David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel Infinite Jest is the most challenging book I've ever read. Its plot is complex – touching on subjects such as sports culture, substance rehabilitation centres, depression, child abuse, family relationships, film theory, Quebec separatism and popular entertainment, and shifting between the experiences of a few dozen characters across different periods of time. It is printed in very fine text, which runs right into the far corners of its 1,079 pages, and has footnotes – which have footnotes.
Yet it glows with the most beautiful sentences and paragraphs.
Infinite Jest (the clue's in the title) took me the best part of a year to get through – one-third the length of time it apparently took its author to write. Here are its highlights, which you can enjoy in just a few minutes.
If, by the virtue of charity of the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts. You will find out…
That chronic alcoholics’ hearts are – for reasons no M.D. has been able to explain – swollen to nearly twice the size of civilians’ human hearts, and they never again return to normal size. That there’s a certain type of person who carries a picture of their therapist in their wallet. That black and Hispanic people can be as big or bigger racists than white people, and then can get even more hostile and unpleasant when this realization seems to surprise you. That some people really do look like rodents. That certain persons simply will not like you no matter what you do. That over 50% of persons with a Substance addiction suffer from some other recognized form of psychiatric disorder, too. That purposeful sleep-deprivation can also be an abusable escape. That you do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it. That loneliness is not a function of solitude. That it is possible to get so angry you really do see everything red. That evil people never believe they are evil, but rather that everyone else is evil. That it is statistically easier for low-IQ people to kick an addiction than it is for high-IQ people. That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That cats will in fact get violent diarrhoea if you feed them milk, contrary to the popular image of cats and milk. That it is simply more pleasant to be happy than to be pissed off. That pretty much everybody masturbates. That different people have radically different ideas of basic personal hygiene. That, perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it. That having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward. That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things if s/he/it’s interested in re you.
- pp. 200–205
An alcohol hangover was definitely no frolic in the psychic glade, all thirsty and sick and your eyes bulging and receding with your pulse, but after a night of involved hallucinogens Hal said the dawn seemed to confer on his psyche a kind of pale sweet aura, a luminescence.
- p. 218
Though Schacht buys quarterly urine like the rest of them, it seems to Pemulis that Schacht ingests the occasional chemical that way grownups who sometimes forget to finish their cocktails drink liquor: to make a tense but fundamentally OK interior life interestingly different but no more.
- p. 267
Schacht was just looping the d in mail fraud when Jim Troeltsch’s pseudo-radio program, backed by its eustacian-crumpling operatic soundtrack, came over 112 West House’s E.T.A.-intercom speaker up over the classroom clock.
- p. 308
Pemulis’s face is the face of a man who will someday need blood pressure medication.
- p. 333
F.F. had taken Gately out for eye-rattling amounts of coffee, after the incident with the table and the head. He’d listened with the slight boredom of detached Identification to Gately’s complaint that there was no way something he didn’t understand enough to even start to believe in was seriously going to be interested in helping save his ass, even if He/She/It did in some sense exist.
- p. 468
… Lucien finally dies, rather a while after he’s quit shuddering like a clubbed muskie and seemed to them to die, as he finally sheds his body’s suit, Lucien finds his gut and throat again and newly whole, clean and unimpeded, and is free, catapulted home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.
- p. 488
So then like strategically, at the Brookline Young People’s Mtg. over on Beacon near the Newton line on a Wednesday, at the raffle-break, at 2109h., Lenz moistens his half-gasper and puts it carefully back in the pack and yawns and stretches and does a quick pulse-check and gets up and saunters casually into the Handicapped head with the lockable door and the big sort of crib built around the shitter itself for crippled lowering onto the toilet and does like maybe two, maybe three generous lines of Bing off the top of the toilet-tank and wipes the tank-top off both before and after with wet paper towels, ironically rolling up the same crisp buck he’d brought for the meeting’s collection and utilizing it and cleaning it thoroughly with his finger and rubbing his gums with the finger and then putting his head way back in the mirror to check the kidney-shaped nostrils of his fine aqua-line nose for clinging evidence in the trim hair up there and tasting the bitter drip in the back of his frozen throat and taking the clean rolled buck and back-rolling it and smoothing it out and hammering it with his fist on the lip of the sink and folding it neatly into half of half its original Treasury Dept. size so that all evidence anybody ever even had a passing thought of rolling the buck into a hard tight tube is, like anileated.
- pp. 555–556
Mr. Green howls with bitterly professional practical-gag mirth and clunks over and slaps little Bruce on the back so hard that Brucie expels a lime Gummi Bear he’d been eating – this too a visual memory, contextless and creepy – which arcs across the living room and lands in the fireplace’s fire with a little green siss of flame.
- p. 580
… Green had gotten so uncomfortably fascinated and repelled and paralyzed by the Polynesian tunes that he’d set up a cabana-chair right by the kegs and had sat there overworking the pump on the kegs and downing one plastic cup after another of beer-foam until he got so blind drunk his sphincter had failed and he’d not only pissed but also actually shit his pants, for only the second time ever, and the first public time ever, and was mortified with complexly layered shame, and had to ease very gingerly into the nearest-by head and remove his pants and wipe himself off like a fucking baby, having the shut one eye to make sure which him he saw was him …
- p. 584
Stice, oblivious, bites into his sandwich like it’s the wrist of an assailant. The only sound at the table for the first few minutes is of forkwork and mastication and the slight gasping sounds of people trying to breathe while they eat. You rarely speak for the first few minutes here, eating. Supper is deadly-serious. Some of the kids even start on their trays while still in line at the milk dispenser. Now Coyle bites in. Wayne had made his entrée into a sandwich and lowers and bites. Keith Freer’s eyes are half closed as his jaw muscles bulge and slacken. Some of the players’ inclined heads are hard to see over the height of their food.
