Advocacy, Guests

Mimi Smartypants: Why Read Infinite Jest?

06.08.09 | 22 Comments

Mimi Smartypants is a Chicago writer and editor, as well as the eponymous author of a long-running weblog.  A portion of her early online writing is collected in The World According to Mimi Smartypants.  She has read Infinite Jest thrice.

Yeah, it’s big.

No reviewer, blogger, or bookstore chitchatter can resist remarking on Infinite Jest’s size, so let’s just get that out of the way first. It’s also in the top ten of the best books I have ever read in my life. It would be my desert island book and the book I would take to prison with me. (For some reason I like to imagine scenarios in which I am mistakenly sent to prison.) In 1996, despite being chronically short of funds and living in a graduate student hovel with my graduate student husband, I splurged on a hardcover copy and a few weeks later accidentally left it on a bus. And I went out later that day and bought ANOTHER hardcover copy with that month’s beer money.

My extreme love for this novel, the way that I tend to corner people who mention it and exclaim about its wonderfulness with a Russian-mystic gleam in my eye, might sound a little fetishistic and alarming, and in fact might be a deterrent rather than an endorsement. Let me try another approach.

I have always been something of a literary wanker, interested in metafiction and fancy ways of writing and reading. I was a Vonnegut and Pynchon dork in high school, spent time in college inhaling marijuana smoke and Nabokov simultaneously (quite an effective “alternative reading strategy,” actually), and still dip into Finnegan’s Wake every time I need a respite from narrative. So when IJ hype began appearing in various book-review rags I was naturally all over it. A giant thousand-page novel set in the vague near-future? With frequent text-disruptions in the form of endnotes and digressions? Yes! Hand it over!

Of course, by this point I know what to expect of my postmodern fiction, right? Lots of little literary in-jokes and poking playful fun at the search for meaning, a big textual circle jerk that allows me to admire the author’s chops while also smirking proudly about how smart I am for getting it.

That’s not at all how reading Infinite Jest is. Not even close. The book is not one long “mess,” as New York Times book critic and my personal enemy Michiko Kakutani so wrongly put it, or an “excuse to show off.” I hope that at the end of the summer you will see how wrong that is. Infinite Jest feels very real, with the underlying premise that we MUST read, write, or talk ourselves out of the metafictional spiral; that it is actually urgent that we connect with the world, not hide from it with drink or drugs or television or literary skill; that paying attention to nothing but the movie inside one’s head will ultimately kill you.* A novel about the absolute necessity of conveying our subjective consciousness to each other, that in fact IS an attempt to convey subjective consciousness to you, the reader—this feels like such a relief after decades of novels that laughingly deny the possibility.

*(It feels unseemly here, after the above, to insert a comment about the sad loss of DFW himself. I have been looking at the cursor-blink for ages but nothing is right. Consider this parenthetical my moment of silence, a fumbling acknowledgment of the Big Bad Thing that I hope will not totally inform the Infinite Summer project, which doesn’t deserve such emotional freight.)

All in all, I find Infinite Jest enjoyable in a way that Barth and Pynchon are not. (Here come the Pynchon fans to kick my ass.) There’s so much fun and humanity in it. There are so many great overlapping stories, and so many laugh-out-loud moments. If characters like Hal and Gately and Joelle don’t stay with you long after the book is over I will eat my hat, and it is not a particularly tasty hat. Also, don’t be surprised if you read the last word and want to start over again at the beginning—that’s what I did, and that’s why I would want this book in prison, and weirdly now I am starting to fantasize (again) about going to prison just so I would have lots of uninterrupted time with Infinite Jest.