Over Spring Break, my friend and I set ourselves a reading challenge: to complete all 1,079 pages of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest within the 10 days of academic rest. She finished it all in a week and I just finished it three days ago. Regardless of my technical failure, finishing the book at all felt like a win, and I would highly recommend it.
The book is a collection of vignettes concerning an interconnected group of Bostonians in an alternative near-future, in which the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have joined to become the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). The novel is in part narrated by Hal Incandenza, a 17 year-old tennis prodigy and student. His sections expose the intense pressure of the competitive tennis environment and reveal the peculiarities of the Incandenza family. Other sections of the book focus on various characters in recovery at a nearby halfway house. There is also a persistent subplot concerning a group of Canadian separatists who carry out their terror plots using wheelchairs. Part family drama, part dystopian fiction, and part absurdity, Infinite Jest is entirely unique. It is deeply complex, but wholly entertaining.
A benefit of the book’s length and complexity is that just by sheer probability, it is likely to hit on something that appeals to you. Topics that are covered range from depression, to tennis, to addiction, to U.S.-Canada relations. There will be sections that you will think are just plain weird, but there will be other sections that will really speak to you. There’s really something in here for everybody.
However, as a person who likes to “get” books, this one was a real challenge. It is not the kind of book that allows you to read it once and put it away. It’s impossible to catch everything on the first read.
Falling down some Google rabbit holes helped clarify things a little. There are dedicated groups of “Jesters” who have invested a lot of time into trying to make sense of it. Some people publish different theories about the implications of the book’s ending. Other people have tried to categorize the information in the book to try to find patterns. There are maps marking the different locations in the book, and glossaries that list every appearance of every character and image. People have written graduate theses on this novel. If anyone tells you they totally understand this book, they’re probably lying to you.
On a personal note, this self-imposed challenge really reminded me of why I started to love books. I missed the feeling of reading like a kid, reading late at night under the covers, the way that books created entire worlds in my head. I even missed the way that reading took work because I might not know what some of the words meant. I didn’t understand everything, and there was no pressure to understand anything. I just read, and I liked the characters that I liked, and certain things appealed to me, and occasionally I stumbled on a sentence, but I really loved it.
I think a lot of times reading critically becomes a single-minded search for the correct, smart take-away. You need to finish the book, only to turn around and reduce the experience to its agreed-upon themes. Postmodern novels are great because no one fully understands them. Criticism has not yet condensed into the kind of neatly-packaged bullet points that suit a high school English class. There is no “right” thing to take away from the book. If you take away anything at all, you’ve succeeded. And believe me, you will take something away from this one.
I would highly recommend the book if you're looking to read something really different or looking for something to push your limits. You don't have to read the whole thing in a week (although it is humanly possible, if that appeals to you). And when you finish, regardless of when that is, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Written by Megan G.
Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.
R2: The Rice Review
Rice University's undergraduate literary magazine. Here you can find event updates, monthly writing contest winners, and opinions by the R2 staff on what's new, interesting, or subject to discussion in the literary and arts world.