Infinite Jest Turns Twenty

Illaria Dana

Education Major


It was the language that first struck me. The language of Infinite Jest documents the thought patterns of an extremely intelligent, active-minded person’s attempt to recreate life in a story, brick by brick, word by word. When I was younger, I wished that my parents had never taught me how to speak. I was constantly trying to translate my experiences into a language filled with vitality. I would walk along the beach totally immersed in the beauty around me and then be struck by panic. My panic was that I could never express the way the waves intersected, bounced off the shore, and then receded outward underneath a new force of intersecting waves. My network of emotions was like the waves, intersecting, driven by a source I could not imagine. I would put my fingers to my throat, feeling my pulse slowly persist with the mission to accumulate experiences. My body, filled with physical experiences, was a mirror for life in which people and events intersected, things changed, and all of it was overwhelming.

I began reading Infinite Jest in the winter of 2015. By the time I was finished, I had found a home David Foster Wallace’s ability to command language at will. There were many attempts to try to encourage people to read it. Articles are chronicled in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and newspapers ad infinitum. Its forward is a message from David Eggers, writer, editor, publisher, and friend of Wallace, imploring readers to give it a go.

While reading, I would try to explain the plot of Infinite Jest to just about anyone who would listen. The two main characters are Hal Incandenza, an adolescent who attends the Enfield Tennis Academy, and Don Gately, a sober person at a halfway house. The networks of these two individuals appear in full force. Wallace provides dozens of characters, their nicknames, and masterfully exposes their desperation for as long as they appear which, for some characters, is only a sentence or a paragraph. As with all books, the plot is the material of something more important. This something can be called the theme, or the thesis, but it always answers the questions of, “What is this book trying to do? How am I, the reader, different now that I’ve finished reading it?” Themes and theses are subjective no matter what any English professor tells you. They are your property. It is your mind that has been changed, or not, after reading a book like Infinite Jest.

Rather than relying on someone else’s experience, I trust what I learned from reading. While a lot of the material is cringeworthy, such as the experiences of a certain set of characters who are homeless and addicted to drugs, the internal structures of families who are incapable of showing love except in their own, failing ways, this cringeworthiness is due to a relatability, or a reality, if you will. Wallace, in interviews, was the first to admit his loneliness and his anxieties. He felt it his duty to set his loneliness down side-by-side with a hopefulness. Writing was a tool of service to his readers and, one assumes, to himself. His ability to fabricate words, use technical and scientific language, and wield sentences that were just as effective at two-words long as at two-hundred show a mastery that pulls in readers of all levels of sophistication. What is writing did for me was to cause my brain to explode, and, while exploding, I could reflect on the fact that I was not alone.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Infinite Jest. If you don’t feel like reading it, the best way you could honor the author and the work is to honor yourself and your work. You, my friend, are not alone.


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