A handheld video camera

I had a lot of trouble choosing an image for this article. If I had to pick one image to represent Infinite Jest, it would be the video camera. This is partly because film is such a central theme throughout the book, but also because of the way, through the book, the author holds a camera up to his own life, and to society. (Photo by Thomas William on Unsplash)

While I take notes on most of the books I read, I’ve never publicly written a book review before. But I was so moved by Infinite Jest that I feel compelled to try. For those who haven’t yet read the book, please note that this review doesn’t contain any spoilers—not that there’s much to spoil in a book with hardly any plot!

I read somewhere that Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite authors, begins each of his novels as a single scene. Norwegian Wood, one of my favorite novels, for instance, began as the scene where Toru, the book’s narrator, climbs onto the roof of his building in Tokyo one Sunday and releases the firefly in a jar given to him by his roommate. Murakami later expanded this scene into a short story, Firefly, which eventually grew into Norwegian Wood.

I just finished reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace—or, rather, listening to the audiobook. It had been on my reading list for some time, but after a good friend recommended it highly, and I found myself looking for some new fiction to dive into, I decided to give it a shot. I’ve found that the best thing for my running isn’t a new pair of shoes, a diet, or a training regime, but rather a long, immersive audiobook. I tend to get so lost in great books while running that hours pass and I don’t even notice. Oh, and it has to be fiction—I love nonfiction too, but I don’t get lost in works of nonfiction the way I do in fiction. The longer the book, the better, so Infinite Jest was a great candidate. I did indeed get completely lost in it, and it kept me company across many miles and many runs.

Infinite Jest is basically a thousand pages of these vivid, Murakami-esque scenes—or, to borrow Wallace’s own phraseology, tableaux.[1] It’s one of those rare works that sort of defies both description and categorization. It’s definitely unlike any book I’ve ever read before (and I’ve read a lot of books). Describing Infinite Jest to someone who hasn’t read it is like trying to describe Burning Man to someone who hasn’t been there—it’s just one of those things that you have to experience for yourself.

Wallace defies pretty much every rule of writing and eschews pretty much every standard practice. There are intentional misspellings, malapropisms, and neologisms throughout. Large portions of the book are written in deeply colloquial dialects: most prominently, an eerily accurate form of English as spoken by native speakers of Quebecois, but also 1990s ebonics, Irish English, and Boston English. The characters refer to themselves and to one another using a bewildering array of names, nicknames, pet names, and abbreviations. One of the main characters is maddeningly known as “Himself,” which makes parsing the audiobook particularly challenging in parts.

Paul Graham (another of my favorite authors) famously said that you should Write Like You Talk. Wallace takes this advice to its logical extreme and writes, instead, the way people think. The book is over a thousand pages of stream of consciousness: an individual character’s mental monologue may jump frenetically among five or six different topics, each one appearing, disappearing, then reappearing half a page or six pages later. As a chronic sufferer of attention deficit disorder, I can identify with these passages, and find them appealing (if a little tough to follow). There are no chapters and there is hardly any discernible plot. The plot is rather an interwoven braid of the private plots of each character: their reality, their thoughts and desires and subjective experiences, their inner monologues. What plot there is is left totally unresolved at the end of the book.

It has a cast of dozens of characters, and dozens of locations, and the story also constantly jumps around in time. As a result, for most of the book you feel totally lost since the years have names, not numbers, and you don’t know what order they’re in. At the start, it’s like you were dropped into the middle of someone’s private, mixed up psyche with no map and it takes some time to get your bearings. In the meantime you have to sort of surrender to the author, buckle up, enjoy the ride, and trust that it will all work out. To me, this is more or less exactly what it should feel like to read great fiction.

Infinite Jest feels less like a book and more like a universe to explore. Its depth and level of detail feels almost fractal, like zooming in on any of the characters or scenes would yield an infinite level of depth and detail. There are hundreds of endnotes, some with their own endnotes—a book within a book. The book is truly encyclopedic: there are hundreds of unfamiliar words and ideas, and references to works and complex subjects spanning topics as diverse as optics, linguistics, the psychology of addiction, film and media theory, and sports. I regularly found myself descending long, tangential rabbit holes of Wikipedia articles exploring these topics. The book even has its own extensive wiki.

In this sense, Infinite Jest actually reminded me a lot of the sort of role playing game that gives you an entire world to explore, like Final Fantasy. You can read the book from start to finish, in a more or less linear fashion, and miss a lot. Or you can take the time to explore all of the nooks and crannies, the “side quests” if you will, and have a very different experience. It’s no surprise that there is a cottage industry of books on how to read the book. To make another admittedly pained comparison, I suspect that, like Burning Man, you can experience Infinite Jest many times, and have many different experiences (I’ll report back after my second experience).

