The Marathon of Infinite Jest

A novel 1,079 pages long is not the best one to start reading on a dare. But after my brother insulted my reading abilities, I had to. Of course, I was unprepared. Traveling all over Boston, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest weaved a tale of drug addiction, tennis fanatics, and Canadian extremists all the while speaking to an America transformed by ubiquitous entertainment. It was a raucous good time that redefined the novelistic slog.

A burdened man, Wallace faced depression his entire life, kept tumultuous relationships, used drugs, and attempted suicide several times. And yet, Wallace was also a thinker who once pursued his Philosophy PhD at Harvard and was assumed a rising mind in the field by many professors. While he abandoned that path, philosophy’s marks are all over Infinite Jest.

Wallace was obsessed with what was the good life, a central question of moral philosophy. In Infinite Jest, Don Gately, a former opiates addict, finds himself in the hospital, recovering from a bullet wound, fighting the pains of infection and inflammation without painkillers. Drawing from the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Gately determines no one painful second is insurmountable, and that surviving one second meant he could survive them all. It’s a message of endurance, built on the premise that life’s suffering can be overcome.

Yet Infinite Jest does not make it easy. A funny, brilliant work, it overstays its welcome, consuming at first readers’ weeks, and then, months. This, too, exemplifies Infinite Jest’s philosophical core: truth does not come easily—it must be fought for. This struggle dominates the narrative from its beginning: the character of Hal Incandenza is introduced via a college interview, a silent figure who has been told to keep his thoughts to himself. It is only by persisting in the narrative that we come understand to him, and discover what his life may mean for ours.

Infinite Jest is a marathon read, and like actual marathons, its end leaves participants both exhausted and elated. Yet while 1,079 pages may imagine a witty and engrossing world, marathon reading is not a popular sport—the novel may be the definition of “too much of a good thing.” And even though the recent Wallace biopic, The End of the Tour, could reinvigorate interest, Infinite Jest is only for the willing, not merely the well-prepared. As Jason Segel, the film’s star, recounted buying the book, “the saleswoman rolled her eyes. She said: ‘“Infinite Jest.” Every guy I’ve ever dated has an unread copy on his bookshelf,’” Mr. Segel recalled. “That experience alone made it worth it.”

-Will Hertel

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