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Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest (1996)

by David Foster Wallace

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
8,011154403 (4.29)9 / 751
  1. 80
    A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (pyrocow)
  2. 70
    Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (AndySandwich)
    AndySandwich: Books that cause neuroses.
  3. 81
    Ulysses by James Joyce (browner56)
    browner56: You will either love them both or hate them both, but you will probably need a reader's guide to get through either one--I know I did.
  4. 60
    Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (owenkeegan)
    owenkeegan: Set at an Irish boarding school, this book shares a sense of humor with and has a narrative disjunction similar to Infinite Jest.
  5. 61
    Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky (blahblah88)
    blahblah88: Get to know DFW.
  6. 30
    A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (DaveInSeattle)
  7. 41
    Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (Anonymous user)
    Anonymous user: It's all about what people do for entertainment, status, and sport. Along the way, the entire spectrum of society is satirized.
  8. 21
    The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1: A Sort of Introduction, and Pseudo Reality Prevails by Robert Musil (JuliaMaria)
    JuliaMaria: Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung meint, dass 'Unendlicher Spass' von Foster Wallace für den Beginn des einundzwanzigsten Jahrhunderts das sei, was Musils 'Mann ohne Eigenschaften' für das vergangene Jahrhundert war.
  9. 54
    Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (owenkeegan)
    owenkeegan: David Foster Wallace based the structure of Infinite Jest on a fractal. Cloud Atlas similarly transitions from one story to the next as though zooming in on a corner of one world to reveal a whole new universe, related but unique.
  10. 10
    Martian time-slip by Philip K. Dick (ateolf)
  11. 10
    The Instructions by Adam Levin (hairball)
    hairball: If you liked Infinite Jest, you will like The Instructions, but even if you didn't like IJ, you should try it.
  12. 00
    The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World by Tom Feiling (DLSmithies)
    DLSmithies: I know that Infinite Jest isn't "about drugs" - to reduce it to that would be insulting - but nevertheless, I read these books around the same time, and found they both have really interesting things to say about drugs and addiction in modern society - so if you liked IJ, Tome Felling's book might be worth a look.… (more)
  13. 00
    The Dissertation: A Novel (Norton paperback fiction) by R. M. Koster (EnriqueFreeque)
  14. 58
    House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (Torikton)
    Torikton: Danielewski and Wallace both satirize academic writing by playing with footnotes.

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English (151)  Italian (2)  Spanish (1)  All languages (154)
Showing 1-5 of 151 (next | show all)
An amazingly well-written book, but I feel like I need to read it again to really understand it. I don't know if that will give me any more closure with it though. ( )
  DeftMunky | Oct 7, 2015 |
I suppose the visceral reaction I have to a lot of the situations in the book is a sign of writing skill. It just does not make me want to finish this book (I read about 80 pages).

All the situations are bleak, dismal and hopeless, and often disgusting. It's really beyond me how anyone could find this book funny. Possibly it's necessary to be male to enjoy it - I have a vague suspicion this book would fail the Bechdel test. ( )
  wester | Sep 25, 2015 |
x2 ( )
  link_rae | Sep 14, 2015 |
David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest has three main narrative strands. In the first, we follow the life of Hal Incandenza, academic and tennis prodigy and student at a large tennis academy run by his family. In the second, we follow the life of Don Gately, recovering narcotics addict and live-in staffer at a halfway house for addicts. And in the third, we follow the lives of U.S. secret agent Hugh Steeply and Canadian terrorist Remy Marathe, on opposing sides after a darkly comical alternate history sees the U.S. cleansing itself by dumping all its pollution into northern New England and then (in an act of “experialism”) coercing Canada into accepting ownership of the contaminated territory. These strands are never quite brought together in the novel, though the very attentive reader will be able to infer how it is that Don Gately must end up sharing a hospital room with Remy Marathe’s wife, and so be able to make use of the information provided to him by the ghost of Hal Incandenza’s father, at the same time as Hal is brought to the same hospital and can thus join the caper. But none of these scenes or their consequences are actually narrated in the novel. Wallace has other ambitions, some of which make it obligatory for him to deny readers, as much as he thinks he can get away with it, conventional narrative pleasures.

