Why David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” Is So Scary

I finished David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest last week, which is in itself a rather proud accomplishment, given that the book is notoriously one of the longest and hardest to read out there. According to my copy of the 1996 book, the small text fills up 1079 pages with small margins–but of course, the last hundred pages are only the footnotes which there are almost 400 of, detailing extensive intricate drugs or explaining the meaning behind odd cartridge names that seemingly have no relation to the actual content of the book.

It was only here, after I had completed the book in its entirety, where I was able to take a step back and begin to fully comprehend it. And with Infinite Jest, this is no conscience decision. The one thing I can guarantee you will get out of this book if you read it is that it will envelop your mind. Still a week later, and with this phenomenon surely continuing onward perhaps months, I cannot wrap my mind around this book. I cannot escape it. It’s the type of book that you won’t ever really understand in its entirety, and I question whether or not even David Wallace could comprehend it all.

And the one attribute about the novel that had intrigued me so much this past week was why was it such a hard read? After all, the most widely popular feature of it–perhaps why it was so popular when it first came out–was how its supposed length and diction style made it so difficult. However, while the 1,000+ pages do present an interesting style, the difficulty certainly wasn’t its length, at least to me, as I had just finished War and Peace earlier, and I had rather enjoyed the amount of words and pages. Long books can be a challenge, and when you spend over a month reading one book almost constantly, you almost develop this weird relationship, sixth-sense if you will, with that novel. The length certainly wasn’t a problem when you consider that even when I was done with the book, when I had read the last footnote and flipped the last page–I wanted more. A part of me almost criticized Wallace by hotly asking, “Is this it?”. What astounds me as an author (who is almost always trying to make his plots even more complex and interesting) is that even after 1,079 pages I still wanted more. I wanted to become even more absorbed in the satirical world Wallace had created for me.

But this ultimately only further provokes the question above even more. If it was such an enthralling read, why was it such a hard one to get through? To put it simply: Wallace does not play games when it comes to human nature. He does not hold back on the disgust, fear or sadness factor. He will relate to you the absolute biting truth and will not apologize. He does this not in the way some of our current politicians do this – not in snide, sensationalized dividing remarks – but rather through cautious intellectual warnings. And it stings. Hard.

At one point of perhaps epiphany, I came to something of overly blunt series of adjectives to describe Infinite Jest based of the aforementioned thoughts and proceedings The words were depressingly hilarious. Somehow, through Wallace’s large amount of skill and power, he’s able consistently throughout the book to somehow have moments that have you laughing followed immediately by moments that send you in a grisly fear, disgust or in tears. Sometimes, they’ll even be the same moment. To be fair, this has been done many times before, and will be done many times in the future, but I do think that Wallace transcends a large amount of these other works by accomplishing all of this with an artistic flair that intrigues you without quite repelling you away.

For example, there’s a scene in the book that details a father that rapes his mentally impaired and practically catatonic daughter. There are so many things wrong with that, and it’s surprisingly more sad than it is obscene when put into the context of the book’s world. David Foster Wallace also has so much talent that he can allow us to feel empathy for even just minor characters and situations. My mind at this point always is drawn to the chapter detailing a father of one of the characters. Throughout this chapter, Wallace details his decline into obsession with the 80’s sitcom M.A.S.H., until he practically dies from his ‘addiction’ to the TV show. Out of context, this is almost funny, when put into scope that this is just a fictional world. But here Wallace calls out our own human habits and the destructive natures of them so harshly that we can all relate the events of the father to perhaps someone we know, albeit far less extreme (I’ll explain this effect later).

And as for humorous while also terrifying/depressing, we readers are treated to a chapter detailing a sociopathic (perhaps a psychopathic) recovering drug-addict’s different attempts to murder helpless dogs and cats as a way to vent out his frustration and helplessness at life. At face value–this is not funny at all, only sad. But the way Wallace constructs not only the mood and satire of this chapter, but of the entire text, makes this chapter in Infinite Jest slightly amusing. And once again (as I’ll explain soon) we see another large and brutal call out to human nature–all of our tendencies to project our failures and frustrations on innocent bystanders and friends.

I’m not a pet owner and I was still greatly disturbed by this section. While what Lenz does is disturbing it’s his mindset or his rationalizing of why he is doing what he does that is more disturbing to me then the actual acts he performs.

