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Infinite Jest, the wrap

October 25, 2012

Even the title of Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, is a joke. The ending, which left me wanting more (amusing Walker), wraps around to the beginning of the book.  That doesn’t mean that all questions are answered, however. Much as I wanted more of it, I have to admire the way I am required, as a reader, to fill in the gaps between how the story began and how it ends.  I get to draw my own conclusions about how Hal ends up as he is in his college interview (at the beginning), and what made Gately finally feel that he’d hit the kind of rock bottom (at the end) that makes someone go in for treatment of their addiction.

When I first wrote about the experience of reading Infinite Jest, I hadn’t finished the last hundred pages, but wanted to capture some of the pleasure of still being in the story. I was afraid that finishing might make me want to make some kind of pronouncement. I should have known better.  If ever a book were pronouncement-proof, it’s this one.

What anyone who reads it simply cannot get enough of is not the message, but the medium–the feeling of being understood, of being reached out to so desperately that someone would make a video so compelling that it causes people to forget to live–or a novel so big and so full of incisive description of what living is like that readers want more even at the end of 981 pages plus footnotes.

I found the heart of the story in what Hal and Orin and Mario’s father says about why he “would rather Orin didn’t watch a hard-porn film yet” * and why “his most serious wish was: to entertain” Hal. It’s also in how his other son, Mario, touches the hand of a man outside a subway station, and in Gately-the-addict’s dream about a woman who kills you becoming your next life’s mother: “This is why Moms are so obsessively loving, why they try so hard no matter what private troubles or issues or addictions they have of their own, why they seem to value your welfare above their own, and why there’s always a slight, like, twinge of selfishness about their obsessive mother-love.”

*”He said he’d personally prefer that Orin wait until he’d found someone he loved enough to want to have sex with and had had sex with this person, that he’d wait until he’d experienced for himself what a profound and really quite moving thing sex could be, before he watched a film where sex was presented as nothing more than organs going in and out of other organs, emotionless, terribly lonely.”

As you can see, one of the jokes is that it’s hard to even talk about Infinite Jest without footnotes, because the issues are so big, and each one depends on so many others, and what each character figures out seems so essential and so universal. When I was in the hospital, I kept thinking of Gately in the hospital, having to refuse the narcotic painkillers.  And what reader doesn’t–when seeing someone fictional faced with ultimate torture–want to bet, like the minor character Mlle. Luria P—, that the response will be right out of 1984:  “Do it to her!” And did I mention that some of the footnotes have footnotes?

Having read Infinite Jest makes going through daily life better. Sometimes I find myself thinking about a bit from the footnotes, where the father of Orin, Hal, and Mario is making “Found Drama” which involves picking a name out of the phone book by throwing a dart and seeing where it lands, and then “you do whatever you want during the Drama. You’re not there. Nobody knows what the name in the phone book’s doing…..because in Reality nobody thinks they’re in any sort of Drama.”  It’s more than that, though; that’s the jest. The serious part is that so many parts of Infinite Jest make you think yes, that’s it, that’s what it’s like.

Have you read other books that make you think that, almost as if the characters have been inside your head for a while, seeing the world through your eyes?

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2012 8:40 am

    Even though I’m sure I’m not smart enough for this book, you’ve made me want to read it. How could I not want to read a book that makes going through life better?

  2. October 25, 2012 8:55 am

    I really don’t think that enjoyment of this book requires you to be smart, but maybe to be curious. You’ve got to want to know more about lots of things, and your curiosity will be amply rewarded–anyone will identify with at least of few of the situations that come up!

  3. freshhell permalink
    October 25, 2012 10:46 am

    I was thinking the same thing as Kathy – maybe I’m not smart enough? I wonder how the experience would differ if I “read” this via audiobook. Would I miss something? Footnotes? Hmmm.

    • October 25, 2012 2:44 pm

      This is very much a character-driven story, which is what I think you like. I think it could be great on audiobook. You’d have to spend a lot of time in the car, though.

      • freshhell permalink
        October 25, 2012 6:34 pm

        Sadly, our library system carries only the Playaway version and my new car doesn’t have an output jack so I might just have to read the book. Once I recover from the 700 pg Chabon book I’m reading.

  4. October 25, 2012 12:12 pm

    This one has been on my list for a long time, but I know it will be a major time committement. Your review has made me even more curious about it.

    • October 25, 2012 2:45 pm

      I committed to reading it at the beginning of June, finally got around to it in July, and found myself stretching it out by the end of August because I didn’t want it to end.

  5. October 25, 2012 7:06 pm

    I’ve made a mental note to myself to add this to my Nook before heading home for Christmas. I think it will be a perfect plane book! DFW’s essays are a good travel companion because they are all over the place and my brain needs a lot of distraction while in transit.

    • October 26, 2012 7:18 am

      It was a great plane book for me this summer; worth the heft.

  6. October 26, 2012 10:18 am

    Hmm, is there an audio version? I am off to go find out who the narrator might be…

    • October 26, 2012 10:33 am

      It’s Sean Pratt, the audio is over 55 hours long. He sounds a bit ‘scholarly’… I’ll put on my wishlist anyway.

      • October 26, 2012 4:43 pm

        You’ll have to let me know what you think of the scholarly tone.

  7. November 1, 2012 4:30 pm

    I’m scared of this book but you’re making me think I might need to try it.

  8. November 1, 2012 5:11 pm

    It can’t hurt to try. And I really don’t think it’s that scary.

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