On reading the first chapter of Infinite Jest

On Sunday, I named Infinite Jest as a book readers can benefit from dipping into, even if they never read it straight through to the end. Today, I’m prepared to elaborate on why.

Infinite Jest - book coverIt all started with a BuzzFeed.com post called “1088 Reasons You Should Read Infinite Jest.” (The list only actually offers 20 reasons. It’s an Infinite Jest inside joke.)

I read this post late in the evening, right around when I should have been resting my eyeballs to prepare for sleep. But the reasons were compelling, I guess. And since—like anyone with an e-reader—I live in a virtual bookstore, I grabbed my Nook (not hard since it’s always within arm’s reach) and downloaded the free sample. I bother to mention this because, at 176 pages, Infinite Jest is now officially the longest sample of any book I have downloaded. (Second place goes to War and Peace, at 132 pages.)

I dove right in, and from the first sentence to the last of the first chapter, my eyes never left the page. This is not hyperbole. What I gathered is this:

Tennis prodigy Hal, the first-person narrator, and his uncle (an administrator at the tennis academy Hal has attended since the age of seven) are sitting before a large group of Important Admissions-Related People at the University of Arizona. These include an Admissions Director, the Director of Composition, a Dean, the tennis coach, and possibly more. Hal, his uncle, and the tennis coach want Hal on the school’s tennis team, but the academics/admissions people have some concerns about Hal’s application.

His stellar grades do not match his dismal test scores, and the academic types would like Hal to explain himself, specifically whether he is responsible for doing his own academic work. The uncle makes some cryptic references to “trouble” Hal had that interfered with his work, but the uncle and the tennis coach are sent out of the room so the academics can quiz Hal.

In his defense, he speaks eloquently, if we are to believe his narrative, including this best line ever: “I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.'” But something apparently fails to get through, because after Hal speaks, the academics are aghast. They wrestle him to the ground, call the uncle and tennis coach back into the room, and excoriate them (more on this in a moment) for exploiting a clearly very disturbed individual (Hal), who is incapable of speaking coherently. An ambulance is called, and Hal is carted off.

End of chapter one.

Stay with me for a minute: Though I love books of all kinds, the ones sure to elicit a “wow” are those that do something fresh with language. The narrative structure or voice, the sentences, the point of view—if I can see clearly how and that the story’s idea and the use of language are inextricably bound up in each other, where the use of language is part of the storytelling, the book is a winner (sometimes even a Pulitzer Prize winner*).

The first chapter of Infinite Jest is one of the best examples I’ve read in recent years. Having only read the first – extremely exhausting – chapter, I can’t tell you whether I would feel this way after two or more. And between you and me, I probably won’t read all 1,000+ pages anytime soon (or, you know, ever). If you never planned to read the novel (and still don’t), read that first chapter. Just read it.

Because what Wallace does with his sentences, the way he unsettles the reader, creates confusion, disrupts our ability to understand with at turns excess verbiage and cut-off sentences—these brilliantly echo, at the sentence level, the narrator’s experience in the moment. We enter Wallace’s story in the same state of confusion and anxiety as his narrator’s.

And because the narrator’s emotional state exists at the language level, we feel its truth, whether we have experienced what Hal is going through or not. Wait, but, even if we are not clinically insane, we have, because the author just put us through it. (Though, just to clarify, this does not mean we are actually clinically insane.)

Also, it’s worth mentioning that the first chapter is also poignantly funny and tender. I leave you with three representative examples, courtesy of the academics who restrain Hal before having him carted off:

Infinite Jest
One of many great lines…

“Sounded most of all like a drowning goat. A goat, drowning in something viscous.”

“His face. As if he was strangling. Burning. I believe I’ve seen a vision of hell.”

“The integrity of my sleep has been forever compromised, sir.”

Has anyone read Infinite Jest cover to cover? Picture me huzzah-ing you!

* Oh, hello, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad