Infinite Jest

by David Foster Wallace

Interviewer: Is there no “ending” to “Infinite Book” because there couldn’t be? Or did you just get tired of writing it?

DFW: There is an ending as far as I’m concerned. Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occurred to you, then the book’s failed for you.

Reading the quote above (in a chapter on projective geometry in Not To Be Wrong) is what originally got me interested in Infinite Jest. A writer who's enough of a mathematician to know of projective geometry has written a book which has no ending. Sounds like something I would enjoy. And I did enjoy Infinite Jest, just not for the reasons I thought I would.

This book is not only long, but it's deep and dense. 1,000 different people could read this book and come up with a million different explanations of the plot or major themes. The list of things this book isn't about is probably shorter than the list of things it could be reasonably argued to be about. 

It would be very easy for me to write a very aloof review where I just touch the surface of a hundred different points without going into any sort of depth. Instead I'm going to focus on answering just one question. While most of the discussion online is on trying to unravel the plot of the book, I'm going to focus instead on why I believe Wallace wrote Infinite Jest. Then at the end I'll write about what I enjoyed most while reading it. 

It's however impossible to talk about the book without talking about some of the content, so I'm going to spoil things which will be obvious 100 pages (1/10th) into the book.

Why do I believe David Foster Wallace wrote this book?

The plot of the book revolves around an entertaining video tape that once you've seen it, you want nothing more but to watch it again and again. It's so entertaining that you'll forgo water and food and eventually die, eyes glued to the screen. 

Wallace seems to have a bone to pick with television or more specifically passive forms of entertainment consumption. Crutches we use to fill the empty parts of our lives as opposed to actively making things better. With Infinite Jest, Wallace wanted to create something that would require active participation in to enjoy. He wanted to make the reader an accomplice, not just someone who's along for the ride. I believe the book is trying to engage in a conversation as opposed to the one way flow of information from a TV screen.

I read lots of people calling this book pretentious, but I don't really see that at all (it's also hard to believe a truly pretentious author would say things like "fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being" and should help the reader "become less alone inside"). I can see how people mistake the books complexity and lack of a spelled out ending as pretentious though. They think that Wallace used his big brain to tie an immensely complex knot and he wants to see if your brain is big enough to unravel it. Re-read the quote I started this review with. I can certainly see how book could be perceived this way.

However I see it as Wallace tying the knot so that it can be unravelled in a large number of ways. Wallace is trying to encourage you to take an active role in enjoying the book. Notice how he says "the book's failed for you" not you failed to understand the book. When he says the books failed for you, I believe he means the book failed to convince you to take an active roll in enjoying it. I don't think he's telling the interviewer that they failed to piece together what happens between the last chapter of the book and the first. The book failed you because you are passively waiting for the book to give you a nice ending that will be accompanied by an endorphin rush as opposed to actively finding your own enjoyment.

What did I enjoy about / takeaway from the book?

In the end I didn't really care too much about the plot of the book. I mean it was interesting (and so deep that on the 4th re-read you'd still be discovering new aspects of it) but it wasn't what kept me coming back to the book. What I enjoyed about the book was depth to which it conveyed boring old every day life. There aren't really any epic/grandiose moments in this book. There are lots of memorable and hilarious moments, but they are still rooted in everyday life.

An addict attending AA meetings or a teenagers locker room conversation felt not only real but like they had real weight. They felt important but at the same time almost orthogonal to crucial. I'm trying to say that those moments felt like they mattered, but only when put together. Each scene isn't anything special, but when put together with all the others it is. Normal/routine/mundane days make up more of our existence than the grandiose ones.

I found the book made it very accessible to enjoy the seemingly mundane. The added appreciation for the everyday is my main takeaway from the book and if you happen to read it, yours will almost certainly be different.