Wow, people. Infinite Jest is a great book, and it’s going on my list of favorite novels ever. I don’t know if it would be on my top 10 or top 20 or top 50 or what, but it’s up there somewhere. Many people on the Infinite Summer forums and other places talk about rereading this book, in some cases many times, and in some cases rereading it pretty much immediately after finishing it for the first time, and while I’m not ready to reread it right away, I think I probably will someday. It’s a book that would reward rereading, without a doubt. And it’s a book worth spending lots of time with.
I appreciated having the Infinite Summer blog and forums available to help me sort out the plot events and to help me remember things I would otherwise have forgotten, but as far as I’m concerned the chief pleasure in this book is not piecing together its intricate structure or following the plot. The book is so enjoyable because of the narrative voice. The trick to enjoying the book for me was not to get caught up in figuring out all the details, and instead to just let it all wash over me. I picked up on the major events, but mostly I came to understand, eventually, that I would be able to figure out enough not to get lost and so I could relax and not worry about details. And not worrying about the details freed me up to enjoy the intelligence, the cleverness, the humor, and the wisdom of that voice. It’s a voice that varies from section to section with each new situation and narrator, but the truth is, it’s mostly the same voice throughout, or maybe more accurately it’s the same sensibility. It’s a similar voice to what Wallace creates in his nonfiction, and if you like that voice, I’m guessing, you’ll like whatever Wallace writes.
I was surprised to find so much wisdom in this book, and so much heart. Before I began reading I thought it was going to be a dry, detached, ironic kind of book, the kind that’s all about thinking and not about feeling. I’ve heard people criticize this book for being cold, and I’m pretty sure we didn’t read the same book, because that’s just not true. The book is incredibly funny, it’s overflowing with linguistic inventiveness, it has so much energy it feels like it’s bursting at the seams, it’s hyperactive and show-offy, its sentences can go on and on, and it has odd quirks like Wallace’s use of the word “like” throughout the whole book pretty much no matter who the narrator is or what the level of formality is. But it also made me tear up, and I cared about the characters, more than I usually care about characters in fact.
So, I’ll try to get more specific. I thought it was wise about how difficult it is to live in one’s own head and how hard it is to communicate genuinely with other people. And it was wise about how easily we get into the habit of running away from everything that is difficult and painful and instead turn to diversions, whether they be drugs or alcohol or sports or sex or endlessly-entertaining movies or whatever. In this novel, it’s mostly drugs and alcohol. And it was wise about just how hard it is to overcome addictions and that overcoming addictions means facing those difficult things we were running from in the first place. And also about the incredible variety of ways people are hurting and hurt and damaged and deformed, so much so that pretty much nobody is whole and perfect, and everybody is trying to recover from something.
So what is the book about? I don’t think I’ll spend much time describing that because what it’s about is just so random and, frankly, doesn’t sound all that interesting. It’s got one set of characters who are students at an elite tennis academy, and another set of characters who are residents of a drug and alcohol addiction halfway house, and another set of characters who are involved in political intrigue. It’s set in our time, roughly, but in a world different from our own, with slightly different technology and wildly different political structures. You’ll recognize the world, but it’s not ours.
I’m afraid that people may be too easily intimidated by this book. Yes, it’s long and challenging, but it’s very readable, and while it does throw a whole bunch of characters and scenes at you right at the beginning and you have to orient yourself a bunch of times to new situations, it does settle down eventually and you begin to sort out who is who and what the main storylines are. I think if you are at all tempted to read this book, you should, and if you aren’t sure, then you might try Wallace’s nonfiction and see if you like that. You might try Wallace’s 2005 graduation speech given to Kenyon College, which I think is really wonderful and which gives you an idea of why I think he’s a wise writer.
And now I’m glad I have more of Wallace’s writing available to read; at this point I’ve only read one novel and one nonfiction collection and a couple things online, so there is much more to look forward to.