BY TOM WHYMAN
One day, a couple of months ago, I was browsing a second hand book store—taking advantage, to the fullest extent that I could, of the new and dangerous post-lockdown freedoms here in the UK—when I happened upon a copy of Infinite Jest: huge, pristine and unread, its spine gloriously uncut. I picked the book up—sniffed its pages, felt its heft. Flicked through it, as I always do with books I’m thinking of buying for some reason, absorbing some ambient hint of the as yet meaningless panorama of its prose. Trying to get a sense of its scope, I suppose, as a physical object. “Could I?” I thought. “Should I? Dare I?” I looked for the price, scrawled in pencil in the inside cover. £4. “Oh wow. Pretty cheap.” What if I never get a better opportunity than this?
“No,” I thought. “I’d better not.” For a second, I put Infinite Jest back on the shelf. But the decision wouldn’t stick. Shoving myself apologetically back past the man who had immediately dawdled into the space that now yawned between me and it, I grabbed Infinite Jest back up, and made directly for the cash desk—knowing that I would have to outrun my cold feet. Sandwiching the vast thing between two other purchases, as if this might disguise it somehow, I handed it to the middle-aged woman behind the till—averting my eyes, like I was buying pornography.
She picked Infinite Jest up, looked directly at it. I felt briefly like a part of my soul had been exposed. “Ooh,” she said. “That’s a big one!”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. “Er, notoriously so.” I gave a little strained laugh.
“Mmm. Oh, right. Well, happy reading!” She handed the bought books back to me. “Do you need a bag?”
“No, my rucksack will be fine.” A great sense of relief came over me. I had just bought Infinite Jest. But I did not seem to have been judged for it.
Like a lot of people, I suppose, I had always (in some relevant sense, at least, of ‘always’) intended—‘intended’—to read Infinite Jest. For years now, I had been reading and citing David Foster Wallace’s essays on tennis, so I felt kind of guilty about having never actually sat down and read the Big Great Thing. But this ‘intention’, such as it was, had never particularly seemed at risk of becoming active. For equally, I was embarrassed: embarrassed about my desire to read Infinite Jest.
Infinite Jest, after all, is a book which has taken on all sorts of unfortunate connotations in recent years. For one thing: it is supposedly a book that people buy, and start, but then never finish. A big, throbbing, phallic symbol of a book: a book that people are happy to display in a prominent position on their bookshelves to look clever, despite having given up around the 70-page mark several years ago, still clueless as to what it might possibly be about. Just buying and then failing to find the time for Infinite Jest, then, might mark me out as exhibiting the worst sort of intellectual posturing and dishonesty. I would never want to be this sort of person; I would never want to be thought to be this sort of person. So I knew that if I ever did buy Infinite Jest, it would have to be at a point when I was confident that I could commit the time to finish it. I didn’t want this to turn into another being-17-and-buying-Gravity’s Rainbow situation.
But the possibility of buying Infinite Jest and never finishing it is far from the only problem associated with the work. The other problem, of course, is that you might read Infinite Jest, even to the point of completion, and then find that you like it just that bit too much. On social media, in one of those endless interminable cycles of perennial Discourse, Infinite Jest has found itself coded as the bible of the Problematic Literary Bro, whose neglectful relationships with the women in his life are symbolised by the fact that he is willing to dedicate months of his life to reading and re-reading Infinite Jest, but never bothers ever reading any Books By Women. “If you go home with someone, and they have a copy of Infinite Jest on their shelf, don’t fuck them.”
And then, of course, to top it all off, there is the problem of the author himself: David Foster Wallace, the eternally bandannered Bro-Lit-Messiah, whose intensely troubled genius was built, it is a by now uncontroversially established fact, on the ruins of a lifetime of extravagantly shitty behaviour to the women in his life—not least his abusive relationship with fellow writer Mary Karr, who he was obsessed with to the point of stalking, and once tried to push out of a moving car. What even remains of a book like this, after that? Its staggering length, its baffling narrative structure, all the fucking endnotes—isn’t this thing just a monument to one bad man’s ego? Ought anyone really, even posthumously, indulge him by deciding to read it?
