Reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace left me feeling deflated. It made me want to snap every pencil in my house, tear up every sheet of paper, delete every Microsoft Word file, and cease all future writing endeavors. It was that good. At the outset, I resisted the temptation to enjoy the novel. I’m naturally skeptical when East Coast critics heap so much praise on a novel. The first few chapters, or rather sections (there are no chapters in the novel), were daunting and it seemed as if the pages were a vehicle for Wallace to flaunt his super human IQ. However, by the end, the pages dripped with so much humanity and truth, I wanted to be so immersed and present that I wouldn’t miss catching a single drop.
The premise is a simple one. The title, Infinite Jest, refers to a movie that is so entertaining that whoever watches it becomes unable to pull themselves away from the screen. It is instant and perpetual gratification, and the viewers ultimately die, completely content, of dehydration or bedsores from staying immobile for so long while watching the movie. At a philosophical level, it speaks of our society’s own “progress” at continually finding things that become addictively fulfilling, whether it be drugs, sex, pornography, video games, television, or any other kind of fantasy. But in this quest to find pleasure, we lose the ability to communicate in a mutually intelligible way or to extract meaning from our everyday experiences.
Taking its title from Hamlet’s description of Yorick, Infinite Jest is Yorick. It is legitimately funny. Laugh out loud hilarious at times. But these moments of hilarity only make the subsequent moments of sadness that much more poignant, and we are reminded of the physical, grimy skull that Shakespeare’s Hamlet holds in his hands. The characters in the novel demand empathy and are so completely developed we feel like we know them better than our best friends, better than our own family, better than ourselves.
The clarity Wallace achieves in describing the mood and the moment is humbling for me as a writer. What is there left to write besides mindless drivel? Where I describe dust, he describes the universe. My only comfort is the knowledge that many readers will be daunted by the size and density of Infinite Jest and will never invest the time in reading it. It’s my only hope of ever competing.