What’s The Deal With Infinite Jest?

One does not simply read Infinite Jest

I just finished Infinite Jest, and I have questions.

I finished the book early one morning, before the kids were awake. The first thing I did was Google “what happened in Infinite Jest.” The second thing I did was Google “Infinite Jest WTF” and my own blog was the fourth result. Gulp.

I started to read some blog posts and critical reviews, and quickly realized that if I just read what other people think, I’m not going to draw my own conclusions. So, I quickly wrote down my questions and impressions so they’re as fresh as possible. I don’t want to sound smarter than I am because I’ve read a bunch of other people’s thoughts.

(As an aside, 101 Books identifies this, reading reviews before forming an opinion, as a sign that you might be a book snob. Well… I’ve come to terms with my book snobbery, so I’m okay with that!)

This post is for other people who finished Infinite Jest, and, like me, were like “WHAT HAPPENED,” so you’ll feel better; for people who finished it and totally understood everything, so you’ll feel smart; and for people who haven’t read this book, so that maybe you’ll be intrigued enough to pick it up. Despite not understanding everything, I think this is an important book for all of us borderline millennials  and, well, everyone. To paraphase DFW himself, this book is about what it is to be a fucking human being.

In no particular order, here are my questions, impressions, thoughts, and feelings upon finishing Infinite Jest. Spoilers, etc:

  • What is the significance of TEETH in this book? Off the top of my head, the ADA forgives Gately for causing his wife’s obsession with cleaning her teeth, one of Himself’s films was about teeth, one of ETA staff is obsessed with teeth, Mario is “homo dental” which I don’t even know if that’s a thing, and every time I read “Ortho Stice” I thought of braces. This may seem like a weird thing to fixate one, but it is really bothering me!
  • These is a serious lack of female characters in this book. The settings are primarily male: A tennis academy and a drug recovery house, both of which of course have female residents, but are male dominated. The primary females are damaged or physically different – Joelle’s face (both as PGOAT and UHID), Avril’s height, Pat’s limp.
  • In DFW’s biography, the author asserts that DFW has major issues with his mom that are manifested in Avril’s character. I never understood what those issues were supposed to be. His mom and their relationship sounded pretty normal. Avril on the other hand… there’s the major denial about the various problems her husband and children face, the numerous affairs, the possibility that she was a separatist operative all along… plenty of issues! A lot of the book is about fathers and sons, but Avril is way more interesting to me than Himself was.
  • There’s a fair amount of cross dressing. Not sure what else to say about that.
  • There’s a lot to think about in terms of drugs and how we think about them and the people who do them. I support legalization in most cases, and when it comes to pot addiction, I can’t help but think about Bob Sagat’s cameo in Half Baked (worth a Google if you haven’t seen.) But, Hal’s addiction to pot is real, serious stuff.
  • I found the Quebec/US political stuff the hardest story line to get into, but by the end, I was loving Remy. He is an agent of the AFR, a Quebec separatist faction comprised of men who’ve lost their legs… surprisingly, it’s his love story, not Gately’s and Joelle’s, that got to me. I love the tension between love as selfishness and love as obligation to another. See also: Mercy Among the Children, The End of the Affair, Love in the Time of Cholera, I could go on.
  • WTF HAPPENED TO HAL. In the first chapter, we meet Hal a year after the main action of the novel, and he’s basically non-functioning except for tennis. A tennis savant. My guess was that he watched the entertainment, but for some reason was resistant enough to function at a base level; tennis was so encoded into his being that he could still play, but anything else was shut down. But the accepted theory, which involves drugs and mold (really) is something I don’t think I ever would have figured out on my own. Ever.
  • What is significance of chapter two, in which Eredy, a minor character later in the novel,  is having a mini anxiety attack as he waits for a delivery of pot? His name comes up again near the end, as Gately notices Joelle is wearing his sweatpants… was Joelle the one he was waiting for in chapter two?
  • Why is the wraith of JOI messing with Ortho Stice? Ortho’s belongings and furniture seem to move of their own accord, in increasingly disturbing ways. In a late scene, his bed is bolted to the ceiling. If this is a ghost-JOI, why? Is he trying to get to Hal?
  • There’s a scene very early in the novel that kind of explains where the master copy of Infinite Jest was and who ends up getting it, but swear to god I would never have caught on. This is one of the things I read in a blog post after my initial Google search. It also finally brings together the three narratives  but I still don’t understand why Gately and Hal had to get together. And was JOI trying to orchestrate it through Joelle? What about the comments he makes to ten year old Hal that seem to hint at where the master copy is, YEARS before the thing was even made? I’m so confused!
  • Orin’s pick-up artist techniques were so cringe-inducing!
  • There are some great descriptions of a winter storm near the end, and I can’t help but think anything weather related is IMPORTANT and SYMBOLIC (too much Wuthering Heights, probably) and I can’t figure out what this one’s about.
  • DFW had many writing tics and eccentricities. I’m not going to comment on all the “and but so” stuff except to say that I’m tempted to use that construction now (but won’t how pretentious would that be?) The one thing that drove me CRAZY was the expression “eliminate [his] map,” which means “kill [him].” It is used by characters across social classes and was so ubiquitous yet never explained… it occurs to me NOW that maybe it’s a reference to how the Northeastern US states were literally eliminated from the US’s map when they were ceded to Canada and turned into a toxic dump.
  • WHY did the section on Eschaton have to be so long? Eschaton is a complex game the kids play, sort of like Risk with calculus I ranted about it earlier) and while I think I get the significance of reality vs. media etc., not to mention it’s super important to the plot, I don’t think it had to be pages and pages of abbreviations and equations and what not. I think DFW is just trying to make it difficult… but why? It was the only point in the book that I thought “I can’t get through this.”
  • When the perspective shifts to Hal in the first person at the end and it felt off and uncomfortable. I’m sure that was on purpose, but it the hardest part for me to read, next to Eschaton.
  • Don is such a great character. He came from nothing and ends up being a hero. Very archetypal in that way. I’m reading a theory where his story is like Hercules (please don’t think I’d come up with that on my own.)
  • It’s interesting how abusive childhoods are found throughout and described in agonizing detail – these are the passages that affected me the most – but DFW doesn’t moralize; doesn’t suggest “I’m an addict because of this.”