- p. 627
The milk dispenser stands alone against the west wall, a big huge 24-liter three-bagger, the milk inserted in ovaloid mammarial bags into its refrigerated cabinet of brushed steel, with three receptacles for tumblers and three levers for controlled dispensing.
- p. 631
One kind is low-grade and sometimes gets called anhedonia or simple melancholy. It’s a kind of spiritual torpor in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important. The avid bowler drops out of his league and stays home at night staring dully at kick-boxing cartridges. The gourmand is off his feed. The sensualist finds his beloved Unit all of a sudden to be so much feelingless gristle, just hanging there. The devoted wife and mother finds the thought of her family about as moving, all of a sudden, as a theorem of Euclid. It’s a kind of emotional novocaine, this form of depression, and while it’s not overtly painful its deadness is disconcerting and … well, depressing. Kate Gompert’s always thought of this anhedonic state as a kind of radical abstracting of everything, a hollowing out of stuff that used to have affective content. Terms the undepressed toss around and take for granted as full and fleshy – happiness, joie de vivre, preference, love – are stripped of their skeletons and reduced to abstract ideas. They have, as it were, denotation but not connotation. The anhedonic can still speak about happiness and meaning et al., but she has become incapable of feeling anything in them, of understanding anything about them, or of believing them to exist as anything more than concepts. Everything becomes an outline of the thing. Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world.
- pp. 692–693
The vaporizer chugs and seethes and makes the room’s windows weep as Jim Troeltsch inserts a pro-wrestling cartridge in the little TP’s viewer and dons his tackiest sportscoat and wet-combs his hair down smooth so it looks toupeeish and settles back on his bunk, surrounded by Seldane-bottles and two-ply facial tissue, preparing the call the action.
- p. 700
Some woman just outside the door near the demi-maison’s front door, she laughed in the manner of an automatic weapon. Wet sounds were audible from beneath the rear leg of the dog with private organs, of which the head hid beneath the raised leg.
- p. 748
… It wasn’t until Madame Psychosis got to college and gradually acquired some psychic distance and matter for emotional comparison that she even began to see how creepy her reagent-Daddy’s regression had been, and not until a certain major-sports-star son’s autograph on a punctured football inspired more e-mailed suspicion and sarcasm than gratitude from home in KY that she began even to suspect that her lack of social life throughout puberty might have had as much to do with her Daddy’s intrusive discouragement as with her actaeonizing pubescent charms.
- p. 793
The quiet has a kind of menace. The whole cubular building seems to Hal to hold the tensed menace of a living thing that’s chosen to hold itself still.
- p. 798
Tears and other fluids flow and roll. The warm round leader Harv’s own eyes are a moist glassy blue. The CD scanner’s cello is now into some sort of semi-jazzy pizzicato stuff that seems oxymoronic against the room’s mood.
- p. 804
As Death’s explanation of Death goes on Gately understands really important vague stuff more and more, but the more he understands the sadder he gets, and the sadder he gets the more unfocused and wobbly becomes his vision of the Death’s Joelle siting nude on the pink plastic ring, until near the end it’s as if he’s seeing her through a kind of cloud of light, a milky filter that’s the same as the wobbly blur through which a baby sees a parental face bending over its crib, and he begins to cry in a way that hurts his chest, and asks Death to set him free and be his mother, and Joelle either shakes or nods her lovely unfocused head and says: Wait.
- pp. 850–851
He made whoever he got high with feel lonely. He got real, like, interior.
- p. 893
… It’s obvious the guy pathetically thinks this kind of limp condescending shit will impress her. Gately’s got to admit he would have tried to impress her, too, though, if she hadn’t met him by holding a kidney-shaped pan under his working anus.
- p. 921
… A blue forked bolt of pain from his sudden striking-out sends him back against his hot pillow with an arched spine and a tube-impeded scream, his eyes rolling back into the dove-colored light of whatever isn’t quite sleep.
- pp. 933–934
The intercom calmly dinged. He heard conversing people in the hall passing the open door and stopping for a second to look in, but still conversing. It occurred to him if he died everybody would still exist and go home and eat and X their wife and go to sleep.
- p. 973
The umpires on the U.S. junior tour tend to be retired high-school principals whose only renumeration is the chance to exercise again some slight authority over the young.
- p. 1030 (n. #158)
Sometimes at odd little times of day the E.T.A. males’ locker room downstairs in Comm.-Ad. is empty, and you can go in there and sort of moon around and listen to the showers drip and the drains gurgle. You can feel the odd stunned quality customarily crowded places have at empty times.
- p. 1066 (n. #324)
If getting through that felt like a Herculean effort, then try reading the whole thing...
If getting through that felt like a Herculean effort, then try reading the whole thing...