"I read this": My newfound probable lifelong addiction to Infinite Jest
It's funny, the way obsession can trickle in. When I first decided to read Infinite Jest, I'll admit that it was mainly because of two things: 1. It was available on Kindle, so I wouldn't have to lug around a brick, and 2. It was on sale for only $3.99.
And I suppose the third—and arguably best—reason was that I figured I should read it sometime. I don't know why I felt compelled here; I never make reading an obligation, and I will boldly declare my resistance to reading that I've deemed unnecessary. For me, there is no "supposed to." And truth be told, I like short books. There are usually very few 1,000-page novels on my to-read list. But this one stuck out.
Maybe it was because years ago, I recalled seeing the very first IJ challenge on infinitesummer.org and always regretted not doing it. Maybe it was because the concept of an IJ-type book infiltrating a person's life inspired a short story I wrote for my master's thesis, and I'd always wondered what it was really about. Or maybe it was because my boyfriend told me he read about 400 pages of it years ago and had to give up, and I'm just that competitive.
Whatever, I'm just glad I read it. My only regret in reading it is that I can no longer read it for the first time again.
Infinite Jest is a sort of complicated-to-define story. Over the course of my ~2 months of reading-filled commutes, I've had a number of friends ask me, "What's it even about?"
Well, tennis. But also entertainment. Politics. Politics as entertainment. Entertainment as politics. Wheelchair assassins. More tennis. Tennis as politics. The politics of tennis. Drugs. Addiction. Entertainment as addiction. Cats in garbage bags. Quebecois separatism. Mothers.
To make it a little clearer, here are the (incredibly simplified) three main threads to Infinite Jest:
- The Enfield Tennis Academy, a competitive tennis boarding school founded by the late James O. Incandenza, hobbyist filmmaker, former tennis player, and father of Orin (tennis player-turned-football star), Mario (apprentice filmmaker with numerous physical and mental disabilities), and Hal (?). After JOI's death, the school was taken over by his wife, Avril, and her half-brother, Charles Tavis. There are some odd things happening around the school, particularly in regards to JOI's youngest son, Hal, who is in his final year at ETA.
- The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, where a number of addicts (whom we get to know very well over the course of the novel) go to confront their problems, following the motions of the spiritual principals of recovery. Key characters include Don Gately, former burglar-turned-counselor-in-residence, and Joelle Van Dyne, a mysterious veiled woman (and perhaps the prettiest girl of all time).
- The Organization of North American Nations, which is the setting for the entire novel, and which is in a state of crisis due to the Quebecois separatist movement and the circulation of a lethal entertainment cartridge that reduces its viewers to transfixed, drooling, lifelong addicts.
It's not necessarily obvious how these three threads will come together, and David Foster Wallace doesn't just hand the story to you, either. In fact, the largest complaint I've read about IJ is that the ending, well... kind of isn't one. As my eyes soaked up the final words of this seemingly infinite story, I tried to swipe to the next page and realized that was it. I was at the endnotes. My hands were practically shaking. Only pages before, we'd been introduced to new characters, more backstory, more questions—and then it suddenly, seemingly ends.
But that's the beauty of Infinite Jest. It doesn't end. The story continues beyond the written work, and the book gives you enough to know what happens next, as long as you've been paying attention along the way. Although the ending of the novel is not the resolution of the story, it's like the close of an elaborate symphony: the movements should continue resonating in your head long after the final notes.
Oh, and they do. Every day since I finished the book, some other little connection springs to mind—something I may have glossed over, but that suddenly clicks and illuminates a whole other section of the novel. I've been reading articles. Analysis. I've been printing out fan artwork and hanging it up in my cubicle at work.
And what's even more interesting is how gradually the book consumed me. I remember the dark days of confusion in the earlier chapters, hoping it would get better, followed by little moments of understanding that grew into connections and further curiosities. I remember when parts of the book became borderline laugh-out-loud hilarious to me, and when I finally felt like I was falling in love. I have a document of notes and predictions; my Kindle edition has pages-long highlights. This book is a masterpiece. And upon finishing it, it was all I could do to keep myself from going back to page 1 and starting over again.
OVERALL RATING: 12/5 Stars
NOTES AND ERRATA
 A reference to a scene early in the novel where a young Hal Incandenza presents a handful of mold to his germaphobic mother, Avril, and declares, "I ate this."
 See relevant guest blog entry: "Why I'll Never Bother Reading Ulysses"
 Entitled "Saved," this short story plays out the "one book on a desert island" hypothetical.
 Love you, sweetie.
 I read at an atypically slow ~20 pages per hour.
 What's going on with Hal is a key question in this book. Far be it from me to reveal anything.
 Or adopted brother—it's not exactly clear to any parties involved.
 Because they can't bear to do anything (not even eat or sleep) except watch the video on repeat, "lifelong" is relative here.
 IJ is infamous for its ~100 pages of endnotes, all of which are meant to be read as you're reading the main text. Do not ignore the endnotes. They are often funnier, more interesting, and more revealing than the novel itself. There are footnotes to the endnotes.
 My own analysis TK. Check back with my other blog, Reading the Repertoire.
 Often the work of Chris Ayers. Site is not totally spoiler-free.
 My favorite of which features a phone call between two of the Incandenza boys where Hal repeatedly interrupts their discussion to explain his success streak of landing his toenail clippings in the garbage can as he trims them.