putting her copy aside. I couldn’t blame her – that was further than I got on my first attempt. I was determined to soldier on, though, and this time I brought a strategy to the project: I resolved that I would read at least 10 pages per day, no matter what, and that I wouldn’t get sidetracked worrying about the story lines or looking up vocabulary words on my phone. I decided that I would just try to experience the book, to just let the story go where it wanted to go, to not worry about finishing. The strategy worked, although I found that, on average, it pretty consistently took an hour to work through 10 pages. The prose is that thick.

I was wise to simply experience the book. There are distinct story threads that don’t resolve or even make sense until hundreds of pages after they first appear. At times, the author goes into excruciating detail for no apparent reason, as when he spent more than 10 pages describing how his grandfather labored to find the source of a noise emanating from his bed frame. There is much temporal confusion. It is even hard to go back to a certain part of the story, because most chapters are denoted not by numbers (as in Chapter 12) but by the the corporate-sponsored label denoting the year in “subsidized time.” For example, most of the story takes place in the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.” Yeah. I found the book at times engrossing, but at times gratuitously pedestrian.

So what is Infinite Jest about? I don’t really know, and I’m not going to regurgitate what people say it’s supposed to be about. The main themes seem to center on a talented but highly dysfunctional family who own and operate a private tennis academy; a Canadian separatist organization that is seeking to disrupt the North American government; a culture of substance abusers who inhabit a halfway house down the hill from the tennis academy; a work of film entertainment created by the founder of the tennis academy that results in the death of anyone who views it; and so on. I don’t think the author intended for people to summarize the work in a one sentence or even a one paragraph description. I think he intended for people to simply read and absorb the story, for whatever it is worth.

And what’s with all the references to “niggers?” The references seem incidental rather than pointed, and that makes them even more infuriating. I can’t tell if the author is revealing a character’s point of view or his own, but most of the references seem unnecessary and are thus, to me, offensive.

I’m glad I finally forced myself to read Infinite Jest. Though it consumed roughly an hour of my day for more than three months, it made me think more deeply about our culture and my place in it. It was a worthwhile experience.

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