A dancing lesson from long ago helped me read Infinite Jest (IJ). After years of swing dancing, I was learning to tango. All the women in the class were experienced dancers, so we were giving the instructor, and our partners headaches. The problem is, once you've spent time learning to dance, you become more sensitive to the (in)abilities of your partner. For a woman, this means the mental dialogue may be: That's not the right move sequence, OR If I do what you're leading, I'm going to fall flat on my face, OR What in the hell does that lead mean? OR When are you going to actually lead something, fella?
As such dialogue commenced, I, and the other women in the class, responded by anticipating moves, ignoring ill communicated leads, and hence and otherwise foiling the beauty of the dance. With our expectations. The men, on the other hand, were, like us, not accomplished tango dancers, so their leads were not clear--if present at all. This made the experience quite a mess.
The tango teacher was deeply wise and experienced. He instructed men and women to change roles: The women would lead, and men would follow. A bigger disaster ensued, but also a valuable lesson. The men saw how horrible it was to try to follow a bad or ill-timed lead, and the women experienced leading someone who insisted on doing their own thing, or following their own expectations.
As I started reading IJ, I sensed a dance between DFW and myself. I've worked at the art and craft of novel writing: taken classes, read books, wrote a book, and I've learned enough to have expectations. My internal dialogue while reading can be critical over sentence structure, character development, plot, etc. If a writer doesn't seem competent with the basic ability in keeping the reader from becoming confused, I'll dole out a demerit. It ruins the dance, entry of the dream, you see.
If I had read IJ in that manner, I would never have completed the tome. The start of the novel was so startling, it moved me to change my approach. For example, when I came across an entire section devoted to an unnamed character, I refrained from cursing. Instead, I fought to identify who the man was, and what this scene meant within the plot, or to the characters who'd been introduced up to that point. Fine. From then on, my approach to reading IJ changed. I was intrigued enough to stop trying to lead. DFW had earned trust enough that I simply allowed his work to flow, while I followed as best I could. Later on, I learned that that unknown voice had been a rather important female character. Wonderful! I enjoyed the discovery. IJ has puzzles like that--not incompetence, nor, I think, was it sadistic incomprehensibility. Valid, and refreshingly challenging.
The theme. Plot. Raison d'etre. This is a dense and multifaceted novel. One blaring theme is society and addiction. The characters' stories reminded me of watching flies struggle on those 2 foot long yellow sticky fly trap paper that hung usually on porches near horse stables. The flies struggle as their wings are caught deeper and deeper into the sticky goo. Their legs wiggle, some flies managed to copulate. Some made their way to the edge of the strip, onto the safety of cardboard. Sadly, their wings are useless by then. Seeing the fly strips always made me sad. Not to equate people with flies, but the grip of addiction is just as deadly. DFW puts the reader inside the character by giving them a voice, back story, and capacity for redemption that is dark at best, and utter hell at its worse. Still, the reader must feel. This cannot be done without relief of some kind, and that relief is dark humor.
The other theme is a study of the modern hyper informed and incorporated society that squashes the very soul out of humanity. Again, with a dose of dark humor. At first, I rebelled over the ending. Trying to lead again. Take a breath. On second thought, and IJ deserves lots of thought, the ending was poignant. Consider a character, incapacitated by a narcotic injection diabolically given with gentleness, without his consent (but he probably would not have objected), “for his own good,” whispered, so he must watch, incapable of stopping, the torture and murder of another addict. Done in flashback, we know the character survives that ordeal. Like us, he tries to build a life, only to die (maybe?), or be murdered (I'm guessing) but only after winning the reader's empathy and some measure of respect.
This was not a beautiful work, but the communication and identification of ideas and emotion were at times exquisite. At other (short) times, boring. I suggest reading IJ on an e-reader. My enjoyment was not hindered by aches or bitching about footnotes. A simple touch rendered footnotes and dictionary access, reducing needless suffering and mood killing mumbles.
5 stars, for its intelligence and courage to be innovative. I recommend IJ to those who enjoy challenges and who don't mind trusting the author to lead where they may.
Thanks, DFW. For the dance.