And that’s just off the top of my head.

The ONE thing I’d like to tell new readers of Infinite Jest is that the end of the book is not the end of the story – the first few chapters are the end. Read the whole thing, then go right back to the start and keep reading. Do not pass go, do not start Googling! There is a ring motif throughout that sort of hints at this. I’m not done with this book either, as I’m now off to read more blog posts, starting with some of my favourite bloggers who’ve read IJ:

If you’ve read Infinite Jest, and especially if you’ve got a review I can read, drop me a line! And ESPECIALLY if you’re a lady. I’m finding the culture around DFW and his work overwhelmingly male, and I’d love to read some female perspectives.

And hey, how sweet is it that I can cross off three majorly long and difficult reads in 2012 –  The Magic Mountain, The Idiot, and Infinite Jest?

Read Infinite Jest in Under Three Months

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22 comments

  1. Brie @ Eat Books

    Woohoo, you finished it! And before the new year! 😉 Did you get any books for Christmas? What will you read next? (Sorry, I haven’t read IJ so I can’t really add anything to your thoughts)…

    • lauratfrey

      Haha no worries, I didn’t expect many comments on this mess of a post!

      I did NOT get any books, but have one $20 gift card. Still deciding what to get. In the meantime, my sister lent me The Night Circus and I’m reading that. So far I’m pretty underwhelmed. I expected better. This is why I don’t always read hyped books.

  2. Tatiana

    I remember reading Infinite Jest a few years ago at the recommendation of my now husbands roommate. I was like 20 or 21 and I was trying to impress him. I finished it and my genuine first reaction was, “what the hell just happened?!?” It took me DAYS to process the whole thing once I was finished and to be honest I was still confused after that.

  3. Andrew

    I haven’t read it in a few years, though after reading Wallace’s biography over the holiday and ferociously devouring two of his short story collections shortly thereafter, I think I’m going to give it a go whenever I can next justify ignoring a thesis that resolutely refuses to finish itself and devote a few weeks to joyously wrecking my brain.

