Minor Preparation to Get the Most out of Infinite Jest

I’ve been reading the biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max, and it reminded me that for years I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on some of the preparation you can do to have a much better experience reading Infinite Jest.

First, I’m not doing this out of some condescending “let the self-declared expert tell you how you must read this” type of thing. I actually get asked this question semi-frequently, and I want something I can direct people to. My first answer is usually, “Just do it.” You can get a lot of enjoyment out of the novel without delving into the philosophy of the meta-fictional devices.

On the other hand, if you are going to spend a few months of your life reading a 1000 page beast of a novel, then you should be willing to do some minor preparation. I estimate a dedicated person could easily do these reading assignments in less than a week. I picked these for both brevity and clarity after years of reading everything he’s ever written and watching/reading tons of interviews with him, and reading as many things as I can that he points out as influences.

This will take two posts. One on everything and why I chose it. The other on understanding his story Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. If you are really pressed for time, then my advice is to finish reading this post. Read that story. Then read my soon to come explanation of why that story is the most important thing he ever wrote in trying to decipher why he writes in the way he writes. That story is a Rosetta stone to understanding his later works.

Here’s my reading list:
Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth (a short story)
“The Balloon” by Donald Barthelme (a short story)
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker (a very short novella)
“Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” by David Foster Wallace (a short story/novella)

That may look like a lot, but each story can probably be read in one sitting, although I recommend going slowly through that last one. Let’s take them one at a time.

“The Balloon” is probably the least important of the list. This is a short story that DFW talked about in several interviews. It was a story that basically changed his life. He wasn’t a literature or creative writing major in college, but this story made him see writing in a different light. It made him want to be a writer.

Here’s how I understand this. All the fiction that DFW wrote was deeply philosophical. He majored in philosophy and as a grad student took lots of critical theory. He was obsessed with the theory behind the relationship between author, text, and reader. This wasn’t abstract for him. Because he wanted to develop a relationship with his readers through what he wrote, he needed to understand what the nature of that relationship was.

What Barthelme’s story does, which was so novel at the time, is put the theoretical considerations right in the story plainly for all to see. This is essentially a defining characteristic of the post-modernists of the time. The story as a whole has some macro-structure (“plot” if you want to use that term), but the individual sentences have a micro-structure which is informing you as you go how to interpret the macro-structure.

The story is very enigmatic. Just as you are thinking, “What in the world is going on?” you encounter characters who say things like, “We have learned not to insist on meanings.” This isn’t the type of place where DFW ended in his writing, but it makes a lot of sense why he started here. The story is difficult, but the reader who is willing to put in the effort to think about the individual sentences is rewarded by being helped by the author, i.e. a back-and-forth rewarding relationship is built. Both sides have to put in effort, which is a key idea that will keep coming up.

As linked above, I’ve written about “Lost in the Funhouse” before. You can read that for details. Some might go so far as to call it “the canonical” example of post-modernism. The main importance on this list is that “Westward …” is simultaneously a parody of it, a rewriting of it, and a tool to get some messages across. I dare say it is impossible to to read “Westward …” and have any idea what is going on without having read “Lost in the Funhouse” first. We’ll discuss it a bit more next time.

Last is The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. This book takes place over something like 10 seconds. The plot (and full main text!) of the novella is that a man walks into a mezzanine and takes an escalator up to the next floor. That’s it. What makes this so compelling is that there are about 130 pages of footnotes telling you what the guy is thinking through this whole process.

The book is a page turner. I’m not joking. It gives you a glimpse into the mind of another human in such a raw and unfiltered way. It, of course, is really funny at times, but the fact that it is funny is because you know your thoughts do the same exact types of things. You chain together all sorts of seemingly unrelated stupid things.

The reason for putting this on here is two-fold. First, DFW constantly talked about the importance of literature being that it makes you for a moment feel less alone. Here’s the quote, “We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can alow 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.” This book comes as close as any that I can think of to achieving the idea of truly identifying with a character.

The second reason I chose this book is actually the key one. The way the book does it is not by any of the conventional means. It achieves this truly magnificent feat purely through the use of footnotes. DFW loved this book. Now ask yourself what is the most daunting part of Infinite Jest? Most people say it is the extensive use of endnotes.

We’ll get more to the endnotes next time, but I think The Mezzanine holds the key to one of the reasons DFW used them. They aren’t purely distraction. They aren’t meta-fictional wankery. They aren’t highfalutin philosophical nonsense. DFW read a book that achieved what he considered the goal of literature, and it was done using this device. If you can understand the use in The Mezzanine, then you will be well on your way to understanding the use of the endnotes in Infinite Jest.

We’re only halfway there, but if you’ve made it this far and you want some extra credit, then I also recommend finding a copy of Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace. It is a good resource if you want to delve deeper into the philosophy and critical theory of what he was trying to do. Also, DFW is trying to surpass his post-modern idols, so it helps to be familiar with post-modernism in general. If you aren’t, then The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon is a pretty short but classic book in that style as well.

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