Marshall Boswell’s chapter entitled “Infinite Jest: Too Much Fun for Anyone Mortal to Hope to Endure,” within Understanding David Foster Wallace, delves into Wallace’s entrance into the postmodernism fiction community, the sheer mass of the book and the interactivity is forces between itself and the reader, and an analysis of specific pieces of Infinite Jest’s postmodern world.
Boswell describes Wallace’s former books, saying, “inasmuchas they sought to chart a new direction for postmodern fiction, they were perhaps even more concerned with establishing a blueprint for Wallace’s subsequent career.” Other emerging authors tried to crown themselves at the King of Postmodern Fiction, while Wallace was still trying to prove himself. When he came out with the massive weight of a book, Infinite jest, Wallace successfully “established him as perhaps the foremost writer of a remarkable generation of ambitious new novelists—a generation that… Wallace… would someday lead.” Boswell contrasts Infinite Jest with his previous novels, saying, “Infinite Jest, perhaps more so than anything else Wallace has thus far published, stands on its own as a work of tireless invention and lasting importance.” He praises it as highly as the works of Thomas Phyncon, John Barth, and William Gaddis. Boswell’s critiques of Wallacen’s novels pre-Infinite Jest make his exuberant praise for Infinite Jest that much more noteworthy. He regards Infinite Jest to be the book where Wallace really proved himself in the postmodern community.
Boswell describes the bulk and massive size of the novel as “at once, a challenge, a threat, and an enticement.” He also describes it as “deliberately difficult,” quoting Wallace’s statement that the book is similar to reality in that it forces you, “’to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort.’” Boswell addresses the need for two bookmarks, while battling the novel, one for your place in the text and one for the infinite endnotes. The difficulty of winding one’s way through the many layers of the novel is not considered a drawback, but rather a twisted, pleasurable puzzle.
One particularly fascinating point that Boswell makes is his link of Infinite Jest’s world to an idea in quantum physics, that “whenever a quantum physicist makes a determination whether or not an observed proton is a particle of a wave, the universe splits so that in once universe, the one in which the observation takes place, the proton is, say, a wave, while in an almost identical universe, that same proton is a particle. The two universes now run parallel to each other, each one shaped by the outcome of the respective observation.” Boswell goes on to explain that the world of Infinite Jest is just one of these many parallel worlds, to the world in which we readers currently live. He argues that this paradoxical tactic draws the reader’s attention onto his own world. Boswell finishes off this thought by conveying Wallace’s opinion that “fiction is changed by the reader as much as the reader is changed by the fiction.”
An extraordinarily interesting point in this article is the idea that Wallace presented us with this world, which represents neither his current world at the time of writing Infinite Jest, nor our world today, yet this false, twisted version of reality sheds light onto our own world. I’ve just finished reading George Orwell’s 1984, and throughout the entire read, I continuously analyzed the similarities between Orwell’s futuristic predictions and our world today. Wallace’s postmodern novel is more subtle—it takes place roughly 15 years in the future, rather than 40; it does not abduct and torture citizens for thinking negatively of the government; and there are not cameras watching citizens “24/7/365.” However, technology is advanced in such a way that it is addictive, advertisements have reached such importance that calendar years are named after them, and residents of Infinite Jest are torturing themselves with perverse addictions. The world of Infinite Jest is different than ours, yet similar, which is a key aspect that makes the work interactive. The novel is complex and unrelatable, yet simple and relatable. The novel’s world has such a vast expanse of characters, countless story lines, and words that are not in our vocabulary, for objects, which may or may not even be real. However, Wallace’s ability to portray what it means to be human is where the simplicity and relatability are most evident.
One section in Infinite Jest discusses the facts that one finds out while living in a substance recovery facility (such as Ennet House), one being, “Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else” (205). This way, in which Wallace dead-on describes what it means to be human, even within in this convoluted world, causes Infinite Jest to be both endearing and frustrating. As readers, we crave to relate to literary works and their characters, so we try to make sense of Wallace’s world in order to master the puzzle which he has laid down for us.
The mind behind the genius is forcing you to find your way—while most novels create a world, and extend a hand to lead the reader along, Infinite Jest merely says, “Here is this world. It’s complicated. You will not be seeing it in chronological order. But, you figure it out.” It’s like a challenge has been extended and it is the reader’s decision whether or not to accept. It is similar to the mindset of A. A. Geoffrey Day, when he sneers at A. A.’s clichés, saying, “By all means, don’t think about the validity of what they’re claiming your life hinges on…Simply open wide for the spoon.” A line soon after this explains how Day is only partially correct, and the residents are “not being fed with a spoon. Dependence on the spoon is what the A. A. person is overcoming.” Likewise, the reader is overcoming the need for a clear, straightforward plot, with the author as a guide. The reader is essentially picking up the “spoon” and feeding him or herself. Boswell describes this interactive aspect of the book with praise, stating that, “the book itself is an ‘infinite jest.'”