Infinite Jest: A (Sort of) Book Review

Finn McBride
4 min readNov 26, 2022

Like many, I discovered David Foster Wallace through his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. I’m not going to say much about the speech here — if you’re really curious, you can find it on YouTube. What matters is that the speech led me to other videos of David Foster Wallace, which finally led me to his most well-known book, Infinite Jest.

Before reading Infinite Jest, I knew it had a mixed reputation. On the one hand, it had a devoted cult following who hailed it as a work of genius. On the other, I heard it described multiple times as a work of needlessly verbose word salad that pseudo-intellectuals read to feel smart.

The reason that this is a “sort of” book review is because I only made it about 200 pages into the book. Despite not finishing it, I feel that I understand enough about the book to write a short review of it.

If you’re thinking about reading Infinite Jest, there are a few things you should know. First, whether or not it’s pretentious, it definitely reads that way. Words you’ve never heard of show up in virtually every sentence (my favorite so far is “tetrachlorodibenzo”). Furthermore, these sentences are tangled and convoluted, composed of countless nested and hedged phrases. There are often so many dependent clauses in a row that you nearly have a stroke waiting for the one they depend on.

If this sounds grim to get through, it’s because it is. However, there is also a strange beauty to Wallace’s prose, which is not to be discounted. While his sentences do heavily tax the reader’s working memory and vocabulary, they do so in an artful way. Wallace is not merely trying to show off his verbal prowess. He is weaving beautiful tapestries, albeit ones who’s beauty is sometimes eclipsed by their complexity.

Some authors believe that prose should be as clear and succinct as possible, and that flowery words are only for poetry and obfuscation. George Orwell, for example, says that “good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.” But while there is virtue in a spotless window pane, there is also virtue in the beautiful stained-glass of a church window. Wallace’s prose is like the latter: less can be seen through it, but it itself is seen to be beautiful and intricate.

Here’s an example of Wallace’s prose. This one isn’t too wordy, but it still encapsulates his overall style well:

And then also, again, still, what are those boundaries, if they’re not baselines, that contain and direct its infinite expansion inward, that make tennis like chess on the run, beautiful and infinitely dense? … The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion. Tennis’s beauty’s infinte roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again.

Part of the reason that Infinite Jest is notoriously hard to read is because of this stained-glass style of writing. Nearly every book aims for the transparent window pane style: the story is what matters, and the words should be invisible. Because of this, Wallace’s book requires us to learn a new way of reading. Rather than attempting to look through the words, we have to learn to step back and look at them (as well as through them). It is hard to see a stained-glass window’s beauty when you are looking through it to the other side: you have to look at it to fully appreciate it.

The book’s plot is nonlinear, scattered, and distant. We can only observe vague forms through the thick glass of Wallace’s writing. Nonetheless, these forms still have depth and interest. I found the book’s main character, for example, fascinating. Given that the book’s chronologically last scene occurs first, I found myself wondering how Hal, the character in question, would evolve into the person I saw in that scene.

I gave up on trying to finish Infinite Jest because it just seemed futile. After 200 pages of reading, I was 20% of the way through the book, but had given 100% of the effort I was willing too.

Even after giving up on Infinite Jest, however, I still feel drawn to it sometimes. Occasionally I’ll sit down and read a few paragraphs, just for kicks. Though I’ve managed to establish some distance between myself and the book, it seems that I can’t yet fully escape.

Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll read the rest. If that happens, I’ll be sure to write an updated review of it here. Until then, I’ll have to content myself with something less wordy.



Finn McBride

The Skrillex of blogging. My Wattpad is @ireallylovemangos