Infinite Jest Challenge

Infinite Jest

You’re busy, I get it. You have responsibilities, obligations, appointments. And I know there’s probably a long list of things you want to do but are not doing. I don’t want to add to that list, I’d actually like to help you knock some things off of that list, if only by knocking stuff off my own and inspiring you to do the same. But here’s the thing, reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is probably not on that ideal to-do list of yours and it really should be. You know what, skip the list, just pick up a copy and open at page one.  Because we are talking about arguably (and argue they will,) the most important book written in your lifetime (at least if you are under, well, let’s say 40.) Maybe you haven’t read Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby, but they weren’t published in 1996 and they don’t deal with the time we’re living through now.

David Foster Wallace is the man behind This is Water, and the themes from that speech run through Infinite Jest, though it would be difficult to say they are the main themes of the Novel. It’s hard to say what the main themes of the Novel are, truth be told, because there are so many: striving for achievement in art and/or sports, struggling with addiction, dealing with loss, existing in a family, the class divide in contemporary America, the place of entertainment in our society, and the tenuous nature of sanity in light of all of the above and more. But the themes of mindfulness and the lack thereof can be found within the book’s 1,000+ pages as well. Here are a couple examples pulled from early pages:

“He didn’t reject the idea so much as not react to it and watch as it floated away.”

“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.”

That’s right, I said 1,000+ pages. Infinite Jest is a long book. And I am not going to assure you that it goes fast once you get started with it. It is a long and difficult book. But it is also an incredibly rewarding book if you put in the effort. It is a  moving, thought-provoking, and very funny book. And I would say that you will come out the other end of Infinite Jest a changed person. (If you are the kind of person who is capable of being changed by a work of art, of course.) Now, that is a very bold claim to make, but I’m serious. You will be different after you read this novel, and probably for the better. Your mind will be expanded, and not only because your vocabulary will have improved. Your brain will grow like a muscle after a particularly strenuous, month-long, work-out regime. You might develop more insight, and maybe even a little more compassion, for the people around you. And you will have spent time breathing that rarefied air of genius. Because yes, Infinite Jest is a mountain. And the view from the top is fantastic.

Full disclosure: I am a voracious reader. I devour books. But Infinite Jest took me a long time to read. And while I was reading it my internal monologue became a literary narration of my life in a way that wasn’t exactly unpleasant, but was strange because I didn’t feel like it was me, exactly, who was doing the narrating. Talk about creating mindfulness. So, while I originally intended to start some sort of online book club and ask you, dear reader, to attempt to finish this novel in a month or so and enter into discussion with me about it, the truth of the matter is that I don’t know how long it will take me to finish rereading it and it feels unfair to set a time limit on you. The novel’s thick spine shone out from my bookshelf for over a year before I worked up the chutzpah to tackle it the first time. So I encourage you to pick it up and read it at your own pace, and offer you my services in explaining anything you may have questions about as you make your way through it. I don’t pretend to have a perfect grasp of every element of the masterpiece, but I would love to help you with it if you want me to help.

Here is a taste of what you can expect from the novel. DFW has a huge lexicon, so every couple pages you may want to reach for a dictionary. This is OK, it is not an admission of failure to look up a word, it can actually be fun to learn something new. Also, there are going to be points, (alright, maybe large portions of the book,) where you are not going to understand 100 percent what’s going on exactly. That’s OK too. It can actually be pretty enjoyable to embrace that uncertainty and just enjoy the ride. It is particularly gratifying when a piece of the puzzle falls into place, but the cost is being comfortable with the chaos of the unassembled pieces out of the box. I choose a sample that exemplifies these aspects of Infinite Jest but also demonstrates the brilliance and humor of the book. I did my best to stay away from any spoilers as well. The only thing this section gives away is that much of the Northeastern United States is now a toxic waste dump with walled off borders where garbage is catapulted into it and fans run 24/7 to blow the fumes away. Crazy? Ridiculous? Brilliant? Yes indeed. But also, not as important as you would think. Though Canada is pretty pissed off about it, and that does have some relevance to the plot. Oh, and the calender has been subsidized, that is to say, corporations are now buying naming rights to years. It is not all as far-fetched or difficult as this portion, but I wanted to let you know how it can be. Enjoy:

It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal. The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. The boy now attends college in Champaign IL and has forgotten that his hamsters were named Ward and June. The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable — it’s that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant ragged outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine. All these territories are now property of Canada. With respect to a herd of this size, please exercise the sort of common sense that come to think of it would keep your thinking man out of the southwest Concavity anyway. Feral hamsters are not pets. They mean business. Wide berth advised. Carry nothing even remotely vegetablish if in the path of a feral herd. If in the path of such a herd, move quickly and calmly in a direction perpendicular to their own. If American, north not advisable. Move south, calmly and in all haste, toward some border metropolis — Rome NNY or Glens Falls NNY or Beverly MA, say, or those bordered points between them at which the giant protective ATHSCME fans atop the hugely convex protective walls of anodized Lucite hold off the drooling and piss-colored bank of teratogenic Concavity clouds and move the bank well back, north, away, jaggedly, over your protected head.

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4 Responses to Infinite Jest Challenge

  1. Doyle March 11, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    So I published this piece and opened Infinite Jest up on my kindle app and read two pages before I came to a part that made me laugh out loud so hard and for so long that Benedict Cumberbatch, (our house rabbit,) woke from his nap and is now eyeing me warily with the exact look you give a friend who may or may not have lost his mind while you were sleeping.

    The line describes the Enfield Tennis Academy’s old motto (much of the novel is set in a tennis academy in Boston):

    “It’s a tradition, one stemming maybe from Wimbledon’s All-England locker rooms’ tympana, that every big-time tennis academy has its own special traditional motto on the wall in the locker rooms, some special aphoristic nugget that’s supposed to describe and inform what the academy’s philosophy is all about”

    Enfield’s motto was until recently: “TE OCCIDERE POSSUNT SED TE EDERE NON POSSUNT NEFAS EST”

    The footnote (I forgot to tell you that Infinite Jest has a ton of footnotes, and some of those footnotes have their own footnotes,) explains how the Latin motto translates:

    “Roughly, ‘They Can Kill You, But the Legalities of Eating You Are Quite a Bit Dicier.’”

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