Infinite Jest and the Beauty of Unfinished Business


Or, more directly put: With all due respect, Mr. David Foster Wallace, your 1,079-page-long “philosophical quest” is complete and utter shite.


When my dear literary-minded friend suggested Infinite Jest as our next book club read, I should’ve realized that the title itself portends a comical, meandering foray into the creative mind of Mr. Wallace.

While many others in my circle of well-read women and men have extolled the virtues of the author, and myself having fallen under the spell of his iconic Water speech and several of his essays, I thought this would be an easy read. Hell (pun intended), I’ve read the bible from beginning to end several times in my young life, how hard could it be to complete this particular work of modern fiction?

My self-confidence couldn’t have been more misplaced.

In terms of its scriptural equivalent, I made it about as far as Jacob’s quarrel with Laban of Syria—or, to be exact, page 55—before I realized that, dammit, this book is just not working for me.

Worse: I loathe it.

I’m pretty sure it didn’t help that I awoke at 4 a.m. this morning to the sound of the kitty barfing up her not-so-cheap cat food on my freshly laundered comforter, only to immediately thereafter see this monstrosity of a book, so far from completion, mere inches from my face—all only seconds after being jarred from a peaceful sleep.

Now, I realize that, as a writer, I may come under intense scrutiny for my intense hatred for this “encyclopedic novel” (as the work is now categorized). In all fairness, however, after learning a bit more about the history of Infinite Jest and how it came to be, I was not at all surprised to learn that the writer himself struggled to bring it to life: he began writing several beginnings of the manuscript between the years of 1986 and 1989, after which he abandoned the work until 1991-1992, when he finally completed it.

That said, my intent is not to decry its literary value or even to insult this fine author’s skill or impact upon the reading world. After all, I do indeed own a collection of World Book Encyclopedias, in their glorious, tangible form. I appreciate the educational and cultural role they play in my life and in the world at large. But will I sit down to read A through C? Nope.

I will admit that I probably spend too much time online to have patience for a book that weighs more than my laptop. Maybe Elephant Journal articles and Elizabeth Gilbert books are more my style. Maybe that makes me a lazy millennial, maybe it makes me a child of the revolution, or maybe it just means I’m not in a place in my life where tackling one of Wallace’s greater works is among my most burning desires. In my defense, I have read thousands of books (many of them wonderful, some of them mediocre, and a few of them downright terrible), and I have, almost obsessively, insisted upon seeing each one of them through to completion, even when I don’t always enjoy the process of consumption. Having read works of similar depth and caliber, I have nothing to prove.

So, being the over-thinker that I am, I couldn’t help but wonder about the bigger reason as to why I suddenly decided to remove my bookmark, list the thing on, and say “to hell with this!” After all, there is usually an epiphany on the heels of most 4 a.m. wake-up calls, and since the idea of quitting a book midway to completion is so foreign to me, I knew there was something significant I had to consider.

And here it is.

If a person’s life is one great big library, then the books on its shelves are relationships and all the infinite pages therein are our precious days. Further, what we choose to read implies whom we choose to spend our time with, and how we choose to spend it. And, in retrospect, while I don’t ever regret the books I read, I certainly wonder if I would’ve expanded my literary vocabulary or cultural contribution to this planet if I might’ve just been a little more selective.

Who knows? Maybe people are a bit like books, too. Maybe a page is torn out, maybe the subject matter is over one’s head, or maybe this character of David Wallace’s is, up to page 55, drowning in his dysfunction and crippled by his addiction and, hmm, sounds heartbreakingly familiar to someone I know in the flesh, and I’m not sure if I can do this anymore.

Sometimes you only get to someone’s page 55 before discovering that, dammit, this is just not working for me.

For me, there is never a good stopping point. I don’t quit books. I don’t quit people. But when there is no respectable reason to continue sacrificing time and mental energy in a heavy, depressing saga that, for one, doesn’t resonate with you; two, often makes you cry; and three, you know is going to leave you feeling depleted when you turn the last page, it’s time to close the book.

I may love many of the other writings of David Foster Wallace, but in this particular context, his Infinite Jest represents the 1079-pages of drama that I’ve been lugging around with me for far too long. It’s the book I’ve been fighting to finish; all because of my pride and because of my loyalty—a loyalty both to books and to their authors, but most of all to the belief that we are all just torn, ink-splashed pages of humanness; the ugliest of which only need a little understanding in order to be loved.

You, my friends, might be fans of this big beautiful book, but it is, at last, time for me to let it go for now. Maybe I’ll pick it up again later, but at this point, it only signifies dead weight, the difficult story to which I already know the painful ending. And, frankly, it belongs in someone else’s library.

3 thoughts on “Infinite Jest and the Beauty of Unfinished Business

  1. I always think it’s better to know your limits and stop reading rather than make yourself miserable and waste time forcing yourself to read a book you aren’t into. Life is too short.

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