I just finished reading David Foster Wallace’s mammoth Infinite Jest, and though it wasn’t the first time I’d read it, I still feel exactly the same as the first time I came to the last page—shattered. There’s something about it that seems to leave you bare, strips away much of the pretense that saturates the way we interact with each other. I’m pretty much at an utter loss as to how to write this, because I’ve never read a book that seems to defy a review as much as this one. Intense examination, deep analysis, extensive rumination—it both calls for and deserves all of these. But summation, cursory critique, the “give-it-to-me-in-a-nutshell?” Impossible. Infinite Jest is sprawling, terrifically ambitious, truly epic. It concerns teenagers at a tennis academy, a Boston half-way house, and a filmmaker’s lost magnum opus—rumored to be a piece of entertainment so perfect that its viewer is lost to a permanent state of stupefied ecstasy. But if someone were to ask me “what it’s about,” I’d have to say (knowing full well how vague and banal and unsatisfying this must sound) that it’s about what it means to be human.
The book takes place in the near future; as the national calendar has been corporatized, each year represents the highest bidder: the Year of the Whopper, the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, etc. Much of the book’s events take place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, though the narrative is anything but linear—not as much moving forward and back as it moves sideways. Wallace’s predilection for footnotes is on full display here—footnotes within footnotes, whole chapters buried in footnotes, footnotes that only allude to other footnotes. In fact, all of Wallace’s favorite stylistic flourishes and fetishes can be found draped all over the 1,000 plus pages of Infinite Jest, things that have often earned him critiques like: pretentious, tedious, gimmicky, obnoxiously Post-modern, and turgidly erudite.
The thing is, some of those critiques might be deserved. Or rather, I wouldn’t argue them. There are sections of the books that groan under the weight of ponderous description. The footnotes can be a bitch (though the fragmentation is very much intended and effective, I think), and some pages you simply have to slog through. Sometimes the zany plot gets too, well, zany. I admit all this. But really: it’s all beside the point. Because all of that pales next to what the book manages to do as a whole, which is to speak to the absolute hilarity, the depraved depths, the loneliness and heartbreak and sheer joy that is being alive.
Near the middle of the book, we get this: “The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A over the age of Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.” David Foster Wallace has never liked this rule, and in Infinite Jest, he tells it to “fuck off” like he never has before. He gets “really real uncomfortable” and dares you to roll your eyes. You probably will. And you’ll probably laugh, too. But if you keep reading, it’ll hit you in the stomach. This is stomach-level stuff. It’s tremendously sad, sometimes even depressing, but it’s also the most honest book about happiness I’ve ever read.