    Your questions all sound like ones I had at the time I finished. The thing that helped me come to grips with how I felt about it after the fact was that I had come across an interview or an article or something (I can’t remember what at this point) where Wallace mentioned (and the biography reiterates this) that he had intended Infinite Jest as a failed entertainment. I think that’s important–probably the key. There are supposed to be things that are started that never finish (though the suggestion of a finishing is always just outside the frame–Wallace used the idea of lines that do finally start to converge toward some point on the horizon that suggests an end that the READER is meant to supply). We’re used to reading texts where we pick up narrative threads and follow them (however many there are) until we can see the shape of the sweater in which they’re joined. When you follow Wallace’s threads, you start on one end, you weave around a number of other threads that maybe suggest a pattern for a shirt-like garment, but eventually you find another end that’s not attached to anything. The solution is that you knit the sweater. Put it on. Get warm.

    The failed-entertainment idea also, I think, answers your question about Eschaton. It’s a game that the kids at the tennis academy love, but it’s so complex and nuanced and essentially founded on total-information overload (do I remember correctly that they have a dedicated computer for the calculations?) that it can’t possibly actually be fun. So why should reading about it be fun?

    The work involved was part of the point of novel as a whole. The book functions like the recovery meetings at Ennet House. Even if the mantras don’t make sense if you give it any close scrutiny (but for the grace of God…), you put your head down and you do them anyway. If entertainment culture is the problem, and Wallace wants to describe that problem in agonizing detail and THEN offer a way out, that way out can’t look too much like entertainment. It has to involve work.

    • lauratfrey

      I read the bio in September, and IJ in Nov/Dec. I remember reading the bio and not getting all the references to IJ – the author was definitely assuming you’d read it! So, I suppose I need to go back and read it again, just like I need to read the first few chapters of the book again!

      I’m glad to hear you had similar questions. I’m finding most people do.

      A lot of what you said makes sense (now, after reading lots of other people’s thoughts about it) and I especially like your comparison to AA mantras. Which I suppose are a bit like the endless drilling at the academy.

      Your thread analogy reminded me of one of my favourite passages, when Don is driving to the grocery store in Pat`s car, and he passes the Antotoi`s (sp?) place and I think the narrative just kind of drifts on over to them, and we never come back to Don on that day. I could be wrong, as I read this in small chunks, but I remember noticing that the “thread” was never picked up but in a weird way it totally made sense.

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  9. janceewright

    Kind of late to the game here, but just read this book over the course of the past week or so and finished tonight. My first thought: WTF? So many things unexplained, that my brain is trying to piece together. I don’t even know how I feel about this novel. How to describe it to friends. How to rate it. I just don’t know.

  10. madame bovary

    Hello, i think that i saw you visited my blog thus i came to “return the favor”.I’m trying to find things to improve my
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  11. Suzie

    Just finished IJ. Truly had the same reaction as everyone else and your comments and others and other things I’ve googled have helped. Thank you for this!!!

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  13. Céline

    I left IJ with so many questions at the end, that I felt I may have missed most of it, (which is probably partially true, knowing that no one for nearly 20 years was able to translate into French and that Ihad to read it in English).I feel better know that I see I am not the only one and that it might even be a normal reaction.

    To your questions, I would add mine : Why do almost every French word or idiom is misspelled or a syntax error ? When I see how every word is so carefully chosen, I believe this was done on purpose.

    I finished the book on Friday, but I’m not done with it.

  14. Anne

    Just finished Infinite Jest on Friday night. I felt that I must not have been quite up to the task since I was pretty confused at the end… I’m an intelligent person and an avid reader, so I was a bit bummed at my lack of understanding. I googled it today and came across your blog. Soooo glad to see others who weren’t quite clear on things. I am actually going to reread it!

    Regarding the comment about threads that were left hanging, could it be that it just mimics real life in that way? Also, I just read an opinion about the mold causing Hal’s mental collapse. I would have NEVER thought that either. i’m not sure how that conclusion was even drawn. I will consider that as i reread the book.

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  16. Maribeth

    Doesn’t the rekall technology undermine the entire judicial system? I mean, sure, witnesses can be unreliable NOW, but when each and every witness could potentially be carrying inilmtionally-tnpeanted false memories, whose testimony can you trust?

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