Monday, March 25, 2013

Why you should read Infinite Jest

I would wager that 80-90 percent of the American public has never heard of David Foster Wallace, and that still more have never read one of his books. Those who have heard of him are probably aware that on September 12, 2008, he took his own life. DFW was, in this writer’s humble opinion, one of the truly great contemporary American artists. The real tragedy is that I feel like one of a handful of people in the US who understands what we lost that day. The good news is that he did not die in utter obscurity. He left behind two novels, three collections of short stories, and two collections of essays. 

One of the reasons why DFW is not widely known and read is that his writing is difficult. In the age of the internet, of youtube, of the 30 second sound byte, of the 140 character Tweet, of the text message, few adult Americans have the patience to read a 1000-plus page novel (unless it has vampires or wizards), like Wallace’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest. 

Of those who have attempted to read IJ, like some of my friends, a common reaction is, “What the fuck is this?” Reading IJ is comparable to reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, a major accomplishment, even for an English major. I first read IJ when I was 25, and I have to admit that I understood maybe 1/3 of it, and I have a Master’s degree in English. 

One of the wonderfully frustrating things about IJ is that it includes over 200 pages of end notes. Who uses end notes in a novel? DFW does, that’s who. It’s as if he was trying to make things difficult for us, like Joyce throwing French and Latin into Ulysses, or T.S. Eliot throwing Greek, German, and other languages into his masterpiece “The Waste Land.” IJ is not an easy book to read. It takes time and patience. But if we can agree that the purpose of great art is not to be easy, but rather to challenge us, to rattle us out of complacency, then we can begin to accept and understand what DFW was up to. The purpose of this essay will be to convince you that reading DFW is worth the effort, that it is actually funny and moving and tremendously inspiring. It’s a difficult task, I know, but I’m gonna give it a shot.

Like I said before, I read IJ in my mid-20s, along with some of his short stories, and while I enjoyed some of it, I often felt baffled and frustrated. It wasn’t until a couple years ago, on a road trip with my brother, that I really began to “get” DFW. 

I was helping my brother move from Washington to California, basically just keeping him company on the 1200-mile drive. My brother, Seth, has always been an avid reader, and he is a fine writer. While we are different in a lot of ways, we share a love for good books. 

Before the trip, I picked up a copy of Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays by DFW. I had read one or two before we left, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they were a bit easier to understand than his fiction. This might have to do with the fact that most of the essays began as journalistic assignments from major US magazines, like Rolling Stone, Gourmet, Premiere and even Tennis magazine. The first essay I read is called “Big Red Son,” which was an assignment from Premiere magazine to attend and write about the AVN (Adult Video Network) Awards show in Las Vegas. This event is sometimes called the Academy Awards of porn films. If you have read anything by Wallace, you know the hilarity of asking a writer of Wallace’s intelligence and sensitivity to write about something as crass and ridiculous as the AVN awards. It would be akin to asking Noam Chomsky to attend a taping of the Glenn Beck show, and write about it. (Actually, that would be pretty awesome).

But what Wallace does in this essay, and what he does in most of the other essays, is take something that most people would either dismiss or not really think much about, and look very carefully at it, and think very deeply about what it means—much more than the average American is willing to think about it. So, for example, in the essay “Consider the Lobster,” Wallace goes on assignment to the Maine Lobster festival and an essay about a relatively boring event becomes a thoughtful moral treatise about the ethics of boiling lobsters alive and eating them. Herein lies the humor of what Wallace is all about--describing often-overlooked but pervasive aspects of American culture with a scientist’s eye for detail, with a philosopher’s intelligence, and with a novelist’s ear for language. In Consider the Lobster, he takes a close look at such subjects as sports autobiographies, John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, and talk radio. The result is both hilarious and moving.

So, on the long drive from Seattle to Orange County, I read most of the essays from Consider the Lobster aloud to my brother as he drove, and it was an experience I will never forget. We often found ourselves laughing aloud at the awkward humor Wallace draws out of the ridiculous situations he finds himself in on these assignments. After reading each essay, we found ourselves wanting to talk about the ideas he brings up, and eager to read the next essay.

And it wasn’t all funny stuff. An essay about (Russian novelist) Dostoyevsky led to a discussion about religion, a subject we had avoided talking about for years. Our dad was a protestant pastor, and after college, my brother continued attending church and kept his faith. I stopped going to church and became more of a skeptic. But reading this book allowed us to talk about things we had not talked about in a long time. 

Reading Consider the Lobster with my brother renewed my interest in Wallace, and made me think that maybe he wasn’t so inaccessible. Maybe I just didn’t understand what he was trying to do, until then. It was an epiphany similar to one I had maybe five years ago, when I re-read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time since high school. Re-reading that book, I realized for the first time that Salinger is incredibly funny. The smartass, no-bullshit Holden Caulfield reminded me of myself and some of my friends, baffled by the post-collegiate dilemma of finding jobs and being adults in a world that seemed largely phony and ironically absurd. Holden, straddling the line between boyhood and adulthood, is torn between the idealistic vision he has of his dead brother Allie, who represents all that is good and pure and honest in the world, and the fake, selfish, cruel, perverse world he finds himself in. His insights are funny and sad at the same time. So it is with DFW. 

Thus, I picked up his other collection of essays, A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and had the same experience. In these essays, Wallace writes about junior tennis, the Illinois State Fair, going on a luxury cruise, and other subjects, all with the same intensity of awareness and depth of thought. I began to realize that DFW wasn’t interested in baffling his readers or trying to be esoteric and confusing. Rather, he was about looking closer at things we take for granted, at being aware of the sometimes absurd culture that surrounds us, at thinking deeply about the ideology behind the things we Americans take for granted, like going on a cruise, or going to the state fair, or watching television, or listening to the radio.

