INFINITE JEST: Its Structure

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INFINITE JEST: Its Structure

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Editado: Jun 3, 2010, 11:39pm

Message 1: by EnriqueFreeque, on Jan 18, 2010, 5:26pm
I recommend not starting at page one. Instead, go straight to page 223 (all North American editions have the same pagination) and read (or, better yet, write down on an index card), the listing of "Years" under the heading (it's in caps in the text so I'm capping it - not shouting - here too), "CHRONOLOGY OF ORGANIZATIONS OF NORTH AMERICAN NATIONS' REVENUE-ENHANCING SUBSIDIZED TIME, BY YEAR".

DWF was just plain stubbornly unreasonable, imo, to insert this info a quarter of the way into the book rather than at the beginning. Knowing what year you're in while beginning the book will help you both immeasurably in navigating your way through the early pages of the book and comprehending what the hell is happening.

The book opens in the "Year of Glad" (or, 2010), while the majority of the action occurs in the "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" (2009).

There's no numbered chapters. But we know that DWF divided IJ into 28 chapters (plus one chapter at the end of "Notes and Errata") by the centered, shadowed circles that appear every so often at the top of the page.

Within these 28 chapters are 192 "sections" designated by triple-line spacing. In one section, for instance, you might find yourself in 2002 ("Year of the Whopper") while in the very next section you could jump four years ahead to the "Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster" (2006).

If it sounds confusing, do know that it is - at first. But you'll be surprised how quickly you pick up the new years-lingo and are able to reorient yourself to the various story threads weaving from one time-space-continuum to another. If you've ever seen the movie Memento, you've sort an idea how this big novel is structured: not strictly backwards all the time in its future-to-past linearity, but sort of like two steps back, one step (or three steps) forward, ad infinitum. No jest.

More later....

Message 2: by Macumbeira, on Jan 18, 2010, 10:22pm
It sounds like the dancing procession of Echternach !

"At one stage the pilgrims would take 3 steps forward and 2 steps backwards thus taking five steps in order to advance one, at another stage the pilgrims would repeatedly stop at the sound of the bell donated by Emperor Maximilian, falling to their knees before moving forward a few more steps. At yet another time, pilgrims would crawl under a stone, facing the cross of St. Willibrord. A 'cattle-bell dance' used to take place in front of the cross, which was erected on the marketplace; this dance was prohibited in 1664."

Message 3: by urania1, on Jan 18, 2010, 10:35pm
I have just dipped my toes into the water of Infinite Jest. I find it amusing; however, I wonder if the jest will merit the infinite length. We shall see.

Message 4: by slickdpdx, on Jan 21, 2010, 8:28pm
The subsdized time (with corporations sponsoring years like they do stadiums) thing was not immediately clear. I agree. Its also something I would have edited out. Its not that witty and it is confusing. However, in the course of writing this I am reconsidering because it serves an additional very important purpose. The events take place in a "near-future" setting. If he used actual dates, the book might come to seem dated very quickly. Also it might have sounded science-fiction-ish which would have killed the book, or at least classified it in many minds as speculative fiction not a literary with a capital L entry in the running for THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL.

Reading EF's entry above, I realize now that Wallace somewhere makes it so you can line up specific years. Am I full of it or what?

Message edited by its author, Jan 21, 2010, 8:33pm.

Message 5: by EnriqueFreeque, on Jan 21, 2010, 9:59pm
Thanks for the, uh, cattle bell dance? a lot Mac! No really, I wouldn't be surprised if DFW has some hidden allusion to it in IJ.

I would be very surprised, urania#1, if you didn't find it amusing the majority of the way through, especially the Enfield Tennis Academy academia narratives...the drug-addict/halfway house narratives, maybe not so much, but there's humor in the mire of so much self-destructive mud.

There is so much going on in this novel: on the page, in the page, under the page, philosophical or mathematical allusion here, psychological or literary allusion there, and despite what may seem to some as a vast mass of incomprehensibility...don't be duped...this novel, is at heart, a search for one's self and for some legitimate connection in the world - objectives very, very difficult to obtain (much as IJ is, at times, difficult to read).