For all of this, the book works, somehow. There is a superstructure, just off the page and out of sight, that seems to hold it all together, barely. The book’s various plots and subplots, the individual narratives of the characters, intersect in funny and unexpected ways.[2] The book’s title is a reference to Hamlet, and one of the book’s main plotlines borrows from both Hamlet and from Homer’s Odyssey. But Infinite Jest feels closer to real life than to ancient fiction. Everyday people—each struggling, through various failings, with the nature of happiness—go about their day to day lives. In turn, we get a view into the heads of each of them—some only once or twice, some uncomfortably often.

Infinite Jest has the best developed characters of any book I’ve ever read. It takes that advice oft-given to novelists to the extreme: write your characters, and they’ll write the book for you. It may be a cliche thing to say about great fiction, but the characters feel three-dimensional, as if they’re about to jump off the page.

I read this book during an intensely lonely period, while stuck at home, as Covid19 ravaged my city. It didn’t strike me at first, but as I neared the end of the book, I suddenly began to feel a lot of melancholy over its ending. In that odd way that’s only possible with a great book or a great video game, I had become close to Hal, Mario, Joelle, Steeply, Marathe, Don Gately, and the rest of the cast of characters. They feel real to me in an almost eerie way—like I know them better than I know some of the actual people in my life. After spending so many days and hours inside their heads, I suppose it’s not that surprising. I feel like I’ve been living in their world. And I really feel as if they kept me company during this difficult period. I don’t feel ready, yet, to say goodbye to Enfield Academy, Ennet House and Les Assassins des Fauteuils Roulants.

My childhood was pretty lonely, too. I lived on a farm, and didn’t have many friends. Reading this book reminded me why I began reading voraciously as a child. It was a way to escape from that loneliness, to escape the drudgery of real life, into the magical realism of a great book. I also identify with many elements of the book. I was born around the same time as the book’s protagonists and appreciate the many references to nineties culture. I’ve witnessed firsthand the devastating effects addiction can have on people’s lives, and on their families. As with so much else of Infinite Jest, the book’s portrayal of this, too, is eerily accurate.

I have friends that love reading and are very intelligent, but strongly prefer nonfiction and rarely consume fiction. They ask me, “What’s the point of reading fiction? What do you get out of it? It’s pure entertainment.”

In a sense, they’re right. Infinite Jest was, indeed, highly entertaining.[3] It has a wry sense of humor, and just a touch of absurdism, mystical realism, and alternate reality, enough to make the book feel light and fun in spite of its focus on heavy topics like addiction and unhappiness. It also has enough literary references throughout to keep you on your toes.

I didn’t read Infinite Jest expecting to learn something, in the sense of facts about the world, per se. But it would be a mistake to say that I didn’t gain anything from the book. Here’s another cliche but true statement about great fiction: it makes us reflect on the human condition. It fosters empathy—and, frankly, I cannot imagine a more useful skill for modern life than empathy. Reading Infinite Jest, one cannot help but feel what the characters must feel, each in his or her own troubled life. One cannot help but compare oneself to each of the characters: how are my failings like this character’s, or that character’s? To what extent can I identify with what they think and feel? What lessons are here, for me? And even more to the point—what is life like for people who are very different than me, who are experiencing challenges I can’t even imagine? What must life be like for those who are dealing with horrible addiction, or child abuse, or for someone disfigured, or for a mother whose first child was stillborn due to her drug habit?

No man or woman is an island. Each of us is the person we are today due to the collective influence of the people around us—especially the people we grew up with, especially our family and close friends. The older I get, the more I appreciate the influence that those people, and that early set of experiences, had on who I am today: on my behavior, thought process, and the way I see the world. For me, the process of growing up is, in part, the process of understanding those influences and the effect they’ve had on the person I’ve become. Why do I feel the way I do about certain things? Infinite Jest feels like its author’s personal attempt to answer this question, by systematically exploring his own world—exploring it through the narrative lens—and in the process examining his own biases and influences.

Most of all, Infinite Jest left me with a very strong desire to write, as a way to better understand myself, and my world, and all of the crazy characters and stories in it. I’ve long wanted to write a novel, and while I don’t feel anywhere near capable of doing that yet, I do feel that Infinite Jest shows me a new and different way of writing about what I know.

Have you read Infinite Jest? What did you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

  1. I learned more new vocabulary from Infinite Jest than I have from probably any other book I’ve ever read. In addition to tableau, a few other words that come to mind are bradykinetic, carbuncular, annular, rococo, gestalt, and ghost word, not to mention the names and chemical makeups of far more drugs than I care to know about (I’m not the only one to have made such a list). If you’ve read Infinite Jest, you’re probably smiling and chuckling to yourself right now; if you haven’t, read the book so you are in on the jokes! 

  2. One of my favorite examples of this is a scene, beginning on page 682, where a minor character stares out the window of a restaurant, lost in painful memories of an abusive father, while watching several of the book’s other characters walk by and intersect, totally unaware of one another, and of the fact that they’re all characters in the same novel. 

  3. And, also, meta-entertaining, in the sense that it’s an entertaining book about entertainment as an idea.