I finished David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest late Sunday night.
That’s three months to knock out roughly 1100 pages, for those of you keeping score at home. It took me about two months to get through the first half, and I flew (relatively) through the second half over the last four weeks. For comparison, I started Bill Simmons’ The Book Of Basketball this morning. I’ve already knocked out 120 pages.*
(To reinforce the point I made before about the sheer size of IJ, I did a little word counting. Using a rather low-tech method, I established that you can expect to see over 600 words on a typical IJ page. In Simmons’ book, the number is closer to 450 and often much lower.)
Was it worth it seems to be the big question. It’s a fine book, loaded with amazing writing, unforgettable characters, and laugh-out-loud scenes. It’s a difficult book in that it demands your complete attention when you’re reading it. But it can just as easily be digested in small chunks over a long period of time. So that is all good.
It can get a bit tedious, flipping to the appropriate end notes at the back of the book, then back to the main text. There are a few ridiculously long end notes that are especially tough to wade through. There are also a couple lengthy end notes that are fantastic and well worth the 20 minutes you have to devote to them. The jumping around in time, amongst characters, and in point of view can be tiresome.
But my big problem was the ending. This isn’t a plot driven book, although there are certainly strong plot threads woven throughout. But for a reader like me that prefers books that are built on strong plot lines, the entire book was challenging. I made my best progress, and enjoyed the book the most, in the second half, when the focus was on a few related characters and each section seemed to be building towards something.
And then, with 200-150 pages left, I began to sense that this wasn’t going to be a novel that carefully resolved all the issues it raised. That’s fine; not every book needs tidy resolutions that answer your questions. But this book simply ends. For 1100 pages you’re waiting to find out what the hell was going on in the first 10-12 pages, which might be the best of the entire work, and then those connections aren’t made. It’s a bit maddening to sign up for the marathon and not get your medal when you cross the finish line.
So that’s my big gripe. I’m also not sure exactly what the book is about. Reading through the Infinite Summer discussions, it seems like there are many perfectly reasonable theories, which to me is a sign of a good book. It’s open enough that each reader can find their own meanings, draw their own conclusions, and so on. But I can barely form my own theory, and much of that is based on things I’ve read elsewhere. If I do choose to read it again one day, I will do the full immersion technique and concurrently read the 500 page guide I own. Perhaps then I’ll be able to find more meaning, tie the various threads together, and have a more fully formed opinion about it.
But if I do tackle it again, I’m still not going to find the answers to the questions David Foster Wallace refused to answer. And that will always kind of bug me.
Infinite Jest is a book that has profoundly affected many readers of my generation. Coming in, I heeded the advice to stick with it because, in the end, the payoff would be great. As I said, I think it’s a fine book. Some of the characters are ones that I will always remember. When it is good, it’s ridiculously good. I can’t help but feel a little let down, though. So many people described it as a life changing read. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not one of my favorites ever. I never had the feeling of not wanting the book to end because I was so immersed in the story. When I closed it for the final time, I didn’t have the bittersweet feeling of learning how everything turns out but no longer having my faithful companion to keep me company that my favorite books give me.
But I finished it.