27 May 2019
It took me 18 months and three weeks.
Nearly 19 months is a long time, a tough pill to swallow for a girl nominally understood to be “one of the smart kids” (though, if we’re being honest with ourselves, that label is far too liberally applied to any decently organized non-athlete unafraid of raising their hand in English class. I also wear glasses). And 19 months isn’t even a truly accurate timeline.
A full calendar year passed between the time I dragged myself through the first chapter and when I started in on the second. I like to count from the start of the second chapter because the 19 months that followed the start of the second chapter were the time when I identified as “currently reading Infinite Jest” and I had absolutely no intention of not finishing.
I had bought the book on a whim at a second hand shop mostly because the concept of a consensus masterwork of over 1000 pages being sold for $3 made me confused and maybe a little angry- feelings that, when combined, apparently turn me into a compulsive purchaser. And, because I’m a millennial cliché as much as I’m anything at all, it sat on my shelf unopened for like 7 years.
Then came an invitation to accompany my friend Linn to her family cottage in the absolute middle of nowhere. I’d been selected for this trip because my flexible schedule and laptop-based career meant I could just take off for ten days at a time. And I’m self-sufficient enough that Linn could count on me not pestering her as she ran her web design business from the cottage’s second floor during working hours. So, I figured ten days of total isolation with a light work schedule and a “do not pester Linn” mandate- this was my moment. If I was ever going to read Infinite Jest, it was on this trip.
I read one chapter (plus Dave Eggers’ introduction, which, like most DFW-adjacent critical writing, is over-flowery and wankily academic as though that’s at all what Wallace would have wanted).
I did a couple things wrong on that first attempt. I made one stupid, obvious mistake that explains why my grand plan of forced reading by way of isolation failed miserably. And I made one much larger, less tangible mistake that accounts for the full year it took before I picked the book back up and tried again.
The first mistake was simply that, when packing for my 10-day trip, I gave myself a literary parachute. I knew that I wanted to read Infinite Jest but I didn’t know if I wanted to read Infinite Jest, you know? What if I hated it? I couldn’t trap myself in a cabin with only a book I hate and a friend I’m not allowed to talk to until after 5pm. So I packed one of Mindy Kaling’s books of essays as back-up material in case of hatred or if my brain just needed a break. Mindy Kaling’s essays are wonderful, by the way, and this paragraph should in no way be taken as any sort of criticism of their depth or intellect. But they’re also hella fun and really accessible and relatable and non-traumatic and, when given the option, my particular brand of instant gratification prioritization/total lack of self control/true un-ironic appreciation for nice happy things every time will lead me to those essays over the massive literary mountain I set out to conquer, no matter how determined I’d been when I naively packed both options.
My second, and ultimately succesful, attempt to read Infinite Jest began a year later and yet again involved packing for a trip. One thing I figured I’d gotten right that first time around was the idea of isolation and a dedicated period of time when I’d have plenty of opportunity to read. My everyday life doesn’t afford a ton of time to just sit with a book without distractions and, knowing how slow of a reader I am, I knew I’d need time in order to really get a foothold on this thing. I doubted (I think accurately) that I’d make it if I tried to start reading just on a regular Tuesday on the subway.
So I packed Infinite Jest as the one and only book that would come with me on a two-week trip to India in November, 2017. I was going on my own to attend a Young Critics Conference put on by the International Association of Theatre Critics then taking a few days at a retreat in the mountains and a short spin by Mumbai before flying out by way of Abu Dhabi. I was going to read Infinite Jest on this trip whether I liked it or not. Mindy Kaling was not invited.
I returned to Canada with about 200 pages under my belt, having crossed the threshold of “this is dumb, opaque muck and I hate everything about it” and experienced enough of the novel’s beautiful moments to compel me to keep reading through whatever hardships awaited me as I inched my way towards the last page, which I turned this afternoon, nearly two years later.
Aside from not packing a backup book, attempt #2 included two other important changes. One was strictly practical- the book was too goddamn big. Even in paperback, I hated carrying it around. The print is minuscule and still the thing wouldn’t fit in most bags, was stupidly heavy, and pathetically presented an “I actually cannot hold this comfortably” problem. So I ripped the book into thirds. Literally, ripped it straight down the spine like an angry stepdad in a movie about a kid with “too much imagination”. I fashioned makeshift temporary covers for the now-exposed sections out of printer paper and duct tape. The result was three much more carry-able mini-books, each of which was still bigger than most regular books but manageable at least. The lack of readable cover also gave me a fun air of superiority over all those people who totally read Infinite Jest just so they can be seen reading Infinite Jest. The strangeness of the unassuming anonymous duct tape covers were a fun talking point and a great conversation starter while I also got the credit for not being a show-off. In both the categories of sheer practicality and vain-things-I’m-a-hypocrite-about, this solution was a win-win.
