I'm Still Trying To Make Sense of Infinite Jest

Illustration for article titled Im Still Trying To Make Sense of iInfinite Jest/i

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace turns 20 today, and I’m still confused by it all these years later. I’ve seldom been more engrossed in a novel, and more willing to put in the time of obsessively studying footnotes. But what the heck happens in the end?


One of the ways that Infinite Jest grabs you is that it starts in the future, and then jumps back in time a year or so. So you already know what’s going to happen to Hal Incandenza, the novel’s main character. And then you get thrust into a complicated world of lethally addictive videotapes, tennis lessons, terrorists, drugs, and superspies. With lots and lots of footnotes. And—spoiler alert—the book never quite catches up to its opening chapter, so you don’t actually get to find out what happens in the end.


I’ve seldom been more caught up in a book while I was reading it, and more bedeviled after I was finished reading it.

The Internet is full of charts and complicated schemas to explain the whole sweep of Infinite Jest, but I just came across this explanation of the book’s ending by the late hacktivist Aaron Swartz, which actually makes a good deal of sense. In particular, he’s pulled together some stuff about Hal’s progression throughout the book, and the nature of Hal’s condition. And just why Hal’s father created that horrendously addictive videotape in the first place. It’s at least worth checking out—seems plausible to me.

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, which is available now wherever books can be found. Here’s what people have been saying about it. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.


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I’ve never been as infuriated by a book as I was by Infinite Jest. Wallace drops in a really obvious piece of foreshadowing somewhere in the middle—I forget exactly where—and then, hundreds of pages later, not only does he never follow through on it, he abandons the protagonist entirely to focus on the story of someone who for most of the book was a minor character, and he doesn’t even resolve that one.

At least I understand the title: The book has no ending, and the joke is on the reader who’s dumb enough to slog through all 1,100 pages of it.

I didn’t even sell my copy when I was done. I threw it away.

Then I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which was exactly what I needed to cleanse my brain.