Wallace uses Infinite Jest to ask the question, “what is it good for a person to love?” He does quite a bit more than this, but the question of what to love, what to live for, what to give oneself away to, is the question that drives the novel.

The question has not always been worth asking. For most of human history, most people had little choice as to how to live. Everyone, or nearly everyone, struggled to find or produce clean water, food, and shelter, to keep their children alive and healthy, to avoid being devoured, murdered, or maimed.

In a modern, wealthy society the old problems are trivially overcome, and so the question arises: what to choose next? People can dedicate their lives to high levels of accomplishment in sports, the arts, or science. They can dedicate their lives to sex or romance. Food, drink, cocaine, heroin, spending lazy afternoons in front of the TV, raising wonderful children, defending the nation, redressing injustices...all are pursuits to which most citizens of the first world can, if they so choose, dedicate their lives, and in Wallace’s novel there are characters dedicated to all of these and more.

In the U.S. of Infinite Jest, the demands that life and society make on people are as modest and so, in a sense, as freeing, as one could wish. A large percentage of people stay at home, working and amusing themselves via their homes’ ultra-high resolution computer screens, ordering movies and groceries online, even attending conferences online. Energy is cheap and abundant. The availability of legal and illegal psychotropic drugs is, if anything, greater than in the actual world; the proportion of characters not just enamored with but (at least at some point) dependent on, or devoted to, such drugs is certainly striking. The world of the novel is one in which the U.S. has nothing but wealth and free time and an infinite variety of choices of how to use it. The world also contains an underground film, itself called Infinite Jest, that offers a viewing experience so compelling that rewatching the film is all anyone wants to do once exposed to it, even to the exclusion of eating. Whether or not the U.S. citizens of the novel will have the choice to give their lives to this film, seemingly the ultimate pleasure, is what drives the plot insofar as there is a plot to be driven.

Infinite Jest has no easy answer to offer to its own question, but it directly rejects some possible answers. The life devoted to one’s personal pleasure – sought through alcohol or illegal drugs or sex or food or the passive entertainment of TV and film – is narrowing and destructive. The life devoted to one’s nation – exemplified mainly by Steeply and Marathe – is better for a person, in that it demands sacrifice, demands living for something outside of the self, and this appears to make a person stronger, healthier. But it does not seem to really nourish the soul on its own. The life of Hal Incandenza, devoted to excellence at tennis – and, by extension, a life devoted to any sporting, artistic, or scientific pursuit – is treated similarly. And while perhaps devotion to family is a way of being whole and healthy if done well, no one in the novel seems to have achieved that sort of a relationship to their parents or children.

So how should one live? The answer Infinite Jest ultimately pieces together is seen mainly in the characters who are in 12-Step programs (met in Don Gately’s strand of the narrative). Though not all of these characters are succeeding in sobriety, much less in dedicating their lives to something that gives them meaning and genuine happiness, some of them are. The successful ones exemplify some very specific virtues: they try to pay attention to the world in front of them, and the people in front of them. They “identify,” in recovery jargon, with the people they encounter, rather than “compare,” i.e., work to create human connection rather than disconnection. They do their best to face what lies within themselves and what lies out in the world without hiding, being quick to acknowledge their own faults and slow to find fault with others. When living this way is painful they do their best to abide with the pain, a day at a time (even, a second at a time), until the pain subsides by the mysterious workings of the body, the brain, or higher powers, i.e., God.

