Monthly Archives: January 2010

Infinite Jest

Before David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, I didn’t even know his name.  After his death, though, wails of mourning went up amongst several people that I read and admire on the internets.  So, I started poking around the edges, reading some of his essays, many from this great “in memoriam” page that Harper’s Magazine put up.  I started discussing DFW and some of his essays with a friend, who had read Infinite Jest the previous Spring.  He pressured me to read the novel, but I demurred.  I don’t read much fiction these days, although I’ve been doing better the last couple of years, and Infinite Jest seemed like such an undertaking.

But when the Infinite Summer project came along, I could no longer deny the attraction, and I signed up.  As designed, the Infinite Summer project was to take its adherents through the novel before the end of Summer 2009, but being on an academic schedule, I accelerated my reading schedule to finish before the start of the Fall semester. Infinite Jest is a long novel, and I won’t deny that at times it was a real grind to force myself through the day’s pages.  But I made it.

When I finished, though, I said little about it, because my reaction was largely one of bewilderment.  I had certainly enjoyed many aspects of the novel.  It had taken me through broad ranges of emotion:  The novel is by turns hilariously, side-splittingly funny and deeply, gut wrenchingly sad.   But I was also somehow disappointed.  I’m a traditionalist in a postmodern world; I like my stories tied up in neat bows.  Of course, I had known from the beginning that a neo-postmodern novel could never offer that kind of closure.  And yet, I was disappointed.

In the months since I finished reading Infinite Jest, though, it has remained on my mind. My fixation is to the point that I’m tempted to go back and read it again, just to re-immerse myself in DFW’s bizarro-realistic world. I don’t think I will actually reread it soon, but it’s all but certain that I’ll reread it at some point.  Three things about the novel stand out in my mind as particularly noteworthy:

  • A major theme of Infinite Jest is addiction.  And the addiction that DFW describes, I’ve found, is a powerful lens through which to view our culture.  Television, fast food, and RSS readers are, in many ways, just as powerful as the addictions to alcohol and drugs that DFW’s characters confront.  We are a society in desperate search of The Entertainment that will satisfy our wants and soothe our souls, but this very longing has the capability, the tendency, even, to enslave us and to separate us from one another and from our humanness.

  • DFW’s compassion for his characters is astounding.  Many of the characters are brutal, addicted, vain, and unlovable. And yet, DFW draws them in a way that allows us to see their essential humanity through compassionate eyes. Given that I believe that seeing people with such “compassionate eyes” is a key part of the Christian calling, I found DFW’s compassion for his characters noteworthy and admirable.  It relates well to the message that DFW conveyed in his now well known commencement speech: Selfishness is the default mode of human beings; we have the opportunity to choose a different mode.

  • Finally, DFW’s love for the English language comes through on every page, with masterfully crafted sentences.  The example I’ll cite isn’t from Infinite Jest at all.  Rather, it is a sentence from DFW’s essay about taking a cruise [PDF], subsequently retitled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” for the collection of the same name.  It is a sentence about people skeet shooting from the deck of the cruise ship.  Thus, it is a sentence about an activity that I don’t care about in an essay that mocks the very notion of a modern cruise as a worthwhile activity.  DFW writes:

    “Finally, know that an unshot skeet’s movement against the vast lapis lazuli dome of the open ocean’s sky is sun-like — i.e. orange and parabolic and right-to-left — and that its disappearance into the sea is edge-first and splashless and sad.”

    I picked this sentence because it was chosen for the dedication page on a recently released collection of DFW tributes [PDF].  I have read the essay from which it was taken at least three times, and this sentence never particularly stood out —because there are such gems on nearly every page of DFW’s work.

Anyway, if you’re up for a literary challenge that might change the way you look at the world, then go forth and read.