Reading Infinite Jest After a Year on the Wagon

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Reading <i>Infinite Jest</i> After a Year on the Wagon

David Foster Wallace’s long-winded masterpiece turns 20 today.

In an interview with Jason Segel on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, there’s a good story about the time Segel bought a copy of Infinite Jest. At the time, Segel had been cast to play David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, which follows Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky as he profiles Wallace during five days on the Infinite Jest book tour.

Most of Wallace’s scripted lines in Tour came from the real-life Lipsky’s own interview tapes (which are documented in the book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself), and a tape-to-film comparison shows that Segel nailed the writer’s flat delivery. But even with such strong source material, playing Wallace without reading Infinite Jest would be unthinkable. The tremendous piece of work still defines Wallace’s career, which was preceded by pieces of non-fiction, a single short story collection and 1987’s lukewarmly received novel, The Broom of the System. In preparation for the role, Segel went to an indie bookstore to buy his own copy of Wallace’s most-recognized work. 

“There was like a Ghost World-kind of girl behind the counter,” Segel said in the interview. “I set [the book] down, and she said, ‘Ugh, Infinite Jest. Every guy I’ve ever slept with has an unread copy on his bookshelf.’”

I suspect this particular bookstore clerk’s sentiment wasn’t entirely exaggerated, as many readers of a certain age have started Wallace’s 1996 masterpiece more times than they’d like to admit. Maybe you’ve heard this description of the book before, but it bears repeating: It’s 981 pages long[1], has a shipping weight of 3.2 pounds and requires both hands to read. But that’s part of the book’s appeal. I’ve personally carried the tome as dead weight through cross country moves, taken it on more than one flight and placed it in my backpack with the unlikely hope that, someday, I’d start absorbing its thousand-plus pages by osmosis. If my back prematurely gives out, I’m sure Infinite Jest will be part of the reason. 

But during The End of the Tour’s press cycle, I got a text from my friend Anthony. We run a loose book club, which essentially means that we pick a book and text our thoughts back and forth as we read. It was his turn to pick, and I groaned when he texted: “Infinite Jest? lol.” 

I didn’t know much about the book aside from what I read in previous attempts. When you hear people talk about the novel, the conversation usually boils down to page count or Wallace’s kaleidoscopic styles and character connections. Also, I’d seen that one Decemberists video and read a friend’s GoodReads review—and Dave Eggers’ introduction to the book—that said Infinite Jest talked more about tennis than anyone deserved to read about. But still, it felt like it was time to tackle the book. I set aside a few hours a day, carefully taking in the text at first. Early on it took something like two hours to make it through 30 pages, making the book not only insanely long, but also tedious to consume. This might’ve had a similar pagecount, but this sure as hell wasn’t The Stand. But as a person who’d just crossed the one-year mark of sobriety himself, Infinite Jest proved to be completely refreshing.

If Wallace’s M.O. for writing fiction was making readers feel less alone [2], then he’d succeeded in getting Infinite Jest into my hands at this point in life—and from the sounds of it, in Segel’s, too. The actor revealed in that WTF interview that he’d been addressing his own issues with alcohol for some time before shooting the film. Granted, Infinite Jest tackles the subject extensively: for half of the story, Wallace trains his eye on a recovering addict in a halfway house, but his book also explores addiction’s myriad shapes through entertainment (where he more or less predicts Netflix), drugs, AA meetings and competitive tennis. In Wallace’s world, addiction comes in all shades between black and white, and unlike generalized sentiments on sobriety, Infinite Jest doesn’t just address a future without alcohol—it explores the idea of what spending time looks like after the initial recovery process and whether that presents a sustainable future for its characters.

But that’s just Infinite Jest’s subject matter; it’s reading the physical book that mirrors abstaining from substances in the long-term. Though you can measure progress in page-sized increments, that act usually turns out to be fruitless. I’m not a fast reader, and more than once I approached a 30-page chapter—a night’s worth of reading—only to be intercepted by a six-page footnote on James O. Incandenza’s filmography, or an exhausting interview transcriptions between his son, all-star football player Orin Incandenza, and “soft-profile journalist” Helen Steeply. I probably cursed, flipped to the back of the book for the hundredth-or-so time, and then laughed my ass off when I was finally immersed in the text. I also would’ve lost my mind if I tried adjusting anything to a cut-and-dried schedule.

In that sense, you can’t blow through Infinite Jest. You can’t expect to meander through the pages and emerge with any meaningful understanding—a lesson I fully learned after a horrible weekend of trying to cruise through 200 pages. It didn’t take long, but I quickly understood that my approach to reading this book had to mirror my newfound approach to life: to mimic a phrase that feels cringe-worthy but no less true, I had to take the text one day at a time. I had to comprehend that there are no shortcuts in either sobriety and Wallace’s fiction. There was no exit door. Also, it’s worth mentioning that both cutting booze and reading Infinite Jest drew their fair share of eye-rolls and sarcastic comments in friendly conversations. Both, also, seemed to be worth the ridicule.

On a primal level, the motive behind completing Infinite Jest is probably different than most commercial fiction. It’s an achievement in itself. It doesn’t appeal to readers in the same way that Wallace’s peers’ work might. You don’t say “I finished The Corrections!” with the hand-slam finality that comes from reading Infinite Jest’s final line. The idea of reading—and finishing—the book is more in-line with that hunger to cross a marathon finish line or to pay off your mortgage. In that way, Infinite Jest isn’t fiction—it’s a process, one that took me six weeks to complete.

Most addiction treatment facilities don’t use the word “cure” for a reason. It’s a false promise, a statement that implies that there’s a true end to one’s own personal recovery. In that sense, Infinite Jest follows suit. Maybe it’s cruel, maybe it’s the book’s most beautiful realization, but [Spoilers, for those who’ve made it “50 pages or so” but “plan on finishing one day”] Infinite Jest doesn’t truly end. The book stops where one character’s story begins, and it starts where one character’s timeline ends—the arc loops between the Enfield Tennis Academy, its off-campus halfway house, the screwed-up Incandenza family and the softening heart of former addict and pro-criminal Don Gately. Granted, Wallace’s meditation on addiction was more complicated than any self-help book on the market. But like a hard swing at sobriety, the book acknowledges the massive milestone of its final page without ever slowing down or settling for good enough.

1. Infinite Jest is 1,079 pages if you’re counting the often frustrating footnotes.
2. “We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”— David Foster Wallace

Tyler R. Kane is Paste’s Assistant Books Editor. He lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan.