Next to my bed is a bookshelf full of all the books I intend to read or have begun reading or enjoyed so much that I feel the need to keep close to me as I slumber. For a good while, Infinite Jest occupied the “plan to read” shelf, sitting there in its immensity, spine taunting, the book clearly aware that I am a slow reader and an easily distracted reader, the kind of reader who has five or six books going concurrently and is reading none of them with any expediency. At a little under 500,000 words and notoriously dense, Infinite Jest seemed very much like the kind of book I wouldn’t finish. So I didn’t start. Until, of course, I did (no book gets away with taunting me forever). And an unexpected thing happened: I didn’t once put the book down to pick up something else. I finished it. Every word. Sure, it took a good, long while and lots of hauling around, the book occupying entire compartments in my luggage whenever I traveled, the thing sitting prominently on nightstands in ways that felt a tad ridiculous. But I finished the novel, damn it. I persevered.
If it sounds like the book was a bit of a struggle for me, that’s because it was. Don’t get me wrong; I quite enjoyed Infinite Jest. The language is astounding and the ideas are huge and the effect is penetrating. This is not a novel about which I will soon stop thinking. I would very much like to write a novel as grand. But, good God, the thing can get tedious. David Foster Wallace has no patience for my impatience. It’s his world and he’s going to reveal it in as much intricate detail as he can. Even when that detail lacks any sort of internal propulsion, narrative or otherwise (save Wallace’s enthralling voice).
Plot? This novel has no traditional plot. It has moments that may or may not be part of a greater plot but are, just as often, nothing more than temporal segments extracted from the lives of fascinating characters. These moment/segments interrelate, but the interrelations occur most often in the gaps between sections (i.e.: in the spaces within the reader’s mind) as much as they occur on the page. The last tenth of the novel is mostly flashback and summary of flashbacks of things that occurred well before the events of the novel. The first chapter occurs after the events contained in the rest of the novel. We have here not a story told from beginning to end, but a rain of fragments, a splintered meteor ablating into luminescent parts that incandesce in loose formation, streaking towards us and begging to be assembled back into their whole. Of course, such an assembly is not fully possible, not for this novel and certainly not for life itself where our own moments come and go and end up contained in remembered fragments, some possessing great significance, some merely absurd, and some waiting unattended within us until recalled at a later time and imbued with a new meaning.
Infinite Jest occasionally teases with the possibility of a grand plot, but it ends right before everything seems ready to coalesce. The first chapter gives us clues as to what happened after the “end,” but all we really get to see is the effect those events had, not the grand events themselves. Those events are transformative, but Wallace chose not to write them. I think I like that. Much of our lives are about those things that come “before” and those things that come “after.” The events that change us are just that: events. They are not the change itself. Change is something else. Change is the thing that transpires inside all the other moments. Even the ones that feel mundane.
I have a feeling that reading Infinite Jest has changed me. Many books do. But this one may eventually get a place back on my bedside shelf. Alongside those other favorite with which I like to sleep.