This month there is a bonus episode of the Ark Audio Book Club podcast on David Foster Wallace’s epic of tennis, drug addiction and TV. In preparation for that, the panel has written four short reviews of this very long book, ranging from the very favourable to the sycophantically fawning.
(Press play before you go.) As I realise time and again, Infinite Jest is a book constantly pushing my attempts to get some hold of it beyond the field of literature proper towards some other space of aesthetic expression. Without a doubt partly because something about its almost proverbial richness and complexity instinctively makes me reticent to take any shot at an exegesis: Such an undertaking could only end up being a reductive one and any reduction—I feel—would be misguided and dishonest here. To do so would be to go against the grain of what I sense to be the driving impetus of the entire novel that in many ways is1 nothing but an exercise in un-reducing, in expansion, in choosing the all-inclusiveness of the accidents over the pureness of the essence.
But to this negative and prohibitive drive, there is also a corresponding positive one. The encounter with the novel is— if you’ll excuse the platitude—an extraordinary one but precisely because it is, it triggers a response that itself lies beyond the ordinary. It is in this recognition that I feel forced, whether I like it or not, to think of reading Infinite Jest not just as of reading a novel, but in terms of experiencing the extraordinary.2 ‘This cannot be happening’.—I would frequently think to myself reading Wallace’s novel—‘I cannot be facing this.’ Purely because something like this before seemed simply impossible.
It is precisely this same too rare and too beautiful ‘This cannot be happening’ that points towards a certain afternoon when I was still a kid and heard, for the first time, Studio Games by a Polish music producer Noon; an album which, in his own words, is ‘a collage of almost 400 cuts of music, taken entirely from old, often Polish, vinyl records. It’s also a mix of classical, hip-hop sound creation techniques with modern, freely interpreted rhythmics.’ It is through a different path—although one of a number of affinities—that I have previously experienced this unusual bliss: moments like this always come with the immediate realisation that they will only ever happen a few times. That this is special, and calls for, well, a sort of a reverence. That I will always remember the sense of the world suddenly expanding, exposing its profile hitherto concealed, stranger still, the profile I had not even suspected of possibly existing.3 It was not so much about music—well it was too of course—but it was also about something infinitely greater, in the same way, that Infinite Jest is not just about literature.
‘Studio Games is above all a mix of emotions: destructive, bleak, biographic from one end and simple, good from the other.’—says Noon. Almost as if he spoke also about the book—‘A mix of despair and hope with ambitious goal encompassing music as a whole.’
Since reading Infinite Jest, I’ve had the chance to discuss it with a fair amount of people, but I never took the actual time, at least not until the AABC podcast recording about the book, to understand why this book has made such a great impact on me. And in turn, how Infinite Jest has made me think about my own conception of literature and given me a new way of experiencing the relationship between a novel and myself.
Infinite Jest is intelligent and unique, and it holds a special place in my mind and memories, as I don’t think I have ever, and never will again, read something like this novel. Sometimes, I even wonder whether the word novel can meaningfully describe this book or if it needs some other word. I experienced so many emotions with it that it was more like I was living with the book than simply reading it. I took this book to be part of my daily life to an extent that I have never experienced before: during that time, I could barely think about anything else but what would happen to Hal, who were these guys from the A.F.R., or what was going on at the Ennet House.
Having said that, I must admit that it wasn’t a life-changing book, as Infinite Jest hasn’t made me rethink any of my core values, or reshaped my understanding of reality. But, at the same time, it has also taught me something, and that is that some experiences can mark your life, but that doesn’t mean it has changed it.
In any case, reading Infinite Jest is like meeting a person; or getting into a new world that is so real because it is packed full of nuance, and you don’t know where any of them could lead you. Everything and nothing is special. There are so many points to focus on, so many levels of understanding and beauty to it, that it might even be overwhelming at times. It is a journey, but, as a reader, you have to be engaged in it; being aware and keeping active at all times. But that is only my personal account for it, so if you haven’t read the book, don’t take any of these lines seriously, instead, experience it yourself.
I have written many thousands of words talking about my love of Infinite Jest and thousands more have been cast off in drafting. If we add to this my spoken utterances on the subject this becomes utterly unwieldy. So much so that I have had to restrict myself to talking of the book only if someone else brings it up first, or if I’m too tipsy to stop myself.
IJ was recommended to me by my master thesis supervisor, as a book that mocks the confusing academese of the post-structuralist humanities. This is the single worst characterisation of the book I have ever heard. Because, in this mad novel of tennis, television and drug addiction, there is, above all other things, a basic cry out for empathy, that much like post-structuralist philosophy, is problematised at every step of the way. Yes, there are some hilarious jokes and incisive satire, but if you were to read some wry cultural commentary as the core of this book, then something must have gone very wrong in your reading.
If there is a critique to be directed at IJ, it is that it cannot fully escape the lure of some kind of conservative morality. But, to the novel’s credit, the complexity with which it addresses every aspect of the experience of contemporary culture means that it can never be totally enthralled to this way of thinking, though at times it is tempted.
It would seem a cliché to state that this book changed my life but I cannot help say simply that it did. It expanded every notion I have of what was possible with words and gave concrete form to the notion that something intelligent can also be enjoyable for more than the reason of virtue. It placed a voice in my head that helps me sort through the ironies of life and the sincerity with which we must live. Crucial to this is the way the book demonstrates both through form and content that we need to learn that each of us may be the centre of our experience but we have nothing to do with the centre of the universe. To end with a quote that I reflect on almost every day, and that despite being written 20 years ago could not be better suited for the panopticon of our digital present: “[Y]ou will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”
Some things never cease to amaze. No matter how much you look into it, try to figure it out, understand how it works, the mystery and attraction remains.
Airplanes. We shoot ourselves across continents and across oceans in steel tubes equipped with explosive materials. I understand the basic science behind it. The engines propel the plane forwards, the mismatch in air pressure above and below the wings provides lift and off you go to wherever you need be. I still don’t, however, get it. It makes no sense, so I am left with a sense of disbelief and awe when I think about airplanes.
Infinite Jest is in many ways the same. I understand how the various stories relate to and reflect on each other. I get that it takes an immense amount of time and dedication and genius to put together the 1079 page novel, and I know to a degree what DFW is doing with the book. But it still leaves me awestruck and feeling small when I think about it. How can this be?
I am on my second read-through of the book right now, as I prepare to leave this country for the foreseeable future. This is fitting as the first time I read it I had just arrived. The initial reading experience was one of struggle, challenge and achievement. The second has sent me head first into a tailspin of reflection on my own depression and being in this world. Infinite Jest may not change your life, but if it doesn’t fuck you up at least for a while, you are beyond redemption.
I will continue to read and reflect on this book for who knows how long, and I will never fully understand it and I will never stop being amazed.