At over half-a-million words long and about two inches thick, Infinite Jest was never meant to be easy. The book demands infinite dedication. It consumes seemingly infinite amounts of time.
Most Americans lack the drive to finish David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus. This highlights our country’s lowest common and most problematic denominator: We’re lazy. We’re contently resolute in our laziness.
Infinite Jest provides a diagnosis and a cure for the American plight.
We consume—ad infinitum—tastily insubstantial snacks. We get news from tweets rather than comprehensive articles. We stare passively at Netflix rather than struggling actively through Dostoevsky. We feel full, but we’re critically malnourished. We don’t think because we don’t have to.
Our cognitive abilities have atrophied to the point that “President Trump”has become a fixture within our lexicon.
One of Infinite Jest’s well-known passages comes from Hal Incandenza:
“I study and I read. I bet I’ve read everything you’ve read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.’”
Hal is then put in a “crude half nelson.” Everybody in the room thinks he’s having a fit.
Any bibliophile has encountered a similar reaction in conversation with a philistine.
Not quite a half nelson—not yet, at least.
According to The Atlantic, 31% of Americans read between one and five books in 2014.
23% read zero.
According to Time, the average Netflixer watched more than an hour and a half per day in 2015.
One to five books per year means 0.27% to 1.37% of a book per day. Say a book is 300 pages—that’s as many as four pages or as little as 80% of one page per day. Say each page takes 90 seconds—that’s as much as six minutes or as little as 72 seconds of daily reading. Compare that with Netflix’s brobdingnagian ninety minutes (5,400 seconds). You see the problem.
Infinite Jest and co. collect dust while corners of our brains go dark—defunct as vestigial tailbones. We are lethally addicted to high-quantities of low-quality entertainment. The Nostradamic Wallace predicted this.
Infinite Jest centers around an “entertainment” that turns viewers into vegetables. Once they begin watching they’re incapable of stopping. They watch until they die—eerily familiar, our reality isn’t far off.
When binge-watchers guzzle Netflix, it intermittently asks, “Are you still watching House of Cards?” like it’s checking to see if they still have a pulse.
Their hearts may beat, but their eyes glaze over—windows to an empty room.
Infinite Jest is the icy shower that can yank America from its intellectual lethargy.
Reading the megalith provides a look into a textual mirror. It reveals what’s wrong with America through a medium which itself is the cure: an onerous cinderblock demanding multiple bookmarks, featuring esoteric vocabulary and a smorgasbord of endnotes.
Readers will see themselves in Wallace’s medical attaché, who begins watching the lethal “entertainment” at 7:27 PM and is discovered by his wife at 1:45 AM, “still staring straight ahead.” She and others are ensnared by “the recursive loop the medical attaché had rigged on the TP’s viewer the night before, sitting and standing there very still and attentive, looking not one bit distressed or in any way displeased, even though the room smelled very bad indeed.”
Unlike Netflix or Wallace’s “entertainment,” Infinite Jest requires a marital devotion.
The idiomatic ball and chain, its nagging endnotes are met with the muttering of four letter expletives. The book will berate you. It will look down from the shelf disapprovingly when neglected. You’ll go out for a drive just to get away from the thing—only to go home guilty for having been away so long.
But it’s not all bad. Sometimes the book will cozy up with you by the fireplace, and—like the smell of a lover—you’ll develop an affinity for Infinite Jest’s heady balsa scent.
Opening the novel is a vow to see it through—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health.
Metaphors aside, the book is rigorous. There are passages for which a dictionary is mandatory.
When Madame Psychosis begins her radio show, the book reads like something out of Harvard’s medical library.
She calls out to “The acromegalic and hyperkeratosistic. The enuretic, this year of all years. The spasmodically torticollic.” Of these fourteen words, three to five require a dictionary, depending on who you are.
For those unfamiliar with “enuretic,” it refers to people with urinary incontinence. Wallace follows “enuretic” with “this year of all years,” because this scene takes place in the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.” This subtle joke is extremely funny, but it goes unnoticed if you don’t look up or know the definition of “enuretic.”
When these jokes are understood, the intellectual satisfaction outshines the punchline.
You begin to crave the challenge, to lust over the length of a sentence—over Wallace’s syntactical chops. His effusive electricity permeates your own sentences like water taking on the flavor of a teabag.
The book makes you smarter.
The marital devotion, the academic rigor—these bring satisfaction Netflix can’t provide.
Netflix doesn’t push back. Its progress bar chugs along, independent of the viewer.
A bookmark is fully dependent on the reader. Watching a bookmark carve out progressively larger chunks of a novel feels special—it only happens through work. Finishing a season of Netflix doesn’t compare with holding two and a half pounds of words in your hands, knowing you’ve read every one.
Finishing Wallace’s wakeup-call forces the reader to put forth effort. Dormant grey brain-flesh twitches back to life. Readers join an elite group who have experienced “the howling fantods” at the hands of the work which introduced them to the phrase.
An addiction to rigor develops, overthrowing the addiction to its alternative.
When asked why he wrote Infinite Jest, Wallace said, “I wanted to do something sad.”
He succeeded. It is sad that Americans have devolved into avid consumers of hollow stimuli.
Wallace also said, “I wanted to do something real American, about what it’s like to live in America around the millennium.”
He, again, succeeded.
These successes are connected. The millennium is a sad time to live in America. With Wallace gone, the onus falls on us to read Infinite Jest and prevent a tragicomic fiction from becoming purely tragic fact.