I first encountered Infinite Jest in the spring of 2011. I was 33 at the time, near the same age as David Foster Wallace when he wrote it. I’m aware of people much younger than that reading Infinite Jest for the first time. In fact, a lot of the people who follow my Infinite Jest fan art blog, Poor Yorick Entertainment, seem to be in high school or just entering college. This is hard for me comprehend, because Infinite Jest is such a difficult book. I certainly would not have been ready for it at age 18.
As it is, I discovered the book just when I needed it most. I hate sounding like a cliche, and I’m likely to wince when I tell people this in person, but reading Infinite Jest changed my life. It made me a better person and changed my outlook on life. How rare it is it to encounter something in adulthood that can actually rewire your brain? I suddenly became evangelical about Infinite Jest, trying unsuccessfully to force it onto friends. I was probably insufferable. I bought seven or eight copies as gifts, hoping that at least one of these friends would delve into it and have the same transformation that I’d had and be willing to have deep conversations about it.
That didn’t happen.
Reading Infinite Jest is a lonely experience. Many times I would be sitting in a cafe and come across something in the text that was so sad, beautiful, clever or funny that I wanted to turn to strangers at the table next to me and say, “Read this. Just this part right here. Isn’t this great?”
Infinite Jest doesn’t have all the answers, though sometimes it feels like it does. But as I was reading it, it was asking the same questions that I was and that was a profound discovery. I was stuck in a rut, deeply frustrated and unsatisfied with where my life had led me, and navigating through a mild depression that I was only starting to realize or admit to myself that it actually was a depression. I had little motivation beyond the daily requirements of my full time job. Most days would end with me coming home to turn on a movie or TV show and and not move from my couch for hours. At some point I began to feel guilty about this. “Is this what life is about?,” I would ask myself. “Escapism?”
Escapism is one the central themes of Infinite Jest. Its various characters all have their ways of escaping from the daily pain and reality of being a human being. For some it’s drugs. For others it’s sports. For others, television. Anything to keep your mind from wandering to your stressful adult responsibilities, or even worse, the Big Questions: Is there a God? What does any of this mean? What’s the point of my existence? To be, or not to be?
Wallace doesn’t attempt to answer these questions in Infinite Jest. Instead, he tells you that it’s ok to be weak, it’s ok to feel pain, it’s ok to doubt yourself, it’s ok to get lost along the way, but ultimately, you have to find your way back. And then you may get lost again.
When I say that Infinite Jest made me a better person, what I mean is that it made me more empathetic. I think that’s the most important thing a person can be, and yet we lose track of that so often. Wallace’s characters are all so damaged and lost, yet relatable. By the end of the novel you will have a better understanding for what it’s like to be clinically depressed or hopelessly addicted to drugs. You’ll come away, like I did, with a more patient and understanding view of humanity. You’ll start to forgive people in your life who might have wronged you, or at least start to understand them. It will even make you start to accept your own problems and shortcomings.
The bottom line of Infinite Jest is “we’re all fucked up and that’s ok.”
If you’re looking for answers about how to live your life, you won’t find them in this novel. But there is a real honest discussion here about what it’s like to be a human being. That’s something that thousands have writers have tried to express, but reading Infinite Jest was the first time I’d really ever heard it.
The best thing Infinite Jest gave me was inspiration. In fact, I believe that the best thing any artist can be given is inspiration. As I was finishing up with the book, I began an ongoing project that sought to bring some kind of visual life to the novel. I started with James O. Incandenza’s movie posters and quickly moved on to illustrating other artifacts from the world of Infinite Jest. I did this initially as a way to have conversations with other Wallace fans and as a way of prolonging my relationship with the book. Nearly five years later, I’m still working on that project.