Jealous of the Gods
[Originally posted on Substack — subscribe for more]
I just finished Infinite Jest.
David Foster Wallace is a master of the craft. His command of the English language is uncanny, and it’s such a joy to read his work. I’ve listened to The Pale King and Consider The Lobster, and his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech “This Is Water” is one of my favorite talks of all time. His fame is well deserved.
Infinite Jest in particular is an unusually interesting work of his, and not only because of its inventive use of endnotes or its ungodly length (60 hours on Audible where the usual length of a novel is ~12 hours), but because the story is essentially plotless.
The audiobook ends with the listener being driven off a cliff. [Pseudo-spoilers ahead] We get no clarity or closure on any of the various sub-plots that weave in an out of the narrative, and in the brief moments where the sub-plots do intersect, it is only in the barest or most inconsequential ways. These moments only tantalize the listener, and I can tell you that I felt giddy with anticipation when these moments would arise. I would think “Ok, it’s been 40 hours, and finally two characters are interacting! Is this where he’s been going all along? Is this what he’s been building towards?” And then, the characters would part, and nothing would come of their interaction at all.
I understand the meta-narrative of what DFW was creating. He certainly could’ve chosen to give more structure and plot to Infinite Jest that he deliberately chose not to include. The listener is left with loose ends untied and a vague feeling of being lost at sea with respect to the characters and the fates that might befall them.
We can navel-gaze or be high school English teachers for a moment and wax poetic about how this aimlessness may signify that we are all adrift and unmoored and how there is no rhyme or reason to the lives we lead and that the universe is chaotic and random, but I’d rather spend my time asking why, if there is no plot or satisfying feeling of closure at the end of the novel, is listening to Infinite Jest so pleasurable?
Listening to Infinite Jest is an exercise in Zen.
There is no point or purpose or plot to advance, and so we are left with a “Be Here Now” ethos that permeates throughout the novel. The only other book I can recall making me feel…