A Baker’s Dozen of My Feelings about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

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“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.” – Infinite Jest

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First of all, here is a real conversation that happened:

Elissa: What should I do at therumpus.net?

Stephen: Maybe you can write a book review.

Elissa: Okay, but first I need to finish reading Infinite Jest.

Stephen: Why don’t you review that?

Elissa: No, I can’t review that.

Stephen: Why not? We don’t believe in timely reviews.

Elissa: No, it’s not that. I can’t just review that book. I’m not a person who is a good enough person to write about David Foster Wallace. There are other people.

Stephen: Maybe you should write about your own insecurities about why you’re not a person good enough to write about David Foster Wallace.

Elissa: Okay.

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Instead of writing about my insecurities, I will write about my feelings, which is just as good/the same. Feelings can never be wrong or misinterpreted as legitimate; they can be generally misinterpreted, which is fine, especially if I’m not being smart or funny enough on the surface of things.

Feeling No. 1: Confidence. I will need this book, and only this book, to study for the GREs.

Feeling No. 2: Fear. I took Infinite Jest on a kayaking trip in Colorado. I left it in my car, and when I reached for it afterward, I saw that one-third of the book was soaked in river water. The book is now growing mold on its pages, dark black clouds that keep expanding. I worry that I’m breathing in mold particles when I read (I’m nearsighted, so I have to hold the book very close to my face a.k.a. my nose and mouth). I keep the book at the foot of my bed, so that it’s far enough away from me that I don’t inhale any minute fungal hyphae while I’m sleeping. I can’t buy a new copy because I’ve solidified a relationship with my current water-damaged copy (also, it’s a first edition). Mold is pretty fucking toxic–it even plays a critical part in Infinite Jest, when a germophobic mother backs away in terror from her son who ingested hirsute mold of one color that is growing mold of another color. Some critics (a.k.a. Wikipedia) speculate this is a possible cause of the boy’s final condition, believing the mold somehow synthesized into a hallucinogenic drug. My fear is real.

Feeling No. 3: Idiocy. I remember seeing Infinite Jest for the first time, and judging a book by its cover and length, I thought I’d be clever by noticing it, confronting my ability to read it, and then not read it as a sign of being over being able to read it. It just looked long and pretentious for the sake of being long and pretentious. I suggest you don’t cultivate the same idiot presumption. Life has taught me that books of substantial length usually offer something substantial.

Feelings No. 4-6: Comprehension, identification, and projection. Reading IJ is like forging a spiritual connection with a man who expresses my feelings better than I do. As someone who writes, I’ve often felt that language is so poor an instrument for communication or expression. I find it unyieldingly difficult to write an honest sentence. DFW exhibits otherwise. George Saunders, in his remarks at David Foster Wallace’s memorial service, called Wallace “a wake-up artist.” Yes. DFW’s words, beyond creating solid smart sentences and solid smart stories, reach this part of you that you thought no one could reach, saying everything you’ve been wanting to say and hear, everything you’ve been thinking on your own but haven’t been able to share with anyone else. It’s as if he comes out of his book and shakes you until you’re dizzy, yelling at you all the time, “I GET IT. I GET YOU. YOU ARE NOT ALONE HERE.”

Feelings No. 7 & 8: Exhilaration/exhaustion and physical pain/somatic hi-def experience. This book is an exercise in paying attention. To begin, you need a dictionary, preferably the OED. Since countless characters hijack the narrative without warning, I’d recommend keeping a list of monikers to separate the Canadian wheelchair assassins from the recovering/persisting head-cases from the tennis prodigies. Wrist braces aren’t a bad idea. A working knowledge of mathematics, chemistry, grammar, physical education, video production, waste management, puppetry, media dissemination, the Twelve Steps, and Canada will go a long way. Finally, a Faulkner-Gaddis-Pynchon-like-patience is necessary, as in butt-in-the-seat-time to power through even what you don’t understand, what doesn’t seem like English, and what gives you a physical headache; just read the words, and they’ll invade some part of you that can absorb and translate and assimilate. Have faith. Persevere. DFW will slap you a couple of times to make you pay attention harder, because you’re saying, “I’m laughing too much; I’m crying too much”; you’re now facing the challenge of being too emotional to continue reading the book as you’re distracted and wiping tears away and recovering. You got a bit off track by engaging with the author as if he were your drinking companion, being all vulnerable and shit, and that’s a good thing. You just can’t let it get in the way. This book demands your attention, and if you give it, the rewards are unquantifiable. It is possible, as with anything that demands your attention, to glaze over a passage, but you’ll go back and read it and see you would have missed everything if you missed those few sentences. It’s all essential, and you can’t miss a word or a moment without being unbelievably sorry and sad. So read and reread and read again. Eventually you’ll do anything for him, Jesus, you now just want to be inside him, because your secrets are now his secrets and his wisdom is now your wisdom, and you praise a Higher Power that this man existed to tell you everything you ever needed to know.

