Tackling Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest: the monstrous novel tucked under the arm of every other hipster millennial with a literature degree. The thousand-page brick of a text you claim to have read despite never having made it past the first hundred pages. 


The allure of being the sort of person who might be caught furrow-browed and part-way through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest isn’t incomprehensible. There’s the sheer size of the text, for one thing; you can flip to the end when somebody comments on its length and watch their eyes widen as three figures become four.

Along, perhaps, with Joyce’s Ulysses, this is the novel that must be tackled by every Serious Reader at one point or another. It’s the go-to ‘longest book you ever read’, unless you’ve already braved Clarissa, or War and Peace, or Les Miserables. This is a novel with a reputation: famously difficult, terrifically dense, and, to put it bluntly, a structural nightmare.

I’m not unwilling to disclose that I found getting through this book to be a particularly challenging feat - perhaps more so than any other book I have read. I came to the novel with a vague awareness of David Foster Wallace, a visual image of what the UK edition in my local Waterstones looked like (size, colour, location), and the understanding that this was a novel to be conquered. A search for its contemporary reception led me down a rabbit hole of blog posts detailing approaches to the text. I learnt that for optimum navigation I would need three separate bookmarks. Wedging my little finger between footnotes, I opted for two, and began to read.

Truth be told, I feel wholly unqualified to offer any kind of considered review of Infinite Jest upon only a single reading. But I will say this: it’s funny and despairing; remarkably clever; horribly confusing; ultimately unsatisfying. It resists so much of what you think a novel should be, and thus makes a case for a whole new categorisation of works of fiction. 

David Foster Wallace’s linguistic gymnastics form a text that is as messy and complicated as it is decadent. Reading through the lens of a literary detective does not necessarily do the work justice; this is perhaps the sort of novel you must blindly fall into, contrary to what the ‘guides to reading Infinite Jest’ might suggest. This isn’t to say that there is little of use in these guides - in fact, I found much of what I read incredibly helpful - but if you spend all of your time trying desperately to piece the plot together, to keep a firm handle on what is going on, you might fail to drift into the reams of stylish prose that DFW is offering.

Equally, I wonder if it does the text a great disservice to read with its author at the front of your mind, passing over each impressively constructed sentence for anything that helps to explain his life. This novel, as with the work of many prolific writers and artists, is difficult to divorce from the life - and, moreover, death - of its maker. There’s so much to be said here about separating the art from the artist. If I can accept and appreciate Infinite Jest as independent from its author, can I also walk with a clear conscience into a cinema screening of a Woody Allen film? I’m not so sure.

The only conclusions I have been able to draw from my first reading of Infinite Jest are that a) it demands to be reread at least one full time more, and b) the approach to reading the novel weighs quite heavily on what you are able to take away from it. Infinite Jest is not a novel to be conquered; it’s a novel to surrender to.