The Generous Relenting

To avoid spoilers, the guides will comment on each week’s reading in the week that follows. We’ll use this first week to introduce ourselves and hope you’ll do the same in the comments.

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When you pick up Infinite Jest you’re truly holding a puzzle. One of those highly complex jigsaw puzzles with thousands of tiny pieces. Maybe the best analogue is that infamous 17×6 ft, 32,000 piece one. Opening to Jest’s first page is akin to lifting the lid off the box, revealing an absolute chaos of displaced shapes and diasporic colors. The box doesn’t even have the image of what the completed puzzle looks like, so you’re up the creek in terms of visual cues for assembly.

And the method for constructing this puzzle will not be traditional. Rather than searching for corners, edges, and color themes, organizing them in various sensical ways, a highly-intelligent, possibly malevolent stranger (with a weirdly specific knowledge of pharmaceutical nomenclature) will hand you random pieces, one at a time, that seem to bear no relation to one another. These will stack up and your sense of despair will swell as you continually fail to see a pattern or any semblance of relational order between them. Prepare to be confused for a while.

This is likely why many people abandon the book within the first couple hundred pages. It has a high barrier to entry, and is constructed in such a way as to weed out uncommitted readers. It’s like one of those awful college or university English profs who presents a horrifying course workload on the first day of class, but then relents generously as the course progresses, laughing at how they intentionally scared Science students away on the first day. You will eventually come to be in on the joke, able to laugh at it with the rest of the class.

So as this book progresses, a time does come, perhaps a little later than you’d like, where this generous relenting begins. There is an illuminating breakthrough moment. And you’ll know it when you see it. Don’t go looking for it though; it will find you. Once you happen upon it, you’ll probably start flipping back to fit all the pieces together, derailing your reading progress for a bit. That’s okay. You should totally do it. I did.

Once you’re finally done the puzzle and can see the whole picture in its fully assembled glory, there will probably still be areas you’re unsure about, that resemble strange, surrealist art. This is postmodern fiction. But now you know the whole picture, and are fully equipped to start the whole thing over again, appreciating the shape and color of each seemingly random piece from the outset.

I first finished the puzzle of Infinite Jest in 2008, and haven’t shaken its effects/affects since. In a strange way, it’s become part of my identity, of how I think about and experience humanity and the world, in all of its paradoxical abjection and glory. I sometimes even think that I might not be able to be fully understood by another person unless they’ve also read this book. I know that sounds pretentious and exclusive, hyperbolic even (and maybe it is), but I’d be willing to bet that other readers of Jest might be able to Identify.

There’s just a strange and magical camaraderie between its readers that no other novel achieves, in my experience. The shared knowledge of Hal and the Incandenzas, Don Gately and the P.G.O.A.T., of Eschaton, NoCoat Inc. LinguaScrapers, Blood Sister: One Tough Nun, the Statue of Liberty in an adult diaper, and the samizdat feels like the doctrine of something approximating an ancient and clandestine gnostic sect.

There’s a lot about loneliness in this book, and a lot about community as well. We’ll typically read the book alone, atomized. Reading is essentially a lonely enterprise in one sense. But Infinite Winter emphasizes that Infinite Jest is so much about coming together as well, and provides a practical site for that premise. In this way, the project seems to thematically embody Jest’s major concerns, and I think this will be a nourishing thing.

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9 thoughts on “The Generous Relenting”

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences, everyone! Yeah, the prose and characters are so good that it’s totally fine with me if not every piece finds a home or is crystal clear by the end. That kind of ambiguity is what keeps the mystery and awe of IJ alive.

  2. I think one of the major factors of IJ is that, even after you finish reading every page and the endnotes, there are still HUGE gaps in the narrative.

    I’m not a literary type – I just like to read.

    Smarter folks than me have filled me in on their IJ detective work and it greatly broadened and enriched my appreciation of the whole endeavor.

    Even before that happened though, I found the Don Gately sections in particular so human and so touching to have been worth the effort of reading the whole thing.

    Then finding out that there were these missing puzzle pieces that could be discerned by the shape of the hole their absence made fascinated me!

    Enjoy!

    Eddie Sacrobosco

  3. Thanks for the post Dave. To a certain extent I do Identify, though I haven’t been able to pin down the source of that feeling. It’s elusive.
    This is my second true time through the book, and really infinite winter was the perfect excuse. Thanks for contributing to the effort as a guide. I enjoy the podcast too.

  4. Nice post! This is my first reading of IJ, and one of the things that also struck me early on is that it’s a puzzle begging to be solved. Intimidating? Yes. Exciting? Even more so. The sense of accomplishment when you stumble across a hint or detail that helps you see the whole, rather than the sum of IJ’s parts, is so satisfying.

    However, while this is certainly an element that keeps me reading, DFW’s prose is so powerful that I don’t care if this gargantuan, beast of a novel fits together in some way. I’m just satisfied immersing myself in this unique experience.

  5. Love the puzzle metaphor, particularly this line: “Rather than searching for corners, edges, and color themes, organizing them in various sensical ways, a highly-intelligent, possibly malevolent stranger (with a weirdly specific knowledge of pharmaceutical nomenclature) will hand you random pieces, one at a time, that seem to bear no relation to one another.”

    Great post!

    1. This is a very helpful post. I love puzzles and I love reading, but puzzles do take a certain mindset that I am not willing to be in for reading. It also brings up the idea of a special sort of presence with the text that I am seeing reiterated in many of these posts.

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