The rip-it-up solution only came with one real problem (aside from the unreliable durability of printer paper book covers when dragged around for nearly two years). Infinite Jest‘s infamous footnotes are actually endnotes, meaning they’re all collected at the end of the book rather than at the bottom of each relevant page. A few of them are extremely long, which I guess would have presented a formatting issue if they had been proper footnotes, but I otherwise cannot fathom any explanation for forcing the reader to flip back and forth in order to keep up with the notes while reading. And you absolutely have to read the footnotes, or so insisted every person I talked to and also the entire internet (the internet LOVES Infinite Jest in that way that a non-sentient technological tool can feel love). It’s tough to get a rhythm going with Infinite Jest and pausing periodically to flip to another page and read a little relevant-but-not-crucial parenthetical just wasn’t going to work for me. So I left that last third that had the novel’s ending and the notes behind as I tackled the first two thirds. Then I binged the notes periodically until I caught up with where I was in the novel proper. I probably missed some stuff on account of this highly imperfect strategy but, screw it, I did the best I could.
In truth, most of the endnotes are just science-y explanations of various kinds of drugs. There’s an 8-page filmography everyone complains about reading but insists that you read even though it’s placed so early in the footnotes that any of the pertinent information revealed within it will have no real resonance for you for another like 600 pages. Occasionally there’s a little one-line pearl of endnoted wisdom you won’t want to miss. A few notes- maybe 3?- are gorgeous little sidequests that easily could have been part of the book proper considering there are basically no narrative rules in Infinite Jest and sidequests are like half the book. But they’re in the endnotes. So you have to read the endnotes. Because Infinite Jest is infuriating and if you miss out on one of the great parts because you weren’t reading the endnotes, what was even the point?
Which brings me to the real thing I did differently on my second attempt to read Infinite Jest, how I corrected the bigger picture (non-Kaling-related) mistake I’d made a year earlier when I read chapter one at Linn’s cottage.
I knocked the damn thing off its pedestal.
You could argue that tearing the book into pieces was the physical manifestation of this act (“it’s sacrilegious to mangle a book like that!” I heard from more than a few people who definitely haven’t read Infinite Jest) but I had to commit to the idea not just in my willingness to rip and tape and dog-ear the hell out of the thing. I had to read it like it didn’t matter, like it wasn’t considered a staggering work of genius and the defining novel of its generation. I had to put everything I’d ever heard about Infinite Jest out of my head, including how long it was and the notorious difficulty of the language. I broke it down and took it one line at a time like it was just a book. Because it really is just a book.
When I read chapter one of Infinite Jest, it took me an entire day. I stared at the pages for hours on end, the tiny type blurring together, desperate to find the end of a sentence let alone the end of a paragraph. I read and re-read and re-read passages like I was trying to understand a new language. I looked up every single word I didn’t know (I don’t care how smart you are, there are thousands of words in Infinite Jest that you do not know. Some of them didn’t exist until David Foster Wallace wrote them). If I didn’t understand why something was happening, or exactly what was happening, I went back to the start to find what I missed.
But here’s the secret- I didn’t miss anything. The answers weren’t there. The first chapter is purposefully confusing and it’s only if you keep going that it will start to make any sense. Yeah, sure, maybe someone smarter than me would have followed that first chapter with a bit more clarity- and certainly a lot more expediency- but I strongly feel that a genius IQ shouldn’t be necessary to read a book. Any book. And from everything I know about David Foster Wallace, I think he’d agree. I don’t think he’d want his novel high up on some untouchable shelf; I think he’d want it read.
So here’s how I read it:
If I didn’t understand something, I just kept going. If I forgot who someone was, I just kept going. If didn’t know a word or missed a plot point or hated a particular passage so much that my mind started to wander, I just kept going.
At the end of the day, the plot is really not all that important to Infinite Jest. I mean, you could maybe even argue that it doesn’t really have a plot. The book cover blurb talks about the titular McGuffin that’s incredibly compelling in a thematic way and as a metaphor for a binge-culture future David Foster Wallace wouldn’t live to see, but said McGuffin’s relevance within the actual story is marginal at best. Though Wallace’s world-building is imaginative (the novel is set in a near-future dystopia packed with detail and backstory), the C-story machinations that revolve around “Infinite Jest” are mind-numbingly boring, even if they are the closest thing to conventional action in the novel. But of course, like with the endnotes, there are little moments of incredible beauty sporadically slotted in amongst the political nonsense, the threat of missing such a moment forcing you to read page upon page (upon page upon page) of acronyms, interchangeable French Canadians, and dull maneuvering.