The role of God in a healthy, functional, genuinely happy life is one the novel takes very seriously. Don Gately and a number of other recovering-addict characters comment on the seeming ridiculousness of prayer as a way of living a better life, expressing a point of view Wallace assumes the reader is likely to share. But the addicted characters who actually recover are nonetheless the ones who pray. Mario Incandenza, Hal’s brother and a physically deformed but spiritually enlightened character, prays sincerely, believes in God, and struggles with the prevalence of non-belief at the tennis academy. He is also the only character in the novel (setting aside perhaps the minor figure of a weight-training guru) who is fundamentally psychologically whole.

This, then, is the whole of the Law and the Prophets, in Wallace’s novel: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Wallace seems terribly afraid of coming across as naive or overly earnest. Perhaps that is partly because he has his pride as an intellectual, and in intellectual circles naiveté and earnestness do not go far. But it also seems that it is partly because Wallace’s ambition for Infinite Jest is not just that he does his best, in a piece of literary fiction, to ask and answer the question of what we should love. His ambition is that, in writing about this question and his answer to it, he will actually change the reader. Change the reader deeply: not just in the head, as she comprehends the ideas of the novel, but in the heart, where it counts. And to come across to the reader as a naive and earnest proselytizer for Jesus’s most famous message is a sure way to not leave much of an effect on the reader Wallace imagines picking up Infinite Jest.

So, rather than to instruct the reader, Wallace uses Infinite Jest to give the reader the experiences that, he believes, conduce to spiritual growth: to loving one’s fellow people, and God. These are experiences of attention, identification, and communication.

The first feature of Wallace’s enlightened characters is that they pay close attention to the world; they display a sort of mindfulness associated with Zen Buddhism. Hal Incandenza and other tennis academy students experience this sort of total attention only occasionally, mostly when “in the zone” on court. Mario Incandenza, on the other hand, is forced by his physical disabilities to move very slowly, and so pay great attention to everything around him and everything that he does: his approximation to enlightenment in the novel is commensurately greater. Similarly, Don Gately spends his meetings at Alcoholics Anonymous sitting up in “nose-pore range,” so that he can devote his full attention to each person who comes up to speak, and in the world of the novel (and perhaps in the actual world) this is the sort of behavior that distinguishes those who will remain sober from those who will return to active addiction.

The more successful the reader of Infinite Jest, the more she is like Mario Incandenza: always reading slowly, paying enormous attention as she goes. Wallace breaks up the temporal sequence of the novel and makes it difficult to identify when different events take place (not least by having the U.S. sell the naming rights to years, so that most of the narrative takes place in the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment, for instance). He also breaks up the reading process by sending the reader frequently to endnotes (there are 388 of them), some of which function like minor academic endnotes while others break off from the narrative of the main text to tell their own stories, or provide other forms of information, that are often crucial for understanding narrative and plot, and that also sometimes contain important thematic material as well. These disruptions put a heavy burden on the reader’s attention. So too with the many small concordances between different parts of the novel: minor characters are often met on multiple occasions separated by scores or hundreds of pages, and it is down to the reader’s memory and attention to detail to mark these happenings, to say nothing of the relation of the novel to Hamlet or other literary works, and other purely literary features revealed only to close inspection. And again, the resolution of the novel’s plot requires the reader’s attention, since it is not itself spelled out. Finally, a number of passages in the novel are very long and likely to try the patience of the reader of more conventional novels; the dense and repetitious thought processes of a man waiting for a delivery of marijuana is one example early on. In return for the reader’s attention, however, Wallace offers payoffs. Not the easy payoffs of reading funny dialogue or a thrilling chase scene, but payoffs that match the sort of work that went into attaining them: comprehension of the big picture, of who people are and why they act as they do, of allusion and structure and other artistic properties of the work. The novel is hard to read exactly because its goal is to teach the reader to pay closer attention to everything; its promise is that this close attention will be rewarded by seeing deeper into what is in front of one’s nose. And seeing deeper brings us closer to each other and God.