And so I have recently begun re-reading Infinite Jest, and it has been an immensely rewarding experience. The language that once baffled and frustrated me I now find interesting and often very funny, because I sort of understand what Wallace is up to. In his essays, he’s about looking very closely at aspects of American culture, and depicting them with all their mind-numbing boredom and ugliness and absurdity. In his fiction, he’s doing the same thing, but with the added creativity of imagined characters and settings that often parody and comment on American culture. Also, his fiction contains an element of deep humanity, of pathos, of sympathy with these characters who are caught up in usually awful circumstances. In an interview, Wallace once said that his “goal” as a contemporary writer was to use postmodern aesthetics (fragmentation, irony, a loss of stable meaning) to explore very old, traditional themes of love, relationships, community, etc. And so, beneath the weird wordplay and suffering in Wallace’s fiction, there beats a human heart. In the case of Infinite Jest, this human heart is best represented by the character Mario Incandenzza, the disabled brother of the main character Hal.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me try to sum up what that book is about, because having a framework of the world of the book helps you make sense of all the fragmented parts. It takes place in the near future, a time in which the US, Canada, and Mexico have been combined into the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN) . In the world of the novel, corporations buy naming rights for each year. So, instead of 2010, 2011, etc, we get The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, Year of the Tucks Medicted Pad, Year of the Whopper, etc. It’s a hilarious commentary on the growing power of corporations over most aspects of contemporary life. 

The novel has three settings/story lines that intersect in interesting ways. The first setting is a prestigious junior tennis academy, in which students struggle with the intense pressure put on them to succeed and join the “Show”, aka professional tennis. The main character Hal is a tennis prodigy and super intelligent young man, who takes drugs to deal with the borderline abusive emotional, mental, and physical strain he his forced to undergo to reach his “full potential.” The novel begins with a meeting between Hal, the director of the tennis academy, his coach, and various Deans from a college who is considering giving Hal a full scholarship. This meeting ends with Hal undergoing a full-blown mental/emotional breakdown. Hal’s father, James, the founder of the Tennis Academy, committed suicide by putting his head in a microwave before the novel begins. Before he died, James (an experimental filmmaker) made a film entitled “Infinite Jest” which was so entertaining that it put its viewers into a kind of comatose state, where all they wanted to do was watch the “Entertainment.” The action of the novel centers around a missing cartridge of this film, which several interested parties want to get their hands on.

Another setting of the novel is The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, and the weird lives of the inhabitants, who are tragically broken people. Many of the guests of Ennet House work at the Tennis Academy. The reader gets the sense that some of the tennis academy students, Hal included, will end up at Ennet House. One of the major themes of Infinite Jest is addiction, and the novel contains some of the most brutally honest depictions of addiction and desperation that I have ever read.

The third setting/story line has to do with US/Canada relations. In the novel, the US has “given” a large parcel of land that used to be the Northeastern US to Canada. This land is now a large radioactive dump, where giant feral hamsters roam like buffalo. This area of land is called “The Great Concavity” by Americans, and “The Great Convexity” by Canadians. Needless to say, US/Canada relations are strained. The main action of this part of the novel consists of meetings between a double agent from a Quebec separatist group called “The Wheelchair Assassins” and a crossdressing agent of the US Office of Unspecified Services. The Canadian separatists are trying to get their hands on a copy of “Infinite Jest” to use for terrorist purposes. Doesn’t this sound awesome and hilarious? It is.

The strange dystopian North America Wallace creates in Infinite Jest is both funny and poignant, and contains dead-on commentary about contemporary America. The book is a brilliant work of satire, of social/cultural commentary on par with anything Aldous Huxley or George Orwell ever wrote. It’s one of those masterpieces like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, that is really about everything: love, death, family dysfunction, addiction, entertainment, politics, depression, etc etc, ad infinitum.

And Wallace’s use of language is astonishing. The novel is a patchwork of wildly diverse voices, writing styles, and points of view. We get inside the heads of a child prodigy, a professional football player, a transvestite junkie prostitute, a government agent, a school administrator, and many others. The way he can switch between street slang and high-level academic language is simply genius. 

And but so I hope I have convinced you that reading David Foster Wallace is a worthwhile activity. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it takes time and effort. But I promise you that the rewards are worth it. He will make you laugh, make you think, he will move you and inspire you. I would suggest beginning with some of his essays, to get a sense of his style . Then move on to perhaps a collection of stories. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is a good one. Then, my friend, tackle Infinite Jest. Just read it. When David Foster Wallace killed himself, America lost a great artist. But we can be thankful that he left behind a solid collection of work that will be read and studied for years to come.


  1. Thank you for your post.

  2. Great piece. I was on the fence about taking on IJ over the summer, and I'm now inspired to do so!

  3. I am reading it right now. You're right, it's something like a big puzzle. I am hoping I can solve it. I am going to read more of DFW's essays.

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  5. Thank you so much for this essay. I am reading IJ right now and I was beginning to feel that the point of the work was to make fun of the reader and torture them like Nirvana's song In Bloom. After reading your essay I would like to do one thing and say another. First, it is the job of an author to explain the world that they create and take the reader along for the journey. DFW does a shitty job of this. The thing that I am going to do is stop reading IJ right now and not return to it until I have read several other shorter pieces of his and am ready to get something from it.

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    1. Every move you make it, every vow you break, every smile you fake, every steak you clean... ill be watching you.

      Since you been gone i've been lost without a trace

  7. Btw you have a typo regarding "Incandenza". Like Mrs. Avril I could not overlook it 😉.

  8. Thank you for your comments. Well written. I just want to know if the book is depressing or if you honestly think it would screw people up mentally by reading these thoughts. Not kidding or joking. Serious question. Thank you.