At the beginning of summer 2021, I decided to pick up my dad’s battered old copy of “Infinite Jest,” fully intent on finishing it before the school year started. I have the whole summer, I thought, could one book really take me that long to read?
Flash forward an entire year, and I finally finished the book.
I will say, I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I turned that first page and met Hal Incandenza for the first time. With a page count of a little more than 1,000 pages, it truly was a journey. The book eventually became a comfort in a seemingly endless way. It was there for me throughout a year of abrupt changes: my first year of college, my first year of being away from home and my first year of really serious academic study. I read it in my bunk bed, on BART, in my hometown backyard and in Indiana. I read it after hookups and during breakups; on planes, buses and Ubers.
That is not to say that “Infinite Jest” is a comforting book in any way. In fact, it’s oftentimes highly disturbing. Nearly every sensitive topic — including animal abuse, sexual abuse, death and addiction — is contained within those pages. It can be very confusing too: The plot can only be picked out by picking at the book with a fine-tooth comb. There are long footnotes about tennis regulations and camera lens technology, none of which are particularly interesting to me. But the very act of reading and of continuing on in the book felt good. It was a true challenge, and every page forward was an accomplishment.
Typically, reading a book as a challenge doesn’t make for the most fun experience. And I won’t lie — “Infinite Jest” is not really fun. There are certainly funny parts, and honestly just reading it for the humor would probably make for a good time. In particular, the scenes that take place at the Enfield Tennis Academy are genuinely entertaining. The banter between the children and the ridiculousness of the characters make for a good time.
But I did feel a bit obnoxious carrying the book around with me. “Infinite Jest” has a stereotype of being read only by white, male misogynists who drive everyone away with their pretentiousness and pseudo-intellect. While I’m mostly spared from that reputation as a woman, it didn’t stop the looming fear of coming off as annoying. I got a couple of weird looks when I read in public and occasional teasing comments from friends. But, then again, a huge book is far from the strangest thing you’ll see in Berkeley. And at the end of the day, that’s all it really is: A masterpiece of a book for sure, but nothing anyone should be too scared to read.
I find it fitting that I finished “Infinite Jest” on the Fourth of July. It’s a genius encyclopedia of the American psyche and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a genius which I didn’t truly recognize until I finally closed the last page. I had to take a moment to reflect on the staggering detail of the novel. It is its own universe, really — so like our own (save for some key geopolitical and spiritual differences). I could tell that David Foster Wallace knew a hundred times more about his characters and his story than any reader could ever even comprehend.
In the past couple of days, I’ve found myself missing being able to read the book. I missed the tone, I missed the prose and I missed the lifelike characters. From the perspective of an aspiring writer, reading “Infinite Jest” was incredibly satisfying. It showed me what a novel that has reached its highest potential can be. Plus, it makes a good doorstop.