Some notes from 299 pages into a rereading of Infinite Jest

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A note on the context of the first reading, subsequent ventures, and this rereading

I bought David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest in 1997 when I was a freshman in college, as required by law. I attempted reading it a few times without really getting to page 100. (I did read and reread the short stories and the essays and Wallace’s first novel in that time though. None were assigned readings. The DFW Academic Industry was not a Thing yet).

The first time I read the book the whole way through was in the weird fall of 2001, the first fall I hadn’t returned to school because I had graduated from school, the fall of 9/11, the fall I moved to Tokyo the week after 9/11, packing the book in a smallish suitcase that the airport security guy had to take everything out of with his latex-gloved hands, removing every item, all the clothes and books, because I was traveling on a one-way ticket to a foreign land. It was in that weird fall that I finally read the book, reading mostly in the very very early a.m., sometimes reading for hours, reading too late, becoming addicted.

In years since, I’ve poked at rereadings, often looking for very specific passages/sections, and always meaning to do a full reread, but there are all those other big books that need to get read (and then reread).

Well so and anyway: This reread has been prompted by back-to-back readings of Gravity’s Rainbow, which I take to be the most obvious precursor text for Infinite Jest (and likely the greatest source of Wallace’s Oedipal anxiety if we want to get all Bloomian). I thought about Infinite Jest a lot while reading GR.

So far, like any rereading of a big encyclopedic novelInfinite Jest seems much, much easier than my initial go through (although coming off GR almost anything would probably seem much, much easier). With the contours of the “big plot” in place (and the rhetorical dazzle of some of Wallace’s embedded-essays not as blinding as before), focusing on details, patterns, and motifs becomes simply more possible. (I don’t think I connected Hal’s clipping his toenails in Ch. 18 to the toenails Gately finds in Ennet House in Ch. 19 before, f’r’instance). (There are no actual chapter numbers in IJ, although there are circles separating chapters which can be counted).

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is very long but it’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation suggests. There is a compelling plot behind the erudite essaying and sesquipedalian vocabulary. That plot develops around three major strands which the reader must tie together, with both the aid of—and the challenge of—the novel’s discursive style. Those three major plot strands are the tragic saga of the Incandenzas (familial); the redemptive narrative of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, with Don Gately as the primary hero (socicultural); and the the schemes of the Québécois separatists (national/international/political). An addictive and thus deadly film called Infinite Jest links these three plots (through discursive and byzantine subplots).

Wallace often obscures the links between these plot strands, and many of the major plot connections have to be intuited or outright guessed. Furthermore, while there are clear, explicit connections between the plot strands made for the reader, Wallace seems to withhold explicating these connections until after the 200-page mark. Arguably, the real contours of the Big Plot come into (incomplete) focus in a discussion between Hal Incandenza and his brother Orin in pages 242-58. While that scene by no means telegraphs what happens in IJ, it nonetheless offers some promise that the set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes shall add up to Something Bigger. 

Some of those earliest set pieces, riffs, scenes, lists, and vignettes function almost as rhetorical obstacles for a first-time reader. The  novel’s opening scene, Hal Incandenza’s interview with the deans at the University of Arizona, is chronologically the last event in the narrative, and it dumps a lot of expository info on the reader. It also poses a number of questions or riddles about the plot to come, questions and riddles that frankly run the risk of the first-time reader’s forgetting through no fault of his own.

The second chapter of IJ is relatively short—just 10 pages—but it seems interminable, and it’s my guess that Wallace wanted to make his reader endure it the same way that the chapter’s protagonist–Erdedy, an ultimately very minor character—must endure the agonizing wait for a marijuana delivery. The chapter delivers the novel’s themes of ambivalence, desire, addiction, shame, entertainment, “fun,” and secrecy, both in its content and form. My guess is that this where a lot of new readers abandon the novel.

The reader who continues must then work through 30 more pages until meeting the novel’s heart, Don Gately, but by the time we’ve met him we might not trust just how much attention we need to pay him, because Wallace has shifted through so many other characters already. And then Gately doesn’t really show up again until like, 200 pages later.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to suspend or delay introducing the reading rules that we’ve been trained to look for in contemporary novels. While I imagine this technique could frustrate first-time readers, I want to reiterate that this suspension or delay or digression is indeed a technique, a rhetorical tool Wallace employs to perform the novel’s themes about addiction and relief, patience and plateaus, gratitude and forgiveness.

I would urge first-time readers to stick with the novel at least until page 64, where they will be directed to end note 24, the filmography of J.O. Incandenza (I will not even discuss the idea of not reading the end notes, which are essential to the text). This filmography helps to outline the plot’s themes and the themes’ plots—albeit obliquely. And readers who make it to the filmography and find nothing to compel them further into the text should feel okay about abandoning the book at that point.

