I’m not sure at what stage I decided that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was the seminal text for proof of literary-ness, the ultimate not-so-humble brag. According to my Goodreads, Infinite Jest has been bouncing around my TBR since 2015 (although I feel like this white whale has been eluding me for longer than that), and each year, somewhere in my reading resolutions, is a little checkmark that this will finally be the year that I read the damn book… although this has been dwindling further and further down the list in recent years.
Is it the book’s gargantuan size? The overwhelming complexity of its plot, with its rabbit-warren of footnotes and endnotes and appendices? Its charming pretentiousness, and critical acclaim as one of the defining books of the post-modern era? The allure of guided summer-long read-a-thons complete with a curriculum of suggested pre-reading including Hamlet, Ulysses, The Odyssey, and David Foster Wallace’s entire back catalogue? My sheer masochistic tendency to set myself impossible and overwhelming challenges that I know in my heart I have no intention of completing? There is something alluring, intoxicating, that keeps drawing me back to this book, even though in the seven-plus years that we’ve been orbiting each other like binary stars, never meeting, I still have no idea what the book is about.
And like the slow expansion of the universe, I feel that we are moving slowly apart from each other. My reluctance to approach this monumentous tome is perhaps an indication of my changing tastes in literature, and perhaps my changing time constraints. In my early 20s, as a hospitality worker-cum-literature student, postmodernism was an eye-opening lens through which to view my newly adult world: a rules-broken, wildly experimental, sometimes too-clever-for-the-sake-of-being-clever lexicon to define the angst, uncertainty and self-reflexion as I found my feet in the world. It made me feel clever for reading it. I devoured Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Brett Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk. DFW’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is still one of my favourite short story collections and this is a hill I will die on. (The pure spine-tingling beauty of Church Not Made With Hands.)
But, as my university studies broadened my literary palette, I became more conscious of just how dominated my reading piles were by white male authors (not that these books aren’t valid and worthy reads), and I began pushing myself to read more diversely – translated literature, women writers, minority voices. These postmodern writers began to feel like guilty pleasure reads, the hedonistic delight of devouring a box of chocolates in one sitting. And of course, adult life has a way of superseding creative impulse, and while working full time and studying, it was hard to find the time or attention span to tackle this Goliath.
As I look at this poor, dwindling and dust-covered book now relegated to the bottom of my bookshelf, I wonder if there is still a place for it in my reading, or have we moved too far apart? Is this perhaps the ideal time to read Infinite Jest – in my 30s, imbued with purported adult maturity and a sharpened toolkit of critical thinking, literary analyses, and an understanding of the voices that are heard and not heard? Is this the year I let go of my compulsive need to bury myself in the study guides, pre-reading, and scheduled page counts, and just say “fuck it”, and read the book for me? Or would I just be reading it for the sake of proving… what? Something?
Have you read Infinite Jest? How did you tackle it? And tell me, what is your white whale of a book?