Identification is the second feature of Wallace’s enlightened characters. Striving to understand what it is like to be someone else, to empathize with how another person felt or feels, to see what is in common rather than what distinguishes, is a central part of addiction recovery in Infinite Jest. But it also appears to be what is absent from unhappy people more generally, and present in happier people more generally, within the novel. Hal Incandenza cannot remember any moment of real emotional connection with either his father or mother, something that contributes to his profound loneliness as a late teenager. His brother Mario, on the other hand, is empathetically gifted; it is a genuine surprise and cause of concern for him when he is not able to intuit how Hal feels. Not coincidentally, Hal has a serious problem with marijuana, using it to escape until it seems to become his reason for going through a day, while Mario is a happy person.

To promote the reader’s efforts to identify with other people, to empathically engage them, Wallace does not just rely on the description of the virtues of identification in addiction recovery. He also gives extremely detailed, empathy-supporting psychological portraits of a huge range of characters, most of them very unlike the expected readers of the novel. Using familiar modernist techniques, he encourages the reader to try to identify with poor black girls, rich white boys, male prostitutes, drug addicts, enforcers for bookies, depressed women, and many more. Characters who perform horrifying acts are presented both from the outside and from the inside, making it harder not to empathize with some aspect of the worst, harder not to recognize some part of oneself in a person one would reject all comparisons to, ordinarily: the ruthless Tony Krause, who allows a companion to die a horrible death in a scene early on, is also the pitiable Tony Krause, who cannot control his bowels in withdrawal and must nonetheless ride public transportation; and so on for many others. Sustained for over a thousand pages, the cumulative effect is to encourage the reader to take her strengthened empathic muscles out into the world beyond the written page, and to try to identify with homeless beggars, difficult people in supermarket checkout lines, academic blowhards.

Finally, Wallace’s idea of the happy person is of one with certain kinds of supernatural communicative experiences. Experiences of communication with God in Infinite Jest are not uncommon, but they are unilateral. Mario Incandenza prays for about an hour each day, but he does not hear anything in response. Don Gately goes so far as to complain, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, that he prefers to think of his prayers as directed at the ceiling; thinking of them as directed at something more spiritual leaves him envisioning nothing but his thoughts expanding unheeded into the infinity of outer space. But in the novel, God in some form is the only explanation for how it is that an addict can go from desperately longing for the addictive substance practically every hour of every day, only to find that somehow, through AA’s program of daily prayers to a higher power and group support and simple abstinence, the desperate longing vanishes. The idea that a God capable of saving someone from addictive longing should be beyond comprehension, should not be a communicative fellow with a big beard, is presented as to be expected.

But in addition to the God of Infinite Jest there is another realm of the supernatural, or more properly the paranormal. In the novel, upon death the soul is released from the body, but the soul is a quantum mechanical phenomenon, a sort of disturbance in the ether that is too rarified to readily have any effect on the ordinary world. But a soul with sufficient patience (human bodies move at the speed of a clock’s hour hand, from a disembodied soul’s perspective) can interact with the rest of us, speaking with living people through their inner voices and appearing to them as ghosts. It is as such a ghost that the late Jim Incandenza (Hal and Mario’s father) speaks to Don Gately, late in the novel. He introduces Gately to the idea that, when you are thinking to yourself and you use a word that you don’t actually know, this is a ghost is speaking to you, through your own inner voice (this is a “ghostword”); also, to the idea that the “patient and abiding dead” are responsible for some of our wisest thoughts: sometimes a determined soul slows down enough to pass on some advice, not quite grasped as such but perhaps still acted upon, to a living person.

