The Liverpool View: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest 20 years on

Credit LividFiction via flickr Creative Commons

Dr David Hering is Lecturer in English Literature in the University of Liverpool’s Department of English.

This month it is twenty years since the publication of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. The novel, which is known as much for its gargantuan size as its intelligence, humour and pathos, has assumed the status of a modern classic in the two decades since its initial publication.

With its tricky plot, which revolves around tennis, terrorism, cinema and addiction, its deeply affecting descriptions of depression, substance abuse and recovery and its riotous sense of humour – it’s a book that will make you laugh out loud – it is not surprising that it has become such a beloved book for so many readers.

Literary superstar

While Wallace was something of a literary superstar in the US on the publication of the book in 1996, it has taken longer for his reputation to grow among readers in the UK. His death in 2008 galvanised large numbers of readers to seek out his work, and his reputation has grown globally over the last eight years. Most recently, Wallace was the subject of a Hollywood film, The End of the Tour, which dramatised his relationship with writer David Lipsky on the Infinite Jest book tour.

I recently finished writing a book, David Foster Wallace: Fiction and Form, to be published in September, and toward the end of last year I decided to sound our students out about their interest in a reading group to coincide with the anniversary. I was overwhelmed with the number of responses and the desire to be involved in this community. So what is it that draws people to this book?

Firstly, I think there’s the appeal of a challenge. One response that I have heard again and again from students who have signed up is that they really want to read the book but have been intimidated by its size and scope. A reading group offers a great opportunity not to “go it alone”, and to discuss the novel as it unfolds. Secondly, I’ve been told a number of times by participants that Infinite Jest has assumed the mantle of “the must-read book of our generation”, which came as quite a surprise to me as I thought it was supposed to be the book of my generation!

I’m looking forward to some spirited discussion. Wallace’s novel is masterful, but by no means above criticism, and there are a number of sections and characters that have provoked controversy among readers. I’m interested in how the members of the group are going to respond to some of these more contentious sections. Infinite Jest has also engendered a great number of reader theories over some of the more mysterious elements of its plot, particularly its opening and closing chapters.

Unique possibilities

I have had many a long and engaging conversation with fellow readers over exactly what happens during certain events that are hinted at but never fully described. I’ve been having that conversation for many years now, and I’m looking forward to having it with a new group of readers.

Infinite Jest feels like a natural fit for a reading group. With its focus on conversation, dialogue and mutual support – much of the novel takes place against the backdrop of recovery and support groups – the novel lends itself to discussion of how we relate to and support one another. There are, unsurprisingly, a number of other anniversary reading groups also taking place internationally, such as the online forum “Infinite Winter”.

I’m continually impressed at how Wallace’s writing unites large numbers of readers from across the globe, but I’m also looking forward to the unique possibilities offered by having a group of people in a room together, taking about this wonderful novel face to face.




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