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. Much of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years (and, in particular, over the past six weeks rereading IJ), 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.
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. 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.
In her new book Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (on sale May 25, 2010 from Knopf), Emma Donoghue discusses the six most common recurring girl-on-girl plots in literature. From her introduction:
TRAVESTIES: Cross-dressing (whether by a woman or a man) causes the “accident” of same-sex desire.
INSEPARABLES: Two passionate friends defy the forces trying to part them.
RIVALS: A man and a a woman compete for a woman’s heart.
MONSTERS: A wicked woman tries to seduce and destroy an innocent one.
DETECTION: The discovery of a crime turns out to be the discovery of same-sex desire.
OUT: A woman’s life is changed by the realization that she loves her own sex.
We’re enjoying Donoghue’s book so far. It proceeds from this initial folkloric classification with a balance of erudition and wit and a keen eye for the desire writhing between the lines. More to come.