Two final notes before I close out this (unintentionally too-long) note:

There are many, many guides and discussions to IJ online and elsewhere. Do you really need them? I don’t know—but my intuition is that you’d probably do fine without them. Maybe reread Hamlet’s monologue from the beginning of Act V, but don’t dwell too much on the relationship between entertainment and death. All you really need is a good dictionary. (And, by the way, IJ is an ideal read for an electronic device—the end notes are hyperlinked, and you can easily look up words as you read).

—and—

Infinite Jest is a rhetorical/aesthetic experience, not a plot.

Some notes on Infinite Jest’s heteroglossia

One of my favorite things about rereading IJ thus far has been sussing out the ways in which the novel is predictive (of a future to come) vs. descriptive (of the time/space in which it was composed). The primary action in IJ happens in Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, which critics have worked out convincingly to be about 2009. The novel is set in a “future” which is now our past. A lot of the writings I’ve seen on IJ (admittedly I’ve avoided a lot) dwell on the tech aspect—the videophone bit, for example—which is all well and good. There’s an analog clunkiness to a lot of IJ’s tech, but the core idea of disseminated entertainment at your fingertips is pretty spot on.

I’m ultimately more interested in this rereading in some of the ways in which the narrator’s voice seems, well, dated. Wallace is attempting a kind of heteroglossia or polyglossia in Infinite Jest—which, sure, yes, he’s contesting Gravity’s Rainbow here—but there’s a certain streak to the narrator’s voice that’s tinged in what contemporary rhetoric would call white male privilege. What I find fascinating about this is that it’s my intuition that Wallace wants his novel to be inclusive, to bring in marginalized voices, etc. (all that stuff that yon Bloom, previously evoked in this riff, termed “The School of Resentment”). Arguably, the tinges I’m describing show up in phrases and terms that are Wallace’s characters’, not the narrator’s. A simple example comes in end note 91, where the narrator remarks on Gately’s use of the term “pillow-biter” that “it and the f-term are the only terms for male homosexuals he knows, still.” Gately doesn’t actually use the term “pillow-biter” in dialogue though; rather, we get the term via the third-person narrator’s free indirect habitation of Gately’s consciousness. Wallace’s intratextual notation of this speech showcases his heightened concern for language, for the names we foist on others.

It’s not always clear though when the narrator is inhabiting a consciousness (Wallace’s free indirect style can often be very free), so the narrator’s tendency to mark whiteness as a kind of baseline ordinariness evinces occasionally outside of any one character’s “voice.” Is it Hal who uses the vague term “ethnic” for anything not white? (Brilliant, precise, prescriptive, encyclopedic Hal, in conversation with Orin, refers to a presumably-specific type of music as “multicultural”). And when Hal indulges in mocking a trailer park denizen, even though Orin chides him, it’s hard not to feel Wallace having a laugh behind the scenes. Wallace’s command of the first-person voices he employs also sometimes falls flat, or, worse, evokes cringes, like Clenette’s narration (in supposed-Ebonics) in pages 37-38.

To return to where I started on the notes of this section, about the prediction vs description thing, I think that Wallace’s heteroglossia signals a will toward inclusion, multicultural perspective, diversity, etc., terms that I hope you will forgive the buzzwordiness of here, terms that I take to be very much at the center of this decade’s discussion of literature. Wallace’s predictive scope is to attempt, in language, a polyglossic/heteroglossic America, and he does this by trying to get out of his own (white male academic) head. The description of his own time is what he ends up with though—his heteroglossic attempt is strained—it’s encyclopedic and voluminous but ultimately feels monoglossic.

More to come.

8 thoughts on “Some notes from 299 pages into a rereading of Infinite Jest”

  1. I also read this (for the first time) earlier this year coming straight off Gravity’s Rainbow. I was expecting it to be hard, but I think that the GR effect is a real thing: after that, IJ seemed like a breeze and I devoured it greedily, amazed by its relative accessibility. It will be interesting one day to go back and see what it offers up on a re-read, as I’m sure there is a lot. Your thoughts on the narrative voice are interesting.

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  2. I love this.
    I also purchased my copy of Infinite Jest around the same time and then found myself in a loop of starts and stops, never really getting past page 200. In 2003, while on the road for long stretches of time for work, I read the whole thing. I’ve been meaning to get back in and re-read it for a while now. Maybe after a Gravity’s Rainbow (another book I’ve started and never even come close to finishing countless times) read?

    Anyway, in my experience, the section that causes most readers to throw their hands up and abandon the book is almost always the Clenette section you mentioned. That section is like a brick wall.

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    1. I’m interested that you mention Clenette’s bit, because it’s like, two or three pages. In my memory that Erdedy’s chapter was like, 40 pages, but it’s only 10—but it’s like this linguistic brick…and it’s boring as hell.
      GR is extremely difficult, I think—in a way that my favorite “difficult” books (JR, Moby-Dick, Ulysses) simply aren’t. But it’s completely worth the time and effort and energy it requires.

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