4> On the subsidized time: Keep in mind that with the introduction of the Teleputer (TP) and Interlace Entertainment System (and remember he wrote this, 1992-1994, was he prescient or what?!, I believe you mentioned that already) there was no longer advertising revenue coming in through TV or cable or broadcast news because since people suddenly could watch whatever they wanted to watch 24/7, at the touch of a button, advertisers had become marginalized, if not made outright obsolete. Enter "subsidized time," introduced in the late 1900s by U.S. President Johnny Gentle, a former Las Vegas lounge singer, who became leader of the "Clean U.S. Party," what with all that nasty pollution blowing down from the landfill of Canada, "the Great Concavity," who was described by DFW as an "ultra-right jingoist hunt-deer-with-automatic-weapons type and far-left macrobiotic ponytailed granola-cruncher". But that's beside the point. Did I digress? Get used to it! I know you are slick, but everybody else needs to be. Anyway, since advertisers don't have their usual revenue streams from TV, though it's not explicitly stated who invented "subsidized time," chances are Pres. Gentle did, and boy did that make the monster corporations happy, renaming years instead of just sports stadiums (like you point out, slick). Can we say satire? I believe we can. The very structure of IJ, framed as it is with "subsidized time," stands as satire. No, it's not funny at first blush, but once the reader realizes what went into the creation of subsidized time, that's where, I think the humor (like a delayed reaction) hits you and you go, "Oh, I get it now!"

Message 6: by pyrocow, on Jan 22, 2010, 7:18am
I don't know if I agree that people should look up the chronology right away, there might be a reason for DFW leaving readers in the dark as to when the first few sections happen in relation to one another. As for the subsidized time system, I thought it was funny, and now that I think about it again, there was also a serious element to it. That element being that people would allow more advertisements to destroy any clear idea of when they are (the same dilemma the reader faces; imagine how some people would react to that system in real life: "I can never remember these darn years!").

Message 7: by LisaCurcio, on Jan 28, 2010, 9:29pm
You have sucked me in. I ordered it; it arrived; I read the preface. Now it is going in line behind a few others until March.

Message 8: by detailmuse, on Jan 29, 2010, 8:24am
The very structure of IJ, framed as it is with "subsidized time," stands as satire. No, it's not funny at first blush,

but it's mind-bending.

I'm 50% sucked in :)

Message 9: by theaelizabet, on Feb 2, 2010, 12:14pm
I'm clearing the decks for March. Ordering it today.

Message 10: by EnriqueFreeque, on Feb 2, 2010, 12:33pm
6> Oh yes they should pyro! Because I say so!


Message 11: by polutropos, on Feb 5, 2010, 12:40pm
I have a copy, O Great Leader!

I suspect I would have given up a long time before page 223 (page 223!! to give us the chronology -- is he a wee bit arrogant, 'Rique?) so I am glad you gave it to us at the beginning. I just don't know about persevering through this one. I think a lot of hand-holding and encouragement is called for. Murr usually hands out vodka and herring. You may have to resort to bribes, too.

Message 12: by theaelizabet, on Feb 5, 2010, 1:04pm
>11 Arrogant? Mais non!

I may be with polutropos on this one fearless leader. I have some hesitation about this book, but I'm committing to it so I can understand what all of the fuss is about. Hmm. that didn't quite come out right.

Message 13: by rainpebble, on Feb 5, 2010, 1:30pm
I am also on board for March. Thank you for all the preparatory work you have done to pave the way for us.
See ya in March. Now back to Les Miserables, World Without End, Paradise Lost, Anna Karinina, 2666, The Histories, The Chronicles of Prydain series, Moby Dick,

Dickens, My Name is Red and a Zweig or two.

Message edited by its author, Feb 5, 2010, 1:38pm.

Message 14: by EnriqueFreeque, on Feb 5, 2010, 1:36pm
Dictators are arrogant by definition!