While Wallace does not invite the reader to pray to God, he does engineer the experience of ghostwords for the reader. While reading Infinite Jest, even very knowledgeable readers will sometimes find themselves hearing words in their inner voices that they do not actually know: obscure bits of English, technical jargon from chemistry, neuroscience, mathematics, or linguistics, or little bits of slang borrowed from Wallace’s own family life (“greebles” for tiny bits of rolled-up shredded materials like facial tissues, for instance). Though Wallace survived the writing of Infinite Jest, it was inevitable that he would die at some point (sooner rather than later, as it sadly turned out). And now, deceased, he is the ghost who puts ghostwords into the reader’s mind, words the reader does not know but hears in her inner voice nonetheless, as she reads Wallace’s novel. These words are an opportunity for the reader to experience a communication from Wallace as one of the patient and abiding dead, and perhaps to see all literature as capable of playing this role for us. This gesture, more “spiritual” than religious, is Wallace’s effort to teach the reader to extend her attention and identification beyond the realm that lies visible before her.

Infinite Jest is a wonderful and challenging novel regardless of whether God exists, whether quantum mechanics has anything to do with the “soul,” whether or not reading a novel can make one a better, healthier, happier human being. Wallace’s command of distinct narrative voices and the density of narrative and thematic interconnections, his senses of humor and tragedy, his sharp observational powers, and his rich characterizations are all excellent reasons to read Infinite Jest. But it is not surprising if a novel that explicitly invites comparisons to Shakespeare’s greatest play has even larger ambitions than just being a good novel. In Infinite Jest, Wallace seeks to understand, and to teach, how to live. ( )
  timanda | Sep 13, 2015 |
I FINALLY FINISHED IT!!! I nearly had a Rocky moment where I ran up the stairs arms raised high. It felt THAT good. Summarizing this novel is nearly impossible so bear with me. The story centers on a certain movie, Infinite Jest, that is soo good that anyone who watches can't look away. They will continually watch it over and over, forgoing, food and drink, eventually dying. The lengths to which the higher ups will go to obtain the master copy start to get unsettling. Soon a local tennis academy and a halfway house for addicts get swept up in the melee. Told through the perspective of a dozen or more characters, this tour de force will engage readers and take away their lives for however long (two and a half weeks for me!) it takes them to finish this tome. Imaginative, impressive, and filled with dark humor, this novel will resonate with readers. ( )
  ecataldi | Aug 5, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 151 (next | show all)
[I]t is, in a word, terrible. Other words I might use include bloated, boring, gratuitous, and – perhaps especially – uncontrolled. I would, in fact, go so far as to say that Infinite Jest is one of the very few novels for which the phrase ‘not worth the paper it’s written on’ has real meaning in at least an ecological sense [...] I resent the five weeks of my life I gave over to it; I resent every endlessly over-elaborated gag in the book.
If Mr. Wallace were less talented, you would be inclined to shoot him -- or possibly yourself -- somewhere right around page 480 of ''Infinite Jest.'' In fact, you might anyway. Alternately tedious and effulgent [...] What makes all this almost plausible, and often pleasurable, is Mr. Wallace's talent -- as a stylist, a satirist and a mimic -- as well as his erudition, which ranges from the world of street crime to higher mathematics. While there are many uninteresting pages in this novel, there are not many uninteresting sentences.
"Somewhere in the mess, the reader suspects, are the outlines of a splendid novel, but as it stands the book feels like one of those unfinished Michelangelo sculptures: you can see a godly creature trying to fight its way out of the marble, but it's stuck there, half excavated, unable to break completely free."

» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Wallace, David Fosterprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Eggers, DaveForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Giua, GraziaContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nesi, EdoardoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Villoresi, AnnalisaContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0316066524, Paperback)

In a sprawling, wild, super-hyped magnum opus, David Foster Wallace fulfills the promise of his precocious novel The Broom of the System. Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction, features a huge cast and multilevel narrative, and questions essential elements of American culture - our entertainments, our addictions, our relationships, our pleasures, our abilities to define ourselves.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:03 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A spoof on our culture featuring a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation house near Boston. The center becomes a hotbed of revolutionary activity by Quebec separatists in revolt against the Organization of North American Nations which now rules the continent.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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