Hardly surprising, then, that Infinite Jest has by this point become one of those big, long, canonically Great Books By (White) Men that you get more clout for loudly declaring your intention to never engage with, than actually ever bothering to read: gone the way of Moby-Dick, or Ulysses. Forget buying Infinite Jest and never finishing it—what a silly, stupid faux pas: to be seen to engage with Infinite Jest in any substantial way at all!
When I brought Infinite Jest home, my partner simply tutted her head sadly, like I’d just announced my desire to appropriate a whole room of our house, permanently, to set up a big model railway. When I read it in public—determined to take advantage, as I’ve said, of the new freedoms—I kept the book clamped firmly down on my table, or with the cover folded back over itself, so people couldn’t see what I was doing. I read it in the queue to get my COVID vaccine, and felt like a fucking idiot—convinced that someone was going to sneak a photo of me, this ludicrously on-the-nose parody of masculinity in the year of our lord 2021.
This is the sort of humor one might associate with the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: the sort of grand comedy that is aimed ultimately at addressing matters of such deep seriousness, that they can never convincingly be talked about directly.
And the thing was—I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to share this thing that I was reading: because it really is, I’m sorry, a wonderful book. When I started to read Infinite Jest, I had no idea what it was really about—except that there was quite a bit of tennis in it, and that its plot was centred around what sounded like the premise of that Monty Python sketch where the Allies win World War II by coming up with a joke so hilarious that anyone who hears it immediately drops down dead. I think it helped to come to it fresh—so I don’t really want to ruin it for anyone else by describing the plot.
But just to say: Infinite Jest is fundamentally a comic novel, frequently hilarious, which presents us with characters whose behaviour, obsessions, and basic motivations are often almost unfathomably ridiculous (characters dedicate their entire lives to being moralistically obsessed with the rules of grammar, for example, or discovering a secret code in the sitcom M*A*S*H*; in the world of the book, a proxy war is being fought between the US and Canada, in part via a sect of radical Quebecois separatists who all lost their legs playing an elaborate game of chicken with a freight train).
But this is the sort of humor one might associate with the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: the sort of grand comedy that is aimed ultimately at addressing matters of such deep seriousness, that they can never convincingly be talked about directly. Really, the point of Infinite Jest is to inquire into something that, in its unadorned sincerity, would feel—in almost any other context—emptily stupid and trite: the possibility of thinking and feeling and really believing in anything—living, in short, in a properly human way—in an atomized age of endlessly recurring novelty, instant gratification, and looming environmental disaster. This is the sort of book you want to share with the people around you—because it makes you want to feel what it says with them, and embrace them.
Every now and then, you see someone trying to save Infinite Jest from the baggage it has acquired: from the phonies, from the detractors; from the fans, from its own author. But, for all that the ‘Infinite Jest is toxic masculinity’ crap is stupid and annoying, I’m not actually sure that feeling embarrassed to read Infinite Jest is really a bad thing. In fact, I think that feeling embarrassed to read the book actually helped me to appreciate it all the more.
Infinite Jest inquires] into something that, in its unadorned sincerity, would feel emptily stupid and trite: the possibility of thinking and feeling and really believing in anything in an atomized age of endlessly recurring novelty, instant gratification, and looming environmental disaster.
As I’ve said: Infinite Jest is really about things that can only be expressed indirectly—and it is itself, in its vast, sprawling length and (slight spoiler, sorry) only ambiguously resolved plot, a masterpiece of indirect communication (probably the best way I can think to describe the book is that it gives us a complete map of the inner motivations behind a wacky caper with thrilling geopolitical consequences). And a lot of the novel’s symbolic devices (the image of a woman who may or may not be so beautiful that it causes everyone who sees her to go insane; the baffling editing techniques of the central family’s experimental film-maker patriarch) hint at this idea that there are certain things which can only be expressed indirectly as well.
