A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

A note to readers new to Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Many of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished the novel or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years, my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

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. Getting to this scene is perhaps a demand on the patience of many readers. And, while the 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.

Where is a fair place to abandon Infinite Jest

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. They are essential). Incandenza’s 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.

What about a guide?

There are many, many guides and discussions to IJ online and elsewhere, as I noted above. 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).

Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,” which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead. After you read you may wish to search for a plot diagram of the novel, of which there are several. But I’d wait until after.

An incomplete list of motifs readers new to Infinite Jest may wish to attend to

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters.

Therefore, readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.

Heads

Cages

Faces

Masks

Teeth

Cycles

Maps

Waste

Infants

Pain

Drugs

Deformities

Subjects

Objects

One final note

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

[Ed. note: Biblioklept posted a version of this note in the summer of 2015. Wallace would have turned 55 years old today].

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How to Read James Joyce’s Ulysses (and Why You Should Avoid “How-to” Guides Like This One)

Bloomsday, an annual celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses, is upon us today with more excitement than ever. Even with the festivities, the book’s reputation for density, erudition, and inscrutability still daunts many readers–leading to a glut of guidebooks, summaries, and annotations. Ironically, rather than inviting first-time readers to the text, the sheer volume of these guides to Ulysses can paradoxically repel. Their very existence seems predicated on an intense need, and although some of the guides out there can be helpful, others can get in the way. This need not be. Ulysses deserves its reputation as one the best books in the English language. It generously overflows with insight into the human experience, and it’s very, very funny. And, most importantly, anyone can read it.

Here are a few thoughts on how to read Ulysses, enumerated–because people like lists:

1. Ignore all guides, lists, maps, annotations, summaries, and lectures. You don’t need them; in fact, they could easily weigh down what should be a fun reading experience. Jump right into the text. Don’t worry about getting all the allusions or unpacking all the motifs.

Pretty soon though, you’ll get to the third chapter, known as “Proteus.” It’s admittedly hard to follow. You might want a guide at this point. Or you might just want to give up. (Of course, you might be a genius and totally get what Stephen is thinking about as he wanders the beach. Good for you). If frustration sets in, I suggest skipping the chapter and getting into the rich, earthy consciousness of the book’s hero, Leopold Bloom in chapter four, “Calypso.” It’s great stuff. You can always go back to chapter three later, of course. The real key, at least in my opinion, to reading (and enjoying) Ulysses is getting into Bloom’s head, matching his rhythm and pacing. Do that and you’re golden.

I’ve already advised you, gentle reader, not to follow any guides, so please, ignore the rest of my advice. Quit reading this post and start reading Ulysses.

For those who wish to continue–

2. Choose a suitable copy of the book. The Gabler edition will keep things neat and tidy and it features wide margins for all those clever game-changing annotations you’ll be taking. Several guides, including Harry Blamire’s The New Bloomsday Book align their annotation to the Gabler edition’s pagination.

3. Make a reading schedule and stick to it. The Gabler edition of Ulysses is nearly 700 pages long. That’s a long, long book–but you can read it in just a few weeks. There are eighteen episodes in Ulysses, some longer and more challenging than others, but reading one episode every two days should be no problem. If you can, try to read one episode in one sitting each day. As the book progresses, you’ll find yourself going back to previous chapters to find the figures, motifs, and traces that dance through the book.

4. So you’ve decided you need a guide. First, try to figure out what you want from the guide. Basic plot summary? Analysis? Explication? There’s plenty out there–too much really–so take the time to try to figure out what you want from a guide and then do some browsing and skimming before committing.

The most famous might be Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, a dour book that manages to suck all the fun out of Joyce’s work. In a lecture on Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov warned “against seeing in Leopold Bloom’s humdrum wanderings and minor adventures on a summer day in Dublin a close parody of the Odyssey,” noting that “it would be a complete waste of time to look for close parallels in every character and every scene in the book.” Nabokov scathingly continued: “One bore, a man called Stuart Gilbert, misled by a tongue-in-cheek list compiled by Joyce himself, found in every chapter the domination of one particular organ . . . but we shall ignore that dull nonsense too.” It’s perhaps too mean to call Gilbert’s guide “nonsense,” but it’s certainly dull. Harry Blamire’s The New Bloomsday Book is a line-by-line annotation that can be quite helpful when Joyce’s stream of consciousness gets a bit muddy; Blamire’s explications maintain a certain analytical neutrality, working mostly to connect the motifs of the book but letting the reader manage meaning. Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated is an encyclopedia of minutiae that will get in the way of any first time reader’s enjoyment of the book. Gifford’s notes are interesting but they can distract the reader from the text, and ultimately seem aimed at scholars and fanatics.

Most of the guidebooks I’ve seen for Ulysses share a common problem: they are obtrusive. I think that many readers who want some guidance or insight to aid their reading of Ulysses, rather than moving between books (what a chore!), should listen to some of the fantastic lectures on Joyce that are available. James Heffernan’s lectures for The Teaching Company provide a great overview of the book with some analysis; they are designed to be listened to in tandem with a reading of the book. Frank Delaney has initiated a new series of podcast lectures called re:Joyce; the first lecture indicates a promising series. The best explication I’ve heard though is a series of lectures by Joseph Campbell called Wings of Art. Fantastic stuff, and probably the only guide you really need. It’s unfortunately out of print, but you can find it easily via extralegal means on the internet. Speaking of the internet–there’s obviously a ton of stuff out there. I’ll withhold comment–if you found this post, you can find others, and have undoubtedly already seen many of the maps, schematics, and charts out there.

5. Keep reading. Reread. Add time to that reading schedule you made if you need to. But most of all, have fun. Skip around. If you’re excited about Molly’s famous monologue at the end of the book, go ahead and read it. Again, the point is to enjoy the experience. If you can trick a friend into reading it with you, so much the better. Have at it.