Swamped by ‘Infinite Jest’

On failing to finish David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece novel.

 Beach Stick x

Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

Infinite Jest

To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, “It’s a terrible thing to quit a book. To take from it less than it has to give.” I don’t believe that about books—we should quit any one that’s not working for us and start another—but David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest is a special case. And I’ve just failed to read it for the second time.

How many sail around the world on their first try? Still, there’s a sense of failure involved in quitting any one of the world’s acknowledged Great Novels. (I have a secret list.) And a special poignancy for me in giving up yet again on Infinite Jest since I love Wallace’s nonfiction and wanted to join those who’ve beaten on against the current to the bitter end. It appears, as well, to be a novel, like Catch-22 and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were for my generation, that’s an important marker for twentysomething readers and writers. Alas, I am not young. Just dropping Infinite Jest on my toe, even in this paperback version, might be tragic at my age.

I’ve had plenty of reading time between semesters, down here in Florida in my sister’s beach condo. Even so, I feared the cetaceous bulk of Infinite Jest. And once you open it and see its pages covered in a smaller-than-usual font, with sentences at tighter than usual spacing—and I’m not talking about the 96 pages of tiny single-spaced endnotes—you instantly know one thing for sure. Reading Infinite Jest is an opportunity cost. Because you could read at least six good novels in the time it’d take you to read it. Just sayin’.

Wallace's Infinite Jest

But that’s not relevant if it’s worth six good novels. There’s testimony it is, though in all honesty I made it only to Page 109 so how would I really know? Yet Wallace’s genius, energy, and belief in his work are palpable from the start. He could do anything as a writer, and he seems to do everything in Infinite Jest; of course he’s got all the basic chops, from sentences to scenes, from point of view to voice. Incidentally, Wallace, both a grammarian and someone who could write circles around almost anyone, had no problem with breaking the heart of his frenemy Jonathan Franzen by using the “, then” construction that drives Franzen crazy. Franzen’s hatred of this common and useful usage pattern has made me weirdly sensitive to it; I see it everywhere, and I see his point. But his point, in his way, is also annoyingly overstated (and partly specious). (Watch Wallace cruelly dominate Franzen on Charlie Rose’s show.)  A minor quirk in Infinite Jest is Wallace’s use of single quotation marks; reviewing another book of his, Oblivion, for The Modern World, Marie Mundaca said they “seem to indicate that the entire story is enclosed in a set of double quotes.”

But to stand back. Wallace had the genius’s way with metaphor—at the sentence level, sure, but pertinently here in the overarching sense: how he sets up a bleak exaggerated future America. One in which our prosperity and beloved diversions (video, drugs, sports, advertising) turn hellish as richly flawed people struggle amid ascendant corporations and an environmental holocaust. New England is a toxic waste dump called the Great Concavity and roamed by Québécois separatist terrorists.

Blessedly I made it to Page 93, and so to the horde of rampaging hamsters:

     It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal. The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. The boy now attends college in Champaign IL and has forgotten that his hamsters were named Ward and June.


The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable—it’s that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant ragged outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine.


All these territories are now property of Canada.


With respect to a herd of this size, please exercise the sort of common sense that come to think of it would keep your thinking man out of the southwest Concavity anyway. Feral hamsters are not pets. They mean business. Wide berth advised. Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd. If in the path of such a herd, move quickly and calmly in a direction perpendicular to their own. If American, north not advisable. Move south, calmly and in all haste, toward some border metropolis—Rome NNY or Glens Falls NNY or Beverly, MA, say, or those bordered points between them at which the giant protective ATHSCME fans atop the hugely convex protective walls of adonized Lucite hold off the drooling and piss-colored bank of teratogenic Concavity clouds and move the bank well back, north, away, jaggedly, over your protected head.

One of the funniest passages I’ve read, it thrums with a deep sadness, maybe like all humor. Like Wallace’s, anyway. Like watching reruns of Leave it to Beaver and aching for your lost youth and for a more innocent America. Maybe you’ve not read Infinite Jest or, like me, have failed so far to finish it (in my case for largely unknown reasons but probably involving a reading hangover from my personal best reading year just ended, work I lugged with me, and a stupor induced by ocean waves breaking a stone’s throw from my pillow). If so, remember you read it here first: Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

In 2009, my son, Tom Gilbert, reviewed Infinite Jest for Narrative.


Filed under experimental, fiction, humor, metaphor, MY LIFE, punctuation, reading, REVIEW

9 responses to “Swamped by ‘Infinite Jest’

  1. I just loved this, Richard. I have my own, embarrassing, list of unfinished great works of art. So I love your confession.

    Infinite Jest, like Ulysses, and maybe even Moby Dick, may be the kind of book people buy and put on their shelves after attempting to “get into” them. They read enough reviews and references to these books that they can even talk about them at cocktail parties or writers workshops. I’ve even gotten A’s on tests about books I only gutted. Shame.

    Or as Mark Lehner might say, “hypocrite reader, my brother.”

    • Right! And part of my own guilt in this case stems from the fact that I got something from what I did read, enjoyed it, and yet chose not to keep going. Good books are where we find them, I say. The only point in wide reading is to find what you love, because a lot is going to leave you cold. Infinite Jest is obviously good, but it just asked more than I was willing to give, at least right now.

  2. I’m like you, Richard. I’d rather take my chances with six novels than the “tome.” I just read “1Q84” (about the same length of Infinite Jest, maybe 100 pages shorter), and labored through it, enjoyed 68% of it, but felt very empty and cheated by the ending. It took me something like 6 weeks to read.

    I’m reading “Gatsby” and “Bird by Bird” to make me feel better.

    • Yes, two crisp books to clear your head! There’s a lot to be said for concise books; the best have a perfection, don’t you think?

      • Brendan O'Meara

        I love and am in love with word economy. It’s hard writing, but makes for terrific reading. I have more respect for a beautiful piece of writing that is short versus the long. It takes more skill to write short. I think Roy Peter Clark’s next book is on writing short (another writing book for you!).

        The “Big Book” can be less daunting these days with a Kindle. I like that if I ever pick up “Infinite Jest” it will only weight 8 oz and never look like a cinder block on my night stand. I’ll likely be disappointed that after reading for an hour it will still be a 1% complete.

  3. Simply wonderful, Richard – and I remember when you took that picture, hardly thinking that it possibly could be something vegatablish that should not be carried in a feral herd of hamsters.

  4. Infinite Jest sat at the bottom of my stack of books for 13 years before I succeeded in reading it. And I think I only succeeded in reading it because I was reading it along with lots of others back in 2009 as part of Infinite Summer. It felt good to know that others were also not reading “the six good novels” that could have been read in the same amount of time.

    I have to say IJ is every bit as good as people say–masterful, actually. And it was the first book I ever managed to read on my Kindle (didn’t want to lug the book on a trip I was taking at the time.)

    So don’t give up. Maybe find a reading partner. Or maybe it will hit you just right in a couple of years.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Cynthia. I have been thinking about my failure to finish IJ and have come to the conclusion that a big part of the issue is that I’ve been at the beach for three weeks. At home, I was ripping through books, but all my patterns changed here. I can tell it’s masterful, too, just from what I did read. One day!

  5. jaschmehl

    Tried and failed, and tried and failed again. Not sure I’m willing to give it a third go. Perhaps my brain isn’t wired right to dig through words like ‘tornadic’ and ‘locomotival.’ Perhaps I am somehow less of a human for my inability to find pleasure in Wallace’s thick descriptives.