I find it entirely appropriate that Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, wrote the foreword to DFW’s monster. Not just because this book is a work of genius, but because a man who can put a title so brazen upon his memoir is akin to the audience for this book. In short, the title comically implies an ego that tragically cannot be repressed. That was Eggers’ life’s work; this is Staggering Genius; ergo he must be a genius. It’s this probably harmless ego that urges the reader of Infinite Jest to eyeball all 1096 pages of the novel, thumb through the size-two font, note that the pages are not broken up into traditional spacing but are instead rectangular walls of text — all while knowing that the author was the chair of the American Dictionary Society or something — and decide not to run in terror. Thus, it comes as no surprise when Eggers declares that this book will have multiple sections where the reader will want to turn back, but he or she must trudge on.
The drug addicts in this book are not unlike the reader. Initially, needles (in this case, the book) were probably something they feared, maybe even despised. The euphoria kicked in and the fear went away, but it was accompanied by a perpetual haze of confusion and an alternate mentality. (This is not to say DFW’s book was confusing; the sheer volume of world building was merely too much for a mortal to take in without pause.) But the drug addict, by nature, does not accept withdrawal from the strange, new world, and it’s unclear why not. He’s lived longer sober than he has as a freshly pale addict. The torment is still thin enough to be shaken. I suspect he does not run because he gets the sense the new world is not impossible to navigate, despite having never seen anything like it before. There’s a small, waning hope of familiarity that pokes through the fog. So they got used to the wholly unthinkable shift that was to come instead.
If that didn’t make any sense, I succeeded. If it did, all the same. From the surface, everything is out of sorts. It’s a book about a tennis academy, a halfway house, and a merger between the North American nations that hinges upon a cartridge of entertainment too enticing for any human being to walk away from. Each character has a novel of a background and they aren’t necessarily interrelated. That is the point of the novel, in my opinion: we aren’t alive to complete the ongoing narratives of others. We have good families, abusive families, or no families and that cannot be ignored. To leave out Don Gately’s boyhood would be to leave out Don Gately, whom is crucial to the novel, even if the samizdat is disseminated with or without the inclusion of that information.
When teaching writing, teachers will tell you the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is that literary fiction is character-driven and genre fiction is plot-driven. But even in literary fiction, the character has to arrive at a goal or fall short of a goal, internal or otherwise. Infinite Jest is uncomfortable for a reader because here is a man without self-indulgence who, beyond a doubt, couldn’t care less about whether the separatists succeed or fail from a plot standpoint. He isn’t freewheeling around because he wants to be noveaux, but because he’s having too much fun enjoying the characters in front of him. If the fate of the novel were to depend upon whether or not Infinite Jest (the eponymous name of the dangerous entertainment) were weaponized, we could say goodbye to Madame Psychosis, the Enfield Tennis Academy, the Ennet Halfway House, and a litany of characters who fill the atmosphere. If the fate of the novel were to depend upon a self-realization of a character, we could weed out the characters who never intersect and never come to any epiphanies. The novel is like a vein of the human body: the blood vessels near the feet don’t have to meet the blood vessels near the head to be important.
Even still I’ve probably said nothing helpful and it likely sounds like I’m being overly romantic. But it’s all true. Readers have to read this novel because it exists of its own accord. We read it because there are humans in here and, in case we’ve lost sight, we should care about that. You aren’t going to be able to explain why everything is in there, not even with the most typical vagaries of fiction like ‘it builds the setting’. I can say that I absolutely hated parts of this book, especially the jargon about Madame Psychosis and the ebonics chapter, but I would never, ever want them taken out. Like human beings, I had to endure them. I had to ask myself why things so obscure and frustrating existed. When have you done that in a novel? When have you reacted negatively to a character (read: not read about a negative character) and not wished the author would take a long walk off a short cliff?
Read this book for the sheer fact that any author could write for 1,000 pages and rarely, if ever, be ‘rambling’. IJ is a challenge in the way that Rosetta Stone challenges you: you have to learn words you’ve never heard before on every other page, but it somehow feels intuitive. Read this book because there are no parlor tricks. Much of writing seems like legerdemain; someone only becomes the hero so he can be turned villainous or vice versa. Wallace realizes that people don’t always follow the arcs of Charles Foster Kane or Han Solo. For some reason, it’s as though there’s the consensus that people who scrap and claw against their problems to no avail aren’t interesting. If you believe this is false, like I do, read this book.