Notes on Infinite Jest
In college, I read the first 450 pages of Infinite Jest before giving up. I've been re-reading it with the goal of actually finishing it during quarantine. Here I will collect some notes on my experience as well as IJ as a cultural icon.
I did not enjoy Infinite Jest the first time I read it -- I basically came to the same conclusion as this review: a very good negative review of the book:
However, something changed in the last 6 years, and I find myself really really enjoying it this time around. I'll add some more notes soon.
Current status: ~p330/?
There’s something I appreciate abt infinite jest that I’ve been struggling to articulate. In many ways it is a dystopian novel, a picture of america in 2009 imagined from 1996 where years are sponsored by brands and most of new england is a landfill, politics has become a total farce, etc. But while dystopia generally operates on fear and dread, IJ presents a vision of the future that is fundamentally the same as things were in 1996, just more absurd and somewhat worse. The characters are still characters with the same human problems and neuroses.
I think many people dread the future — and there are many very good reasons to feel negatively about it, which I share. Reading infinite jest makes me feel more accommodating towards absurdly bleak scenarios. The same questions and day to day problems will exist in 20 years that exist now. But I don’t think fear is the right response: the problems of the future (climate change, digital control, destabilization of work, etc) exist now, just to a lesser degree. How do you respond to the present? That will be similar to how you respond to the future. This mindset makes me focus less on dread about the future and more about developing my own resiliency towards chaos, alienation, and dramatic change. Wrote this at 2am may edit to try and make sense
Something like the tools we use to survive our regular lives are the same tools we would use to survive a degenerate dystopia. It is a difference of degree, not of category
Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country, always to shout “Freedom! Freedom!” as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress. [...] But what of the freedom-to? Not just free-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to? How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?
When I first read infinite jest, the AA storyline was the most interesting, followed by the tennis academy one, then the quebecois terrorist one. Now I would flip the first two
“The weird glittered hiss of falling snow”
Got to the eschaton section, and remembered this incredible music video
Infinite Jest feels like a very 90s "end of history" kind of vision of the future (the novel was released in 1996 and takes place around 2009). A vision as if 9/11 never happened: where there are no major ideological projects or hope for the future, just unending pointless consumption.
Infinite jest footnotes feel like in Fleabag (one of my favorite recent tv series) when the character looks directly at the camera and makes some remark
Found it funny that tennis player michael pemulis was banned by his coach from wearing Sinn Fein shirts
I've been reading Infinite Jest as a sort of "dystopian sci-fi" novel, but its dystopia is not some dark, alien world that is so horrifying that it is incomprehensible, but just an elevation of American dysfunction and absurdity. People's lives are full, primarily, of the same banalities that ours are. I think in many ways, it demonstrates that life remains livable even as things we recognize and value dissolve: that even in a "dystopia", people remain fully human.
Insanely bold double entendre on p283: “tumescence of O.N.A.N.ism”
Infinite Jest makes several references to the Oxford English Dictionary. I haven't done much research here, but I recall reading a guide that suggested specifically reading Infinite Jest with the OED. The OED seems to serve the same narrative role as the endnotes do -- as a sort of meta-narrative about the text that intentionally breaks the reader from the "core" text. There are words in the text that even the most erudite reader could not be reasonably expected to know, and would be expected to have to look up. One example of this that I found particularly interesting is on page 127:
Several times also Marathe called U.S.A. to Steeply 'Your walled nation' or 'Your murated nation'
I could not find any dictionary online defining "murated" -- the only posts I could find, e.g.
cited the OED for their definition, which I have no reason to doubt. So David Foster Wallace used this word, that he expects you to look up in the OED, which means "surrounded by walls" -- wasting your time searching for a word which is already defined in the preceding sentence. A kind of practical joke, in my view.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Infinite Jest
I find it interesting that AOC is a big Infinite Jest fan. Here's a list of every public statement I could find that she made about Infinite Jest:
AOC making a joke about Whataburger in reference to Infinite Jest (June 2012)
I found this especially funny and relatable, because she was reading Infinte Jest at about the same age and about the same time that I was reading it originally, and she made a post on Instagram about it (I did too at the time) making a joke that, at the time, none of her followers in the comments got. And even now, 8 years later, only one person in the comments actually got the reference.
AOC posts a picture of Infinite Jest with a quote from DFW's "This is Water" speech
April 2017: AOC begins congressional campaign
AOC making fun of MoonPie's Tweet about depression (Dec 2017)
June 16, 2018: AOC Wins Democratic Primary in upset victory
Vogue Interview (Note the well-worn copy of Infinite Jest on her bookshelf) (Nov 2018)
Though she rarely addresses Trump directly, Ocasio-Cortez understands the value of performance in today’s politics. “Have you read Infinite Jest?” she asks, referencing the David Foster Wallace novel about entertainment and corporatism run amok. “We are living in the ‘Year of Perdue Chicken.’ We’re looking at our phones until we literally lose consciousness. If our leaders don’t learn to communicate in an engaging manner, our entertainers will become politicians. That’s what we have now.”
AOC lists infinite jest as one of her favorite books (Dec 2018)