Your ‘Infinite Jest’ Survival Guide
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
On July 8th I finished reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Now that my will is broken and I can’t face the written word any more, let me share some survival tips with you so that your attempt is less arduous.
First off, I took a loongggg time to finish the book. I started on 11 November 2018, and didn’t finish until 8 July 2019. That’s eight months. However, to use some project management speak, that was the task duration. The actual effort was less. I didn’t read Infinite Jest during the weekends or holidays. I tended to read it during my work day commute. Factoring in an average of 20 working days per month, it was around 160 days reading time. Take off approximately 14 days for holidays and that’s 146 days. This means I got through 7.14(ish) pages per day (when I was actually reading). This is a pathetic pace, but would be okay if I was dealing with a novel of a more average length. Even a 400 page novel would take just over 56 days (or in my case, 2.5 months).
The problem with my glacial pace is that I kind of forgot what happened in the first couple of chapters. By the time I got to the end, I was completely distracted by the character Don Gately (who is not the character the book starts with), and this left me with a strong sense of outrage and total confusion at the end. I think I read the last chapter, and muttered under my breath, “Fuck you, David Foster Wallace.”
After I got over my feelings of rage and bitter disappointment, I googled the term, “Infinite Jest what happened” and I discovered I wasn’t the only one entering that search phrase. Thankfully, some blogs have attempted to answer this question, and it was helpful reading their interpretation because that relieved me from the terrifying burden of having to re-read chapters 1 and 2 to figure out how the beginning of the book and the ending possibly tied together.
So, summarized below are some lessons that may help your attempt suck less.
Lesson 1. This is not a book you can read at your leisure, picking it up and putting it down. The plot is meandering and over time you will forget plot details and which character is supposed to be doing what. You’re going to have to commit. It’s not going to be pretty.
Lesson 2. Spoilers might be a good thing. If you read a blog or two beforehand about what’s happening in the book, the slog may be less of a slog. At least you’ll know what’s going on and can be on the lookout for plot and character sign posts.
Here’s some links on what may, or may not be, the plot of the book (because the plot is kind of up for debate).
Lesson 3. Do not attempt to read this book as an actual traditional book. It’s non-transportable. It doesn’t neatly tuck into your backpack to read on the train, and it could actually fall on you and kill you if you attempt to read it in bed. The e-book format is an ideal one for Infinite Jest. Additionally, Infinite Jest contains an eye-watering amount of footnotes. Your e-book version will make it easy to read the footnotes and keep going.
Lesson 4. If you hate tennis then a large number of chapters in this book will bore you to tears. One of the major settings in the book is a tennis academy where a bunch of teenage boys do various things. Honestly, if you aren’t a fan of reading about tennis and teenage boys, you’re going to struggle. As does everyone with this book. Because precisely zero people think a book featuring a tennis academy and teenage boys will be an exciting read.
Lesson 5. If you hate acronyms because you work in IT and you can’t face more acronyms in your life then welcome to a novel that’s full of them. Be warned.
Lesson 6. After you finish, you’ll probably decide not to read a book again for at least a month. Get a trial with Audible. That’s what I did. I’ve just finished listening to Theft and Finding by David Sedaris and it only took four days, which cheered me up no end. Infinite Jest is also a book offered on Audible. You can listen to someone else read it for 56 hours and 12 minutes. That would also save you some time and pain. (No, this is not a plug for Audible.)
Lesson 7. After you finish, you may feel an urge to read it again to try and make sense of it. Resist this for at least a year.
Lesson 8. Despite all of the downsides there are great moments in the book that will enthrall you. But it’s a little like climbing Mount Everest. If you make it to the summit, you’ll have bragging rights, and you’ll be one of the chosen few. But you’ll also need to be super fit and prepared for an extreme challenge. Also, you could get frostbite and lose a toe or several toes and some fingers.
Here’s a video that I thought did an excellent job of covering the main highlights.
And remember kids, don’t say I didn’t warn you…