Infinite Jest at 20

by Ben Diamond

“I did have a smartphone, but I didn’t like how it affected my behaviour.  I don’t feel the need to be constantly connected to things, and I didn’t feel like it was adding to my life.” – Andrew Savage, Parquet Courts

infinite jest

I can only imagine how it must’ve felt to have read Infinite Jest at the time of publication.  Perhaps just picking it off the shelf of a bookshop, and taking it home, knowing nothing about it.  A sort of ‘what the FUCK is this MONSTER I have taken on?’ moment that must have followed.  Perhaps even a sense of smugness upon finishing it, to know that you had read a true-to-God stone cold fucking classic and you now had to wait several years, if not decades, for critical and popular consensus to catch up.  Actually, fuck consensus – you would’ve had to wait years just for other people to finish the fucker.

I myself started reading it during my second year at university, and gave it more attention than I was giving to my studies.  It took me ten months to get through it all.  I was helped over the finish line by the ‘summer idleness’ after I moved out of halls and back home.  I essentially stayed in bed for a few weeks and made sure I got to the last page, then heaved a sigh of relief.

Is it going to be one of those books that I read again?  Probably.  I remember a conversation with a friend when he finished Infinite Jest, a few years after myself, and he mentioned some sort of revelation at the end of the book that I had not even noticed when I read it.  There is so much going on in Infinite Jest that it is perfectly plausible to get a lot out of it, and feel you have all these unique insights, and at the same time to miss something which another reader would find completely obvious.  Such is the nature of the beast.

If you’ve read IJ and you meet another who has done the same, there’s definitely a cultish feeling of a shared mythical experience.  You’ve both dedicated the time to reading this beast.  You’ve both been changed by it.  You both know.

I was compelled, when in Austin, Texas last year, to go to the Harry Ransom Center and try to check out the David Foster Wallace collection.  I had a feeling I would be viewed with suspicion by the librarians when asking to take out David Foster Wallace’s original handwritten manuscript of Infinite Jest, but they couldn’t have been more helpful.  I sat there, at a desk, thumbing through the manuscript.  My main thoughts were, first, a terror that I would somehow damage the manuscript, by sneezing on it or ripping it or something, and also a sense that I perhaps shouldn’t have been there, doing what I was doing (even though I was allowed to).  Would DFW have minded?  I had no academic reason for being there.  Just a sense of curiosity and an urge to complete this ‘pilgrimage’, so to speak, seeing as I was already in America.

I suppose the point of that anecdote, showing off aside, is that that is the effect David Foster Wallace can have on you.  He can make you go to Austin, Texas in search of the David Foster Wallace collection.  I also got to look through and handle some of his books from his own collection which had been donated to the HRC.  Looking through DFW’s copies of Don DeLillo books with the marginalia and underlining and everything…it was special.  I also read a heartbreakingly honest email between himself and his publisher acknowledging that Infinite Jest would probably not appeal to anyone.


I would love to quote just a sentence or two from Infinite Jest but – of course – my copy is currently out on loan to a friend.

What is the legacy of Infinite Jest at 20, then?

Well, let’s start with the legacy of David Foster Wallace.  I feel this is a common complaint that other readers of his work will feel too, and that is this: everything else seems really poorly written after you start reading David Foster Wallace He’s just cleverer than anyone else.  Times a thousand.  I can still take pleasure from the sparseness of a Raymond Carver sentence.  But a sentence by many modern authors often smacks of Wallace-lite.  So, in that sense, DFW has ruined reading.

Along the same lines, due to the tragic early death of David Foster Wallace, his output as an author is there in stone, already done.  There won’t be another novel in five years’ time.  So for a DFW fan, you have to ration yourself if you want it to last.  I’ve devoured all the journalism (the best collection of essays is A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, followed by Consider the Lobster. Both Flesh and Not is mainly offcuts).  I’ve read Infinite Jest and The Pale King. But I’m saving the short stories and The Broom of the System (his other novel). I can definitely make those last a decade.  I want to savour the prose.

And the legacy of Infinite Jest itself?  Well, I’m going to make the obvious point here.  The central conceit of the novel was that there was a videotape circulating that contained footage that was so addictive that once you started watching, you couldn’t stop.  Your brain just turned to mush and you had to watch it on repeat until you died.  The obvious extrapolation of this being that we’re all actually teetering on the brink of the addiction/idiocy continuum, even more so now that smartphones have taken over.  Just take a look on public transport and count the people who aren’t tethered to a smartphone.  So, um, he nailed that one.  (Also DFW oddly predicted the advent of things like Skype which, in 1996, I assume weren’t obviously going to happen or take off like they have).  So, yes. I assume there will be many a thinkpiece about the prescience of Mr Wallace.

If you get a bit obsessed with David Wallace like I have, you get a sense of the man.  You get a sense of the man through things like his handbooks he wrote for his classes when he was teaching English and Creative Writing at college.  Like this, for example, from a document entitled ‘Syllabus for David Foster Wallace’s class “English 102-Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction Fall ’94″‘:


Anybody gets to ask any question about any fiction-related issues she wants.  No question about literature is stupid.  You are forbidden to keep yourself from asking a question or making a comment because you fear it will sound obvious or unsophisticated or lame or stupid.  Because critical reading and prose fiction are such hard, weird things to try to study, a stupid-seeming comment or question can and up being valuable or even profound.  I am deadly-serious about creating a classroom environment where everyone feels free to ask or speak about anything she wishes.  So any student who groans, smirks, mimes machine-gunning or onanism, chortles, eye-rolls, or in any way ridicules some other student’s in-class question/comment will be warned once in private and on the second offense will be kicked out of class and flunked, no matter what week it is.  If the offender is make, I am also apt to find him off-campus and beat him up.

Those lucky, lucky people being taught by DFW in 1994 didn’t know him as a great author back then (IJ hadn’t been published yet).  What I would’ve given to have had him as a teacher.  The hilariously titled “English 183A Your Liberal-Arts $ at Work” gives you a further insight into the humour of the man. I should mention that I found those documents through the great article ’46 Things to Read and See for David Foster Wallace’s 50th Birthday’.

Check out the video below of DFW talking just to see how reasonable, considerate and softly-spoken he is.  There is some serious megatonnage of intellect hiding behind that midwestern drawl.  It might be in the video below, it might not (apologies, not gonna watch all 90 minutes of it now to verify), but there is an amazing interview with him, on YouTube I am sure, where he talks about his own addiction to TV, and how he ‘doesn’t allow’ himself to watch TV anymore.  There’s this brilliant sense of the cognitive dissonance of the two selves, the naughty boy and the parent.

I’ve rambled for far too long now.  I’ll end with this – is it the irony of ironies that DFWs’ Infinite Jest tour is being made into a film?  I wonder if James Incandenza had a hand in the direction.