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Marcus Sakey: Decoding Infinite Jest; or, Don’t

06.26.09 | 33 Comments

Marcus Sakey is the award-winning author of Good People, The Blade Itself: A Novel, and At the City’s Edge, all of which are in development as feature films. His new novel, The Amateurs, comes out August 6th. His website features excerpts, contests, and tips for writers.

I picked up IJ the same way I imagine a lot of you did—while browsing, I was caught by the cover, the hyperbolic quote, and the heft of the thing. This was 1997, an era when I was more likely to be willing to invest in a doorstop novel. But even then, 1079 pages was going to take some persuading, so I opened to the reviews: “Uproarious,” “Exhilarating,” “Truly remarkable,” “Spectacularly good.”

Okay. You win.

My first read of the novel was by and large a pleasure. I’ll admit that there were moments when I wondered if I could trust Wallace to deliver the goods. And at that time, I thought that the book could have benefited from a sterner editor (although the submitted manuscript was apparently significantly longer.)

Still, I labored through the rough spots, and found more than enough to tickle me and keep me going. But while I don’t want to reveal too much, I will say that when I got to the end, my initial reaction was, “Huh.”

Not in a bad way. There had been moments of such startling brilliance along the way, episodes so hilariously sad and tragically funny, that I knew even at the time that it was something special. But still, at the very end, there was a “Huh” factor.

Fast-forward two months and ten books, and here’s the thing—I was still thinking about Infinite Jest. In fact, I found myself seeing it more clearly, getting more seduced by it, than when I was actually reading the thing.

With distance what at first seemed sprawling begins to come into a more cohesive, if still massive, picture. Wallace is a writer who does not spare you the full force of his brain; in fact, he demands your effort like a brilliant professor who expects that you show up every week, well-rested, on time, and with the reading done.

However, novels aren’t read that way. They’re read in sips and gulps, sometimes a sleepy page before bed, sometimes a hundred with a pot of coffee. Not only that, but because Wallace believes in complexity, he doesn’t always reveal the structure of things all at once; doesn’t make obvious the nature of the world he’s building.

But finish the book, let it stew, and it will all come together, I promise. And it’s more than worth the effort. So much so in fact, that about a year later I decided to read it again.

And brothers and sisters, I’m here to tell you, on a second read, there wasn’t a word I would cut. Once you’ve got a sense of the greater whole, and once you trust Wallace, the thing is fucking genius. I write a very different style of book, but even so, it makes me want to pack it in and go home. He’s that good.

But I made a mistake the second time. I thought that because I had puzzled out certain aspects, the rest of the book was a riddle, a code I needed to crack. So I went at it that way. I took notes on characters and relationships. I annotated. I formulated guesses about what “The Entertainment” was, and where it showed up, and how what happened at the end played into what happened at the beginning. I visited message boards and forums and the Wallace discussion list. I spent as much time taking notes on the novel as I did reading the damn thing.

And here’s what I learned: There is no secret.

Fundamentally, IJ is a novel about two things: the pursuit of happiness, and the impossibilities of communication. Wallace explores those themes and their intersections in a hundred different ways. And because he was a genius who didn’t believe there were answers to these questions, he also contradicts himself over and over and over. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that there are no assertions of importance in the text that aren’t contradicted somewhere else.

I realize that sounds annoying. But that’s why I’m writing this piece. It’s only annoying if you look at the novel as a code to crack, if you see everything as a clue.

After a second read, there were many things I understood more clearly. And damn, how I loved it. But could I tell you, unequivocally, “what happened”?

Nope.

It’s not about that. There aren’t easy answers in life, and so Wallace didn’t want them in his work. There aren’t single perspectives in life, and so Wallace didn’t want them in his work. The world can’t be summed up in a sentence, and so Wallace not only didn’t try—he demonstrated some of the reasons why the world is the way it is.

Last year, David Foster Wallace hung himself. I’d never met the man, but it threw me into a funk. After a week of moping about, I picked up Infinite Jest again as a sort of personal tribute, and read it for the third time. Read it trusting him, read it feeling the sorrow and the joy and the sheer intellectual pleasure.

And finally, I read it right.

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