David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: A Review

Cover. (Used under Canadian fair dealing laws for the purposes of criticism)

Infinite Jest, a novel by David Foster Wallace, is many things.

First off, Infinite Jest is huge. The main part of the novel clocks in at just under a thousand decent-sized pages, and on top of that, there's a hundred or so pages of endnotes, and some of those endnotes have their own endnotes, while some span multiple pages of their own. I admit I'm not much of a bookworm, but this is the first novel I’ve read that I needed to use two bookmarks for.

Infinite Jest is also a huge mess. It goes somewhere, but not quite to its final destination (if it ever had one), akin to driving on a highway to another town, when all of a sudden the highway just ends, and all that's in front of you is the vast prairie grassland, with your destination nowhere in sight. I realize this sounds like a very unappetizing novel so far, but to me, it was exactly the opposite. While there's still plot left, you're dragged into it, even if it's not told in the most linear manner ever, and there’s a few different threads of it to keep track of at any given time. Though they converge at points, none of them do so in any more than a passing manner, which again can be deeply unsatisfying, depending on what you’re looking for in a novel.

The whole thing comes off as more of a worldbuilding experiment than a complete story, and Wallace has developed an engrossing one. Infinite Jest mainly follows the events of a student at a prestigious tennis academy in metro Boston, and a patient at a halfway house for drug addicts not too far away. There's some side characters to each of those parts, an espionage/terrorism sub-plot, and a setting in which Canada, the United States and Mexico have formed the "Organization of North American Nations", the area around the Quebec-US border is used as a toxic dumping ground, naming rights for calendar years are sold to the highest bidder, and a film (more broadly, "entertainment") that viewers find themselves physically unable to stop watching begins to threaten the populace. It all comes together to form a subtle dystopia – not like the radically different worlds explored in 1984 and Brave New World, but a realistic one, in the sense that it seems almost familiar to ours, except for the few anachronisms that are inevitable with any predicted future setting, as well as the few ridiculous parts that are just slightly over-the-top when compared to reality.

Infinite Jest, once you get into it, is above all else, one paradigm shift after another. The novel's all-encompassing nature doesn't stop before its many themes and reflections, and you may find it even has a thing or two to teach you. Above all, though, it is a book about pleasure - how it changes people, what people do to seek it, the many forms it takes, and even how it can be weaponized.

Ironically (whatever that word means these days), it was a pleasure for me to read Infinite Jest. Some people think Infinite Jest will become a future classic. I don’t think so, at least not in the sense that it’ll be studied in AP Lit classes across the continent. It’s too long and gritty for any high school to ever approve of it, out of practical concerns and “for the sake of the children.” Maybe it’s for the better – literature I studied in high school always left a bitter taste in my mouth, anyway.