I’ve been keeping a list of words I need to look up from David Foster Wallace’s 1996 Infinite Jest. Yesterday’s included erumpent, sedulously and egregulous — and sure enough, I got duped. Egregulous was made-up, and landed me on a website called Infinite Detox.
From there, I splintered off to other websites analyzing the book and similar epic novels (Gaddis, Pynchon, Joyce) looking around for signs of life, hostile forces, breathable air.
I don’t know how to answer what the book’s about, which is what people want to know. I can answer ‘why are you reading it,’ which is different, and not linked to what it’s about.
And I don’t know that I’d recommend the book and now I’m not sure why I’m rereading it, to be honest. And were I to tell you it’s metamodernism or possibly the end of ‘New Realism,’ the ‘you’ I’m addressing would X me out and go check your feeds.
The title ‘Infinite Jest’ riffs off a line from Hamlet, a jab at the nature of entertainment and what it says about us, why we need entertained.
The joke is you just read a thousand page book and lost a couple months of your life, and now can’t articulate the plot. You got taken somewhere and can’t retrace your steps.
I don’t always read for the story as much as I do the writer’s voice, to take in the spirit of their writing to serve my own. Writers are thieves, foraging for stories we can stow away for later, squirrels gumming the ground, forgetting where we put things, convinced it’s right there below our snouts.
My favorite writers force me to put the book down because they inspire me to write by the voice they’ve stirred up in me; my voice is theirs. If all writers are thieves, this is a royal heist (or a royal booby-trap).
My friend Ross assigned this to me today: he started writing a post about the reading of the book and decided he ‘has nothing particularly interesting to say,’ so he gave me a title and said run with it. I got up to shovel snow, drink coffee, and wrote this in my dad’s den, interrupted a good dozen times, akin to what DFW is saying about the nature of communication, how fractured and dysfunctional it can be, the seeming pointlessness of what we’re drawn to, our addictions, the meaning of life.
I think people read books like this and climb big mountains so they can say they did, but also so they can prove they did, to themselves. Big, hard books can make us better just by having the discipline to get through them. But only good, hard books are worth finishing and rereading.
Eschewing chronological plot development and straightforward resolution—a concern often mentioned in reviews—the novel supports a wide range of readings. At various times Wallace said that he intended for the novel’s plot to resolve, but indirectly; responding to his editor’s concerns about the lack of resolution, he said “the answers all [exist], but just past the last page”. Long after publication Wallace maintained this position, stating that the novel “does resolve, but it resolves … outside of the right frame of the picture. You can get a pretty good idea, I think, of what happens”. Critical reviews and a reader’s guide have provided insight, though Burns notes that Wallace privately conceded to Jonathan Franzen that “the story can’t fully be made sense of”.
And that, I believe, is no reason to not read it.
As I went back to the Shakespeare I found a site with the original text set against a modernized version, searching for the passage with the phrase Infinite Jest.
It’s a scene between a gravedigger and Hamlet, where he digs up the skull of the king’s jester, Yorick.
I went right to the modernized version, which flushed out the phrase altogether:
“A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” became
“a very funny guy, and with an excellent imagination”
And so the jester lay buried there in the ground as we gather around him and dig, contemplating him and ourselves, whittling him down to words, what it means, where it fits, what’s the point.
Check here for the Shakespeare passage. Thanks Ross for the assignment, but you’re not off the hook yet.