Above, I mentioned Kierkegaard, as someone else who is interested in expressing things in this sort of ‘indirect’ way. For Kierkegaard, there was a particular point to doing this, which I suspect Wallace (a sometime philosopher major, and an avid reader of Kierkegaard) was almost certainly cognizant of as well. At one point in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, perhaps his central philosophical work, the character whose pseudonym Kierkegaard is writing under, Johannes Climacus, explains his motivation for writing the book as follows: he had been studying for some years, but all this time, he had been basically idle, without any particular vocation. He needed to make his mark in some way. But how? What, after all, is there even to do?
Nowadays (this was in the 1840s, FYI), all sorts of inventions are around that are making life easier and easier: in particular railways, steamships, and the telegraph, which have connected the world at a previously unimaginable speed. But there is a risk here. Because there are some things, Climacus reasons, which become impossible to do, once the difficulty is taken away: the difficult process of obtaining them, is an irreducible part of the thing itself. And one of these things, he thinks, is the true religious life: understanding what it is to exist as an individual before God. So Climacus has resolved to spend his life putting difficulties up in front of the public, in order to stop them being able to access everything—not least, religion—with the ease, speed, and regularity of a railway journey. (Part of the context of this is that Concluding Unscientific Postscript is itself one big performative joke, a supposedly inconsequential addendum to an earlier work called Philosophical Crumbs, which runs to over five times the length of its predecessor).
The pandemic has made us suspicious of all shared life: just to engage in society in any way, will be seen by someone, somewhere, as an inherently bad or irresponsible thing.
Obviously Infinite Jest is never going to be an ‘easy read’, per se. But if I’d felt able to read it comfortably—at ease, as it were—then I might have been able to feel, and discuss, what it was telling me all-too-easily: confidently, boastfully, ‘for clout’. The way someone might read something, or have ‘thoughts’ about something, just to post about it on social media. That I felt embarrassed to read it, immediately complicated everything I felt towards it—thus led me to take none of my reactions at face value. This additional obstacle to reading it, in short, prompted a deeper sort of reflection—and ultimately, this had the effect of throwing what I found valuable about the work into incalculably sharper relief. The embarrassment was a sort of discomforting ‘jolt’, as it were. And so I felt grateful, by the time I reached the end, of the awkwardness I felt while reading it.
But then, perhaps this is just what all life is like nowadays. The pandemic has made us suspicious of all shared life: just to engage in society in any way, will be seen by someone, somewhere, as an inherently bad or irresponsible thing. Everything we do has been brought under question: everything, one feels, must on some level be cringed away from, disregarded. If ever one happens to post on social media about some moment of shared joy, one feels obliged to specify that a gathering was ‘small’, or ‘socially distanced’, or that one is only seeing one’s parents again after getting double-vaxxed and testing negative multiple times. I’m not saying that this cultural shift is in any way good in-itself: this, far more than the embarrassment I felt when reading Infinite Jest, is something that I detest and think should be eliminated (you do not solve a public health crisis by shaming individuals). But perhaps my positive experiences, through the embarrassment I felt when reading the book, can stand as a model to help us to deal with it.
For there are times, perhaps especially today, when the cringe can help us see everything in a clearer, deeper light: where it can help us get below the self-regarding surface of the activities we engage in, or the cultural products we engage with, to what really, centrally (about a book, about life, about anything) matters. We can embrace the cringe: we can live in it, we can feel its bite. We can transcend the images we have been trying to cultivate of ourselves, and become something else—something better: more ridiculous, perhaps, but more critically intelligent, and more honest. Embrace the cringe: the cringe is the beginning of wisdom.
Tom Whyman is a writer and philosopher from the U.K.