Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace has been one of the most frustrating books I’ve ever read. I enjoyed it once I got more into Wallace’s writing style and what was actually going on in the book, but at times I was wanting to toss the book against the wall because I couldn’t wrap my brain around what was happening. What was happening, I found out, was something insanely funny, inexplicably morose, and in the end, thought-provoking.
The book itself is a challenge to read based on length alone. It’s almost 1000 pages with almost 400 footnotes to read as well. It’s also not in chronological order. It bounces around between timelines which are given the names of new years in the calendar. There is no longer 2008, 2009, etc. All years are named after corporate sponsors. Whichever sponsor bids the highest gets to name the next year: The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment is the time when most of the story takes place.
The plot itself is about “the entertainment,” which is a film, made by the father (James Orin Incandenza) of one of the protagonists (Hal Incandenza, an up-and-coming tennis star at the Enfield Tennis Academy in another hypothetical location in Boston), that is so entertaining that anyone who watches it won’t do anything but watch it on repeat until they die. The film is sought after by a terrorist sect in Quebec called the Wheelchair Assassins (quite literally assassins bound to wheelchairs) that was previously for the secession of Quebec from Canada but is now anti-O.N.A.N.
The book also touches a lot on addiction and follows another character, Don Gately, as he goes through AA and halfway houses to overcome his drug addiction.
Infinite Jest also details the lives of a whole ensemble of characters, including the Incandenza family and other students at the Enfield Tennis Academy, and other recovering addicts at the halfway house at which Don Gately works.
Wallace’s gift for conveying voice and comedy and sadness and sociocultural tics kick you right in the groin. After that the book splits wide open in this revealing, shimmering way, and you understand that above the comedy and absurdity it’s a book about people hurting and, like his commencement speech at Kenyon, what to worship. Reading IJ is like entering into an at-first seemingly contentious relationship until you give the person the benefit of the doubt and begin to see that this person has much more to offer than you could have expected.
I suppose if I had to sum the book up I’d say it’s a book about our inherent need to be entertained and stimulated at all times. None of us can ever just sit and enjoy being bored. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am. I can’t say much without giving it away, but that’s what I took from reading it. People online have said that the book is dated (published in 1996), but I think it’s as relevant as ever. We do have to constantly be entertained. We have to entertain our online audiences by giving them minute-by-minute updates of what we’re eating, where we are, what trip we’ve taken. Our minds have to constantly have that extra jolt of dopamine and adrenaline. None of us can just take time to sit or lie down, be quiet, take a breath, and just enjoy nothingness for the beauty that it is.
TL;DR It’s a book about addiction, America, the media, depression, and tennis.