It took me about three hundred pages, but I finally broke through the difficult, semantically mind-bending, tough-prose style that DFW is so famous for. I almost gave up, I almost quit, but I stuck it out because this book was supposed to be Important. It was supposed to be Impressive, a Show of Genius.
I usually roll my eyes at this sort of thing. Reading, I think, should be for pleasure. It should teach you something, but not without captivating you. And let me tell you, two hundred pages into Infinite Jest, I was not captivated. I was bored, tired, not sure where Wallace was taking me. And then something clicked. As if all the cards fell into place, the river revealed and I, a mere novice at most every game, had a winning poker hand.
Wallace never overplays his hand. He’s deliberate, sure, but there’s always something just off screen, just waiting to be studied from another angle. Maybe he won me over when I finally got a proper look at Mario Incandenza, or when Don Gately said he couldn’t connect with a higher power. Maybe it was the Crocodiles at a Boston AA Meeting or when the red beret came out in Eschaton.
I wish, in retrospect, that I had approached Infinite Jest as if it was science fiction. I didn’t know much about the book, other than its Very Important status. But I had read Wallace before; a pocket-sized hardcover of This Is Water sits in my nightstand. It was a gift from a fellow wanderer in a Portland hostel. We ended up, as you often do in hostels, perched on the corner of a bed in a smoky room full of young, sweaty people, drinking warm PBR and talking about books.
Wallace connects the weirdos. His world is unmistakably human, his characters, soft and vulnerable. But something about the fullness of it needs to be approached with a blank mind; with a curiosity reserved for the absolute bizarre and unknown. Just because it’s human doesn’t mean it’s easy. And it is human. But it’s a mechanical, hyper mathematical process that takes you to the humanity. Eschaton, the nearly unintelligible geo-political game the Enfield Tennis Academy students play, is probably an honest instance of this journey. The kids assemble the game with such precision and focus, only to have the tidy nature of it turn on them, and dissolve into chaos, a chaos that feels like almost Peter Pannish in its fervent, half-manic disregard for order.
I’ve got a long way to go until I can say I’ve conquered Infinite Jest. I must admit, it’s taking forever. But so far, I feel like it’s a journey worth wandering, exploring a mind, admittedly, so unlike my own.
Hats off to genius.