I read Infinite Jest; but maybe I should keep that to myself

by Mr. Sheehy

Last year I didn’t read nearly as many books as usual, because over the summer and into the fall I read Infinite Jest. (Can I count that one as two books? Maybe three? Do I get separate credit for the endnotes?) Considering that I’d discussed in public my starting the book but not completing it, I’d always assumed I’d write for publication some kind of reflection on Wallace’s magnum infinitum.

But no. One of the great troubles I discovered about Infinite Jest is you can’t mention you’ve read it, let alone enjoyed it, without coming across as pretentious. While the height of pretension is still Harold Bloom (the man who edited an anthology for children called Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages) (which I admit I own because I found it for almost free at the Tattered Cover in Denver and the collection is quite good despite Bloom’s vanity-flattering title), there is room below Bloom to still be pretentious. When half my book club drops out, when I discover old articles in The New Yorker about not reading it, when a colleague writes, “An interest in metafiction used to mean I pretended to legitimately like, understand, and enjoy Infinite Jest,” I grow gun-shy about discussing it publicly.

And yet but so, I read it. And I admit I even liked it. Not as much as lots of other books–my favorite last year was a second reading of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which left me breathless with its beauty–but enough to have been glad I read it. I compare it to Moby Dick in that I liked it and thought it as brilliant as its proponents say it is, but that I doubt I’d ever read it a second time. 

So here I thought I’d note a few things about the book, for the good of the order and for the good of anyone who is considering reading it.

1. Wallace’s essays provide an interpretive key. 

I have read a lot of Wallace’s essays and think I found every one of them embedded in Infinite Jest. In one sense it turned my reading into a word search with essays, but more importantly, my familiarity with their ideas lent me a sense of confidence about where Wallace was heading thematically. Thus, embedded in the story as an actual character, we meet the weird hydrocephalic Wallace opens “The Nature of the Fun” with, the one he attributes to Don DeLillo: a

hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (dragging itself across the floor of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebo-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.

Knowing the ideas from the essay helped me see the symbolic richness of the character in the story, one whose significance reached beyond the essay’s ideas but definitely encompassed those I’d read there.

2. Wallace is funny but it’s virtually impossible to pass along. 

There is an extended scene in Infinite Jest at the Enfield Tennis Academy where kids play a game called Eschaton. Reading it you wonder if this is what would result from combining Quidditch with Risk and AP Calculus. I slogged through pages and pages of story and end notes filled with intricate description (and mathematical formulas!), wondering why I was reading. And then it all turned about and resulted in a scene so wild and funny I cried. In my delight I tried to explain it to a friend but I failed miserably. So much of what is funny in Wallace involves build up, the set up of a world and a situation so intricate that when the joke breaks it breaks with the force of a river exploding through a dam–an erumpent, one might say. I can read lines from Harrison Scott Key to friends and they’ll laugh. If I read lines from Wallace people wonder what my problem is. Which is one more reason it feels so pointless to write about the book.

3. Wallace’s delight with language is infectious. 

This book is full of words I have never heard before or never knew how to use: strabismic (squinty), puerile (childish, silly, immature), tumid (swollen, bulging), erumpent (bursting forth through a surface). The text is not full of such words, but Wallace clearly wasn’t hesitant to use them, and in my delight at them, I am more inspired toward precision in my own word choice.

4. You call that an ending? 

So the end is not exactly a Dickens-like denouement. It’s like I was holding a handful of loose strings thinking someone might try to tie it off, and then everyone left and I was looking at the mess of tangles in my hand wondering what had just happened. But after I read a pretty good survey of the ending situation from Mike Moats my confidence was restored. I found I had tracked all the important details and was fully aware of what was going on; I just hadn’t realized I would need to project beyond the last sentence so far to discover answers to some basic questions (like how did the ending pages lead to the opening pages, since the opening takes place ahead of all the action in the story?).

5. I surely missed many things, but much of the symbolism is possible to catch. 

I teach my students when we read The Scarlet Letter that Hawthorne uses physical characteristics to cue the reader into spiritual realities, and here Wallace uses the same tool (justifying even further my assigning The Scarlet Letter–it’s still relevant!). Who is the character who is best able to resist the temptations of his favorite release? The one who can resist the cage we feel trapped inside? He’s the one with the oddly indestructible head, whose buddies used to close it in elevator doors for fun (Again–see “This is Water” for a key to access this thematic thrust). Which character is actually happy, experiencing a sense of joy at times? The one who feels no pain, who has burns on his legs, which are covered with globs of ointment, because he leaned on the oven and didn’t realize it.

I could say more, of course, but that is enough. I suspect I’ll return to the book to search out scenes and moments of poignancy and insight. Maybe I’ll reference exchanges that capture some crucial tension–there were many such moments–but I know I won’t read it all again. Who has time for such things? Who would care to listen to me share all the things I’d discover on a second reading?