What is Infinite Jest About?

I did the same thing with Infinite Jest that I did with Ulysses; I read the first 100 or so pages two or three times before becoming engaged with it and wishing, towards the end, that there was some uncut version I could get with maybe 500 more pages. (Infinite Jest was supposed to be about 1500 pages, apparently.) It is a book I would highly recommend you read if you have any stomach at all for postmodern fiction and/or Big Serious Novels. It is difficult for me to appeal to particular, specific, reasons why you should read it because the novel is large by any metric, and does many different things.

It is not, however, disconnected because of how far apart any of the given focuses, themes, or characters are from each other. Wallace slides from pleasure to perdition and from privilege to privation with an ease that kind of implies, even if you can’t explain why exactly, passageways and connections between them. Some sections would make excellent short stories (for example, the second, with Erdedy Waiting for the (Wo)man.) A focused, compact novel with a definite theme and thrust is certainly a singular pleasure, but Infinite Jest, like Ulysses, is a perfect example of how the manic/encyclopaedic method can create something more than just a novel containing too much stuff.

Infinite Jest has more than one plotline and the sections are not contiguous. There are different viewpoints, time periods, grammatical persons, dialects. The invented nomenclature of a future United States produces the estrangement you’d be more familiar feeling in science fiction, and if you get down to it, this book is science fiction. Someone approaching Infinite Jest is liable to ask what the book is about. There is no definite answer, and like I said regarding Ulysses, different readers are likely to read different books. Some themes are ranged over more than others, but all are important to the book as a whole. Here, then, is the book I read. Your mileage may vary.

Tennis. Drugs. Drug and alcohol addiction and recovery. AA. NA. How we choose to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Entertainment. The relationship between advertisement and entertainment. Film and film theory. Cameras, apertures, shutters. Academia. Academese. Footnotes. Sesquipedalianism. The inability to communicate. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Hamlet. Mental and physical disabilities. Specifically junior tennis and development.  Parents, their children, and how they get along (see Hamlet). Regret. A Higher Power. Passivity vs action. Cults. Living with the immense promise of a given human life. Living up to the immense promise of your given human life. Not living up to the promise of your given human life. Boston. Nuclear war. Mathematics that may or may not be high order but certainly seemed so to this reader. Seduction strategies. Football (handegg). Mould. Relations between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Waste and how and where we choose to dump it. The fact that no matter where dump our waste, it will seriously harm someone or something. The fact that we can’t just shoot it in to space, but promising to do so might well win you a presidential campaign. Psychological experiments (see cults, drugs). Ghosts. Empathy. Depression. Suicide. Teeth. The OED.  The shift from network television to on-demand viewing. Digital Rights Management.


2 thoughts on “What is Infinite Jest About?

  1. I read about a third then stopped for a year. Then when I had three months of long service leave I took to it again and I’m glad I did because it is one of greatest novels I have ever read. Genius. Sesquipedalianism is a great word BTW…

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