30 before 30 #23: read infinite jest;

There was the Christmas my mum bought the three of us a book apiece in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in order of age which meant it worked out a less fairly for my brother and sister but then I’ve always been the biggest nerd, so who was going to complain? They were clean-covered new editions, colour-coded and obviously intended to tie in with Peter Jackson’s multi-million Hollywood adaptation; and on the back cover was this stupendously pompous quote borrowed from a Sunday Times retrospective:

The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them.(1)

Perhaps if I had read The Lord of the Rings in my precocious primary school days, when I’d spend the holidays leafing through Dickens and Ben Hur in the chair in the corner I’d have loved them, but although I thoroughly enjoyed it I’ve never felt the need to pick up the others. Another member of my family, who was motivated to pick up the first book in the trilogy by the purchase, came up with an alternative version of the Sunday Times quote: those who have read them; those who are going to read them and those who realised on page 100 that the hobbits still hadn’t finished that birthday party.

It was these words that stuck with me as I began to work my way through David Foster Wallace’s postmodern opus.

I would argue that the English-speaking world can be divided into three groups, as follows:

– those who have read, and in my experience adore (2), Infinite Jest;
– those who cannot believe you made it through it; and
– (by far the largest group) those who have no clue what you are on about.

What is it about Infinite Jest that fills those in the know with such fascination? There is certainly no other book that carries with it enough cultural mystique to sneak it onto any kind of twilight-of-one’s-youth bucket list. I was ignorant enough to assume that its place in popular culture was merited by its being the longest book in the world, but from the briefest of searches one can easily glean it is approx. 1.5 million words short of holding that title (3). War and Peace comes in just behind it (4), and while I doubt many have actually read it provides at least a mainstream shorthand. I cannot deny being swayed by my friends (5) and various indie rock-certified online challenges one thing is certain: what Infinite Jest lacks in size (6) it makes up for in, shall we say, structural challenges.

So, what’s it about? Well, Infinite Jest is essentially one gigantic cock-tease with 388 footnotes, which takes place in a perverse, semi-parodic and slightly terrifying dystopian future – terrifying in the sense that some of its predictions seem far more likely now than I suspect they would have done in 1996, when the book was completed. It is part-set in a tennis academy, a rehabilitation centre and on a freezing mountainside and features a revolving cast of prodigies, addicts, legless terrorists and one extremely dysfunctional family. The title refers to a semi-mythic film, more commonly referred to as “The Entertainment”, said to so captivate those who view it that they want for nothing more to watch it in an ongoing loop until they ultimately expire, gibbering and starving and in a pool of their own excretions. This is something worth bearing in mind before you, the reader, delve too deep.

And beyond that I don’t really know what to say, because the reason I think I became so engrossed both in the book and in wider discussion of same is that I had absolutely no clue what to expect. The most common question I have been asked by those who have yet to tread the path to its full conclusion is is it worth it? does it get better? – but an honest answer to that question would have ruined the book for me. So I shall do what the late David Foster Wallace would have done and put my answer in a footnote (7).

That being said, I doubt leaving the experience with so encyclopaedic an understanding of the makeup of various drugs, both illicit and prescription, was truly necessary to my understanding of the plot and watching the video to the Decemberists’ “Calamity Song” probably tells you as much about the more technical aspects of the tennis/war games amalgamation that is eschaton than you probably need to know.

Incidentally, this piece by Aaron Swartz certainly helped me tie some threads together in the troubled two-day aftermath to my finishing the book. Obviously, spoilers abound.

(1) See publisher Harper-Collins’ information page for the 75th anniversary boxset edition of the trilogy and prequel.
(2) However a cursory web search reveals that this adoration is in no way universal, with the book’s ending being particularly divisive – see this post for a particularly eloquent example, although THAR BE SPOILERZ.
(3) at least according to Wikipedia.
(4) ibid.; Wikipedia states that IJ is 575,000 words long as opposed to War and Peace’s 560,000.
(5) Sadly Whitney did not make it to the end of the book; however, that did mean my own quest benefited from her kind donation.
(6) Which is not for one second to suggest that the book’s size is in any way insignificant – it was Infinite Jest that sold this philistine on ebooks as a format following an accident involving a large paperback, some stack-heeled boots and the pedestrian crossing at the junction of Hope Street and Bothwell Street.
(7) I’d put it like this: much as “the Entertainment” proves fatal to its viewers by rendering even basic human needs irrelevant, so too does Infinite Jest the novel suck its readers into a similar loop – I cannot be the only one who, on reaching the narrative’s final page, immediately flicked back to the beginning only to realise that to truly make sense of the details I’d missed I’d have to read it all over again – this time taking profusive notes. Let me say this about the structure of the book: as I finished it on my iPhone it became clear towards the end that the book was going to finish with no conclusion in the conventional sense of the word – something which I would imagine would be less obvious to readers of a physical copy as those several hundred pages of footnotes provide a comforting bulk that, depending on how you placed your bookmarks (and you must have at least two) lulls the reader into this false sense that plenty of pages remain for their questions to be answered.

So, is this a failing? Well I certainly felt the same of many of my fellow readers, but let me direct you to this quote from the writer in an interview given a few years later:

There is an ending as far as I’m concerned. Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occured to you, then the book’s failed for you.

Pompous? Perhaps. A pointless intellectual exercise? How very harsh. All I know is that, in finally getting around to writing up this piece, I an tempted to disappear into a world wide web’s worth of analysis and speculation for another couple of days.

And if I ever write something that sticks with my reader in quite the same way, I will have done something right.



  1. February 7, 2012 / 6:01 pm

    Incidentally, I sent you the copy my coworker gave to me when she realized she wasn’t going to read it. I still have my battered, torn up copy Katrina ordered for me from ebay. Someday I’ll get back to it…!

    • lis is on her phone
      February 7, 2012 / 6:26 pm

      Yes! You should. I gave you your own footnote and everything.