Message 15: by rainpebble, on Feb 5, 2010, 1:39pm
Amen, brother!~!
I have been told to: "Just read it. The understanding will come later." We'll see.

Message edited by its author, Feb 5, 2010, 1:40pm.

Message 16: by polutropos, on Feb 5, 2010, 1:39pm
Of course DICTATORS are arrogant by definition, and that is expected, O Most Beloved One!

What I was suggesting is that it is the AUTHOR who is arrogant, by leaving the reader in the lurch til page 223. But perhaps he is just giving the reader an awful lot of credit for smarts and willingness to bear with him.

Message 17: by EnriqueFreeque, on Feb 5, 2010, 1:58pm
Ohhh. Okay, never mind. Having read IJ, I like the way DFW did it, but those first 200 pages are hard - beginning-of-the Name of the Rose hard, and the book is hard enough, so, for better or worse, by "cheating" and tipping off readers about p. 223, readers can at least choose the option of how difficult they want the experience to be. I guess this means I'm not a DFW "purist," but I think it's equally as important that people get past those first couple hundred pages, so they can glory in the genius shimmering off the page like sunlight off a lake that's awaiting them, if they can make it that far.

Message 18: by slickdpdx, on Feb 5, 2010, 2:07pm
You can actually get a handle intuitively pretty quickly about where in the timeline you are since the different threads are all consistent timelines and they interrelate. If that makes sense. I would not concern myself too much with "which year does this correspond to" since it will all start to come together. Like a mighty soufflé!

Message 19: by katieinseattle, on Feb 5, 2010, 3:24pm
I don't think it's necessary to bother that much about the chronology. I just let it ride. Someday I'll probably go write down, like, a complete annotated timeline, but really, it's not that important. Most of the book takes place over the course of less than a month, and things that happened in the past, either the context makes it clear enough when it was or it's just not that important (or occasionally it's intentionally ambiguous). At any rate, it's not worth getting distracted by, if you can help it.

And I just wanted to offer, for anyone psyched out by how hard it is who hasn't read any of it yet, that I didn't think it was difficult to read at all and I'm no genius (it goes without saying, probably). You do have to have a fair amount of tolerance for not knowing exactly what is the importance of what's transpiring, maybe not knowing who a character is or why they're important right away, but if you can avoid getting too hung up on that, it's enjoyable enough just to read it, and once it does start to come together it's just, you know, genius-shimmering-off-the-page and so on.

@16 He could have easily left the timeline out altogether and the book wouldn't have been any worse off for it. I was actually kind of surprised, when I got to it. The literal strict chronology just isn't that important, and he's only leaving you in the lurch if you're determined that it is (which I'd humbly submit he gets to decide, not you).

The ratio of words to interestingness in this post is obscenely high. Apologies to anyone who's read this far. Gah.

Message edited by its author, Feb 5, 2010, 3:29pm.

Message 20: by theaelizabet, on Feb 5, 2010, 3:34pm
>19 Ha! Actually, katieinseattle, that was helpful!

Message 21: by detailmuse, on Feb 5, 2010, 4:06pm
I'm cutting some DFW teeth on A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never do Again and agree with katieinseattle about the (lower-than-I-expected) difficulty and the genius-shimmering-ness.

Not sure at what pace I could read 1000 pages of him though. And -- heh -- when I do take a break and read a different book, I find myself glancing at the bottom of each page to make sure I haven't missed a footnote :)

Message 22: by pyrocow, on Feb 6, 2010, 9:43pm
#17: I'm not going to argue against anyone looking up the chronology if they really feel like they need it to get through the book, but I'm still going to advocate approaching the book with the idea that DFW did everything for a reason.

Message 23: by A_musing, on Feb 14, 2010, 11:31am
I think he wants you lost on page 1, wondering what's happening and where you are, like the character who is about to find that his spoken words don't match other's perceived words. And I think his goal throughout the book is to never let you get fully oriented, though it's not as much of a cipher as Finnegan's Wake, for example.

He begins his book with epistemology. Why not start with ontology? After all, this is a work of philosophy.

