Beautiful, Ugly, Crazy: Reflections on Infinite Jest

Kastalia Medrano

I was backpacking in Malaysia when, on a whim, I picked up a copy of Infinite Jest. I knew the book was very famous and that people liked to make a big deal about having read it and understood it, or else having read it and seen through the bullshit enough to sagely hate it. I started reading it at a hostel bar in Phnom Penh and had no strong feelings either way until page 12, when I read this:

“‘I read,’ I say. I study and read. I bet I’ve read everything you’ve read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with due respect.

‘But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk. Let’s talk about anything. I believe the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated. I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist. I believe Hobbes is just Rousseau in a dark mirror. I believe, with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption. I could interface you guys right under the table,’ I say. I’m not just a cre?tus, manufactured, conditioned, bred for a function.’

I open my eyes. ‘Please don’t think I don’t care.’”

Well, I thought. That was me (at that age). Not actually, of course – I don’t have the elite breeding or conditioning that Hal does, and I certainly don’t have his lexical genius. But it was a caricature of me a few years ago. The essence of the thing felt so close to home that when I finally stopped reading that passage and moved on to the rest of the book, I felt like Wallace was writing for me.

Around this same time, The End of the Tour was drowning us all with buzz. If you had an Internet connection, you couldn’t get away from it, even in rural Cambodia. I became gradually aware that Infinite Jest is these days considered the province of hipster bros either intellectual or pseudo-intellectual, depending on where you stand. Wallace’s new generation of fans is young and male and pretentious and legion, and they apparently call him DFW and saturate the Internet with his myth. That was fine, I said to myself as I kept reading. I like this book. I don’t really mind who else likes or doesn’t like it. I used it as a pillow all over southeast Asia and did my best to tune out the noise.

After a few hundred pages, though, it was no longer possible to ignore a glaring pattern that was for me the book’s foremost bummer: that almost without exception, every female character in Infinite Jest is either extremely beautiful, extremely ugly, or extremely crazy; and that attempts to lend a female character depth consist of, perhaps, giving her two of these adjectives instead of just one.

First, the obvious – a preoccupation with female beauty/female crazy as the defining essence of woman is of course reductive, one of those things we keep exasperatedly finding people haven’t moved beyond yet. More specifically, though, I was sad to see these un-intimate categories of women because of what they were being contrasted with. Reading Infinite Jest, you see what Wallace is able to do with a character, the great attention paid to idiosyncratic behavioral detail, the way someone chews or smokes or frets or stands. And even though the women in the book, when we finally get to them, are given as many little quirks and habits as the men, it all falls a little flatter, feels less cared about. Parts of these choices you can make an argument for; a lot of people in Infinite Jest are crazy, regardless of gender. But the preoccupation with appearance – at least four different women, including the only two of substance, are described at length as absolute pinnacles of physical beauty – as a woman’s driving characteristic is undeniable, more than can be justified by the “beauty as entertainment" angle. 

I don’t mind that there are way, way more male characters than female. A book doesn’t have to pass the Bechdel test to be good. Some books are about men, just as some are about women, and that’s fine. But this book was supposed to be about humanity, and yet it is really about male humanity. Wallace falls into that hole so many writers do, the unrealized belief that men are the default setting, the same setting on which we see the white and the straight. Men, in Infinite Jest, get to be people. Women get to be women – beautiful, ugly, crazy.

Avril (beautiful and crazy) and Joelle (beautiful and ugly) are in many respects still great characters, and one of the most page-turning aspects of the book, for me, was an overwhelming need to find out just what the fuck Avril’s deal was. But reading, say, a beautiful and tender description of the way young boys love to explore tunnels, followed by a throwaway line that girls don’t like that stuff, puts you off, makes it harder to believe the urgency of the book’s message, which surely must have been what Wallace believed he wanted of everyone who read it. As the weeks wore on and the The End of the Tour hype hit its peak, the harder I had to work to ignore the rising Internet chorus of bros by telling myself they didn’t have a monopoly on the book, that it was mine just as much as theirs. But the more I read, the more I had to gradually concede: Infinite Jest was not written for me. It was written for the bros.

All I can really say is that, reading it, I felt like I was in one of those conversations where you’re the only woman and have to remind the men that you’re there. Every woman knows the feeling of being unmaliciously talked over, not intentionally dismissed so much as just looked through. And when I finished the book, as much as I loved it – really loved it, so much so that sometimes I found myself literally holding it extra-tight in an apparent manifestation of my love for it, like a kid with a stuffed bear – l also felt acutely embarrassed by it, embarrassed by the dozens of times I was so sure Wallace was waving at me only to realize he was actually waving at some dude standing just behind me. It’s certainly no accident that Wallace’s fanboys are just that – boys. When they read him, they can tell that he’s writing for them. I, on the other hand, felt like I was back in elementary school being the only girl who played football at recess and having to remind the boys that I was in fact there, open to pass to, if they would just see me, and that if you’d just throw me the stupid ball you’d see I’m really fast.

No one wants to have to do that. It does not make you look cool. And the untraceable but unmistakable impression that Infinite Jest would be shelved in the boys’ section, next to the toy cars, across the aisle from the general pinkness and Easy-Bake ovens, hasn’t faded since I finished the book and started trying to reconcile my personal Identification with it with the fact that Wallace apparently did not think it would interest me.

Please don’t think I don’t care.

There are a lot of frustrating things about Infinite Jest, things that have nothing to do with length or vocabulary or tiny print or even gendered perception. It is, on more than one level, a brain-dump. It could probably be either 200 pages shorter or 100 pages longer. It is so overly self-conscious that you on occasion want to reach through the book and shake the guy. The hyper-realistic interconnectedness of the whole thing coalesces into the insistent voice of someone reading over your shoulder, saying, look, see, this is valid, I told you; the story can’t help getting in its own way like this, and it takes you out of the narrative, not deeper in. Reading Infinite Jest is like letting someone show you their favorite movie for the first time and then having to deal with this person looking over at you every few seconds, nervously checking to see if you like it, interrupting every minute or two to make sure you understand it, that you’re getting all the jokes. I do that.

But in certain parts of the book, the beauty is limitless. For one thing, it holds up staggeringly well for having been written in the early ’90s. I can probably count on one hand the times, in nearly 1100 pages, when it struck me as dated. Wallace’s ability to chart the course of technology in a way that rings true even after his death is almost uncomfortably eerie. And in the scene where we’re introduced to Joelle, the line about the sadness of a party ending and the expanding white V of utter silence in the party’s wake is one of the most unequivocally beautiful things I’ve ever read. When he writes about loneliness, about deep depression and the fear that accompanies it, you hear the accuracy of it being verified inside yourself in a way that is both undeniable and important.

I’m awful at picking favorites, and the edges of my taste are constantly fluctuating, but at this particular point in my life I love Infinite Jest more than I have ever loved another book. It holds, for me, a massively high percentage of moments when you realize you’re reading about yourself, and even if those moments are coming at me through a one-way mirror, that’s still how I feel when I read them. People will either approve and think this means I ‘get’ Infinite Jest or decide I am a probably insufferable person, but I feel neither smug nor apologetic w/r/t loving it; I just do. I don’t expect it will be my favorite book for too long, not because I’ll learn to love it less but because pretty soon I’ll read something better. Today, though, 20 years after it was first published, I am overwhelmingly glad that he wrote it, even if he didn’t write it for me.