I did find it comical too in a dark way. How at once you as the reader identify the progression from rats to cats you anticipate the move to dogs. That along with his “addicts routine” was pretty funny I thought.


A much more surface-level, broad reason why Infinite Jest was hard to read was the way that it was written. This is not a knock to Wallace’s writing style, but rather an extreme compliment. His writing style is to often confuse, intrigue and annoy his audience. It’s the reason why the book was so compelling and addicting at first, and also why even after over 1,000 pages of this novel I was still wanting more of his world. He dangles the carrot over your head, but unlike other authors, never quite relents it away.

And here, really, is the enigma of David Fost Wallace’s work generally and Infinite Jest specifically: an endlessly, compulsively entertaining book that stingily withholds from readers the core pleasures of mainstream novelistic entertainment, among them a graspable central narrative line, identifiable movement through time, and any resolution of its quadruplicate plot lines. Infinite Jest, in other words, can be exceedingly frustrating

Tom Bissell

But why is it scary?

I ask this because why we most definitely deconstructed multiple (but not all) of the reasons why Infinite Jest is a difficult read, we haven’t discussed why the book is scary. Why it’s almost terrifying to push through at times. The funny part is, is that I can use the same examples I used before to exemplify these two points.

As I hinted at with the M.A.S.H. chapter (around page 638), some of the reason why it is so lamentable is through the tragedy of the father, surely. We do feel some empathy at the family of which is torn apart by a simple addiction to a silly 80’s sitcom. But I think most of the sadness is actually originating from the terror of the section–the realizations and connections we make to our own life. Though the passage may be greatly exemplified (I mean, come on, you’re probably not going to die from watching a sitcom) we still can make out the realness the situation represents. Such as the thin line between habit and obsession or even more scary, how little control we have over ourselves and we what we enjoy, or how companies designing entertainment are not doing so simply to entertain us, but to enthrall us, obsess us. And perhaps the most fearful of them all: how meaningless most consumerism of this sorts is in the end.

Or perhaps with Randy Lenz (around page 538), the recovering drug-addict who enjoys suffocating cats in plastic bags, lighting kittens on fire or slitting dog’s throats. Why should this be scary in an intrinsic way? It’s the reason why. He does this because he feels powerlessness and vengeful. He lusts for some sort of control in a drugless life, a life that he considers almost not worth living. Once again, if we give an honest look at ourselves, we may notice these tendencies in ourselves. We’ll often attempt under stress to give ourselves any form of power or influence over other people. People with anorexia often fall to such a disorder in an attempt to control something about their lives: what they choose to eat. They believe that is the power they have over their own lives anymore. Or in classic human nature, the action of pushing others down to push ourselves up. Though we may not be murdering dogs or killing rats like Lenz, we’re certainly performing our own hurtful and self-sabotaging moves that have the possibility to destroy ourselves and push the people around us away.

Infinite Jest is scary because Wallace has the ability like no other author in recent times to show humanity for what it is.

But it’s also the way he says it. The action of killing dogs, or becoming dying from an obsession to a silly TV show is far scarier than just pointing out these facts of human nature at face value in an nonfiction-text-sort-of-way. And by making such dire situations and scenarios, Wallace enunciates the strength of the themes he’s sending.

And don’t forget: this book was written in 1996. Not 2005. Not 2010. Not 2015. 1996. Before the internet was mainstream, before Netflix, before video-games became immensely powerful and visually attracting. Somehow, Wallace was able to predict accurately the trends of the market and create themes based on events and products that had largely not even happened yet, which is why even in 2020 the book is perhaps even a better more relevant read than it was in 1996. How right Wallace was in many of his predictions allows the other predictions, such as a catatonic-creating Entertainment cartridge being created, to seem even more real to the modern audience. Wallace has something to teach us all.

One final thing to note: this was not a review of the book. I simply touched on a few simple examples and larger themes of the novel, and barely even scratched the surface of what this novel has to offer. I fully entreat you to read the whole book, or, at the very least, read the other essays constructed on it. The truth is, I don’t have many of the answers of what Wallace asks, and, if I’ll be honest with myself, I’ll have to probably reread the novel before I even understand half of it. This blog entry is merely what I was able to comprehend myself, and as such, I once again ask that you read the book yourself and see what I’m saying yourself.

Trust me, though, it’s a wild ride.

Did you like it? I write entries on pretty much just about anything, including books, movies, video games and other random stuff. Check me out if you want!

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