Message 24: by Sutpen, on Feb 15, 2010, 3:25am
Obviously, you should read the book however you want. However, in my opinion, when you're dealing with a brain/author as conscientious and generous as DFW, you ought to trust the way he's constructed his stuff. He spent years composing and organizing IJ, and, as he said in interviews, nothing is in there by accident.

"After all, this is a work of philosophy"


Message edited by its author, Feb 15, 2010, 3:26am.

Message 25: by detailmuse, on Feb 18, 2010, 12:35pm
I'm now a proud owner of the 5(ish)-pound paperback edition (2006, with a good foreword by Dave Eggers). lol, Amazon’s text stats confirm IJ’s length (half a million words!), but the readabilty stats seem suspect -- how to measure the aspects already mentioned in this thread?

Looking forward to it! Just curious, does anyone have a better way to read a tome than while sitting at a table?

Message 26: by polutropos, on Feb 18, 2010, 1:09pm
I am now also the proud owner of this door-stopper.

As for reading methods, in beautiful Ontario they have recently outlawed the use of cell phones while driving so I think there is now a marked increase in people texting while driving, which I suspect was not the intention. I wonder if you could read IJ while driving? "Ur, Your Honour, I was not talking on my cell phone, honest. I was reading David Foster Wallace. Mental asylum? Yes, thank you, Your Honour, definitely the right place for me to be." LOL

Message 27: by Sutpen, on Feb 18, 2010, 1:37pm
You're probably right that IJ doesn't belong in the 35%ile for readability. With that said, however, Wallace's sentences are not difficult at all to parse. The two biggest obstacles to readability by far are the book's length, and the endnotes. As the endnotes are not in any sense optional, I suggest employing two bookmarks. It was quite painless for me, but just the idea of it rankles some people. As for the length...all I can say is I don't think Wallace could have written it any shorter, and every word is worth it.

Message 28: by EnriqueFreeque, on Feb 18, 2010, 2:21pm
27> Word, Dude. I agree w/everything you said. Two bookmarks are essential.

26> are you, uh, jesting when you said IJ and driving. I'm glad too you mentioned "Mental asylum." We meet an important character, Kate Gompert, in such an establishment around page 77-80 thereabouts.

25> I would recommend reading IJ while jogging, or running a treadmill. Anything to increase blood flow and oxygenation to the brain: Not necessarily because, as Sutpen states, the book is that difficult to understand (especially not that difficult compared to Ulysses or Gravity's Rainbow, but because the book, I believe, requires you remember a lot of details. For instance, the color blue, whenever it appears, is like a link in a hypertext to a deeper allusion (for those who are interested).

Better yet, why not, after having intercourse with your SO, and your heart rate and blood flow to the brain and oxygenation are already at optimum levels maximal memory-retention, skip the obligatory "post-coital cuddling" and head straight to your copy of Infinite Jest. I speak from experience. Makes the SO very happy. Ooops. Tmi?

Well get used to tmi because IJ is essentially tmi, no?

Message edited by its author, Feb 18, 2010, 2:31pm.

Message 29: by Sutpen, on Feb 18, 2010, 2:57pm
"IJ is essentially tmi, no?"

Haha, tell that to all the people who bitch and moan about the book's lack of closure. Which lack, by the way, is one of the most important parts of the book, not to mention one of the most impressive examples of authorial restraint I've ever experienced as a reader. I'm gonna bite my tongue, I feel a spoiler or two coming on.

Message 30: by detailmuse, on Feb 18, 2010, 3:23pm
Hubby made noises that I interpret as a vote for option 2!

Sutpen, great two-bookmarks idea; I also like your own authorial restraint :) the only tmi for me is spoilers! Exclusive of EF's intriguing comment about blue...

Message 31: by HaughtyKnotty, on Feb 18, 2010, 4:08pm
As if there could ever be TMI where 'Rique or DFW are concerned! I see no reason to limit yourself to two bookmarks. I would recommend multiple copies of the book. Obviously, as with any book with endnotes, you need to have a copy open to the text and another to the notes. With DFW, one might also have copies open to different sections. I simply keep a pile of bookmarks by the side. Remember, too much of a good thing can be Wonderful!