If you can survive the various forays into the antics of Hugh Steeply, Remy Marathe, President Gentle, and whomever else is going on about “the concavity”, the heart of the novel lies with two principal characters who occupy brilliantly rich contrasting worlds just a stone’s throw from one another- Hal Incandenza of the Enfield Tennis Academy and Don Gately of the Ennet House Drug & Alcohol Recovery House, neither of whom experiences much of what you could call a plot, at least not one that’s chronologically follow-able within the the novel’s jumpy, withholding structure.
Infinite Jest is all character building and personal storytelling and poetic expounding on the struggle of living. Both men are surrounded by complicated and frustrating and incredibly well developed characters who have no business being so well developed considering how very many of them there are and how very irrelevant they would be deemed in anyone else’s version of this novel (not that there could ever be anyone else’s version of this novel). One of my favourite characters is Hal’s schoolmate Ted Schacht and I’m not exaggerating when I say he’s maybe the 35th most important person in the novel. That may even be a bit generous. One of the great unmissable scenes is a glorious portrait of frustrating genius in the character of Michael Pemulis captured with insightful contrasting character voices then hidden deep in the endnotes because Pemulis isn’t the sort of person anyone has much opportunity to see clearly unless they’re paying very close attention (told ya you have to read the endnotes, if only so that you’re the sort of person who reads the endnotes). There’s a glimpse inside the depressed mind of Ennet House resident Kate Gompert that is so chilling it still makes me tremble even months later.
The only way through is through. You just have to keep turning the pages. That will mean you miss some details. You may not grasp every nuance of political backstory or connect every single dot. It will take you awhile to remember the difference between Schacht and Troelsch, to separate Day from Erdedy; you may never quite know who Rodney P Tine is. But it’s gonna be okay (and, if you really get stuck, I found this spoiler-sensitive and extremely extensive character list very helpful). The things you need will make themselves unmissable, I promise. You can’t miss something that shoots straight at your heart the way the best parts of Infinite Jest do.
And maybe we’ll disagree about which parts those are! All I can tell you is you have to keep going.
Infinite Jest is really fucking long. For all its qualities, long really is the inarguable defining one. And if you read at my pace (slow to begin with and with very sporadic time to read), you’ll get to a point where it feels like you’ve always been reading Infinite Jest. There will be sections where characters you don’t care about talk in ways that are difficult to understand and you’ll want to throw the book into the nearest body of water. But you’ll get through it. And maybe the next part will be just as frustrating. Or maybe it will be one of the passages so beautiful that now you’re crying in a coffee shop or staying up til 4am because you can’t put the book down, and not just because you can’t seem to find the end of the chapter (another pro tip: learn to put the book down where you need to; if you try to hold out for a proper chapter break it might be another 80 pages). Those great bits will propel you through the hard parts and, when you get to the end, you’ll be able to say you made it through something so many people give up on or never even attempt.
Do you remember the first time you read the last page of The Great Gatsby? Remember that last line and how you exhaled as you closed the book with that satisfied feeling of “boy, that was good”? Yeah, Infinite Jest doesn’t do that. It just kind of ends. It actually ends on a flashback, which I guess is interesting in that it starts on a flashforward, but that last scene could have played 400 pages earlier and fit in just fine. There is no indication of what happens to any of the characters you’ve now spent 1000 pages either caring deeply about or merely tolerating (fuck you, Hugh Steeply). It’s a Sopranos ending, a cut to black, and because of the flashforward it actually takes you awhile to realize that the last time you will ever see so-and-so already happened and already feels like a thousand years ago. It reminded me a little bit of Annie Baker’s glorious The Aliens and the takeaway that life doesn’t give its characters a closing monologue. David Foster Wallace wasn’t telling us a story, not in the Fiction 101 sense of “a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end”. He was showing us something- some people, some ideas, a couple of places in a couple of times- and, after 980 pages excluding endnotes, he stopped showing us. The story didn’t end because there was no story. Life just goes on. It’s frustrating, but so is most of the novel so you’re used to that by now.
In the beginning, it’s all overwhelming and confusing. At some point, things start to make a little more sense. You connect with some people, not with others, and those people you connect with pull you through when you don’t think you can do it. It’s hard and maddening and will absolutely sometimes make you feel stupid. But you’re not.
It took me 18 months and 3 weeks to read Infinite Jest but goddamnit I finished. And now I guess I’ll just keep going.