This is a book you really have to finish. Through much of it, I enjoyed it well enough. There are funny moments, though the humor tends to be dark (at times very dark). The depictions of addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsions, phobias, and hyper-competitiveness are insightful and at times have a searing, painful realism. But I felt a lot of the time that in a way it was aimed at a slightly different demographic from me. I could think of a lot of people I’ve known who would be all over this (though I don’t know anyone in real life who has read it). A definable demographic: U.S. males, middle to upper middle class, intelligent, educated, nerdy, probably born sometime between 1965-1985. Don’t get me wrong, I know and love that demographic. As a reader, though, I initially felt like this book was aiming near me, but not quite at me. More important than which group Infinite Jest
targeted was the fact that targeting any group at all made it smaller and less universal. A Good book, but not a Great book. Four stars, not five stars.
This is a novel with many flashes of brilliance as well as sustained passages of great writing, but there are also ugly moments. Some were necessary to the story, but at other times I felt like DFW was exorcising his own repellent, obsessive thoughts (the family dying one by one by cyanide poisoning, the details of Lenz killing cats and dogs) by inflicting them onto me. Darkly humorous or not, the more he did it, the less I appreciated it. There were gratuitous cheap horror show tricks and gags that dragged out longer than necessary.
But somewhere around 600 pages or so, I was finally sucked in. Wallace gradually gathers the threads of his myriad story lines together, letting the reader experience epiphany after epiphany as the pieces of the puzzle start to slide into place. It’s a fun feeling when we are finally allowed to step back from a large canvas that we’ve been looking at too closely, to see that the beautifully detailed scenes he has created eventually make sense as parts of a whole.
Then the story starts to get stranger, but proportionally more intriguing. Gately, lying in his hospital bed, dreams/hallucinates/is haunted by memories that only Hal or J.O. Incandenza, people he has never met, could know. Even stranger, the painfully sober Hal thinks Gately’s thoughts (“he hunches, she hunches”), and then Gately thinks in ALL CAPS words that the O.E.D.-obsessed Hal would know (“LISLE,” “EMBRASURE”), but Gately wouldn’t. It’s wild, initially subtle but gradually more obvious, and leaves plenty of questions. Incredibly, at the end of more than 1,000 pages, the natural instinct is to turn back to the beginning to try to figure it all out, in a recursive loop of a story it’s hard to turn away from. That says a lot for a writer who has challenged his readers with frustration, ugliness, and mirrored roadblocks.
Comments on the ending (I am spoiler-tagging this):
I read a quote from an interview with DFW on the ending: "There is an ending as far as I'm concerned. Certain kinds of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an 'end' can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occurred to you, then the book's failed for you." I get this, and, while I want to go back and read certain sections again, I do think the clues are all there to let us know what happened. But somehow I still wish DFW were the one telling it, because I know it would be a great story. I see where he is refusing to allow us the passive entertainment of the blockbuster finish, but I still wish we had it. And yet, I think the book is better for his not giving it to us. If that makes any sense.