Message 32: by A_musing, on Feb 18, 2010, 6:50pm
Actually, I think Infinite Jest is entirely readable, as long as one chooses to miss a certain amount of what lies underneath. Even absent deeper thought, Dave's prose is downright rollicking.

Now, where and when you want to read it I think has been adequately discussed.

Message 33: by tomcatMurr, on Feb 18, 2010, 10:53pm
Most helpful thread. Thank you everyone.

I have started. I am lost. But I persevere.

Message 34: by EnriqueFreeque, on Feb 18, 2010, 11:31pm
Where are you lost, Murr?

All kidding aside. I've been reading IJ & DFW commentaries left and right (I imagine pyro has read even more) so we're here to hopefully help provide some illumination if we can.

Jun 4, 2010, 12:36am

James Joyce rules !!!!

Jun 4, 2010, 12:37am

Has Halitosis !!!!

Out 18, 2012, 4:01pm

At p. 300 +, I'm interested. I don't recall p. 223. But I will tonight.

Editado: Nov 18, 2012, 3:10pm

4> keep us posted.

Perhaps an inconsequential preliminary regarding the structure of IJ (but of interest to this and many more dorky, mathematically-minded diehards):

In a '96 interview with Michael Silverblatt, DFW acknowledged that the first draft of IJ was based on "fractals", or specifically, a "Sierpinski gasket". What I've taken away from this, more than anything else, is that IJ is so vast it's its own self-contained cosmos. Not like a solar system, but a black hole. The "iterations of fractals" (or, the cutting out of triangles from each previous cut-out triangles (see the diagrams in the links above), and thereby replicating triangles ad infinitum from the area of the original triangle -- replicating even as they become microscopic -- are like the elements comprising the vacuum that is IJs inescapable black hole.

IJs Sierpinski gasket architecture also reflects the novel's core conceit: "recursive loops;" best conceptualized in the novel through "The Entertainment" (i.e., the film, Infinite Jest, starring Madame Psychosis*, by the auteur and anti-hero, James O. Incandenza).

Even if you don't care about this geometry shit just know the novel is organized, even though it may appear at first glance like one big chapterless** mess.


* obviously plays off "metempsychosis" -- or the transmigration of souls -- and consider the infinite replicative possibilities in that through the aeons.

** IJ is divided into twenty-eight chapters. New chapters begin every time you see a shaded-in circle at the top of a page. Curious that DFW didn't signify chapter breaks with shaded-in triangles.

Nov 19, 2012, 1:03pm

In the beginning, was the ending.

Editado: Nov 20, 2012, 3:41pm

In the most recent NYRB there is a brilliant essay from Elaine Blair on Wallace and Inifinte Jest (and the Pale King and and). She nails, in my limited view, Wallace's concerns about civic duty and the portrayal in Infinite Jest of what she calls "mid-period Gately." She also has a great comment about Wallace's style in Inifite Jest:
Wallace is famous for his ear for idiomatic expression, but he is often assumed to be merely listening rather than reconfiguring his generation’s impoverished English at every turn. Jonathan Raban, for instance, has written in these pages of Wallace’s “absolute fidelity to the patterns of (American) speech and thought I hear around me.”* Would that this were the case. In fact Wallace takes our unremarkable, stammering colloquialisms and works them into monologues that are verbally and grammatically complex and highly literary, while also sounding like a real voice speaking to us. But it could only be the voice of one person, and it could only be written. Imagine trying to adapt the above passage for dialogue or voice-over. Could you make the words sound natural if you had to speak them? Wallace has worked a reverse-Promethean theft, taking our humble spoken idioms and delivering them to the gods, to the firmament of high literary art.
The whole thing is here:
It involves some spoilers but I don't know that they are spoilers that matter.

Nov 21, 2012, 3:58pm

I can't imagine anyone ever topping the paragraph you quote, slick, in describing how exactly Wallace worked his magic. Thanks for that.