The start of my enthrallment with David Foster Wallace would have infuriated the deceased, reclusive author — it began when I watched someone else espouse his ideas in a film version of his life. I found his persona fascinating in “The End of the Tour,” the movie adaptation of last few days of the “Infinite Jest” book tour. Upon further research after viewing the film, Foster’s magnetism drew me in even more. I decided I had to embark upon a literary journey unlike any other I have previously contemplated — I had to read “Infinite Jest.”
But to read “Infinite Jest” is to voyeuristically look into Wallace’s past, which provided much of the backbone of the novel. Wallace, born in 1962, attended Amherst College and struggled with depression and addiction to drugs and alcohol throughout much of his young life. After writing “Infinite Jest,” which is 1,100 pages with 330 footnotes, Wallace continued to write and teach at Emerson College and Illinois State University. On Sept. 12, 2008, Wallace committed suicide in California. The few interviews with Wallace, who is such a soft-spoken, fumbling neurotic, are captivating and heartbreaking.
The most difficult question to answer about “Infinite Jest” is: what is it about? Because the answer is everything. There are over 1,000 pages of content about depression, loneliness, addiction, tennis, familial relations and love on which you can focus.
As Dave Eggers said in his original review of the novel, “Infinite Jest” is “more about David Foster Wallace than anything else.” Eggers, who wrote the foreword for the most recent edition, is correct. It’s about Wallace’s deep desires and secrets, but most of all it’s about what he wanted for the future of his craft. Wallace was hell-bent on changing fiction —and he did. This book is confusing and strange and downright disgusting at times. But it is beautiful and challenges its readers like nothing else ever has.
It is set in the future in a unified North American superstate called the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. There is not a chronological plot or a clear-cut conclusion — we jump from location to location, from characters we get to know well to characters with agonizing secrets to whom we are only exposed once.
There are two major locations in which the stories take place: the prep school, Enfield Tennis Academy and, down the street, the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. The physical closeness of these two locations leads to the intertwining storylines. James O. Incandenza, the patriarch of the Incandenza Family, has recently committed suicide. He was a filmmaker and the founder of Enfield Tennis Academy, and the plot somewhat revolves around the missing master copy of his last piece of work, titled “Infinite Jest.” Canadian separatists are attempting to locate “Infinite Jest” to commit terrorist acts against the United States. The novel carefully examines the neuroses of the rest of the Incandenza family and the way that their insanity bleeds into the school. But some of the most jarring parts of “Infinite Jest” come from the sections on Ennet House, where Wallace unforgivingly examines the grotesque and disgusting parts of the human psyche.
When I told people that I was reading “Infinite Jest” for my literature column, everyone seemed to have a considerable reaction. “Wow, but it’s so long!” was a common one. A fellow Daily Arts Writer warned me that she heard it was a “bro book,” which is valid, as the novel is mostly concerned with the preoccupations and compulsions of its men. But the most common reply was “I haven’t read it yet.” In my life full of predominantly English and humanities majors and professors, only one and a half people have actually read “Infinite Jest” — one friend has read the first 400 pages three times but hasn’t gotten past that point.
For all the novel’s glory and recognition, it seems impossible that so many academics and students still have not read it. I’ll admit it; the sheer depth of it is intimidating. For the first few days after buying it, it sat next to my bed while I just admired it and tried to wrap my head around the fact that I would be reading over 1,000 of the most acclaimed pages ever. Before actually plucking up the courage to start reading, I used “Infinite Jest” as a small stand for my computer and a weight for my arm exercises. But the book is incredible because even with so much content, in the actual book, it never felt like any of it was unnecessary. Even the three hundred or so footnotes are entirely essential to understanding any of the plots. Every page felt heavy with the importance that Wallace so delicately embedded in it.
“The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” This line stuck with me until the end of the novel. But this book has so much truth in it that you would have it read it about 10 more times before you ever get close to liberation. It seems the only thing to do is pick it up and start again.
Lerner is setting up a game of eschaton. To join, e-mail email@example.com.