Feeling No. 9: Mutability. I had to choose carefully to whom to recommend this book. No one who knew me was allowed to hate it. If they hated it, they hated me. Recently I was in a bookstore, and I picked up the book because I wanted to send it to my ex-boyfriend, to say, “Read this, and then you’ll know what you’re missing by not loving me.” I was with a friend, and she wanted to buy it for herself. I didn’t have the heart to separate her from the book once she had it in her hands. She deserved this book much more than he did. And then she read it, and she finished it before I did, and she told me, “You getting me to read this book is the best thing you’ve ever done.”

Feeling No. 10: Compassion. In IJ, there are no minor characters or incidents. DFW gives every detail respect and every someone a story. He’s nice to people and sort of says, “Oh, you failed in that moment? That’s a common theme in humanity, and no one can really fault you for that.” Not everyone deserves what happens to him/her; we must endure despite other people or circumstance, which is the hardest thing, but the most necessary thing, and actually the only thing, if you think about it, which DFW makes you do, with every word.

Feeling No. 10.5: Admiration. DFW teaches his reader how to be a Student of the Game. The “Game” is tennis, but it’s also “Life.”

Feeling No. 11: Respect. You give it; you get it. With publishing and media the way it is today (and the way Wallace predicts it will devolve), here is an author and a book that respect its reader, that says, “You get on my level, and I’ll get on yours.” The words are multi-syllable-d, the language multifarious and poetic, the content often oblique, the characters complex, the font for the endnotes small, and so on. This book is hard to read; it is heavy in every sense of the word; it’ll rattle your brain and hurt your wrists. And I appreciate that. But not only that. Good writing offers a portal out of the mundane, out of what you already know, and out of your own boring head. Wallace is incomprehensively imaginative and endlessly inventive, and just to give a taste, I’ll mention a few titles listed in the encyclopedic Filmography of James O. Incandenza: “Union of Theoretical Grammarians in Cambridge,” “Fun with Teeth,” “Kinds of Pain,” “‘The Medusa v. the Odalisque,’” “The American Century as Seen Through a Brick,” “The Cold Majesty of the Numb,” etc. When you’re holding down a job from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., you want to read this kind of material, like funny dialogue between competitive junior tennis players or highly uncomfortable sexual situations involving Raquel Welch masks. And the darker end of the spectrum is so dark, like really sick disturbing shit of which your rational, sane, traditional mind could never conceive on its own. You start to feel embarrassed and scandalized and unhinged by what you read, and then you feel embarrassed and scandalized and unhinged by the fact you like it, and embarrassed to have ever been unhinged by it. You want more. You’re into it. You are, because even though you’re just reading a book, you feel more alive, vibrant, and vulnerable considering you’ve just confronted what you’d never have imagined; but you’ve gotten to the other side of it, the other side of where you were before you read, and that’s a better place to be, even if–no, especially because–you’re more aware.

Feeling No. 12: Infinite Jest. We’ve entered an era where we’ve forgotten how to entertain ourselves. In a time when attention and perception have become disconnected, Wallace works to connect human beings with their emotions through the medium of reading. I often have to justify entertainment as more than “wasting time” or “momentarily neglecting my lonely existence.” IJ reawakens the art of being a watcher; it’s no longer an evil to be alone with yourself, to reclaim solitude as an important activity, one where you confront your subjective experience and face your memories, your feelings, your passions, all of which are reflected at you while you read. The book is not only to be read, it is to be experienced as a life event. The reader has to participate in this book, and in this way, IJ is the anti-passivity. Every time I pick up the book, I get something out of it that informs who I am as a person, how I think, how I live, how I’d like to perceive the world. What makes the book “infinite” is what the reader takes out of it, how personal it becomes, how instructive. It’s definitive engagement ad infinitum.

Feeling No. 13: Sadness. I feel sad writing this now, knowing my words don’t even capture .20148 of how I actually feel about Infinite Jest.

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NB: This book is about competitive tennis, addiction, and entertainment. It is set in the not-too-distant future, where time is subsidized (e.g. “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”) and all the problems of today have gotten worse. But in a really funny way.

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More from The Rumpus on David Foster Wallace

Illustration of David Foster Wallace by Harry Aung for Laura Miller’s interview with David Foster Wallace on Salon.com.


Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column. Follow her on Twitter, and visit elissabassist.com for more literary, feminist, and personal criticism. More from this author →